The Best of Dubstep 2007
by Brian DeLeeuw
At this point it is a truism that the internet has all but obliterated geographical barriers to the distribution of new music. The positives are obvious; the negatives are that sounds become dissociated from the scenes in which they were cultivated, an elimination of context that is the flipside of the globalization of culture.
Dubstep – a sub-bass-obsessed hybrid of two-step, dub reggae, jungle, and techno, but something that really just sounds like itself – could only have grown out of the South London remnants of the collapsed UK garage scene. It is a particularly local phenomenon that speaks of gray skies, pirate radio, council estates, the Jamaican diaspora, and packed nightclubs with systems tweaked for the low end.
As this music has exploded far beyond the confines of the M25 in the last few years, the concern is that the density and convivial competition of the original scene – which led to so many innovative tracks and new directions – will be replaced by a center-less and directionless lowest-common-denominator stasis. There have been ominous signs, especially in this year’s proliferation of slap-you-in-the-face wobble tracks that are uncomfortably reminiscent of drum’n’bass’ recent dead-end thuggishness.
But when it came time to compile this list, I realized that there were just as many forward-thinking songs this year as in years past – and perhaps more.
The truth is there’s just more of everything – the good, the bad, and, most glaringly, the mediocre. Besides, without the internet, living here in New York I would never have heard this music at all, so who am I to complain?
Before the list, a few more notes. This is music built for bass. If you don’t have a decent stereo, don’t bother. Computer speakers and iPod buds will render it as a tinny mess. And even if you do have a decent system, hearing it live at a club is another thing altogether. Sub-bass drops are so deep they punch your gut and throttle your larynx; music that can seem menacing and kind of slow becomes rhythmic and joyful.
If you’re going to London or Bristol, live nights will be easy to find: FWD>> and DMZ are the standard-bearers, and there are now many, many others. In the US, it’s a little trickier. Dub War is a monthly night in New York, setting up shop for now at Love, in the West Village.
I have my own favorites like everyone else, and I don’t always love every DJ and producer they book. But if you see any of these names on the flyer – Skream, Scuba, Youngsta, Mala, Loefah, Hatcha, Appleblim, Shackleton, or Kode9 – go, and fast.
Buying the tunes can also be a bit tricky. Many of the best tracks are available first, and sometimes only, on limited pressing vinyl that never leaves England. But it’s getting easier, and most of the 12”s and LPs can now be ordered online – boomkat.com is probably the most comprehensive source out there, and they also offer mp3 downloads of some newer material.
There’s also mix CDs – this is a form of dance music after all. The Dubstep Allstars series is the definitive document, with Volume 4, mixed by Youngsta and Hatcha in 2006, as the high point so far.
the aptly named Kode9
Also excellent is the Dubstep Sufferah series mixed by Grievous Angel. He dropped Volume 3 this summer, and it’s an absurdly thick mix of re-edited dubstep riddims with grime (UK hip hop, more or less) vocals cut over the top.
Go here for the download of all three Volumes, as well as a discussion of the philosophy (really!) behind the mix. The vocals are atypical for dubstep, so it’s not the best place to start, but it is free, and it’s also really, really good.
The website that posted the Grievous Angel mix is probably the best internet source for general dubstep news. Blackdown a.k.a. Martin Clark also writes the monthly grime and dubstep column on Pitchfork, which is essential reading. Another internet resource worth checking out is Joe Nice’s Gourmet Beats Radio mixes, archived here. (Every show starts with a track or two of soul and funk, the dubstep usually kicks in around minute five.)
This monthly internet radio show by Baltimore’s finest son, the United States dubstep ambassador, is a good way to stay on top of new promos and dubplates, and offers a nice echo of the London pirate radio scene that fostered dubstep in its early days. Also worth exploring is Barefiles, a massive archive of free UK dubstep radio shows and promo DJ mixes, as well as a burgeoning record label.
The mysterious Burial is dubstep’s first cross-over star. 2006’s self-titled LP won over fans weaned on The Orb, Two Lone Swordsmen, Boards of Canada, and other forms of comedown music, and 2007’s Untrue will continue the trend. One of the only producers who has successfully taken dubstep into a full-length album format, Burial sounds like nobody else, his fractured, blurry deconstructions of UK garage managing to evoke melancholia and sadness using nothing more than smeared vocal samples, clattering two-step percussion, and ominous atmospherics.
I could have just as easily picked “Ghost Hardware,” “Archangel,” or “Shell of Light” from the album, but I went with the title track for its tense push-and-pull between the male vocal sample and the mid-range synth stabs. It’s spooky and wonderful and you should really just get the entire album. (mp3)
2. “Temple Ball” – Gravious (Hot Flush)
Taken from a shared EP also featuring solid tracks from Benga & Walsh and Marlow, “Temple Ball” is a gorgeous example of Sino-dub, a style which incorporates Far Eastern instruments and ideas into the production. (Check L-Whiz’s “Centurion” for another nice example from ’07.) An unbelievably low bass – seriously, some systems might not even pick it up – and strings that sound like they were lifted from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” do the trick. (mp3)
It was a toss-up between this and the aptly-titled “Subterfuge” – taken from the excellent Hot Flush label compilation Space and Time – which, keeping on the film tip sounds like the soundtrack to some yet-to-be-made horror flick. Ominous strings, propulsive sub-bass, and shifty percussion add up to wonderfully paranoid vibe. Listen to “Subterfuge” at Gravious’s Myspace page and buy both from boomkat.com.
The Bristol-based Skull Disco collective of Shackleton and Appleblim do things a little differently. Their releases are full of pure reverb-drenched menace and clattering, syncopated percussion, often influenced by Middle Eastern or African traditions. They try to scare you more than make you dance, so, as far these boys go, this track is as uplifting as it’s going to get. A long, echoing melodica intro brings to mind Augustus Pablo’s classic ’70s dubs, and then the sub-bass drops and the reverbed-to-all-fuck percussion kicks in, and the goddamn thing could really just roll on forever if it wanted to.
This is one of the new tracks from the Skull Disco double-CD compilation Soundboy Punishments, which is essential listening for anyone interested in the darker side of dubstep. Check Appleblim’s “Girder” and “ Mystical Warrior” on the same album for further brutality. iTunes carries the compilation, but go to the Skull Disco website for vinyl ordering. (mp3)
4. “Disko Rekah” – Loefah (Deep Medi Musik)
My favorite dubstep producer on probably my favorite dubstep label. This is part of a split 12” with Coki, but forget about that. Like all of Loefah’s productions, it’s deceptively simple, unbelievably heavy, yet somehow funky at the same time. His sound is so aggressive, but it’s the restraint, the space, that makes it work. The sharp hip hop vocal samples don’t hurt either. (mp3)
His DJ set with Mala at September’s Dub War in NYC was outrageous, and he was on fire production-wise this year – check out “It’s Yours,” “Voodoo,” and a colossal remix of Matty G’s “50,000 Watts.” Find the vinyl on Boomkat and while you’re there, check out his older track “Ruffage,” an all-time classic.
5. “Lean Forward” – Mala (DMZ)
Rough ragga vocals, a rolling baseline, and spazzed-out congos from one of the scene’s originators and half of Digital Mystikz (along with Coki, see below). When that first, instantly recognizable keyboard tone sounds, everybody in the club knows what’s next. Mala is repped for DJ sets that blur the lines between dubstep, deep house, and techno, and his productions often have a more propulsive, continuous vibe than most of the scene’s other big guns. No mp3 release on this one – check Boomkat for a sample and to order the vinyl.
6. “Spongebob” – Coki (DMZ)
Depending on who you ask, this is a candidate for either the best or worst dubstep track of the year. I tend toward the latter, but either way you can’t do a 2007 dubstep round-up without mentioning it.
It’s the harder-than-thou ethos taken to an absurd level, all wobbly, modulating bass and buzz-sawing synths. It sounds like a swarm of hornets in your brain, and it’s not pretty. (And we’re not even going to talk about the title.) The problem isn’t so much this track, which is brutally impressive in its own way, but the surplus of less-worthy imitators and progenitors both. It’s a lot of noise, it’s annoying, and it’s a dead-end – how many tracks like this can you hear in a row? (mp3)
7. “2D” – Skream (Tempa)
Skream is a twenty-one year old kid from Croydon, South London who is easily the most prolific dubstep producer in the world. New releases on big labels – Tempa, Tectonic, Southside, even the classic Soul Jazz – fall as regular as rain; he claims to have over 1,500 (!) tracks on his hard drive in various states of production. He started producing at the age of fifteen, and now he can excel at anything from hard-style wobble (“Chest Boxing”) to digi-dub (“Pass the Red Stripe”) to techno-influenced moodiness (“Dubbers Anonymous Part 2”).
“2D,” from the Skreamizm Vol. 4 EP, is something new, full of shimmering, 8-bit Nintendo-style melodies that sparkle, glitter, and ultimately fall apart into a glitchy, pixilated mess. Check Tempa’s website for more of Skream’s older releases, and be sure to listen to 2005’s “Midnight Request Line” – still probably the most well-known and influential dubstep track of all time – on his Myspace page. This EP doesn’t have an mp3 release yet, but check Boomkat for a sample and the promo vinyl.
8. “Roll With the Punches” – Peverelist (Punch Drunk)
Spooky! More from Bristol, coming at the scene with a sideways lurch. Echoing, spiraling synths, nervous kick-drums, and lots of subtle production touches ensure that this builds more like Basic Channel dub-techno than a typical dubstep club thrasher. That eerie lead synth is like the mating call of some unknown underwater mammal; the whole thing sounds like it was produced at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Available on iTunes, bizarrely. (mp3)
I guess it’s cheating to pick two sides of the same single, but when they’re both this good – and this different – why be prissy about things? Paul Rose, a.k.a. Scuba, runs the Hot Flush label, as well as the Scuba and Abucs (geddit?) sub-labels, so his talent as an A&R dude is well-established. But, as this single proves, he’s probably a better producer than anybody he signs. “Frisco” is a bouncy, one-note skanker, instrumental reggae for the 21st Century, while “Brown” is a sleepy-eyed dreamer saved from soporific New Age-ness by its rumbling sub-bass. And the vintage San Fran cover art ain’t too bad either. Download at Boomkat. (mp3) and (mp3)
10. “Funhouse” – The Others (Dub Police)
Shambling, aggravated, and disgustingly heavy in the low end, this is built to blow sub-woofers to pieces. Coming out of the Caspa and Rusko corner of the dubstep world, this is the dirty stuff done right – just like Loefah’s best tracks, in spite of all the nastiness, there’s something disciplined about the production that keeps it on this side of the cheesy bitch-slapping contest in which some indulge. (Speaking of Caspa and Rusko, check out their just-released installment in the stalwart Fabriclive mix series.) No mp3 release – head to Boomkat for the vinyl (“Funhouse” is the second sample).
Congratulations for getting this far! This could be the single best dubstep track of the year:
Brian DeLeeuw is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is an assistant editor at Tin House, and writes regularly on travel and food for CITY magazine (www.city-magazine.com). He is at work on a novel.
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file photo of Burial