In Defense of Dubstep: An Imminent Return to Coolness for Music’s Most Laughed-At Genre
When I tell people that I’m into dubstep, I’m pretty sure they hear it as I’m still into dubstep. At that point their perception of me is probably a little thrown off from whatever it was leading up to that point. I get it though. Since its rise to prominence in America, dubstep has been a red flag in terms of authoritative musical opinion. That sort of discrediting is unfair, frankly. Ten years from now, those who sneer at it will be the same analog-worshipping hipsters crate digging for old dubstep records and lauding the genre’s musical and cultural merits. Let me explain why…
Before about 2010, dubstep was a relatively underground phenomenon. Blending genres such as drum and bass, UK garage, and traditional dub and reggae music, it quickly started to emanate across the UK from East London. It wasn’t until Skrillex introduced his wildly mutated brand of dubstep to US audiences that the genre’s reputation changed dramatically. His revolutionary production style shifted the focus from low-frequency, wobbly bass waves to higher frequency ones that surged and exploded with unpredictable sonic tendencies. In addition, through greater use of samples and a contrast of melodic buildup and harsh bass, he created a style of dubstep that focused much more on the “drop.”
Talking about the contrast of classic vs contemporary styles, veteran producer Funtcase says, “Dubstep was about bass wave, but it was never about, you know, the sonic—the hits and the transients and everything that we make sure we do in all our tracks now. It was never about that, it was all about the bass wave.”
The same can be said with many subgenres within electronic dance music—or EDM. The sugar rush of the drop has replaced the overall “vibe” when it comes to what is sought after in an EDM set. In the process, a sweeping classification of music has been tainted with the reputation of being the soundtrack for substance-abusing, neon-clad partiers. However, more minimal electronic subgenres such as nu-disco, acid house, and garage house have all seen steady increases in popularity, signaling a renewed appreciation of 90s and 00s rave culture. Media channels and venues such as Boiler Room and Chicago’s Smart Bar play key roles in keeping the dance music of yesteryear alive. The stylistic revivalism doesn’t stop with the music either, as fashion items like chunky Fila sneakers and nylon letterman jackets once again adorn those on the dancefloors. Looking at that scene, it’s clear that it isn’t about drops, remixes, visuals, or getting as turnt as possible; it’s about the music and the vibe it creates amongst the crowd.
Frontrunners of dubstep during the mid-late 2000s were, and still are representative of this style of stripped-down production—artists like Skream, Loefah, and Caspa. Having had the privilege of seeing Caspa perform last year, it’s clear that a set from a dubstep OG is still distinct from many of the biggest American names. Sure, his stage production was on par with any typical EDM show, but the feeling of the music was decidedly different. It was darker, deeper, more hypnotizing, yet still uncompromising in terms of raw power. Even now within the genre’s core fan base, there are hints of a musical shift into minimalism with the rise of “riddim.” A newer subgenre, riddim shifts the focus away from the rollercoaster ride of the highs and mids and over to…well, the rhythm, as the Jamaican patois suggests.
“…What riddim in 2017 feels like, is a return to being about the groove and not so much the buildup and the drop, and kind of just letting it ride,” suggests producer Willy Joy.
Production-wise, many of these tracks are still coated with the same attack and squelching bass of their predecessors, but it definitely seems to be a step in another direction. When you take into account all the radical modifications that dubstep has gone through in the last 15 years, an even sleeker stripped-down variant could become the new trend in electronuc music sooner than imagined.
Generally speaking, hipster culture as we know it today is fixated on process. Whether it be collecting and playing vinyl, home-brewing, or modifying bicycles, hipsters are all about DIY and the processes that come with the territory. Put in the context of electronic music, it makes sense that the subgenres of electronic music hipsters are drawn to are those that have been seemingly forgotten. Yes, the whole notion of ‘anti-mainstream’ is apparent, but in asking why it’s apparent, the musical qualities of these subgenres must be taken into consideration. Attendees of big name EDM events are often more focused on the energy, production, and which bangers are going to be dropped. On the flip side, in more underground dance music it’s more about preserving an art form based on careful selection and seamless transitioning. In other words, the sum of the parts should equal the whole. It just so happened that dubstep underwent substantial changes right about the time when turntables were replaced with CDJ’s. It was a perfect storm of sorts. But alas, dubstep is as integral a part of UK club history as any other form of proto-EDM . In a 2013 article published in the music blog FACT, music journalist Joe Muggs offers an enticing defense of dubstep. His bold endorsement came at an especially trying time for the genre. According to him, dubstep’s future will follow the courses of its dance music predecessors:
“Neurotic trend-chasers may have abandoned dubstep producers in many cases, but they’ll be back…the fact that techno and house are both still able to throw up exciting new variants despite being something like 25-30 years old should tell you everything you need to know about dubstep’s prospects.”
While dubstep hasn’t quite gained a renewed appreciation in the indie music scene yet, many players within the scene that are clearly signaling its return whether they know it or not. In a post-Skrillex era, it may seem like any shred of respectability dubstep once had has been tarnished. That’s simply not true, and many artists and journalists alike have been preserving its purest forms to this day. FACT, along with other publications (mainly UK ones) like Resident Advisor, have kept a steady record of the genre since its early days. For a blog that focuses primarily on indie music, DAW plugins, and which new modular synthesizers are hitting the market, it’s noteworthy that they have a strong track record of covering dubstep. FACT is a music nerd’s music blog, but why can’t crate-digging music nerds love dubstep too?
Another route on which dubstep is subtly finding ways to creep back into widespread respectability is grime. Having been the main brand of UK hip-hop for the better part of the 21st century, grime has recently made its way into the ears of American audiences and beyond. Perhaps the most significant crossover moment thus far was Drake’s 2017 mixtape More Life, which featured prominent grime MC’s Skepta and Giggs. Having also collaborated with the likes of Flatbush Zombies and A$AP Mob, Skepta and his Boy Betta Know crew are leading the charge for grime’s global takeover.
Grime and dubstep have musical lineages that are very intertwined; both owe inspiration to genres like UK garage, and both possess elements such as the two-step rhythm coupled with a BPM of around 140. The two genres also employ bass in similar styles. Aside from more intrinsic characteristics, dubstep and grime artists have long enjoyed collaborations with each other. Whether it be JME hopping on the Skream classic “Tapped,” or D&B/dubstep duo Chase & Status lending production to an array of grime artists, the two camps have always shared musical sensibilities. Muggs notes, “As musical first cousins, grime and dubstep have never been fully separated.” Their shared rhythmic backbone provides a common energy that is undeniably visceral and hard. As hip-hop fans and trend-followers in the states continue to develop a palate for grime, dubstep will come as a natural transition at one point or another. There are arguably more similarities than differences between the two genres, as many grime tracks are simply dubstep with an MC rapping. At the end of the day, the biggest factor working against dubstep is its stigmatized image. The sort of blind taste test that grime provides can help break dubstep’s stigma and revitalize its respectability.
Back in 2005, if you would have told any of the dubstep OG’s that their underground movement would garner massive mainstream success in just several years, they would have laughed in your face. Nowadays, you can’t mention dubstep and expect to be taken seriously. The music and its public perception have made a complete 180. A 360 however, might be closer than you think. It’s a classic story of too much too fast. In its rapid ascension, dubstep lost much of its true self to the party it helped create. But it will be back, and in completely un-ironic fashion. And like any good hipster, I’ll be able to say I liked it before it was cool (again).