Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Dread At The Controls...

Damn. I'm sorry to say it, but the entire phenomenon of dubstep passed me by until about... ooh... November time. The first time I ever saw the word was on Pitchfork, whose the 'The Month In Dubstep' column I never read; I assumed it to be some bizarre mutation of dub and dancehall, genres I don't have much more than a surface knowledge of. I do know quite a lot about dub, being a fan of the heavier end of King Tubby's productions and On-U Sound; dancehall I had always been somewhat suspicious of (the sickening hits of Sean Paul were fresh in my mind). I then came into contact with it again through K-Punk's blog: his writings about Burial's first album intrigued me, even if the whole idea of hauntology still perplexes me. So I've come into the world of dubstep arse-first, buying an MP3 copy of the Burial album.

What disturbs me about dubstep is its freakishly alien nature to, yeah, a middle-class teenage white kid from the provinces. The introverted musical nature of dubstep is matched by a culture impenetrable to outsiders, steeped in a semi-history that matters seemingly far too much to the people involved, soundsystem jargon, and a danger that makes it more than forbidding to the inexperienced. Codified in the grooves of the records is a core alienation: the experience of black-white-whatever youth in the urban abyss, economically skewered and socially disenfranchised. The only culture they have to draw on is that of the black diaspora in Britain: dub, dancehall, hip-hop, British techno (descended from the electronic soul of Detroit Techno), roots, Jamaican DJ culture. But everything about it seems tainted and corrupted: on Burial's 'Spaceape', The Spaceape, using the toasting style and patois associated in the British mind with 'conscious' reggae (think Linton Kwesi Johnson), tells a tale of invading aliens insinuating themselves among us, slowly preying on desperation for companionship or drugs, spreading a virus through the population, they themselves being 'immune from dying'; where dub had a sense of warmth and space in its grooves, dubstep seems claustrophobic and cold. Its no coincidence that dubstep is emerging from the underground at a time when gang violence in South London has reached an odd peak (or at least a public one; undoubtedly huge amounts occurs that we never hear about), or that the breaks on Burial's 'Gutted' sound like Glocks being loaded; it's no surprise that a culture faced with such blank hopelessness should produce such dark art. Listening to the new Scott Walker album at the moment, I can't help but see some kinship: both seem like they disappear into their own sonic netherworlds; worlds of total sonic immersion where sound brings no comfort, only expression. Love is only felt as an abscence ('Wounded', 'U Hurt Me', the voices on 'Gutted', so distant and inarticulate); roots are non-existent ('Broken Home') and the cultural pool of British blackness cannot be experienced other than in the present, with the pieces disconnected from their context. That's why on the Burial album the sounds are so washed-out and distant, and why dubstep has been so susceptible to hauntological analysis: it's not exactly a diaspora culture, as such, but one based on being marooned from a past you never knew.

But this is ignoring the main point of dubstep, the reason it's so exciting to people: its nature is relentlessly contemporary. It's difficult for me to understand, because I only know dubstep in the abstract, I can't feel the reality of dmz and FWD nights, of bass and sweat. But I know that the easy availability of recording and dubplate-etching technology has allowed a DIY revolution - every day new dubplates coming out, every week club nights playing dubstep, every month new venues opening, new albums being released. In dubstep, as with dancehall and dub, at the centre is the soundsystem and the club: it's a communal thing, centred around people having a good time; as Melissa Bradshaw said in Plan B issue 12, it's about "too much beer, or is that the bass causing this giddiness?... crowds bursting into skank; frightening sounds, uplifting sounds; dark jackets, black caps; things that make you say “dutty”; the “flashpoint of an exploding scene” (Mary Anne Hobbs); bumping into The Bug, again... the buzz of a massive and familiar drop; the uncanny rush of beauty in new tracks... having to move away from the right speaker at the last FWD because the big hoop vibrating in your right ear was threatening to saw through your earlobe and your eardrum was about to fucking explode... the expression on Frances’ face upon first hearing a few live dubstep tracks at the end of a set Mala played at Bash (Loefah and The Bug’s dancehall monthly at east London’s Plastic People); the first dmz you attended, still at 3rd Bass, being completely, utterly wowed by the bass, and some feeling of having been out of space; Matty bouncing up, grinning, to you to tell you she felt like her teeth were going to come out of her skull..."
Mmmm... I remember the last proper gig I went to, the band I had actually come to see, more-or-less a metal band: the club was tiny, and when they began working the bass, it was as if this huge curtain or shroud of noise had descended; you could feel the combination of bass and normal guitar vibrating your organs and skin. I suppose that's one of the things I've sought all along through music: total immersion in noise, to the point where you stop caring about things - I've often fantasised about the total dissolution of my body and identity, but this isn't that, it's the inverse: it's a real sensual feeling, the feeling of tingling nerve endings, the kind of thing that makes life worth living. In dubstep, out of darkness comes light, to use the old cliché.


Blogger Bruce said...

I liked that Burial album pretty well, but I actually ended up liking the Kode 9 & Spaceape album even more. Have you ever read William Gibson's Neuromancer? Memories of the Future is exactly the music I imagine those characters listening to.

I would also recommend the Boxcutter album on Planet-Mu, which is best described as dubstep meets IDM, I'd say. The Skream! album was only fair, sounding more like a compilation of tracks than a proper album.

I only really know dubstep from a home listening angle, though, so I really can't comment on the 12"s where the action seems to be happening.

If you find dubstep alien, imagine me--I'm a middle-class white guy from America.

February 16, 2007 at 4:19 PM  
Blogger Dan Barrow said...

Fuck... Part of the problem is that I don't know where to start, even from the home-listening angle. When you search for 'dubstep' on Boomkat for example, you're just presented with all this stuff... You don't even know where to start. It'd be like trying to find a Coltrane album by sticking your hand in a lucky-dip box of the entire recorded history of jazz. And the fact I don't have a turntable makes matters worse. Cheers for the recommendations, though.

February 17, 2007 at 3:48 PM  
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