x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Hard to resist: dubstep is reinvigorating the art of music production

it is no longer a niche underground London dance scene, or even a mainstream global dance scene, but the prized backing track for the world's biggest pop stars.

This summer I was at a wedding high in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. At the formal meal after the ceremony, the two children at our table were looking understandably bored with the grown-up chit-chat, so we decided to try to involve them in the conversation, and asked them about pop music. They talked about the relative merits of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, and about the music sub-cultures at their schools: the emos and metallers, and the kids who just liked pop music for pop music's sake. Then the older sister of the two mentioned some of the kids in her school had cottoned onto this year's latest trend, dubstep. Her little brother, not a day over 10 years old, from a small town in Massachusetts, rolled his eyes skywards in weary familiarity. "Not dubstep. Dubstep has ruined everything."

Having seen dubstep's progenitors - now globally recognised names like Skream and Benga - inventing the sound in 2005 to south London club audiences of around 100 people, this was a pretty hilarious sign of the times, especially coming from a child growing up more than 3,000 miles away. But it's a measure of how far this bass-oriented UK sound has spread - it is no longer a niche underground London dance scene, or even a mainstream global dance scene, but the prized backing track for the world's biggest pop stars.

If the Brits and their bass obsession are ever going to take over global pop music, now is the time for it. The dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man (comprising Skream, Benga and Artwork) have made the first album of unashamed dubstep-pop crossovers, most successfully in their tracks with the chart-topping singer Katy B, and now there is an entire generation of young British dance producers who are capturing the attention of North America's pop and rap superstars. Positioned in the less glamorous but equally vital half of pop's dyad, cossetted away from the limelight behind the production desk, the likes of Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, L-Vis 1990, Jamie xx, Deadboy and James Blake have all attracted interest from their American counterparts, via high-profile remixes, and now in many cases their debut albums. Hudson Mohawke and Chris Brown's Real Hip Hop, and Deadboy's remix of Drake's Fireworks are the two strongest tracks to emerge from these transatlantic hook-ups so far.

SBTRKT, aka Aaron Jerome, is a mysterious producer born of the hydra that is British dance musicwho has acquired an increasingly strong reputation for his work with Drake, Lykke Li, Jamie xx and - imminently - Radiohead, and has now released his much anticipated debut album.

The prospect that his music, a combination of dubstep, hip-hop and electronic terra incognita, might mark the start of a British colonisation of the US charts, was more persuasive after the publishing of a recent video of SBTRKT performing live with Drake the song they collaborated on, a remix of Wildfire. Intriguingly, the BBC journalist Natalie Shaw recently wrote that SBTRKT's "killer pop sensibility, infectious bubbling rhythms, unbridled energy and astounding curation" amounted to a producer carrying "the promise of this decade's Timbaland".

The prospect of a new wave of jaw-dropping electronic music, made to serve the world's most glittering pop stars, is an apppealing one. Not least because it feels like, with a few exceptions - work by the likes of The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, Lil B and Bangladesh - recent hip-hop and R&B production in the mainstream has failed to scale the dizzying heights achieved by Timbaland and the Neptunes at the start of the decade.

There has certainly been a slump in pop production generally since the early 2000s, when the boldest innovators in any genre all seemed to be working in mainstream pop, R&B and hip-hop. It is, contrary to my 10-year-old fellow diner's assertion, not dubstep but a tendency towards bland, samey electro-pop that has dominated the charts and "ruined everything" - or if not everything, certainly been the ubiquitous soundtrack for global mega-hits by stars like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and heaven forfend, the Black Eyed Peas. In this regard, David Guetta and his formulaic shiny dance-pop have a lot to answer for.

It was all very different a decade ago. Sasha Frere-Jones, writing in The New Yorker in 2008, recalled the time Timbaland's "innovations began to bloom" in the early 2000s, via utterly otherwordly productions for the likes of Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake and Missy Elliott: Get Ur Freak On, his half-bhangra half-dancehall 2001 hit written for Elliott, remains one of the strangest global pop smashes of all time. Frere-Jones summed up Timbaland's mind-blowing avant-garde aesthetic: "When you hear a rhythm that is being played by an instrument you can't identify but wish you owned, when you hear a song that refuses to make up its mind about its genre but compels you to move, or when you hear noises that you thought couldn't find a comfortable place in a pop song, you are hearing Timbaland, or school thereof."

This is the high praise someone as simultaneously peerless and influential as Timbaland deserves - but is it premature to frame SBTRKT, with or without his fellow British producers, in the same bracket?

His debut album is certainly very impressive, as both a cohesive body of work and as a signpost to pop music's near-future. Wildfire, the song that caught Drake's ear and prompted their collaboration, appears here in its original form. It takes dubstep's squelching bassline as its starting point, using it as a rhythmic, head-nodding foundation, as well as zoning in on dubstep's knack for space, the bass dropping out of the mix quite suddenly at points, just to keep you on your toes, suddenly leaving the faux-innocent, Katy B-like vocal standing alone. Knowing when to leave a gap was one of Timbaland's greatest assets, too. Wildfire also uses a subtle drip-feed of echo on backing vocals stretched out and played backwards, twists a synthesiser to the point of near-nausea, and sporadically brings to the foreground a satisfying, trilling drum pattern. Heard together on pop radio, it's undeniably catchy, and this could be the sign that Shaw is on to something: assembling a great pop collage that is greater than the sum of its parts over only three minutes is no mean feat.

Throughout the album, SBTRKT seems to have thought unselfishly about his productions - he is not pitching to be an auteur computer-whizz whose dance music might later be vocalled, but writing whole songs in conscious deference to the fact that the first thing most listeners notice is the singer, not the masked man at the production desk.

Trials of the Past is one of four tracks featuring the vocalist Sampha, who sounds much like James Blake - knowingly emotional and fragile, but not lacking in character. Gently howling twisted steel synths and a soft but pacy drum beat let his lost child of a vocal shine: it is a beguiling, Blake-like diary entry about "ghostly enemies floating through the door ... summoned right before you". The euphoric starburst of electronics on the more upbeat Something Goes Right are even more impressive, another track that comes tantalisingly close to that holy grail for any wannabe-Timbaland, being both a club floor filler and a daytime radio hit.

Throughout the sense is that he's reining himself in for the sake of the vocalist - when the final chorus fades, there is often a 30 second coda of much more eye-opening experimental electronic noise; it's almost as if SBTRKT is saying: "This is what I can do when I haven't got those pesky singers to worry about." There are only three instrumental tracks on this 11-track album, but they're three of the strongest because he lets his imagination run that much wilder.

Of the three, it's the closing track, Go Bang, which stands out - a lattice of tribal-sounding drums layered over each other, a short repeated sample that sounds like a preparatory intake of breath, before the track finally erupts into a grandstanding synth chorus peppered with cheeky bleeps, one that shares much with some of Hudson Mohawke and Rustie's strongest work. SBTRKT's challenge in the coming years will be finding a way to bring the bare-faced audacity that lurks on the fringes of this album to centre-stage. Matching Timbaland's skill is an almost impossibly tall order, but if he can achieve that same no-compromise occupation of the pop mainstream, the likes of Drake, Beyoncé, and even the children of rural Massachusetts, will find his music increasingly hard to resist.


Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.