Basslines, Basements and Smoking Inside: Photos from the Dawn of Dubstep

Photographer Georgina Cook was there for the genesis of south London's biggest musical export.
Skepta at FWD>>. All photos: Ge.

Not many of us are there to witness the birth of an entirely new genre of music, making Georgina Cook one of the lucky ones. Immersed in dubstep from day one, she documented the scene that burst out of south London in the early-2000s, sharing photos in zines and blog posts.

The VICE Oral History of Dubstep

Whether it was the community at Croydon’s infamous Apple Records, religiously attending nights at Plastic People, high-octane sessions on pirate radio or driving to the top of the hill in Norwood to pick up Rinse FM – another early dubstep champion – this was a scene powered by people’s passion for something totally new, and Cook got it all on camera. 


Her up-coming book, Drumz of The South: The Dubstep Years 2004-2007, features over 150 photographs chronicling the excitement and energy of the movement, and the south London community that birthed it. I caught up with Cook as she crowdfunds the printing costs. 



VICE: Do you remember the first time you heard dubstep?
Georgina Cook: I first heard dubstep in my friend Mala’s car, outside Croydon’s Black Sheep bar. He played me a track called “B” that he’d made, and I just loved it straight away. It’s got this really gnarly baseline. You obviously get that in jungle and garage, but early dubstep was much slower than drum ‘n’ bass, and a bit faster than garage, and had a lot more space than those genres. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before, but at the same time sounded quite familiar, because it’s from that same family of music: drum ‘n’ bass, garage and dub as well.

The first night I went to was FWD>> at Plastic People, and that was where I first got to experience the sound in the way it should be: in a dark room, with a big sound system. I’ll never forget going for the first time. It was in a basement, and the further down you went, the bass got heavier and deeper.


It becomes a full body experience – you feel bits of your body vibrate: your nose, your chest plate, your ears. It probably would’ve been Youngsta playing. He had quite a dark, cold taste in tunes. He only liked a select few artists – like Loefah, D1 – and they had this darkness to them a lot of the time. His sets were really sensual in a way. I can’t quite describe them. 


The dance floor at DMZ.


The dance floor at DMZ.

Can you describe the scene around the sound?
The south London scene around early dubstep was very tight knit. There was a record shop called Apple Records in central Croydon that was a big hub for all the DJs and producers involved in the sound. Artwork, who’s a brilliant producer and DJ – Apple was basically him and a guy called John, and Hatcha used to work there. 

A lot of DJs and producers lived in the same area around Norwood, where I lived – the top of South Norwood Hill, then some towards Thornton Heath, Selhurst, Crystal Palace, all the way to Croydon and even into Surrey ends. I think there was a lot of popping round to each other’s houses to make music together and listen to tracks. Everyone would go to FWD>> every week. One person would drive and go via the bagel shop on the way home. Not the Brick Lane one, the one on Walworth Road.

And there was the hype around DMZ when it was announced they were putting on an all-nighter, the first one in 2005, then that happened every two months. You had Rinse FM too – Kode9 played there. It was hard to get good reception for Rinse in certain parts of Norwood, so it’d be a case of driving up to the top of the hill to listen to it.


Digital Mystikz.

Why did you start documenting the scene?
When I heard that track by Mala, I decided there and then that I was going to get involved with what was going on. There was just no question. It was such a powerful sound. 

And because I’d already been involved with music [photographing underground punk rock bands as a teenager] and used to look at pictures of the early jungle scene and garage, as a photographer there was this thing: ‘God, I wish I’d been there at the beginning.’

Man, I was in the right place at the right time!


What was it about south London that bred dubstep, do you think?
It must have something to do with the demographics and how south London has such a rich history of West Indian and Caribbean culture and sound system culture. It's just in the air, you know? Or it used to be. 

You grow up in that area, cars go past with big, bassy sound systems playing dub, reggae, garage, drum ‘n’ bass...

I think there was a link between the environment and the music, and I've always tried to put that across in my photos. I’ve always taken pictures of the environment as well as people and experiences I was having. 



Why did you choose now to publish the book?
I’ve been thinking about and working on this book for more than ten years. The photos have been plastered over various studio walls that I've had, but I’ve never really given it enough focus. But as I turned 40 this year, I was like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ It feels so important because I had that privileged perspective. At that time – I’m talking about the very early years – there were very few photographers documenting what was going on. 

I don’t want to keep these photos to myself. They’ve been seen in various publications and are in documentaries, and I did an installation at Tate a few years ago, but they’ve never been seen cohesively in this way before. So, I want to share them. I want that original community to enjoy them and to really cherish it. We do anyway – we know how amazing it was – but to have this thing that they can have forever, just to say: “Here you go, this is what we did. How incredible it was. Here's a book about it.” 

This interview has been edited for length.