The history of dubstep is littered with highs, lows, drops, wobbles, and rumbling lines of every shape and quality. Yet when we step away and consider the genre, it is all too easy to get distracted by the huge scale, and mainstream permeations, that came to define the movements face in the public eye. It is all to easy to forget, in effect, how it began — dark, deliberate, and devastatingly new.
One potent reminder of the genres original sting, is the 2005 release from Pinch and P Dutty, "War Dub/Alien Tongue". "War Dub" is a march; bold, demanding bass, fluctuating and warbling ominously in and out. "Alien Tongue" on the other hand squirms about, under clattered percussions, a lilting tabla moving over spitting, toxic synth stabs. Crucially both tracks share dubstep's distinct early personality. Living in the shadows, somehow enveloping and threatening all at once. Both tracks also constitute the first release on Tectonic Records.
Rob Ellis, better known of course as Pinch, founded established the label with this release in 2005, and alongside the likes of DMZ, Tempa, and HotFlush, it went on to become one of the defining guiding forces in pushing this new, bass-laden sound up from the streets and out into the world. Working from Bristol, the label went on to issue releases from the likes of Skream, Benga, Peverelist, Loefah, and more recently Mumdance. 2015 marks the labels tenth year, and a glance back through their accumulated releases truly showcases a massive contribution not only to dubstep, but the multitude of places the genre could go when pushed.
With this landmark in mind, we caught up with Rob, to ask him some questions about the label's past — and where it goes from here.
THUMP: Hey Rob, so ten years is a massive moment — when you started Tectonic did you think it would become as established as it is now?
Rob Ellis (Pinch): Of course not! In fact, I can remember thinking at the time of setting up the label, when trying to work out the format for the catalogue numbers — do we really need a 3 digit catalogue number (i.e. TEC000), or would 2 do (TEC00)? I didn't think there was much chance Tectonic would put out 100+ releases! Luckily, decided to go with the more optimistic option so we can go past the 99 mark! Hopefully that's a label land mark that we'll reach later on next year.
Tectonic was a driving force in establishing dubstep from the start. Was there a feeling with those early releases that you were part of something bigger?
Always. I felt part of a very special community from the very beginning - welcomed into what was an otherwise entirely London-centric scene at the time. I helped get things going in Bristol with my Context and Subloaded nights - and having Tectonic as an output for releases only contributed towards establishing Bristol as a second home to the sound and building a solid bridge between London and Bristol. There was a clear sense of collective goals, driven by a shared love of the music.
Yet dubstep has changed a lot since then, people have fallen in and out of love with it. Have you ever let stuff like that affect Tectonic?
How could you not let that affect you?! I suppose the real question is, how does it affect you? Or how do you let it affect you? My response to the rising popularity of dubstep, and the simultaneous monotonising of beat patterns in dubstep productions was to pursue a more purist angle: sub heavy, strange/unusual percussion, cinematic sounds. Even if you don't choose to follow the same path that others might steer themselves down (e.g. putting out tear-out wobble tunes for the sake of it), these things can affect you by driving you in the opposite direction. It still means changes in what is or isn't popular can affect the sonic of a label output. I stopped making much, if any 140bpm/dubstep stuff around 2010 for a while, not really picking that up again until working with Adrian Sherwood on our joint project. In some ways, it would be easier to have just stuck with that one thing and kept Tectonic as a strictly dubstep imprint. But then, where's the challenge in that?
So if Tectonic isn't "strictly dubstep", how much are your prepared to stretch the definitions of the genre?
Well, it very much started as a purist dubstep label and that was, in itself, the driving conception behind the musical output. As dubstep became more and more popular the favoured sonic changed, becoming increasingly predictable and eventually turning into a slightly laughable caricature of itself. In response, I focussed on releasing more rhythmically varied dubstep, often with a techno influence and, in my mind at least, more true to the original, pre turbo-wobble period. I also hope people will continue to see the label as a progressive force, not just something representative of a dated era. The journey continues onwards!
How has the process of putting out records changed over the past ten years?
It's changed loads. Tectonic started just before digital started getting big and that has been a huge game-changer. The catalogue was available digitally from fairly early on but I didn't see it as being as important as the vinyl or even CD sales. We used to sell a significant number of CDs on a decent artist album and now I'd say that's typically more like 1/4 to 1/5th of those sales figures. Vinyl sales have possibly halved, maybe slightly less than that even. While digital sales have climbed considerably over that time, but they don't quite compensate for the overall drop in CD and vinyl numbers. I think this is mostly because the younger generations aren't really in tune with the idea that music is something you should buy. They think it's not really stealing if you download a track because you aren't taking something physical - you are just copying a digital source. I don't blame them either. If I was young and making choices about how to spend limited funds, I'd probably get my music for free where I could and spend cash on other things.
Looking forward, it feels like an exciting time for labels like Tectonic. Bass-led music of all forms seems to be in rude health.
I feel more positive about new music and what's happening currently than I have done for years. Lots of exciting new producers and crazy rhythms and sonics are coming together at the moment. In many ways it reminds me of the looming excitement of those very early dubstep years, back when the label started! The power of dubstep came initially (as Loefah once explained in an interview), by appealing to all sorts of fringe scenes that had got boring in their own right at the time. Techno, hip hop, dub and roots, garage, grime, and D&B heads could all hear similarities in the sonic pallet. I hear this again now in so many new producers — it's the same sort of ingredients and conditions that got dubstep started and that makes me feel positive and excited for the future!
When you put it like that, so are we! Ok, final thing, if you had to sum up ten years of Tectonic in 5 records which would they be?
I wouldn't want to really as I treasure it all, but since you asked so nicely…
Loefah & Skream "28g"
The only time these two have come together and the result is stark and dangerous!
Cyrus "Indian Stomp"
Lose yourself in the rhythm and the intimate vocal samples, one of the best by a much overlooked dubstep originator.
2562 "Channel Two"
The tune that got the awful "dubstep-techno crossover" tag started - but a classic track from Tectonic stalwart.
Scientist VS Kode 9 & The Spaceape "Abeng Dub"
One of my favourite mixes from the Scientist album, putting dubstep back into the hands of one of the original dub legends.
Mumdance & Logos "Legion"
Such a dope tune! A landmark track that cements the moods and sonics of Tectonic's former years into a new groove space.