Monday, December 31, 2018

Roots of reflections

Last month on Rinse we did an impromptu vinyl "roots of dubstep" show. While I think about this era a lot - it's one of my favourites of all time - and use it for inspiration while writing music, I don't tend to play old school sets very often. It is now as it was then: my jam is digging through new music to find what's next. The last "Roots of..." I did was for Holloway & Foxmind's Radar show a year ago, and so we approached this set with the intention of digging a little deeper.

The thing is every scene has its prominent tunes, its anthems, its staples. And they're there for a reason: "Red" by Artwork is rightly a certified classic of this time, for example. But the reality is in scenes many producers contribute many tracks, and for every anthem and every Artwork, there's dozens of other contributors and hundreds of other productions. This is especially true of the earliest dubstep, as it began as a darker d&b-influenced flavour amongst many other flavours in UKG. So for every now-lauded El-B, Zed Bias, Skream or Artwork, there's (say) Roxy, The Brotherhood, Hyper-Hypa, Ride It Riddims or Injekta - early producers who contributed to the journey but are now less recognised at the destination. There is a long tail of white labels, one-release imprints, UKG mainstays that went a little darker, offshoots and side experiments that contributed to what is dubstep today.

Naturally, many of those long tail records aren't as strong as the classics, but even from the producers who creatively contributed the most to the scene, there is a larger body of work than their classics. And in addition there's a set of producers who probably aren't looked back on as dubstep co-founders, but contributed records to this emerging darker strain - examples in this mix being DJ Zinc, Marcus Intalex, KMA Productions, Wookie (aka Exemen), So Solid Crew and Ras Kwame. There's more - like DJ Hype, DJ Narrows or Chase & Status to name a few.

So yes, Dusk and I couldn't resist drawing for known bangers like "Red" or "138 Trek", but for the most part in this set we went a little wider (MI:ST, Ras Kwame, KMA) or a little deeper (Horsepower's release on Turn U On rather than, say, "Gorgon Sound" on Tempa, and the overlooked Zed Bias mix of "138...").

As I listened back to the set it evoked a bunch of reflections for me, some about that time but others that felt about now. I've captured them here:

First of all RIP Marcus Intalex. I chose to start the set with this one because it kinda represents what things were like in 2000 in terms of sonic moods and personnel clusters. I'd clocked there was this darker vein in UKG that connected to the d&b moods I loved, but UKG records with that flavour were rare. So Dusk and I were grabbing stuff from all over the place (broken beat, techy break house, UKG etc) and mixing it into those early "Roots of..." UK garage records to backfill the right vibe. This was one of them and fittingly it came from a d&b producer. It's a masterclass in space and groove; bass, drums and pads - it just rolls and rolls, like a LTJ Bukem set or the sour euphoria of Detroit techno. 23 For Sale from £1.98 on Discogs, r u nuts?

MI:ST links us to Hospital Records. It's worth noting that in 2000 the label felt like a small peripheral on the bigger d&b movement - amazing in retrospect, since I now bike past 8 foot posters of entire festivals they're hosting. Tony, Chris & Tom began focusing on the warmer side of the scene; that 'liquid' flex. But equally at that time they were super active and present in lots of the other key small clubs & scenes, especially Forward>> and Co-op as they began to flourish in Plastic People from 2001. Chris was into the funk, beats & breaks stuff too if I recall.

I've written about this before but it's worth re-stating: what people think of "dubstep" right now is merely what became the most dominant of the many strains and style of music played at FWD>>. And while I was certainly partisan in the debate, it's historical fact that you were as likely to hear 2step beat patterns, broken beats, early 8bar grime and the harder breakstep strains as what would become 'dubstep'. In fact the "halfstep" beat which is now the dominant pattern in dubstep hadn't formally emerged until later, Loefah's "Horror Show" and Wonder's "What" being the first notable examples played in dubstep and grime respectively, though DJ Abstract's earlier gem "Touch" has 3,4 snares, rather than 2,4 but it personally didn't catalyse change.

Anyway, pointing out the historical diversity of the percussion in this time is only one point to be made here. I guess I would optimistically re-iterate that it's possible now again too. There are just as many place to, say, put or not put a snare in the bar in 2018 as there were in 2000. Rhythms - stiff, funky, urgent, subtle - move bodies just as organically as ever. Take those risks.

A key but now criminally overlooked member of the Hospital camp is Landslide so after playing his Kaidi Tatham remix on the Holloway show, we choose to pull out a bunch of his original productions here. Where Hospital focused on & got traction in the d&b scene, Landslide built quite unique records that sat between broken beat, early dubstep and UK garage. I think it's fair to say that Tim Landslide was definitely one of the most musically trained and talented producers of that era, in the classical sense. And from spending time with him during that era, I recall this was as much a curse as a blessing - it took him long periods of time to finish records, though many producers are perfectionists. This contrasts sharply with the more raw and rapid fire approach, say, Skream took from that era. "On that old drive I had 600 files. On my new one I’ve got 800. it gets ridiculous, I can’t remember them all" - Skream, 2005). Just listen to Benga's "Half Ounce" that we played on the show: stripped back, raw sub and kicks, alien zaps, super minimal. While I can't be sure, I suspect it was much quicker to write than something by Landslide. Equally, in the classical sense, it has a lot less 'musical' parts - chords, melodies, etc.

I think it's a false dichotomy to say that a dark raw track is in some way intrinsically better than a warmer more "musical" one, or vice versa, just like saying a "well produced" dubstep track is objectively better than a brick wall limited FL Studio grime banger - they are both great but have different - in this case opposing - aesthetics. To me the higher level observation is great scenes or moments can nurture and celebrate oppositional approaches and in fact are stronger more inspiring when they can. When DJing or on radio, Dusk and I have called this "rough with the smooth," which I suspect might have been be a fragment of a Crazy D lyric but is now long since passed into internal Dusk + Blackdown lexicon (we've been DJing b2b 22 years now!), but you can look to great DJ who can find ways to flow between contrasting but coherent moods. Different enough but similar enough. Those classic dance music tensions and the celebrations thereof.

(Side note - to complete the Croydon trifecta -  I can remember exactly where I was when I first had the "oh, some of this dark ish sounds so road/raw because it's dissonant or atonal" epiphany. I was in Plastician/Plasticman's loft studio/bedroom interviewing him in 2003, and asked somewhat naively how he got everything to be "in tune". From his answer, I realised I'd had assumptions that had been thinking about the music the wrong way. I know it was 2003 so exactly because while in the loft I got a call from The Guardian Comment desk to write this piece about Dizzee, a life highlight).

If we're going to talk about Landslide, his connections with the broken beat scene and a more classical, musical approach to early "roots of" productions, I think you can't leave out Zed Bias aka Maddslinky aka half of Phuturistix - a massive, massive contributor to the early Roots era scene. Already a big player in UKG, not least because of "Neighbourhood", but one with roots in jungle (contemporary of Steve "Foul Play" Gurley for example).

In all honestly I could write 10,000 words on the output of Zed during this time, not least because loads of it appeared using pseudonyms (Quest, Almighty Beatfreakz, Daluq, E.S. Dubs, F.O.S. Project, JMD, Maddslinky, Nu Design, Phuturistix, Ruff Cut Bias, Seven Wonders, Tallisman, The Henchmen, Undadoggz) so there's so much of it, it's all of such a high standard and in many cases was quite distinct and original compared to other producers operating at the time. The Maddslinky & Phuturistix output is no exception.

Put simply, I think the Maddslinky & Phuturistix albums of this time are two of the most important and under-rated dubstep LPs of all time. In fact so bold and original are they, that I can see a world (probably in YouTube comments - never read the comments!) where post-2006 dubstep fans don't recognise this as dubstep at all, though that speaks more to the narrowing of dubstep's scope, the trade offs it made to grow ("be more direct/instant/noisy, less diverse, gain audience") than anything else about the creativity of this Roots era. To generalise about these two LPs, the Maddslinky LP is more focused, darker, sometimes broken, sometimes 2steppy garage. Whereas the Phuturistix project with Injekta was broader, more sonically ambitious taking in soul, jazz & funk influences to stretch what was possible within the confines of existing genres.

Again, people keen on revisionist history might try and argue that this LP "isn't dubstep," and that argument very much relies on a narrow idea of dubstep: 140, snares on the 3 n all that. But the most creative periods of dubstep were much more diverse than that, implying anything was possible.

It still is.


Full set tracklist:

Keysound (All Vinyl Roots of Dubstep Set) - 22nd November 2018 

Marcus Intalex + S.T. Files "Taking Over Me" [Hospital Records]
Exemen (aka Wookie) ‎"Saturn" [Manchu]
Zinc "138 Trek (Zed Bias Remix)" [Phaze:One]
Hatcha "Bashment"
Jon Cutler Feat. E-Man ‎"It's Yours" (Ras Kwame Remix)
KMA Productions "Cape Fear" [Urban Beat]
So Solid Crew "Dilemma" [Relentless]
Menta [aka Artwork + Danny Harrison from 187 Lockdown] "The Soul"
Artwork "Red" [Big Apple Records]
Menta [aka Artwork + Danny Harrison from 187 Lockdown] ‎"Sounds Of Da Refix" [Sounds of Da Future]
Benga "Half Ounce" [Benga Beats]
Phuturistix "551 Blues" [Locked On]
Phuturistix [Zed Bias + Injekta] "Thelonius Punk" [Hospital Records]
Maddslinky "Dark Swing" [Sirkus]
Maddslinky "Reject" [Sirkus]
Landslide "Incurable Voices" [Hospital Records]
Landslide "Hear My People" [Hospital Records]
Hyper-Hypa + Julius ft Juiceman "Congo Fever" [Shelflife]
Horsepower Productions "Classic Delux Part two" [Tempa]
Re-Animator "Return to E Horsepower remix" [Vertical Drop]
Horsepower Productions "Electro Bass" [Turn U On]
Hatcha "Crazy Intro" [Tempa]
Nude v El-B "Reality" [Shelflife]
Es-G (Steve Gurley) "Dirty" [Shelflife]
Visionary "Acid Flex (Oris Re:Flex Mix)" [Mainframe]
Darqwan "Friday at the limit" [Texture]
Ms. Dynamite + Menta [aka Artwork + Danny Harrison from 187 Lockdown] "Ramp" [Biggerbeats Records]