Transatlantic vibrations: 10 years of DMZ and Dub War

The best things in life, the ones that make a lasting impression and effect change, aren’t premeditated.

They just happen, channelled into being by chance, timing and belief. 10 years ago this March, DMZ held its inaugural dance in Brixton, south London, as an extension of the label of the same name founded a year before by three old friends: Digital Mystikz, aka Mala and Coki (the pair will be playing London’s Born & Bred Festival this weekend), Loefah and Sarge Pokes. Three months later, Dave Q and Joe Nice held the first Dub War in Brooklyn, New York City, a transatlantic counterpart to DMZ and the first dubstep night in America. In their time, both parties helped define dubstep’s pivotal years and foster the music’s international expansion. In both instances it was a case of waiting for the right opportunities to manifest.

It all began in south London. “The dances came about purely out of necessity,” Mala remembers. In the mid–2000s, FWD>> at Plastic People in east London was the only regular club night where you could hear dubstep, back when it didn’t have a name and most of the audience consisted of the people making the music. “We were always going over to east London, but we are all south Londoners, so when the opportunity to do a dance in Brixton came up it was a no brainer.” The friends had been tipped to a small club in Brixton called Third Base, located on the ground floor of St. Matthew’s Church. They liked it, put down a deposit and went back to Loefah’s house to design a flyer.

“We called up everybody we wanted to play, everyone was up for it. We put the names on the flyer and then realised it looked a little bare. That’s when ‘come meditate on bass weight’ came in,” Mala tells me in reference to the call to action that was printed on all the flyers. “Cos that’s what we felt we were doing when we was making the music.” They posted the news on dubplate.net, an early online hub for the nascent scene, and three weeks later the first dance was on. “It wasn’t even like a thought-out decision. It had to be done because we were playing music, making music, and after going to FWD>> we got addicted to hearing the music we were making on a big sound system.”

In 2001 Dave Quintiliani, known as Dave Q, flew to London for the first time. A lifelong music fan, he’d planned the trip to go hear drum and bass in its hometown at a party called Movement, helmed by scene stalwart Bryan Gee. As it turns out, Movement was being held at Mass, the main nightclub in St. Matthews Church, located above Third Base. “I ended up having a life-changing experience,” he explains. “I was wandering around Brixton in the morning and found this place at the back of a grocery store that was playing music, a dark room with a sound system. I stepped into this world I knew nothing about and it affected me deeply. If it wasn’t for that, everything that came after probably wouldn’t have happened.”

In the years leading to his London trip, Quintiliani had grown disheartened by the direction drum and bass seemed to be taking. On an online forum, someone tipped him to ‘Battle’ by Wookie as an example of a new and emerging London sound. “I immediately gravitated towards it,” he remembers. “It checked a lot of boxes for things I loved about drum and bass but also house and R&B.” Delving further into the garage world, he soon found himself on dubplate.net, buying vinyl and talking to people in London about the tunes and this new bastard child of garage music. He was one of a handful of North Americans on the forum alongside Joe Nice, a DJ from Baltimore, and Kuma, a DJ and promoter from Vancouver. Before heading out to London for his first trip, he got in touch with Kode9 via the forum to ask where he could hear this new dark garage sound. “He replied that there was nothing going on while I was in town, but I made it to Blackmarket and J Da Flex was working behind the counter.” As part of the group Ghost, J was an early pioneer of the garage mutations that would lead to dubstep. Quintiliani returned home with a bag full of white labels.

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“Ever since 9/11 there had been an absence of something with depth and feeling.”
Dave Q

Back in America, Quintiliani went further down the online rabbit hole. He followed Kode9’s writing on Hyperdub, Georgina Cook’s photography, and most importantly the music itself. “In a short period of time, every week you’d hear a new tune that was transformative.” He made plans to meet up with Joe Nice at a rare New York appearance by Benny Ill, a member of Horsepower Productions, another act crucial to dubstep’s early development. Joe had been the first DJ in America to connect with the burgeoning London scene after playing with Hatcha in Baltimore in 2002. However, the pair left disappointed on the night after the London producer played an unsurprising house set.

When Quintiliani saw what Mala, Coki, Loefah and Pokes had started with DMZ, he felt a special resonance. “It all came together for me. It was musical but also philosophical. It captured the essence of what drew me to the sound. Ever since 9/11 there had been an absence of something with depth and feeling. DMZ was kinda political in a non-political way – subversive, intelligent, all these things that had been missing from music for me for a lot of years.”

There was only one thing for it, and Quintiliani knew that Joe Nice felt the same. “It was insane to me that this vibration hadn’t spread outwards yet, and that was the strongest impetus to start Dub War. People here needed to know about what these people were saying, the music they were making and the community they were building. Dub War was simply a way to play that music to a room of people in New York.” He booked the basement of Sputnik, a bar in Bed-Stuy where he’d gone to see hip-hop legends like Rich Medina and Evil Dee. Joe brought a couple of his friends from Baltimore to play the first events, and Trinidadian MC Juakali joined them after seeing a flyer and asking if he could chat over the music. At this point Joe was the only DJ in America cutting dubplates of the music, thanks to the strong connections he’d established to London both online and by making trips to the capital. As Mala recalls, “Joe had access to everybody’s dubs. There wasn’t anybody who was holding off tunes from Joe Nice ‘cos he was just that guy. Lovely guy. Deeply passionate about the music and not afraid to express himself.”

Back in Brixton, DMZ was growing. Held every two months, the party had a no-nonsense approach anchored in the founders’ memories of jungle raves. The room was dark, with no lights and no VIP areas; the sound system was heavy and the DJs were on the same level as the crowd. “It was to allow people to be free in a way,” Mala explains. “DMZ represented this unity of people. We did everything we could to try and put that vibe across.” The owner wasn’t convinced by their approach and tried to get them to elevate the DJ booth and turn some lights on, but with every dance more people came. In January 2006 they decided to hold the dance a week after New Year’s Eve. The owner thought they were crazy. “We told him, ‘Look, this music doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, trust us, people are going to come’.” And come they did.

Two days later, radio DJ and global tastemaker Mary Anne Hobbs held a special episode of her BBC Radio 1 Breezeblock show titled Dubstep Warz. The broadcast featured Digital Mystikz, Loefah and Sarge Pokes alongside other foundational scene members including Kode9, Hatcha and a young Skream. It also included pre-recorded messages from Joe Nice, Dave Q and Kuma representing the music’s North American expansion. “The fact that all of us were on the BBC playing our music and not compromising, that all felt like a stepping stone,” Mala remembers.

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“We told the owner ‘Look, this music doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, trust us, people are going to come’.”
Mala

In late January, Mala flew to New York and became the second guest at Dub War, after Kode9. By then the party had moved to a Manhattan venue called Rothko on the Lower East Side. The night Mala played he was joined by London MCs Jammer, Skepta and D Double E who happened to be in town, a moment that highlighted the existing bond between dubstep and grime and further cemented the burgeoning links between London and New York. Both Kode9 and Mala returned from Dub War with nothing but good words about what Dave Q and Joe Nice were building in New York City.

Two months later marked DMZ’s first birthday. Quintiliani flew over and found himself embraced by the community. “There was a lot of respect at DMZ coming from people who’d heard what an experience Dub War was. It was an immediate sense of family with the core people there.” Within an hour of opening, Third Base was at its full capacity of 400 people. There was close to double that amount still waiting to get in. People from all over the UK had made the trip down, as well as others from Australia, America and Japan. After a chat with the owner, the decision was made to move the party upstairs to Mass, which was big enough to accommodate the crowd. The last DJ to play at DMZ in Third Base, marking the end of an era, was Joe Nice. When Skream later closed the party in the main room at Mass from its elevated, church-like DJ booth, Quintiliani remembers thinking for the first time that “this could be a lot bigger than any of us imagined.”

Alongside the Dubstep Warz broadcast, the first DMZ birthday remains a key moment in the annals of dubstep history. The dances moved to Mass permanently to accommodate their new audience. True to their ethos, DMZ shunned the main room and settled into the smaller second room where the egalitarian vibe of Third Base could be best replicated.

Ever humble and reluctant to aggrandise what they did, Mala remembers witnessing the expansion of their sound in the following years as something that he and his friends couldn’t quite comprehend. “From the producers making tunes to DJs like Hatcha and Kode9, Tempa, FWD>>, Rinse FM, even J Da Flex before that, there was a movement. Some people say that DMZ was able to bring people together. Personally I never imagined this would happen. You’re in it. Every day. Making tunes at night and then going to your normal job during the day – that’s how it was for years. The fact all these people were making the trip to come be with us was a blessing, don’t get me wrong, but we was all like, ‘what’s going on here?!’ It just opened up more curiosity and gave me the drive to keep experimenting. We weren’t compromising, we were doing us 100% and somehow people connected with that. It was more this intent than anything that people connected with. It really was…” he pauses before affirming, “just honest, man.”

In April 2006 Loefah and Pokes made the trip to New York for the fifth instalment of Dub War. The day of the party Rothko was shut down by the police. “I’d just paid for two international flights and I had no venue,” Quintiliani remembers with a nervous laugh. DJ Seoul, a drum and bass DJ and promoter who had been one of Dub War’s earliest local supporters, came to the rescue. He helped them move the party to the chapel at Avalon, the club formerly known as The Limelight, a name synonymous with raving in New York City for the past 15 years.

A few months later they returned to Avalon and sneaked in a then-underage Skream for Dub War’s first birthday. “That’s the first time Shocklee showed up,” Quintiliani tells me in reference to Hank Shocklee, one of the founding members of the legendary Bomb Squad production team. “I was working the door when he rolled up. I couldn’t believe he was there. It was the first time I realised New York music people who I really respected were paying attention. Hank became a regular and a year later he held the first Bomb Squad set with Keith at Dub War.”

The first time Mala saw Hank Shocklee at Dub War, he was too focused in the moment to really pay attention to the guy dancing in front of him, handkerchief in hand. “A few days later I got a call saying Hank would love to link up with us and go for some food. We met up and had some very interesting conversations with this complete stranger who totally understood what we were dealing with. Surreal experience. Everything is time, everything is place.” Following the return of The Bomb Squad at Dub War, the Shocklee brothers played a set at DMZ in the summer of 2007 while in town with Public Enemy.

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“Booking agents – we never been into that. You just call up your bredren, ask, and if they’re live they come through.”
Mala

For Quintiliani it was always important to ensure that New York music heads could find something in Dub War to connect to. Hip-hop became an obvious anchor to the local music culture. “Time and again it surprised me how many hip-hop heads would come and feel what we were doing.” Over the years Dub War hosted regular, varied line-ups of guests stretching beyond the party’s dubstep roots, including many tied to the city’s hip-hop scene. In 2007, Dub War moved to Love, a new venue in Greenwich Village, where it remained until its end. Love was modelled after the Paradise Garage and dedicated to a real spirituality and appreciation of music. Dub War was brought to the venue by DB, a London transplant who had been a founding member of N.A.S.A, one of the city’s first rave crews. The move further bridged the old and new schools of New York club life.

On one occasion, Quintiliani, Loefah and Shocklee visited Love the night before a show. “Q-Tip was there setting up because he had a party on Fridays. Loefah had just bought a synth and was carrying it with him in this bright orange case. Shocklee introduced them and Q-Tip was asking about the synth so Loefah took it out, hooked it up to the Love system and showed Tip how to make wobble bass.” Quintiliani still laughs at the thought of it. “It was a beautiful moment of these New York and London worlds colliding, and that was part of the beauty of what happened at Love.”

All good things come to an end. From 2006 until 2010 dubstep exploded around the world. New fans, new music, new parties. Like jungle before it, the music went global and with the expansion came growing pains. This was no longer just a London sound, but something bigger. Quintiliani noticed this growth when people started hitting him up asking, “How can I do this where I am?” Following a DJ gig in San Francisco, he built up a relationship with Miroslav Wiesner, who was starting a booking agency called Surefire. Whenever Dub War would bring someone over to the East Coast, Wiesner shared the flight with them and booked West Coast shows for the acts. Dub War acted as an outpost for the expansion of the sound across the United States. “I never came into this to be a promoter,” Quintiliani explains. “Even when I was doing it I never thought about it, I was naive in a way. I could have thought about it as a career but I always had a gruelling day job and Dub War was my release.”

Dub War ended on its fifth birthday in June 2010. By then Quintiliani was burnt out from holding down two jobs, the club was deteriorating and he had become “increasingly uncomfortable” with dubstep. The line-ups had expanded well beyond the box people tried to put around the sound. On one of Loefah’s last visits, Burial came with him. The thought was that he might perform, but in the end they just spent “a memorable week being mischievous around New York City.” Quintiliani needed distance from it all. For a year after he put on a smaller party called Twisup in Brooklyn, which carried the spirit of Dub War and expanded further into sounds that excited him, including footwork.

In London, DMZ lasted until its eighth birthday. By then it had already become a less-regular occurrence while the sound had become mainstream. “We didn’t really end the dances, the dances ended themselves,” Mala tells me. “We booked close to 100 people over the years. And there are certain things in life we don’t control. When it’s not supposed to be, it just won’t be. If we can’t get the right venue then we won’t do the dances, simple as that. People were spread out. Just us four, on any given weekend we were in different countries so it was difficult bringing it in a way that didn’t feel so regimented. Like going through booking agents – we never been into that. You just call up your bredren, ask, and if they’re live they come through. It just changed, everything changed.”

There are many people, places and events that have helped make dubstep what it is today. Among those Dub War and DMZ remain special: kindred spirits fuelled by a desire to act not because it is the thing to do but because it feels right. There were never any masterplans. The parties grew of their own accord and attracted audiences and artists that felt something meaningful in the vibrations that emanated from these hallowed spaces.

From Eastern Europe to Japan, Southeast Asia to South America, DMZ’s call to come meditate on bass weight had become a way of life for thousands of people. In the end, for the four old friends who had founded DMZ, what began as a sideline became everything. And so things had to change. “All we set out to do was play our music on a big sound system. Somehow people came down, and kept coming down, and kept buying records. I don’t know how to talk about that because it’s a strange way to experience life. Because it ends up taking over your life. It gives everything. But at the same time it can take everything as well. When you become someone who is somewhat in the public eye, all of a sudden you’re supposed to drop everything and do a little dance when someone says ‘hey!’ That’s not how we ever did things.”

DMZ celebrates its 10th birthday on July 10. For more info, head here. Digital Mystikz will perform at London’s Born & Bred Festival on Saturday June 6. 

Photo credits:
Mala header – Mala Facebook
Queue at DMZ 4th birthday – Ashes57
Dub War birthday; Mala at Dub War – Dub War website

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