Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dubstep: The New Techno?

(DJG image: © Kelly Koehler)

[This article, composed by ForwardEver, originally appeared on new label/music/networking site FriendsofFriends where FE is a contributing editor.]

Dubstep is a genre name coined by Neil Jolliffe and Sarah Lockhart (Sarah Soulja) of East London-based Ammunition Promotions to describe UK Garage’s reggae-dub influenced tracks, which began emerging in 1999-2000. The term was prominently featured in XLR8R magazine’s July ’02 cover story on Tempa Records artists Horsepower Productions. In the article writer Dave Stelfox refers to the emerging genre as “yardcore,” picking up on a thread first developed by Steve Goodman a.k.a Kode 9 (Hyperdub Recordings). Goodman asserted: “Yardcore, from jungle to garage and forward, is the mutant strain of the UK Hardcore audio virus, where Jamaican dancehall flavor meets London’s freshest riddims.”

Elsewhere in the article Stelfox adds that 2-Step and UK Garage sounds matured between 1999 and 2002, and were shaped most significantly by producers who were ardent followers of UK reggae sound systems such as Jah Shaka, Aba Shanti and Saxon. Hence, dubstep blew up in the early ‘00s with Horsepower Productions, El-B, J Da Flex, Ms. Dynamite and Oris Jay releasing a slew of dubbier garage and 2-Step, as well as dancehall remixes and ragga-MC flavored tracks.

Those heady days segued neatly into Croydon producers Benga, Skream, Loefah, Digital Mystikz and Hatcha’s half time signature dub styles, which firmly established the dubstep niche, as well as it’s distinctive sub-bass wobble patterns. But things change, and as dubstep expanded exponentially throughout the world, myriad influences mutated the audio virus further.

Techno shades have been present in dubstep productions for a while, pioneered by artists like Boxcutter, Elemental and Plastician (formerly Plastic Man UK) and labels such as Tectonic, Planet Mu and Hotflush. However, dubstep’s techno flirtations ramped up considerably following Skream’s ’05 “Midnight Request Line” single, Benga & Coki’s massive four-four kick drum pattered “Night” in summer ’07 and Burial’s international album smash Untrue (Hyperdub) the same year. Since then artists including TRG, Scuba, Martyn, Pinch, Headhunter, Vaccine and 2562 have significantly drawn on techno’s drum, synth and production motifs, seamlessly melding them into dubstep’s amorphous blueprint.

(Tech-minded: Hotflush artist Scuba)

With minimal techno reaching a global critical mass in 2008, corrupted by mainstream labels and arena DJs in search of a new field to hoe after progressive trance’s ignoble self-implosion, underground techno producers and dubstep heads have formed an unspoken alliance, with each group borrowing and bartering with the other.

In San Francisco, for instance, several club nights have featured both minimal techno and dubstep DJs either on the same bill or in separate rooms, hoping to attract crossover audiences. Dubstep has not seen similar pairings with house, hip-hop or drum & bass to the same extent that it has with techno. However, even prominent producers who are pioneering dubstep tunes that incorporate Basic Channel-like echoes and Kompakt-style melodies are not so sure that dubstep is now in a techno phase.

“I think its cool that people are experimenting with different influences,” says San Francisco producer Justin Shields, who records as Jus Wan for Apple Pips, Tube 10 and other labels. “To me its still all about the bass and the drum and the reverb. The rest is just icing, really.” Fellow San Franciscan Dean J. Grenier a.k.a. DJG agrees: “I think dubstep is essentially a BPM range, a vibe and a lot of bass. How you present those elements is up to the producer.”

Songs like Jus Wan’s “Action Potential” (Apple Pips) or DJG’s “Breathing” (forthcoming) balance dubstep bass lines atop fluid yet steppy drum programming with arpeggiated keys that swirl in pleasing patterns. These tracks’ four-four kickdrum programming and deep synth pads invoke late-night Berlin bunker parties. Therefore, it came as no surprise when earlier in 2008 premier Berlin techno PR firm Tailored Communications, run by Brit ex-pat Melissa Tailor, added both Apple Pips and Hotflush to their promotion ranks, which includes techno mainstays Osgut Ton, Mule, Aus Music, Kompakt and Wagon Repair.

Contrastingly, however, Grenier reaffirms what Stelfox and Goodman asserted years back about dubstep’s sound system roots. “Dubstep has roots in dub, reggae, jungle and 2-step,” Grenier offers. “I think producers are experimenting with the vibe and aesthetic of techno and pulling from their immediate or past influences.”

Grenier, like others in the dubstep fraternity acknowledge the role that German techno artists and labels – Chain Reaction, Burial Mix, ~Scape – played in the development of electronic dub sounds. “I’ve been a longtime fan of Rhythm and Sound, Monolake and Deadbeat,” says Grenier. “To me the idea of blending dub bass-weight and aesthetics with techno vibes and sounds is nothing new. Producers in Berlin and elsewhere have been doing it since the ‘90s. I think what is exciting now with dubstep messing with techno sounds is that it’s a new genre, but to dub techno heads it just makes sense. It’s a logical step.”

Logical to some, perhaps, but dubstep still finds itself dominated by heavier, aggressive tunes, such as Rusko’s “Mr. Chips,” Chase & Status’ “Eastern Jam” or TC’s “Where’s My Money.” That’s not to say there aren’t gems among the heavier fare. Jakes, Mala and DZ have a knack for producing big-bass tumblers with experimental touches. What’s clear is that dubstep has more variety than ever, although the explicitly reggae-dub influenced tracks are not as much at the forefront. Still, Grenier thinks the scene is experiencing an exciting period.

“I love what’s coming out of Bristol,” he says. “[I like] tracks on Pinch, Peverelist and Appleblim’s labels, plus [producers] Headhunter, Rob Smith, Joker, Jakes and so on — Bristol is killin’ it right now. Same with Jus Wan, Djunya, Eskmo and all the SF gang.” His admiration also extends globally; he rates French producer F, XI in Canada and the UK’s Quest, Silkie and LD. “There is no shortage of incredible music in this scene.”

Whether or not dubstep will become as entrenched and significant a genre as techno has become in its 20-something year history remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that many in the dubstep fraternity have a healthy respect for techno’s musicality, spatial grooves and what Grenier calls “tension.”

The techno/dubstep relationship is a work in progress, a mutual conversation that’s reached a high point or just the natural cross-pollination of electronic artists in an accelerated global scene. What happens next is something of a mystery but an intriguing one, as Grenier recognizes. “You can’t control what happens to these things, all you can do is make music that matters to you and see where it takes you.”