The atmosphere of Belvedere’s, a dive bar on Butler Street in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood — with its stage and pool tables and little in the way of ambiance — was completely transformed by the bass. It reminded me of a water jet cutter. Taking water and streaming it at such a high rate that it could slice into steel and marble? Genius. In the same way, the sound system was taking these records that, all together might not add up to much — a drum pattern and a bassline, some sound effects — and pushing them out at such a volume as to consume all the empty space in the room. I imagined that it might be transforming the molecules in the very air that surrounded me.
Under the right conditions, this is dubstep. The product of a handful of DJs and producers driven to forge a new sound, it is comprised of elements familiar to the London underground — drum and bass, two-step garage, hip-hop, for starters — yet it is still somehow very exciting, very different. Initially the sole province of tiny clubs and pirate radio stations, the last few years have seen a radical evolution of this mutant dance music genre, spurred on every bit as much by the internet as by the devotion of its fans.
Sticky TOC engaged! Do not remove this!
I had spent the day on Skype, chasing down some of the personalities in the international dubstep community, trying to understand the history of the music and the story of its monumental rise. I had also seen at least four TV commercials that used the music in a bid to sell various consumer items, including Kmart "back to school" clothes for tweens and some sort of fast food with a cheap plastic prize in the bag. But that isn’t what finally convinced me that dubstep was the sound of now.
I had put work away for the day and went to my laptop to check email when I saw a new post on the Dubstep Forum website. It was a flier for DJ Coki, one of the original London dubstep DJs and a member of the Digital Mystikz production team — and he was performing at Belvedere’s, down the street from me. At the very moment that my head was swirlin’ with all these thoughts about EDM and Online Culture and Bass Music and What Does It All Mean, at this very moment one of the most influential figures in the scene had been booked to play music for maybe fifty, maybe seventy-five kids at a dive bar in Pittsburgh, a five minute bike ride from my house.
I took it as a sign and headed to the club.
Croydon is a town in South London, an outpost on the way north to London for at least a thousand years. According to Martin Clark, a music journalist, DJ, and musician who goes by the name of Blackdown, the town is "distinct because it’s kind of like its own entity... large and self-contained. It’s quite lairy." It was also home to Big Apple Records, in some ways the epicenter of dubstep in its earliest days, before "dubstep" was even a word.
Lairy, according to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, means "behaving in a loud, excited manner, especially when you are enjoying yourself or drinking alcohol." In my estimation, when people are especially enthusiastic and taken with intoxication, they’re also willing to put energy into things that aren’t stereotypically productive, such as making music. Let us take a moment to praise the lairy.
it borrows and steals from a great many sources
In the same way that Croydon exists in the totality of London, a piece but at the same time something quite separate, dubstep is its own space inside the whole of EDM (electronic dance music — the new name for "techno"). Like any genre of music, it is part of a continuum; it borrows and steals from a great many sources, stretching back past the beginnings of popular music and forward into an imagined future. But it is also a singular mix of these influences. It is its own entity.
For our purposes, we can begin the story of dubstep at the turn of the 21st century, and with UK garage and two-step; weird, hybrid music that features elements of house music (popcorn snares, glittering high-hats) and a lyrical style that is almost a parody of American hip-hop glamor and excess. "Champagne, Versace and Moschino," as Zed Bias once put it.
Recently I talked to Damian "Dieselboy" Higgins, the Brooklyn-based drum and bass DJ, producer, and head of the record label Human (and its dubstep and electro imprint Subhuman). Higgins has been on the front lines as long as America has had a rave scene. "Drum and bass kept spawning these micro-cultures, or micro-genres," he explained. "[There was] two-step, and then grime, and dubstep was the next one. For me, I felt like it came from drum and bass. There are a lot of drum and bass guys who jumped ship and went to it."
"It's no longer a question of whether you can make music, because the software is distributed, it's accessible."
Drum and bass is one of those primarily English forms of dance music that, even today, still sounds alien — the fast tempos (generally well over 150 beats per minute), the intricate syncopation, and the full-on synthetic sound has never been fully accepted by mainstream American ears. Two-step garage took house music and added the foreignness of drum and bass. Or, perhaps conversely, it took drum and bass and added enough elements from house music as to not alienate the ladies in the clubs. It was a form of dance music that was indigenous to London, and for a moment in the late 1990s it was arguably the underground sound of the UK.
In Croydon, UK garage became a lot deeper, a lot less corny, and started to become rather menacing. The epicenter for this was a shop called Big Apple Records, where a DJ and producer named Hatcha discovered Skream and Benga, who started bringing in demo cassettes when in their early teens. The duo graduated from recording with Music 2000 on the Sony PlayStation to FruityLoops, from cassettes to vinyl dubplates. Soon, the sound of this group coalesced into a proto-dubstep.
While established producers had access to studios and hardware, the up and comers had access to virtual instruments. The influence of Propellerhead Software’s Reason (first released in December 2000) and Image-Line’s FruityLoops (December 1997) on the sound of those early records can’t be dismissed.
"They cost nothing if you know how to get them for free, which most people did," says Martin Clark. "The VSTs [Steinberg’s audio plug-in architecture] were available on peer-to-peer sites. So suddenly it's democratized, right? You have zero cost to acquire a studio. You have this like, infinite [potential]. Anyone can be a producer if they can get a hold of these. From that pool you have a much larger pool to select who makes interesting music, as opposed to just who can make music. It's no longer a question of whether you can make music, because the software is distributed, it's accessible."
"For five years, no one cared about it, no one was interested."
It wasn’t just Croydon. By the end of the 1990s both drum and bass and two-step garage were undergoing something of an identity crisis. In The Wire Primers, Derek Walmsley describes the prevailing scene in house and garage clubs as "bland lifestyle branding." As a result, producers started exploring darker and more ominous sounds.
Martin Clark is amongst those that were drawn to this new sound. He was recently kind enough to take time out from his seaside holiday "in the middle of nowhere" to tell me about the scene at the time.
"I was interested in the darker side of garage, and I was friends with the people that would end up making dubstep. I was interviewing and talking to people like El-B and Horsepower [Productions], the Big Apple lot, Hatcha, Oris Jay, Zed Bias — the godfathers, around 2000. I met them at a photo shoot around 2000, and I kept in contact with them all, because I thought they were doing something really interesting that no DJ was talking about, no one wanted anything to do with. Even in garage."
"Within a year or so," Clark says, "they founded Forward, dubstep’s foundational club, and then inaugurated dubstep. For five years, no one cared about [it], no one was interested."
Most everyone seems to agree that the term dubstep itself dates to 2002, and was first used by Neil Jolliffe, founder of the record label Tempa. As Clark told me, "Neil used it and wrote it down first in a press release that was sent to [American music magazine] XLR8R, who then used it on the cover with Horsepower Productions in a 2002 article. And then Neil A&R’d a compilation with Hatcha called Dubstep Allstars Vol. 1, so that’s really what cemented it."
Clark proceeds to rattle off a list of landmark moments in dubstep’s development, including a track called "Midnight Request Line" by Skream. Dark, understated, and rattling with a weird percussive energy, this track evokes other worlds — or at least the funhouse mirror version of our own. The bass line, instead of just hammering on one note, contains a melody front to back. It suggests a verse and a chorus, without going all the way into traditional "song" territory. Percussive elements are gunshots, but they’re so subtle as to almost be mere clicks and snares. It’s a sense of foreboding that doesn’t totally deliver. "Midnight Request Line" was released on Tempa in 2005.
Another main event that Clark points out is a program called Dubstep Warz. Hosted by Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC Radio 1, outside of a proper club gig it’s probably the most exciting way to hear those early records. The influence of this program can’t be underestimated: when it dropped in early 2006, it not only awakened the rest of the UK to the sound that had been bubbling on the underground circuit, but it also provided the rest of the world with a compact and exciting document of the sound.
Rattling with a weird percussive energy, this track evokes other worlds
Boomnoise (he asked me not to use his real name) is a radio DJ and moderator of the Dubstep Forum. He moved to London in 2000, "for school and for garage." He also fell in love with the proto-dubstep then called dark garage. "It was the total antithesis of the club you go to," he says, "where you’re flashing money around, buying champagne." He refers to Dubstep Warz as nothing less than "the cataclysmic birth of the genre internationally. And that was probably the singular point in which it exploded."
Dubstep Forum was founded in October 2005 by Ivan Kovacevic, and it soon established itself as the premiere site for all things dubstep. Boomnoise describes as an extension of the actual, real world UK garage scene.
"You had all the DJs on there," Boomnoise says. "Everyone was on there. It was a really small, close-knit, London-based community."
It was also a bellwether for the genre’s global expansion.
"You could see the rate at which people joined the forums," says Boomnoise. "It was crazy. I think we went from a few hundred members in 2005 [and by] the end of 2006, maybe twenty or thirty thousand."
America’s dubstep ambassador
As a testament to the young genre’s international reach, the beginning of Dubstep Warz includes shoutouts from North American dubstep DJs, including Dave Q (Brooklyn, NY) and the man known as America’s Dubstep Ambassador, Joe Nice.
"I live in Baltimore," Nice tells me. "That's where I was raised; it wasn't where I was born. Raised in Baltimore, born in Southampton, England. I came to America when I was about eighteen months, two years old, right around there."
Nice comes from a musical family — his dad played steel drum and, as he explains it, "I really got a lot of my musical 'bug' from him. In terms of, not only loving music and performing music, but just seeing the joy that people have in it. Especially in live music, when music is presented to them. The joy that he had for playing music with the rest of the guys in that steel drum orchestra... seeing the joy that they brought to others."
Like a lot of others I’ve talked to, the initial attraction to dubstep was its freshness, and its uniqueness. As Nice explains, "I was kind of looking to get back into DJing, and then I said, 'you know what? This is exactly the kind of stuff I want to be playing.' I didn't necessarily want to play house — there are plenty of top DJs playing in Baltimore, and all of them are going to be better than anything I could ever think of doing. There's a lot of drum and bass DJs, there's a whole lot of everything floating around Baltimore. I didn't want to be just another guy playing what everyone else is playing. Additionally, there was a vibe to the sound that I really enjoyed, that appealed to me. I grew up listening to bass music naturally, 'cos my parents were listening to a lot of dub and reggae music. So bass naturally was my thing... It wasn't nurture, it was nature, and it kind of made sense."
It was in spring 2002, at a festival in Baltimore called Starscape, that Nice decided to champion this sound.
"There was a tent called the U.K. Invasion tent. It was a bunch of U.K. garage DJs: Oris Jay was there, Zed Bias was there, J Da Flex; but the one guy that absolutely blew my mind to this day was Hatcha... the majority of his stuff then was Benga tunes and Skream tunes. And they were 13, 14 year old kids. OK?"
"I'm standing in the crowd, and I'm going, 'You gotta be kidding me.' How do you make a sound like that? How do you make a beat with that happening? He put those two tunes together? Ah, OK, I need to push this.'"
Among other American converts to dubstep were Drew Best and Danny Johnson, whose Los Angeles-based Smog began hosting dubstep events six years ago. This eventually led to a record label, which counts 24 releases since 2008 (including 18 singles and EPs, 3 albums, and 3 compilations).
The principals of Smog had long been drawn to UK bass music, but by the time they found dubstep they were manifesting symptoms of musical fatigue.
Drum and bass, Johnson says, "went super fast and super technical, and super — it just seemed like they were filling every space with the sound."
They wanted to hear something new, and that new something was dubstep.
"Skrillex used to come to this club at the time, and be like 'Hey, what's this song?'"
"I think it was kind of refreshing," says Best. "We were involved in a lot of the drum and bass events here in Los Angeles, and it was at the time where the music had become like, 'sensory overload.' Dubstep seemed sort of refreshing, and it was sort of this new take on bass music. The BPMs were a lot slower, and the music was a lot more minimal. It was sort of a stripped down version of what was happening with bass music."
Best emphasizes the importance of the Dubstep Warz program: "That was a recording that a lot of people on the internet had been passing around, early 2006. That's something that I had heard, and it really sort of made the difference from hearing the music to understanding what the culture over there was all about. It really inspired people like us to create a community for that music in our city, in LA."
Among those who pricked up their ears to the new sound was a musician named Sonny Moore, known to the wider world as Skrillex. According to Johnson, Skrillex, long a fan of dance music, attended early Smog shows and became enamored of the style. "One of the other guys I work with," he says, "a DJ called Thee Mike B used to DJ this club called Banana Split in Hollywood, and it was with DJ AM and Steve Aoki at the time. Skrillex used to come to this club at the time, and be like 'hey, what's this song?' And then he would come to our Smog shows in the same capacity, saying 'What is this stuff? This is cool.'
"There were two shows that year that broke Skrillex to everybody. A DJ known as 12th Planet brought Skrillex in to sing, it was a song called ‘Father Said.’ I don't think it ever saw a release, but Skrillex basically sang over John [12th Planet] DJing, and they did the same thing at Electric Daisy Carnival that year, John was basically breaking Skrillex to a bigger crowd. I think up until that point he had sort of been a buzzword around some of the producers, but it was really 2010 when Skrillex became a real phenomenon."
We can do whatever we want
"I made this song in my bedroom when I was living illegally in a warehouse in downtown LA."
To call Skrillex just a DJ and producer is to miss the point. He’s a reflection of youth and the remix culture we live in.
"I love all types of music," Skrillex told Alex Chapman in 2010, "and when your platform of making music happens to be your computer, you tend to make music like dance music, and that's kind of what I gravitated towards. I come from playing hardcore, and post-hardcore and screamo or whatever you want to call it. I always drew to the most aggro-sounding type of stuff, but then again to the melodic stuff as well."
He couldn’t have traded in screamo for a MacBook Pro and a pair of Beats by Dre headphones at a better time.
In the 54th (2012) Grammy Awards, Skrillex was nominated for five awards, including Best New Artist and Best Short Form Music Video. Eventually, he went on to win awards for Best Remixed Recording, Best Dance Recording, and Best Dance / Electronica Album for Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.
"This is really crazy for me, man," Skrillex said from the stage. "I made this song in my bedroom when I was living illegally in a warehouse in downtown LA. I made that song with a blown speaker."
His breakout release, the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP, is a combination of electro, house, industrial, hip-hop, and of course dubstep, among others — all assembled in a way that calls attention to all the similarities between the various strains of EDM, as well as nearly anything you might hear on mainstream FM radio.
Essentially, it’s pop.
To paraphrase Nick Lowe, it’s now music for now people.
Or, as Skrillex told the crowd at the Grammy Awards: "I guess there’s no formula or format any more. We can do whatever we want."
There is a great moment on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle soundtrack where Johnny Rotten yells, right before The Sex Pistols break into their next number, "We don’t need permission for anything!" It’s a great moment because it’s unexpected, kept low in the mix, and it’s absolutely correct. It captures the whole point of punk, and the whole point of style as subculture.
Essentially, it’s pop
I got the same thrill when Skrillex said as much on The Grammys, of all places: We can do whatever we want.
Artists aren’t, by their very nature, very good with rules. Exploding convention is part of the creative act. There is a certain mainstream type of dubstep — derisively known as "brostep" — that is voiding the rules of all those first-generation UK dubstep records, and causing a fair amount of consternation among purists in the process.
Brostep. You know, bro — as in, thick. Or stupid.
it is a moving, living thing, an extended bass note treated with stacks of effects
The most recognizable and most misused aspect of contemporary dubstep (whether you consider it brostep or not) is the "wub" or "wobble." This is the bone-shattering, alien sound you hear when the Internet Explorer logo comes on the screen during the latest Microsoft commercial. It was with the wobble that bass moved from being a rarefied, "deep," contemplative sound to something more akin to a guitar riff.
Martin Clark pretty much labeled 2009 the year of the wub in a column on Pitchfork: "No summary of the year in dubstep would be complete without the ever-expanding wobble side of the scene, recently hilariously and accurately renamed ‘brostep.’ In the UK, the wobble sound is now the default dubstep position for many fans, as the scene commands an increasing share of the Friday night / student / supper club market."
There are a great number of YouTube tutorials on how to create the wub-wub-wobble in your Digital Audio Workstation of choice: Reason, Ableton Live, Logic, Pro Tools. Any particularly geeky conversation regarding the tweaking bass sounds (shouldn’t every conversation regarding the tweaking of bass sounds be assumed to be geeky?) will deride Native Instruments’ popular Massive wavetable software synth: not because it doesn’t sound good (it sounds great), but because the presets make it all too easy for anyone to cop anyone else’s bass sound. Homogenization through mechanization, software plugin-style.
As for the wub itself, whether you love it or hate it you can’t deny its power: it is a moving, living thing, an extended bass note treated with stacks of effects. It keeps the listener off-balance, often vibrating, wobbling like the whole thing is about to tumble off beat into some kind of chaos. Yet it doesn't.
Until recently it would be a major feat to accumulate enough rack mount effects and pedals, and forget automation! Now it’s a matter of piling on software plug-ins and automating the various parameters with mouse or trackpad: Bit crushers. Overdrive. Low frequency oscillators.
Another popular trick is to take a MIDI track (MIDI containing no audio itself; it is basically a sequence of parameters such as velocity, pitch, note length, etc. that can be used to "play" any electronic instrument with MIDI input or any soft synth that understands MIDI commands) and connect it to two, four, or half a dozen or more instruments: mid-range lead synths, phased pads, samplers with growling electric punk rock bass samples and deep, dubby, low end bass samples. Everything moves together, the bass line doing double duty as a melodic line, while everything pulses and undulates sort of (but not entirely) out of sync with everything else. On the dancefloor, this isn’t a listening experience — it’s a whole body experience.
"Cockney Thug" is arguably responsible for the bro-ification of dubstep. This track began as something to play at the beginning of one of Rusko’s DJ sets, which accounts for the fact that it starts abruptly, with no real introduction to speak of. The crowd went nuts for it, and a style — a style-within-a-style — was born.
I guess you could blame my thick American ears, but this current iteration of dubstep sounds alright to me. Some tracks are better than others. And some are pretty bad, but every genre has those. But when it works best, the producer makes a connection that few have dared before, the unholy union of doom-laden, downtempo heavy metal and roots reggae. In print, it reads like it should never have worked: kickdrums on beats one through four, but a snare drum only on the third beat (think "007" Desmond Dekker or "Ghost Town" by The Specials) which, when devoid any swing at all, evokes nothing less than Black Sabbath’s "Sweet Leaf." With the bassline holding it all together, it’s not only suitable for headbanging, but it’s — well, funky, in a Mantronix sort of way. The reason that this brostep is taking America by storm is because it contains that contradiction that Americans love more than anything else: it’s totally new and unique, while being utterly familiar and recognizable.
Ultimately, a label like "brostep" isn’t very helpful, because it doesn’t contain any information. It’s a pejorative. It signals that the person doing the talking doesn’t like the particular music that he’s labeling. Nothing more, nothing less.
"Bass, pace, and space," Joe Nice says. "I've been saying that in every interview I've ever done. Bass, pace, and space. That's what I always thought was the best part of dubstep." And there is no arguing that when dubstep really goes off the rails, and becomes harsh and overwhelming, it is for a lack of space, and a hurried pace, and it’s because the bass is replaced by an abrasive, claustrophobic mid-range that is more appropriate for laptop speakers than sound systems.
"Bass, pace, and space — that's what I always thought was the best part of dubstep."
This is our music, this is our generation
Rave was a British phenomenon that peaked in the late 1980s, combining repetitive beat music with MDMA and this sort of pre-internet / new age-ish / cybernetic / science fiction vibe that was making the rounds at the time, appearing like Turntable Terrorist Cells in disparate places all around the world over the next decade. Scenes would spring up in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, Moscow, East St. Louis. Even if you lived in someplace remote and hostile to cutting edge youth culture, you could probably get your hands on a copy of Raygun or Mondo 2000 or the Rave ‘til Dawn mix CD, and fill in the blanks for yourself.
And for a while it looked like dance music was about to take over the mainstream — a thought that horrified the purists, the ones for whom the scene was precious. The rave scene with its utopian underpinnings had the sort of elitist / everyman duality that typifies underground music culture.
Dance music was about to take over — then grunge happened
Then grunge happened. For a moment, it looked like all those blustery guitars and angry white dudes — "authentic" musicians — would wash away any hopes of electronic music taking over the mainstream. What this did, instead, was send record labels scrambling to find the next mythic Seattle. This brief moment turned out to be the major labels’ last gasp before the internet ruined everything. It gave the world "electronica," acts like the Chemical Brothers and Crystal Method became MTV staples, and for a minute or two ravers in the United States were having arguments about whether dance music was mainstream, and what that meant to their local scenes and communities.
Electronica never went away, even if radio stations stopped playing it alongside other alternative acts and MTV stopped playing videos altogether. Instead, as artists like Moby increasingly integrated old fashioned songwriting into their electronic music, dance music production became the backbone of pop music.
I was particularly interested to get Dieselboy’s take on the current era of corporate megaraves because he has been involved — personally and professionally — with the scene throughout its entire existence.
"The rave scene is so big right now," Dieselboy says. "There are kind of like stadium shows. They'll book a couple dubstep guys at Red Rocks in Colorado, a 10,000 person venue, and they'll pack it out with a couple headliners like Flux Pavillion and Skrillex."
That's the thing that really struck me about the rave scene. It has some longevity. It wasn't a flash in the pan after all. With some artists capable of making $250,000 a gig, with companies like, Clear Channel on board and with Skrillex being worth $15 million (for a Forbes Celebrity 100 ranking between Tina Fey and Larry the Cable Guy), you have to ask if there even is a rave scene these days. Or if it’s just become, you know, what kids do on summer vacation.
"Well, it's still the same thing," says Dieselboy. "I've been doing this non-stop, and it's still the same shit, it's just that more money is being made out of it, more and more people are going. And a lot of these kids are getting into the scene through dubstep, dubstep is huge. Everything is just done on a whole other level. There's a lot more money, and it's a lot more professional. Are there still parties, like 'rave parties' that happen in old warehouses or whatever? There are, that whole thing is still there, there's just like this whole new level."
Perhaps no one was as surprised by the resurgence of rave as Simon Reynolds, the man who literally wrote the book on the subject, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. "I wrote an update," Reynolds says, "there was an edition of Energy Flash that came out in 2008 and I updated it quite a bit — I was writing it in 2007, basically. And that book ends on a fairly sort of downbeat. Basically, the idea was that the music will carry on, but it will never be as big as it was in the nineties. It seemed like America was a lost cause, in terms of [dance music] being a mainstream thing."
He first noticed dance music’s long slumber in the mid-2000s, when checking out New York City clubs.
"The clubs were smaller," he says, "and the soundsystems were poor and the music wasn't being done justice. When you've gone from events where there's a thousand or fifteen hundred people you feel like you're in a massive — the jungle term, the 'massive.' Then when you're with a hundred people in a pokey little club, and the sound system isn't adequate, it's just very depressing. And then I noticed there were lots of different events in bars, and people were doing more talking than dancing. In the mid-2000s everything just sort of seemed to sort of be declining."
According to Reynolds, he started noticing dance music’s resurgence when he moved to LA. "I think LA Weekly or something did a big piece about the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Coliseum, in the summer of 2010. Anyhow, I'd seen some of the coverage of it… and I really did feel like you know, history repeating. You had the massive event, the crazy clothes, and people dying. And the public outcry, and the crackdown, and I think they had to move the operation out to Las Vegas… and it seemed exactly like a repeat of what happened in the 90s, and I wasn't expecting it."
"Music that had absolutely no sense of the past being better."
As Reynolds recently described it in the Guardian, rave peaked for America in the 1990s. If you were there, you’d probably remember the scene for "heavy drugs / barely legal teens / bad clothing," as he writes, as much as for the music. But a lot has changed in the intervening fifteen years or so: The rave scene pulled back for a while, and eventually became rebranded as EDM. The word "rave" has been replaced by "festival." Ecstasy is now called "Molly." Instead of the hacked together grassroots appeal of Hyperreal, there are slick concerns like Dancing Astronaut.
"I just went to the Hard Festival over the weekend," Reynolds told me. "The thing I liked about it was that this was music that had absolutely no sense of the past being better. In house culture, or even dubstep in Britain, there's a lot of referencing of roots reggae, or the early days of house, or the early days of jungle. In dance culture, the purist stuff, there's sort of this in-built reverence to the past. And what I liked about the EDM vibe, there's none of that: it's just like 'now, now, now.' And if you happen to know about music you could hear things that harken back to [earlier dance music], but that really doesn't seem to be what the kids are into. I sensed that 'this is our music, this is our generation.'"
Beyond lies the wub
This weekend I watched a documentary called Re:Generation on Hulu. The premise isn’t exactly high concept: take four popular producers (Mark Ronson, DJ Premiere, Pretty Lights, and of course Skrillex) and ask them to work in a genre other than their own. The whole thing was pretty polite and noncontroversial, exactly what the corporate sponsors, The Grammys and Hyundai, paid for. One reviewer called it "a commercial without a product," a line I wish I would have written my own self.
For his segment, Skrillex got to work with the remaining members of The Doors. Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger were into it, coming into the studio together to lay down some of their trademark organ and guitar over a programmed beat. Drummer John Densmore, long estranged from the other guys — apparently he thinks it’s pretty tasteless for the band to tour with Ian Astbury of The Cult as Jim Morrison Karaoke — came in separately to add percussion. I’m a lifelong fan of The Doors and I really like Skrillex, so it was great to see his excitement as they all walked around Venice, shooting the shit and grabbing b-roll footage.
What would you do if you found yourself in the studio with the living Doors for a brief afternoon? I know what I’d do, and that’s exactly what Skrillex did: record the jam session, sample some handclaps, take my laptop back to the hotel room and perfect the mix on my Beats headphones. For the pièce de résistance (whatever that means), some Jim Morrison vocal samples: Come on baby, light my fi...
And there you have it, a stadium anthem with the decidedly un-psychedelic name of "Breakn’ A Sweat."
Greil Marcus, in his recent book The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, describes the thought process of the band as it plays "Light My Fire" at a club called The Family Dog in Denver, Colorado in 1967: "How do we make this song into something they haven’t heard before? How do we make it into something we haven’t heard before?" That’s the challenge for all artists. "Breakn’ A Sweat" sounds like the end of a process run amok, one that began in 1967. It sounds like The Doors stripped of everything that makes them, well, The Doors.
Sounds like we’re getting dumber, doesn’t it?
And why not? That’s a lot healthier, artistically-wise, than the alternative, which I believe is called Rasta Hookah, a twelve piece jam band with two drummers and six dreadlocks that performs almost once a month at Sherlock’s on North Park Row in Erie, PA. Or Crystal Ship, the Jersey Shore’s most famous Doors cover band.
In July 2012, Scientific Reports published a paper titled "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music," with an argument that will ring true to your more reactionary music fans.
Using the Million Song Dataset, a publicly accessible database of song characteristics like pitch data, loudness, and timbre, researchers were able to analyze 464,411 songs recorded and released between 1955 and 2010. The conclusion? Over the last fifty years, pop songs have become progressively more homogenized. That is, variety within pop songs decreased. And the chord progressions and melodies have become more predictable. In addition, the sound palette has become progressively less varied, and music has become louder.
Sounds like we’re getting dumber, doesn’t it?
I asked Simon Reynolds what he made of all that.
"I think it depends on the algorithm these people use," he said. "You can probably get all kinds of results out of large pools of data. I know in terms of electronic music it's never been melodically sophisticated, it's more been about rhythm and syncopation." Melodies and basslines and synth lines can be very simple, but that isn’t the point. "The real creativity was in the nuances," he says, "and the beat."
Which is absolutely true, of course. Even when a track sounds particularly simple or unvarying, one only has to hear it in a club to see how much is missed merely listening to music.
That was the lesson of Coki’s set at Belvedere’s Ultra-Dive on Butler Street in Pittsburgh one Wednesday night. The last time I had been to the venue, the world-renowned noise duo Lightning Bolt had filled the space with a screeching, claustrophobic din that was produced, improbably, by a single drummer and bass player. It was the sound of someone tuning a radio into armageddon.
By contrast, Coki delivered the sound of that same radio listener settling into the aftermath of armageddon: zero history and zero panic, just a timeless frequency so simple and so large as to fill up the entire room, to fill one's entire existence for an hour or two.
Despite the circuitous route the genre took, the controversy and the metamorphoses, the promise of dubstep is still a bassline wobble implying something that feels absolutely true: The past is over.
All that matters now is what we do going forward.
So let’s go.
Photo of Benga and Skream at Big Apple Records courtesy of John Kennedy / Big Apple Records
Electric Daisy Carnival photos by Cesar Sebastian
Soundsystem photo by Unknown