A Brief History of Dubstep: A Cultural Relic Diluted Through Commercialism and Exhibitionism

In 2012, Sonny Moore AKA Skrillex was awarded three Grammys. Amongst these awards, he won best dance recording for his groundbreaking single, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” 

“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” went on to receive both critical acclaim and extensive backlash. Lauded for its nostalgic fragmented vocals, juxtaposed with a tearing, abrasive bassline, Sonny brought electronic music to the mainstream, making a name for himself whilst simultaneously altering the course of Dubstep and electronic music as a whole. 

The Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP was seen as crass, excessive and downright ignorant by critics, scene veterans and non electronic music fans alike. Yet the knee-jerk reaction to Skrillex and Dubstep entering into the mainstream wasn’t solely fueled by disgust. For old school Dubstep scenesters, Sonny Moore and his massive success in music was reminiscent of a nail in the coffin – it was a confirmation that the culture and music they had once loved had finally succumbed to the exhibitionism that had been lurking within the scene for years prior.

To understand why Skrillex’s brand of Dubstep was met with contempt, one needs to understand the cultural significance of the original movement taking place in south london in the early 2000s. 

UK Garage emerged in the early 90s, and just like everything else in the 90s, the garage scene was extravagant as fuck. Attendees were sporting power suits, popping champagne in the middle of the dance floor and relishing an era of pleasure and contentment. However, in early the 2000s, a darker sound began to emerge in southern London; a necessary and welcomed response to the bright and colorful garage scene that was dominating rave culture. Instead of an insistent beat, cascading instrumentalism commiserating tales of love and loss, Dubstep stripped away these sonically contemporary elements in favor of the dark, cavernous sound of dread bass. 

Photo via Redbull Music

Dubstep began as an offshoot of genres drum ’n’ bass, two-step, and particularly garage. These genres emphasize rhythm and percussion above all else. It was a darker, more ominous take on garage music with its use of disjointed percussion, sci-fi ambiance and unsettling atmospheric elements. While garage and two-step often utilized a four on the floor kick pattern, Dubstep was written in half time, that is to say that instead of having the clap or snare occur on every 2nd and 4th beat, it would occur only on the 3rd beat. This leads to the track sounding empty, almost to the extent of making the listener nervous and forcing them to physically compensate in order to fill in the space. The perceived emptiness coupled with syncopated bass and percussive elements prompted a more staggered, lurching movement relative to garage; which contrastingly utilized a highly consistent, energetic drum pattern. 

Despite Dubstep’s minimalist roots, the genre was never as single minded and clear cut as one might make it out to be whilst exploring its origins. It’s often taken for granted that genre conventions are and have always been open to interpretation, seeing as revising and experimenting with previously established tropes serves the essential function of growing and developing an emerging style of music. However, around 2008, Dubstep had been around long enough for producers to start drastically experimenting with the known and established conventions. Tracks like Zomby’s “Liquid Dancehall” prompts a slippery, almost psychotic headspace in stark contrast to Burial’s heartfelt longing for lost futures. Dubstep was subsequently pulled in all directions, became difficult to define, and sequentially became formless. 

Despite the amorphous state of Dubstep in this period, there was one style that not only caught traction, but established itself as the poster child of the genre. The dirty and aggressive bass lines that define Dubstep today were ultimately a continuation of Tearout, an initially niche facet of the genre that started getting popularized around 2007. Tearout Dubstep, unlike its predecessor, utilizes a much noisier bassline with heavy midrange frequency content. Unlike earlier Dubstep which is characterized by deep sub bass movement, basses in Tearout weren’t merely felt, but heard – and in a big way. 

Photo via Insomniac

While at the time some people saw this as the beginning of the end for Dubstep, this was merely the start of a radical movement away from Dubstep’s minimalist beginnings. These tracks were originally used sparingly in live sets, to signify a sort of climax within the larger context of the set. Tearout injected the scene with a sort of liveliness that wasn’t inherent to the vibe of classic Dubstep, and those who would attend Dubstep shows began to reflect that. ‘Mowgli’ states on a Dubstepforum post from 2008 that ‘god damn [these] people starting to annoy me – seems they are producing their shitty bad stuff just for hyping up the kids’ in reference to Rusko and Caspa, the pioneers of Tearout. The replies are a mixed bag of those agreeing with the sentiment, and those chalking this up to mere snobbery. The content of this thread is highly representative of what was happening in the scene at the time, with ‘corpsey’ aptly summing up the thread, as well as the state of Dubstep as a whole, with their comment ‘Insofar as creating a big fucking split in da sceeeeeene’. Tearout Dubstep would continue growing in popularity until it had all but subsumed the genre, being the primary style one would hear at live shows. Dubstep and the scene at large ultimately found itself at a tipping point where instead of upholding its influences in electro and rave, shifted towards a type of pissing contest in terms of who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound. The overbearing need to out heavy other producers exacerbated the rift in the scene that had been manifesting since the late 2000s, with notable North American producers Skrillex, Datsik and Excision further exemplifying the macho exhibitionism that had been cropping up since Caspa and Rusko began popularizing Tearout. 

In a Boston Phoenix interview with James Blake, one of the few notable american producers carrying the torch of classic Dubstep, Blake describes his own take on the overarching state and  developments in the genre as of 2011:

“I think the Dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers — who I can’t even be bothered naming — have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel…and to me, that is a million miles away from where Dubstep started. It’s a million miles away from the ethos of it. I find that whole side of things to be pretty frustrating, because that is a direct misrepresentation of the sound as far as I’m concerned.”

The “frat-boy market” James is referring to is inferred by the mostly pejorative term “Bro-step”, which was used to describe the hyper-aggressive sound being pushed forth by aforementioned producers. Bro-step tracks had a tendency to boast an aura of confidence, unsimilar to classic Dubstep’s themes of despair. It’s undeniable that the commercialized Tearout pioneers Caspa and Rusko brought a distinctly different sound to the scene, but their connection to the origins of Deep Dubstep remained intact. Tearout may have perpetuated the Bro-step style, but there are clear distinctions between the two strains of Dubstep, despite the fact that both utilize a noisy, distorted bassline. In Tearout, the bassline retains the groove throughout the track, allowing the listener to sink in and embody its movement. However Bro-step producers were more likely to have been described as “easily distracted by others” in grade school, seeing as they didn’t tend to settle on a consistent groove and instead reiterated basslines with new and complex phrasing every four bars, leaving only the massive kick and snare holding the track together. In the wider context of which these drops are written, Tearout Dubstep retains its connection to Deep Dubstep in the sense that it’s introductions utilize the same droning sci-fi ambience of its predecessor. In contrast, introductions in Bro-step tend to enact bright, dazzling synths, pop-esque vocals, and hurried drum lines that exist solely for the purpose of creating immense tension and anticipation, which more often than not carry no relation to the drop itself. This misrepresentation of Dubstep and it’s subsequent explosion in mainstream appeal suggested the scene had at last diverged completely from its roots and had begun to resemble the same opulence it was created in spite of.

Photo via YourEdm

“Bro-step is sort of my fault, but now I’m starting to hate it in a way,” said Rusko in a BBC 1Xtra radio show in 2010 “I kind of took it there, and now everyone else has taken it too far. It’s not heavy metal. I’ve been in America touring for a long time-even more so, they just want it as hard as you can. They’re like ‘Rusko I want you to melt my face off tonight, play the hardest, hardest you got!’ It’s not about playing the hardest tracks you got, it’s like someone screaming in your face for an hour. Why would you want that? A lot of Dubstep fans just come because they want to hear the most disgusting, hard dirty distorted music possible-and that’s not what it’s about. It’s gotten a little bit too noisy for noisy’s sake.” 

When it became clear that Bro-step had claimed the spotlight, allegations of mindlessness permeated the scene, and many of the old heads believed the genre to be intellectually detached from its roots; although the music’s purpose remained similar. Dubstep and Bro-step are two outlooks that seek to reconcile isolation and marginalization, albeit in a different fashion. The former sought to explore the experience of said isolation while the latter confronts societal disenfranchisement directly, through sound and physicality. However the audiences were completely different; the older English crowd being more meditative than aggressive, and indispensably, familiar with the electronic music genres and subcultures that paved the way for Dubstep. The new audience was populated by rowdy teens, rolling on MDMA, ostensibly unfamiliar with the cultural and musical components that lead to Dubstep’s inception. 

Photo via The Verge

Dubstep’s popularity was, and still is, vividly apparent; yet polarized. The genre has been overwhelmingly commercialized through corporate funded events and massive festival stages with obscene production budgets that strike a brilliant, yet shocking contrast to the humble underground beginnings of the scene. For some, the growing cynicism and the awareness of how capitalism mutates art has led to an increasingly dire sentiment regarding a system that fails to cultivate an environment in which we can truly express ourselves and connect with one another. The primary objective of the underground is to react to those failures, with the shift from the vibrant garage scene of the 90s to the dark, brooding nature of Dubstep being necessary for the acutely aware to find and commiserate with one another. At one point in time, Dubstep and the scene at large allowed for people to reconcile with the feelings of isolation and hopelessness inherent to their immediate environment and the state of the world. Although some of those themes and values continue to be represented, the inconsistency with which they are upheld suggests that the moment, for now, is gone. Time, as well as a change in audience, led to a subgenre that would subsume its parent genre. In some places, the original form continues, but does so in the shadow of its successor. Dubstep as it once was is no longer conventional; the new subgenre has begun its own stylistic movement, and will face its own fate as the new face of the genre.