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Signal explores new bass music sounds

With Signal, a group of DJs makes dubstep look like a thing of the past.

Photograph: jimmy mould
Pearson Sound

Dubstep is the new big thing, right? Not for everyone. As the prevailing sound continues to ramp up the ear-splitting low end and sonic electro bite, it alienates as many fans as it gains. For the group of DJs that launched Signal at Smart Bar at the end of last year, this Americanized dubstep, or “brostep,” just doesn’t cut it.

Organized by local promoter Mica Alaniz, 26, the monthly Thursday party is home to dubstep purist Whoa-B, a.k.a. Bill Bearden, 31; forward-thinker Sparkletone, a.k.a. Alex Goddard, 28; and writer-DJs Jake Guidry, 26, and Kyle Stewart, 24, of the Chicagoist and the Hot Bizzies blog, respectively. They cast a wide net on emerging sounds from a scene that’s probably best labeled simply as bass music.

“Things are just starting to fork off,” Alaniz says of the split between the growl of mainstream dubstep and the myriad progressive and more nuanced underground sounds of Signal.

Each DJ has a specialty. “The gradual slowdown from a dubstep tempo to 130 or high-120bpm range is something I’ve been playing with for a long time, and it’s stuff that really excites me,” Goddard says. For Bearden, it’s dubstep’s early-2000s roots in the U.K. “If I have a niche in this, it’s the history lesson,” he says.

With their journalistic spirits, Guidry and Stewart focus heavily on sounds at the front of the bell curve, whether they’re the R&B-inflected cuts that made a big splash in 2011 or the dark and techy side of bass music. As Stewart put it during a recent chat with the crew, “As a guilty pleasure I still listen to the mainstream stuff. I’m down with it in private, but it’s nothing new to people. With my blog I like posting stuff that’s more under the radar and forward.”

On Thursday 19, Signal welcomes London’s Pearson Sound, alias of the trailblazing producer and DJ David Kennedy, who emerged from the U.K.’s dubstep scene under the name Ramadanman before moving further into bass music’s uncharted territory. “I still play some [dubstep],” the 23-year-old says over Skype from his home. “But what the word represents is quite different now. Over the past three or four years, the way the music has shifted, inevitably my tastes have changed.”

Kennedy credits U.K. funky as the main force behind the evolution of his country’s scene. The sound incorporates dubstep’s shuffling rhythms and heavy low end with a tempo that’s closer to house and techno. The Pearson Sound output, though not exactly U.K. funky, does sit comfortably between these two worlds.

“I’ve actually been making house and techno stuff for a lot longer than any dubstep kind of music,” he says. “So it’s not really a new experimentation, but for quite a few people, they didn’t really know about house music and it’s maybe a dirty word. Since U.K. funky came along it made people realize that there’s some good stuff as well.” Kennedy pauses, then, acknowledging the restlessness of the musical world he lives in, adds, “It must be frustrating if you’re in America, the way the London music scene works—continually shifting and morphing.”

Dizzying as it is, that’s what fuels the Signal DJs and their growing fan base. Though their music focus is a new one for clubgoers, there is a demand. “It’s just about bringing in people we know can play great sets,” Guidry says. Alaniz nails the bottom line: “The community exists for it. There needs to be a regular event that everyone can get excited about.”

Pearson Sound joins Signal at Smart Bar on Thursday 19.

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