Dubstep is one of the hottest electronic genres going at the moment, mostly due to a couple of critically lauded full-lengths from Burial and the groundwork laid by the Bug for the last decade. The pressure from that heat has labels scrambling to come up with promising producers willing to capitalize on the blunted genre du jour and journalists falling all over themselves trying to call the next big thing. As such, you’ll be hard pressed to find a review, article, blog post, or press release that doesn’t equate Burial’s meteoric rise to the work of South London’s Beni Uthman, commonly known by his recording name Benga. Actually, Uthman has been releasing minimal dub downtempo since a couple years before Burial’s debut, yet from all appearances he seems to be following suit rather than leading the way. I have an idea why that might be.
With Burial, his works are grounded in heavy, lyrical content, atmospheric field recordings, and slight beats, leaving the emphasis on dense, complete compositions. Benga exclusively gets by on huge, warping basslines and a few preset sounds. Granted, he can bend lower frequencies like nobody’s business, and they sound cool the first couple of times you hear them. Any of the tracks on Diary of an Afro Warrior would blow people’s heads off on a big system. Yet, they don’t have all that much to offer the home listener, especially under tight scrutiny.
Diary of an Afro Warrior
US: 11 Mar 2008
UK: 10 Mar 2008
Canada release date: 17 Jun 2008
Take the UK charting single “Night”, for example. There’s a cowbell, a shaker, a horn that occasionally farts, and a synth progression that apes the bassline. A few things come in, a few go out, the whole thing resets itself about halfway through, and it never really goes anywhere. It’s just loop-on-Fruity-Loops-loop for five solid minutes. Word on the street has it that “Night” was the first dubstep track ever on BBC Radio 1, and entering the top 100 attests to popular opinion. And yet, there really isn’t a whole lot to it to sink your teeth into. The track is boring and repetitive, and he even had help from Coki to make it.
Taking a different approach, “Someone 20” kicks off with a lagging intro that quickly picks up speed ‘til the beat lands on true upbeat breaks with a Night Rider-like lead, as well as an ominously echoing synth overlaid with a bit of violin and some far-off metallic sound. It stands out from the tracklisting on BPM, its intro, and the least twisted bassline on Diary, but nothing happens once the tune gets going. All those noises just recycle. “Go Find Them” features some of the only words on the record, delivered through a gnarly vocoder over a typically mean bassline. A choice guitar notably sings the track to its rest, but the five-word sample repeats over and over ‘til you’re glad there aren’t any more vocals. “The Cut” follows that up by humping the legendary drum and bass “eep” squeal, one utilized by every other jungle track since the birth of that genre, over a constantly moving subbase growl and a little orchestral sample also in line with the mood of the older genre. It’s actually one of the more interesting cuts here, but it speaks volumes about Benga’s attitude towards sound design.
All told, Uthman is not much of a creator. His style is the mass appropriation of other forms set into a rigid framework. To be fair, he does what he does quite well, but on a wider scale, the most creative part of this humorless, often emotionless record is his tweaked-out bass. If this is the best (or close to) that dubstep has to offer, it’s never going to get any bigger than speed garage. It’ll remain a subgenre oddity.