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South London calling

This is the year of dubstep. Which means what, exactly?

Dubstep producer and DJ Oliver Jones, aka Skream. (Shaun Bloodworth/Ammunition)
Dubstep producer and DJ Oliver Jones, aka Skream. (Shaun Bloodworth/Ammunition)

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp!

“Are we on the air?”

“Yes, you are.

“Hello, Ma. Uhhh, I’d like to hear a new beat on the request line.”

OK, you got it. Comin’ up ... in’ up ... in’ up ... in’ up ... in’ up ...

To hear that beat — which is not quite new, having been unleashed on the sound systems of South London in 2005 — click this, then press play. It’s Midnight Request Line, a four-minute tremor of quivering synth, skulking bass and semi-automatic gunfire composed by Croydon’s Oliver Jones. The 20-year-old producer and DJ, professionally known as Skream, is a leading maker of dubstep: an earthquaking, bass-kicking micro-genre that, until recently, was almost exclusive to the Big Smoke’s south end.

Dubstep favours “tunes” (singles) to albums. Last year, though, long players like Skream! (Skream’s first CD) helped increase the sound’s accessibility to new fans, and also made dubstep a darling of North American music writers. Many critics slotted Burial’s self-titled debut, a concept album that imagines a near-future South London sunk beneath standing water, into their best-of-’06 lists. (Back in the U.K., The Wire magazine named Burial its album of the year.) San Francisco’s Jeff Chang, the author of 2005’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, expressed his colleagues’ broadening sentiment on his blog, Zentronix, in postings like the one called “I enjoy dubstep.”

This mushrooming effect is an ideal example — a how-to guide, even — of how underground music can move in the digital age. Even a generation ago, dubstep’s likeliest trajectory would have seen it thrive at home, but then burn out before the rest of the planet clued in. Largely due to the internet, though, South London’s scene instead began to spread, and is now accelerating an invasion of clubs and bedrooms across this continent. With modest four- and five-digit sales figures and no major-label support, dubstep has already arrived in New York City, Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver, Houston and points between. More cities seem certain to follow.

The genesis of dubstep dates to the turn of the century, when it began as a hybrid of dub reggae and 2Step garage. The latter is a British club delicacy that usually combines R&B-style vocals with distinctive, “two-step” drum patterns. In 2003, garage begat grime, a steely, ragged battle music performed by the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Lethal Bizzle. This too became a building block for Skream and his peers.

Dubstep, however, is a minimalist interpretation of its lineage. It has no interest in garage’s dramatic excesses; even vocals are rare. Nearly all dubstep productions are focused on low-end frequencies that pummel the listener like a wrecker’s ball. Dozens of tunes are specifically designed for the massive speaker boxes at two London clubs, Plastic People (Shoreditch) and Mass (Brixton), where regular events called FWD>> and DMZ have served as the scene’s holiest temples for the past several years. There and elsewhere, a proper dubstep party will send drinks trembling across tabletops, raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck — make the whole body feel as if pulsed by a second heartbeat (running a steady 138-142 beats per minute). There are no rules for dancing: enthusiasts make it up as they go. The music is a physical experience, meant to be heard at extreme volumes.

A reveller gets down at one of Subtrac's Toronto dubstep events. (Subtrac/Matt Carl)
A reveller gets down at one of Subtrac's Toronto dubstep events. (Subtrac/Matt Carl)

“Dubstep is kind of like the word love. You don’t necessarily know what love is, but you know how it feels when you’re in it,” says Joe Nice, the 30-year-old Baltimore DJ who is the music’s self-proclaimed American ambassador. His moment of rapture came five years ago, upon hearing Croydon’s DJ Hatcha, a pioneer of the genre, perform a dubstep set at a Baltimore club. Nice has been spinning — and proselytizing for — the music ever since. “I had heard some tunes on the internet, I had bought some records, but when you hear it loud and live on a big system — things have a different meaning, there’s a different sound to it,” he says.

Before leaving South London in force, dubstep required a champion, some prominent voice who could bring it to the attention of the global underground. That person was Mary Anne Hobbs, host of BBC Radio 1’s hugely influential Breezeblock program (since renamed Radio 1's Experimental Show), a late-night forum for left-field electronic music of many kinds.

Last January, Hobbs hosted a special episode of The Breezeblock titled “Dubstep Warz.” She invited “the godfathers” of the genre — producers Mala, Skream, Kode9, Vex’d, Hatcha, Loefah and DJ Distance — into Radio 1’s studios to perform live sets of what she described as “the most exciting underground scene in the U.K., emerging out of South London, and now permeating every corner of the planet, from Brixton to Baltimore, from Bristol to Brazil.”

The episode was radio gold. Hobbs invited her guests to explain their musical passions (Distance, for one, described his being influenced by American metal bands Korn and System of a Down), and mixed in testimonials by dubstep promoters and producers from places as far-flung as South Africa and Sao Paolo. “Tell you what, seriously, this could be the greatest night of my entire life on the face of God’s good Earth,” the BBC host said at one point during her show. Each of its seven performances revealed a radically different, uniquely exciting interpretation of the dubstep sound.

“I’d been frequenting FWD>> and DMZ for 18 months [beforehand], watching the whole scene gather momentum and energy. ‘Dubstep Warz’ captured a little of that energy at a real flashpoint,” Hobbs wrote me in a recent e-mail. “It took two months working on the show every day to get it right. It was a highly complex mosaic but it fell together beautifully on the night.” She remains an outspoken, eager supporter of the scene.

More than radio, though, the internet has provided the greatest support to dubstep’s expansion. The vast majority of its productions are created on personal computers, at a pace too fast to justify pressing dubplates for every tune. (Skream, for one, is said to have made 1,500 dubstep songs prior to the release of his debut LP last spring.) Instead the majority of new music is stored as ultra-high-quality MP3s — known as “320s,” a shorthand for their audio bit rates — and then made available for sale at online music retailers.

320s are good enough for playback on club sound systems, so DJs are able to eat (download) them like Shreddies. All dubstep needs to gain a foothold in uncharted territory is an interested tastemaker with broadband to burn. Any novice can go from never having heard of the music to possessing a vast catalogue of tunes in a matter of hours or days.

Amateurs get into the act as well, posting 320s (and trading suggested improvements) on well-trafficked message boards. A song that begins its morning in a basement in Shoreditch (or Sherbrooke, just as easily) can end up on hard drives in dozens of countries by nightfall. The dispersal pattern mimics a computer virus, except dubstep is something you’d actually want on your machine.

One of the godfathers of dubstep, South London's Kode9. (Hyperdub/Kode9)
One of the godfathers of dubstep, South London's Kode9. (Hyperdub/Kode9)

“You can go on a place like dubstepforum.com, and the kids are all putting their tunes up for free. They’re like, ‘Download my tracks, download my tracks!’ And they get tons of immediate feedback,” says Matt Carl, 24, a Toronto producer and DJ who has a hand in throwing his city’s most ambitious dubstep parties. (Last year, the Subtrac collective he belongs to hosted events headlined by Joe Nice and Kode9.)

“If something sounds off with the tune, somebody else says, ‘Maybe you should raise the treble in the overall mix.’ The kid does, and then 15 more people download the track for that reason. Now you’ve got 15 more DJs, literally across the world, playing this tune. It wasn’t signed, there was no A&R involved, none of that kind of shit. No legwork. The kid puts it on one message board, and someone else puts it one another.”

Carl shares this information as we’re seated in his home recording studio, a converted bedroom in the downtown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend. There are dozens of designer toys (including several of these) arranged about the room; the rest of the space is occupied by a desktop computer, recording equipment and speakers. He has invited me over to explain his fascination with dubstep, and to play some of the tunes he’s been working on with his recording partner, XI. Both of them, Carl explains, are fervent disciples of bass. Then he cranks up his system to drive the point home. As one production flows into the next, he adjusts a slider on his mixing board, and we watch some of his toys begin to vibrate. The bass throbs hardest near the floor; I can feel its pulse in the bones of my feet.

The moment reminds me of something that happened weeks before, while I was home listening to Kode9 and the Spaceape’s marvellous Memories of the Future for the first time. The volume was bruising. I got distracted, and missed noticing a houseplant that had lived on a speaker cabinet for months as it shook sideways towards the floor. After it fell, there was nothing to do but sweep up the dirt and turn the stereo louder. Later I e-mailed a few friends the link to Kode9’s record label, Hyperdub, along with a suggestion that they might like to get with the program.

Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

 

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