Tuesday, 4 March 2008

NME Radar Piece: Minimal Dubstep

An unedited version with links.

A Meeting Of Minimal Minds

Dubstep is part of the furniture. Go on. Deal with it. It’s OK. In 2008 you are as likely to hear Caspa’s ‘Cockney Thug’ at White Heat as you are at DMZ or the latest Skream in a Skins ad on E4 as you are down at FWD. A decade on from drum&bass’s choke hold over British underground urban music and dubstep has become its mirror image.

Unfortunately, much like drum&bass before it, it seemed for much of 2007 that dubstep had fallen foul of formula. Repetitive, uninspiring bass-wobblers reminiscent of being stuck inside Mr Oizo’s head on a ketamine bender seemed to have gripped the scene. Thankfully, while everyone else was doing the Flatbeat dance to third generation Benga rip-offs something really exciting was happening while no one was paying attention. And it wasn’t happening in London at all…

Techno has always been an acknowledged influence on dubstep. However, it’s space and minimalism was something sorely lacking in the crowd pleasing bass wobblers all the public school kids in string vests were doing gun fingers to. If you look beyond the immediacy of the dancefloor it is possible to find a raft of producers and labels more than happy to play with the limitations of the form and occasionally throw the whole lot out of the window. These artists can mainly be found in dubstep’s ‘second’ city: Bristol.

The singular most important influence on this crop of producers is the ‘Hardwax’ axis of labels based in Berlin and governed by egg-headed minimalist geniuses Moritz Van Oswald and Mark Ernestus. Chain Reaction, Basic Channel and Rhythm Sound are all imprints which, along with the Detroit based Deepchord and Echospace labels, have had a considerable impact on the ‘Bristol sound’. By taking inspiration from Berlin and Detroit and applying it to a London born sound the Bristol producers have the supplied the scene with a much needed of a kick up the arse.

The primary ambassador of this emerging sound is Rob ‘Pinch’ Ellis (http://www.myspace.com/tectonicrecordings) founder of both the city’s major rave, Subloaded (http://www.myspace.com/subloaded), and its premier label, Tectonic (http://www.myspace.com/tectonicrecordings). Pinch has done much to foster, encourage and inspire the meeting of techno and dubstep both in his deep, meditative DJ sets as well as in his own productions. After a string of stunning 12”s on Tectonic and electronica label Planet Mu his debut album ‘Underwater Dancehall’, released at the end of last year, is every bit the measure of Burial’s lauded second LP. It explores themes that could easily be played to raised hands on Berlin dancefloors any night of the week.

In Pinch’s wake, pockets of individuals equally inspired by the meeting point of techno and dubstep have sprung up west of London. After years behind the counter at the cities excellent Rooted Records (http://rootedrecords.co.uk) the man known as Peverlist (Tom to his mum) set up the Punchdrunk label (http://www.myspace.com/punchdrunkrecords) to help showcase the minimal sound emanating from Bristol. The label goes from strength to strength with releases from RSD (http://www.myspace.com/dubrockers), Gatekeeper (http://www.myspace.com/gatekeeperproductions). Similarly the H.E.N.C.H. (http://www.myspace.com/henchstep) and Ruffneck Diskotek ( http://www.myspace.com/ruffnekdiskotek) collectives have helped give Bristol a sound of it’s own as well as bringing through young talents such as Headhunter (http://www.myspace.com/dubstepheadhunter) and Wedge (http://www.myspace.com/wedgedj).

The Bristol scene is insightfully watched over, poked fun at and commented on by elder statesman and blogger Gutterbreakz whose Blogariddims 25 mix late last year (still available at http://gutterbreakz.blogspot.com) moved effortlessly from Deepchord and Echospace 12”s into a selection consisting solely of Bristol artists as if to say: “look! These made this”.

[It is not only the West Country which has found inspiration from the point where glacial Germanic precision and warm London sub bass meet. The emergence from The Hague of the numerically monikered 2562 (http://www.myspace.com/2562dub) gave the movement further international colour. His records have been released on Hyperdub (http://www.myspace.com/hyperdub) by the ever-astute Kode9 (http://www.myspace.com/kode9) whose own productions are also heavily influenced by the dub techno continuum, so much so that he released the LV and Errol Bellot cut ‘Globetrotting’ which could easily fit into Rhythm & Sounds ‘Burial Mix’ series.]

Back in London the final link in the minimal ‘dubstepno’ love-in comes in the shape of the Skull Disco label run by Lancashire born producer Sam Shackleton. Everything, from the imprints unique artwork and exacting quality control to its idiosyncratic sound sest it apart from the dubstep mainstream. Flirting with Arabic percussion and Berlin inspired dub techno, Skull Disco’s output shares a great kinshp with Bristol/Berlin axis and almost inevitably caught the eye of minimalist renaissance man and all-round sonic alchemist Ricardo Villalobos.

While the Chilean techno godhead had been mixing dubstep tunes like ‘Midnight Request Line’ by Skream and ‘Left Leg Out’ by Digital Mystikz into his four hour plus sets for sometime it was in Shackleton’s ‘Blood On My Hands’ that he saw a true connection. So much so that he personally asked to remix the song. The result was a jaw-droppingly perfect 18-minute workout of controlled, minimal space, stasis and pressure. This final gesture made the Berlin/Bristol/London axis complete. You can check out the remix as well as work by Skull Disco’s other equally exciting artists Appleblim (http://www.myspace.com/appleblim) and Gatekeeper on a 2CD retrospective compilation available form the labels website (http://www.skulldisco.com/).

While there was cause for getting a little worried for a minute the massive variety of influences and cultural meeting points that go into making dubstep interesting should continue to do so for a while yet. As long as you keep looking in the right places…

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