By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Local promoters of dubstep, the latest mutation of underground U.K. dance music, seem to engage in similar anxious pre-show rituals. Having taken the plunge with a lineup of a genre alien to even most full-time clubbers, they'll peel the labels off their beer bottles. They might survey the sparsely peopled club a few times and then talk hurriedly to the door person. They will fret and fidget.
Sam Supa, who helped host a recent Pioneers of Dubstep showcase at the Darkroom, excused himself from an early evening interview due to raw nerves. DJ, producer, and promoter Juju, who recently began adding a monthly dubstep night (called Narco Hz) to his eight-year-running drum-and-bass party Phuturo, also admits to acute stress. "I do it every time I pace and I drink a lot," he says. "I never know how people are going to take it."
So what's with the nail-biting, especially considering that dubstep has been held up by some as dance music's savior from redundancy? The BBC, after all, has described the scene in its London epicenter as the most vibrant, populist movement to emerge from British clubs in years. And Burners this Labor Day were abuzz over "that weird shit" breakbeat raver-celebs Lorin and Freq Nasty were mixing into their sets. Lorin, who now probably has the largest cult following of any DJ in San Francisco, has been sprinkling dubstep into sets sparingly, but he's also been hitting up local dubstep producer Djunya for anything he's got.
This new-music-as-exotic-additive is one thing; the genre as an entree is quite another. On first listen, the tunes have a funny way of baffling, physically disorienting, and prompting the newbie to look up and demand, "Now what in the hell is that?" Newbies are most likely to stumble over the bass line, which uncoils from the woofers with all the delicacy of a python engorged after a large meal. Then it just lies there in the lowest frequencies, sluggish and perverse. The heaviness might roll over, stretch out a bit, and wobble up to the mid-range for a beat or two, but only to ooze back into the sub-bass murk again.
This bass line didn't just slither out of nowhere, though it has a traceable genealogy in Jamaican roots and dub reggae, and drum-and-bass once provided it shelter. "But drum-and-bass almost completely lost it," says Juju, who is still booked to play drum-and-bass across the country every weekend. "You don't hear that 50 Hz kicking you right in the face anymore. That's what brought me to dubstep, which kicks you in the face on every track."
Miroslav Wiesner, the other half of the Pioneers outfit, has a grand plan to seed a proper dubstep scene in San Francisco (which so far follows New York as the American city most supportive of the heavily South London-concentrated sound). He created a flowchart placing it at the nucleus of five distinct scenes: drum and bass; "breaks + Burning Man;" minimal techno/glitch; grime and 2-Step, the über-urban British club subculture that many of dubstep's founders started in; and "dub + desi," the South Asian-meets-reggae movement represented locally by the Dhamaal crew.
But even that complicated taxonomy fails to adequately define the sound for him. "I like to quote Joe Nice when explaining it," Wiesner adds, referring to the Baltimore DJ called dubstep's American ambassador. "He said, 'Dubstep is space, pace, and bass.' Space, as in the large amount of white space between samples; pace, as in this narrow band of 138-142 BPM that the tracks are made in; and bass, as in unless it has massive sub-bass, it doesn't work."
"Space" could also refer to its sonic tone and mood, which match that of the inkiest, loneliest of black holes. The best work of dubstep's South London vanguard Skream, Loefah, Benga, Kode 9, Digital Mystikz conjures the bleakest Rastafarian-imagined scenes of industrialized society slowly consuming itself. Because of its apocalyptic vibe and unusual shuffling rhythms, even dubstep partisans have wondered about its viability for local dance floors. Maneesh the Twister, co-founder of Dhamaal and veteran DJ of eclectic dub-based beats, says, "One criticism I've heard is 'how can you play dubstep at 1 or 2 a.m. when people want to really dance?' People haven't quite figured out how to move to it they kind of wobble up and down and let the bass do its thing." He takes a spoonful-of-sugar approach: "I try to bring in something they already understand reggae and then mix dubstep into that."
But those predicting hopelessly flummoxed or sedentary consumers of dubstep changed their tune after the Pioneers of Dubstep night, which featured local DJs Cyan, Subtek, Ripple, and the Santa Cruz-based Argon Records crew opening for prominent British headliners Youngsta and Hatcha. The promoters were pleasantly stunned to see a packed house at peak hour, with people crying out in glee and dancing a sort of nasty limbo as the bass slunk ever downward. Even a uniformed sailor who had wandered in from Fleet Week furlough couldn't sit still. Sea legs, in fact, might be the right preparation for extended dubstep exposure thighs tend to burn and knees buckle after an hour or two of such dancing.