Bubble and Squeak: Michael Wilson on Dubstep
Wilson, Michael, Artforum International
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? …