Can Dubstep’s Legacy Be Rescued from the Fart Chamber of History?
Looking back at three seminal compilations, it's possible to imagine a world where the genre stuck to its roots and avoided the bros.
El publico en el Fabric en 2009 / Foto: PYMCA/UIG vía Getty Images
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
The moment everybody probably should have realised dubstep was totally fucked came in 2007, when Caspa and Rusko's Fabriclive mix dropped. Rather than incorporating a bit of wobbly sub-bass here and there to introduce a sense of slight sense of unease and keep the listener on their toes, Caspa and Rusko's mix was the equivalent of having two dudes stand on each side of your ears and scream "WOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW" for an hour and ten minutes. The mix was so visceral, novel, and direct that even someone who'd never listened to electronic music before could get sucked in. With that, the dubstep drop was weaponised, a cliché to be deployed by artists of all stripes who wanted to get their listeners fucking hype as shit. Britney Spears made a dubstep song. So did Rihanna, and also Korn (though, sadly, not at the same time). Skrillex happened. Dubstep tropes almost instantly oversaturated popular music, setting the genre on a course to suckitude from which its public esteem may never recover.
I'm glossing over large swaths of history here, of course, but then again, that was the unintended consequence of Caspa and Rusko's Fabriclive mix itself – flipping the script, interrupting continuity and changing the course of a genre in the process. Just as 2-Tone ska was a punky and distinctly British offshoot of Jamaican ska, dubstep began with British dance producers making dubs of two-step garage songs in an attempt to emulate the Jamaican recording engineers who, on the B-sides of reggae singles, would use original tracks as the source material for experimental flights of fancy, tuning down vocals and emphasising the rhythm section while introducing ghostly effects and squelches to the affair. And given that guys like King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and later on Scientist turned that practice into its own distinct art form, it was only natural that dubstep, too, would soon take on a life of its own in the 2000s, as producers such as Skream, Benga, and Pinch exploring dance music's capacity to thrive off negative space. These digital dubs paved the way for guys like Burial, who incorporated wistful R&B samples into his productions, and Joker, who grafted G-funk keyboards onto dubstep's nervy template.
But by 2011, it seemed like dubstep had passed the point of no return. I remember going to a festival around that time and seeing Skream and Benga, frequent collaborators and two of the pioneers of the form, performing a set that was more Skrillex than soundclash (perhaps not uncoincidentally, Skrillex played twice that weekend, drawing crowds that dwarfed pretty much every other act). It was around this time that a trio of compilations appeared that, in retrospect, can be seen as an attempt to wrest dubstep from the bros and reassert the style's underground status while stressing its fealty to its Jamaican roots.
Perhaps the most direct of these compilations is Greensleeves Dubstep Chapter 1, from the British dancehall label called, uh, Greensleeves. The collection found dubstep heavyweights such as The Bug, Kromestar, and Digital Mystikz – who has four credits on the album – remixing tracks by dancehall dons Mavado, Gyptian, and Vybz Kartel, as well as originators like Yellowman and Barrington Levy. Greensleeves Dubstep Chapter 1 makes clear the continuity between Jamaican dub and dancehall and British dubstep and grime, the British hip-hop style which developed parallel to dubstep and whose artists frequently collaborated.
The Bug's rework of Ding Dong's "Badman Forward Pull Up" is more or less a straight grime anthem, and it features a guest verse from Roll Deep's Flow Dan to hammer the point home. While the record features its fair share of unsubtle and cavernous drops – there are points of Kromestar's redux of Barrington Levy's "Here I Come" and L.D.'s take on Gyptian's "Nah Let Go" that threaten to rattle your teeth – the wubs feel at home here, recontextualised as hyper-futuristic rocksteady rhythms for skanking on the moon.
For a less straightforward approach to the sound, there's Scientist Launches Dubstep Into Outer Space, in which Scientist (i.e., the guy I mentioned in the above paragraph) dubbed out 12 original contributions from heavy hitters like Guido, Kode9, and Shackleton. Listening to the album is an intensely physical experience. First off, the tracks are intergalactically spacey, and the bass tying everything together is so ponderous that you can feel it even on a pair of tinny laptop speakers. Meanwhile, there's a vinyl edition of the record, which includes the original mixes as well as Scientist's dubs and comes on a seemingly endless number of discs.
Some albums demand your attention strictly through their music, and while Scientist Launches Dubstep Into Outer Space certainly does that, listening to the album in physical form encourages actual engagement with your record player. Some sides run at 45 rpm, others at 33, and many sides only have a couple songs on them. You're constantly switching discs out and changing your player's speed, and by the end of the experience, it's as if the distances between the grooves themselves aren't merely the source of the sounds but are actively creating them. (It goes without saying that it's best to listen to Scientist Launches Dubstep Into Outer Space after having smoked a lot of weed – unless you're a teen, in which case please do not smoke weed, and definitely do not tell your parents that a Noisey article encouraged you to smoke weed.)
Tectonic Recordings, the label that released the Scientist compilation, is based in Bristol, which brings us to our next stop on our tour of non-shitty dubstep, Punch Drunk's Worth the Weight: Bristol Dubstep Classics. There's a lot of overlap between the two records – both feature contributions from Guido, RSD, and Tectonic label boss Pinch – but where Scientist Launches Dubstep into Outer Space focused on making clear the connections between Jamaican dub and dubstep proper, the tracks highlighted on Worth the Weight offer an electronic music counter-narrative to the particular type of bro-ass dubstep that had taken hold in pop music.
Peverelist's "The Grind" is a paranoid dub-techno anthem, while Bad Apple's "Komonazmuk" feels like a jungle track that was found by a submarine at the bottom of the ocean. My favorite track on the record is probably Forsaken's "Hypnotised," which centred around a sample from Tweet's "Oops (Oh My)," transforming it into a languid drum 'n' bass dirge (or, at least as much of a languid dirge as a drum 'n' bass track can be).
Many of the tracks on the album are testaments to the genre's origins, productions that begin with pre-existing dance templates and take them on stranger, decidedly stoned flights of fancy. The record ends with Joker's "Stuck in the System" and Hyetal's "Pixel Rainbow Sequence," two songs that suggest an alternate timeline of the genre that never came to pass. "Stuck in the System" features stop-start orchestral samples with all the grandiosity of a Heatmakerz production, while "Pixel Rainbow Sequence" counterbalances pixelated keyboard arpeggios with a roving bassline that seems to possess a mind of its own. The tracks are as aggressive and hyper as anything brostep had ever produced, but they retain a trippy, experimental edge that honors the spirit of dub itself.
It is 2017 now, and the brostep that once plagued the genre is now dead as hell. The wobble-added interlopers quickly moved on to EDM-trap, while the genre's flagship artist Skrillex is now producing tropical house songs for Justin Bieber. With the hindsight offered by history, these compilations show us what this genuinely forward-thinking genre was going for the entire time. Now that the douchey cultural baggage of the genre is no more, we have the opportunity to rewrite history so that skronky festival dubstep never happened. The best thing about time is its power to change context, and the best thing about language is its power to create puns, so with that in mind, it's time to take the great dubs of the past and step into the future.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.