The story of dubstep in North America is not a simple one. For all the complaints from some of the original UK dubstep generation about mindless frat-boys and candy ravers, the scene not only has an off-the-scale energy but a fantastic variety of stories and music to be discovered just under the surface.
Words: Joe Muggs
Photos: Photos Zach Cordner, Charlie Raven, Regal D
Published in Mixmag December 2011
There’s been dubstep Stateside for as long as there’s been dubstep. Baltimore DJ Joe Nice discovered the sound at its very birth in 2002, and has supported it in its bassiest form ever since. “The audiences were small,” he says, “I’m not talking fifty people, I’m talking ten, and I knew all of them.” But he persevered, forging strong links with the UK scene as it put down its roots, and as part of the team behind New York’s legendary Dub War night in 2005 he provided one of the most important staging posts in the scene’s global expansion, and the first stop for many of the UK acts in reaching US audiences.
There were others. Nights in Boston, Denver, Houston, Austin and LA have endured, inspired by the original ethos of FWD>> and DMZ in London, representing for those who like to get drawn in deep by their music. Philadelphia producer Starkey created his ‘street bass’ sound, twisting together dubstep, grime and crunk, and has become a vitally important figure in the scene today. Plenty more – Moldy, Distal, Vaccine, Mite, Sines, DJG and Badawi, to name a few – have kept to the deep and exploratory drive of the early days too.
But as is well documented, the harder, more fist-pumping side of the sound took root, too. Taking a cue from the dark sound of UK acts like Coki and Vex’d, Canadians Datsik and Excision pushed the envelope to create a viciously harsh, yet brilliantly produced sound that appealed more to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails fans than it did to lovers of UK garage. Rock fans began to take notice –and at the same time, the hip hop world was catching on. Thanks to the efforts of DJ Plastician, Snoop Dogg jumped on Chase & Status, with other stars like Eve and Xzibit getting in on the act.
Of course, neither hip hop nor US rock are renowned for subtlety, so as these scenes picked up on the ‘new’ sound post-2008, they inevitably went for the noisiest versions, culminating in Tommy Lee and Korn’s interest in the style, and Jay-Z sampling Flux Pavilion. Add to that the influence of the already large US d’n’b scene, and the explosion of cheesy electro-house that has been sweeping the States of late, and it’s no surprise that the dubstep that’s taken the mainstream is barely recognisable from the early days: a riot of glowsticks, Fatboy Slim samples, frantic edits and noise.
Some of the original dubstep generation, like soulful UK producer/DJ Silkie, take it in their stride. “A lot of the kids and promoters out there have come from either hard drum ’n’ bass or heavy metal,” he says, “so it shouldn’t be a shock if they like the hard stuff. But there are open minds: there’s less of a split between the Flux Pavilion and Skrillex fan and the Mala and Silkie fan than you would get in the UK. So it’s about showing the would-be audience more than what they hear day to day.”
Joe Nice is unconvinced. “It’s a completely different audience,” he insists; “the noisier stuff is for the kids. The ‘real’ dubstep is usually an older crowd. The noisy stuff, well... there’s no genre. No history. No affinity. It’s just...stuff.” However, he does hold out hope in the likes of James Blake and Pearson Sound finding large audiences across America. And both he and Silkie point to a new area that’s looking fruitful – increasing collaborations between dubstep producers and US funk/soul artists.
“Imagine Marsha Ambrosius on a Mala tune,” muses Nice, “or Jill Scott on a Goth-TRAD track.” Others, like Skream, are just happy to embrace the madness. “The energy there is off the hook,” he says. “I can play to 30,000 people and they’ll be going completely mental. How can you not like that?”
Check out our full feature with Skrillex here.
Three bass hitters in America
Among the best-known US dubstep DJs, 33-year-old San Franciscan Loris Ashton is credited as one of the pioneers of so-called wobble-step, with drops as long as his infamous mane of hair (it even has its own Twitter: @Bassnectarshair). Though he’s been producing longer than many of his contemporaries – he was making UK garage in the late 90s – his sound these days has more in common with the apocalyptic futurism and stadium-sized riffage of Nero and Pendulum, linking American rock with ribcage-smashing beats. It’s all about, as he says, “omni-tempo maximalism”: that is, half-time tempos and pitch-shifted synths with face-thwacking basslines and frat-party pleasing remixes of Metallica and The Pixies. His motto, “We love bass music, we give a fuck, and we dive in headfirst”, underlines this moshtastic mentality, and his 10,000-strong shows now boast up to 20 guest MCs, DJs and even graffiti artists. This year’s ‘Divergent Spectrum’ on his self-run Amorphous Music label shows off his growing bass-polymathisms as he pollinates pop records with electro-house euphoria, which you can hear on his chipmunk-tastic re-edit of Ellie Goulding’s ‘Lights’.
Los Angeles’ answer to London’s FWD>>, Tempa and Rinse, Smog is a club night, record label, development hub and lifestyle brand and, at five years old this November, one of the cornerstones of American dubstep. Smog was many locals’ introduction to this new sound, especially Skrillex, who went to the club in 2007. “A friend of mine was, like, ‘You gotta check out this new night in LA. It’s playing this new sound called dubstep’,” he says. “Smog pretty much brought dubstep to the US and to North America.” It ran at The Echo for three years before relaunching as a label, now with some 13 producers, DJs and MCs to its bow, though they still throw huge parties across the US. At its helm is US dubstep godfather 12th Planet, a former d’n’b DJ known as Infiltrata, who discovered dubstep through Mary Anne Hobbs’ Radio 1 show. In keeping with UK trends, his latest signings, like Pawn, owe more to label families like Hessle Audio, Hyperdub and Hotflush, though Smog’s other native hip hop and crunk influences gives its roster a distinct US flavour.
With a name like Excision you’d only expect the most beat-mangling, robotic troll-stomping sounds imaginable to fart through the speakers. And you wouldn’t be disappointed: this British Columbia-based producer is the most “brostep” of the lot. He works the sound’s aggressive aesthetic to maximum effect with his label, suitably titled Rottun Recordings, and gnarly ‘Predator-meets-Alien’ artwork, all of which make his UK equivalents, Doctor P, Flux Pavilion and their Circus Records stable, look positively polite. So filthy are his bass frequencies that on hearing tracks like ‘Slayed’, ‘Darkness’ and ‘Heavy Artillery’, or his remixes of Wu-Tang Clan and Lil Wayne numbers, you may wonder whether you’ve suffered a nasty bowel movement too. Want the full rectal explosion? His debut album, ‘X-Rated’, was released late this year on Deadmau5’s Mau5trap imprint, following on from the success of the label’s Skrillex EP, ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’, a year before. Expect world domination to follow.