Features I by I 22.07.13

From the Archives: Dubstep Blows Up

From 2003-2008, FACT operated as a bi-monthly print magazine. As part of our From The Archives feature, and to tie in with out 10th birthday celebrations, we’ve uploaded a cache of vintage articles from FACT’s ink-and-paper days. Below is Kek-w’s account of the rise of dubstep, originally published in 2006.

2006: the year that dubstep finally caught fire.

The flashpoint was March’s DMZ session at 3rd Base in Brixton, which hit its maximum body-count at 10pm and still had punters queueing up around the block. The monthly underground bash, hosted by Digital Mystikz’ Coki and Mala, had finally outgrown its venue, so the decision was made to migrate to a larger room upstairs. “Just before midnight”, explains Mala, “I went on the mike and said ‘Look, there are as many people outside as there are in. Youngsta’s upstairs, ready to let off some dubs, so, if you don’t mind, we’d like to take this party upstairs.’ And everyone just fucked roared…” This, literally, was the moment that dubstep went to the next level.

Despite the crowd’s obvious enthusiasm, musician/producer Kode9 felt the bigger room lacked the intimacy and the focussed bass pressure of previous sessions. Mala agrees: “Yeah, I loved the old room, its size…for me, it’s all about the vibe, the intensity we managed to build up in 3rd Base.” On a properly EQ’d soundsystem, dubstep tunes have a physical presence, an immersive quality that makes the listener feel as if they’ve stepped ‘inside’ the music. The deep, hypnotic rhythms induce a dream-like alpha-state, while the bass frequencies resonate with various internal organs, so that the music has a strange transformational effect on both body and mind. This is why dub enthusiasts often say that they’re ‘feeling’ the sound. Dubstep has been threatening to blow up for some time now. Bloggers and web forums have spread the word and seeded local scenes in Bristol, Birmingham, Toronto and Berlin. Rinse FM and Radio 1’s Mary Anne Hobbs have helped raise the music’s profile, while releases on Rephlex and Planet Mu have caught the ear of jaded IDM and drum’n’bass fans. There’s also an unspoken feeling that grime’s momentum has temporarily stalled, allowing crossover tunes like Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ to move into its cultural space.

According to urban legend, the term dubstep was coined in 2002 by Ammunition Promotions in a press release sent to XLR8R magazine, who used it to describe the mix of dub and garage favoured by featured cover artists Horsepower Productions. Ammunition was formed in 2000 by Sarah ‘Soulja’ and Neil Jolliffe out of their love for the darker, more progressive side of the UK garage spectrum: artists like Wookie, Zed Bias, El-B and Steve Gurley, who were taking the music beyond the bling into a post-2-step era, fusing cavernous bass-drops with Jungle-ish breaks, eerie, pitched-up vocals and snippets of basement chat.

Ammunition started as a regular club night in Shoreditch called Forward>> where these different urban styles began to rub up against each other as hybrids and early strains of grime were tested out on an open-minded audience. Around 2002, DJ Hatcha’s exclusive dubplate sets at Forward>> showcased the darker, more minimal style of South London producers Benga and Skream. Inspired by El-B, Artwork and Menta, this pair of talented teenagers dropped a handful of influential EPs on Big Apple and Ammunition’s Tempa imprint, opting for a slower, techy, synth-led sound that uncannily mirrored the oppressive claustrophobia of modern city life.


“Our vibe is about positivity and making people feel welcome. For us, DMZ is like inviting people into our own living room.”


The duo started building tunes using Fruity Loops when they were still at school. “We were recording shiploads”, remembers Skream, “Eight tracks a day, sometimes…just bass and beats and hats. Artwork, man…he influenced me so much it was unreal. Artwork was like, my mentor…and big up Danny H! Their tunes, it was like: that’s the shit that I want to do! You got to remember, I was only 14 and they were out there doing remixes for people like Ashanti. They were a big inspiration, but we just wanted to do dark instrumental stuff and no one else was doing that shit.”

The Hatcha connection came about through Skream’s brother Hijack. “Yeah, we only had Hatcha playing our tunes. It was a family thing. He started playing Mala’s dubs a bit later, around 2003-ish. Digital Mystikz’ stuff gave me a right kick up the arse…all of a sudden, there were these other guys and they had a sound. They made me raise my game, I admit it. Digital Mystikz are absolutely heavy. They’re fucking sick.”

Mala first met Hatcha in Croydon’s Big Apple record shop. He recalls, “Me and Coki had been mucking around for years, building beats. I took some stuff down to Hatcha and he said ‘I can play this, man’. So he cut a one-off dub. This was February, 2003…”. Initially, Digital Mystikz were outside the scene, so they didn’t make tunes with Forward>> in mind, but they brought a dubbed-out sound system sensibility and some serious bass-weight to the table. “There was a certain frequency in our stuff, or something…I can’t really explain what it was. We gave Hatcha some more tunes in June: ‘Pathways’, ‘Mawo Dub’, ‘Ugly’…and he suddenly started playing six or seven of our tracks.”

Along with close friend Loefah, the Mystikz began incorporating exotic, third world textures in their tunes, so that tables, flutes and eastern strings accompanied the shuddering sub-bass and brooding synths. DMZ’s contribution to the development of dubstep is crucial: their signature use of haunting melody lines and motifs added colour and detail to its sonic palette. In their hands, the music became deeper, more inwardly-focussed and visually evocative. Their best tunes carry a dark poignancy and emotional charge that serious subheads claim is the post-digital equivalent of classic Roots acts like the Abyssinians.

Kode9’s dubstep credentials are impeccable. A former jungliest whose tastes are informed by dubby Basic Channel-style techno as much as bashment and breakbeats, he was another guiding figure in the music’s transition from dark garage to its current incarnation. Releases on his Hyperdub label are essential, featuring righteous dub-poetics from Spaceape (a.k.a. Daddi Gee) and feisty chatting from Warrior Queen. He is a mentor figure for producers like Burial, whose recently-released self-titled debut LP on Hyperdub created a major pre-release buzz online and suggested possible new directions for dubstep.

Burial’s name seems strangely appropriate: his tunes are often smothered under six-foot of sampled analogue crackle or obscured by smears of echo. Distant sound-FX and mournful vocal fragments drift in and out of the mix, reminiscent of the ghost-like sound-leakage on vintage dub records. Inspired by El-B, Burial’s woozy, off-kilter beats stumble through a blurred, skunk-infused snapshot of South London’s marginal suburbs like garage’s drunken younger brother. His use of filtered soul samples gives the music an emotive, cross-gender appeal lacking in the tougher darker end of the dubstep continuum.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer for dubstep, with Skream dropping Skreamizm Vol. 2 and an as-yet-untitled LP on Tempa, while Loefah’s ‘Mud’ / ‘Ruffage’ is ready to cause some serious sub-woofer carnage. New talent like Iron Soul and Quest are emerging and following in the footsteps of dubstep’s originators. Passion, pride and a sense of community have kept the scene healthy and vibrant. Skream says, “Basically I love dubstep because I love everyone in it: Hatcha. Benga, the Mystikz, Loefah…It’s like a family. DJ Distance, Vex’d, they’re all getting love for a reason.” Mala sums it up beautifully: “Our vibe is about positivity and making people feel welcome. For us, DMZ is like inviting people into our own living room.”



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