Oh Dubstep, Who Really Birthed You?
Admittedly, some of this article is about journalists twisting the words of American artists to create hype and get their stories read. HOWEVER, why is it that American artists exhibit such a tendency to claim themselves as creators, innovators, and inventors of musical genres? Music only has a limited number of notes and rhythms to explore, and there is bound to be similarities across the spectrum of every sound. Journalists quantify sounds they think are new into genre names, mainly as a way to write about it without using a string of adjectives.
In light of Korn’s Jonathan Davis putting his claim on the invention of dubstep, I felt it was time to dig a bit deeper. Albany is arguably a hot-bed for this aggressive, mid-range infused, “tearout” version of the sound, and before a publicity stunt gets rooted in the kids brains as a fact, I felt something needed to be said. In fact, it was just over a year ago that another American mainstream artist claimed HE started dubstep. Hip-hop, pop and R&B producer Timbaland staked his claim in July 2010 that he was responsible for the dubstep genre, but that he was calling it “dub-bass” despite the fact that nobody ever heard him do so until July 2010. Obviously Davis didn’t do his homework here, and maybe MTV can stage a Battle Royale for the crown.
As I digress, first let’s figure out where this word first came from. Few realize the word has been around since 2002, dating back to an issue of XLR8R magazine that had a cover story on production outfit Horsepower Productions. Horsepower Productions came up through the UK Garage & 2-step music scene, but had branched out in a new direction that featured more syncopated rhythms, and heavy use of sub-bass. Speeding up garage by a few bpm, and then composing drums at half-time, Horsepower Productions reinvigorated a genre that was starting to become stale. As this sound caught on in the pirate radio culture of the UK, more names like Kode9, Pinch, Zed Bias, Digital Mystikz, Loefah and Artwork started to hone in on the sound. I’m not here to argue whether Jonathan Davis, Timbaland or Skrillex knew this was happening, but documented media suggests XLR8R was one of the first American publications to take notice and expose the sounds to this side of the pond.
Flash forward to 2006, and a young Londoner under the alias of Skream made sure the world stood up and acknowledged dubstep’s existence. Despite its bubbling up for the last 4 years, nobody was able to send dubstep into the spotlight like Skream’s “Midnight Request Line.”
This tune embodied everything that dubstep had evolved into, and was able to reach a crossover audience: syncopated half time drums in the vein of 2-step, rolling sub-bass, delays everywhere, and a head nod melody. (WRITER’S NOTE, YOU’RE MISSING HALF THE TUNE ON YOUR LAPTOP SPEAKERS, THE ORIGINAL DUBSTEP SOUNDS REQUIRE A SUBWOOFER)
In 2011, Skream is a household name, even in the American electronic music spectrum. He has even received some criticism from his UK purist co-horts due to his outspoken respect and validation of Skrillex as a producer. However before “Midnight Request Line,” few knew who he was, or that he was going to be a primal force in launching the dubstep sound to new heights. However back in 2006, as a young upstart, Skream was able to meld everything that was great about the sound into 5 minutes of bliss.
One large point of note is that the dubstep from 2002-2007 was made for a club sound system. The FWD & DMZ nights in London became a melting pot of sounds, where producers would bring their latest dubplates to the DJ booth to test the bass weight. At this point in the genre’s history, two things became apparent across the entire spectrum of tunes. First, you had to have sub-bass; that register of frequencies below 60 Hz, where the human body can’t quite hear but will certainly feel. These producers intended their songs to be felt, oftentimes more than heard. Second, was that you needed to be able to get the tune to play at 140 bpm on a turntable pitch fader, so the DJs could mix the songs together. Herein lied the beauty of the sound, there was no formula for a “banger” of a tune and the only “rules” of the genre allowed for many experimentations on the sound. This was also the time period where you start to see the little genre of dubstep splinter off into a few directions, although few producers were claiming specialties at this time. Artists like Digital Mystikz, Loefah, Pinch, Kode9 experimented with a more dub palette. Caspa & Rusko released the FabricLive mix that featured many beats sounding similar to what we now call “brostep” but many of their original tunes were still heavily rooted in the dub aesthetic. (see Rusko’s “Jahova”) Plastician was making beats similar to this sound, but with a distinct connection to grime and the MC culture (see “Intensive Snare”) More youthful producers like Skream and Benga took up both sides, arguably because they started writing tunes after being exposed to all the different vantage points. The kernel of truth from Davis stereotype-like claim lies in the producer Distance. Distance has been on record citing Korn as one of many influences on his sound, and his album from 2007 entitled “My Demons” definitely exhibits a familiarity with the genre of metal. When heard on a proper sound system, Distance’s tunes carry a bassweight typically lacking from the dubstep Davis was referring to. Unfortunately for Davis, he makes no mention of Distance in his interview. If he had, the backlash might have been less fierce.
That serves as enough history for this article. If that sparked your interest, do some homework. There are plenty of documentaries and articles written that dive further into this time period of the dubstep sound. I’ll give you one short documentary to start with. (NOTE: Outpost1 August Headliner Joe Nice contributing some nice words)
Back to late November 2011. Days ago Jonathan Davis claimed he invented dubstep. If you happened to watch the above documentary, I’m sure you noticed nothing close to Korn or metal music was mentioned. While history shows one producer cites Korn as one of many influences, that is only one producer and one influence. This should not be perceived as a direct correlation. So where did this disillusionment come from? One theory is something related to the closing words of Joe Nice. Dubstep, as it was intended, could not be fully understood from listening via headphones or a CD player. So is it possible that this wave of American kids who are producing sounds at the more aggressive side of the spectrum are not making sub-bass because they didn’t know it was there? Even in 2011, there are only limited American clubs and club nights that are representing dubstep as it was intended, on a weighty sound system with bass you feel in your gut and chest. Should we blame these producers for tackling a sound they did not fully understand, or embrace them for presenting a new vantage? Even further, should we even really be calling it dubstep? Who was the first to do so? If you happened to catch Joe Muggs’ interview with Skrillex from September of this year, you will find Skrillex himself state ‘ “I don’t even try to make ‘dubstep’,”… lifting his hands to make air-quotes. “It’s just another tempo and rhythm that I work in, because it makes people go wild.” ‘
Amazing. A producer who has been lumped into the genre of dubstep by thousands of misinformed journalists, bloggers and fans had no intention or desire to be classified as such. Despite the fact that I don’t enjoy Skrillex’s music at all, it’s heartening to hear him quoted as not even thinking about a genre classification when he started making this music. However if this is true, how did it come to be that the majority of American youth have become so misinformed?
Another point that can’t be overlooked here is that in an effort to make a “dubstep” album, Jonathan Davis called upon a group of producers all known for similar beats in one take on the sound. If part of the original idea behind dubstep was that there were no rules, and no formula, then why should a formula be required to make a dubstep album? To an educated listener, this further exemplifies his own ignorance about the topic he speaks.
Personally, I feel as though the problem lies beyond those making the music. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion on all facets of music and art, as they are great forums for debate, labeling them wrong vs. right is such a near sighted stance. There should be a place for all these genres and sub-genres to exist in harmony, without the foolish proclamations of a few self-righteous artists completely disregarding a lifetime of work by those who are less connected to this American mainstream media. This “bro-step,” “tearout” take on music at 140 bpm is not invalid, and it most certainly relates to American metal, hardcore and rapcore more than it does the original sounds of dubstep. I myself have been saying this for the past few years, as its a blatantly aggressive music that incites moshpits more than beard stroking and eyes down meditation. However, the word dubstep makes it’s quantification easy, and if it is easily quantifiable, it’s easily marketable. Korn’s manager said it himself in the Billboard article; “‘We want to go in this new direction and claim it for our own. It’s struck a unique chord inside all of us, but how do we do it?'”
Seems like the way to do it is to have your egotistical front man preach some blanket statement to an even more misinformed journalist who then regurgitates and hypes the statement to a point of ludicrousness. This new Korn album has been labeled a marketing ploy and money grubbing collection of songs by the band’s manager himself, in that they needed to capitalize on the exponential growth of their Facebook following after a collaboration with Skrillex. Surely if they claim they invented dubstep, and then release an album full of songs they call dubstep, as the first band to claim to do so, then obviously we should believe them. Capitalization on ignorance is all I see here. By preaching to a misinformed audience they are taking advantage of the fact that the fans of their music probably don’t know any better. Let this article serve as a starting point to inform you in that making such a blanket statement, Jonathan Davis is confused, and whether you like this new album or not, it’s been made to capitalize on the fact that the majority of those who enjoy this sound are completely misinformed, and it’s probably not their fault.
To me, as someone who first heard dubstep in 2007, I tend to defect to those personalities in the above documentary when trying to decide who created dubstep. The dubstep I know is nothing like the music Korn is making. It was a sound rooted in experimentation and physicality. When I first heard dubstep on a club sound system, I was taken away to somewhere else. When I first stumbled upon an internet community of fans and producers who were directly connected, it was inspiring and invigorating. The history of my personal taste in music led me to dubstep from an appreciation for dub music and the hip hop beat culture. Can I understand why Timbaland thinks his beats spawned dubstep? Yes. Do I agree with that sentiment? No. Due to my personal history with the music, I will admit I wish the journalists had developed another name for the aggressive side of dubstep. Do I wish Skrillex just created his own genre when he first released a tune? Yes. Am I going to lose sleep over the fact that people call his music dubstep as if its the only take on the sound? No. What I do wish is that the media would educate themselves and the world on the true roots of the word dubstep rather than capitalize on a buzz word and a hyped version of the sound.
Back in 2007, all I knew was that this was music I had waited my entire life to hear, and when it punched me in the gut, I was hooked.
Regardless of what avenue of dubstep you appreciate and follow, if any, don’t be misinformed. Do your homework, and understand where the word and sounds come from. In this day and age, far too many of us fall victim to buzz words and the hype machine. At the end of the day, all that does is help a select group of self righteous fools profit off our collective ignorance. Be an educated consumer, not just of products, but of ideas and knowledge as well. Blanket statements are typically the result of misinformed speakers. Just like any stereotype has a kernel of truth to validate those who claim it, it does not make the stereotype true in all cases. The broad claims of both Jonathan Davis and Timbaland do little to serve the expansion of creativity and the culture of remix. Instead they seem to wax the ego of artists who fell from the limelight, and only add to the global perception of an American culture that is typically “holier than thou.”
You won’t find me at the next Skrillex or Korn tour, and I don’t expect to see you at the next Kode9 set, but if you are going to use a word or listen to a style of music, understand where it comes from without an elitist intention to claim you own it or claim it’s better than what someone else is digging.