Sunday, April 01, 2007
One Friday night...
On Friday night, tempted by a Kode9 double bill, I rolled through Old Street. First up was Forward>>. Arriving outside Plastic People at about 11:45, I found myself faced with a queue of around 50 people and the bouncer saying “one in one out”. How times have changed. For years there were months when Forward>> limped by. I remember one Slimzee set, right towards the end of his reign as the grime DJ, when the only, and I mean only, person on the dancefloor, was Philip Sherborne, whooping, hollering and waving his hands above his head at some gritty grime dubplate. As I say, how things have changed.
Inside Forward>>, Appleblim was in mid flow. It’s the second time I’ve heard him play recently and on both occasions I’ve been really impressed. Of all the DJs who’ve really made their mark on dubstep (Hatcha, Youngsta, N Type, Mala…), when they’ve truly come into their own is often when they’ve come to a strong sense of what their “sound” is. Any old DJ can pull together some unreleased (or often unfinished…) tracks, but only when they form some coherent whole, does the DJ really go clear. As Appleblim’s set progressed, I began to get the sense that he’s really forming a sonic identity.
If you happened to be confused about what that direction was, a hint was written across his chest. It read “Hardwax,” the legendary vinyl emporium owned by Berlin’s Basic Channel. It’s said the Hardwax boys are pretty enamoured with the Skull Disco sound and Shackleton in particular, and Appleblim seems to be returning the admiration through his sets of dubbed out BC-esque beats. There were a few percussive moments that felt distinctly “oingy boingy” (god how I miss that element to Hatcha’s sound…) and others that had hints of jungle, but on the whole it’s how subby and tempered Appleblim’s sound is, compared to the mid range wobble onslaught of N Type and co, that makes it special. Oh and he dropped Plastician and Skepta’s “Intensive Snare” – that has bars written especially for Forward>> – that had me hollering the lyrics like a goon. And what?! Loveit.
Next up Kode. For years Mr 9 was the default warm up DJ at FWD>>, which more often than not meant playing to the bar staff. No doubt this was the perfect time to drop the beatless “Sign of the Dub” but those sets had an effect on Kode because he’s long since been focused on maintaining energy levels in his sets.
This time, his set was definitely special not for sense of whole, the way Appleblim’s was, but for the individual selections. Favourites like Mala’s “Forgive” and Loefah’s “Jah War” remix got dropped as did Kode’s lushly drummed MF Doom remix. The Peveralist 12” had me locked in a eyes-closed rhythmic groove. His “Find My Way” remix is still next level but I’ve never noted that the pull up moment isn’t when the sub bass drops on the first switch, but on the second when the grimey synth gets it’s wobble on.
Also a revelation was the new Kode9 v Warrior Queen riddim that seems to have her practicing her swear word repertoire, which was quite a contrast with what must have been a new Burial track. Oh and Skream’s “2D” is still a thing of exceptional beauty, pulling off that trick he did so well on “Request Line” which was to make the melodies fluctuate so much they become part of the rhythmic propulsion of the track.
Following Kode was N Type v Youngsta with special guest MC JME. Personally, I get next to nothing out of the N Type/Hatcha/Benga/Coki-clones/Skream-in-hard-mode axis these days: the riffs are inanely atonal, the mids too noisy, there’s few melodic components (warm, dissonant or otherwise) and the overall dynamic balance between emotional response and dancefloor energy has been lost. N Type pulled his first tune within 8 bars of the drop. JME spent most of the first three tunes fighting to cut his voice through the mid range wobble. I’d much prefer to have heard him over a grime set… but there you go.
It didn’t matter, however, as the second phase of the night was about to begin. Lead by Kode, a convoy that included Shackleton, The Bug and assorted partners wandered its way out of Forward>> and towards the Dubstep After Hours squat party.
The idea of a Hackney dubstep squat party had instantly piqued my curiosity, and it had been in my phone diary for a month or so before Chantelle wrote about it in The London Paper, causing some exchanges on the Dubstep Forum. Advertising on forums is one thing, put putting it in the free “newspapers” they give out on the tube network to over a million London commuters is another, in terms of exposure to certain demographics and risk of comeback. Frankly it all added to the hype which made it all the more reason to attend.
Ducking down some side alleyway and round a decaying Victorian factory building, you were presented with twelve foot high steel gates, topped with razor wire. They’d been tied half shut using chain with such chunky links you'd think a tank couldn’t be able to snap, so there was just enough room for one person to squeeze through. Currently about thirty people were trying to fit through that hole, and a bouncer of sorts was having none of it.
Entering the building was total buzz. There are few moments in life that actually feel like you’re experiencing scenes from a film, but rolling into an illegal underground club is one of them. As we passed through the front door, it became apparent that this was some kind of abandoned office space. But one thing was wrong… it was deadly quiet. Had the police locked off the rave already?
We rolled through fire doors and down below ground. Down, right through corridors starkly lit by neon strip lighting, led us through another set of fire doors. Suddenly the lights went down, the music came up and an entire underground dubstep rave opened out before us.
It took a while to adjust to the space. It became apparent that we were standing in what had been a square open plan office space that was now lit only by a set of technicolour rave lights. The ceiling was low and built from the kind of cheap Styrofoam squares you see in, well, offices. At one end, there was a red neon clock, which seemed to only tell the time upside down. The energy was tangible, with people dancing wherever your eyes could focus.
With Kode due on the decks and Shackleton happily skanking at the front, I decided to take a look around, not least because I had my camera with me. It soon became apparent that this was in fact a room within a room, as a corridor surrounded it. The only difference was that much of the partition wall that formed the inner wall had been smashed out above waist level, so that throughout the night people would just as happily climb through the walls as walk through the door, adding the to the edgy sense that hoards were descending from the darkness of the night.
The soundsystem lost its impact towards the edges of the room, and having heard Kode once that night I began to be more interested in investigating. The more I looked, the more I noticed that the outer room of the rave had doors leading off it in multiple directions. Some doors lead back to other doors along the corridor. Others were filled with mangled electronics, leads pouring out of battered server stacks or phone exchanges. All of the rooms were lit with stark neon strip lighting again, which made for this extreme contrast when the doors were opened, as if you were stepping across an abrupt barrier that switched you from a dark, night time, weekend illegal dubstep rave to a light, daytime, weekday corporate 9-5 job. People were slumped on the floors and depending on the light they’d change which side of the barrier they were on.
In the pitch darkness of the rave room itself, the lack of light meant what was underfoot was very unpredictable and occasionally unstable, something that only added to the sense of edge to the night. On one occasion I tried to pass through a doorway only to find myself stumbling over a large moveable object. Fairly surprisingly for a club environment, it was a large bull mastiff.
While the rave didn’t feel like your full on, rural England, traveller/crusty free party crowd, the presence of free roaming dogs certainly distinguished it from your average London night. The outer gates, where a fire burnt in an oil drum, definitely had a free party feel to it (the people around the drum fire were clapping our their own beats: the drugs do work…) but largely the demographic seemed mostly the kind you’d find at a breakcore/electronica night, except for the odd gang of road kids. And while there was a core of dubstep fammo (The Bug, Shackleton, Coki, Pokes, SLT Mob, Chef, Boomnoise, Melissa Bradshaw…) inside, it felt on the whole like a new mix for dubstep.
I drifted into a really good conversation with someone I’d chatted to on email a bit before. By his own admission he’d only been listening to dubstep for around two years, but had also developed strong love for the stuff that had gone before too, like Horsepower and some of the more swung 2step. I forget how the conversation came around to it, but at one moment we came to the issue of how all the rapid developments within dubstep can continue to retain its sense of identity.
I’m not sure when I started to feel this way, but I’m now sure it probably can’t in all cases. In fact, clearly in some cases it already hasn't. Given the Life of Brian principle (“I’m dubstep and so’s my wife”) seems to apply to everyone under the sun these days (Time Out described Ben Westbeech’s work with DJ Die and Clipz as “ a chart friendly take on dubstep” this month… hmm), many of the values and attributes that signify dubstep won’t necessarily be retained (i.e. the central importance of quality soundsystems, the avoidance of drugs apart from weed/beer, the quest for new rhythmic or sonic ideas…). As the scene expanded, it’s come into contact with so many other scenes and styles (electronica, desi, hip hop, breakcore, d&b…) that to retain all or many of the core elements of the scene in all cases is near impossible and also no bad thing. From Forward>> to illegal squat parties, the hyperdub virus has broken out: let’s celebrate the mutations.