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Dubstep part one: introduction March 22, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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Various artists: Dubstep Allstars Vol.04 Mixed by Youngsta & Hatcha

Various artists: Dubstep Allstars Vol.04 Mixed by Youngsta & Hatcha

For the last couple of years I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time and money on one UK electronic dance music subgenre: dubstep. And most people I know still haven’t heard of it. But it keeps getting bigger, even as it evolves into new forms (which is what electronic music always does: see the amazing Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music, which will help you figure out the difference between techstep and darkstep, 2step garage and speed garage, happy hardcore and happy gabber — hell, don’t ask me).

The official story, as I understand it, is that dubstep and its sibling subgenre grime were reactions to the more pop/R&B direction UK garage was moving in. Grime became a harder-hitting, stripped down form of British rap, while dubstep became a generally instrumental music form. It also has elements in common with drum and bass, and, often, dub reggae and dub techno. But really, if you want to know more about all this, read the wiki article, which will tell you about syncopated triplets at 138-142 bpm and all that. This CBC article‘s pretty good, too.

What matters is that dubstep at its best doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s dark and atmospheric, but the bass pressure keeps it from drifting into ambient territory (not that some dubstep producers don’t sometimes lose the bass and do just that for the occasional album track). One comparison that sometimes comes up is that it’s like a soundtrack for a third world Blade Runner. Or triphop without the tasteful DJ guy/torch singer girl cliches that that subgenre deteriorated into.

I got hooked on dubstep through albums, though for the dubstep community in general, it’s all about singles. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of small labels pressing 12″ singles or issuing 320s, flacs, and wavs through a variety of online electronic and/or dance music specialists.Then there are all the white labels that haven’t yet been properly released, but have been distributed to various DJs. A fair number of songs end up being heard only in clubs or in radio show broadcasts, podcasts, or mixes made available online. Several websites specialize in archiving this kind of material, like Barefiles and GetDarker, so it’s possible to listen to a lot of dubstep for free. The dubstep forum is another great resource for everything from mixes to news on new releases to endless debates and disputes about the boundaries of dubstep, and what’s good and what isn’t, and sometimes just pure silliness.

Many purists insist you’ve never heard dubstep unless you’ve heard it in a club, where, if the sound system is any good, you should feel your chest rattle from the sub-bass. There are some songs for which I have no doubt that’s true, because there’s nothing musically interesting about them; they’re just beats and bass rumbles, and that’s not the side of dubstep that interests me at all. What matters to me is that there’s some seriously compelling music being made in this genre, and it doesn’t matter how you hear it.

For a subgenre that can be reduced to its tempo and bass levels, dubstep has a lot of variety. You can’t confuse a Shackleton track with a Caspa track, or a 2562 track with a Burial track. When I started getting into dubstep, I went for everything I could reasonably afford; the genre was young, and not much was on CD, so I figured I’d absorb as much of it as I could and eventually figure out which artists or labels I needed to follow and which weren’t so interesting. Now that dubstep’s getting big enough for Snoop Dogg to record a hiphop/dubstep crossover, I’m pulling back and consolidating.

Part two will show up before too long.

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