Skream pulls up a tune during a Loefah set at DMZ in London, May 2005
© Georgina Cook

Croydon, community, soundsystem culture: Tracing the history of dubstep

Follow the story of this uniquely British club sound via Red Bull's unparalleled lecture archive.
Written by Alex McFadyen
10 min readPublished on
Emerging in parallel to grime around the turn of the century, dubstep was created by a handful of younger teenagers and older heads in London who began experimenting with the basslines from their favourite garage records – notably the music of Steve Gurley, Zed Bias, J Da Flex, and El-B – and introducing dub and jungle elements to create a stripped-back, meditative sound.
Discover more about the genre's beginnings, growth and evolution through Red Bull's vast archive of lectures and conversations -- and use the hyperlinked quotes within to jump right to that moment in each lecture.

Early years and FWD>>

Given the fluidity and overlaps between grime and dubstep, it’s hard to pinpoint its exact origin, but one place – Croydon, on the periphery of South London – and a record shop there called Big Apple, were certainly instrumental in its birth. As Arthur Smith, aka Artwork, explains, “Croydon wasn’t very trendy. Nobody cool was there. It had a really bad reputation.” [Listen to Artwork at 00:00:49]
Artwork had a studio above the shop and, as well as working on pop hits with a garage slant for major labels as part of DnD Productions (Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This being perhaps the best known example), he decided to launch a label to produce white labels that would be sold in the shop by DJ Hatcha, who worked at the counter. “We just wanted to make records for us and our friends,” Artwork explains. [Listen to Artwork at 00:04:14]
Thanks in part to the exclusivity of these tracks, the Big Apple shop became a nexus for a group of music enthusiasts who were congregating around the FWD>> clubnight at the time -- a sparsely-attended night that was originally held at Soho’s legendary Velvet Rooms and dedicated to the kind of music that was considered too weird for the big MC-hosted garage raves.
It was tryin’ to copy what the El-B and Zed Biases were doing, but obviously they had like 10 grand studios, and I had free cracked software
"We used to go there and there was probably 50 people in the whole club, and 35 of those were producers," says Artwork. "So you'd make your music and then you'd go there to hear your records being played. All of us from the [Big Apple] record shop -- probably 12 or 13 of us -- we worked out if we all got in cabs it would cost us about £40 each, so 12 of us would hire a really horrible limousine from a stretch limousine company and would go up in that. And all of the other producers thought we were trying to be flash, but it was the cheapest way of getting there." [Listen to Artwork at 00:11:02]
Rinse FM with l-r: MC Task, Loefah and Youngsta. May, 2005 by Georgina Cook

Youngsta, on the right, was another key player in shaping the scene

© Georgina Cook

Artists such as Oris Jay, Plastician, Chef, LD, Kode9, N-Type, Loefah, Mala, Coki, and Benga would all be regular faces in Big Apple, alongside a teenage Skream, whose older brother Hijack ran the drum & bass floor of the shop. Hearing records by jungle legends like Moving Shadow soon had Skream experimenting with making music on his Playstation and, after he quickly tired of that, Fruity Loops.
We used to go there and there was probably 50 people in the whole club, and 35 of those were producers
More profound, though, was the experience of hearing El-B’s Buck N Bury at FWD>>. Released under his Ghost alias in 2002, this is a seminal record in the development of dubstep – also cited by Kode9 and Burial as a touchstone. “It was tryin’ to copy what the El-B and Zed Biases were doing, but obviously they had like 10 grand studios, and I had free cracked software,” says Skream in this lecture from 2006. [Listen to Skream at 00:08:19]

Dubstep defines itself

As Skream’s confidence developed and he found his voice, he began to make tunes that would provide the earliest blueprint for what dubstep could be.
The Judgement EP, released with his close friend Benga on Big Apple Records in 2003, still has a garage swing -- but the hefty basslines that would define his and Benga’s later work are there too. In his 2007 Barcelona lecture, Benga explains the purpose of these. “The songs ain’t as full as, let’s say, drum & bass. There’s no breaks, so you need the bassline pressure to understand dubstep. Maybe there’s not loads of melodies going through the songs.” [Listen to Benga at 00:11:28]
Another crucial element of dubstep is soundsystem culture. Passed down from Jamaican reggae and dub outfits through the London jungle scene, it was essential to Digital MystikzMala and Coki. Skream heard the duo doing “this really heavily musical, dub inspired stuff, and it was just really cool because I hadn’t really heard nothing like it out.” [Listen to Skream at 00:16:35]

Digital Mystikz and soundsystem culture

Mala had been teaching kids to use music software in his hometown of South Norwood (not far from Croydon), but when the government pulled its funding he decided to pursue his own music full time. He set out to work on an album and “set up a record label with a couple of my friends, Coki and Loefah.” [Listen to Mala at 00:01:31]
With nowhere to play the music they were making for their DMZ label (founded in 2004), the trio started a new clubnight, also called DMZ, that would go on to become the spiritual home of dubstep.
Shows a moment that Mala dropped Skream's Midnight Request Line to a crowd that included Skepta, Jammer, JME and Wiley. Also seen -- MC Sgt.Pokes, Jackie Steppa and Tubby.

Mala (DMZ) playing at FWD>> at Plastic People in London, April 2005

© Georgina Cook

One of the hallmarks of dubstep in general and DMZ in particular was a return to analogue aesthetics: the almost reverential treatment of vinyl releases and, even more vitally, one-off acetate dubplates that could be pressed up on the day of a rave and played that night. The buzz that this created was a huge part of the allure of nights like DMZ and FWD>>, as well as extending the rich and storied history of dubplate cutting in soundsystem culture.
“Cutting things onto dubplate for me always made me have a real objective mind about what it was I was doing,” explains Mala. “Not having a fantasy of ‘oh I’ve just made the best tune in the world’, but really listening to what it is you’ve done sonically.” [Listen to Mala at 00:20:20]
In his lecture, Mala talks about the shared purpose of this small group of musicians who gathered around FWD>>, Big Apple, and DMZ. Despite all working within the same confines of dubstep’s 140 beats-per-minute tempo, they came up with radically different results – manipulating sound and space to create Loefah’s spacious half-step, Coki’s furious basslines, or Mala’s more percussive dub-leaning records.
Cutting things onto dubplate for me always made me have a real objective mind about what it was I was doing
Describing his style, Mala highlights the way that growing up as the son of working class parents in an expensive city like London could be a struggle. “The sound I write… is a combination between that kind of struggle and there’s like a freedom and a hope as well, you know," he explains. "Even though it’s kind of dark, it’s not evil or menacing dark; it’s more that life is quite dark in certain places. Not necessarily outwardly but inwardly.” [Listen to Mala at 00:15:02]

Hyperdub signals the future

Glaswegian Londoner Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, was exploring similar psychological and sonic spaces and making music that Plastician (who himself played a key role in joining the dots between garage, grime, dubstep and each scene's various offshoots) would describe all the way back in 2004 as “pure dub, some of his tracks don’t even have beats and stuff – it’s pretty deep, he plays at FWD>>.” [Listen to Plastician at 00:31:03]
Having grown bored of jungle’s increasingly blunt emotional pull, Kode9 was looking for something fresh and exciting. He’d moved to London after spending time at Warwick University, where he’d been involved in running jungle nights and discussing controversial academic theory as part of the university’s unofficial Cybernetics Research Unit.
Now living in Camberwell in the capital’s south-east, he launched a webzine called Hyperdub (a forerunner of key online communities such as Dubstepforum and Barefiles) where he could interview artists close to his heart -- from drum & bass and jungle producers like Lemon D and Dillinja, to garage MCs such as Ms Dynamite, and even leftfield American hip-hop producers including El-P (now better known as one half of Run The Jewels alongside Killer Mike).
The Hyperdub zine would eventually become one of electronic music’s most innovative record labels and, alongside his weekly Rinse FM show, became a place where Kode9 could showcase the new music that excited him – including the disintegrated speed garage that would soon become dubstep.
There was one artist, though, who would launch the Hyperdub imprint into mainstream music consciousness. Burial, as Kode9 explains here in 2006, was “definitely at a tangent from what dubstep is. UK garage syncopations but dark and melancholy.” [Listen to Kode9 at 00:23:51]
Hailed by broadsheet newspapers as one of the most important artists of the 21st century, Burial’s downcast, rainsoaked and R&B-sampling garage would help shine a light on his peers’ brooding dubstep beats -- and the reinvigorated rave scene that was returning to its roots.
BBC radio DJ Mary Anne Hobbs was also a pivotal figure in bringing the original dubstep sound to a wider audience of electronic music enthusiasts -- showcasing most of the scene’s early talents on her Warrior Dubz mix CD (released in 2006 on Planet Mu), through live sessions at the prestigious Maida Vale Studios, and on the genre-defining Dubstep Warz special edition of her late-night Breezeblock show.

Dubstep spreads out

As the excitement grew, dubstep nights that wanted to emulate what was happening at DMZ and FWD>> started to pop up around the country, and Bristol and Leeds became particular hotspots. Just as dubstep began to mutate into a more adrenaline-fuelled, chart-friendly sound in the capital -- two notable examples being Caspa & Rusko’s 2007 FabricLive.37 mix and Skream’s 2008 remix of La Roux’s In For the Kill (a number two chart hit) -- spaces like Leeds’ West Indian Centre were staying true to the genre’s roots, while in Bristol, producers like Pinch, Peverelist, Shackleton, and Appleblim were taking it in new experimental directions.
Appleblim was (and remains) at the heart of Bristol’s rich musical culture, and recalls here how the late 2000s were an exciting time in the city -- with tunes that were “rhythmically diverse”, and saw “Headhunter doing really clean mixdown bangers, Peverelist doing this strange, slower, almost techno thing.” [Listen to Appleblim at 00:34:55]
Zed Bias portrait

Zed Bias has been an influential figure in the UK underground for decades

© Press

The internet would also spread the dubstep community even further afield. While cities like Bristol and Manchester (the latter being the home of proto-dubstep producers like MRK1 and, later, Zed Bias) were natural homes for the new rave sound, the scene’s emergence at the same time as online music forums and messenger services like AIM meant that by the late 2000s the genre was being embraced across Europe -- as well as further afield in the USA, Australia, and Asia.
Eventually these strands would filter back into the mix in London, emerging in the form of a less rigid scene, where producers could flourish outside of the 140bpm tempo but still remain part of the bass music ecosystem – with labels and club nights like Night Slugs, Swamp 81 (founded by DMZ’s Loefah) and the constantly evolving Hyperdub, home to avant-garde artists such as Ikonika and Darkstar, leading the way. Dubstep purists, meanwhile, still had DMZ nights and Mala’s DEEP MEDi label keeping the original sound alive - while also reflecting new directions on releases from Mizz Beats and Swindle.
In Leeds, too, the influence of dubstep would be prominent in the releases of Hessle Audio who, along with Night Slugs, came to define the post-dubstep era of the 2010s. And while that decade would see dubstep largely disappear from the foreground of electronic music in the UK (while finding exponential success internationally), really it was -- and remains -- everywhere.
From jungle revivalists to creators of low ‘n’ slow techno, the sonic influence of dubstep on everything that has come since is as profound as it is undeniable.