The 40 best dubstep singles
To call dubstep close to FACT’s heart is an understatement.
Along with grime, it was the key UK genre on the rise when we were an up-and-coming London magazine, and our early issues featured some of the first interviews with key dubstep artists like Digital Mystikz (and had reviews penned by Kode9). As we shifted our focus to the FACT website in 2008-2009, artists like Untold, Joker, Zomby and Ikonika were pulling the genre in new directions before the whole thing ended up somewhere else entirely. There’s a reason it’s taken us so long to do this list.
So before we drown in a chorus of “where’s [insert record here]?!” tweets, here are some of the restrictions we put on it. First, because dubstep was such a vinyl-focused genre in both its principles and practicalities, we wanted to focus on records. Both A-sides and B-sides are taken into account when ranking these releases, and if something was only released as part of an album, it doesn’t count (so no ‘E-Trips’, no ‘Intensive Snare’ and, sorry folks, no ‘Archangel’).
Second, although there are records on this list that musically have as much in common with grime and garage as they do dubstep, we tried to make sure that everything included fits into the dubstep world/movement/scene before it did any other – whether that’s due to the label it was on, the DJs that were playing it, or simply where it made most impact. When it came to records like ‘Hyph Mngo’, ‘CMYK’ and ‘Maybes’, we decided that they were too far removed from dubstep to qualify.
Third, timeframe. We’ve deliberately focused on dubstep’s peak period (call it roughly 2005-2009), partially because that’s when it was developing most rapidly, partially because that’s when it seemed like most like a movement, before things splintered, and partially because that’s just when the best records came out. No shade aimed at System, Deep Medi, Kahn, Tectonic or any of the others who’ve continued to release excellent dubstep records deep into the 2010s, and no shade to records like Artwork’s ‘Red’ or the likes of Horsepower, which just comes too early to realistically count.
Even with these restrictions, the main thing that jumps out of this list is just how diverse dubstep was (musically, anyway: for all Sarah Soulja and Mary Anne Hobbs’ importance to the music’s development, it was a pretty lad-heavy scene). For a brief period in UK clubbing history, the R&B-influenced synth-funk of Joker and Ikonika went hand-in-hand with experimental industrialists like Vex’d and Shackleton; a recluse like Burial fought on the same side as future rockstars Skream and Benga. There’s plenty to cringe about when you look back at dubstep – the Run DMC tees, the hokey samples, the ket – but that, at least, is a beautiful thing.
Listen to the whole top 40 as a single YouTube playlist here.
40. Silkie vs. Mizz Beats
(Deep Medi Musik)
Their jazzier tendencies sometimes grated, but Antisocial Entertainment were an important part of grime and dubstep for a while. Silkie’s early records (‘Strawberries’, ‘Westside Funk’) are too far in the grime/garage camp to really make this list, but after some time in Mala’s company he was releasing lovely music that’s as floaty as it is weighty. God knows whether the purple is a reference to Joker or codeine, but either works.
39. Dusk + Blackdown
‘Focus’ / ‘Akkaboo’
Keysound is a label that owes everything to London – check the catalogue numbers, if you don’t believe us – but ‘Focus’ was their dubstep-goes-Detroit moment, a Night Drive Thru Green Lanes built on spacey keys and sub. The 1984 sample is a cringer in retrospect, but Dusk + Blackdown were hardly dubstep’s only offenders in that department.
‘The Knowledge’ / ‘Like Sun’
Toasty/Toasty Boy – dubstep’s most underrated producer? The man was a machine between 2003 and 2008, releasing on various labels, though Hotflush seemed to have a knack of coaxing his best work out of him. With his warped Reese basslines, jungle breaks and larger-than-life snares at 140bpm he predicted a lot of music to come.
Further cementing the bridge between dubstep and dub techno, 2562 struck gold with ‘Channel Two’, a bruiser of a track that owes as much to Berlin as it does South London. Unlike Shackleton, 2562 didn’t seem interested in making tunes to appease the chin strokers – ‘Channel Two’ is made with one thing in mind, and was rinsed by techno and dubstep DJs alike.
36. Matty G
‘50,000 Watts’ / Loefah Remix
By 2007, dubstep was a bit more than a group of lads in Croydon. It had reached the US, and American producers were slowly beginning to not only replicate, but innovate.
Matty G’s ’50,000 Watts’ worked because it wasn’t afraid to shy away from its American origins. The track was deliriously simple, pairing a well-worn loop of Schoolly D’s 909-heavy ‘P.S.K. – What Does It Mean?’ (which you might remember from Biggie’s ‘B.I.G. Interlude’ or Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’) with a vocal snippet from Terminator X’s ‘No Further’. It wasn’t a million miles from the sound Michael Watts and DJ Screw had pioneered over in Houston, in fact, but Matty G made a connection that felt vital, so much so that Loefah contributed a remix that almost bettered the original. Almost.
Babylon: Volume 1
FUCK. Say what you will about the wave of dubstep that Caspa and Rusko helped usher in, ‘Cockney Thug’ (which leads this EP) is one of dubstep’s all-time biggest tunes, and still goes a treat in your local night club/student night/working men’s club. Sorry, but it’s brilliant.
‘Corner Dub (Blue & Red Mix)’ / ‘Pretty Bright Light’
Bristol’s Rob Smith lives and breathes bassweight, and his run of dubstep singles under the RSD alias – as well as ‘Corner Dub’ there’s ‘Accepted’, ‘Murderation’ and more – sometimes felt as capable as moving mountains as speaker boxes.
‘Pop Pop’ / ‘Canyon’
Technically Vex’d had more in common with grime than they did dubstep, but their influence can’t be understated. Just listen as the simple 8-bar riddim disintegrates into wobbling synth bass, industrial samples and sound effects around every corner, and tell us that didn’t inform a legion of producers. So, so massive; so, so important.
32. Various Production
Various Production were outsiders to dubstep – they predated it, in fact, and have experimented with everything from grime to folk in their time – but found themselves behind a series of accidental scene anthems, of which ‘Hater’ was the biggest. Later became the instrumental for Wiley’s ‘Sinner’.
Hyperdub played as big a role as anyone in terms of incubating the dubstep/hip-hop crossover that’s become a de facto template for contemporary dance music. Equal parts dubstep, garage, Atlanta trap and Los Angeles wonkiness (but don’t call it wonky), Ikonika’s debut single for the label was a triumph in genre bending.
It was also a testament to the possibilities open to dubstep DJs in 2008: you could easily slide this in between Skream and Benga’s weirder moments, next to a Rustie or Hud Mo production or alongside Ikonika’s Hyperdub peers Zomby and Quarta 330. It also ended any tough vs. feminine debates by being both at once: few tunes pack as much punch without ever veering into macho territory.
‘Natural Selection’ / ‘Vancouver’
Ex-D&B producer Martyn helped change the game with this 12”, whether he intended to or not. Fusing the addictive, hollow thump of dub techno with that garage swing, the Dutchman wasn’t sticking to dubstep’s rules, and in doing so emerged with a pair of tracks that now sound suspiciously “post-dubstep”. This was the point where Joy Orbison chucked his fidget house records in the bin and started a new career.
29. Loefah & Skream
’28 Grams’ / ‘Fearless’
While Skream made his name with peak-time rippers like ‘Midnight Request Line’, he managed to put together one of the era’s best half step classics, teaming up with Loefah for extra weight. ’28 Grams’ is darker than a winter in Finland, and ‘Fearless’ just rubs it in, offering a crack of light before slamming down the trapdoor.
Early on, Bristol’s Tectonic label became known for a very specific sound. They popularized the kind of ominous half step that had jaded Renegade Hardware fans braying for the reload, and in ‘Rebellion’ Tectonic found its low-key anthem. One for the heads, this blended Photek’s sword swipes and space with dubstep’s relentless low end, and it’ll still do damage to this day. He wasn’t from Croydon, either.
27. Benga & Coki
‘Night’ was the anthem a divided club world needed in 2008, the kind of belter made for Rinse, FWD>>, and Ayia Napa dance floors all at once, genre divisions be damned. It was dark but not too dark – you could still have a proper skank to that descending bass line instead of awkwardly shuffling or full on moshing.
It made overtures to funky’s drum patterns at a time when Caspa and Rusko’s wobblers were wrecking havoc, but stayed speedy and broken enough to appeal to dubstep’s growing international fan base. Finally, like Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’, it was a favorite of emcees, and still finds itself in grime sets today. A true outlier combining Coki’s Caribbean bounce to Benga’s technoid coldness, ‘Night’ is what the genre sounded like when it still belonged to the city, a real London ting.
‘I Can’t Stop This Feeling’ / ‘Anaconda’
More 8-bar grime than dubstep, in truth, but it was dubstep circles where its influence was felt most (but more on that later). A track you remember where you were the first time you heard it.
‘Reminissin’ (feat. Marita)
The Geiom who produced icy, melodic IDM in the early 00s might have gone AWOL in 2001 but five years later he reappeared with his sights set on the low end. His own Berkane Sol label was always worth a look, but ‘Remenissin’ remains his finest moment, fusing his signature skittery riddims with a faded vocal that was almost… pretty?
‘Missin’ / ‘Cocaine’ / ‘Firin’ Blanks’
D1’s not talked about enough when it comes to dubstep’s peak period. A big tattooed fucker who happened to be the son of drum’n’bass producer Michael Antony Marsh, he simply fired out club destroyers between 2006 and 2008, respected by both yer Tempa/Ammunition circles and the Bok Boks and Ben UFOs of the world alike (he actually appeared on Hessle Audio’s 116 & Rising compilation). As great as his V1-V3 EPs are, this feels like the definitive D1 statement, deploying subby kicks and moonlit melodies with a military mindset and eye for detail.
23. Joker / 2000F & J Kamata
‘Digidesign’ / ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’
There’s a lot of “what-if”s in dubstep and while some of them don’t make much sense, here’s a valid one: why the hell did neither of these tunes cross over? Both halves are dense and melodic: one is a silky jam with bottomless production topped off by one of the most successful vocals in dubstep, delivered by a vocoder (of all things) that could’ve been beamed in from any decade. Joker’s half is tough, instantly catchy, and one of the best things he’s done.
The most beautiful dubstep track ever?
The producer now known as Pearson Sound was knocking out woodblock quasi-garage belters throughout the late 00s, but ‘Blimey’’s a particularly important one – its support from Ricardo Villalobos ensured it an audience outside of dubstep world, which helped shape the dubstep-techno crossover records that started to emerge in 2009-2010 as well as finding Hessle Audio a wider, more European audience. A humble drum track that could, and did.
‘Mush’ / ‘Spliff Dub’ (Rustie Remix)
An introduction to one of the UK’s most warped minds, and a 12” that put Rustie two-for-two with scene anthems. Also part of an all-time great run of Hyperdub records (‘Skeng’, Quarta 330’s ‘9 Samurai’ remix, ‘Please’, ‘Mush’ and ’Need You’ were all released on the spin) that shaped the label’s agenda for several years to come.
‘Orchestral Lab’ / ‘Way You Make Me Feel’
Part of Bristol’s quote-unquote-purple movement and a wider wave of producers painting dubstep with new colours in 2008-2009, Guido’s first 12” couldn’t feel more relevant right now – how many current producers are citing grime and Final Fantasy soundtracks as their key inspirations?
Of Croydon record store Big Apple’s run of revered, desired, traded-for-ridiculous-amounts-of-money releases, Benga produced four of the first eight, which shows just how talented and prolific he was (the first ones were released while he was still in school). Invasion is his fourth and best of the run, a double-pack that threw down the gauntlet from its first track, ‘Flame’, onwards.
17. La Roux
‘In For The Kill’ (Skream’s Let’s Get Ravey Remix)
You have to understand the timing here. Dubstep was never pop music, until it was. This was a sound that lived and died in back rooms and basements, and suddenly there we were, describing it to mum as it blared out of the kitchen radio while La Roux bellowed over the top. This was when everything turned a corner – Skream became a star and dubstep was never quite the same again. Thank fuck it was actually half-decent, eh?
Skreamizm Vol: 1
Skream was always destined for DJ superstardom. The man had too much personality for a genre born of the shadows, but time shouldn’t fade his true achievement: he created some of the strangest, most twisted dance music productions England has ever seen. Out of his mum’s basement. On Fruityloops.
Skreamizm Vol: 1 is two 12″s worth of anti-bangers, anthems for a scene that still abhorred maximalism. The rhythms are halting, the bass lines just as likely to caress as pummel, and the vibe conjures abandoned industrial spaces, not packed dance floors. Even when Skream does crank up the aggression on a post-jungle belter like ‘Lightning’, the end result is a cold blooded killer, more menacing than chest thumping. Skream’s had a lot of dubious choices to make since this release, but Skreamizm Vol: 1 is not only a high water mark in London dance music, but one of the most outlandish releases in the history of dub’s sonic experiments.
Like jungle and garage before it, dubstep thrived on the strength of its dubplates, whites and bootlegs. These weren’t always good (no need to name names) and more often than not haven’t stood the test of time, but every so often, something just clicked. Pangaea’s ‘Memories’ was one of those magic bootlegs, built on a sample of Gladys Knight’s ‘If I Were Your Woman’ and bodying the dancefloor with almost every play. It still sounds massive now.
14. The Bug
‘Poison Dart’ (feat. Warrior Queen)
Kevin Martin was grafting dub’s dread to electronic music’s growl when most dubsteppers were still in nappies, the genre’s rise was just a fortuitous way to get recognized for it, at least before it became a shackle to shed. Yet even in a scene delivering bolder and brasher anthems by the day, ‘Poison Dark’ is insanely heavy. Over bowel-disturbing sub frequencies and a rhythm that toes the line between tribal and mechanical, Warrior Queen boasts, brags and threatens her way past the straw man soundboys unlucky enough to be her warpath. A key, under-appreciated vocalist in the scene, her piercing vocal tones provide an invaluable counterpoint to the genre’s rumble and thud, and ‘Poison Dart’ stands as her finest hour.
‘Tortured’ / ‘Shattered’
DMZ’s mad scientist at his best: two masterpieces of deranged, disturbed soundsystem music that sounded even better with Durrty Goodz on top. Simple as that.
‘Roll With the Punches’ / ‘Die Brücke’
Fucking mental, and all about the progression: right when that first melody has drilled your head into the ground a second one comes sneaking up behind it to lift you out, before that bassline that’s been switching between one and three notes beats you back down again. One of those things to just leave you speechless, really.
11. Appleblim & Peverelist
Soundboy’s Ashes Get Hacked Up And Spat Out In Disgust EP
Back in 2008, the sounds here promised something greater than the ultimate returns: dubstep reaching over to territory more at home in a set with something like sped-up Rhythm & Sound relocating to Detroit. (And yes, the same things were said back then, too). It was also just a matter of practicality that this came out: Appleblim and Shackleton never intended to expand Skull Disco beyond themselves, but Peverelist’s collabs with the former were just that good that pressing them was the only option. Techno never had its grand crossover with dubstep (it’s been more felt than seen, and probably for the best) so we’re left with these two psychedelic monsters, both tunes morphing through enough backdrops and motifs they could’ve easily been split into six concise bangers. Thank the man upstairs that they weren’t.
‘I’ (Loefah Remix)
It was virtually impossible to find yourself in the dark corner of a Dubwar party in NYC back in the day without hearing this spun back at least once, becoming the unofficial tune that brought dubstep over to North American shores in the process. That second bit might not be entirely true, but it’s easy to see why: it’s one of those collabs that made so much sense in the early running it’s amazing it didn’t happen more often. Loefah’s skinned the original down the bones, but left a first drop that could knock your skull off without warning if you weren’t paying 100% attention. If you don’t believe us, (and for some reason you’ve made it this far on laptop speakers) do yourself a favor and plug that system in.
Top Of The Game EP
Released in the midst of a killer first run that saw Joker blur the lines between grime’s melodic sourness and dubstep’s club-ready weight, ‘Gully Brook Lane’’s synth line is a thing of wonder. Equal parts wobbling bass line, funkadelic lead and swarm of angry bees, it caused pandemonium on dance floors from Bristol to Brooklyn, and crucially in a genre made for giant rigs, it actually sounded great in headphones. There was a delicate balance to Joker’s best music, one that kept dubstep’s darkness and empty space only to throw in dashes of colour for contrast. Whereas his later work would throw in everything but the kitchen sink, ‘Gully Brook Lane’ and (underrated B-side) ’80s’ are mysterious and alluring, the bedroom futurism of a generation raised on Megadrives and PS1s.
Gonna Work Out Fine EP
Not 100% a dubstep record, but together with ‘Anaconda’ it totally changed the course of the genre. Producers like Pearson Sound have gone on record talking about what a game-changer for their production Untold was during this period, encouraging them and giving them the confidence to be as experimental with club music as possible. Speaking of club music, have you listened to it lately? It basically sounds like Gonna Work Out Fine.
‘Left Leg Out’ / ‘Blue Notez’
Mala may have released more groundbreaking records, more influential records, even records that sell for more on Discogs, but if you want to listen to an absolute master of his craft in full control, it doesn’t get more authoritative than this. For all the debt Mala owed Jamaican soundsystem music, he’s also a Detroit techno fan, and ‘Left Leg Out’ sees him set course straight for the Red Planet.
‘Broken Heart’ (Martyn’s DCM Mix) / ‘Put You Down’ (Ramadanman Refix)
Let’s give credit where it’s properly due: the original, courtesy of TRG, is a cavernous stomper all its own – a heartbreaking basement anthem that’s an unsung classic already. But of course, if you’ve stuck out this list long enough, you’d knew you’d come across this thing, and chances are you don’t even need to know why it’s good to begin with. The tune’s magic is all in the re-outfitting: led by a shifting organ line that never once lets up, Martyn turns the plod of the original to a relentless chug. And the best part? That pitched-down “Broken heart” before all of this even takes off; the first time you hear it in the club it gets stuck to your DNA.
South London Boroughs EP
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Burial as dubstep was gathering steam. Almost overnight fans from across the electronic music spectrum were coming out of the woodwork to sing the praises of a producer who, for all we knew, could have been anyone. Even Four Tet. Honestly, it’s the albums that really cemented his sound, but when South London Boroughs dropped there was a palpable sense that this was something very, very special. Burial, whoever he was, had managed to unite Basic Channel-obsessed dub techno purists, gloomy electronica nerds, bottle-popping garage casuals and legions of bedroom DJs confused why it was so bloody hard to mix.
Rumour has it that ‘Qawaali’ wasn’t just Tectonic boss Pinch’s first proper solo release (‘War Dub’ was a collaboration with P Dutty, now better known as Emptyset’s James Ginzburg), it was the first tune he’d ever made in Fruityloops. This cavernous simplicity is what sets it apart from the competition, and had he known more about production, he might have derailed it with needless technical trickery. As it stands, there are only a few elements – the massive, undulating sub has the room it needs to work its gut-churning magic at volume. Pure anthem.
3. The Bug
‘Skeng’ (feat. Killa.P & Flow Dan) / Kode9 Remix
The Bug always disassociated himself with dubstep, and has claimed that he spent years trying to escape its shadow, but ‘Skeng’, really, is a dubstep track. It was an anthem at dubstep nights, more so than grime ones, and although it owes a debt to an entire legacy of weighty, Jamaican-influenced soundsystem music, when you look at the likes of Kahn & Neek and Commodo, it’s been clearly influential in its own right. Flowdan’s built an entire second career off feature appearances that sound like ‘Skeng’, and let’s not forget that screamer of a Kode9 remix.
‘Midnight Request Line’
In 2005, when ‘Midnight Request Line’ was probably the most played tune at dubstep nights throughout the country, Skream was 19 years old. If that’s not enough, it wasn’t even his first tune – he’d been rattling through the motions for years at that point, moving from Playstation’s rudimentary Music 2000 software to the more capable Fruityloops and changing the course of British music in the process.
You simply can’t overstate the importance of the tune, but more than that it was (and is) an absolute banger, made by a young producer who already had an almost symbiotic relationship with the dancefloor. Every element is in the right place, and whether you were a back room nodder or a raver with yer back pocket jammed full of little fellers, it just worked.
1. Digital Mystikz
‘Haunted’ / ‘Anti-War Dub’
So many dubstep debates – about where the genre went, where it should’ve gone, what it did right and what it did wrong – revolve around its “deep” side and its “aggy” side, but never did dubstep’s yin and yang sound as complementary as on DMZ007. Nothing in dubstep history sends shivers down the spine of devotees quite like the opening notes of ‘Anti War Dub’, and few tracks send a club into chaos – in any genre – the way ‘Haunted’ does. Although ‘Anti War Dub’ is quite clearly Mala’s work and ‘Haunted’ Coki’s, both tracks are credited as Digital Mystikz: in the hands of dubstep’s best duo, released on its best label, those two sides fit together like a glove.