x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dubstep's giant steps

Wondering what all this talk of dubstep is about? Here's a beginner's guide to the musical genre that's just hit the mainstream.

It's a long, long way from an unremarkable record shop in early millennial London to Britney Spears's comeback single earlier this year. But when the eagerly awaited Hold It Against Me broke down into a mass of clattering beats, deep bass and mysterious synths, it was confirmation that dubstep had well and truly crossed over into the mainstream. Add the US R&B stars Nicki Minaj and Taio Cruz's declarations in recent days that they are ready to record dubstep tracks, and you have a genuine pop-music sensation.

Which is genuinely incredible because if you break dubstep down, it has to be one of the most inaccessible of genres. The beats skip and lurch, but are sparse and slow. The synths are usually in minor keys, lending the sound a nocturnal, brooding and moody air. In the early days, there were no vocals. The major characteristic of dubstep is the terrifying, bone-shakingly deep bass.

And yet the reigning Mercury Prize-winning-band The XX are widely considered to have applied dubstep's sounds to indie rock. The influential BBC Sound Of 2011 poll featured two artists - James Blake and Jamie Woon - who can claim to be dubstep's first true pop stars. If that makes it sound like a purely British concern, there are a number of recognisably dubstep tracks on Rihanna's last album, and one of Eve's best releases of recent years was Me N My, where she rapped over a booming track from the dubstep producer Benga. Who, naturally, spent his formative years in the aforementioned unremarkable south London record shop, the birthplace of dubstep a decade ago.

That record shop was called Big Apple, its clientele and owners a group of south London producers obsessed with any music that had a strong bass line. Artwork (aka Arthur Smith) was encouraged enough by these strange amalgamations of sounds he was hearing to open a recording studio above the shop and start releasing music. This was the label that signed the pioneers Skream and Benga when they were 15 years old, giving rise to some of the first dubstep records.

One of the guys behind the counter at Big Apple, Hatcha, began playing this new sound at a London club night called FWD. It was quite the cottage industry; they would all make the records at Big Apple for Hatcha to spin, and then discuss how they had been received.

But music history is littered with experimental genres that remain just that - experiments that never catch on. Dubstep was different - and it's possible to track the exact moment when it all changed. Skream's track Midnight Request Line, from 2005, had all the elements that had characterised the moody, fragmented sound thus far. There were no vocals, but crucially, Midnight Request Line had a melody to grab hold of. From that point Skream went stratospheric; most attribute the huge success of La Roux's In For The Kill to his atmospheric remix.

And this new emphasis on melody is something one of today's brightest young dubstep producers, Fantastic Mr Fox - or Stephen Gomberg - can clearly remember. "I started making instrumental hip-hop when I was 14," he says. "But when I went to university in Manchester and started going to dubstep clubs, I was really fascinated by the music. I don't think I'd heard anything like it; this strange thing which sounded like dance music but was dramatically slowed down. You could dance to it, kind of, but the bass line was going faster than the beat.

"It sounded better in clubs than at home - there were no real melodies in it. So I decided to try and do the things I thought were missing from the music I was hearing."

This was the journey Skream and Benga had already taken. But it was the arrival of the second album by a secretive London producer who went by the name of Burial that really made people sit up and take notice. Up until 2007, it was fair to say that dubstep was all about the anthemic 12-inch played in a club, and not necessarily the soundtrack to daily life. But Burial (who carefully guarded his anonymity until an English broadsheet newspaper blew his cover - confirmation in itself that dubstep had "arrived") changed everything with the album Untrue. It still had the urban melancholy unique to dubstep, but wrapped it up in genuine emotion through unnerving female vocal samples. It was the space in the songs, the minimalism of the music, which was so interesting - and influential.

"And dubstep is about this absence of sound, rather than filling every single second with as many instruments as possible," agrees Gomberg. "I know Jamie [Smith] from The XX was listening to a lot of dubstep when they were making their album, and if you listen to it carefully a lot of it is the same speed as dubstep and uses a lot of the same techniques. That's why it sounds so unusual and unique to indie rock fans.

"Their album has also been important to what's coming out now, but I must say the internet has changed everything. Music is so easily accessible: people end up listening to stuff by accident. You meet people who have only bought and only listened to pop music but are much more accepting of the weirder electronic music these days because they're exposed to it much more regularly."

Not least because, these days, it's actually the music underpinning their favourite artists. Smith has been in New York producing the Canadian rapper Drake's new album and is tipped to be working on the next Florence and the Machine record. The brightest young star from The Brit School (which brought us the world's most popular female singer right now in Adele) is Katy B. Her debut album On a Mission is released on the dubstep label Rinse and is packed with nods to the genre. Although it is essentially a modern dance-pop album, its genesis is important.

So with boundaries becoming increasingly blurred, and dubstep cropping up in pop, R&B, hip-hop, techno and house, one wonders whether, ironically, dubstep itself actually exists in 2011. When I tried to speak to Hyperdub - the record label that released Burial's albums - about the evolution of the genre, they said it wasn't that relevant to what they did any more. Another high-profile dubstep artist - who shall remain nameless - said he was sick of talking about it. There is even a name - and a Wikipedia page - for this state of affairs in which Blake, Woon and The XX are pushing the original template in new directions. It's called post-dubstep.

The producer Gomberg is comfortable with dubstep's evolution. "It's true that dubstep has fragmented," he says. "It's interesting that dubstep artists seem to embrace other genres, or vice versa, and I think that's because the sound brought together loads of people who were making different music but didn't quite fit into any scene. The weirder techno or hip-hop artists, for example, found a common ground."

And what is that common ground?

"Oh, the bass," he laughs. "A complete love of bass."