[9 November 2008]
“I love dubstep”—God, who’d have thought that would ever sound plausible? Did Skream believe he was recording “lovable” music while hammering out demos with his copy of Fruity Loops? American DJ Joe Nice once claimed that dubstep was all about pace (slow), bass (low), and space (lots of it)—not the sort of music that stokes the flames of passion. In fact, most dubstep can be characterized by what it’s not just as much as what it is; it’s not emotional, not sexy, not romantic, not complicated, and not hip. Mention dubstep to a girl on a first date and the chances of getting a second one aren’t very likely. And yet here we are, with the umpteenth installment in a style I once predicted wouldn’t make it out of Croydon (whoops) but which is now a strong contender for the largest subterranean movement in late-2000s electronica. This is music that was designed to grow on you, that keeps you engrossed despite its proclivity for skank, and I don’t know quite how it happened that I now find myself uttering those three provocative little words to anyone who will pay attention: I love dubstep. There, I said it.
I did wonder, however, how much further the style could really go considering its strictly defined parameters. The answer: further than I thought. Dubstep now exists at something of a crossroads, with a grip of newer artists building upon the foundations set by the Croydon kings, laying sparkling tech-house, Basic Channel-inspired minimal techno and American hip-hop onto the fundamental dub template. Ben UFO, who runs the assiduous Leeds-based label Hessle Audio, recently curated a mix for Fact Magazine that revealed dubstep’s potential for greatness. It was a stunning synthesis of creative and highly artistic tracks, most notably Dave Huismans’ jaw-dropping remix of Quantec’s “Ray of Hope” (unreleased except on limited-edition vinyl), and it pulled me along with it for over an hour. On the other end of the spectrum are the genre’s pioneers who are responsible for the seemingly unassailable club hits that brought the genre to prominence (Skream’s “Midnight Request Line”, Benga and Coki’s “Night”, and so on) and who took the “pace, bass and space” rubric as divine law.
I Love Dubstep—a double-disc of two continuous mixes helmed by Youngsta and Geeneus, respectively—is largely concerned with the latter. That’s to be expected from Rinse FM, the radio station and record label that’s served as dubstep’s home base and has flooded the market with compilations just like this. Stylistically, it shares ground with the DJ-curated Rinse mixes that came before it, with one significant difference. Rather than stitching tracks together based on sound and feel, the purpose of I Love Dubstep is to provide an overview of the genre in its most unadulterated form. When Rinse writes that the record contains “more than 40 definitive dubstep anthems” on the inner sleeve, they’re not kidding. All the biggies are here, as well as non-single cuts from major artists that epitomize the genre’s basic tenets, so it’s poised to be an easy winner. Furthermore, the similar tempos and double-time rhythms that extend across tracks make dubstep an ideal choice for the mix format.
So why is this album not the authoritative statement on the genre that it was meant to be? The reasons have as much to do with the way the music is presented as they do with the music itself. It doesn’t help that Youngsta and Geeneus are, for the most part, stuck in the past, rarely acknowledging the genre’s growth since its heyday around 2006. TRG, 2562 and the Bug represent the second wave of dubstep with a track or two each, but Skream makes seven appearances and Benga makes five, and individualistic upstarts Rustie, Zomby and Ikonika are nowhere to be found. Seeing the same names that grace the countless dubstep mixes filling up electronica bins—Skream, Benga, Coki, Loefah, Digital Mystikz, et al.—can make I Love Dubstep seem like an exclusive boys club without much tolerance for change.
Boys club or not, there’s little denying that Youngsta and Geeneus have chosen cuts that sound remarkably similar to each other. Nobody in his right mind would call dubstep diverse, at least at this point in history, but when these songs blend together they coagulate into one dull, colorless throb; it would be extremely difficult to tell one artist’s work from another’s if you weren’t familiar with the music and didn’t look down at your iPod to cheat. The fact that the tracks form a nonstop mix means, I guess, that the curators intended for us to listen to the whole thing straight through, but with nearly two-and-a-half hours of music containing all the variety of a sock drawer, it cannot be done—at least not without tons of patience, something else to keep you occupied, or recreational drugs. Youngsta’s mix in particular could have used some MCs or vocal samples to break up the monotony; yeah, I know that dubstep essentially becomes grime with the addition of a rapper, but his turn at the deck is puristic to the point of being stubbornly boring.
Geeneus fares a bit better, in that he does more to reinforce dubstep’s new directions, but where Youngsta’s mix suffered from stagnation, Geeneus’s mix is plagued by frequent awkwardness. Transitions between songs range from neutral to quizzical; I can handle Skream’s “2D” becoming Benga and Coki’s “Night”, but to hear Martyn’s glistening, soulful remix of TRG’s “Broken Heart” slowly mutate into the Bug’s violent banger “Skeng” is an ugly, ugly thing. And then there’s the final one-two punch of TRG’s “Decisions” and Burial’s “Archangel”. Geeneus likely paired them so that he could go out with a bang (they’re two of the best things here) and because they share skittish two-step rhythms, but the songs are completely different in tone and texture. “Decisions” is steely and Teutonic, while “Archangel” is blurry and achingly emotional. Hearing Geeneus smush these two tracks together in an attempt to get them to live in harmony makes me realize in which context “Archangel” really belongs: Burial’s own full-length masterpiece, Untrue.
And that’s why I want to know why these CDs had to be mixes. To be sure, I Love Dubstep is a newcomer’s album, since fans will be familiar with most of what’s here, and Rinse FM probably wanted it that way. But if I’m willing to grant that I Love Dubstep wasn’t made for people like me, I also believe that this isn’t the way to introduce dubstep to the masses. Had Youngsta and Geeneus cherry-picked the hits, separated them out from each other and embraced more stylistic progression, this album could have been the essential compendium to trump the multitude of dubstep compilations that keep shooting left of the mark. Instead, it’s an unflattering new lens on the genre that ties it down to negatives and antiquated traditions and causes me to love it just a little bit less.