[28 February 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In America, “techno” hasn’t meant much to the music world since the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim fell out of the public consciousness a decade ago. Electronic music is, once again, relegated to a small subculture. In the UK, though, they’ve never stopped coming up with subgenres with funny names. One of the relatively recent ones is dubstep. Though the sound has been developing since the late 1990s, the combination of UK garage/two-step, dub, grime, illbient, and other sundry types has really evolved over the past five years, and is threatening to go overground.
Maybe that’s because dubstep is really the first truly fresh electronic-based sound to come out of the club culture in some time. It’s the long-awaited, er, logical progression from drum ‘n’ bass, itself once hailed as electronic music’s savior. Also, and not coincidentally, the American hip-hop community has taken a shine, with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Eve collaborating with dubstep producers. Basically, the timing is right for the seventh volume of the London-based Tempa label’s popular Dubstep Allstars series. This one’s loaded, too. Londoners Chef, aka DJ Chefal, and Ramadanman get one disc apiece, and over two-plus hours and 61 tracks, they leave no nook, cranny, or sub-subgenre of dubstep untouched.
Honestly, I have a hard time keeping track of exactly which tracks fit with which tags. It really doesn’t matter in the end, though. The entire collection is a varied, never-dull collection of sounds that take advantage of every last bit of the speakers. Though it would sound good just about everywhere, this set was clearly created with home and headphone listening in mind. There’s little of the frantic pacing or build-to-climax sequencing the clubs would demand. Instead, Chef and Ramadanman seem to be letting things flow a little more loosely, sometimes just letting a track fade out instead of segueing. Tempa signees like Benga, Skream, and Headhunter are well-represented, although they hardly dominate. In fact, no one does, which is one of the best aspects of the collection.
Generally speaking, Chef’s mix is the most laid-back, chilled-out of the two. Starting off with some pretty straightforward dub, it rumbles to life with Chef’s own “Stages”. Lady Phe Phe’s cooing on two successive versions of Von D’s “Show Me” provides an early highlight, before the inevitable Auto-Tune makes an appearance on a pair of hip-hop-flavored tracks. The repetitive “whoo-ooh” howling sound on Mala’s “Level 9” paves the way for the spinning-hubcap, “wobbly” bass sounds that are to come. The danger is that wobbly bass is going to become what the whirring “Hoover” synth sound was to early techno. In other words, an innovation that helped define the sound early on, but which soon became an annoying signifier that date-stamped everything on which it appeared. The super-wobbly, skipping-CD assault of late-mix tracks from Kutz and Skream seems to be upping the ante, but is it really moving the genre forward? The stark R&B of Mr Lager’s “Four Leaf Clover” and the girl-pop-influenced “Day Dreamin’” from LD, the latter of which could’ve come from Annie’s latest album, provide a much more effective suggestion of where the future may lie.
That future is sure to include Ramadanman. Neither DJ warrants pigeonholing, but if Chef is the “traditionalist”, assuming such a term can apply to someone working in a genre that’s less than ten years old, Ramadanman is the nonconformist, the experimentalist. Actually, the sound of much of his mix harks back to “dark” drum ‘n’ bass, with ghostly, minor-key synthesizers setting the atmosphere. A fair amount of this stuff, led by Untold & D. Franklin’s “Beacon”, is almost drum ‘n’ bass slowed down to half-tempo, with less busyness. That description is too simple, though. Because you also have the rapid-fire toasting of Mickey Pearce’s “Innami” and the haunting voice and piano of Untold’s “I Can’t Stop This Feeling” to account for. And what about the sub-bass, three-note synth, and sonar bleeps of Headhunter’s “OSS”, or the synthesized marching band of Ramadanman’s own “Revenue”? Where Chef’s mix gradually becomes more abstract, Ramadanman’s, though more extreme, always brings you back to an emotional grounding. That comes as late as the “I don’t know why” refrain on Joe’s chilling “Untitled”, 25 tracks in.
Throughout both discs, all 61 tracks, there’s one constant: Pavement-rattling sub-bass. In the end, that’s what this music is all about, and in that sense it’s no different from the reggae, dub, hip-hop, and drum ‘n’ bass that came before it. Is dubstep really going to break big? If Dubstep Allstars Vol. 07 is any indication, it just might.