Monday, June 4, 2007


Is dubstep becoming too hard and masculine? In an era when the genre is becoming dominated by over-dark, wobble tunes designed to move the feet but not the heart, where has dubstep's balance gone? In this month's column we investigate two pockets of weighted depth, Appleblim's Basic dub connection, but first d&b convert Martyn.

"'Shadowcasting' is everything dubstep can and should be. It's gorgeous," recently exclaimed Joe Nice of Martyn's recent Revolv:R release on his awesome monthly Gourmet Beats radio show. "Beautiful isn't it? Supermodel pretty."

It's a powerful and poignant compliment from Joe, a DJ who consistently has his ears open to quality new music. Initially however, "supermodel pretty" might not be the first accolade you want as a dubstep producer yet it has a profound resonance. Dubstep has its roots in 2step garage and early dubstep, sounds that managed to balance their gender references-- low masculine bass with high feminine vocals-- to create a delicious blend. In many of 2007's mainstream sets in dubstep that blend, that balance is becoming lost. It takes someone strong to be gentle in an era of audio aggression. Martyn, also a Dutch drum & bass producer now relocated to the U.S., is one such guy.

"It's a classic comment and I'm really, really happy with that!" admits Martyn. "If people choose words outside of the music vocabulary then you know you have done something right."

Martyn's most definitely doing something right. Instead of mid range wobble overload, his beats take a deep groove approach, recalling dubstep's early percussive intricacies, ones often lost in the halfstep era, yet also aligning themselves with Mala DMZ's current "broken dub house" approach. There's depth without slipping into deep house tepidness or liquid d&b formula's. No wonder Kode9 was quick to cut Martyn's "Broken" last year. "I think my music is music for a warm but rainy day," explains Martyn. "Melancholic but uplifting."

Martyn began DJ and promoting d&b nights in Holland as far back as 1996, but it was as recent as three years ago that his production began to be recognised. He had releases on Marcus Intalex's Revolv:R, both d&b and dubstep-- fitting since Marcus Intalex released one of the first deep house inspired dubstep-esque singles "Taking Over Me" as far back as 2000. But while Martyn bought into early Wookie material, it wasn't until Kode9's "Sine of the Dub" that Martyn took notice of dubstep. "I heard that record and it fitted right into some of the music I was hunting down at that time such as the reggae/techno from Berlin like Rhythm & Sound, Main Street and Basic Channel," he explains.

You can still hear the dub-via-Berlin influence in his sound today; yet it's dub used as a methodology, as sonic process, not as a source of cheap reggae samples. "Broken", for example, is a glorious dubbed out skank, a skank that writhes and mutates organically. "When I'm making music I like to set the equipment free and have it do its own thing, like how a delay machine works," explains Martyn. "You feed it with a little sound and it makes something else out of it, transforming it until the point where it has a different sound colour. It's a dub principle… explored by the Basic Channel crew in techno but also earlier in history by King Tubby. It makes the music more organic for me and leaves parts of it to coincidence, which is how you get the music to breathe more and less flat sounding."

While Martyn is Basic Channel-inspired, as have been many of the dubstep pioneers from Kode9 to El-B, there's currently a more direct dialog going on between Bristol and Berlin. In the UK you have Appleblim and Shackleton from Skull Disco, plus Pinch and the Peverelist. In Berlin you have T++ from the Basic Channel camp alongside the Hardwax crew.

For years there was little more than distant mutual appreciation, at first coming from the UK towards Berlin but increasingly returned, as the Hardwax shop began to champion not just Skull Disco but more and more dubstep. But just recently there has been very definite deepening in the exchange of ideas. Pole commissioned Appleblim, Shackleton and Peverelist remixes for his label ~Scape. Appleblim has been playing a T++ (Resilience, Erosion, Various Artists) track "Allied" in his sets. "It was a bit mental meeting them, people who have been such shadowy heroes for so long," explains Appleblim.

"I've been a fan since his releases as Resilence and Various Artists on Chain Reaction. "Hardwax and Basic Channel were very good to me and Shack when we went out to Berlin, they treated us like family, let us use the shop as our own, we hung out there all day, I cut dubs at dubplates and mastering next door, we met Mark Ernestus, and Torsten [T++], and he gave me some tunes he wanted my opinion on. ‘Allied' was on there and straight away I was like: ‘that's amazing.' I cut it and was the first to play it out."

While "Allied" might amaze Appleblim, it's his own productions and DJ sets that have been amazing crowds of late. He's rocked Forward>> several times of late (see the Fwd>> podcast on iTunes), while his recent DMZ set was a masterclass of depth and rhythm, combining Basic Channel delay with rolling early dubstep percussion (aka "oingy boingy"). He's been asked to complete a mix for Mary Anne Hobbes' Radio 1 show, which is highly anticipated. The climax of many of his sets is his own production "Vansan", an excursion in decay that envelopes you like a warm spring mist and is undoubtedly one of singles of the year to date. Rumour has it that T++ and Pinch remixes are on the way.

Any discussion on the overlap between Berlin and Bristol, should not leave out longtime Basic Channel fan, Pinch. He too has been pursuing the techy dubstep route, though perhaps with less emphasis on delay. He's signed 2562 to Tectonic, while busy working on his own debut album. Currently on dubplate, two tracks - the broken-2steppy "Whirl" and Sinodub "One Blood" - are well worth attending Pinch sets to hear live… be it in Bristol or Berlin.

Are grime DJs staging a revolt? Let's consider the evidence. Ever since Dizzee and Wiley became "artists" and not rave hosts, the power and kudos in grime has shifted from the DJ to the MC. The arrival of the mixtape era two years ago, where every MC or crew released a mixtape might have helped redress the balance, you would have thought. But the term "mixtape" is a misleading misnomer: They're not actually mixed-tapes but lengthy segued artist-albums in disguise. Two-nil to the MC, time for the DJ-- relegated to ever decreasing numbers of club sets-- to revolt.

So where should a revolting grime DJ head to? On one side there's the lure of funky house, the choice of many an urban raver of late: danceable, mixable and DJ-focused. Rinse FMs Geeneus plus Roll Deeps Target and Danny Weed are all said to be fans. Target's also a fan of funky house's northern cousins, bassline house and bassline 4/4 aka Niche, as his excellent weekly 1Xtra show attests. His BBC colleague DJ Cameo recently undertook an interesting rebranding, deciding to call his style "dirty pop." No wonder Logan Sama's Kiss show remains the only must-hear grime show on radio.

On the other side revolting grime DJs could head towards the genre's cousin, dubstep. Again it too is danceable, mixable and DJ-focused. Certainly Plastician, one of the most technically gifted of grime DJs and longstanding champion of engaging grime production, has gravitated towards dubstep's allure. Check his new mix for evidence, which contains very little grime: telling since his spent much of his early career clearly demarking the distance between himself and his fellow south London dubstep friends such as Benga and Skream. Even the end of Tubby's set back to back with Roll Deep's Maximum at JME's Forward>> birthday party seemed to feature mostly Coki riddims-- from both DJs!

"Of late, my sets are lacking a bit of instrumental grime due to a lot of producers forgetting to put enough weight in their basslines," Plastician explains. To him the issue is not with grime's MC culture it seems, but with the producers.

"A lot of [grime] producers seem to be making tracks with a bit of a lacklustre attitude towards structure," he continues. "It seems like all the tracks of late fit into a blueprint which is basically an 8 / 16 bar intro with no bass, straight into a 16 bar verse, followed by an 8 bar chorus which is then looped every 24 bars for 4 minutes. This is not necessarily a bad thing-- but it is when there are literally no changes whatsoever to the melodic elements of the production for the duration of the track."

These arrangements show the influence of the mixtape era. Laced with a vocal, even the most simple of one bar loops can give a sense of progression (essential to avoid boring the listener). Yet they're useless to the grime DJ, which doesn't bode well for the live grime experience.

"Also the structural issue comes into play again-- how can I play a track for three minutes if its basically 45 seconds of production looped around? Producers need to open the tracks up - look at the old garage stuff which used to kill the dancefloors and you'll see why it worked-- all of the tracks had a build up…a drop...a bridge...a breakdown...a second drop-- you can let those tracks play for 4/5 minutes and people are still happily moving to them. With grime at the moment you get the initial hype when the tune drops in the mix, but it quickly dies down once all of the track's "parts" have been played out."

Nonetheless, Plastician, who's amazing album "Beg to Differ" is out June 18th, is still excited about grime production, where it's done well. "I like Joker-- his productions remind me of stuff I used to build-- he has a kind of 'fuck it' attitude. The tracks have so much going on, changing all the way through. Some tracks will have a split second that make you think 'that was sick' and then you'll never hear it again for the duration of the tune. His tracks are weighty as well without losing the grime tag which is something very hard to do, and his use of synths is really clever. I'm also feeling Footsie for the individuality of his sound, and Rapid for the energy levels-- something a lot of grime production is lacking as more and more producers are opting for a hip hop friendly tempo."

The advent of mixtapes in grime hasn't been all negative, however. One grime producer who's found fame through the movement, is Grime Reaper, who's production name injected new life in the seemingly exhausted grime-pun cannon (grime time, grime report, griminal etc…).

Grime Reaper rose to fame when it became clear he'd produced the best tunes on JME's amazing Derkhead mixtape, namely ""96 Bars of JME" and "Hyping". The former featured a lopsided off-4x4 kick and the wonkiest techno synths this side of Kraftwerk's "Tour de France". "Hyping" saw JME in upbeat storytelling mode, describing all the chaos and distractions he had to circumvent to get to the "shoobs" aka a rave on time. Since then a third and equally breathtaking Grime Reaper/JME production has emerged called "Go on My Own", which sees the Boy Betta Know CEO singing, yes singing over deliciously sparse synths. JME continues his mission to fly in the face of grime narrative clich├ęs (see also: suggesting major labels might not want to sign armed badmen) by singing the virtues of not being dependent on a crew. In this kind of form, bring on the fourth JME mixtape, especially if it features more Grime Reaper beats.

Amazingly, Grime Reaper is only 16 and is at school in Croydon. He made contact with JME through MySpace-- where else-- and has since, ahem, reaped the benefits. To hear him describe his production technique, it's a highly organic process. "When I want to make a tune, I have to have the right mindstate," he explains. "When I make a tune, I've probably been at school thinking of a tune in my head then on a sly and recorded it into my phone… I find I never really remember making the tune, I'm sort of in a trance, it's weird. But I think I've found what I love doing now, its cool, music's like a drug to me, it calms me down, and has no side effects."

Another positive aspect of the mixtape era is that female artists can easier get a look in, once the gladiatorial angle of the male-dominated grime rave is sidestepped. Take for example Tanya, a new singer featured recently on Richie Vibe Vee's recent show. Like some of the gems off Ny's still-amazing mixtape, Tanya treads a delicious line between raw street production and gentle female vocals. The head turning riddim is "I Know I Love You", that-- again like Ny-- were it by Ashanti or Rhianna, it would be a global smash.

Instead the 21 year old from north west London's journey in the music business is just beginning. She's working with Starz Beatz who produced "I Know I Luv U". She's also currently working on an EP with SEM who produces for Plan B, and Mike Skinners label. She's also featured on a track with Ruff Sqwad's Fudaguy. "I like grime music," she insists. "I think that there's a lot of talented artists/vocalists out here in the UK … It's about time UK music is moving as there's a lot of talent here!" She's not wrong.

For more of Martin Clark's writing, including a full Digital Mystikz and Loefah interview, go to

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