Twisted around weird hills, bony trees, tall grey streets and pale Georgian houses, Bristol is a weird place. At a glance, it's London without the inconvenience. A village with two shopping malls. Yet its identity away from the capital, connected but away from it all, has allowed it to foster a completely distinct musical identity. The insular nature of the place, which isn't meant to to sound negative, has in fact led to an incubation of ideas and ideals. Sounds and sensibilities with their roots in the days of sound systems and St Pauls Carnival, have survived, mutating and evolving, but principally strongly loyal to a city built on bass.
We recently spoke to Rob Ellis (Pinch) about the milestone ten years his label Tectonic is marking this year. Part of the conversation naturally turned to the evolution of dubstep, a genre that rose from dub, 2-step, and jungle amongst other sounds. The movement had parallel strands in both London and Bristol, with labels like Tectonic, along with DMZ and Hotflush, bringing about bold new shades of bass to the British underground. That being said, any conversation about the legacy of dubstep will naturally turn to what it became synonymous with in the latter part of the 10s: turbo-charged, heavy-metal-flavoured brostep. The mid-range robotics that the likes of Skrillex came through with has left dubstep — and bass music more broadly — with a confused reputation. On this subject, Ellis was pretty relaxed, stating the rising popularity and eventual monotony of dubstep simply inspired him to "pursue a more purist angle: sub heavy, strange/unusual percussion, cinematic sounds". While the mainstream world struggled to come to terms with the gargantuan monster dubstep was becoming, Tectonic put their heads down and continued to do what they did best.
This is evident in their output. Be it releases from Pinch himself, or other key artists like Jack Sparrow or dub legend The Scientist, the sounds are, for lack of a better word, mature. The subs are restrained and loaded with tension, the percussive strokes are textured and varied applying as much importance on the reverberations of environmental rattles as the pounding kicks. It was over this period that Tectonic's output became increasingly hyrbidised, meeting shades of techno and house. A perfect example of this would be a cut like Addison Groove's "This Is It", bass-led but sonically leaning on house as much as it is dub. We might like to consider dubstep as a stagnated genre, but it was growing the whole time into newer, weirder shapes.
This attitude is pretty reflective of Bristol, and also points flaws in how keen the music press can be to apply narratives to genres. If anything Bristol, and its low-frequency cottage industry, is proof that ideas of bass-led music succumbing totally to commercial tear-out wobbles are pretty misplaced. Rather, while we were paying attention to the likes of Rusko, the bedroom producers and basements of Bristol were blissfully ignorant, continuing to innovate and stretch themselves and their sounds.
Bristol has, since 2011 or so, seen a blossoming interest and productivity in these odd corners. Peverlist's label Livity Sound is an excellent example of an imprint, less than five years old, already making sizeable waves with a core set of artists; recurrent releases from Peverelist himself, Kowton, and Asusu, have allowed Livity to closely focus on its identity. Possibly afforded breathing space by a general consensus condemning bass music to a tacky Americanised grave, the label was able to arrive already diversified, releasing garage inflected house on one record, to techno-led bass on another. With the arrival of decidedly harsher sister label Dnuos Ytivil in 2012, the family has the strength and energy to continue to press the boundaries of their influences into further and increasingly dynamic reaches.
This dynamism is totally present on Hodge's first, and to date only, release on Dnuos Ytivil. The Amor Fati/Renegades release from 2014 is a perfect instance of the strange sub-level techno we are now expecting from this new breed of labels. Bursting with the sinister mood of early dubstep, there is now a tribal energy trickled into the mix. The work of Bristolian producer Hodge is largely emblematic of what the city is providing. The sound systems of St Pauls, passed down through generations into a network of hands prepared to pull it into as many different directions as possible. Hodge possibly marks the most audibly effervescent end of this spectrum, drawing parallels with the output of Night Slugs, but it still lands firmly on Bristol's map as a product of incubated influences coming to light in strange and brilliant ways.
The representations of this could go on. Kahn and Neek's Bandulu records, an imprint that effortlessly blends bass weight and grime. You only need to listen to their most recent release on the label, "Got My Ting", to hear how dubstep, 2-step, and grime have are colliding — and rather than confusing eachother, are iin fact nforming something completely fresh. Equally Kahn's involvement on the recent Volume 1, with Commodant and Gantz (released on Deep Medi) proves the collaborative potential of Bristol's spirit pushing out with producers across the country. Of course, these sounds aren't exclusive to Bristol. There are huge names, and massive records, coming from all over the place forming part of this new, no-fixed-destination bass movement, yet the city's heritage combined with its familial tendencies have made it the perfect breeding ground.
With the support the artists are giving each other, the continuing presence of institutions like Idle Hands – yes the Idle Hands that had those Loefah 12"s last year — it is easy to see how the city provides such a perfect canvas. As Kahn pointed out in a recent interview with Fact, Bristol is also one of the few cities where a D&B night can still sell out to 2,500 people at a venue the size of Motion. Perhaps without the pretentious concern of trends, or more likely thanks to its legacy of proudly defying whatever London, or the rest of the world, feels like doing, it has been in a prime position to continue innovate while the rest of us were too busy declaring dubstep dead, or jungle lost.
Interestingly, we also asked Rob Ellis how big a part being based in Bristol played in Tectonic's history. We were fully expecting the response to wax lyrical about the city and just how important it is to dubstep, and bass music. However, his actual response was to say that really, the wasn't the priority. Tectonic's music had lived in Bristol, but also far beyond it, communicating with London and dubstep producers nationwide. In a way though, that's all the more resonant. It isn't a clique. It's a community.