Dubstep: Straight outta Croydon

The hottest dance sound around wasn't born in the USA. Chris Mugan tracks the new scene down to its unlikely birthplace

A new sound is infiltrating nightclubs across the world. From humble beginnings in Croydon, its combination of heavy bass, minimal Detroit pulses and sombre rhythms has struck a chord with electronica fans. In a maze of playful semantic games, dubstep is the real deal, a gene that has fermented slowly over a period of years. In 2006, we have been offered grindie, east London producer Statik's one-man attempt to fuse grime with the indie dance scene, while the even more spurious grunk joins the dots between the East End's dirty-garage sound and the southern US hip-hop derivation known as crunk.

Dubstep's pedigree, though, goes back to the turn of the millennium. Now the scene is set to go overground with a sequence of artist-albums and high-profile club nights. As grime loses momentum, dubstep has become this season's flavour of choice.

Producer Oliver 'Skream' Jones believes his sound has filled a void left by a faltering rival. "You can't find a grime night in London any more - it's like when So Solid Crew were around the garage scene," the Croydon music-maker says. "Grime took on the hip-hop thing of 'my gun's bigger than yours'. If you went to a night, it wasn't a party vibe, it was intimidating. Dubstep is like early jungle - there's a reggae influence and a rave feel."

A youthful 20-year-old, Jones was witness to the birth of dubstep in the unlikely location of his hometown. The sound is rooted in dark experiments with the 2step garage template devised by pioneers El-B and Zed Bias. Although rarely noted as a cultural centre, Croydon was instrumental in forging the scene when, as early as 2000, the sound coalesced in the sorely missed record shop, and label, Big Apple.

"Big Apple supported underground music - it was not into the big garage names," Jones remembers of the times he hung around there at weekends. "So it became the headquarters for this experimental sound and everyone took their tracks there."

Pioneering artists Horsepower and Hatcha took the swinging garage beat, slowed it down and toyed with its straightforward nature. As a term for this scene, dubstep became entrenched when it appeared on the cover of the San Francisco-based music magazine XLR8R in 2002, a sign that the distinctive style was already crossing borders. Yet for several years it bubbled underground without any hype or publicity.

Even when Rephlex released its grime compilations that helped spread the dubstep philosophy, the genre remained resolutely leftfield. Grime ruled the roost for a couple of years, so its darker sibling was allowed to grow quietly. Vital during this period, Jones points out, was an innate co-operative vibe that developed between artists. "There is no competition between us. No one says a bad word about anyone. The people at DMZ make sure everyone gets to play there."

DMZ is dubstep's foothold in Brixton, south London, a night fabled for the quality of its bass, an important component of the sound, thanks to its founders Digital Mystikz and Loefah that have aligned the scene closer to its predecessor drum'n'bass. Thanks to its parallels with reggae sound systems, inevitably a dubstep outpost has developed at Subloaded in Bristol. Now the sound is set for greater exposure with high-profile events such as last month's takeover by the long-running night Forward of the glamorous London club The End.

Part of dubstep's strength is a refreshing lack of rules. Some artists have a predilection for techno synthesiser sounds, others favour exotic Arabic samples, while Kode9 is rarely heard without his MC-cum-poet Spaceape.

You will get an idea of this vitality as artist albums begin to emerge. First up is the eponymous release by hot south London producer Burial, signed to Kode9's Hyperdub label. Its implacably mournful feel sets it apart from the dancefloor focus of other artists, while the analogue crackle and pop gives it a creepier atmosphere.

That record is soon to be eclipsed by The World Is Gone by north London duo Various. This is by no means a dubstep release, for its whispered, intimate vocals owe as much to the folk revival as any electronic music form. Still, the skeletal, sinister backing for such tunes as "Hater" and "Fly" share much in common with the genre's minimal aesthetic.

It is still early days for the scene, as revealed by the series of Dubstep Allstars mix CDs released by the influential label Trama. Over three volumes, it is noticeable how few names there are to contribute tracks. Yet Skream has already DJ-ed in front of receptive crowds as far afield as Montreal and New York, with his Australia debut already booked. It is yet another step forward for this year's big sound.

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