Dub Me Crazy
DJ Joe Nice pushes bass weight from Baltimore to Brixton
First there’s a rhythm, bluntly syncopated. Threaded between the scraping high-hat and stomping kick drum, a conga taps palsied Morse code. A disembodied Jamaican voice oozes pure dread. The club is thick with bodies and blunt smoke. There’s a millisecond of silence, a pause for breath. And then the bass drops. Chests tighten. Spines shudder. Teeth vibrate.
“People just stand there and meditate,” Joe Nice says, sipping water in a Mount Vernon café. “You’d just walk down the steps [to the club], and feel the bass. You could literally hear the whole room just groan. At that point, I could feel a warm sensation in my ears. And I’ve never felt that from anything else I’ve ever listened to.”
The music is called dubstep, and if you’ve ever worshipped at a club’s temple of boom, its bone-shaking low end will leave you an instant convert. It’s not surprising if you haven’t heard of it—dubstep is the most recent exchange in England’s longtime conversation with former colony Jamaica. So how exactly did a guy from Baltimore get swept up in this transatlantic cross talk?
“It was at Starscape, here in Baltimore,” the 30 year-old DJ says, wearing both a blue T-shirt that reps his hometown and the wide-eyed expression of a true convert. “I remember the date vividly, it was June 8, 2002. At the time, no one was calling it dubstep. It was just this stuff made at 138 bpm with this thunderously loud bass. And I just thought, This is the stuff I want to play.
“It was so sparse,” he continues. “Yet there was so much underneath of it, in terms of space and in terms of bass. In most types of music, you’ve got a melody, something high, something you can hum along with. But in dubstep, the bass is the melody. I mean, who doesn’t love bass?”
Nice is a deeply affable guy, worlds away from the apocalyptic glower dubstep radiates from a club’s speakers. Born in England to Trinidadian parents, Nice moved to Baltimore when he was 2, and despite a schedule that takes him to New York, London, and all sorts of far-flung locations on the regular, he still lives in the city. During the interview, he takes multiple pauses to say hello to friends passing through the café. “I didn’t know I was so popular,” he laughs.
Growing up in Baltimore, Nice got a master class in electronic dance music without ever having to leave home. “88.9 on a Saturday night,” he says, referring to Morgan State University’s public radio station. “[DJs] Pope and Oji. I couldn’t leave the house on a Saturday night unless it was to go a high-school dance or play Tecmo Bowl with my friends. I can still hear Pope’s voice in the back of my head, that raspy, deep voice.”
In high school, he got swept up in the early days of Baltimore club music. “I’d work on the weekends, save up my cash, get a friend to drop me off at the Reisterstown Road Plaza [to buy records],” he says. “At that point, I heard DJ Boobie for the first time. When Boobie made a club tape, you had to get it fast, pay your $10, and get your tape—those old Maxell green and white tapes, I’ve still got them at the house.
“Watching Boobie work, he’s cutting with each hand, playing with the EQ,” he continues, caught up in the memory, cutting and scratching on invisible turntables. “And it was just like, This is what I wanna be. I would just stay in the basement and figure out how to put two tunes together.”
But as the ’90s wore on, Nice got burned out on club’s manic repetition. So he boxed up his records, sold his turntables, and quit DJing. He spent the next several years getting his geography degree at Towson University. But fast-forward almost 10 years and this one-time ex-DJ is now traveling around the world to play for an ever-growing army of dubstep soldiers.
Following his Starscape conversion experience, Nice began to hunt down records directly from the U.K. At a 2003 night at Sky Lounge, Nice played dubstep out for the first time. The slow, staggering gait and gut-punching bass confounded dancers raised on house and club. But Nice was more convinced than ever that this humid, heavy urban jungle music was the future.
Around the same time, Nice and his new roommate formed a music/art collective that grew into GourmetBeats.com, an online radio station. He still broadcasts on the third Tuesday of the month, a steady stream of exclusive tunes sent to him by overseas producers. And it was through the magic of the internet—the usual 21st-century conflagration of MySpace, message boards, and internet radio—that Nice began to travel across the pond, DJs and producers intrigued by this exotic American from Baltimore playing their music.
Only a few weeks prior to this interview, Nice had played the DMZ (Digital Mystikz) All-Nighter in Brixton, England. The Digital Mystikz duo of Mala and Coki are arguably the best-known (and simply best) producers in dubstep. In 2005, DMZ decided to hold an all-night event at Mass—a converted church, an apt enough metaphor for the fervor dubstep inspires—running from 9 p.m. till 6 a.m.. The minimalist fliers simply read come meditate on bass weight.
This past March, the one-year anniversary of the DMZ All-Nighter exceeded all expectations. During Nice’s early set, the promoters actually had to change venues from Mass’ intimate basement to the large upstairs club. This tiny scene made up of a handful of initiates had grown into a full-fledged movement, attracting BBC reporters and curious punters drawn to that bass weight.
“Now I’ve been to a lot of [loud] soundsystems in this area,” Nice says. “The main room at Nation comes to mind. I think when they get the DJ Culture booth down the street for Artscape, clearly that’s louder. But the DMZ system is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s crystal clear, and the bass moves right through you. It’s a physical sound.”
And therein lies the problem. You’re not likely to find these records in a local shop. Even if you were, you’d never be able to really appreciate them unless you’re willing to risk the wrath of your neighbors and the local constabulary. And with headphones vibrating, you miss the subsonic rumble that bypasses the ears and impacts the viscera. Nice’s show on Gourmet Beats is an invaluable resource, but this music makes a mockery of your tinny computer speakers.
So what’s the potential American dubstep fan to do? Nice has started Dub War, an irregular night in New York with DJ Dave Q. From equally humble beginnings as the DMZ All-Nighter, Dub War has attracted a large local crowd, as well as visiting British DJs. There are also pockets of dubstep activity in places like Philadelphia and Texas. Still, it seems odd that there’s no market for the music in the home of its biggest American DJ, the “U.S. dubstep ambassador” as he’s been dubbed (no pun intended). “If you don’t have a record store to support what you play, it’s kind of difficult to build a grass-roots audience,” Nice says. “Which is why I do what I do on the internet.”
But Nice is going to try and bring dubstep to Artscape this year, grinning broadly at the idea of that bass rattling Baltimore’s windows. For now, he’s gearing up for the next Dub War, scheduled for April 21. And while he does wish he had more opportunities to play in Baltimore, he’s seems confident that a local following will develop . . . it just may take a while.
“I guess that’s kind of a Baltimore thing,” he says. “We’re a town that loves to support our own, once we get big somewhere else. Ultra Naté is a perfect example. Ultra Naté never gets booked around here, but she plays all over the world. I almost prefer to play other places, because as much as I love Baltimore, I just love getting out, pushing what I love to play in other places.” H