Perhaps fittingly for a label born of dubstep, a genre whose roots lie in cavernous negative space and the unsaid, Tectonic’s heart and soul are just as often found in its deep cuts as in its anthems.
Founded by Pinch after his success bringing the FWD>> sound to Bristol with his Context and Subloaded nights, Tectonic began in the same vein, as an enthusiast’s efforts to spread the dubstep gospel to new ears. Tectonic’s emphasis on the subtle over the startling, the dark over the blinding, makes for a catalog rich in incredible records but with few obvious starting points. For every “must listen”, there are another five records that may not have defined the scene but undoubtedly contributed to countless sets, shifting the terrain like the geological formations that give the label its name.
This first run of singles helped shift Bristol’s musical underground from drum & bass and breaks towards new musical forms, yet once the ball was rolling, Tectonic rapidly moved beyond dubstep’s established conventions. Predating the UK’s renewed love affair with techno by half a decade, the label’s early output not only soldered techno’s steely textures and to dubstep’s frame, but also helped introduce garage-influenced sounds to the wider techno community through a series of releases that stood apart from an increasingly commercial dubstep scene.
Simultaneously, the label put out music by a new generation of Bristol youth merging grime’s color to dubstep’s grit, explored the rougher end of DMZ’s sonic innovations, and reconnected dubstep to its Jamaican roots. When dubstep crashed under the weight of exploitation by outside forces and crossover attempts among its practitioners, Tectonic didn’t stay put. While the label admittedly released its fair share of middling “deep” releases and a few wobblers to boot, it stayed open to new ideas, ultimately seeing its fortunes revived thanks to a new generation of dark, bass-minded producers operating at slower tempos.
Like Metalheadz, Pinch’s clearest inspiration, Tectonic’s catalog has never stopped growing. As such, this selection is nowhere near complete – we’ve left out pivotal records by Distance, Joker, Benga, Scientist, Distal and (perhaps sacrilegiously) even Pinch’s debut album, Underwater Dancehall. Instead, we decided to focus on a personal mix of big names, underrated oddities and game-changing high-water marks, releases that defined the label’s 10-year journey. Ultimately, all of our choices are united by Tectonic’s forward-thinking aesthetic and a massive emphasis on bass weight.
DJ Pinch & P Dutty
‘War Dub’ / ‘Alien Tongue’
With respect to hip-hop, if there’s any piece of music that deserves the qualifier “boom-bap”, it’s Pinch and P Dutty’s opening salvo for Tectonic: the drums quite simply beat you into submission. Fully embracing the genre’s then most revolutionary elements – halting drums with tribal flourishes, multiple bass lines operating in the sub and mid range levels, and sonorous empty space – TEC01 is a love letter to the DMZ sound from wild-eyed converts to the cause.
Competitiveness was a huge contributor to the FWD>> community’s rapid innovation, and it’s not hard to imagine a young Pinch and P Dutty (aka Ginz, aka Emptyset’s James Ginzburg) sitting in a Bristol home studio trying to outmaneuver their heroes. ‘War Dub’ meets Vex’d and Loefah’s industrial assault on its own turf, transforming garage’s shuffle into a jerking rhythm tailor-made for violent, spastic movement. ‘Alien Tongue’ is comparatively more conventional, referencing the not-quite-grime sublow movement’s dancehall-gone-dark, but with even more attention paid to the low end, and with eerie sampled chants shifting the mood from the urban to the surreal; nightmarish sub space that would define Tectonic’s best releases. Forget dark 2-step, this was something entirely new, and it’s hard not get swept along by Pinch and Ginz’s enthusiasm.
Though Tectonic would go on to release everything from contemporary roots reggae to several generations of techno-indebted bass music, their strongest releases would constantly reference the extreme sounds and dark atmospheres found here. The label was at its strongest when engaging with ideas drawn from a community that shut out trends in favor of exploring truly dread music, and with ‘War Dub’, Tectonic had already found their blueprint.
Loefah & Skream
’28G’ / ‘Fearless’
It’s hard to describe how big a shock to the system half-step was to anyone whose musical journey starts during the last 10 years. Hip-hop was still divided between a traditionally rooted underground and an increasingly exciting Southern pull, drum & bass was stuck in a faster, harder, techier spiral, and even as dubstep moved away from dark garage’s groove, Hatcha’s tribal style dominated the scene.
Following grime’s lead on the Wonder-produced ‘What’, it took an underage DJ Youngsta and a small cadre of producers to transform dubstep into its most recognizable form: a lurching, crushingly heavy beat with reverberating voids colored with little more than repurposed Jamaican chat. It’s this sound that Pinch adopted to define Tectonic’s earliest phase.
Loefah and Skream (with all due respect to D1) were at the head of this wave, providing so much new music in so consistent a style that they often seemed like a subgenre to themselves. Shockingly new amidst a Bristol scene still recovering from D&B’s speed rush, ’28G’ / ‘Fearless’’s skunky, dubwise rhythms still sound completely counter-intuitive. ’28G’’s snare only lands on the three about half of the time, ‘Fearless’’s bassline subsumes UKG’s start-stop rhythms to zombified, voodoo textures scarcely recognizable as descendants of soulful house, and both tracks contain enough sub to make ravers physically ill, given the right system. These sonic signifiers would be often imitated but never matched, and Tectonic would rapidly move into new territory, exploring the various sounds that could fill these tracks’ blank spaces.
‘Gud Money’ / ‘Structive’
Think fast: who’s the most underrated producer in the history of garage? There’s plenty of unsung heroes, but Oris Jay (aka Darqwan, aka DQ1, aka RS4), a Sheffield legend and original FWD>> resident, is undoubtedly in the running. His experiments welding breakbeats to 2-step knocked the FWD>> movement off course from dubby, slinky garage into far harsher territory, opening the door for Slimzee and Youngsta to mix grime instrumentals at the night – though the style would ultimately lose out to half-step when it came to defining the night’s golden age. Dance music is littered with these stories: ideas not quite of their time or forgotten too fast, but ‘Gud Money’ is all the proof you need to see that Oris Jay could adapt his style to changing times, even surpassing the competition.
‘Gud Money’’s sub frequencies are a thing of beauty, propelling the entire track forward while booming snares anchor the proceedings in the absence of a traditional kick pattern. While too many half-step tracks sound inert in hindsight, ‘Gud Money’ compels clubbers to shake their asses through sheer force, and I pity the soundsystem owner who fails to calibrate the setup before a DJ throws this one on. ‘Structive’ is just as bottom-heavy, interlocking sub-laden kicks with the growling basslines that were rapidly evolving into ever more demonic shapes.
Incidentally, if Oris Jay never blew up off dubstep, he’s never stopped moving either: he’s currently injecting his sense of darkness and groove into deep tech as RS4. It’s a fitting journey that’s never seen him in sync with his peers in either dance music’s experimental or functional camps, exploring territory to the left of both. His latest tracks wouldn’t be totally out of place over at Tectonic, should the label choose to engage with the UK house revival’s edgiest offerings.
Cyrus (Random Trio)
From the Shadows
Dance music will always have its superstars and game-changing mavericks, but its history is also littered with a supporting cast whose names recede from memory as genres fade into the past, but whose releases sound as urgent as ever when you dust them off and throw them on the platter. Cyrus (aka Random Trio) falls into the later category: though he never gained the notoriety of, say, Mala or Skream, his singles and debut LP for Tectonic pushed dubstep’s dark and minimal strain as far as it could go.
You know what this sounds like: 10-ton kicks, snares every third beat, sub frequencies that only occasionally pierce into the audible frequency spectrum and languid synth lines floating overhead. At the time, it felt like listening to trip-hop and jungle at the same time, and even after years of copycats, tracks like ‘Mind Games’ are bracing in their minimalism.
Yet listening to the record, you’re left with one question: where to go from here? From The Shadows boiled and concentrated dubstep’s appeal down to sheer minimalism, removing every possible flourish and subtracting every possible beat. Plenty of dubstep claimed to be deep, but this hit the ocean floor and left the listener gasping for air. Standout moment ‘Indian Stomp’ landed a spot on the Children of Men soundtrack, helping expand dubstep’s audience, but newcomers to the genre were mostly focusing on Caspa and Rusko’s terrifying, wobbling blitzkrieg while the original massive was hungry for new innovations.
After From The Shadows it became clear that Tectonic had to blaze new paths beyond the Croydon template, coloring dubstep’s dark pathways with new rhythms, new textures, new melodies and new concepts. Dubstep had grown beyond the tiny community that had birthed it and was rapidly influencing a new generation of producers, and it’s those names that would define Tectonic’s second phase.
Before every UK DJ worth his weight in Huaraches was playing analog drum tracks recorded onto repurposed Spice Girls cassettes, there was the Bristol-Berlin axis. Finding common ground between dubstep’s most rhythmically experimental tendencies and Basic Channel’s ultra-clean dub techno, the movement served as a bridge between a dubstep community increasingly uncomfortable with the genre’s formulaic aggression, and a techno community increasingly bored with tranquilized minimalism.
While Bristol labels championed the sound and Berlin record store Hardwax helped spread it to new audiences, some of its most exciting practitioners were in fact Dutch. One such producer was Dave Huismans, aka 2562, whose Tectonic debut Aerial stands as perhaps the purest example of this style’s power. Where the DMZ generation synthesized its influences into totally new shapes, Aerial operated through addition, taking techno’s steely textures and abstract futurism and marrying them to heavily broken garage rhythms.
The resulting album redressed an imbalance: suddenly, dub techno didn’t feel enslaved to a steady pulse and dubstep could explore headier textures and structures, divorced from increasingly monotonous drops. It also further explored dubstep’s connection to reggae at a time when producers were rushing to refix just about every one-drop classic that could be time-stretched to 140BPM. Roots reggae chords and rhythms were more present than ever in tracks like ‘Moog Dub’, filtered through a mechanized framework that was not roped to Jamaican music’s traditions.
It’s a sound that wasn’t built to last. While the style’s rhythmic diversity never went stale, it was far easier for producers to find a place in techno’s European club infrastructure than to fight for a say in dubstep’s future. Nevertheless, Aerial remains a high-water mark in Tectonic’s history – the moment when the label pushed dubstep beyond its London origins and into unexplored territory.
‘Infinity is Now’ / ‘Junktion’
Pinch and Pev, Pev and Pinch: it’s impossible to state how large these institutions loom over Bristol’s contributions to dance music. Look beyond the myth-making however, and you’ll find two ravers who grew up on jungle and dedicated their lives to reinventing the rush they experienced from classic Metalheadz records. Their approaches worked in tandem: Pinch brought the world to Bristol through his Subloaded Nights and Tectonic, while Pev exposed Bristol to the world through Rooted Records, the city’s hub for dance music, and via his Bristol-centric Punch Drunk label. Dance music relies on communities, but communities don’t spring up out of the blue – they require hard, thankless work from soldiers behind the scenes, and dozens of artists saw their careers launched at the hands of these two rebels.
With the benefit of hindsight, ‘Infinity is Now’ marked a changing of the guard in UK music. Dubstep had calcified into easily identifiable tropes and a generation reared on the FWD>> ethos of experimentation were ready to go beyond sullen stomping. Even with this in mind, however, ‘Infinity is Now’ is absolutely fearless, completely inverting dubstep’s reigning paradigm: the track build and rolls with nary a drop, the genre’s suffocating darkness is replaced by an ebullient, crystalline synth line, and all advances in rhythm and bass now serve music made for all out dancing rather than meditative shuffling. Suddenly, the doors were flung wide open and labels like Hessle Audio, Hemlock and Hotflush ran through with guns blazing, creating music that refracted 2-step’s drums through techno’s sleek sound design and wistful romanticism. The world still called it dubstep, but within months you had to throw in the “post” prefix to capture just how different this music was from the formula dominating the average student night.
Pinch ft Yolanda
The most infuriating thing about today’s dubstep purists demanding strict allegiance to a deeper, darker sound is that they’re missing out on what made the genre’s end of the decade rise so exciting. Amidst its commercial mutations and the underground’s counter-reactions, producers were finding new ways to twist the 140BPM tempo to suit new ideas. It’s in this context that Pinch dropped the remixes to ‘Get Up’, a classic EP asserting that dubstep could be feminine, funky, danceable and above all, connected to its garage roots.
Equal parts shuffling and driving, the original track, taken from Pinch’s Underwater Dancehall LP two years earlier, split the difference between DMZ’s heaviest dynamics and the slinkier, pre-Mystikz rollers of El-B and Horsepower Productions. Vocalist Yolanda Quartey delivers an absolute belter of a vocal, passionately summing up rave music’s “living for the weekend” ethos while retaining a jazzy undercurrent that kept the good vibes from ever sounding shmaltzy. It was an instant classic, but it was Tectonic’s long-awaited remix pack that really highlighted just how many exciting possibilities were left in dubstep, should producers leave the bangers alone.
Rob Smith (as RSD) dropped a junglist roller, straightening Pinch’s groove into a post-millennial update to Bunny Lee’s flying cymbal style that fit in perfectly with Mala and LD’s moves away from half-step’s torpor. Guido, the most romantic of Bristol’s “purple” producers, surrounded the vocal with lush chords straight out of a JRPG, predicting grime’s hi-def renaissance at the hands of producers like JT The Goon and Shriekin’ by half a decade. Jack Sparrow handed in the most conventional remix – a serviceably minimal excursion which might have been a bit too close to the original for comfort, but which also hinted at the cottage industry that would allow deep dubstep to survive in its lean years. Finally, LV’s disco mix was the kind of track that eased UK music back to slower, housier territory, to the delight of an audience that had run out of patience for ketamine-fueled ragers.
Fox Trot Mannerisms
A true left turn in the Tectonic catalog, Pursuit Grooves’ Fox Trot Mannerisms saw the label trade dance music’s DJ-friendly, interlocking grooves for an American take on electronic soul. This wasn’t fully without precedent: Flying Lotus dropped a rare loosie on Tectonic Plates Volume 2 and contemporaries such as Hyperdub had put out freeform bass music to critical acclaim for a few years already. It’s to Pursuit Grooves’ credit, though, that Fox Trot Mannerisms still stands up to scrutiny half a decade later, even though most releases in this style sound a bit stuffy and (ahem) mannered.
Where most “post-dubstep” records come off like limp over-reactions to brostep’s excesses, Fox Trot Mannerisms is a wonderfully weird, seductive oddity. There’s an obvious debt to J Dilla in the drums, and it’s easy to connect the dots between the Brooklyn-born producer’s work and what was going on in Los Angeles, but the record’s darkness and bass pressure still tied it to Tectonic’s history, even as the label was searching for new directions.
There’d be plenty more dubstep releases to come before Tectonic embraced a new sound, but that only makes Fox Trot Mannerisms more interesting in hindsight – a standout record that was too good not to release, format be damned. What it did point out was Tectonic’s need to spread out after dubstep’s decline, and while some directions proved to be dead ends, this restlessness eventually got the label its groove back. There weren’t any more Tectonic plates like Fox Trot Mannerisms, but maybe there should have been. Not to mention that this record will leave you wondering why so many post-dubstep groups featured indie-bred sad boys instead of singers with actual soul.
‘This is It’ / ‘Make Um Bounce’
The FWD>> sound’s death spiral meant lean times for Tectonic: they released plenty of average material to pad the crates of true believers holding out for a revival even as it became abundantly clear that UK music’s next evolution meant abandoning the orthodoxy that had come to define dubstep, deep or not. The real issue was a lack of material: there just weren’t enough tracks that fit the label’s darkside ethos while also exploring new pathways and rhythms.
Addison Groove’s ‘This is It’/’Make Um’ Bounce was a major exception. The last track in the Bristol producer’s initial run under the moniker, it combined club/footwork rhythms with slower tempos in a truly organic fashion, providing a much needed antidote to both dubstep and big room house’s monotony. It’s so good you’ll wonder why more producers didn’t take to the idea, instead turning to future garage in all its pastel glory. While dubstep crossed with footwork may seem obvious on paper, the devil is in the details: the bridge’s jazzy chords, vocal samples ripped straight out of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Go’, and pounding 808s connecting Teklife futurism to FWD>> a few years before Rashad’s Hyperdub releases made the links explicit.
Nearly half a decade on, you can drop it between Finn or DJ Milktray tunes and it feels completely of the moment, an anthem for a “proto” genre that never happened. The pivot towards more driving patterns and slower tempos also anticipated a major shift in Tectonic’s fortunes, but it would take a few more years and an injection of new blood to truly knock the label out of its stasis.
Mumdance & Logos
‘Legion’ / ‘Proto’
Pinch wasn’t the first person to release Mumdance and Logos’ collaborations – Dusk & Blackdown beat him to the punch by a few months when they put out the mind-boggling ‘In Reverse’. But where that track’s hardware-driven darkness represented just one aspect of Keysound’s 130BPM experimentations, ‘Legion’ and ‘Proto’ provided the foundation for a whole new identity over at Tectonic.
The tempos hovered around the pulse of European techno, but the percussion rarely landed on a steady groove, instead exploding into bursts of overdriven 808s and corroded drum breaks. The song structures owed more to UK hardcore’s builds and drops than meandering minimal or endless drum tracks, but any debt to dub and reggae was now subsumed to a more mechanical darkness straight out of the Metalheadz playbook. Overnight, the label had a swagger in its step and new ground to build upon. Today, Tectonic’s biggest releases and signature nights inevitably feature a combination of Pinch, Mumdance and Logos.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this was the most influential release in the label’s history, at least internally. Almost overnight, Tectonic went from releasing producers clinging onto dubstep to introducing a new generation of UK artists focused on subverting techno and grime’s weirdest ideas into an as-yet-unnamed hybrid. Above all, it proved that given the right mission and a willing community, the label could reinvent itself and make the difficult decisions its peers and predecessors couldn’t. If rave music is a survival of the fittest, this release made Tectonic one of the rare institutions that could evolve in the face of hungry, younger challengers.