There was a time, not so long ago, when dubstep was a novel and exciting new rhythmic frontier. Born from the musical traditions of reggae (dub), jungle, d&b, and garage, dubstep began in the late 90’s, early aughts in England (always ahead of the curve). The term was literally coined by Ammunition Promotions, a company that promoted the ongoing Forward>> club night (now at the Shoreditch hot spot Plastic People).
The “Forward>> Sound,” it was said, would “make your chest cavity shudder.” It was all bass, all the time, but utilized space and ambient elements to cast a patently evil, lurking impression. The sound had its own radio show, hosted by genre pioneer Kode9, which featured many early pioneers, from Plastician and Digital Mystikz to Skream and Benga, who were arguably the first crossover acts.
Skream’s “Midnight Request Line” was the nascent genre’s first radio hit, and led to influential Radio 1 DJ Mary Anne Hobbs dedicating an entire show to dubstep. Though the acts were barely known outside of underground circles, the Hobbes show was the start of dubstep’s global march. Within a year, Burial (who was still anonymous and totally unknown to 99.99% of global audiences) was appearing on “Best Of 2006” critics lists and dominating the soundtrack to Alfonso Cuaron’s hit film, “Children of Men” (One of this writer’s all time favorite films).
Over the next three years, audiences grew (via torrent, for the most part) in the USA and beyond, and artists like Joker and Coki gained name recognition. Labels sprang up to capitalize on the new sound’s (though it was almost a decade old already) popularity.
And then it happened.
Britney Spears, of all people, was one of the first pop acts to feature dubstep elements (though I’m sure it wasn’t her choice, but rather the tuned-in producers she worked with). But the blogosphere, which itself was still finding footing in ’07, finally caught on when La Roux released Skream’s remix of “In for the Kill.” Truly, that track was the first international mainstream dubstep success.
We all know what followed. Every pop artist under the sun, from Snoop to Rihanna jumped on the bandwagon, and suddenly top-40 stations sounded an awful lot like a dank warehouse at 3am, except bombastic and recycled, rather than rebellious and grimy.
And soon, tragically, brostep was born. Skrillex is the obvious poster boy for what I describe not as music, but as “Transformers f*cking.” Frat bros all of a sudden “loved raving.” People who would have never listened to metal were, well, listening to metal, albeit in electronic format. Rusko, who had been a legitimate dubstep pioneer, should shoulder some of the blame for this trend, but his dedication to reggae roots gains him some forgiveness. Once Korn got involved, fans of “real” dubstep knew that the genre’s epitaph had been carved.
Zeds Dead emerged as a genre powerhouse in ’09, with the backing of influential producers Kissy Sell Out and Skream. The Canadian duo took a brief step towards brostep, but thankfully stayed out of the truly offensive fray and instead charted a different path focused more on glitch and hip-hop stylings. Their remix of The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” remains one of the best dubstep remixes ever, and their aggressive collabs (“Undah Yuh Skirt”, for example) with modern reggae greats like Mavado give them a serious street credibility.
I’m no longer the dub-head I once was, and had basically lost track of Zeds Dead until recently. I’m glad to report that “Lost You,” their latest release featuring Twin Shadow and D’Angelo Lacy is a brilliant showcase of their ability to blend genres without alienating fans on either side. This is a track that can drop in a top-40 club or an underground warehouse party without breaking the mood. Twin Shadow’s disco vocals fit perfectly with Zeds’ garage beat, and of course, the drop is dubby as f*ck, but with a “slappa da bass” pop that keeps it from veering into bro-territory.