Thursday, July 12, 2012

What the F*&k is Dubstep? - A Guide for the Curious

Dubstep has exploded onto the music scene in the past couple years. If you have never heard any dubstep before, well, this song by Skrillex won a goddamn Grammy:

There are nitpickers out there, though, who will tell you that Skrillex isn't really dubstep, but more like UK electro. Real dubstep sounds more like this:

Let us accept for now that both of these count as "dubstep," even though they clearly have some stylistic differences between them. Distinguishing between them would be a discussion for "insiders," and this is a guide for "outsiders."

To attempt to define it: dubstep is a sort of melting pot for musical tropes from several different genres of EDM (electronic dance music). It is generally bass-heavy, moving at 140 bpm, but with the slowish kind of "riddim" characteristic of reggae and dub music. It uses digital production techniques that will start with any sound in the world, then warp and twist that beyond any recognition. The genre is something of an acquired taste, and for those who have not yet acquired that taste, it can sound a bit like a computer having a coughing fit while falling down a flight of stairs, or just a non-stop "wub wub wub wub wubwubwubwubwubwub."

In an attempt to explain how this happened to become a whole genre of music, and why people actually like it, I am going to be focusing on some "family resemblances" that the music has with other genres. I don't have much of a musical vocabulary when it comes to things like theory and chord progression, but even if I did, I don't think that approach would help the lay person understand any of this better. Instead, what I'm going to be doing is talking broadly about the resemblances between different musical styles, and then providing songs that illustrate what I'm talking about.

My qualifications to talk about this subject mostly have to do with listening to a lot of EDM for the past 15 years or so. To make yourself more familiar with the genres, it will help if you start with Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music. I think it's worth your time to look at every genre there, but for now you should start with following genres, because I will be referring to them later: goa trance, progressive trance, jungle, drum n bass, IDM.

Let me start off by saying, though, that people get into all sorts of arguments about what is and isn't dubstep. Plenty of people could argue with me about any of the things in this post... but it isn't for those people.  What I'm trying to do here is say, "Listen to these other kinds of music that you probably haven't heard of. Do you see the resemblance now?" So let's get to it.

Dub music
Dub emerged as a genre in the 60s from producing remixes of reggae songs to serve as B-sides. Its pioneers were straight up wizards when it came to studio equipment--they say that King Tubby knew what was going on down to the electron, and Scientist could build his own equipment from scratch if he needed to. Their remixing efforts involved a lot of reverb, echo, sound loops, and cutting the different master tracks in and out in unconventional ways.

What dubstep takes from this is the tempo, and the devotion to remixing music as much as possible in any way possible. And, I guess, making a genre of music that sounds a lot better if you've been smoking a lot of weed. I mean, some people will say that any music will sound better if you're high, but they're wrong.

In its early form, jungle music had a lot to do with creative, flowing drum patterns... at least, that is what you will hear if you listen to the samples in Ishkur's guide. But if you went to a rave ten years ago where they had a lineup of jungle DJs, you would hear something like this mix by Dieselboy: hard, fast, abrassive, with lots of squelchy and distorted sounds. This "dirty" sound is a lot of what dubstep inherited from jungle.
A rave's "jungle room" circa 2000

Side note: if you went to a rave ten years ago, the douchiest douchebags you could meet there were usually in the jungle room. Back then, they wore oversize hoodies, often with "urban camo" patterns, and usually also wore a visor or a baseball cap. Dubstep seems to overlap a lot with this demographic, but I cannot explain why it is that people who like dirty bass tend to be douchebags.

Progressive trance
Trance music started out as something that was pretty constant and repetitive, which was a lot of the point--you know, for putting you into a trance. Progressive trance added a breakdown/buildup element to the music, making it far more palatable to general audiences, and also making it easier to have a "radio edit" of any given song.

To give you an idea of the difference I'm talking about, here is a classic trance song from 1992:

Now here is a progressive trance song from 1996:

And here is some bullshit that clubgoers couldn't stop hearing in 2000:

Why did this structural change suddenly make the music more popular? EDM's previous focus was mostly on keeping people dancing, people who are often a little intoxicated (wink, wink), but radio listeners aren't known for their patience when it comes to long, repetitive songs. Oh, sure, there are exceptions, like "Love Shack" and "Hey Jude," but this was an entire genre that seemed to be nothing but repetition. Introducing breakdowns meant breaking up the intensity into bits that were easier to digest. At first, this was usually done with string sections and somebody talking about finding the goddess energy inside you, but thankfully, today's breakdowns are generally less cheesy.

Now, obviously, progressive trance sounds nothing like dubstep. But the breakdown techniques have shown, somewhat experimentally, how much intensity people can handle from their music before it needs to be dialed back a bit. Thus, a common structure for dubstep songs is to have a "drop" that comes in somewhere between 0:30 and 1:30 (often accompanied by a drumroll), which is where they introduce the main, uh, "melody." Then they dial it back a bit, maybe to where they were before the drop, going back and forth, probably introducing variations along the way. Here are a couple examples:

IDM and Glitch
One of the most unfortunately named genres of EDM, the acronym stands for "Intelligent Dance Music." Rather than trying to create a riff people could groove on, and repeating that riff for eight minutes, IDM producers sought to make music that required you to stop and pay attention to it. Listen to it. The constant changes keep you paying attention to what's going on, instead of tuning it out into the background. (And if you are trying to tune it out into the background, it is going to really annoy you.)  A non-EDM example I know of is the metal band Mastodon. At any rate, here is a sampling of songs from the genre:

Squarepusher - Come On My Selector
Autechre - Gantz Graf
Aphex Twin - Come to Daddy

(There are lots of other things that fall under IDM but have a much softer feel to them. All three of the above artists have songs like this, but in the case of Plaid, it is just about they only thing they make. While those songs are important to the genre, generally speaking, I think they have had less influence on dubstep.)

What dubstep took from this genre has a lot to do with the changing, syncopated rhythms, but also, you know, having that "skipping CD/corrupted data" sound to it. Those sounds were already finding their way into more mainstream EDM as early as 2000:

Hell, even Nine Inch Nails cut a pretty awesome track that I would almost call IDM:

Goa and Psytrance
Goa and psytrance started out lot more like the "classic trance" from earlier, except it went off into a weird kind of sci-fi direction. Sometimes that meant having deeper, more complex melodies that are like a six minute synth solo. Sometimes it meant putting down layer after layer of different sounds and melodies weaving in and out of each other, or setting up a level of predictability that was then shattered unexpectedly. Generally speaking, they were exploring how you could make some of the most fucked up, psychedelic sounds possible... and I think dubstep does that a lot, too, but with a slightly different approach. In my experience, this means the genres are both equally engaging while one is on LSD, because what used to be too much intensity to handle all at once becomes just the right amount of intensity and I don't ever want it to stop!

For examples, here is a song that I consider to be a masterpiece of the genre:

However, Hux Flux's "Idiot" has a lot more of the musical elements I have been discussing so far:

Psybient and Psydub
The popularity of trance has faded over the years, and people who used to be really into psytrance are usually now into psybient. On the simplest level, it is pretty much what you get when you slow down psytrance, take out the "four to the floor" bass beat, and add a bunch of new agey stuff. While many psytrance artists have put individual psybient tracks on their albums over the years, Shpongle's "Are You Shpongled?" was probably the most influential, and one of the first artists to be making nothing but psybient.

One of the production techniques you can hear there, which is used also by dubstep, is the way it treats samples. They get chopped up into little pieces, then  some of those pieces get thrown away, and some pieces get repeated and resampled. If we can use Google as any kind of reference, nothing was called dubstep until 2006, but the Shpongle track above came out in 1998. I'm not going to say that dubstep wouldn't exist without psybient, but it would probably be a less diverse genre.

The similarity between the genres is why you will see pot-smoking hippies at dubstep shows. Mixed in with the aforementioned douchebags, this makes for a strange collection of people.  But there has also been some overlap and intermingling between the musical styles. Here is what Phutureprimitive sounded like in 2004:

And here is Phutureprimitive in 2011:

There is still the new agey hippie music in the background, but the whole album is generally more bassy and, generally speaking, more like dubstep.

Demographic Changes
Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to make EDM, it meant buying at least two synthesizers and a drum machine, as well as some software on your computer to control them. That's what got you started. Hallucinogen's gear page (courtesy of's Wayback Machine) lists eight synthesizers and twelve effects processors. People back then would get into debates about whether it was better to buy digital or analog synthesizers, or whether it was worth the money to buy vintage equipment like the TB-303. Everyone swore allegiance to particular brands of equipment, and would not shut their mouths about how terrible the other brands were.

Then, once you had produced a song, you either had to find a record label to pick you up, or pay out of pocket to run off some vinyl records. Making your own CDs or cassettes was only an option if you didn't care about whether DJs played your music.

Today, in 2012, you don't need anything but a decent computer (most likely, the one you already have), and Ableton. Here's how you can make Smack My Bitch Up, and here's an a cappella version of Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, both possible with nothing but a laptop.  There is no barrier to entry for making music, and processing the audio effects is near-instantaneous compared to what it was in the '90s. And letting other people hear your music? Even easier--people can buy your stuff on Bandcamp or Beatport, or you could just let them listen to it with Soundcloud. Want to make a music video for your song? You still don't need anything but your laptop for editing, and your cell phone could probably make some decent video recordings.

Similarly, becoming a DJ has never been easier. In the '90s, it meant buying at least $200 worth of equipment, and that stuff was super shitty. Professional-grade gear would set you back $1000 to $2000. Today, again, all you need is a laptop. You can buy other things that make the job easier

And somewhere in this whole mess, there is something about the rise of technology, and its accompanying sounds, imprint on our subconscious and affect the kinds of music that we are going to enjoy. Or whatever. But I don't personally have a lot I could say to back that up.

To sum up...
Here is a bulleted list of the things I have talked about, in case you got lost along the way.
  • Dirty bass
  • "Drops" and breakdowns
  • Varying rhythms
  • Weird, fucked up sounds
  • Anyone can make it
  • Wubwubwubwubwubwub
What's a good introduction to dubstep?
There are two ways you could go about this. The one that requires the least effort is to listen to go to and listen to their dubstep station--it's really rather good, and I'm usually impressed by the "Dank 'N' Dirty Dubz" mixes. Similarly, you could go to Pandora, and start their dubstep genre station.

If you want some artists to check out, you could do worse than to start with:
  • Beats Antique
  • Skrillex
  • Flux Pavillion
  • Bassnectar
  • The Glitch Mob
  • Zomboy
That is by no means a representative sample, but it will get you started. Go look them up on Grooveshark, or YouTube, or your own preferred method for getting music from the internet. You might find that, though you understand the music a bit better, you just don't like it. And that's okay. But you might also find yourself listening to nothing but dubstep all day and pissing off everyone around you, in which case it might be time to invest in some quality headphones.

What does it mean when dubstep is "grimey"?
That is the dubstep that sounds like a computer having a coughing fit while falling down a flight of stairs.