Why dubstep is back at the cutting edge in 2018
The London sound blew up, crossed the Atlantic and became the taste of bros hungry for “the drop”. But after a period underground, dubstep veterans and newcomers are pushing things forward once more.
“In time, we’ll look back at the next few years as another golden era. An era when the new Skreams, Malas, Caspas and Ruskos all gave us their critical breakthrough music…”
These are the words of ZHA. As the DJ and producer behind cult hybrid bass label Fent Plates and White Peach, a label and distribution company that specialises strictly in dubstep and grime, his words have weight. He’s also not alone. Almost all the artists interviewed for this feature – from young risers and OG veterans alike – are confidently using the term ‘golden era’.
The evidence is stacking up. London is currently thriving with key events. Mala and V.I.V.E.K both held packed dances on the same night last month. In January, the new hot ticket Heavyweight sold out its first event at Fire – while in May, SGT Pokes’ seminal Croydub event will host its first party since 2013.
It blew up so quickly a dip was always going to happen
There’s also a vital slew of new artists operating in, and around, the genre at present, backed up by a lengthy roll call of genuinely exciting labels supporting and encouraging their craft. Innamind, Chestplate, Artikal, Sentry, Blacklist, Infernal Sounds, Deep Dark & Dangerous, Hatched, Crucial, Encrypted Audio, Fent Plates, White Peach, System Music, Deep Medi, Uprise Audio, Nomine Sound and Cella Records – all are highly active and innovative imprints nurturing new acts, new hybrids and new ideas right now.
To understand why this is happening now, however, we need to understand one thing: dubstep never went away. It didn’t die… if you knew where to find the good stuff. Exciting dubstep labels, forward-thinking artists and crucial events have always lurked beneath the mainstream, and even as the bro-friendly, EDM-influenced sound took off in America, back here in Britain the dubstep sound was headed back underground.
“It blew up so quickly a dip was always going to happen,” considers Hatcha, the Croydon producer credited with coining the term dubstep. “But the chainsaw American style dominated things so much, a lot of people weren’t feeling the sound quite so much. It had lost its authenticity, people left the scene and things did take a dive for a few years. But those of us who stayed in the scene kept our heads down, we kept grafting at it back underground.”
“I think for a while, people had this mentality like ‘we need to make a banger’,” adds ZHA. “But over the last four years I feel we’ve gone back to the roots and nature of what the sound was. It’s not about making music that can gain superficial shelf-life popularity – it’s about a genuine exploration of sound through creativity that's creating a more intelligent landscape.”
How dubstep branched out
Perhaps one of the reasons for dubstep's new health is that it has its ears open. This new generation of producers are painting from a new palette of influences around the beats and bass axis – wave music, garage, trap, halftime d‘n’b and grime have all played a role in revitalising the genre’s sense of energy and focus.
“If you played the stuff we’re making now five years ago people would have been like, ‘No, this isn’t even dubstep’,” agrees Samba. “But it does feel really fresh right now, people are trying new things.” His icy, triplet-heavy, 808-fuelled sound is a great example of dubstep’s new melting pot. Aged 23, he’s one of the many bright lights helping to push dubstep forward, not just as a solo artist on equally critical and leading labels such as Encrypted Audio and Crucial, but as one half of the unpronounceable ∆ alongside Content and as one-fifth of Chonk Mob alongside Sepia, Rygby, Chokez and Koma. He enthuses about modern dubstep’s breadth of sound: “It’s very exciting knowing you can do what you like. It doesn’t have to sound in a particular way or have any expectations.”
“I think we’ve all stopped looking down one tunnel and we’re just having fun and enjoying things,” agrees Manchester’s Compa, another respected next-generation artist. His trap-influenced sound has found home on Deep Medi, Artikal and, a little further out in the bass field, Alix Perez’s 1985 Music. “People aren’t looking to each other for influence but are bringing in other influences. Commodo is bringing a hip-hop style, Gantz brings a Turkish style, Kaiju are taking things back to the dub reggae roots.”
For more examples of clear sonic signatures, see Headland’s unique dense doom-mongering, Trisicloplox’s intense, distorted sonic rule-bending, Karma’s deep steppy dub rumbles, Akcept’s dub techno and Afrobeat influences, Egoless’s rootsical bounce or Taiko’s organic drum set. The list of unique forward-thinking artists extends from Eva808 to Malleus, Foamplate to Tetrad and beyond.
While the range of influence is broader than it’s perhaps ever been in dubstep, the most significant touchstone in recent years has been grime. A brother in the UK garage family tree, dubstep and grime have always intermingled, but now more artists are blurring the paths with their productions. Rocks Foe, for example, has just tapped up Samba and Chokez to vocal their recent cut Ghastly while Bristol’s Kahn continually smelts down the heaviest elements of grime in his bewitching 140 brew. Boylan is another example. His 2017 EP Ghosts In The Machine was supported by grime and dubstep DJs alike, while his and grime OG Slimzee’s new single No Cure has become one of the most unifying dubstep records to drop this season.
“I’d like to see more crossover between grime and dubstep,” admits Boylan, who has traditionally been known as an instrumental grime producer. “Grime is very vocal-led but I’ve been really inspired by how the dubstep crowds react when it’s not just about the MC. That Sentry party earlier this year was just insane – the crowd’s reaction to instrumental music was something I’d not seen in a long time and something I’ve learnt from.”
I’ve been really inspired by how the dubstep crowds react when it’s not just about the MC
“If there’s one thing dubstep has learnt from grime it’s how to entertain in a different way but still keep that energy,” counters Nomine. He too comes from a drum ‘n’ bass background – he used to produce as Outrage – but moved into dubstep with a deep tribal sound in the early 2010s as the genre began to take a dip. “Grime has been a good reminder at how to tear up a club at 140 without going for a full-on wobble. But to be honest, I don’t care. It’s all 140 music and I’ll play a trappier thing, a dubstep thing, a grime thing. If it works for me musically then I’ll play it and that’s what I’m seeing with a lot of new producers. We’re not tying ourselves to a sound or a genre, and if we all bring different flavours then it’s a very exciting place to be.”
For the last word in this positive dubstep health check, we turn to V.I.V.E.K. While active since the early 2000s, like Nomine, he established himself and his impressive self-built soundsystem while the genre was operating at a lower ebb. While his events have always embraced acts across the bass genre spectrum, the fact that almost every System event has sold out over the last six years – even when ‘dubstep’ was considered something of a dirty word – is proof that the genre has always been vital, if you knew where to look.
“It was a strange time when we launched System. But we’ve stayed blinkered and true to what we believe in and it’s great to see how things have turned around. I see the next four years being a very exciting place for dubstep,” he considers. “I do feel we’re in another golden era. There are so many new artists, so much new music and loads of great labels. That’s really important, I think; it’s not about a few labels dominating things any more.
"There was a point for a while when you could count the main labels on one hand but now there are too many to mention. We’ve spread the load and we’re all contributing something different. That’s such a healthy position for the scene to be in. And this time things won’t explode like they did before. Things will be a lot more controlled, a lot more measured and even more diverse than the music ever has been. This is just the beginning..."