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A Step In The Right Direction? We Discuss The Rise Of Mainstream Dubstep
The Quietus , February 25th, 2011 09:59

Joe Muggs and Rory Gibb load up their muskets and engage in a dubstep-duel to discuss the future of the genre

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With the release of James Blake's debut album a couple of weeks ago, and the increasing debate in certain circles surrounding his connection with the dubstep scene, it's an interesting time to follow UK underground dance music. In the air right now there's a sense that 'dubstep' in its many guises is finding its way into mainstream ears via all manner of different pathways, from Magnetic Man's bass-heavy pop to Jamie XX's We're New Here, which sees the UK producer twist Gil Scott-Heron's latest album into a series of subbed-out synth sketches. Along the way it's divided opinions; with that in mind, The Quietus asked Joe Muggs (The Wire, Mixmag, theartsdesk) and Rory Gibb (Always Everything, Sonic Router, DiS) to have a chat about their thoughts on the current state of the genre and where it might head next.

Rory Gibb

I'm conscious that even within this first email the argument seems to be more one of semantics - what 'dubstep' means - and the discourse surrounding the genre in the mainstream, rather than the music itself. It's hard to be too negative when there's so much great music still being made beneath the surface, certainly when the interesting and experimental side of the genre doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast.

Still, I suppose what interests and perhaps slightly concerns me is that dubstep first developed as a method of resistance against the sort of things mainstream attention intrinsically enables it to embrace. When chart UK garage started to collapse under the weight of its own excess, dubstep was a means of resisting that development through restraint: hence emphasis on insular headspaces, sub-bass, the darkness of FWD>> at Plastic People, etc. It was squarely focused on the music itself, rather than on everything surrounding that. I wonder whether taking it too far out of context risks losing a great deal of what always made it so powerful, both as music and as political statement. The other night, I found it strange seeing Magnetic Man play their tracks as individual 'songs' rather than mixed, with a revolving door cast of vocalists and a string section - the music's sheer force was allowed to dissipate through concession to stadium-friendly dynamics and stage presence.

Similarly, its shift into wider consciousness has allowed mainstream commentators to use it as a catch-all term to represent a certain gritty underground credibility/cool, often without understanding the genre's roots. I suppose that's not a phenomenon unique to dubstep (by any means) but it would be a shame to see it end up reduced to hype-laden buzzword.

Joe Muggs

You've said lots that's interesting here, and I disagree with most of it!

Well, sort of, anyway... You're quite right that, as with any discussion of genre, it's about semantics, but I do think that it's worth taking issue with some of your definitions of dubstep itself – because slight differences here make quite a big difference further down the line to how we believe dubstep as a sound and scene will deal with crossover success.

But before we get into fine detail, let me lay out exactly what I am in favour of. Of course, as with any crossover of something underground into the mainstream, there are some absolute horrors being committed in the name of dubstep. However, just to take a couple of the most obvious, in your face examples, I think the following are glorious, glorious records: Dr P 'Sweet Shop': this one is the epitome of supposed "teenage boy" dubstep.

It's lairy, deliberately dumb, it sounds like a fat drunk bloke belching – and it is an absolute rave beast of a tune. And if you've seen a room full of boys and girls going mental to this and tracks like it, you'll know that the appeal of this music isn't fashion-or pop-based, it's really raw and groin level. It is, quite frankly, punk as fuck.

True Tiger & P Money 'Slang Like This': I mean, come on, this is 21st century music as it was always supposed to be, isn't it? It is, gloriously, like Britpop never happened, but it's perfectly British and hugely poppy in a way that makes me feel really proud. It's banghra, it's grime, it's pop, it's rave – but there's absolutely no self-conscious forcing together of genres, because dubstep is just very naturally the place where they all meet. Also, it's not beholden to the past, and certainly not to these ideas of dubstep as for dark rooms and contemplation – as the video suggests, this is dubstep bursting out and spreading all over.

And here is the first place that we definitely differ. Yes, those dark dancefloors were a vital part of dubstep's early development, and yes there was a reaction against the champagne & maschino vibes of garage but you shouldn't get stuck in limiting its creation myth to that. Dubstep has always been rave music, even if it was sometimes introspetctive. When I interviewed Magnetic Man, Skream told me that he laughs when people have a go at them for making in-your-face tracks because 'We've always made bangers, just they weren't so well-produced in the old days!'

And it's true – I recently dug out an old pirate radio set from 2004 by DJ Chef, Skream and Benga (the latter two would've been about 17 at the time), and it was a properly raucous affair. For all people talk about early dubstep as something where everyone closed their eyes and levitated from pure spiritual bass vibrations, the people involved were to a great degree cheeky, piss-taking ravers, and the music reflected that just as often as it was moody, brooding and deep. Listen to the MRK1, Plasticman and Slaughtermob tracks on Rephlex's mis-titled Grime compilation, also from 2004 – which was a lot of people's first introduction to dubstep – these are rugged, upbeat dance tracks. That no-nonsense upbeat feel has always been in dubstep's heart, so actually the injection of cheeky, ravey energy into it is nothing new.

I tend to agree with you that Magnetic Man's set the other night was not their finest moment – but I'd put that more to a couple of facts: i) it was mainly an industry crowd and therefore not the most vibey of gigs, and ii) they're still finding their way; their set has evolved from a glorified DJ set already, and they have a lot of space to explore. In that sense they are still very much an experimental act. And the thing is, they still have plenty of space to find their way, because of one really crucial fact: dubstep has laid its foundations already. If you compare the current set of major label signings (Magnetic Man, True Tiger, Distance etc) to the comparable wave in drum & bass which happened around 1996 – d&b had barely existed for, what, three years? In contrast, by 2010 dubstep had existed in name for seven years and as a sound/ scene for nigh-on a decade. Therefore dubstep's identity is just that much more rooted, and individual artists can do a lot more with the music without abandoning its core values. It will be interesting to see what happens as it continues to go international – obviously we do have a US dubstep scene that has very different musical reference points already – but the fact that everything is so strongly rooted in the social network around those early Croydon/ London/ Bristol movements allows the British heart of dubstep to keep beating strongly.

That's probably plenty to be getting on with. I haven't really addressed what you said about the politics of dubstep – there's a lot to get into there and I need to think about that. Anyway, interested to know what you think. Do you have particular examples of where you think populist dubstep is going wrong?

Rory Gibb

I guess there are a few points I'd quite like to raise in response – the first being that, for the most part, I don't disagree with you, and I don't have a problem with populist dubstep per se.

In fact, I'm completely in agreement with your assertion that dubstep's always been rave music with a certain cheeky energy – that's a large part of the reason why I fell for it in the first place. But underpinning the early ravier tracks was still a sense that something subtler was going on beneath the surface, and that dancefloor energy found its way out through so many different avenues as it evolved. I mean, looking at something like Vex'd's 'Degenerate' – which I'd argue still remains among the best things to have emerged from the harder side of the genre's earlier years – you can hear beauty and melancholy, and crucially, atmosphere, cutting through its core.

What made a track like 'Venus' so powerful was the knife-edge tension between gorgeous, elegiac melody and distorted columns of sub and percussion.

Then you move through something like Coki's 'Haunted' and into things like Ikonika's 'Please' and Joker's 'Purple City', and there's still a rugged, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour there. They all have a hard, heavy dancefloor edge but that's tempered both with melody and the fact that they're still built with musicality in mind, and an intrinsic sense of groove, swing and funk. I always loved the fact that bangers often comprised only a part of most DJs' sets – they'd be the peaks in energy between far deeper troughs, and sets as a whole would engage through variation. Sets that are comprised only of bangers can be, to be frank, exhausting and/or nauseatingly intense.

I'd also argue that an awful lot of what you'd call 'cheeky' energy is lost when the intent behind the music changes. It feels like with a lot of the chainsaw side of the genre, producers, DJs – and, I suppose, crowds – are after 'filth', the hardest, nastiest sounds possible. It pushes music to the point where it becomes totally sexless, totally lacking in groove and soul. And though you might say it's punk as fuck, it's pretty hard to deny that there was still something sexy about 70s punk rock's defiant posturing and anti-establishmentarianism, which then later became further manifest in post-punk's obsession with groove. That sexiness is lacking in music by someone like Borgore, who I'd argue goes one level beyond, at times touching on misogynistic. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not even sure that the hardest extremes of the genre could really be classed as 'dance music' anymore; as far as I'm concerned they're closer to nu-metal, a slightly angst-ridden, testosterone fuelled paean to extremity for extremity's sake.

But just to make myself clear: I'm in no way referring to the sort of music that, say, Magnetic Man are making. It's nothing but a good thing that a group of people who've spent years making music almost entirely ignored by the mainstream are now able to make a pop record that's successful, even if it's not entirely to my taste.

And I love the fact that its influence is able to cross over into other forms of music – and, conversely, that dubstep as a genre seems able to incorporate almost everything, and come to reflect the diversity of music as a whole. So you've got everything from nu metal/emo (Modestep/Borgore), through indie/pop (James Blake, Breton), post-rock (Mount Kimbie), hip hop (Illum Sphere, Rustie), r&b and soul (Blake, Hudson Mohawke, Deadboy), two-step (Hessle Audio, and a host more), jungle (Peverelist), electro/blog house (Rusko), house (Jam City, Ramadanman), grime (Bok Bok), new age/meditational music (some of Mala and Pinch's early material – Qawwali springs to mind), jazz & film soundtracks (LHF), etc etc. And then totally unique hybrids of all of them - Kode9 & The Spaceape's new album springs to mind for that one.

I do wonder, though, whether a possible consequence of dubstep hitting global scale would be a similar creative cul-de-sac to the one that's largely infected the popular ends of d&b over the last few years – a calcification caused by an increasingly rigid idea of what 'dubstep' should sound like, resulting in fewer and fewer people pushing the boundaries outward. Dubstep was always a loose framework around which to hang unique interpretations on a sound – just put something like Kode9's '9 Samurai' alongside Jamie Vex'd's 'Scuba' remix or DMZ's 'Neverland', or next to Skream's 'Rottan', Appleblim's 'Vansan' or Toasty's 'Splash'. The proliferation of identikit 'YouTube dubstep', while not bothering me exactly (as I tend to ignore it) perhaps indicates that the idea of what dubstep is and can be is becoming more rigid at mainstream/surface level.

And given that the music industry and the music business as we know it is gradually dying a death, it's strange/sad to see something so experimental and boundary-pushing occasionally forced to walk a line I really don't think it's in any way connected to. That's especially something I feel with James Blake – not the record itself, which I really like, but the press campaign surrounding it was hyped to almost terrifying levels (terms like 'game changing' thrown around for what amounts to a good, but not world changing record). And more to the point, dubstep in that case felt used less as a descriptor and more as a credibility-boosting buzzword (again, not by Blake himself, but by an awful lot of press/publicity people milling around him). I have my thoughts on the politics behind dubstep (and dance music generally), and I do feel frustrated in what I see as engagement with the capitalist, exploitative, money-driven models behind major label music publishing.

I really like James Blake's album on its own merits, but I don't think it's got an awful lot to do with dubstep sonically – although his EPs certainly do - and isn't really a 'dubstep' album. He's someone who makes amazing tracks that fit into the genre's dancier end perfectly, and also vocal songs which are sonically influenced by it. But ultimately it's probably one of the first pop/'indie' (loosest sense of the word) albums made with dubstep as a bona fide influence - I guess along with The xx - and essentially that's allowed the people writing about it/promoting it to use the context of FWD>>, sub bass and Mala... Credibility boosters, though admittedly not bad ones!

All of this having been said, I feel far more excited by what's going on beneath the surface than I feel concerned about some of the problems I see rising to the top. The current dropping of tempos at underground level by many of the genre's earlier producers, has been often spoken of in terms of the limitations of the 140bpm form. Which is interesting in itself – there's a lot of utterly brilliant music coming out of the underground that's closely connected to dubstep, but I find the possibility that this gradual shift is preceding/precipitating a new evolutionary phase in UK dance music pretty exciting (a possible 'what-u-call-it' bridge?). You only need to look at labels like Hessle Audio and Swamp81, and recent music from producers like Pinch, Peverelist, Addison Groove, Boddika & Instra:mental and FaltyDL, to feel like the boundaries are currently being redrawn in pretty fascinating new shapes.

Certainly among newer/younger producers, I suspect that a great deal of that is down to the influence of the internet –the fact that development feels less and less linear, and that it's accelerating in an even greater array of directions, points to a net-assisted world where boundaries between sounds (whether spatial or temporal) are becoming thinner and thinner. But that might well be a discussion for another time, as I could carry on down that rabbit hole for quite a long time, especially when you look at hybrids like Dro Carey, Hype Williams and their love of bass sounds, or the rising number of interesting variations coming out of the US and Canada.

What I do love, and what continues to keep me excited and positive, is the fact that for the most part, whatever 'dubstep' is (or isn't), it's managed to avoid being channeled down any one particular avenue. What's interesting and quite amazing about the 'UK bass' scene now, all the way from Hessle Audio and Punch Drunk (whom I genuinely think are pushing probably the most exciting and innovative sides of the genre right now) to the club edge of Night Slugs, Hotflush, stables like Hyperdub & Planet Mu, plus the hundreds of other tiny labels and collectives everywhere, is the fact that all of these anomalies can exist side by side, at the same nights, watched by the same crowd. The fact that a crowd can see Ben UFO playing a house set, then watch Loefah playing both halfstep and drum-machine heavy electro, then watch Illum Sphere doing a strange, LA-inspired hip-hop thing, then see Jam City or Bok Bok playing hybrids of grime and house, is a hugely inspiring one. Whatever dubstep is or isn't, the spaces it carved out of earlier nuum music (compared with the packed, out, hyperactive and rude energy of jungle or garage) seem to contain the latent potential to fill up with almost anything. In that sense it's become less a genre than a kind of catalyst around which other sounds attract and interact.

Joe Muggs

That's a fantastic response, Rory – not least because you've certainly saved me having to run through all these fantastic things that have sprung from dubstep, or which exist in its orbit.

You, rightly, paint a picture of a gloriously diverse and creative musical climate, and I think we're agreed that it is the emergence of dubstep from its small-scene roots into the mainstream over the last decade or so that has been the prime mover in creating this climate. It's enough to make a raddled old raver like me, who grew up when Massive Attack, Happy Mondays, Altern 8, The Orb, Bjork and The KLF were huge stars, quite sentimental, actually. In the past three or so years in particular, it feels like we're finally reaching a point where it's as if Britpop never happened: where the awful homogeneous backward-looking Camden-centric bullshit of New Rock Revolution and Landfill Indie and boohoo-poor-me KeanePlayPatrol English self-loathing music is finally pushed to the margins where it all deserves to be, and music that actually reflects Britain's endlessly diverse grassroots sub-cultural energy and love of a good party is coming to the fore. And this is shown not just in the cool, underground stuff you describe, but in huge pop records by Katy B, Tinie Tempah, Wretch 32: the pulse of British bass goes right to the top... and I think dubstep remains the beating heart of this movement. Which leads me to pick up on a couple of false assumptions I think you've made:

i. That it was better in the old days. Hmmm, maybe: sure, Vex'd were amazing, but actually the neo-techstep template they created got over-abused by far too many dull miserablists at the time, as did the Loefah stripped-down half-step thing in turn. And heavy dubstep albums – take Kryptic Minds's new album just for one example – are coming out all the time that have every inch of the dark energy and emotion of that early stuff, maybe even more so. And what you're missing about that time is that although there was a great deal of excitement at having a new form being born, and the family vibe that comes from having a small and tight-knit scene, it was also a time when the dubstep cliché of a bunch of really stoned boys sullenly stepping in a dark room was very often all too true.

It could be quite exclusive, quite forbidding, and even – whisper it – a bit boring if you weren't at the right night.

ii. That "filth" is bad in itself. Sure, it gets tiring, but you can't damn it all on the basis of Borgore – a super-talented musician, incidentally, who has sadly made some pretty badly-judged misogynistic jokes in his tracks – or any other single artist. There is also super-heavy stuff being made in the "filth" style, whether it's that Doctor P track I put up earlier, Flux Pavilion, 16 Bit or some of the mental American things like Evol Intent:

Hard and mental music isn't bad in itself, I mean I wouldn't listen to just Belgian hoover techno or just jump-up drum'n'bass a la Aphrodite all night long, but some of my favourite records of all time come from those genres. What's more, super-heavy dubstep has inspired a lot of grime folk to get really gritty and aggro again, and that's got to be a good thing, right?

iii. That people have 'moved on' from 140bpm. Nah. I mean, obviously some people will always shift with the times, whether because they're trend-hoppers or because they want to avoid creative stagnation... that's great, it's how things keep moving, and as you say already we're seeing incredible records from dubsteppers like Pinch and Ramadanman opening up to a broader range of rhythmic templates. But note well that Loefah, whose Swamp 81 label has been one of the most important in driving this broadening of tempo, has just returned to production with his new Pinch collaboration – and what's he done but an utterly brilliant, utterly fresh 140bpm bassweight monster.

And don't even get me started on the incredible tunes that are coming out by Cyrus, Distance, Kromestar, Cotti, Von D, Mr Lager, Quest, Silkie.... Heavy, heavy straight-up dubstep tunes with serious finesse, and all the intensity and emotion that anything from 'day' ever had. You mentioned 'YouTube dubstep', but what about 'GetDarker dubstep'? There's an online channel that has kept faith and kept focus on everything that made the sound powerful in the first place, and made amazing compilations, particularly with their outstanding Pure Dubstep album, a perfect illustration of the health of 140bpm. But the track I'd say exemplifies it for me just at the moment is 'Bass 96' by Jay 5ive & Kromestar; it's got class and style, intense weirdness and a really sexy vibe but still packs a proper soundsystem wallop.

iv. That dubstep has to go the way of d&b. Not necessarily. I understand the fear very well – it's a natural bit of British self-effacement to assume that we'll shoot ourselves in the foot, and the experiences of d&b and garage I suppose don't bode well for continued creativity... But there is no rule written that says dubstep shouldn't take the path of techno, house or even hip hop, rather than that of d&b or garage. And I would suggest that the evidence is that it can do just that. Already it's made its way into the US by a kind of pincer movement – so as well as the frat-boy leap-around dudestep scene, which admittedly is huge, there are influences creeping into the hip hop and pop worlds, there's Rusko's work on the MIA album (really under-rated in my opinion, and leads me to suspect that he may yet do something really good with Britney!), there's cooler/weirder people like FaltyDL and the Brainfeeder/Low End Theory axis who know about dubstep's diversity and flexibility...

All of this means that the soil is fertile, it's possible for it to spread in all its forms, not just one limited version. Already the UK scene is moving on from the dominance of wobbly dudestep: I was speaking to one musician only last night who says he's really noticed that whenever he goes a small local night in Plymouth or Preston or wherever, instead of every DJ playing grating mid-range crunch-step as they would two years ago, there'll be an even spread of sounds and range of tempos going on. So if we can break the stranglehold of the single sound, there's nothing to say that international audiences won't follow. And that's why James Blake and The xx are so very important: they might not be dubstep, but their alliance to it (which is more than just cosmetic, it's rooted in their very approach to sonics and song structures, especially evident when you see them live) means that wherever they make waves, people begin to associate dubstep not with a simple boom-crash-womwomwomwom sound, but with sub-bass, open spaces and deep moods.

Dubstep's strength, as I've written elsewhere, is in its mongrel nature and its flexibility: it has the ability to infect house, d&b, techno, electronica etc without losing its core integrity – and to expand an awfully long way in all directions.

Already in between the first Adventures In Dubstep & Beyond album which I compiled last year and the second, which I'm working on right now, the diversity and number of tracks that I would want to include has increased massively – and that isn't people 'moving on' from 140bpm dubstep; 140bpm dubstep remains right at the very heart of it all, still the prime mover in the new dance explosion.

Rory Gibb

Great response, very comprehensive and good at picking up on my slightly 'argumentative for argumentative's sake' points, and I wholeheartedly agree that it's great to see that pop music in this country is again starting to reflect something wider, more multicultural and more fun than it has done really since the start of the noughties. I thought I'd run through quick responses to the four major issues you've picked up on, then move onward from there.

I was referring less to it being 'better in the old days' on a more general level, than to the heavy, hard stuff in particular – and perhaps that's a product of being exposed to what I still can't help but feel is a simplification of ravey dancefloor styles. It's only really been in the last two or three years that the cliché of stoned boys in the dark has become less relevant; the first time I went to FWD>>, it was still a very male, very intense crowd. But I find that the overtly testosterone driven wobble material (not all of it, mind, but quite a lot of it) is quite forbidding in its sheer intensity and constant search for harder, heavier, nastier, which in itself removes part of what makes good dubstep so compelling and brilliant to dance to – that careful balance of space and swing, epitomised by some of the amazing rolling tracks released on DEEP MEDi from people like Mala, Silkie and V.I.V.E.K. Tracks like V.I.V.E.K's 'Strategy' or Mala's 'Forgive' (which I consider to be one of the finest dubstep tracks ever recorded – though many of Mala's others could also find themselves in there too) – are all about finding an equilibrium point between light and shade, which manifests itself as body (pure physical motion) vs. mind (emotions and 'losing yourself' on the dancefloor). When those two sides both operate in tandem, as with, say, Shackleton's music – though admittedly not 'dubstep' per se – it carries a far greater weight than simple chainsaw-edged noise ever could.

But actually, as you've pointed out below, DEEP MEDi, Get Darker and the Antisocial roster are quite a good indicator for the health of 140bpm dubstep in general. And there are some great ravey, really heavy tracks coming out through those channels that show off a perfect balance between form and function: i.e intense, overwhelming and heavy, without sacrificing an ounce of funk. That Jay 5ive and Kromestar track is incredible, and Silkie's music is another great example. What I love about these two tracks is similar to what I love about Vex'd's music: on the surface, in terms of the sound palette used and the kind of movement they force on the body, they're pure, crushing dancefloor music, but cutting right through the heart are glistening threads of melody, splitting the tracks into multiple simultaneous layers upon which to focus, rather than one single driving line.

The best heavy and distorted tracks are quite incredibly psychedelic, something I'd argue is lost when the subtlety is toned down in favour of pure impact. When you listen to something like Kuedo's 'Starfox' (again, a perfect example of how you can be heavy, have monstrous dancefloor impact and not resort to a tired focus on the drop above all else), it's the aural equivalent of looking through a kaleidoscope. It completely overwhelms your senses, but every reiteration reveals new, tiny elements that weren't there before, spiraling out in fractal patterns. When you place that alongside some of the more straightforward wobble tracks, there's no comparison in terms of depth of listening experience. Though, actually, as I'm saying this, there's an argument to be made for Doctor P's 'Sweet Shop' having a similar, if less shimmering, effect – but then I do think that's a decent example of how to do a heavy, slightly gonzo dancefloor track.

I suppose a fair amount of this comes down to personal taste really. And I agree that, while you'd never want to listen to a one dimensional style all the time, there are still examples of where wobbly tracks can be fantastic ('Coki's 'Haunted' again springs to mind, though that's quite an old one). I just can't get behind hearing them solidly throughout an entire set.

I also agree with you that the 140 template still shows as much flexibility as ever. It's inspiring that, as a bracket, it still fits around people as diverse as Mala, Peverelist, Ramadanman, Blackdown, the Autonomic sound, Shackleton, and that firey new Loefah and Pinch track. But I find the increasingly permeable borders around what constitutes 'dubstep' more fascinating than anything else right now. It's less that people are deserting 140, and more that they're finding other ways to express similar mood through slower tempos. The question, I suppose, is what constitutes dubstep anymore anyway, beyond the obvious stuff I've talked about before? You've got Girl Unit making tracks like 'Wut' and 'Showstoppa', which could be spatially displaced dirty south hip-hop instrumentals, and Peverelist and Hyetal's 'The Hum', which clocks in at 135 but rolls like jungle, next to all of David Kennedy's output as Ramadanman/Pearson Sound, which has found an indefinable balance point between almost every dance genre – and all could quite easily be filed under 'dubstep' in some way.

That's before you even start making headway into the increasing flurry of new and awful names being thrown around to try and encompass this morass. 'Post- dubstep'? 'Future garage'? 'Bass music'? They all feel woefully inadequate, in that they're reductive and prescriptive in equal measure, attempting to define what the music ought to sound like before it's even been made (that's one reason why I dislike 'future garage' more than any other, incidentally). As you've pointed out, as people have continued to associate The xx and James Blake, alongside all of the above, with dubstep, it's become less a single unified sound than a sort of general aesthetic – bass, space, darkness, depth, atmosphere. I think I said in an earlier email: more of a catalyst, which drives chemical reactions between other sounds and allows them to interact with one another. That can only be a good thing, and I don't think it needs a name (or set of different terms) to be thrown around it at this stage.

But I wonder at what point will its essence on the fringes become so distant or dilute that it morphs into something else entirely? There are already shifts occurring on the bleeding edges between genres (particularly at the interface with house and techno), which make it increasingly difficult to tell – and, pertinently, of increasingly less concern.

There's a great quote from Ruaridh Law in RA's interview with him from yesterday: "To me a good Ramadanman record is techno. I know most people don't consider it that and would start arguments, but to me in my head Idle Hands or Blackest Ever Black or these sort of things that are on the periphery, in my head, is all techno for me. Good electro is techno. Everything is techno."

I think that epitomises what I mean: depending on the set of ears listening, it's possible to pick up whatever you're searching for in one or more arms of 'dubstep', reaching all the way outward to its absolute limits. And I think that's hugely exciting.

Joe Muggs

OK, well maybe this is the crux of it: I think you're worrying about things that haven't happened yet. What will happen when it goes too far in one direction or another? How will we come up with terms to describe it? Can we still have a term to encapsulate it all?

Yes, the terminology matters, but it is also flexible and its meaning accumulates with time. Whether you talk about some hyperspecific thing like 'retro-future-post-wonky- glitch-UK-garage-step' or some over-arching category like 'hardcore continuum' or 'it's all techno', the language is always contingent, as club music and clubbers (at their best) have an innate ability to subvert and redefine categories just when you least expect it.

I actually don't really have any problem with the current terminology for just that reason, as I've laid out in some detail here.

So yes, there is a wild variety of music across the 'UK bass' pallette: from the sparse and musicianly 'Autonomic' sound of dBridge and Instra:mental to the loony-toons dumb-arse ravemonkey lunacy of Kanji Kinetic and Squire Of Gothos; from the really specific audiovisual aesthetics of clubs/labels/crews like Hoya:Hoya, Numbers, LuckyMe and Night Slugs to the cover-all-bases populism of guys like Skream, Breakage or Toddla T; from the dark and abstracted sound designs of Ekoplekz and Old Apparatus to the soulful melodics of a Silkie or Von D... and on and on and on... even the re-appraisals of garage and deep house and the beginning of an international appreciation of grime as an electronic genre...

But I still think that all of this, at the moment, still orbits the central mass, which is dubstep. 'Dubstep' is the word that grabs attention in radio stations, record company offices and - yes, we might as well admit it - marketing companies worldwide. It's the word that is opening ears to underground electronic talent. And even if there will be - and indeed already are - godawful cash-ins, and terrible chancers making a fast buck from it, it still remains a deep rooted sound, something with real people's real soundystem experiences at its beating heart, and thus something that can handle the current expansion. The ever accelerating global explosion that we've seen since it emerged from the underground in 2006 is beginning to look like it might just outstrip anything that happened in 1990s dance music, and even despite all the risks that come with that, I think it's something to be celebrated right now.


Joe Muggs will be DJing at The Meateasy, New Cross on March 11 and at Surefire Sound, Corsica Studios on March 25. 'Adventures In Dubstep & Beyond Vol. 1' is available now, with Vol. 2 set for release in May/June this year. You can also hear his 'Thousands Tons Dream DJ Mix' by clicking here.

Angus
Feb 25, 2011 3:35pm

What a marvellous article for a blog nerd like me to fawn over, thanks very much chaps

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Dana
Feb 25, 2011 4:31pm

This looks so interesting and I really WANT to read it but.. come on... 6000 words??

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Feb 25, 2011 6:22pm

Yeah, can't you just, like, make a movie of it. Or a book with pictures.

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old
Feb 25, 2011 7:20pm

Absolutely brilliant. I was 'there' in '92 and continue to love the entire "bass" (for want of a better pigeon hole) scene. The next time someone asks me what's the current thing all about, I'll send them here.....

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AC
Feb 26, 2011 6:09pm

I'm 39, and I made "bass" music of a sort for years. I feel so old. Christ.

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Liam Potter
Feb 27, 2011 4:45pm

Great article :) My only problem with it was that Joe Muggs just didn't seem to fully grasp the arguments made by Rory Gibb, rather he picked out key words and based his counters simply on them.

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Angus
Feb 27, 2011 9:35pm

In reply to Liam Potter:

Hmm, I'd say it's the opposite...or rather Rory's argument basically boils down to an personal aesthetic judgement (the original template has been 'cheapened' or 'diluted' by its mainstream success), which he keeps restating, while Joe takes a wider overview and provides several possible responses to it.

The fact is that a deluge of bad music (and lord knows a lot of that chainsaw stuff is terrible) doesn't make the music you DO like any worse. This is a classic case of subcultural 'ownership' being broken down as a wider audience jumps on the bandwagon. There's no way to reverse it, and there's little effective criticism of it: of course a large proportion of it is bad, that's true of all music. It's best to just move on - it's noticeable that many of dubstep's most interesting and exciting producers have done just that (many of whom are listed in the article). I doubt they get bothered by Doctor P any more, on the odd occasion when they are exposed to his music.

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mr_x
Feb 28, 2011 5:55pm

no idea when dubstep was really sexy or cheeky tbh - sensual maybe, and energetic sure, back in 2003/04, but those were never really key qualities of the sound. it was always kinda sex-less actually, kind of why girls would say they feel so at home at dubstep events. as for cheeky, well okay, now it is, but not back in 2004. lets not try and look for historical antecedents that were never really there. old mark one and plasticman beats were TOUGH, not really made to leave you with a smile on your face (even if plasticman did do a tune called pump up the jam). not as po faced as later dubstep but def not 'cheeky'. interesting article though, even if mr muggs does appear to be more like a dubstep press officer than journalist. i would rather hear the caspa-type stuff than half the boring/polite dullards passing for post-dubstep though so he appears to have his allegiances correctly aligned. ps - that mala forgive track is great, but loses it soon as those terribly cheesy pianos come in. dubstep producers really try too hard sometimes. its not 'deep', its just dreary.

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Joe Muggs
Mar 1, 2011 9:06am

@Liam Potter - you make a fair point but this wasn't an academic seminar: if we got into point-for-point examination of the minutiae it would have become pretty excruciating - so I deliberately picked on things Rory said that reflected common misconceptions or assumptions and expanded on them.

@mr_x - how sad that you see a positive viewpoint as "PR" - do you really not think it's possible to big something up without putting something else down or otherwise being arch and sarcastic? Personally I'm happy unrepentantly flying the flag for music that I think is worth it once in a while. It's not like I'm uncritical elsewhere!

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Rory Gibb
Mar 1, 2011 10:38am

In reply to Angus:

@Angus - I can see why that might seem like the argument I'm taking, but more the point I've been trying to make is that I feel less like it's been 'cheapened', and more that the real positive energy in dubstep is still bubbling away under the surface rather than in the eyes of the mainstream. As I said, Magnetic Man, Doctor P and Katy B are all making music that's a lot of fun, and sometimes good in its own right, but the real exciting, visceral, innovative movement is still happening at underground level, with people that are expanding the template out in new directions - or throwing it away entirely.

But the real point I was making, a little further down, is that some of the producers who've really been pushing the sound forward - people like Ramadanman, Night Slugs, Joy Orbison and James Blake (though this was more evident on his EPs) - are also attracting attention far beyond the boundaries of the underground, and attracting comparatively massive club crowds. Rama and Orbison have been booked for some of the biggest festivals in the country both last year and this coming summer, and it's a wonder to think that there'll be tents full of people dancing to sounds that are far more experimental and boundary-pushing but are still pop-friendly as hell, and with a hefty bass kick to boot. That's where I feel the real mainstream potential for dubstep lies - rather than solidifying as a fairly rigid 140 shuffle, it's loosening up, blending with R'n'B, hip-hop and house, spreading its wings -- but still maintaining that intrinsic sense of bass 'n' space that powered it from the off.

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Bruno Belluomini
Mar 1, 2011 1:19pm

Interesting article but I agree with Dana... It's GIANT! Nice reading anyway... Thank you guys...

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Angus
Mar 1, 2011 3:30pm

In reply to Rory Gibb:

Hi Rory,

fair point, I totally agree. I think the crowd that that scene (Joy O/Rama etc.) has tapped into bears better parallels with the way in which certain strains of house and techno have built a very large, broad but loyal audience without compromising their musical integrity (there are obviously stylistic overlaps between the two as well). It's still essentially an underground sound which is currently basking in the limelight, but no doubt that will change over time as attention spans wane, and something else will muscle in (and I say this as a huge fan of that music).

As for the dubstep breaking into the mainstream through the likes of magnetic man, this is a totally different model in terms of how the music is produced and consumed, and what is expected of it. It bears easier comparison with the career arc of, say Britney Spears, than it does with somebody like Carl Craig. And I think the idea of what "innovation" is in this sphere, what is considered "exciting and visceral", is very different. Personally I would always find more to interest me in the former camp, all about the peaktime slots at fabric and occasional flirtation with major labels via remixes and the like. But I can see how somebody like Joe has a different relationship to these two worlds - I think he's descibed himself as a "natural populariser" in the past.

I think that's fundamentally the disagreement here. Trying to cast it as "this area is more musically exciting/valid/innovative than the other" is risky and can lead to the kind of partisan debate which has totally destroyed dubstepforum in the past couple of years (not that I'm suggesting this very interesting and well informed exchange is even remotely close to stooping to that level).

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mr_x
Mar 1, 2011 8:03pm

In reply to Joe Muggs:

fair enough muggs, fair enough, you love this stuff so should be able to sing its praises all day if you feel it appropriate. its good you are not so cynical. plus, it prob wouldnt do you much good to do the opposite when you have to compile dubstep comps for ministry. so i understand.

back to nitpicking however, i do also find amusing when people refer to the 'funk' in dubstep. there was obv groove there, esp back in 2004-06 or so, and still i would argue in certain 'wobble' or brostep tracks too, more than a lot of the weak post-dubstep fare in any case, but dubstep has largely been incredibly 'white' for the most part, no doubt a big factor in whats endeared it to so many. a lot of the post dubstep stuff has basically removed the 'blacker' (hate to pull out the racial categories when talking about music but sometimes it has to be done) elements it had and replaced it with whiter shades of techno (or whatever), which is no doubt why it leaves me so cold (not that i dont like techno, i do, i just prefer it a little funkier). i mean its great dubstep is off on so many tangents (even if most of these tangents just seem like retreads of stuff already done before/perhaps better in other genres rather than anything all that fresh) but a lot of it just has no oomph to it.

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Tehcnina
Mar 8, 2011 8:03am

Mainstream generally means compromising and selling out to satisfy the pockets of the record labels. However since dubstep is so diverse and can still hold true to itself while being infused into almost every other genre; it's impossible to deny sharing with the world. Isn't that what music is all about?
This generation is riding the wave of a musical movement. I can only speak for myself but this generation is addicted to bass, big subs, lfo's and basically good vibrAtions! The digital Age and new technology, new tools (especially pro tools <3)>
Dubstep is absolutely of British origin which also makes me hella proud. Hope it helps bridge the gap and help open US charts to more UK artists.

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Graves
Mar 12, 2011 3:51pm

Fantastic discourse- well-addressed, covering myriad facets of the sound/scene and clearly a recourse between two minds with a superb musical pedigree. Top read (y)Thanks

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Mar 17, 2011 10:03pm

It has already lost its intrigue, it's a too limited genre. If you understand one piece, you understand them all....

Looking forward to dubstep remixes for the next 15+ years *atleast* urrgh

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Mar 17, 2011 10:10pm

In reply to Tehcnina:

"This generation is riding the wave of a musical movement."

It's not new though, just elements of older music.

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Mar 17, 2011 10:16pm

In reply to AC:

The people who invented this are atleast in their 50s. So shut the fuck up. Please.

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Joe Muggs
Mar 20, 2011 8:22am

In reply to mr_x:

Nice snide responses Mr_X; that is a particularly weak set of arguments, though. Regarding my position and opinions, anyone who actually reads my stuff knows I don't defend anything, even projects I'm involved with, for the sort of commercial reasons you're suggesting - so that lays out very clearly the level of straight-up bullshit you're talking. As for "funk" and "oomph", these are meaningless terms in the sense you're using them - they imply nothing more than your tastes... you are the epitomé of the classic hipster bore... "oh I preferred it in year ZZZZ when black people liked it yah" FUCK OFF.

Thanks.

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Dora
Mar 23, 2011 12:09am

In reply to Joe Muggs:

Surely though, it's all part of the kaleidoscopic British music scene. There is so much music around at the moment, good and bad. It's all about 'the filter' and how to apply that. What to listen to and check out. Places like Soundcloud are great for uncovering new interesting talent just for starters. 'Scenes' are way too bogged down in history these days. Referencing this and that. To be honest the good music is more than the sum of it's parts, taking influences from everything rather than the specifics and allying itself to a particular genre.
Genre's can end up being the woodworm in the wooden frame of music culture.

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Joshicks
Apr 12, 2011 1:48pm

Epic read guys. Can I just say how much ruskos completely switched to mainstream along with chase and status, them unknown: ultimate..

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