Dubstep saw, dubstep came, dubstep conquered – but then it disappeared completely. Or did it? Our small country got infected by this British sub-bass movement a little over 10 years ago and in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, it was everywhere: from small club to national radio stations, from your nephews iPod to all the major festivals. The story of the rise and fall of this genre is a well-documented one, but the truth is: dubstep never really went away. Sure, the massive events are no more and you’re not likely to hear these sounds on the radio or in the clubs anytime soon; but a loyal set of fans is keeping the flame burning. Will that spark ever light a re-appreciation period like the ones we’ve seen with electro or disco? Are there places we can still go to in Belgium to ‘meditate on bassweight’? Did the original core scene ever recover from the commercial exploitation that lead to its downfall? We asked a couple of experts to find out.
The first (and most obvious of these) gentlemen is BunZer0 aka the original godfather of dubstep in Belgium. This Brusseleir used to be the admin of the internationally tastemaking, but now-defunct (but hugely influential) dubstepforum and still runs his FOB Show on Sub FM 12 years after its inception. Being the first person that played this new genre coming out from a handful of dark basements in South London, he had a front row seat watching the local scene develop over here. Secondly, we reached out to Sim Coddé – one of the masterminds behind Antwerp’s Untitled!, Belgium’s premier dubstep party that helped to establish dubstep’s popularity to the greater mass from the very start. To conclude our panel, we involved a member of the younger generation of dubstep producers: the Ghent-based ARtroniks (picture below).
You need to play it out on a good soundsystem – and then it can give you both a mental and physical experience.
Dubstep, in all its different forms, always attracted a wide variation of music fans. Techno, dub, jungle, hip hop or even hardcore – if you can name it, dubstep will have some sort of sub branch that can satisfy your preferences. “It’s like a blank canvas on which you can paint sounds and rhythms from various styles and cultures”, says ARtroniks. “To me it’s just the perfect composition of certain elements that I have always loved”, explains BunZer0. “Jamaican influences, abstract design, moody vibes, both digital and analogue sounds and heavy low tones”. That last part is definitely the most important, if not a crucial, building block for the genre. “You need to play it out on a good soundsystem – and then it can give you both a mental and physical experience”, he continues.
In the early days (by which we mean the mid-2000s), dubstep didn’t sound anything like its midrange-driven, chainsaw-sampling form it would later become notorious for. “When we started Untitled! in 2006, it was refreshing to see a brand new genre that didn’t revolve around shrieking drops”, explains Sim. “You have to remember this happened in a time where loud Crookers-esque “electro” music was really dominant. The sub bass was extremely important for the events, but not in a way where you get ear damage by sheer oversaturation”. Clearly, the hypnotizing bass and abstract minimalism was what drew the early heads towards the genre. BunZer0 confirms this: “A deep dubstep set isn’t necessarily leading you to a climax, like most other styles – in the right circumstances it leads to actual meditation”.
Being amongst the first music genres that was able to gain popularity at an unseen pace because of the global rise of internet availability, dubstep went through a wild internal revolution, much faster than what we had seen with other styles that came before it. “Dubstep came in the game at the beginning of the age of internet”, explains BunZer0. But that fast rise also meant that it quickly attracted commercial attention too, which resulted in a large, new audience that desired other things from the music: things needed to be louder, faster and easier. This presented a dilemma for big dubstep events that had already created a loyal fan base, like Untitled!. “We always thrived to bring the music out of its niche, making it accessible to a larger audience, so that meant the bigger we got, the more compromises we had to make”, says Coddé. “At a certain point, the concessions grew too large and our position became untenable”. This isn’t to say mainstream adaptation is a bad thing per se. ARtroniks affirms this: “dubstep suffered the same fate as other genres before it, only in this case commercialisation took away the essence of what the genre stood for in the first place: the fact that it’s soundsystem music”. Brutal oversaturation struck dubstep hard. Around 2014, the genre disappeared from the radio, scene godfathers (like for example: Skream, Mala, Kode9, James Blake, Scuba and Ben UFO) ventured into other territories, dubstep parties went back to the underground and the masses moved on to other music.
This leaves us to where we are now. Occasionally, a dubstep night still passes by in our timelines – so that got us thinking: is there a scene out there? “The days of multiple dubstep events on every weekend are over”, reacts ARtroniks. “But the genre is still being pushed in terms of production – and plenty of Belgians do their part”. Guys like Clearlight, Digid, Requake, Subreachers, Kodec, Zygos and 11th Hour or record labels like Dubstatic, Albion Collective and Duploc are still releasing music on a regular basis. The latter will even put out vinyl again with their ‘DUPPLATE’ series. BunZer0 (in the picture below) continues: “the Belgian scene definitely still exists, but it’s much smaller now – it has returned to the underground. The music is now being pushed by actual fans who are motivated, rather than people with commercial motives – so it feels a lot more authentic now”.
That said, there’s a valid point in saying that the source of creativity within the genre reached its limits around the same time it all fell down. Coddé explains: “In my opinion, the innovation has been more present within other genres of music in the last few years – but that’s because I believe a movement needs a ‘cool down period’ to reinvent itself. Creativity always comes bottom up, so the hiatus was needed to reassess everything what had happened in those chaotic few years”.
Now that the masses have moved on to other genres, the heads in the dubstep scene still soldier on, despite all what happened. Brussels art collective 54Kolaktiv recently threw a night that explicitly advertised itself as an ‘old school’ dubstep event, including a big sound system and a line-up consisting of artists like our man BunZer0 and former Stainage duo Grimelock (who go by the name GoldFFinch now). Although it can be a hard realization for some to see a dubstep night promoted as ‘old school’, it does make a lot of sense: how else can you make it clear it’s not about blaring midranges and explosive drops? But that poses another question: is the future of the genre only about preserving the sound of a pre-commercial era?
The spectrum of different styles you can categorize under dubstep is still incredibly varied, so it will continue to evolve.
Luckily, our interviewees didn’t share this opinion. “The spectrum of different styles you can categorize under dubstep is still incredibly varied, so it will continue to evolve”, says ARtroniks. Maybe this narrow vision on what many call dubstep is not relevant anymore in today’s music scene. With so much music coming out today that doesn’t follow our trusted way we categorized genres, the legacy of dubstep lives on in many ways you wouldn’t suspect. As mentioned earlier, what attracted many people to the genre was its ability to merge with any other style, mood or genre. Before the time many considered dubstep to follow a strict formula of 140 BPM and wobbly basslines, the genre flirted with elements from other genres like techno, house, jazz or hip hop, which was the very reason many fans got into the genre in the first place. Currently active record labels like Livity Sound, Keysound and Hessle Audio (who all originated from a dubstep background) still make new, relevant music – but their releases often get categorized under different names. BunZer0 explains: “like any evolution, the future lays in experimentation and new combinations”. A lot of techno or house definitely borrowed elements from the dubstep era, continuing the cycle of experimentation that was running a long time before dubstep existed and that will continue to exist for as long as people make music. Sometimes, that influence is more direct than you would expect. Many young fans probably didn’t recognize Mala’s ‘Changes’ hook in XXXTENTACION’s (RIP) “Look At Me” (listen below) - or Peverelist’s “Roll With the Punches” sample in Drake’s (hopefully) soon to be released track. So even though it definitely feels like dubstep has disappeared from the theatre, it continues to live, change and evolve through the music that comes out today.