Ten years ago today I started a blog only because I wanted to see how easy it was to start a blog. Five years ago to the day I shared a seminal Hatcha CD – and wished to still feel this strongly about music as I did then. Five years on and many life obstacles since, I still do so to celebrate, I want to share with you something that’s been privately sat on my iPod for quite some time.
Honestly, I think it’s the best live dubstep set I’ve ever heard recorded and it came straight out the mixing desk of Plastic People at the club night that gave birth to and raised dubstep, FWD>>:
DOWNLOAD the unreleased: Mala b2b Loefah ft SGT Pokes live at FWD>> 01.06.06
I’ve had access to this set ever since I did some archive work for Ammunition around the time of the “Roots of…” compilations. Thank you to FWD>> and DMZ for letting me share this previously unheard live recording from FWD>> at Plastic People, east London.
Now, I was there in the flesh for this set… I remember it well and wanted to share some memories to accompany the audio. Happy Birthday y’all.
0m:28s “shocking in the dark… we come through to rock the discotech.”
People talk about the music that came out of FWD>> at Plastic People but one of the key ingredients of the venue was its sense of focus and that very much came from how dark it was. Regulars had their spot, mine was just left of the pillar directly in front of the decks, but to get to it you risked bashing into people you simply hadn’t seen as you went across the dancefloor. But once in – with the curtain pulled behind you – it was a full sensory experience, total immersion. The physical PP sound system, the low ceiling, low lighting and strong smell of other people’s green. Shocking in the dark…
1m08s “this one built like a Sherman…”
This is bassweight rudeboy, what do you know about that?
1m58s “Some understanding…”
What I like most about this set, and indeed most of the sets of this era, is that there was this sense of understanding between all the key participants. Here, two old friends were writing their own destiny together, build on a strong sense of who they were but also who they weren’t in relation to the other. If one went ying, it was yang time – especially production wise.
This sense of understanding extended to most of the key producers of this era and how they interacted with each other. This music was made to be played together, they all knew they were contributing to the sound that was being built. But yet equally there was a repulsion as well as attraction interaction happening: people were very protective of their sounds and their spaces; it was massively frowned on to clone one another (even if copying/mutating/being inspired by – implicitly or explicitly – is a massive driver of scene-based musical progress). I remember Loefah saying he couldn’t use an arpeggio or an arpegiator after Skream wrote “Request Line” and “Tapped”, despite the fact that Olly had hardly invented 1-3-5-8.
So it was set in this atmosphere that music was set: D1 had his trance-y sound, Loefah the dark deadly halfstep, Mala caused upward percussive euphoria, Coki that jump up insanity, Skream could turn his hand to so many styles (jazzy, warm, breaky, jump up, grimey and the aforementioned arpeggios), Kode went on his own abstract plane. People had an understanding of each other, but only some understanding. There was commonality but differentiation, dialog but distance, attraction but repulsion. Some understanding.
2m:33s “Head nodding ish that break your neck…”
It’s also worth noting that “Disko Rekah”, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Loefah (From my 2009 interview with him: “To be honest when I lost my confidence it was the middle of 2007. I started writing tunes like “Disco Wrekka.” I think that’s utter bullshit that tune. Terrible…”)
A tune he hated and came to represent something he didn’t like in his music writing, be that a familiar pattern or an urge to appease dancefloor impact that he wasn’t comfortable with. It just seems crazy that even here, at dubstep’s creative peak – the beginning of the journey for so many fans, way way more that had come before this time – contained the beginning of the end for Loe.
3m:04s “Loefy, for Skream, jack it…”
I can remember Skream at this set, lurking in the tiny cramped space behind the decks. You really had to be VVIP to go in there, not least because you were basically on top of everyone in it, including the DJs playing.
And in a word association, even though it’s Pokes on the mic, the line “jack it” reminds me so much of FWD’s core host, Crazy D, and immortal post-rewind line “’taters on that as we jackit” [Jacket potatoes… get it?]. The Crazy D lexicon: did anyone ever write that down? I swear 9 and I promised a thousand times we would… wastemen.
4m:02s “all the gang working with the angles… spread ‘em”
Angles: elbows, shoulders, knees, toes… acute, oblique, in motion. Shocking out in the dark.
4m:54s “all you’ve gotta do is say ‘yes’…I’m about to let you know…” “in come Mala”
Mmm Mala “Say Yes refix” [unsure of its official name...]. In a scene rich in deadly bass specialists, this refix always was a breath of fresh air. And that – despite the “formula” perception that seemed to get passed on to the next generations in later years – was the point. That beyond a tempo and an interest in bass, anything was possible and indeed encouraged to be brought to the table.
7m:47s “MALA! FWD?!! Some dirty digital… FWD>> THASS A PULLUP! THASS A PULLUP! Ready for the raw skanage. Sarah Soulja.”
Now, I’m not sure why he name checks her right there, beyond the fact that she was in the venue and probably reaching for the reload, but let me tell you about Sarah Soulja.
Sarah Soulja doesn’t want to be written about. I mean, she probably won’t be angry at me for this, but I know for a fact she wouldn’t invite me to write about her, she’s too modest, too shy and more to the point, too eye-wateringly busy.
But without Soulja there would be no dubtep; literally.
Now I’m not going to dwell on her, mostly because she’d be embarrassed and wouldn’t want me to, but let me just quickly list the incredible things Soulja has done within music – the ones I know of at least.
She’s worked in seminal vinyl emporium Blackmarket, for distribution companies (a thankless but key task for vinyl), worked in publishing (helped Dizzee, Ms Dynamite, Zed Bias, So Solid get deals, to name but a few).
She co-founded Ammunition (with Neil Jolliffe), the company that cradled dubstep before there was dubstep and ran Tempa, Soulja records, Road, Rinse recordings.
She started & runs FWD>>. She co-runs Rinse FM with Geeneus and fought for years to get them their legal licence (see the emotional video below). She manages Skream. I’m pretty sure she’s behind Katy B’s success.
I know she’ll probably lightly hate me for this haha, but c’mon Sarah, credit where credit’s due, yeah?
8m:47s “FWD>> gang with the energy, calling all…”
As well as falling in love with the music, one of the things I really began to love about FWD>> parties was their multiculturalism. Obviously a community began to form around this music that everyone else told us was shit or would never work but communities can take many forms, often quite homogenous. FWD>> was entirely opposite. There were guys from Bow, Gee & Slim standing at the back not saying anything, A&Rs, media types, the Croydon lot, the north or north west guys like SLT, Anti Social or LHF, bloggers, even headz from Bristol like Pinch & Pev. Ms Dynamite came a few times, Normski even turned up once, making a fool of himself by telling Dusk he had “all those records” when Oris Jay had just played an hour of his own dubs. It was a real blend of people and in a city that looks multicultural but in fact has quite a few glass ceilings, I came to really value the diversity of people to chat to.
10m:08s “Out to Cluekid”
Just a small point here, but you know all this 130/jungly/Special Request/Etch/DetBoi stuff we’re on right now? Well Cluekid, LD and Skream were doing that in 2006 at ~140bpm. Obviously I love all the new wave of these beats, I think they bring some rhythmic chaos to the dance, but I’m just sayin’…
11m:47s “All gang getting red inside Plastic…”
The funny thing is, as a non smoker (of any kind), I actually miss smokey clubs a bit. It sorta (literally) added to the atmosphere, if not over the top. Maybe I might feel differently about this when I die in my ‘50s of lung cancer, but as an occasional vibe to be part of, it worked. Medically irrational I know I know…
13m:45s “All crazy legs… first one to do the caterpillar…”
Amazing how Loefah can get a rewind just for his intro beat; his snares, kicks are that heavy they demand the pullup. Or how just “I don’t give a shit” it is to go straight in with the sub, no intro waffle.
And in these hits you can hear past echoes of where the Swamp sound would go. Halfstep 140 beats + 80s hip hop samples classic drum machines hits > drum machine grooves, albeit now at a house tempo. In fact when I spoke to Loefah at Outlook this year, I half remember him saying a lot of his guys were trying halfstep hits (at the Swamp tempo). Connections… cycles… we go back to go FWD>>.
14m:10s “Straight out the bin bags. It’s just like man kicked over a wheelie bin. Who brung a wheelie bin into the dance?”
This is Pokes riffing on “filth”, but it’s really unique the way he does it. It’s not bars, he’s not rhythmically spitting like a full MC would or even a more fluid host like Crazy D or Shantie might. He’s just dropping in little mental fragments; narrative samples that act and react to the music and the crowd, help form those connections & feedback loops.
Wait what: connections & cycles again? ;)
16m:43s “Loefy run the border/this one chew up your tape recorder…”
The thing about dubstep, since it’s inception in 2000, with Ghost’s “The Club”, Horsepower’s Tempa 001, Oris, Zed, Artwork etc, is that it spans a period of massive technological change in society. There have been many seismic shifts in societies before, but I don’t know how many technological shifts this large that there’s been in Western society in the last 100 or so years (quite happy to be wrong on this, not my field…). We’ve gone from an era at Ghost 001 of DAT tapes, cassettes, vinyl, landline phones, “Personal Computers”, a touch of dial up internet but infrequently so, print magazines, CDs to… well, where do we start?
Always & everywhere 4G data connectivity, the ability to communicate or reach nearly everyone at any time, the ability to self express (1-to-1, 1-to-few, 1-to-many/world) effortlessly (email, What’s App, Facebook, Twitter, blogger/Tumblr/Medium, Instagram, SoundCloud) not to mention all the technology underneath that allow us to connect and mashup/remix like APIs etc.
I think the impact of technology on music scenes is a much, much bigger piece than this and much harder to evaluate while we’re in the eye of the storm, but it’s fun hearing Pokes say “tape recorder”, because even by 2006 such things were an old school cultural reference (MP3s had emerged), yet 5 years before when dubstep emerged you’d still record pirate radio on tape because while high definition formats were available for sale, they weren’t easy to create. And DAT machines, well, they’d BetaMax’d themselves, the bastion of expensive studio owners.
But I think the point here is about how cultural references get passed down by central figures, be they MCs, between generations. You can sorta see that now with emerging (and talented) DJs like Parris and Riz La Teef cutting dubplates, actual acetate dubplates in 2014, despite the total anathema that is Technics not making decks anymore or clubs maintaining their decks in working order. It’s like the idea of dubplates, not (just) the concept of them of a tight selection process, but the act of cutting, being seen to cut, to be seen to mix with them (a much more interesting visual process than mixing with CDs btw), has been passed down via the dubstep next generations.
This is just like the hoards of music producers want their music on vinyl despite the fact that the digital audience for their music is 10x, 100x, 1000x maybe even 100,000x the vinyl audience (total vinyl sales crossed 1m in the UK this year yet 1 YouTube vid can get 1m views easily. Sales =! views but you know what I mean...).
And so maybe MCs play their part in passing those memes down (as much as key producers do/did), as well as a looser, harder to define role in sharing language, slang, cultural memes.
17m:42s “I got lost in listening to that riddim… sorry man I was lost for a minute, you have to forgive me”
A lot’s been said about DMZ’s “meditate on bass weight” slogan, emblazoned on their flyers, and personally I never really liked the hippy/religious overtones of “meditate” but there always was something in that line, something quite deceptively subversive to prevailing dance music paradigms. I don’t think it would be over stating things to say that 99% of the records played by DJs are played with the intent to hype the audience up, to encourage motion or gain an energetic reaction; I mean, this is dance music after all.
But in the halfstep/full time rhythmic tension and the huge basslines over serious, physical systems, dubstep dared to hold you in stasis rather than force you to react.
But further to my point earlier about the progression of technology - audiences consuming music via shitty iPhone in-ear headphones (they filter out even mid bass, you noticed?), laptop & smartphone speakers, audiences unable to reach good soundsystems – much of this was lost or lost on crowds too large.
I miss it though and try to recreate it when possible when DJing, no matter how excruciating it can feel to play a beatless tune to start with or a palate cleanser just when your set is rolling. Because it just feels cool…. Not cool as in ‘fashionable’ but cool as in comfortable with self or lightly introspective. Even as a non smoker this feels right, in the right place and space. Any guy can play a banger.
25m:30s Vex’d “Third Choice (Loefah remix)”
Between this and “Mud” I think they may be my favourite Loefah beats. “Mud” is near perfect reductionism but the thumb pianos/marimbas in Third Choice refix are personal.
27m:06s Mala "Learn"
^ My dub of "Learn"
Oi neckbeard, even the hi hats in Mala’s “Learn” intro are sicker than your best dub’s best bit. Seckle down.
“Learn” is one of the greatest rhythmic constructions I’ve ever heard. Words fail me… I’m not even going to try,
Though check who was lost for words at the time: Skream, Ben UFO, Bass Clef, Deamonds (Night Slugs), Dan Hancox, Corpsey, Elgato (Hessle))
30m:30s “Burnin’… PULLUP”
Man, you couldn’t escape this track for a period.
32m:52s “Burnin’ refix” into “Anti War Dub”>>
Can you feel the acceleration here? Back in '05 I wrote about this, the way that different rhythmic densities accelerated or decelerated the momentum and what was so creative about this time wasn’t just that there were interesting beat patterns or energy plateaus in the up, level or down arcs, but that you could zig zag between them all, creating these rushes or implosion. I still aim for that now: just having one arc, drum pattern type or energy level is dull.
34m:54s wait, “Anti War Dub VIP”?
VIP dubplate versions at FWD>>. Normal.
37m:27s “Out to Crazy [D], Benny [ill, from Horsepower], man Youngsta…”
All the headz inside.
38m:16s “Goes out to Blackdown…”
You know, it’s funny that Loefah got so known for the deadly dread halfstep because his early, Big Apple era stuff had this trademark bongo/percussive streak. Of his stuff from this ear, “Root” was one of the most dense in the drum dept. Love it.
44m:12s “Out to Skream & the gang…”
Ollie Jones inside.
46m:52s “when I reach that place…”
The word dubstep comes from two places, a dubbier/darker variant of 2step garage, but also the “dub” (instrumental) version side of the vocal a-side, both of reggae and garage. As such vocal tunes were the exception rather than the rule but this one really stood out. I heard it here and I heard it shortly after at DMZ and remember asking Mala about it and him saying words to the effect of “this must have hit people differently, since everyone’s asking me about it…”.
Funny how certain tunes have certain breakthrough moments.
L-->R Jammer, JME, Wiley, Pokes, Mala on deck, FWD>>, Plastic People.
L->R Bobak, Crazy D, Skepta, Pokes, Wiley, Heny G, Toast, Yunx
56m:07s “out to Soulsnatch”
Now Soulsnatch was a lesser known nickname of blogger Drums of the South, aka photographer Infinite, formally known as Georgina Cook, my visual counterpart for much of the mid to peak era of dubstep, many of whose shots are on this piece.
For a visual document of the DMZ era, you need to head over here. I’ve just had full on memory flood looking at these spaces and places again. Again: putting Georgie’s work into context is an entire blogpost in itself. For now, enjoy.
1h:01m:12s “It gets deeper… FWD>> IT GETS DEEPER STILL! FWD>> WHO SAYS PULLUP? Who says ‘appy birthday to Skream?”
1h:07m:57s “Out to Shackleton up front…”
The funny thing is about Shack is his music is pretty damn serious. When I saw him play (later) at Plastic People, I pretty much had to leave the dancefloor it was pushing those pleasure/pain barriers. And of course now he’s an internationally revered producer. But him and Appleblim were just the guys who skanked wildly down the front for the longest time. And in person he’s pretty shy. Rhythm will do that to ya I guess.
1h:17m:54s “The lockoff…”
The lights came on, they had to drag us out.
Enjoyed this? Here's some links to...
1. All my Pitchfork columns.
2. Our latest Rinse show, full of fresh dark rolling dubs (tracklist here).
3. Older interviews with Mala n Loefah, Loefah, Loefah and Kryptic Minds
Burial, Burial again, Skream and Shackleton.