Is dubstep back, or did it never really leave?

The UK, it would seem at least, has something of an obsession with genre brackets and boundaries. As soon as any new sound emerges from our fair shores, the first thing people are keen to do is to find a specific title or tag to attach to said-sound, which, in reality, I have little to no issue with. It makes sense to try and find points of reference for different sounds, to be able to identify their historical roots and parent genres to truly understand why things happen the way they do. One of the greatest things about growing up in a musical hub of the UK is the vast depth of sounds I have been able to expose myself to from a young age, both from a professional standpoint and from a leisurely angle as well.

2020 was, as we predicted here at The 3000 Network, a year of hybridization, a year in which sounds really and truly merged, seemingly without any new sub-genres being created in the process. We saw the worlds of tech house and bass music collide with serious splintering sounds, almost reshaping the UK underground entirely with so many producers now off into the realms of UK garage we are yet to hear a real overarching name for. As a music journalist and lifelong fan of UK underground dance music, to watch these splinters has been truly fascinating, none more so than the evolution of 140BPM based music.

Dubstep saw one of the most successful years ever in 2020, in regards to digital sales figures and the general evolution of the sound the quality levels higher and the general professionalism of labels behind the scenes impressive. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a number of the top heads and it’s been a truly mindblowing experience to see this new age of dubstep reign supreme. The quote I keep hearing people say is ‘Dubstep is back’ or ‘The underground side of dubstep is back”. Now, despite my belief in this being pretty resolute myself until recently, I thought it would be an interesting topic to explore, given that dubstep as a sound was so many people my age’s route into music in the first place.

Let’s take it back to near the beginning because at this point everybody has heard the tales of Big Apple Records, Skream & Benga, DMZ shutting down Brixton Jamm and Mary Anne Hobbs hosting Dubstep Warz and completely reshaping the face of digital music in the UK. Dubstep was a phenomenon, a genuine cultural shift and it was the first time that I, a schoolchild at the time, started to notice people from different social backgrounds and friendship groups gravitate towards a singular genre. Everyone had the new Nero track their iPod classic, everyone knew about Borgore, everyone remembers a certain Chase & Status live show at Concorde2 in Brighton and everyone had a copy of Caspa & Rusko’s ‘Fabriclive’ mix. It was our sound and it was the first time a lot of now-producers first saw their future existing within music production.

– Skream & Benga at Big Apple Records –

Now, of course, a lot of these above are moderately mainstream events for the time—all of the above have gone on to become renowned worldwide for their contributions—but, just for a brief minute, I want to talk about what was making it all so possible. The underground side of dubstep music was like nothing I had ever seen before and am yet to see the likes of. There were so many YouTube channels it was genuinely difficult to count. There were many, if not even more active independent labels than within the bass scene now, nearly all of which were setting up production lines to release physical copies of their releases which again, as a youngster I simply couldn’t get enough of.

I remember specifically, for a good year or so, my Saturday morning routine was: up early, (regardless of any partying the night before), hat and coat on, and down to Dance2 Records in the center of Brighton. quick catch up with the staff, a quick rustle through the new releases, and then onto Rounder Records in the South Lanes where the real gems could be found at the time. It felt like I was genuinely a part of something out of a film, spending all my pocket money and weekend-job wages from the week before on wax to play to myself in my room. Without sounding boomerish, there is definitely some level of attachment lost without that part of the process.

– Rounder Records, Brighton –

As well as the physical side you had the radio shows: Rinse.FM, Dubstep.FM, Sub.FM, Dubterrain.net—it just kept going and going. N-Type’s Rinse.FM show is one that always stood out to me because every week, without fail, I would be listening, writing down the names of forthcoming releases, and bookmarking the times of the mix when certain unnamed tunes were playing. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I can’t imagine ever having that level of commitment to a sound again, not with the same levels of detail. It was an obsession and I know I wasn’t the only one with this mindset.

I spoke to N-Type about the importance of the show and how it effected the scene at the time recently, during which he said: I’ve always been dedicated to finding new music from record buying, to cutting Dubplates and getting fresh tracks off producers. My radio show was always a place to showcase the freshest dubs. It really kicked off on Delight fm a few years before Rinse when I was playing Jungle, DNB and Garage but when I left there to join Rinse Fm, Dubstep was really taking shape and it was my favourite sound. I used to shop in Big Apple records in Croydon and a lot of the household Dubstep names shopped there also. It was a hub of creativity and between us we all played a part in building the sound. I was lucky to be in the heart of it, so I had endless Dubplates to play, some weeks I would cut 5-10 Dubplates just for radio. I think what made my show unique was every week there were new exclusives and I was gassed to play them. I always had a laugh with it. Going to Rinse was like going to the local for a Pint and to roll out some tune. Nothings changed I still love it!”

Now, the common theory is that at some point around the early 2010s dubstep was captured by a bunch of EDM goblins and it was lost forever to an array of hardstyle synthesizer plugins and distortion overloads, without naming any names of course. Having spoken to numerous different label owners and producers over this side of the water in my time, it’s pretty clear to see that the sound in fact didn’t go anywhere, the listenership did.

Let’s be clear, it’s very easy to lose a sound to mainstream popularity. It’s happened with numerous rappers and producers over the years, but never in a way that in the course of what felt like a few months, the entire deep side of the genre seemed to have vanished. Looking back, however, it didn’t, it simply evolved to survive. Take a look back at a lot of the grime music that was being released around 2011 through to 2014 when you next get a chance. You will notice so many of the instrumentals featuring bass sounds and instrumentation that simply weren’t being used before Sukh Knight’s link up with P Money.

The dubstep themes had essentially gone undercover, working their way through numerous different sounds until around 2014, when we finally started to see the beginnings of a shift back towards dubstep’s independence as a sound. We started to see new labels blossoming, new producers emerging and the era of 140 music as a whole beginning to take shape.

I then spoke to Pieter over at Duploc, where I found some interesting takes on this theory.

Pieter: Around 2010 is when I first started getting involved with the sound so it’s quite an interesting time frame, you had labels such as Hench Recordings still doing big thins around that time to name a project straight away, but you have to see everything in the light of how the sound changed during that period. It seemed to go from proper Soundsystem stuff to a more midrange driven, commercialized and Americanized sound, which was most likely sparked off the back of Caspa & Rusko’s Fabriclive. It always had positive and negative feedback so it’s actually quite a controversial event in the history of the sound.

From there the word dubstep got a bit of bad connotation, it never seemed the same again, but it also meant that people like myself were able to get exposed to it. I was actually exposed to the sound of it via the internet and I think that made such an impact on the scene. I was following over 200 dubstep channels that had a commercial edge to them. What we decided to do with our label was a little different, taking artists such as Enigma Dubz & Bukez Finezt and some of the guys from Monstars & Hench, It wasn’t the tearout stuff, but it wasn’t the system stuff either, it was somewhere in-between that seemed to fit both brackets. It was their take on it and it showed that dubstep was still expanding and the range was never-ending. This was in 2012 and by that point, people had already started to get tired of the heavier, more tearout, and commercial side of dubstep, especially producers who wanted to try something new.  The channel blew up almost immediately.

At this point I wasn’t even aware of Deep Medi or Tempa, my induction was through YouTube channels and none of them were focussing on that original sound at the time. It took a while but eventually, I started to find these original labels and start understanding them and really valuing them. There were labels then approaching me with the more midrange, riddim inspired sounds and it just didn’t feel right after finding these original labels and the sounds they created. I think looking at the bigger picture, so many people fell out of love with dubstep at that time. I feel the fact I was able to get a channel off the ground so quickly, says to me that there was a need for it regardless.

So many labels ended up launching during this period and Deep Medi never actually stopped releasing, you can’t forget that throughout that whole period they were still putting incredible music out there. The top DJs and artists were still getting booked so it seemed the focus had shifted more to have some financial gain after all the years of foundation building and obviously it’s unavoidable if the opportunities arise. It seemed the sound itself had moved completely out of the hands of the pioneers and what the sound was originally intended to be, so it moved from foundation building to rebuilding. We saw the heavy sounds quite simply die out during that period and it pretty much went from there.

– Pieter – Duploc – 

When you take a look around and see the likes of Deep, Dark & Dangerous, Infernal Sounds, Encrypted Audio, Locus Sound, Dank N Dirty Dubz, and a bag more, it’s safe to say that the quality levels across the board really have never been higher. As a JunoDownload reviewer, I genuinely open up my listing on Monday with excitement to see what new 140 releases have landed and I am, to this day, rarely disappointed with what I find.

This fusion of different genres in the 140 regions, for me, is the key to dubstep’s survival in the four years before its so-called “re-emergence”. Taking a look back at some of the earliest releases on White Peach Records for instance shows that, whilst their catalogue at the time was primarily grime-influenced, there are still those dubstep elements working away in the background, biding their time within the sounds of 140. This theme has continued to this day but on a much more instrument-based level, with the steady but consistent inclusion of eastern instrumentation and melody into the fold being the most obvious and notable continuation.

The last four years have been somewhat of a blur with the pace at which so many different dubstep producers and labels have established themselves to the masse, JunoDownload’s deep dubstep section, in particular, serving as a hub for new platforms and projects to build their fanbases. We have seen online imprints such as Duploc & FatKidOnFire grow to document the scene, giving it regular coverage and showcasing artists and labels alike. Similarly, initiatives like Deep Tempo have created something truly innovative with their release review video podcast. Most recently, Beatport have announced their brand new 140 / grime/dubstep genre section, adding a layer of validity that grime and dubstep are continuing to merge.

Although it may appear that dubstep abruptly disappeared into the memories of our childhood, it never really went away, it just adapted to survive the UK’s slow shift towards more 4×4-based sounds, with its new, butterfly-like emergence presenting as something truly spectacular. As a writer, reviewer, and radio presenter, I have never been more excited for the future of the genre I played my first ever show within and, to be honest, you should feel the same way!