A dark room in Mass, Brixton, May 2006, 2.30am. Hundreds of flailing limbs come to rest as Loefah pulls up the dubplate again. Sgt Pokes is laughing on the mic: “We know some of you say there’s too many rewinds at DMZ. But that’s only cos the tunes are so damn big…” Loefah lets his ‘Mud’ tune roll, the tension builds with eerie strings before the bassline drops like a punch in the chest underneath the 79/138bpm halfstep rhythm. The crew crowding the booth are grinning from ear to ear as the dance erupts again…
And they’ve got every right to be smiling. DMZ’s Mala, Coki and Loefah, along with Skream, Kode9, Distance, N-Type, the Plastician and the dozens of other DJs and producers crowding the south London venue have seen their sound – dubstep – grow through two years of indifference, months of steadily building hype and acclaim, to its current position as one of the hottest, most vibrant forms of urban music in the world. And here at DMZ, its spiritual home, it’s all going off.
The story of dubstep is a tale of tireless dedication on behalf of the DJs, producers, labels and fans who have stayed true to their music through good times and bad. The sound was born in 2001 at the FWD>> night at London’s Velvet Rooms, moving to Shoreditch’s Plastic People when the west end venue closed down. Thanks to DJs like Hatcha and Youngsta, the Ammunition stable of labels (including scene leaders Tempa) and the Big Apple record store in Croydon, a new generation of disillusioned music-lovers found the sound they’d been waiting for after drum & bass and UK garage disappeared up a creative cul-de-sac. Adding a hefty dose of dub sound system culture, the emphasis was placed squarely on heavyweight bottom end, sparse, spacious rhythms borrowed from garage, and moody atmospherics. The scene reached a new peak back in January, when Radio 1’s Mary Anne Hobbs – a long-term supporter – devoted her entire show to the ‘Dubstep Wars’, where Skream, Loefah, Digital Mystikz, Vex’D, Kode9, Distance and Hatcha all played exclusive sets on air.
The family of labels pushing the dubstep sound forward is constantly growing. As well as old hands like Tempa, Mike ‘u-ziq’ Paradinas’s Planet Mu label has embraced the sound, with Pinch’s monstrous ‘Qawwali’ taking a minimal, bass-heavy approach and Vex’D’s ‘Search And Destroy’ album exploring next-level beat science. Rephlex has got in on the act too, with its ‘Grime’ compilations – despite the misleading titles, the second volume is pure dubstep, with Kode9, Loefah and Digital Mystikz all showcasing their unique bass-heavy sonic weaponry. Maverick Brixton-based Werk Discs also have a predictably schizophonic take on the sound, with their ‘Grim Dubs’ series and the ‘Grim FM’ compilation, and core labels like Hotflush, Tectonic, Boka and Skull Disco continue to push dubstep into new directions.
At the forefront of the current scene is south London’s DMZ, run by Mala and Coki (AKA Digital Mystikz) and Loefah. Mala explains: “DMZ came about because me, Coki and Loefah were producing music – we’d had a release already on Big Apple Records, but then Big Apple shut down. We had so many beats between us all, and there were no real labels to put it out – this was early 2004 – apart from people like Tempa. When people first started hearing our stuff no one called it anything, distributors didn’t know what to call it or how to sell it, so it was really just a case of us deciding to do it ourselves. We decided to press up some white labels and see if anyone would be interested in taking any, and it just went from there. We sold more than we ever expected, which allowed us to go and do the next one.” Their music didn’t go unnoticed, and as sales snowballed Digital Mystikz were signed up by respected London black music label Soul Jazz, who released a pair of 12”s from Mala and Coki in June.
Joining DMZ on the dubstep frontline is Hyperdub, run by Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman, who moved to London from his native Glasgow some years ago and is currently writing a book, ‘Sonic Warfare’, “about the rhythmic micropolitics of vibration”. Hyperdub is responsible for one of the most talked-about electronic albums of recent years, the eponymous debut by Burial, as well as the adventurous productions of Kode9 himself and vocalist Spaceape. The label grew out of an influential webzine, as Kode9 – currently working on an album with Spaceape for release after the summer – explains: “When we set up the Hyperdub project in 2000, it was to bring together strains of jungle, 2step, grimey hip-hop, dancehall and microhouse that I had been into. That’s only a thin slice of the music I listen to, but it was a trajectory I was particularly interested in - the mutations of dub methodology across these diverse genres. Back in 2002, I met Kevin Martin (The Bug) via the website, played him our beatless cover version, ‘Sine Of The Dub’, and he started nagging us to release it, so we started up the label.”
Hyperdub’s biggest release to date is Burial’s debut, an album that has had the online dubstep community salivating for months, especially since a superb interview with blogger Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark revealed that the mysterious, anonymous producer makes all his/her music using only Soundforge, a basic wave editor, on a PC. The track titles (‘Broken Home’, ‘Night Bus’, ‘Pirates’) and the music itself, which weaves ghost-like traces of UK garage and jungle into its dense sonic collage, vividly evoke the feelings of modern city life in an utterly unique way. Kode9 agrees: “The Burial album captures one dimension of the living in a city, and without being superficially happy, it’s a very melancholy record, transforming a lot of the negativity into something quite beautiful. Grime and dubstep both do something similar, in transforming aspects of urban pressure into something constructive, perhaps in quite different but overlapping ways, more or less aggressive, more or less nervous and claustrophobic. That’s not a new move, but cities and the experiences they produce evolve, and grime and dubstep have captured something specific about London this century.”
Dubstep couldn’t have happened anywhere else but London and nowhere is the diversity and passion of the music’s followers more keenly felt than at the DMZ parties in Brixton – first at 3rd Bass, then at Mass. In just over a year, and over seven parties, DMZ has become the world’s biggest dubstep night, with fans jetting in from all over the UK and Europe to attend. Mala explains: “We just put it on because there was a Saturday night free at 3rd Bass back in March 2005. There’s nothing complicated about it – it’s just a room with minimal lighting, a bar where people can go and get their drinks, and a massive sound system. For me that’s what going out to hear music is about – I don’t really need the fancy decoration and all that shit, for me it’s about the sound.”
Photographer Georgina Cook has been documenting the dubstep scene since day one, and has strong views of her own about the DMZ nights. She says: “People tend to reach the parties for the music above all else, whether that’s simply to feel some bass or to spot the latest dubs. People don’t really reach the nights to pull or to pill. The atmosphere is incredible, a room full of people high on sub bass is addictive enough.” Mala agrees: “I don’t think it’s a place to socialise – I’ve never thought DMZ was about that. You can go to a pub for that kind of thing. It’s always been about music first. And I still keep seeing new people coming down. I’m always quite curious as to who these people are and where they’ve come from because it seems to always be changing, but we’ve been really lucky with the people who come down, because they just bring this wicked energy.”
Transforming aspects of urban pressure into something constructive
The dubstep sound is spreading like a virus all over the UK and beyond. Kode9 says: “The best vibe is definitely at DMZ. But North America has been great in the last six months – I’ve played to really excited little scenes growing in New York, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. In the last year I’ve also played in Brazil, France, Holland, Germany and Italy. I’m quite surprised how much the sound has spread this year. In the UK we’ve seen great little vibes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Bristol, Leeds and so on.”
Mala adds: “People just seem to be really interested in what’s going on. I really do feel that if the music’s heard on a good sound system, so it’s given a fair chance to fall on new ears, the response seems to be really positive. You got to Bristol and they’ve got great nights going on there run by Pinch; he’s been working Bristol up hard. The vibe in Sheffield is deep, and it’s the same in Leeds – the people just bring a wicked energy. It’s definitely positive times for the sound. And I love going to play new places for the first time, that soldier shit where you’re on the front line, and it could go either way.”
Bristol-based Rob Ellis, AKA DJ Pinch, runs the Tectonic label and the Subloaded nights in the city. He says: “Dubstep is bigger here than in most cities but it’s still very much underground. It’s taken two years to get to where we are now – over 500 came to the last Subloaded. I was the first person putting on dubstep nights anywhere outside of London and I do believe there’s a strong affiliation between Bristol and London – mainly due to their being a similar cultural mix of people, and a shared history of music interests.”
One criticism sometimes leveled at the dubstep scene is that it has a tendency to be male dominated. Georgina says: “It was once very male dominated – the sound was almost defined by the fact that it was made by men. You could feel masculinity running through every beat and every dancefloor. Thankfully though, there have always been a few producers who have managed to offer something other then big bad basslines and darkness. In my opinion, the best producers are the ones that balance the darkness with beauty and light. I think this is what has been attracting women. As a result the male/female dancefloor ratio is balancing out and the vibes are friendlier and lighter. In conjunction, there are now female vocals present in ways that transcend the odd distorted sample here and there; Warrior Queen is running things, Arorah is stepping up with 4n4mat, Mala and Skream are making incredible vocal tunes and Stateside there’s a wicked little crew of female DJs.” Kode9 agrees: “Dubstep works as an instrumental sound. But it sounds just as good, if not better with a strong vocal. It adds a whole new dimension to the music, opens up a vast field of potential exploration, and a broader audience.”
So where next for dubstep? As any genre attains critical mass there is a danger of music becoming formulaic, of producers jumping on bandwagons, and for hype to tarnish the atmosphere and stifle innovation – just look at what happened to drum & bass. Kode9 says: “It’s an evolutionary certainty that scenes have innovators and followers, that the process of proliferation is part dilution, part mutation. To a certain extent this evolution is kind of dismally predictable, especially as there are a lot of young people interested in the music who might not have learnt from want went wrong musically in the evolution of jungle. But that historical ignorance allows room for people to be inventive and try things without too much forethought – that’s how you got something as sonically strange as early grime.”
Rob says: “I think there’s a few characteristic wobbles and clap/snare placements that seem to reoccur - though I only really notice the imitation coming from new producers. Everyone has their own style in dubstep - you can pick a Skream, Digital Mystikz, Loefah or Vex’D tune the second it drops - but all the best producers will continue to push and experiment with new sounds.” And Mala adds: “I never really worry about what everyone else is doing. And one thing I don’t like doing is forcing anything - that applies to music, the night, the things we do with our label. Whatever naturally comes next will come.”