As anyone who has bothered to gloss over its history will know, dubstep is a widely misunderstood and underappreciated genre. The impression that I get from YouTube comments (at least as far as American audiences go) is that most casual listeners think dubstep is some mutant hybrid of obnoxious samples, grinding novelty synths and drops filthier than [disreputable figure] [performing sexual act] on [elderly family member].
As a teenager growing up in England with a habit of listening to hours of late-night radio, I feel like dubstep is one of the few genres of music I’ve truly seen develop from the very start. I remember listening live to Marie Anne Hobbes playing tracks from Warrior Dubz, one of the very first dubstep compilations (released in 2006). However, like almost everything, the more commercialized it became, the more I fell out of love with it. What started out as something dark, subtle, eerie and exciting devolved rapidly into an excuse for clueless bros to create tracks that felt fresher than the usual house music on the radio, but lacked the spine-tingling subtlety of dubstep in its experimental stages.
While dubstep has a questionable history, the earliest examples represent some of the most innovative moments on the more recent end of what music critic Simon Reynolds calls the hardcore continuum. The same way that Goldie’s Timeless took the raw components of jungle music’s formative years and pieced them together into a playbook, Skream!, Skream’s debut album did the same for dubstep.
Produced when Skream was just 19 and released in 2006, Skream! is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential albums in the complex history of dubstep’s development. With modern dubstep releases, it’s often very hard to hear why dub has anything to do with it. While the senseless grinding tones of Skrillex & co. did come from the same place as early innovators like Skream, Benga and Kode9, they paid insultingly little respect and attention to the roots of it all.
Fusing the bass-driven, delay-drenched grooves of dub reggae and the skippy samples of 2step garage, dubstep was never supposed to be a loosely correlated set of wubs and re-ee-eeees. In fact, Skream! has far more in common with some of the more creative dub of the 1980s than it does with music classed as the same genre and released a mere half-decade later. Its loose, and even sometimes has a feeling of careless production or improvisation. It doesn’t rely on cheap tricks and mechanically contrived drops, much like its formative predecessor.
Coincidentally, around the same kind of time dubstep was being played on one after-midnight radio show, I had my first experience with dub. It came in the form of Scientist vs. Prince Jammy – Big Showdown at King Tubby’s, a record from 1980.
Compare this to something like Blue Eyez, one of Skream’s more melodic tracks:
I might’ve unintentionally made it sound like Skream innovated very little on a concept from decades ago, but the real thing that separates early Skream from being a minimal form of dub (with heavier drums) is the darkness. While Big Showdown at King Tubby’s evokes drug-hazed summer afternoons, Skream’s darker material is set at night time in a dank basement club, trash-littered street or haunting, desolate cityscape.
Blaming Skream and other early innovators for the nonsense that most label as dubstep would be like blaming Lead Belly, Robert Johnson or any of rock’s progenitors for eventually butterfly-effecting Lil Wayne’s ill-conceived stint of hilarious guitar noodlings into existence. However, it’s hard not to feel like the magical, alchemical innovation fizzled out of the scene too quickly as time went on.