Dubstep 101: A U.S. Primer
Alongside Skrillex's rise, dubstep has become pop music's buzziest new word. But figuring out what the hell it means is another story altogether.
“Who gon stop me,” from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, begins with an orbiting, distorted vocal sample, then explodes into a rush of quaking bottom-end and pulsating, chunky mid-range. These are the blatant hallmarks of dubstep, the floor-shaking, multifaceted electronic music that began on South London pirate radio nearly a decade ago and now peppers U.S. pop radio. If you’re looking for a bellwether moment to signal this genre’s American takeover, you could do worse.
“Who Gon Stop Me” won’t break dubstep, though, because dubstep, depending on your perspective, already has arrived broken, dead, or unrecognizable. Similarly, recent dubstep-inflected pop tracks by Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, and Korn are mile markers, not destinations. This is, in part, because American audiences and artists are caught in a geographical divide that has fractured the genre’s identity.
“The stuff that’s popular in America is different than the London dubstep sound,” explains Drew Best, cofounder of Los Angeles-based Smog, one of America’s first dubstep parties. “The scene in America is massive. It’s way bigger than it is in the U.K.” This massiveness is a tribute to the music’s power, but also to the support of Best, along with scene starters like New York’s Dave Q and Joe Nice, and the Bay Area’s Nick Argon and Bassnectar.
Dubstep may be the closest British analog to American hip-hop (though drum and bass and grime traditionally have played that role), with its sonic upheaval, aggressive posturing, and intense debate about the music’s origins and true nature. Roughly, dubstep began as a reaction to U.K. garage music, itself an innovative, underground club movement that had been polished to a pop sheen. Artists such as Horsepower Productions, El-B, and Digital Mystikz slowed the sound way down while looking to dub reggae’s dystopian worldview for inspiration. Influential DJs (the BBC’s John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs) and stations (Rinse FM) spread the sound to a wider audience.
By the time dubstep crested in the U.K. in 2006, it was already rebelling against itself. Spare, moody subwoofer odysseys by Burial, Kode9, and Shackleton gave way to artists such as Skream, Caspa, and Rusko, who produced booming, disorienting tracks stuffed with jagged keyboard riffs. The music was still slow, but also intense and active, and more appealing to American teenagers raised on rock radio. It’s a sound that Caspa calls “noisy, mid-range-tearing-through-the-system dubstep. Americans like it pretty hard.”
For producers, this iteration of dubstep was fresh and exciting, but it was also convenient — tempos and textures aligned nicely with current rap tracks, particularly from the South, which blasted blocky synth melodies that seemed to split the difference between metal and techno. “Wobble,” as it came to be known for its oscillating bass, could rattle ribs in dingy clubs, festival tents, or on the radio.
“If you listen to the metal, aggro stuff, you don’t need a good sound system to impact people,” says Starkey, one of the first American producers to incorporate the sound.
Club nights began bubbling up: Smog in Los Angeles and Dub War in New York. Britney took her first stab at the genre back in 2007 (“Freakshow,” which she followed up this year with “Hold It Against Me”), and soon U.K. artists like Rusko, Chase & Status, and Nero were producing tracks for major pop acts. The large outdoor festival circuit converted groups of sweaty adolescents.
“I started turning to festivals that were usually associated with jam bands,” says Bassnectar. “Not because I liked the jam-band music, but because in America that’s where youth culture would go to experience frenzied music gatherings.” Live events became a focus of the U.S. scene, and if explosive, breakdown-oriented artists like 12th Planet and Flinch don’t inspire much dancing, they inspire the next best thing: appreciative, orgiastic headbanging.
Bonnaroo, Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Burning Man have booked American dubstep DJs en masse. Newer festivals, like North Coast in Chicago, seem uniquely tailored to the cross-section of jam, hip-hop, and dubstep. Fueled by club culture’s wane, Bassnectar and Skrillex have aggressively toured rock halls that hadn’t previously hosted DJs.
All of a sudden, dubstep looks, sounds, and pays like rock’n’roll. “Right now, in America, the work has been done, the road is paved,” says Bassnectar, who was instrumental in that progress. “If someone offered me Tokyo or Paris on a Saturday or Kentucky or Mississippi on a Tuesday, I’d take Kentucky.”
“You’ve got people like Skrillex who are on these 48-stop tours,” says Best. “He’s selling out amphitheaters in Idaho and Nebraska and Arkansas.”
American audiences have yet to embrace the diversity of U.K. dubstep (or “post-dubstep”), ranging from the pure pop moves of Katy B and Magnetic Man to the artful impressionism of James Blake and Mount Kimbie. Lurching and aggressive remains the prevailing style in the States, a sound sometimes derided as “brostep.”
“It’s just people taking it to extremes,” says Caspa. “Where they’re going wrong is that it’s just got no rhythm, and you can’t move to it or understand it.” Drew Best sums it up: “Bigger, badder, crazier — that’s embedded in us.”
Fights over dubstep’s meaning or terminology, and so-called brostep’s arrested development, notwithstanding, “bass music” (the insider’s preferred term) is arguably the most influential, grass-roots electronic movement in America ever. Neither house nor the rave-centric techno culture of the early ’90s penetrated middle America so deeply; the electronica movement of the late ’90s sold records but didn’t result in thriving local scenes.
“The next step is radio…someone having a big crossover hit in America,” adds Caspa. Dubstep’s viral, volatile pedigree in the U.S. suggests that such a hit may be as likely to come from a random YouTube hippie as from Kanye or Britney or even Skrillex. “It’s changed the way people think about making music,” he continues, “how they think about promoting music, how they think about DJ’ing.”
Even if fewer and fewer people agree on exactly what it is.