- Published on Wednesday, 07 December 2011 14:37
The life and death of a genre
”Yo kid, remember back in the day? The underground was truly the underground? People weren't trying to make hits. People were about it. No name dropping. It was just straight up underground club hopping.”
Abe Duque hit the spot back in 2004 in his funky acid classic What Happened. Culture is always moving, evolving. Life and evolution needs death and expiration.
I've never seen anything move as fast as dubstep though. Five years ago, it was an obscure genre. Just another branch off the ever changing UK scene. People weren't trying to make hits, people were about it.
I'm in no way an authority on this, but I will try to give perspective, based on my own experience.
Update: remember to also check out my follow-up article!
Dubstep DJ's were some of the most stubborn when it came co staying true to vinyl and even dubplates.
I remember playing a warm-up gig for N-Type in 2006. I felt a bit sorry for myself about having to haul all that vinyl around until he let me try out his bag filled with dubplates. Seriously, a record bag filled with metal.
It's ironic, since dubstep really was the first big internet genre, spreading like wildfire, through zeros and ones rather than the ones and twos.
Before I go on, let's listen to some pre-dubstep sounds to set the mood. Back then, we called this dark garage.
The dubstep virus wasn't about big record companies with divisions around the globe. Skream didn't “break America” like The Beatles, with a caferully planned strategy and tour put up by industry professionals.
Dubstep spread by itself. Through mixes, forums and YouTube. And as such, it spread so much faster than anything we've seen before. Racing from obscurity to the next big thing in every major city seemingly over night, developing local scenes and turning the South London originators into superstars.
Let's have a look at what that meant for the sound.
In the beginning, there was bass
Like many others, I got in to dubstep in 2006 after listening to Mary Anne Hobbb's legendary Dubstep Warz radio show, featuring DMZ, Skream, Kode 9 & The Spaceape and Loefah. In my mind, still probably the best two hours of dubstep ever showcased.
The UK garage scene had been in a bit of a rut.
2-step was long gone. Dizzee had crossed over to hiphop for American appeal and the rest of the grime scene was left behind to murda each other. Breakbeat garage was beginning to sound mass produced. There were a couple of shots at something new like rythm 'n' grime that never really caught on. Of course, there was Wiley, but that was it really.
Until dubstep. Suddenly it felt like everything that came before was failed experiments leading up to that grand formula.
Bass had been the leading element of all UK and Jamaican styles since dub. From 'ardcore through jungle and drum 'n' bass to grime.
Where dubstep stood out, though, was in the fact that it was just underground enough for the producers to make tracks really dedicated to giant sound systems. The tunes were meant to be heard in clubs like FWD, and not really many other places. Definitely not in computer speakers.
"You can't put man in a room with no subwoofer"
- Mala, Dubstep Warz
... and then, there was space
The other very new factor was the element of space.
The tracks just had less sounds; the beats weren't as cluttered. Every clap and snare cut through the mix like a slap in the face. Which in turn made the heavy sub bass so much more effective.
In its right element, dubstep was a physical thing. Going to a rave was about letting yourself feel the music. Not "feel the music" like gospel. Feel the music like bassline in ur nostril!
Space wasn't just about using less sounds. It was also about withholding that bone shattering bass, so it became so much more powerful. The concept of The Drop.
Loefah's Goat Stare is a great example of that less is more approach to bass.
"A huge love of obscene bass frequencies, of soundsystems, most of all of reggae and dub. The prime motivation is to move people's bodies, and also to stimulate their minds"
- The Bug, Dubstep Warz
Besides space and bass, there weren't many similarities between the different producers' sounds.
Kode 9 sounded nothing like Skream, who had a distinctly different sound than Vex'd. And there was Burial, who wasn't really dubstep, but just happened to release on Hyperdub around that time.
The fact that Burial was even pegged dubstep is just a testament the feeling back then that dubstep could be anything, that producers could do whatever they wanted, as long as it had that mysterious deep vibe.
Bass is the hardest frequency to work with. If you imagine music production as sculpting, bass is like working with water while higher frequencies are like clay or even stone.
A good way to get something musical and rhythmical out of bass is with a low frequency oscilator (LFO). An LFO basically gives an automatic pulse to an effect. Like a filter.
LFO plus bass equals wobble.
DMZ's Haunted is a great example of wobble being used as an effect - just another element in a really well structured track, where all the elements work perfectly together. And a great example of how nice wobble really is.
Wobble means trouble
In a trip to New York in 2009, I remember seeing local crew Trouble and Bass warm up for Skream and Benga at Le Poisson Rouge.
I must admit, I wasn't impressed. The sound was just to neat. Too much mainstream hip hop-style crowd pleasing. There was something off about it, something to neat to be that dark, uncompromising South London style I knew and loved.
A very real manifestation being the pre produced signs they held up with too frequent intervals. I remember one sign reading “Wobble means Trouble!”
They had no idea how right they were.
In the following years, the whole feeling that dubstep could be anything and everything was run over by that ever present and extremely effective wobble. Dubstep effectively became synonimous with wobbling bass.
Too much of a good thing ...
But it worked. Suddenly, dubstep was in vogue and bigger than I had ever imagined.
Some of the other UK genres had a couple of superstars. The Prodigy and Dizzee Rascal being prime examples. But this time, it was the genre, that was big. Grime had Dizzee. Dubstep had dubstep.
Skream and Benga were superstars. Pop artist got on the wagon. Mainstream DJ's started attaching the word to their names.
But that didn't ruin anything. Mainstream acceptance doesn't make good music any worse. The purists might disagree, but personally, I don't need to be part of an elite crowd to enjoy music.
So what happened?
Bad sound kills music
There was this great commercial a few years ago, where a music producer scolds the public for playing wonderful, fine crafted music “on lousy crap stereos”.
These days, the lousy crap stereos are mostly replaced by even lousier crappier laptop speakers.
What does that mean to music?
As I mentioned, the early dubstep was made for big sound systems. There was really no intention of the tracks being heard by the masses outside clubs like FWD.
Now take another listen to Goat Stare. What happens at 1.25? It's the drop!
Unless you're listening on your laptop, like I am right now. Then nothing happens at all.
So what do you do, when you have a genre creeping its way from absurdly huge club sound systems to horrible computer speakers? You make tracks that aren't bass dependent.
But it still has to sound like dubstep. So what do we do? Wobble the midrange.
Slowly but surely, we're moving in to something that sounds like dubstep, but basically has none of the elements that defined the genre to begin with.
No bass. No space. Just one big contest of who can make the most insane abstract “filth” out there. Which is all fine and dandy. It just isn't what I fell in love with at all.
So let's recap.
In 2006 we had a number of producers making this new sound with a focus on space and bass. Each producer had his own take on how to do it, but they were all making spacey, dark music for big big speakers.
With a little help from the internet, the genre grew because it was so unique. But in growing, it also evolved. The relaxed, dubby vibe got pushed aside to make way for more. More wobble, more sounds, more everything. Maximize to maximize.
Along came crappy speakers. Radios, laptops and white earbuds. No point in making bass sounds for something that can't play low frequencies. So we throw in a bunch of electronic "filth" sounds. Take the overtones of the wobble and make them the focus. Wobble noise. Wobble anything that can be heard on laptop speakers.
The result? Something that sounds like dubstep, except they took out all the good parts and replaced with crap. Fucking Skrillex.
Who killed dubstep?
Every musical genre has its time and place. There's a natural evolution. Eventually, all styles of art will become obsolete by the simple fact that the people making that style by definition are not progressive or forward thinking.
In typical rock 'n' roll fashion, dubstep lived hard and died young.
The virus spread wide and fast, mutating with unprecedented speed and disseminating itself on a global level. When its resources were starved, it started feeding on new sources, still growing and mutating, until in the end, the original strand of the virus was crowded out.
Time and popularity killed dubstep.
But it's ok. We'll always have the ancient memories of a future past. And good musicians will always make good music – whether it's dubstep, post-dubstep or something new.
They always find something new. And I'm really looking forward to hearing what that is.
This article has gotten more attention and started more discussions than I could ever have imagined. Had I known it would be running +50.000 hits instead of the 500 I'm used to, I probably would have tried to explain myself a bit more precisely.
I don't have time to break down my opinions or comment on all the discussion points right now. I'd just like to say I'll be back very soon with a follow-up article. With a little help from my friends, I'll try to show why dubstep is alive and interesting as ever.
The article concluded that they always find something new. Let's hear what that is!
Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting. There's a lot of crap discussion going on, but a lot more productive thoughts and opinions being posted. Debate is great.
I look forward to following the discussions, and posting the follow-up piece. Stay tuned!
Oh yeah. Regarding the title: Obviously, a genre can not die like humans or frogs die. That's just absurd. It's a metaphor, and all it's good for is grabbing your attention, so you read the points, arguments and opinions that constitute the actual article. That's what titles do!