Dubstep 101 (NSFW)

The below errs a little too far on the personal, I feel, but is a pretty good exploration of the evolution of the genre nevertheless.

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I wouldn’t actually take issue with any of it as such … it just makes a few too many declarations about how everyone experienced it for my liking, even though I would largely agree with many (if not most) of them myself. Be autobiographical by all means, but don’t blur the lines between the personal and the universal — it’s all well and good analysing the effect of the 2007 smoking ban on the overground club scene, but it had far less on the underground scene … where, by definition, people aren’t playing by the rules … so, it’s a conceited point of view: that narrow experience being presented as the alpha and omega of the matter.

Fair enough, in analysing what happened to the scene (and, as a result, the music), it’s legitimate to consider the fact that producers want to sell their music and promoters their nights. So, many of them will tailor their sound to what will maximise the return on their efforts and, if a societal change (such as the smoking ban) means club DJs change their sets, then they will change their sound in order to ensure their music and nights remain popular with the largest possible demographic … and, consequently, that will feed back into the underground too as each wave of newcomers walks through the door with new expectations.

But it’s a mistake to attribute too much to that. The underground is where you go when you want to hear what’s going to be the next big thing aboveground before the inevitable sanitisation and watering down. The mainstream hears the word ‘Dubstep’ and thinks of Skrillex, but Skrillex isn’t even Tearout, never mind Dubstep, it’s Brostep./’EDM’. You go underground and it does not sound like what you’re used to hearing in the clubs, because it isn’t subject to the same cultural norms; newcomers may have their expectations as they enter the underground … and, depending on the promoter(s), some of them may be catered to up to a point … but it’s a learning experience for them as well as a product they are purchasing; their expectations will be radically changed as a result — apart from the occasional mistaken foray by the timid who took a wrong turn and were scared and scarred by the experience, few who go underground waste their time aboveground afterwards … it’’s just too tame, too MoR.

Moreover, it’s a mistake to attribute insight into anything you read/watch in/on Vice. It’s demographic is middle-class students … people who go on to become respectable professionals, buy DJ Magazine/MixMag and regale their work colleagues with tales of the time they were risqué and went to <gasp> The Fridge … and it is, inevitably, always behind the times, playing catchup with things that have long since moved on from where it’s looking for them ¹.

Tearout, perhaps inevitably, became my ‘thing’ as a DJ.

It’s not that I didn’t like what had gone before; don’t get me wrong, there are spots in my heart for a lot of the deeper, more spacious, almost slower moving, sound … and for Chillstep … both of which I have played a lot of … but there’s a reason why my preferred genre of Progressive Psy isn’t floaty-wafty ethereal nonsense but the dirty, sleazy Zenonesque sound … and why my preferred Breaks and Breakbeat aren’t the Happy Hardcore version so beloved of ADHD sufferers, but dark enough to slit your wrists to.

But my love of Twilight Psy, Neurofunk and Jump Up D ’n’ B, and aggressively dirty-sleazy Electro pretty much guaranteed I was going to be excited by, rather than simply appreciative of, Tearout (and even some early Brostep).

However, I just couldn’t get on board with the post Skrillex sound any more than I could with Darkpsy/Forest Psy/Hi-Tek — something I expressed in some pix about (of all things) the phenomenon of ‘speed dating’:

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It was (is) adolescent: posing and posturing, too much testosterone and not enough men … unable to understand that the reason women didn’t sleep with it more than once wasn’t because they were ‘bitches’ but because it was crap in bed.

And look, Skrillex isn’t even Brostep, it’s EDM … and EDM isn’t even a real thing, ffs!

Brostep and EDM: Tearout Dubstep for adolescents and incels.

But there’s no actual reason why it has to have its balls cut off and, whilst the guy’s discussion of the Tearout basslines is technically correct, if you think about the midrange as a lead sound rather than a bassline (just one that happens to derive from the bassline), you have a different perspective on things: create your ‘bass’ … EQ the bass out of it, leaving the mid … replace the missing low end with a new bass … and Bob’s your auntie’s live-in lover: you have a Tearout track with booming oldskool guts (something that will blow people away with the bass when they go to a party but can still hear on crappy phone or laptop speakers in the interim).

So, I’m not 100% onboard with his analysis there: from a pedagogic perspective, I appreciate the strict differentiation along the lines he draws it, but Dubstep was (is) a wilful creature that defied the norms and can’t be so easily corralled ². Book me to play and what I’ll deliver will vary with the night, what went before me and who’s slated to follow me on the lineup, my own mood, whether I’ve recently bought any new tracks I’m itching to try out, how the ’floor reacts … and how long my set is. Give me an hour and I’ll deliver a tight set that ramps up the energy appropriately between the styles played by the Djs on either side of me … make it two or more hours and the journey will be more scenic (Chillstep, Dubstep), if I’m playing earlier in the lineup, tending more extreme (Dubstep, Tearout) if later in the night. Make it three hours or more, late on the lineup, and I’ll end on 170+ bpm Jump Up/Neurofunk. And that’s how the other DJs and acts I’ve played alongside have behaved too. It isn’t a race to be won but a journey upon which they are taking the ’floor … and that journey will take people across a variety of landscapes, present them with a range of vistas seen from varied perspectives.

So, no, the nights aren’t all unrelenting tearout from start to finish in order to keep people’s attention — the underground scene actively demands more than that … it has refined taste and wants music for the mind and soul as well as the body. Brostep may have killed the Dusbtep scene in the clubs … but I haven’t once heard anyone play Skrillex at any of the events I’ve been to or played at.

The music on the party scenes goes through a ten year cycle in my experience, Around year ’x7 in a decade, a new sound starts emerging from the darkest recesses and people start to take notice. By ’x8, it’s starting to establish itself. The peak comes between ’y0 and ’y2 … and ’y2 is the high water mark, after which it’s followed by something I absolutely loathe whilst the latecomers try to eke it out to no avail.

So, of course Tearout started to peak in 2010 and Dubstep reached it’s limit in 2012.

But it was the same across all the genres I played in and all the events I played at.

From 2008 to 2013, I averaged two bookings a week, every week, every month of the year. I played Chillout, Dub, Chillstep, Dubstep, Drumstep, D’n’B, Progressive Psytrance, Twilight Psytrance, Breaks and Breakbeat, Electro, Elctro Swing, Progressive House, Minimal Techno, Hard Techno … it was an exciting time to play all of them, with new directions emerging all the time.

By 2013, however, I was bored with all of them. Nothing new was happening. There were no new directions to take, no new sounds to follow … and the parties were just poor imitations of what they had been with the newcomers getting excited by mediocre offerings because they weren’t experienced enough to know they had missed the boat and the tide was receding.

2018 started out promisingly. 2019 followed the usual trajectory …

And then Covid happened.

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What will happen next is anybody’s guess. The start and end years may change, they may not — it might take a while for things to settle down into a groove again.

But, whatever happens, I assure you that the same pattern will emerge: a (give or take) four year cycle, during which the music you love will keep getting better and better until it peaks and crashes as it always does and you have to wait (roughly) another five years to find out what it transforms into.

It will happen underground.

As a historic analysis of the antecedents of a cultural phenomenon from its start to the first high water mark, that video is very good.

But Dubstep isn’t dead.

It’s a mistake to attribute mainstream cultural influence to a thing that was born of a subculture. Get out of the clubs and bars and go to the squats and raves, if you want to hear what happened to Dubstep — that’s where it was born and that’s where it still lives.


¹ It’s all so Nathan Barley.

If you want an insight into how clueless Vice is about the subcultures it reports on, watch this (assuming you can bear to) and facepalm your way through it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3t3YnVgY9k

² Just you wait until you hear a filthed-up version of Vera Lynn’s (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover — it’ll be an education in how everything not only is Dubstep but always was (we just hadn’t realised it).

There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die.