Thursday, August 20, 2009

The greatest rhythms in dubstep part 1

Late last autumn, I began a foolish task: writing about the greatest uses of rhythm in dubstep. There are several reasons why. Obviously dubstep's become a bit rhythmically stagnant of late, especially in the core of its club-orientated producers.

But more than that, as a producer I've always loved the science, or moreover dark black art, of programming beats, extracting the groove from the grid. Explaining why certain tracks stand out seemed like fun, not least when so much music blogging these days seems to be about taking tangential references from track names and implying/fabricating layers of narrative bolted into larger pre-formed philosophical/political agendas.

Recently I realised what a foolishly large task it was, so I've broken it into pieces. Here's the first of many (hopefully): the greatest rhythms in dubstep.

Hold the front page - music-blogger-in-actually-talking-about-the-music shocker.




Exemen
"Far East"
[Manchu]


To call Wookie "dubstep" is to do him a disservice, but equally by "Far East" (circa 2001/2) it was more than just the UKG scene that had accepted him and got played regularly at the Velvet Rooms era of Forward>>. But this dark garage roller is as proto dubstep as they come. Also finding favour with breakbeat garage DJs, it's beats were smarter, more detailed and more dread than the Bingo rollouts that surrounded it at that time.

Take for instance the drop on "Far East." Every other drop known to DJ-kind has been a whole integers of bars; "Far East's" is a fraction or quite possibly a decimal. It slams in like a sucker punch: DJs who mix over the drop beware.

Being needlessly contrary with your beats is easy: anyone could program a dubstep track in 7 bar cycles or in 78/3 time signature. It's getting away with it which is hard. By getting away with it, this means: does the track still retain some sense of groove, however abstract?

And therein lies the glorious challenge of drum programming and a theme that will return in all of these pieces: you have confines - somewhere between predictable bore and unlistenable freakout - in which to work, can you find an untried variant?

But back to "Far East." It's other great joy is something which is found on many Wookie tracks of this era. It's the timbre of the hits he uses. Somehow, where ever they're sampled from, they seem to have picked up a gritty, dirty feel to them that makes them feel raw and organic. So the greatness of the drum sounds here aren't just thanks where they're placed, with exquisite neat fills and dense variants on a 2step groove, but the sound of the sounds. Wookie: he cracked the rhythmic puzzle. He's a don.

22 comments:

sentinels said...

Yeah that track poly-rhythm-tastic. It feels like you can hear 4 or 5 different signatures in there at times.

Looking forward to reading more of these. May I suggest you or anyone else checks the early proto-dubstep tracks for good variation of rhythm:

Morph- Firefly
Darqwan- Confused
Mark One- Raindance
Search and Destroy- Foodchain

Remember these tracks sat amongst break-step/2-step/maybe some swung 4x4, and importantly the OCCASIONAL half-step rhythm.

Anonymous said...

holy shit what a tune

Corpsey said...

nice little piece, looking forward to the rest of the series... i'd like to see more writing about individual tracks on blogs.

wookie is a genius.

Tranquera said...

I hope you write more posts like this one Martin! It's very interesting! We'll be checking! Big up!

Anonymous said...

I expect Archangel by Burial to be up on one of these, switching out all the traditional snare patterns of a 2step beat to be played by lower percussion, next to that signature swing, was a stroke of genius. You can't tell it's a garage beat until you actually know what you're looking for.

gajiin said...

Up with This Sort Of Thing! both track and post. I was so into tech step in the late nineties that i kinda dismissed UKG when it came along... good to get introduced to a classic even if in retrospect.

Blackdown said...

Oh there will be some Burial in there, he's got mad skills, but i'm not sure it will be Archangel. it's one of my favuourite Burial tracks but what's best about it is the vocals.

Anonymous said...

Hope you mention Spaceape that track has some mad time signature. Prayer's an odd one too, taken from Teardrop but the added guncocking effect for the percussion makes a beat that's impossible to reproduce.

STL said...

Totally agree and good to see such respect from commentors - wookie doesn't get enough dues as a skillful programmer and creator...moreover he is one of the few who bridged that commercial UKG era from South LDN 2 Step to new dark swing...if there is a continuum he is one of its keepers....

Ory said...

"Shutta" is probably Burial's most fucked groove..

The P Man said...

Great tune, thanks for posting this. The drop on this is nutty ! Not only does it come in at a weird time, (by my count sometime after bar 40) it seems to be backwards when it comes it. After the drop the bassline seems to shift between backwards and forwards. Just from one listen it seems like the bassline and the drums on this are actually staying in the place and the other elements are moving around, similar to the disorientation you experience if you are sitting in a parked car and the car parked next to you backs out and for a brief moment it seems as though your own car is moving forward.

By the way, the first number in a time signature defines how many beats are in a bar, the second number defines the type of note that receives one beat (1/2 note, 1/4 note, 1/8th note) so you couldn't really have a 78/3 time signature since there are no "1/3 notes" in music notation.

Thanks again for the post. I'm looking forward to future editions.

Anonymous said...

is wookie a start wars refrence or british slang?

boypito said...

do you know if and where you can still get a copy of far east?

Anonymous said...

love Far East - what a tune, its still about on discogs sometimes (I got mine for 5 quid a few months ago!)
I miss the percussive elements that dubstep beats had a few years ago - I think producers like LD hit it now but you have to search for the tracks :(
no doubt Neverland will be included?

Dr. said...

Love the insight, really looking forward to reading more. Thank you for taking the time.

Anonymous said...

the major force in dubstep becoming boring as far as i'm concerned is the loss of interesting drum programming. the more people focus on getting more screeching grinding basslines, the less time they spend on drums, to the point where every track has the same kick-hat-snare-hat plodding dirge beat.

rhythmically i think pinch - dr carlson and d1 - effect 10 are both amazing. wish there was more thought put into this aspect of dubstep, especially seeing as some of the earliest tracks like 'chainba' were so incredibly well constructed.

Blackdown said...

Jason Chu (Wookie's real name) => Chewbacca => Wookie!

paul autonomic said...

some of those wookie tunes screw me up even when i'm using ableton. genius rhythm programmer
- sadistically so. him and terror danjah. i'd like to see wookie bring that to funky but he's doing it a lot more straight. i was dropping loco in sets for a while - similar shuffle but with those backfolding moog slurps he used to do so well.

Anonymous said...

marseilles connection
horsepower

Ray Juss - Brokenhomes said...

I always thought it was the amen break he used ontop of his normal roland sounds. Maybe his studio was kitted out with a jv2080 or something higher but thats where wookie drew most of his sounds from.

I recently saw Wookie play at Cargo with my brother. We both stood and listened to the house direction he has now followed. We both looked at each other and asked if this was the same man that programmed far east, storm, duppy and vcf(think thats the title - i dont own that one)

I would love him to go back to this.. I know it will never happen

David M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Walsh said...

a seminal track that stands out like this is Digital Mystikz 'Neverland.' the drum patterns on that is early dubstep at its best