Meditate on bass weight: exploring dubstep's fearsomely experimental early days
Intricately woven broken beats, textures both gritty and cosmic, a haunting but inviting motif with sub-level bass that at times rattles the entire atmosphere. We are of course talking about the sounds and feelings of dubstep.
As a uniquely intriguing genre, dubstep’s history features uncommon rhythmic experimentation, a heady purist underground, a controversial history dealing with the sudden rise and debatable fall, plus varying styles from rough and ripping to delicate and jazzy. Over the years the genre has come in many shades, evolving from UK garage into dub influenced ballads while also being transformed into blasting festival sounds. However, here we’ll dive into one specific era when the scene first stepped into the light.
Today the mainstream dubstep genre seems to have drifted further away from the tracks that first introduced the public to the distinct style, yet labels like Innamind Recordings, Uprise Audio, Gourmet Beats, Artikal, Lion Charge and more have kept the raw sound alive with a contemporary touch. Nevertheless, as time moves further away from those formative years, a healthy look back is enlightening. With that in mind, Mixmag has compiled a collection of gems unearthed from the deep history of dance music to take listeners back in time to look at the foundation of the genre.
Listen to the most noteworthy early to mid-2000s dubstep below.
While other originators of dubstep might get more shine, there’s no denying Distance’s influence on the development of the genre. The South Londoner arguably brought the grittier essence of the style to the forefront during the early years and while others still had their sound walking the line between UK garage and this new motif, Distance really brought out the stripped back dubby side to dubstep in his early productions. Here is one of his first, titled ‘Nomad’ it landed on Scuba’s young Hotflush imprint in 2004.
Benga & Skream ‘The Judgement’
Hatcha’s ‘Dubstep Allstars Vol.1’ is somewhat of ground zero for dubstep. Originally released in 2003, the mix CD clearly showcases the UK garage influence. It’s interesting to hear how the beats were breaking up and drifting into an entirely new realm at the time. A standout tune that appeared in the early part of the mix came from a couple young producers known commonly as Skream and Benga. Titled ‘The Judgement’, it was released on the seminal although now defunct label Big Apple Records. Not just a label, but a record shop and institution in Croydon. It was where many of the early dubstep producers frequented and where the biggest tracks were born. We’ll save that discussion for another time, for now here’s ‘The Judgement’, Skream and Benga’s debut release together.
Loefah ‘Horror Show’
Similar to the Hatcha mix previously mentioned, Youngsta’s ‘Forward Live - Vol: 1’ mix, recorded live at Plastic People, was a major influence by showcasing the fresh dubstep sound to a wider audience. This legendary mix also features MC Crazy D, a recognizable voice during early dubstep sessions at clubs or on radio and focuses on music mainly produced by Digital Mystikz and Swamp 81 founder Loefah. A noteworthy tune from that session, from Loefah, is the minimal, sub-level bassweight tune with the most haunting screech aptly titled ‘Horror Show’.
Skream 'Midnight Request Line'
Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ is dubstep 101. It can be found on his debut self-titled album, but was released a year before that in 2005 via the influential Tempa imprint. Before this tune reached the airwaves Skream’s sound was playing with the dubstep style, but perhaps this was his first focusing on the more dub-influenced rhythm we know dubstep to be today.
South London’s own Kromestar burst onto the scene during the mid-2000s with a collection of unforgettable tracks. Arguably one of his most timeless pieces is the debut release on Mala’s Deep Medi Musik, an imprint that set the standard for dubstep at the time. With the track’s unique bass texture, steady yet driving percussion and enveloping atmospherics, it’s a clear early gem of the genre. Plus, on the flip side is another heavy roller titled ‘Surgery’, making this one of the most coveted dubstep releases out there. Savages on Discogs are asking for upwards of £200 for this one.
Mala 'Blue Notez'
By the mid-2000s many producers were fusing dubstep with more soulful and jazzy elements. Around this time was when the innovative producer Mala released his debut solo 12” on his DMZ imprint, which he co-founded with Coki and Loefah. By then he had already made an impact releasing music as Digital Mystikz with Coki, but his solo track ‘Blue Notez' merged ominous dubstep with an emotive saxophone melody that brought new light to the genre.
Scuba’s Hotflush Recordings imprint was an early and consistent supplier of dubstep during the genre’s formative years, releasing music by the likes of Distance, Toasty, Walsh, Kromestar, Benga and his own productions, making the label a treasure trove of influential material. One of his own early productions is the deep and surreal track ‘Harpoon’. It’s one that seemingly every DJ at the time was rinsing and its serious bass weight contrasted with mystical synth lines is a clear indication why.
Digital Mystikz ‘Ancient Memories' (Skream Remix)
After dubstep had been coming on strong for the the past five years, Digital Mystikz released ‘Ancient Memories’ and the awareness of the genre seemed to skyrocket. The original is a dubby percussive number, but Skream’s remix adds a warping bass line that’s infectiously gripping and is a dubstep DJs go-to track for igniting a dancefloor with skank energy. It was released on DMZ and features elements from Coki, Mala and Skream. To put it simply, it's a perfect storm. Massive!
Pinch 'Qawwali V.I.P.'
Tectonic Recordings founder Pinch is known for pushing dubstep to new and creative directions with his knack for fusing the style with dancehall, reggae and later techno. One of his early releases, and one that that helped gain him exposure in the scene is his track ‘Qawwali’. It was released via µ-Ziq’s prolific Planet Mu imprint, around the time when the genre was gaining more widespread exposure. It was paired with a VIP version that delivered a pure dubstep sound. This in turn had a profound effect on the dancefloor.
Plastician ‘Aqua Riddim’
Recognised as a tastemaker and pioneer of both grime and dubstep, Plastician is known for pushing the boundaries whether with his own productions or on the radio. Following the years he produced as Plasticman, the name he released the second Forward Live mix under, he first appeared on a 12” as Plastician via a compilation released by Contagious Recordings. That release also featured fellow bass music visionaries MRK1 and Chimpo. All tracks on the ‘Kryptonite’ EP are noteworthy, especially Chimpo’s title track and Plastician’s track 'Unhappy Shopper'. However, here we’ll take listeners back to when he released his final solo release as Plasticman via his own Terrorhythm Recordings, titled ‘Value Beats’ EP. ‘Aqua Riddim’ is the underrated dubstep gem from that release.
Kode9 & The Spaceape 'Kingstown'
Scottish producer Kode9, founder of Hyperdub, has a sound profile with elements that dip into a wide range of genres. His music seems to build on foundations of jungle, drum and bass, dub and breaks, all styles he’s relentlessly elevated to showcase tightly crafted productions experimenting with rhythm. One of his earlier releases titled ‘Kingstown’ features captivating and poetic vocals by the late Spaceape, an artist he frequently collaborated with. Kode9's carefully crafted music is on full display here, with rolling rhythms, warm textures and atmospheric bass that fills the headspace.
With all the dubplates to his name, Skream took extra measures to make sure listeners could not get quality rips from the mixes that would surface online. That’s why in this rip of ‘Groovin’’ bird noises fill the space of the entire track. This carried throughout his classic Get Darker mix from 2005. Nevertheless, the rips give us a taste of the forbidden fruit. ‘Groovin'’ possesses that quintessential dubstep sound and listening to it is almost like going back in time. Skream has been far removed from this sound for some time now, so it’s unlikely his dubplates will surface again any time soon. For now, this will have to do.
Loefah’s track ‘Midnight’ was a dubstep fable for over a decade before it was officially released in 2014, along with another highly sought after track ‘Woman’. Yet back in 2005, Youngsta featured the track on his ‘Dubstep Allstars: Vol.02’ mix CD and the dubplate would make the rounds in DJ sets by some of the great dubstep legends. Fast forward a decade later and Berceuse Heroique released it to the masses. Well, not entirely the masses as it apparently was only sold in Honest Jon’s and Idle Hands record shops in the UK. This elusive record will continue to escape the hands of both fans and collectors around the world, but its hard-hitting bass rollers still are some of the best to reach the airwaves.
Harrison is Mixmag's East Coast Editor. Follow him on Twitter here