A Brief History of Early Dubstep

From underground beginnings in South London to a global scene, Georgina Cook talks us through the early days of the movement

By Museum of Youth Culture

Digital Mystikz (2006) by Suzy Del CampoMuseum of Youth Culture

The rise of Dubstep

Dubstep has taken the world by storm, with some of the biggest names in electronic music playing to crowds of thousands strong. But the scene has its humble beginnings in tiny South London clubs with heavy sound systems. In this exhibit Georgina Cook explores these early origins.

What's in a name?

The term Dubstep was reportedly coined by Tempa and Ammunition Recording’s Neil Joliffe in conversation with colleagues Sarah “Soulja” Lockhart, Oris Jay and writer/artist Martin Clark, in which they identified 2-step and dub as central to the sound. In 2002, Martin penned an article about this new sound for Californian magazine XLR8R, who published it with a cover photo of Horsepower Productions and the word “Dubstep” in a large typeface. Dubstep had arrived.

Splash at Glazart (Drumz of the South) (2010) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

Big Apple + Horsepower

A key place to dubstep’s history is South London’s borough of Croydon; specifically, Big Apple Records, a small underground dance music shop with a banana skin logo.

Eventually associated with darker garage & 2-Step; Big Apple and staff member DJ Hatcha, soon became a hub for underground music lovers. 

Meanwhile producers like Artwork and Horsepower Productions were developing the dark garage & 2-step sound into something even more experimental and dubby. In many ways, the first few releases of Big Apple’s label which debuted with Artwork’s Red in 2002, act as a sonic history of the evolution from dark garage to dubstep.

Flutes, percussion and bird-calls

Horsepower’s use of flutes, percussion and bird-calls often sampled from cult movies was seminal to this and resulted in a style that, as heard in Hatcha’s Dubstep Allstars Vol. 1 came to define dubstep’s earliest years.

Croydon, Fam

The cocktail of role models and underground sounds found at Big Apple, coupled with access to software like Music2000 and FruityLoops, was potent to South London’s young regulars.

Among them were names now considered as pioneers of dubstep including: Plastician (then “Plasticman”), Skream & Benga, N-Type and Walsh, Chef, Distance, Cyrus, Mala & Coki (aka Digital Mystikz), Loefah & Sgt.Pokes, and Kromestar.

“I get my s**t mastered at Transition.”

Another vital ingredient to the early dubstep sound and culture, was the dubplate - an acetate disc on which the freshest tunes were pressed and given to a producer’s most trusted DJ[s]. The community’s mastering engineer of choice was Jason Goz of Transition Mastering who, dedicated to refining low end frequencies, left his mark on both the sound and the acetates with his sticker “I get my s**t mastered at Transition.”

Desk at Transition Mastering House (Drumz of the South) (2006) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

FWD>> “Deeper & darker, darker & deeper” - MC Crazy D

The first regular night to house the burgeoning dubstep sound was the weekly Forward>>, started in 2001 by Tempa and Rinse FM’s visionary Sarah Lockhart. Originally at Velvet Rooms, FWD>> residents included Hatcha & Crazy D, Youngsta, Plastician and Kode9. Upon it’s move to Plastic People in 2005, a smokey 200 capacity basement with a weighty sound-system and pitch black dance-floor, FWD>> became an important weekly meet-up for both the dubstep and grime communities, many of whom would cut dubs just in time for the night.

Flyer for FWD>> at Plastic People (2006) by Courtesy of Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

Left FWD>>> first venue Velvet Rooms. Right FWD>>> second home at Plastic People

Dubstep to the world

By 2005, dubstep was being transmitted across London’s airwaves on Geeneus and Slimzee’s pirate station Rinse FM. 

Tuning in was the legendary John Peel, who via his own show on BBC Radio 1, introduced the sound to an even wider audience. Dubstep was one of the first music genres to benefit from emerging Web 2.0 applications. Myspace, Dubstep Forum, the Hyperdub web-zine and blogs like Blackdown, Gutterbreakz and Drumz Of The South all contributed to dubstep’s growth, at a pace unknown to previous underground scenes. Meanwhile, back on the ground, labels and nights like Hotflush, Skull Disco, and Rephlex were opening up the genre even further.

Rinse FM Studio with Youngsta, Task & Loefah (Drumz of the South) (2005) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

A pinch of Bristol

It was thanks to Rob Ellis aka DJ Pinch that Bristol, a historically musical city, became dubstep’s next home. Reportedly, it was upon hearing Kode9 on a road-trip to FWD>> that inspired him to start Subloaded (with DJ Blazey), the UK’s first regular all-nighter focused on bass pressure. Subloaded and Pinch’s Tectonic record label contributed heavily to the emergence of a galaxy of Bristol based artists including Vex’d, Appleblim, Addison Groove, Peverelist, Joker, Gemmy and Jakes.

DJ Pinch at DMZ, Mass, Brixton (Drumz of the South) (2005) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

The Spaceape

One of the most respected lyricists associated with dubstep was Stephen Gordon, whose “The Spaceape” avatar, fused toasting with poetry and influences ranging from Prince to Matt Johnson via vocals reminiscent of a prophetic Jamaican elder.
 
Kode9’s 2004 “Sine of the Dub,” features a sparse, pulsating bass-line over which Gordon unfurls a version of Prince’s “Sign Of The Times” peppered with Jamaican patois. Further collaborations can be heard on Hyperdub Records’ “Memories of The Future” and “Black Sun” LPs. 

“Who wants a rewind?”

With dubstep’s sibling sound Grime relying heavily on MC’s, the role of the MC in early dubstep was much lighter. Largely two-fold, it involved communicating who (and sometimes what) was playing at an event and powering-up the audience with energetic flows and expressions which often described the sounds and movements of the DJ and dance-floor. 

Frequently, the rewinds (the practice of starting a record, spinning it back then re-starting it), were initiated or encouraged by the MC with calls like “Who Wants A Rewind?” and “PULL-UP!” At nights like DMZ, it wasn’t uncommon for a single tune to be rewound 5-6 times, due to the crowd’s anticipation of its “drop,” coupled with the hype of the MC.
LISTEN TO: Mala b2b Loefah & Sgt Pokes – Live at FWD – 01.06.2006 via GET DARKER 

MC Task & DJ Youngsta (2006) by Suzy Del CampoMuseum of Youth Culture

Portrait of the artist Burial (Drumz of the South) (2007) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

Burial - hitting the Mercury

Hyperdub quickly became known for its genre defying artist roster and the conceptual approach and narratives of its owner Kode9. Representing producers like The Bug, Darkstar, Ikonika, Cooly G, Martyn, L.V and Scratcha DVA, the label is also responsible for introducing the world to Burial.  With his self-titled debut album released to wide acclaim, it was Burial’s 2007 album “Untrue” that really shook things up. A cinematic, down-tempo love-letter to rave, “Untrue” (like much Burial music), is characterised by irregular beats, video game samples, crackle sounds and androgynous vocals. Earning a Mercury Prize nomination in 2007, Burial came to influence an entire generation of artists, many of whom are associated with the terms “post-dubstep” and “future garage” as well as wider contemporary music.

DMZ- “Come Meditate on Bass weight.”

In 2004, having already published tracks with Big Apple; Digital Mystikz and Loefah started the DMZ record label for their highly distinctive sounds. Recognising London’s need for a regular all-night dubstep dance, On March 5th 2005, DMZ hired a 300 capacity room with two speakers in the basement of St Matthew’s church in Brixton. So began the 11pm-7am bi-monthly DMZ event; its colourful, minimalist flyers and strap-line “Come Meditate on bass weight,” setting the tone for its vibey and immersive atmosphere.

Flyer for first DMZ (2005) by Courtesy of Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

St Matthew’s Church in Brixton, where DMZ held bi-monthly events

Dubstep Warz

In January of 2006, broadcaster Mary Anne Hobbs invited seven key UK Dubstep DJs and producers to record what is now a legendary radio show.

A deep-dive into it’s sound, “Dubstep Warz” acts as an index to the nuanced styles and influences (which include Roots Reggae, House and Metal), embodied by the scene’s artists. In a props to the wider community, Mary-Anne also included sound-bites of key figures from around the world, including Joe Nice and DQ of New York’s beloved Dubwar night.

Kode9 and The Spaceape take to the decks and mic on Mary Anne Hobb's legendary Dubstep Warz Breezeblock show, L-R: Spaceape,Sgt.Pokes, Rolly (Vex'd), The Bug, Hermeet Chadra, Jamie (Vex'd), Distance, Kode9. (Drumz of the South) (2006) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

First Birtday

The evidence of the growth of the scene and impact of Dubstep Warz was seen at DMZ just two months later. On DMZ’s first ‘birtday’ in March 2006, the queue was so long that the night was forced upstairs to the church’s 1000 capacity room mid-way through Joe Nice’s set. Dubstep had blown.

DMZ 1st Birthday at 3rd Base, Brixton (Drumz of the South) (2006) by Georgina CookMuseum of Youth Culture

DMZ 1st Birthday at 3rd Base, Brixton (Drumz of the South), Georgina Cook, 2006, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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Crowd at a Skrillex show, Denmark, 2012 (2012/2012) by Gonzales Photo/Christian HjorthMuseum of Youth Culture

From DMZ to Beyonce

Now often associated with the heavier, faster and metallic styles of artists like Rusko, Skrillex and it’s pejorative “Bro-step,” the influence of dubstep can be heard widely throughout dance music and pop culture. Today, it is labels like Deep Medi, Sentry, Wheel & Deal and Chestplate that provide a home for sounds and vibes that echo dubstep’s early days; with labels like Hyperdub, Keysound and Swamp 81 continuing to innovate and defy genre boundaries.    

Credits: Story

Georgina Cook is an artist, photographer & educator. Her seminal (now archived) blog Drumz Of The South was established in 2004 to share photography, interviews and other information about South London music, artists & environments with an emphasis on the then newly emerging Dubstep scene. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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