What Katy B did with dubstep, and what's next
Katy B, James Blake and Jamie Woon are the best of a new wave bringing the sound of the underground to the charts
John Grant's album Queen of Denmark was one of last year's most intriguing word-of-mouth successes. Recorded with his Texan chums Midlake, it's a warm, funny, slightly bitter, sometimes petulant, but always musically appealing work in which the former Czars frontman excavates the emotional baggage of growing up gay and scared in a small Mid-western town through the 1970s and 1980s.
With an exuberant rhythm that owes as much to Chicago house as to UK garage, Katy B's current single, "Lights On", shows the singer travelling ever further from her dubstep roots.
The bass-heavy sound that emerged from Croydon in the early Noughties has lasted comparative aeons in the UK's fast-evolving dance world, partly because for much of that time it remained out of the mainstream.Now cutting-edge artists are seeking new vistas – witch house, or drag, anyone?
Yet 2011 could be dubstep's most influential period so far. For Katy B is one of a number of artists who have emerged from the genre and are set for great things this year. Some are solo artists, others are groups; one or two may be aiming for chart domination while others seek the edges of the musical spectrum to call their own. All have either emerged from the UK's dance underground or have had their career trajectories changed by it.
Having started out on the eponymous label set up by the once-pirate station Rinse, legalised last year, Katy is firmly in the former camp. Now signed to Columbia Records, the Peckham-born songwriter and performer is on course to be the most high-profile star to arise from dubstep. Her particular strengths are a distinctive, soulful delivery that transcends Britain's schismatic club culture and an ability to mesh this with other sounds, particularly the more propulsive UK funky.
Katy came through her club showcases to enjoy a summer hit last year with "Katy on a Mission", a track produced by the dubstep star Benga that showed her ability to add a light touch to dark, weighty basslines and synths. She extended her reach by providing vocals for the dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man, that featured Benga alongside fellow producer Skream and an old Croydon mucker, Artwork.
She contributed two tracks to their eponymous album, with "Perfect Stranger" selected as the single to precede its October release, showcasing her ability to add a new twist on that pop-lyric staple – spotting someone attractive across a crowded room.
She also collaborated with the electronica duo The Count & Sinden on the effervescent album track "Hold Me", from their debut album Mega Mega Mega. All of this suggests that this new star will be filling dancefloors this year as well.
While Katy represents the party-hard side of UK dance, dubstep continues to display a serious aspect for those impressed by its ability to conjure dark atmospheres and eerie spaces. That has been best represented by the shadowy, Mercury-nominated Burial, while its influence has been heard more widely in the mainstream thanks to last year's Mercury Prize winners The XX, used as incidental music everywhere, and the critically acclaimed These New Puritans, who, on their current album Hidden, have moved from punk-funk revivalists to experimental artists who owe more to Scott Walker's later works than Gang of Four.
Dubstep's crepuscular side continues to flourish in the work of producer and vocalist James Blake, whose chilly version of Canadian artist Feist's "Limit to Your Love" is wowing pundits everywhere. A classmate of Katy at Goldsmiths, Blake's reputation is based on a trio of EPs released on the reconstituted Belgian dance imprint R&S Records that show an exhilarating degree of development in a short space of time.
On CMYK, he diced and spliced R&B samples into weird, yet still elegant, shapes. Then for October's Klavierwerke we heard snatches of the echoing piano that now provides the bedrock for his Feist cover and vocal debut. This has been billed as a taster for his eponymous debut album due next month.
While Blake seems to be moving from underground production to an updated take on urban soul, Jamie Woon is meeting him there from an altogether different direction and at a much slower pace. The Brit School graduate was originally tipped as a male Amy Winehouse, first catching the ears with his stripped-down version of the aged spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger". Yet that tune only took off a year later thanks to a rare remix from the notoriously picky Burial, released on an EP of the same name. Since then, Woon has adopted minimal, clipped rhythms as his backing of choice.
These have been heard most recently on his last single "Night Air", a marker for his long-awaited first album, set for release in the spring. In contrast to his comparative dearth of recorded music, Woon is already something of a live veteran with a now-settled line-up that features him on guitar supported by bassist and dubstep producer Reso on drums. He can sound a little too smooth, as on the breathy "Spiral", but the enigmatic "Blue Truth", posted recently on Soundcloud, suggests he is willing to experiment with his classically soulful voice, despite now being signed to Polydor.
Clearly, major labels have tacked on post-dubstep sounds to records this year, yet the labels that incubated the original sound and its offshoots are moving with the times. Hyperdub, home to Burial, amongst others, has stuck by the outfit Darkstar. As a duo, James Young and Aiden Whalley first made a splash with their frankly bizarre ode to cyborg affection, "Aidy's Girl is a Computer", making them the label's bright new things.
Darkstar's debut album was all set to become one of the genre's key releases and while North, released last October, is an important record, it has little in common with that single, apart from including the track itself.
The group had, in fact, nearly completed an album at the end of 2009, but chose to scrap most of their recordings and bring in a human vocalist, James Buttery. The trio scraped away the deep bottom end and many of the more danceable rhythms, allowing their song-writing abilities and Buttery's subtly distorted vocals to shine.
As a result, North owes as much to Radiohead and early Northern synth-pop as it does to dubstep – indeed, it comes with a cover (slowed down, naturally) of The Human League's B-side to "Mirror Man", "You Remind Me of Gold." Now Darkstar are making the final leap in their evolution from DJ duo to fully fledged band, by embarking on their first UK tour next month. This should see them play synths, not laptops, with some form of audiovisual element to heighten the woozy nature of their music. Meanwhile, Hyperdub's founder Steve Goodman, who records under the name Kode9, aims to put out the second album of his own work with regular collaborator The Spaceape that promises to be "something very different from their last album and everything else around".
It is a hint that Goodman himself is moving beyond dubstep. Indeed, a rundown of his label's plans for this year barely mentions the term. Instead, Hyperdub promises a single from house producers Funkystepz and "raw, emotional and psychedelic beats" from hip-hop artist Morgan Zarate, previously a member of UK group Spacek. Having dabbled in trip-hop and broken beats, Zarate now finds himself influenced by grime and dubstep, showing how the heavy sound's gravity can draw in an artist already with plenty of production credits under his belt.
Post-dubstep music may be varied and unpredictable, but its sounds will remain familiar to students of the dance scene's more sinister environs. If there are dark times ahead, we will have the perfect soundtrack to hand.
Katy B's 'Lights On' is out now on Columbia. She tours next month. James Blake's eponymous album is out on 7 February on Atlas/A&M. Jamie Woon and Darkstar both tour next month
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