brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: dubstep

On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics: The Cases Of Rihanna and Britney Spears

Until relatively recently, it used to be the case that your favorite pop songs made the transition to the clubs when they were remixed by a well-known remixer/producer or DJ.  The club remix of your favorite pop song is an exercise in democratizing it to the demands of the dance floor, which almost always involves squashing the song to the constraints of what is colloquially known as a “four-on-the-floor” steady bass drum beat that clocks in at around 120-130 beats per minute.  Using surgical procedures made possible by computer software and digital editing, remixing is fairly easy to do (though like any craft, not at all easy to do really well) and requires only the most local of musical anaesthesias to subdue a pop song’s constituent parts.  Typically, what happens is that some song parts like its verse-chorus structure may be dismantled, individual instrument sounds are isolated and tweaked or jettisoned altogether, new (usually electronic and pulsatingly rhythmic) sounds get thrown in, the whole song is extended (giving listeners more time to dance) and voilà: a remix is born.  For an in-demand remixer, remixes are big business because just about every kind of pop artist wants his or music to undergo the alchemical procedure to make it club-friendly.  And it’s through the remix that the aesthetics of electronic dance music have trickled down into the world of mainstream pop.  But in recent years you may have noticed that some straight ahead pop artists are doing away with the remixer middleman altogether, releasing original songs that sound like straight ahead electronic dance music remixes.  Two examples of such artists are the singers Rihanna and Britney Spears.

1. Rihanna
Rihanna’s recent album, Loud, is a varied collection of electro-Euro pop with a strong electronic dance music influence.  On the single “Only Girl (In The World)”, for example, you can hear the driving four-on-the- floor beat:

But there is more.  If you listen to two specific points–at 1:02 and 2:18–you’ll hear a move straight out of DJ culture known as the “breakdown.”  A breakdown is a brief section where the hard-hitting percussion and bass–the virtual rhythm section, essentially–drops out entirely, leaving only the singer and the melodic instruments floating above like untethered balloons.  It feels like the bottom–in this case, literally the bottom, since the rhythm section provides the song’s “low-end” bass frequencies–has been taken out from underneath you, creating an anticipation of something big about to come back.  In this song, the breakdown section is the chorus section and the hook. Very cool move, Rihanna.

2. Britney Spears
Another artist whose work has been suffused with electronic dance music sonics is Britney Spears.  Perhaps it’s easy to cursorily dismiss and not listen critically listen to Spears because she has for so long been smack down the middle of the pop mainstream making pure pop, but like Rihanna, she has top flight producers shaping her sound, and her music is intricately crafted.  On Spears’ recent album, Femme Fatale, there are two songs we can listen to.  The first, “Till The World Ends”, has a huge, anthemic techno-house-trance music sound, and like Rihanna’s “Only Girl” features breakdowns at song’s choruses.  Listen, for example at 0:40 and 1:52, where you can hear the bottom drop out.  Also, there is a bridge section that consists of a filter sweep which temporarily removes the high frequencies from the mix, making it sound like someone is playing with the treble knob on an old stereo.  This is a classic DJ move and is simply a way to make a section of musical material sound new by altering its timbre (or sound “color”).  You can hear this bridge  filter sweep section at 3:04.  Finally, right at the tail end of the filter sweep there is a snare drum roll that gets faster and faster, making a dramatic lead-in to the end of the song.  (It’s kind of hidden in the mix, but it’s there.)  This kind of machinic drum roll flourish is another remixer move.  Bonus: If you listen closely at 3:24, you’ll notice as well a fleeting, single-beat long piece of silence where everything but the vocals just cut out. Again, a DJ-inspired move to mute parts for just a moment before bringing them back in with increased energy.

Here is the song:

A second Spears song we can listen to is “Hold It Against Me” that features two things of note.  First, as with Rihanna’s “Only Girl”, the chorus consists of a rhythmic breakdown which you can hear at 0:57 and at 2:09.  Second, you can hear in this song the influence of dubstep, a recent popular electronic dance music subculture from the UK.  Dubstep is characterized mainly by two things: a quick tempo (in the 140 beats per minute range) that paradoxically sounds slow by virtue of the music’s half-time rhythmic feel and its woozy, wobbly synthesizer basslines that slither along and between the half-time beats. If you want to hear some classic dubstep, listen to this clip called “Oskilatah” by the artist Skream (start the clip around 0:28):

Now go and listen to the section from 2:46-3:30 in Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” where you can hear the song morph into a dubstep groove for the entire 45 second bridge section.  Although it’s derivative of dubstep, it’s also very well done.

Here is the song:

On Bassweight

The documentary DVD Bassweight offers an overview of the emergence of dubstep, perhaps the most significant vector in the past few years of electronic dance music.  Dubstep originated in South East London in the late 1990s, growing out of instrumental dub remixes of the two-step garage sound, combining its rapid-fire, double time feel with the sub-bass basslines of dub and a little dissonant dread ambiance thrown in the mix to create what Mary Ann Hobbs of BBC Radio
1 calls “a meeting point for every conceivable underground [dance music] culture.”  While a novice listener may hear almost all dubstep as sounding pretty similar, many dubsteppers might subscribe to DJ Deapoh’s assessment of the idiom:

“Dubstep is a fresh sound because whatever sound you’re into [techno, house, heavy metal] . . . those influences are put into dubstep and that’s made into its own sound.  Deep bass and around 140 BPM [beats per minute]–those are the only real markers.”

But the novice listener would be right to hear the guiding hand of Jamaican dub in dubstep, not just in the bass but also in the sense of aural space created through the use of delay and reverb effects.  In this sense, it sounds like a musical idiom in retreat from almost frantic insistence of the house/techno-sphere and relaxing–opening up into the deep spaces of Groove.  For Finnish DJ Tes La Rok, dubstep solved the “no space in drum and bass” problem–a music that is built on frantically repeating “Amen” breakbeats and has, for some, just “too much drums.” So, from this perspective, dubstep is progress, taking the truths of dub into new electronic orbits.

Bassweight tries to contextualize dubstep in its home territory of London, using grainy camera effects while panning over suburban housing complexes to convey a sense of the music’s working class (?) origins.  This works to a point, and it is perhaps from this perspective that Kode 9/Steve Goodman speaks about music making as a means of staking claim to a place:

“The minute you’re making sounds, you take control over your local sound space.  The minute you’re making sounds, instead of being a passive victim of your environment, you can carve out a territory.  That’s why for a lot of kids it’s inspiring to do music in an otherwise shit, depressed situation.”

What is not clear from this is whether or not Goodman is referring directly to the lives of himself and his colleagues.  Is theirs a depressed situation, or are they just staking a claim to one?  The film does not make this distinction clear.

But what is clear is that we meet numerous DJ-producers in the film–including Kode 9, Plastician, N-Type, Skream, Deapoh, Goth Trad, The Bug–and follow them as they talk shop, visit record stores, and perform in clubs.  Some musicians even broadcast over their own pirate radio stations.  Indeed, staking a claim to frequency is one of the key aspects of the dubstep scene, the most important being of course what Hobbs calls “the bass concept” or the low-end of the music’s
frequency spectrum.  Jamaican dub, of course, was onto this sonic truth decades ago, and the dubsteppers faithfully follow that path, placing great importance on the mastering of their tracks onto dubplates (blank acetate discs) and eventually, vinyl records.  And so we get to take a peek into Transition Mastering Studios as engineer Jason Goz describes the EQ, Compression, and Limiting that he applies to tracks as “not really rocket science” but nevertheless and important art of smoothing out the sound spectrum with an array of analog processors so that overly harsh highs don’t overshadow the bassweight of the lows when tracks are played at full volume in the clubs.

Analog is alive and well in other ways as well.  Kode 9/Steve Goodman in his home studio shows us around his Moog Voyager analog synthesizer.  Machines like the Moog allow musicians to directly fiddle with and shape their sounds by turning knobs to find those interesting timbres and the “out of tune” sounds between the sounds.  Goodman even has a circuit-bent (re-wired) Speak & Spell toy which he uses to create singular electronic sound effects for his tracks.

As Hobbs tells the story, dubstep hit a “flash point” around the end of 2005 and the Dub Warz dance party events that began documenting its innovations.  Today, there are dubstep scenes in the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, the US (New York) and Brazil (Buenos Aires).  Hobbs, a radio host and  DJ, believes that DJ/producers “can construct tracks that are weapons to make people feel alive on the dancefloor.”

One of the best audio clips in Bassweight comes from the secretive musician Burial, who is a good example of someone taking dubstep into new orbits through the use of fragmented samples, broken beats, and haunting ambient sounds.  Here is his track “Archangel”:

Below are two more dubstep examples:

Skream’s “Oskilatah”:

And Kode 9 and Spaceape’s “9 Samuri”:

You can read more about dubstep here.

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