PRINT November 2006



A WHISTLE of telephonic feedback, then a woman’s voice: “Are we on the air?” A DJ: “Yes, you are.” “Hello, Mom! Uh, I’d like to hear a new beat on the request line.” “OK, you got it, comin’ up. . . .” The exchange fades out in a stutter of reverb, displaced by an ascending synth arpeggio that loops over and over, spiraling off into space. Moments later the beat kicks in, a lurching, half-time skank that seems perpetually on the verge of climax or collapse, a vertiginous instant of suspense (one hesitates to call it dread only in order to avoid the obvious pun) accentuated and repeated, never quite allowed to dissipate. Then there’s the bass, a heart-stopping low-end throb that seizes you in the chest and stomach like a sudden elevator descent. You’re listening—ideally via a towering sound system piloted by Hatcha, Youngsta, or Kode 9 at the London club night Forward>> or DMZ—to Skream’s “Midnight Request Line,” the 2005 track that broke dubstep.

Plotting the fractal trajectories of contemporary British dance music’s myriad subgenres is a task at once fascinating (at least to a certain geekish type) and forbidding. Clubland chronologies and genealogies are fiercely debated; local scenes burn brilliantly for a season before fading into obscurity or merging imperceptibly into their successors. The past is alluded to constantly—the nebulous designation “old-school” almost always implies a compliment—but all ears are on the next development, however subtly divergent from the last. An unintentionally comic illustration of this implosive complexity can be found on the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, where the music is recast as a web of pseudonymous individuals and collectives that obfuscates as much as it informs: “Dubstep is the name given to the largely South London–based dark two-step sounds that originally came out of productions by El-B (as part of both Groove Chronicles with Noodles and then the Ghost camp), Zed Bias (aka Phuturistix, Maddslinky, and more), and Steve Gurley in 1999–2000. . . . The key touch points of the early dubstep sound were Croydon’s now-defunct Big Apple shop and rejuvenated Big Apple records.” Got that?

The longer history of dubstep is rather more straightforward. The “dub” and “step” components of the hybrid form’s name have their origins in two very different traditions. Dub in its pure form is a subset of 1970s Jamaican reggae, derived from the production of instrumental “versions” (or “doubles”) of existing songs. These were initially conceived of for use as blank canvases that would allow for the addition of a live, “toasted” vocal but rapidly developed into showcases for more experimental productions, characterized by the use of particular effects—echo most often—and a concomitant sense of space. By the early ’80s dub’s hallmarks were audible across the spectrum of rhythm-centered pop, an influence that continues to the present. The “step” in dubstep has its origins in two-step, a variant on UK garage (itself an accelerated take on Chicago garage, a close relative of house). Two-step encompasses elements from a wide range of dance-music styles, but it is characterized by a bass kick that skips the second and fourth beat of each bar; it fills the resultant gaps with a powerful snare drum to generate a bouncing shuffle. As was originally the case with dub, two-step is often enhanced in a club setting by the vocal embellishments of an MC. This last characteristic is also the hallmark of grime, a rougher-sounding London-based variant that fed directly into dubstep.

While dance music will always have metropolitan associations, it has also—ever since it became possible to create professional-level tracks on a home computer—thrived away from the urban spotlight, finding a spiritual home in anonymous outskirts. As Martin Clark (aka Blackdown, a DJ better known for his eponymous music blog) has commented: “Margins are so key. When has there ever been a good record from central London? Streatham, Bow, Romford, Croydon, Newham, Thornton Heath . . . it’s all margin music.” From here, the down-at-the-heels edges of London and its bland outlying suburbs, dubstep emerged. (Croydon has been affectionately referred to as “the UK’s answer to Detroit.”) This setting goes some way toward explaining the genre’s minimalist/miserablist tendencies. Given that this is, after all, dance music, dubstep is an oddly contemplative aural response to city life, in which the urban environment’s dead spaces are alternately constructed as womblike refuges for solitary contemplation and liminal zones haunted by a nameless unease.

This has been dubstep’s Big Year, with artists such as Digital Mystikz, Loefa, and Benga achieving widespread recognition. Websites and blogs (Barefiles, Gutterbreakz), as well as London-based radio stations with online streams (pirate Rinse FM, BBC Radio 1’s 1Xtra), have helped dubstep to win an international audience. But the primary forum for the genre is, of course, the club scene, where DJs play multiple artists’ tracks. Perhaps for this reason, dubstep has thus far given rise to precious few single-artist albums. More visible have been compilations such as the Tempa label’s “Dubstep Allstars” series, started in 2003. In his sleeve notes for Dubstep Allstars Volume 3 (Tempa, 2006), Clark reminds listeners of the creative influence of the DJ as exercised through the improvised manipulation of tempo and key. Beatmatching, “the iterative art of aligning two tracks by ear in real time,” is, he writes, “an imprecise science” that requires the DJ to make constant small corrections as rhythms threaten to drift apart, producing “transient flickers” in the percussive flow. Clark also points to the role of ten-inch dubplates, one-off pressings of unreleased tracks that allow DJs to construct mixes that are “scraped, nudged, and blended together” in the hands-on fashion that only vinyl allows. Watching the best dubstep DJs at work gives the lie to the notion of their role as a passive one; the mesmerizing impression is of both improvisational energy and dexterous precision, a relationship to technology that is both intuitive and intensely physical.

Many of dubstep’s prime movers are based in South London, which has long been one of the city’s ethnic melting pots, its sizable Afro-Caribbean population contributing to the continued popularity of Jamaican dancehall, reggae, and, naturally, dub. Dubstep extends the area’s ethnic palette still further by alluding to other environs and cultures via, for example, samples of Eastern-styled instrumentation. In context, these snatches of melody are clearly aimed at pointing up the music’s mystical-devotional qualities and allusions, but they escape the pitfall of unreconstructed exoticism by both the democratic seamlessness of their integration and often their sheer unexpectedness. On the track “Conga Therapy,” Hatcha layers an unidentified Middle Eastern vocal over an elastic rhythm interrupted by scratch and whiplash effects, while on another track, “Sholay,” Horsepower Productions juxtapose a similarly ululating, wordless female vocal with the tinkle of what sounds like a Turkish zill; Horsepower’s work is also peppered with spoken-word samples from global cinema. The use of such sources, at once evocative and unfamiliar, feels entirely consistent with dubstep as more concerned with subtleties and variations than simplistically anthemic “choons.”

Bass is fundamental to dubstep’s immense, immersive weight and to the disorientating wobble found on some tracks—but it’s not necessarily the most important element or where the genre is heading. Philip Sherburne, a critic for the UK music magazine The Wire, suggests in the liner notes for Skream’s I/Monsoon (Loefa Remixes) (Tempa, 2006) that listeners should “follow the snares: that’s where the movement is.” Similarly, critic Simon Reynolds observed in his online forum Blissblog that, at a recent dubstep night at a New York club, it “was very much the case that the tracks that stood out . . . were the ones with something going on in the treble zone. . . . That’s where the rush comes in for me, these intermittent echoes in dubstep of two-step’s great innovation, its discovery of the mind-altering properties of excessive treble.” This new emphasis on the upper register is a sign of how dubstep is beginning to occupy unique territory while simultaneously admitting a diverse palette of sounds identified with existing approaches.

The single-artist dubstep albums that have surfaced so far have tended to be rather atypical of the genre, pushing outward into ever-murkier sonic and ideational realms. Mark Fisher, aka blogger k-punk, describes the reclusive Burial’s self-titled 2006 debut (Hyperdub, 2006) as “oneiric dance music” that foregrounds “sound’s accidental materialities”—surface crackle and ambient hiss—just as dub before it paid perverse attention to the spaces between beats, inhabiting them with spiraling vortices of echo and spectral, sepulchral fragments of the original tunes from which they were derived. In Burial’s case, this selectively punctuated, veiled emptiness, already a signifier of loss, is married to the image of near-future London as submerged metropolis, a melancholic retrofuturist vision that recasts J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World in the syntax of postrave dereliction. With paradoxical glee, Reynolds characterizes the record’s defining sensation as one of “resolutely marching through an endless mental fog of despondency,” situating it on an axis running from the preoccupation with remoteness that characterized the “isolationist” tendency in early- to mid-’90s ambient music, through recent minimalist dub and techno records on Berlin label Basic Channel, and beyond. Dubstep in general, and Burial in particular, are, writes Reynolds, about “built-up areas, urban space, places that should be bustling with life . . . but are now uncannily, eerily empty.”

Based in Belfast, Northern Ireland—and thus geographically removed from the overwhelming majority of dubsteppers—Barry Lynn, aka Boxcutter, is another of the movement’s mavericks. His album Oneiric (Planet Mu, 2006) enlivens the music’s gunmetal-gray surfaces with a complex array of fidgety electronic textures. The idiosyncratic result is denser, arguably more “musical”—insofar as it exhibits less emphasis on dance-floor functionality and more on meandering quasi-improvisation—than the work of archetypal London producers. (It is to be hoped that Lynn will steer clear of the dangerous attraction to “proper”—i.e., rock-instrumental/faux-classical—musicianship that sank drum ’n’ bass superstar Goldie.) Also less clearly indebted to the original formulation of dub, Oneiric seems likely to remain an outer-reaches reference point, too inimitably out there to become a blueprint for dubstep’s future. Tracks such as the coldly metallic “Tauhid” are as akin to, say, the off-world abstract dynamics of electronica mainstays Autechre as to anything obviously associated with dub’s organic pulse. However, the circumstances of its maker’s hometown point to a bond with his London contemporaries—a shared view of the urban environment as perilous, dysfunctional, territorialized.

It’s been said that the devil has all the best tunes, and a listen to the art world’s currently favored sound track suggests a broad sympathy with the maxim. The recent ubiquity of Sunn O)))’s infernal drone metal, for example, serves as a reminder that the innovations in music that intersect with or generate coherent visual equivalents have lately tended away from the conventionally academic in approach and deadpan in tone and toward the corporeally experiential and self-consciously ominous. And just as Stephen O’Malley’s project worries
at the vestiges of a long-established tradition—guitar rock—to generate something so startling in its extremity that it can no longer be contained by its formal categorization, the potential exists for dubstep to burst its boundaries. While electronica—the inherent artificiality of which makes it infinitely adaptable—has fed extensively into recent sound art, dubstep, in its piling of variation on variation, version on version, has begun to open up conceptual and emotional spaces that invite further exploration. A dub sensibility has been bubbling under in art for some time now—think of Mark Leckey’s various meditations on DJ culture, or even Carsten Höller’s “doubled” exhibition at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Marseille, in 2004. Dubstep is a music whose very essence is doubled; it is at once undeniably sexual—wordlessly, irresistibly sensual—and wistful, pining. The picture it paints feels both intimately and/or violently proximate and untouchably distant. Like city lights, receding. “Are we on the air?”

Michael Wilson is an associate editor of Artforum.