Subbass Goes Overground
Is there a group of fans more passionate, and potentially precious, than one surrounding a facet of electronica? Values, opinions, and terminology can get very specific and very personal. Just using the word “electronica”, for example, has undoubtedly already put me in hot water with some folks. But other folks would argue that compartmentalizing, guarding, and insulating these scenes can be counterproductive. Basically, it comes down to that old fanboy/girl paradox. You desperately want your favorite bands and types of music to be appreciated and to share them with others…until they actually find the masses, after which point you desperately want to defend them against corruption and misappropriation by those masses.
The London-based scene surrounding the facet of electronic music known as dubstep seems to be reaching such a tipping point. Dubstep originated around the turn of the millennium, putting a darker, brooding, drum’n'bass and dub-influenced twist on UK “garage” electronica. Now, the sound is picking up steam and working its way into a variety of DJ sets. The release of an all-dubstep volume of the famed Fabric label’s highly-respected Fabriclive series represents the subgenre’s peak exposure to date. Accordingly, Fabriclive 37 is already a controversial topic on the worldwide dubstep forum.
Dedicated fans take their dubstep seriously. The forum has a lengthy thread called “Dubstep Ethics”. And, while Fabriclive 37 has been hailed as a “landmark” release and championed for its hot-off-the-presses tracklist, it’s also taken its share of criticism. It’s not representative of the depth and breadth of the dubstep scene, some claim. Its compilers, Caspa & Rusko, are young whippersnappers, relative novices who focus exclusively on the more trendy, club-friendly aspects of dubstep. In other words, it’s too populist, too gimmicky, the detractors argue. So will Fabriclive 37 be retrospectively viewed as the moment dubstep met the masses and slay them with subbass? Or will it be lamented as the beginning of a long, slow slide into creative fermentation and artistic irrelevance, much as has happened to drum’n'bass?
I’m not here to take sides. All the arguments have legitimate points to them. Honestly, I’m not too immersed in the dubstep scene. A fan of electronica and dub in general, I’m probably exactly whom this release is intended for. And, from my relatively casual perspective, Fabriclive 37 is a great time.
One matter to keep in perspective is this mix is really about Caspa and Rusko. Over half of the 29 tracks featured here are performed by either one or both of them. Furthermore, the tracklist goes heavy on London-based labels Sub Soldiers and Dub Police, for whom both have recorded. The mix starts off with a couple of decidedly dubby tracks in Caspa’s “Born to Do It” and L-Wiz’s “Girl From Codeine City”. This is a wise and sly move, as the uninitiated will settle pretty easily into the drowsy reggae rhythms. Tes La Rok’s remix of Uncle Sam’s “Round the World Girls” loads up on subbass and echo, but still adheres to the original’s reggae sound. It’s easily Fabriclive 37‘s most accessible, wide-appeal track.
But then, beginning with Rusko’s “Jahova”, the mix embarks on a throbbing, head-spinning odyssey through Caspa’s and Rusko’s mixing consoles. Rhythms shudder and chatter, sound bites from UK gangster films are sprinkled in liberally, and low frequency oscillators and Roland 303s are given thorough workouts. The sound is heavily “wobbly”, and as it passes through a dozen or more tracks, it becomes increasingly challenging. Or, if you’re not in the mood, annoying. Imagine a half dozen lippy analog synthesizers, bitching each other out in an echo chamber.
Amidst this onslaught, Caspa’s “Louder” manages the focus to maintain one long, harrowing aural tailspin, employing a sustained didgeridoo-like sound to truly mind-altering effect. On the gimmicky side, Unitz’s “The Drop” goes so far as to sample MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”. Despite the bite of familiarity, the sample sounds terribly out of place. 22 tracks in, Rusko lays down two versions of his crossover smash, “Cockney Thug”. The original is relentless, but you have to wonder if at least some of its club appeal lies in the repeated sample of said tug saying “Faaack!”. Buraka Som Sistema’s remix omits the obscenity and turns the track into a sort of demented, frenzied samba.
Eventually, Caspa & Rusko let you up for air, but not before they’ve held you down, thrilled you, and quite possibly blown out your speakers. Fabriclive 37 may not be the most comprehensive overview of the dubstep world. It may not be the most masterfully mixed. But as a cannily charismatic introduction that keeps you coming back for more, it’s tough to imagine a better job.
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