Friday, December 22, 2006

The Year in Grime and Dubstep

I have no plan to post lots of articles by others to my blog, but here's an exception, as I am something of a fan of 'dubstep'...!

Before that, here is a list of my favorite tracks in the genre (and some heading into grime and other related sub-genres):

Omen - Frontline
Omen - Aphrodite
Amit - True War
Vex'd - Function (30hz remix)
Vex'd - Candyfloss (Loefah remix)
Vex'd - Bombardment of Saturn
Vex'd - Fire
Kode 9 & the Space-Ape - Sine of the Dub
Kode 9 & the Space-Ape - Kingstown (vox)
Kode 9 & the Space-Ape - 9 Samurai
Kode 9 & the Space-Ape - Glass
Kode 9 & the Space-Ape - Quantum
Loefah & Skream - 28g
Skream - Midnight Request Line (Digital Mystickz remix)
MRK1 - Rise of the Machines
MRK1 - Rise of the Machines
Digital Mystickz - Haunted (bass)
Dexplicit - Victory
Random Trio - Prophecy
Pressure - Money Honey (with Warrior Queen)
The Bug - Thief of Dreams
Akala - This Is London
Akala - Shakespeare
Shitmat - In a Previous Life I Was an Onion Sandwich
Chevron - Rudi's Techno Pioneer
Chevron - Swimmin' Lessons
Squarepusher - Welcome To Europe


The Year in Grime and Dubstep
by Martin Clark Photo by Hattie Collins

It's been a remarkable year for dubstep, one that has shocked those who have followed the scene since its inception and energized those who have more recently found a passion for it. It is, in truth, a year for dubstep that many people thought would never come.

It's very difficult to stress just how much dubstep has changed in the past 18 months. At the beginning of 2005 dubstep was a small London community with a handful of ardent supporters worldwide. Vinyl pressings were infrequent and limited: Horsepower and Goldspot's certified stone cold classic "Sholay" was initially pressed in a run of only 300 copies. The majority of the club focus was around Forward>>, with producers building beats with the express intent of airing them over the venue's amazing soundsystem. Crowds varied from bustling to patchy, with a strong community element that meant producers often outnumbered fans on the dancefloor. Outsiders continually complained it never "went off." For around four years, it felt like it would be that way forever-- and frankly headz were grateful for that alone-- because were it not for the efforts of dedicated individuals, even that wouldn't have existed.

Although it was probably hard to tell at the time, throughout 2005 dubstep built momentum: The DMZ label and rave gained strength, Rinse sets became available on, Skream's "Request Line" crossed borders into grime and microhouse, the Dubstep Forum was launched, and online media built interest. It all came to a head in early 2006. The first DMZ rave of the year was bursting at the seams. Mary Anne Hobbs' "Dubstep Warz" radio show quickly followed, which took the bubbling scene, brought it to the boil, and served it piping hot to the rest of the beat-hungry planet. From then on in, it was clear 2006 was going to be one unlike any other for dubstep.

Suddenly DJs were getting bookings-- and not just at FWD>> or DMZ. Leeds and Bristol embraced the scene wholeheartedly, with regular large raves and local DJs and producers. The Mystikz and Loefah were DJing all over Europe while Skream was in New York or Australia with Kode9. Pinch, Vex'd, and Distance hit the U.S. Drum & bass back rooms were booking dubstep DJs. Vinyl pressing runs shot up into the thousands-- the difference between a small profit and a large loss. By the end of the year even a major motion picture had dubstep in the soundtrack. Had it not really happened, it would be unthinkable.

The change in audience was remarkable, too. For years, was the only dedicated dubstep forum, but it remained a tense and barren environment. Come January the Dubstep Forum was piling on the members, with more than 4,500 to date. Electronica institution Planet Mu was signing up dubstep 12"s left, right, and center whilst the interest from d&b fans spiked. Fresh new producers began to spring up with Gravious signed to Scuba, Kromestar and Skream's brother Hijack backed by Deep Medi, and Forensix [MCR], Headhunter, Appleblim, and Zombie showing real promise.

With a new audience came change. For many new fans it was as if the sound had begun with "Dubstep Warz", when in reality its origin lies in the turn of the millennium 2-step. This newfound interest in the early years created an appetite for projects like The Roots of Dubstep that I was lucky enough to be involved with, while increased sales allowed reissues to flourish. It also encouraged foundation producers like El-B and Oris Jay to increase their involvement with the scene again.

Increased sales and audience had another impact, too: It seemingly gave the scene's core producers the confidence to tackle the long player format, one that dubstep had rarely touched in its five-year history. Suddenly Kode9, Distance, Benga, and Skream had albums finished (three of which are reviewed here). What chance of Loefah, Pinch, Horsepower, Shackleton, or Random Trio albums in 2007?

But one album dominated 2006. Built by elusive and shy south Londoner Burial, his eponymous CD for Hyperdub exceeded all expectations, exciting dubstep fans and ensnaring new listeners who'd never heard or liked the sound before. Built with a deep reverence for glories of London urban music (esp. early El-B and mid-90s jungle), his mournful melodies transcended genre barriers.

But strangely, Burial's retrospective approach to percussion also pointed toward the future. Two years since it's inception on Forward>>'s tiny dancefloor, halfstep beats were beginning to both sound tired and not fulfill the expectations of ravers in 1,000-capacity venues. The challenge, of where to take dubstep next, will extend well into 2007.

The first production response to making big-room halfstep was by Skream and Loefah. While the latter engineered basslines of such majestic power that crowds were sonically assaulted into action, the former, alongside Coki DMZ, began fluctuating basslines so much they became a percussive element themselves. Unfortunately, the success of these approaches spawned many derivative copycat productions trying to out-dark and out-wobble each other. In an ideal world, 2007 will be the year that the legions of new production talent master their own styles and force their way down untold new byways, maintaining the quality and diversity of the scene while avoiding dubstep becoming what Loefah famously called "getting formula-ed."

As dubstep spreads globally, it will be interesting to see how regional producers absorb and re-interpret the sound with their own perspective. How can your music truly be about dark decaying London streets if you've never even seen them? Instead, it will be exciting to see if Bay Area producers can incorporate a hyphy influence, or if Brazilians can interact with baile funk. Can Indian, Japanese, or Chinese dubsteppers come through? What about glacial Scandinavian beats? If dubstep is a bass-heavy reflection of our surroundings, now that the scene's gone global, surely many new avenues now open themselves up. Let's just hope the avenues that get chosen avoid the well-proven dead ends of dance music past (liquid & noisy d&b, formula breaks, synthetic digidub, commercial house, etc.) and take an original new journey.

House itself provides an interesting landmark for dubstep in late 06/early 07. Post-Anti War Dub and Mala's other rhythmic landmark, "Bury the Bwoy", dark house flavors seem like an interesting antidote to the domination of dark wobble or stiff halfstep. With El-B and Burial around to reinstate 2-step's swing, Random Trio back in razor sharp percussive action, and Mala seemingly capable of placing kick drums in (m)any parts of the bar, 2007 could yet be a year of glorious rhythmic diversity. Add to that Pinch and Shackleton's flirtation with the European microhouse scene, and the possibilities are enticing.

The sound explored by Kode9's album-- mournful "sour spot" tones and vocal dubstep-- also remains underinvestigated. Will 2007 be the year that producers engage more with the task of writing vocal dubstep, be it grime-based lyrical fury, vocal feminine pressure, or, well, possibilities yet unimagined? It certainly poses a greater challenge than re-editing dub classics.
Into 2007, dubstep should also watch its cousin grime. While dubstep has its moment in the spotlight now (broadsheet coverage, the odd MTV documentary, some commercial radio acceptance), grime's has come and gone. Hype never lasts forever, as grime is finding. How it survives might be a useful exercise for dubstep to watch.

2006 was a year for grime when its critical hype faded and its breathtaking musical innovation slipped. It remains, however, one of the most incredible scenes on the planet and just as naysayers dismissed 2-step during the critical crash of 2001-02 (just as grime was beginning), so should they now be wary of writing off grime.

2006 was the year that cemented the switch from vinyl to CDs for grime. Inspired by US hip-hop giants, the scene calls them mixtapes, but devoid of any mixing, they're artist albums in all but name. Where grime mixapes excel is the value for money-- they retail for the same price as a vinyl 12" but have 15 more tracks. They also allow a rapid production turnover, with beats now not held back for months and months. Where they disappoint is in quality control: They often contain a CDs worth of tracks but only a vinyl 12"s worth of straight killers. But given they cost the same, it's a minor issue.

One of the main hurdles faced by grime this year was the inability to develop other avenues of lyrical content bar the standard hyper-aggressive "war" approach. It's catch-22 for grime: on the one hand this is what their grass roots inner city London audience want them to MC about (as it reflects how they live and the strong male role models they aspire to be) and what their wider hipster/blogger fans found so unique. On the other it alienates a mass market audience (i.e. any potential short term revenue), encourages their grass roots fans to pursue only one lyrical avenue and has begun to bore said wider hipster/blogger fans. With the arrival of funky house as an urban force, it should be interesting to see if the "war" approach remains or a more crowd pleasing approach evolves.

One recent event that reinforces grimes vital relevance, despite any fading hipster hype, was Crazy Titch's conviction for murder (coverage: BBC and RWD mag). While magazine/online hype comes and goes, the grassroots problems within British urban communities remain, and for many grime provides an entry point into the debate and a vital window into cultures they might not normally engage with. Witness a Guardian journalist, some bloggers, and grime's biggest DJ, Logan Sama, debating the relationship between grime and crime here.

On a more positive note, grime's man of the year has to be JME, who has been a hive of activity. He built the Boy Betta Know label (what should a boy now? That JME is "serious!"), which released around 15 mixtapes, from Wiley's to Tinchy's, Frisco's to four editions of his own (climaxing in the "Derk Head/Tropical" double CD release, that incorporates funky house).
His productivity has changed grime's expression "hold tight for my mixtape" from meaning "wait so long you lose interest" to "whoa, another week, another mixtape." The Boy Betta Know camp expanded to an awesome t-shirt line (including the hilarious one liner: "Are You Dumb?").

If one of the grime's scene key differentiators from the UK garage music it grew out of was that is was a "culture" rather than a musical scene, then clothing has long since been a logical extension. But where Wiley was talking about Eskiwear in 2003, yet not delivering, JME's actually followed through. His links with clothing don't stop there, as he was also spotted on the catwalk at a London fashion event-- unusual for a grime MC. Again, JME's actions speak loudly, proving grime does have the ability to work with not against other scenes and organizations.
Announced by a slew of mixtapes, the Movement burst onto the grime scene in 06, quickly propelling themselves to top boy status. Ex-N.A.S.T.Y. member Ghetto hit a rich vein of form, with his brutal, cold-earted flow. Mercston and Scorcher rode the mixtape wave too, until the law intervened on one of their behalves, with the Rapid (Ruff Sqwad) produced "Good Old Days" re-exerting a percussive, rave-energising rhythmic urgency to a scene more often focused on heading in an "artist/mixtape/album" direction. In truth, Rapid had an immense year, carrying on the work Target and Terror Danjah did in 2005.

Ghetto's fellow ex-N.A.S.T.Y. member Kano finished the year on a high with a tasty 7" collaboration with dancehall's Vybz Kartel. Another artist to exploit the links between the UK and JA was Shizzle, whose underrated mixtape took on styles both cultures. The highlight was the mellow "Motherland", which fitted neither genre but instead portrayed an evocative view of JA.

Shizzle, like Wiley and JME, also wrote about and sampled new media in grime tracks, with MSN messenger and MySpace making a big impact on the scene. Both, interestingly, are massively popular amongst grime's audience yet contribute little in terms of financial return. File sharing leaks continue to under mine's grime's attempts to build an industry while JME (on Logan's flagship show, recently) admitted while he's topped a million plays on his MySpace music player, he's seen little by way of money in return. Still, while grime remains outside of the mainstream music and media networks, user generated content like MySpace pages or YouTube videos continue to be a vital avenue for the scene to build a fanbase well beyond E3 and into 2007. Where grime will be in a year's time is difficult to know. One thing isn't: never ever, take your musical sights off urban London.

Dubstep's Top Five of 2006

1. = Kode9 + Spaceape: Memories of the Future [Hyperdub]
2. = Burial: Burial [Hyperdub]
3. Digital Mystikz: "Bury the Bwoy" [DMZ unreleased]
4. Skream: "Deep Concentration" [Tempa]
5. Loefah: "Mud" [DMZ)

Grime's Top Five of 2006

1. Ruff Sqwad: "No Base (Ghetto vocal)" [white]
2. Mercston & Ghetto: "Good Old Days" [Adamantium]
3. Narstie & Solo: "Brush Man" [Dice recordings]
4. Neckle Camp & Newham Generals: "London Ting" [Neckle]
5. Skream [ft. JME]: "Tapped" [Tempa)

Blackdown's new single "Mantis" is out now on Keysound Recordings. If you've liked these columns or his blog, vote Blackdown for blog of the year in the Dubstep Forum Awards. Bigup.

Tim here again - try also Boxcutter and Vex'd.


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