BY Mike Powell in Culture Digest | 01 MAY 10
Featured in
Issue 131

Dubstep Round-Up

Recent releases demonstrate that dubstep is finally lightening up

BY Mike Powell in Culture Digest | 01 MAY 10


Martyn, Fabric 50, Fabric, 2010. Courtesy: Fabric, London.

In January and February, the London nightclub Fabric released two compilations on their in-house record label: a mix by the Dutch producer Martyn and an unmixed album by various artists called Elevator Music: Volume 1. (The title is a pun: ‘elevator music’ is a term for anonymous music engineered to soothe people in public places; Elevator Music is a record of aggressive dance music designed to elevate the pulse and limbs of people listening to it – a miserable soundtrack for actual elevators.)

Both compilations demonstrate what singles, podcasts and live sets by British – or, mostly British – DJs had been demonstrating for about a year: that dubstep – a variety of UK dance music known for stuttering rhythms, wobbly bass and an unshakeable bad mood ­– is lightening up. Good. In the absence of perfunctory gravitas, there’s weird, ziggy, colourful singles influenced by American Hip-hop, Soca, older strains of British dance music like Jungle and House – styles that Graham Best, former head of A&R synchronization for Fabric, said picky crowds often wrote off as ‘fluffy-bra, Saturday-night, high-street bullshit’. One of the most exciting producers currently making music under dubstep’s big tent is Jack Dunning, who goes by the name Untold. Where some dubstep producers use canned ambience and deep reverb as band-aids for lack of musical imagination, Dunning barely uses either – his tracks are dry, almost spartan, and his sound palette is intensely inorganic. Instead of a facsimile of a handclap, there’s a sound that only suggests a handclap, and on his best work – the ‘I Can’t Stop This Feeling’/‘Anaconda’ single and the Gonna Work Out Fine EP – the thunk of a kick drum is almost totally replaced by percussive bass. Vocalists whisper and gasp, but almost never get words out.

If sounds are, in a sense, metaphors – if flutes flutter and violins slide – then Dunning’s sounds correspond to gestures that only exist in cartoons or bodies that only exist in science fiction. But there’s a logic to his tracks that make them work, even if his language sounds alien. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, his raspberries taste like raspberries and his snozberries taste like snozberries.

Dunning runs a label called Hemlock Recordings. Last year, Hemlock introduced James Blake, a 21-year-old producer who has since released a single (‘Air and Lack Thereof’/‘Sparing the Horses’), a three-song EP (The Bells Sketch) and a reinterpretation of Untold’s ‘Stop What You’re Doing’. Despite a small catalogue, his style is already recognizable: a blaring, mid-tempo groove overlaid with gospel and soul harmonies – often his own voice – beaten up and warped by effects.

There are two tricks here, both complicated. One is that Blake – who grew up with piano lessons and Stevie Wonder records – is making au courant electronic music rooted in black American styles developed when computers were larger than cars. The other is that he manages to make records that are, unlike Untold’s, very musical in their sense of harmony and melody, but broken down and rearranged to a point that they sound avant-garde. Some people I know think he’s brilliant; others say they’ve never heard anything like it but would prefer to never hear it again. (I lean toward the former.)

Blake occasionally plays keyboards and sings with a duo called Mount Kimbie. Last year, the group released two four-song EPs, Maybes and Sketch on Glass – probably the sweetest music that could be classified as dubstep. Mount Kimbie’s basic approach is to reconcile the sly, flexible rhythms of commercial R&B with an ambient prettiness. My understanding is that a lot of the samples in their music are cut from homemade field recordings – random clicks and rattles, like silverware against the teeth, are arranged into busy, syncopated breaks. The finished product is a series of soft oppositions: non-musical sounds made musical; big club rhythms writ small; computer-based tracks with the wonderful imperfections of a hand-knitted sweater.

This post-dubstep diaspora lends itself to family trees: Hot Flush, the label that released Mount Kimbie’s EPs, has also released Untold’s music. Hot Flush’s founder, Scuba, recently mixed a compilation called Sub:stance, which also features Blake – remixing Mount Kimbie. Two tracks on Sub:stance are by co-founders of the Hessle Audio label, Ramadanman and Pangaea (whose recent self-titled EP is probably the best demonstration of the current moment’s breadth, if not depth). Pangaea has also released on Hemlock, and both Untold and James Blake have released on Hessle.

On the more club-oriented end of the spectrum – represented heavily on both Martyn’s Fabric mix and Elevator Music – are Dorian Concept, Starkey and Night Slugs (two DJ/producers, Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990, who run a label and club night). Starkey – a Philadelphia-based producer who calls his music ‘street bass’ – just released a full-length album entitled Ear Drums and Black Holes, which not only ties dubstep to American hip-hop, but grime, the aggressive style of British rap that never became the next big thing it was poised to in the early 2000s, but nevertheless left an impression on several current dubstep producers.

Ikonika, one of dubstep’s only female producers, released a full-length album (Contact, Love, Want, Have) in April – a super-melodic set of songs built on bright synth chords and video-game blips that uses dubstep rhythms more as a jumping-off point than a set of rules. Zomby, a producer forthcoming about his appreciation for weed but protective of his identity, has changed his sound on nearly every release: garbled, sped-up jungle on Where Were U in ’92? (which sounds like a stream of some unknown mid-90s radio station, with attendant DJ drops and sirens); the low-pulse ‘Digital Flora’/‘Digital Fauna’ single; and the more straightforwardly dubstep One Foot Ahead of the Other EP. Zomby is one of the few dubstep producers with a demonstrable sense of humour and my favourite Zomby moment is still Rustie’s late-2008 remix of ‘Spliff Dub’, a track whose sampled vocalist chirps about the spiritual benefits of keeping a pot regimen while the track stomps all over her like a parade of paranoid stoner thoughts.

(The aesthetic link to video games – present in both Ikonika and Zomby’s music, among others – is important: while some of these producers are nostalgic for older forms of dance music, many are young – and maybe introverted – enough to be nostalgic for rainy Saturdays spent droning in front of the TV, occasionally jolted by the feeling of solving a puzzle or beating a villain. Small triumphs.)

Keeping track of this music can be exhausting, especially given the format and nature of it – instead of an artist releasing one album every 15 months or so, they release a few every season. (One of the best places to listen to this music online is called Electronic Explorations, a site that hosts mixed podcasts by a variety of producers, and reached their 100th show in February.) But the variety is good for the music and invigorating as a listener. I think part of the reason dubstep has mutated so much over the past couple of years is that it spent the previous couple of years becoming narrower and better defined. Without a theme, there’s no such thing as variation. Dubstep is something pop singers can now dabble in on remixes. There are videos of suburban kids dancing to it on YouTube. The Unsound festival, a week of electronic-music events that took place in New York in early February, was capped with a night that was almost entirely dubstep, and the dancefloor was full. A few weeks ago, I met a promoter visiting from London. When I asked him what he listened to, he said ‘well, I love dubstep’ – but he didn’t know anyone I’ve mentioned here. Dubstep, a genre that most people still probably have no clue as to how to define, now has its own underground.

While checking in at Heathrow last summer, a passport officer stopped Untold and asked him why he’d made such a short trip abroad. ‘DJing’, he said. When asked what kind of music he played, he said, ‘I don’t know anymore’ – an admission that probably came more out of pride than exasperation.

Mike Powell lives in Brooklyn, USA, where he writes about music for and The Village Voice.