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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