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Beyond Dubstep

London's bass underground moves both forward and backward

the latest in U.K. funky: (from left) Cooly G, Untold, and Zomby.

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 7/29/2009

The most exciting periods for post-rave electronic music have come about not because one or a few people led the way, but because many people led the way. That's especially true of what critic Simon Reynolds dubs the "hardcore continuum": a London-centric set of genres--breakbeat rave, jungle/drum 'n' bass, two-step garage, grime, dubstep, and, more recently, the wobbling style dubbed funky house or U.K. funky--that recombine the basic ingredients of hip-hop breakbeats, plummeting sub-bass, cheap synthesizers and samplers, squeaky female singers, and chanting/chatting that owes both Jamaican dancehall and American rap into a hybrid that's uniquely English.

For a long time dubstep was the stodgiest of these styles: grainy, glowering, desolate, and strangely sexless for a genre in which deep bass was the rule, even when the music was first-rate (Distance's My Demons, Benga's Diary of an Afro-Warrior). But when the billowing hip-shake of U.K. funky emerged from dubstep's shadow a few years ago, dubstep itself seemed to open up in response. A number of young artists--including but not limited to Zomby, Rustie, Cooly G, Untold, Sbtrkt, and Enigma (a Leeds student, not the samplers of Gregorian chanting who had a 1990 hit with "Sadeness")--have emerged, producing a dizzying array of tracks and web-available DJ sets that playfully exploit the interzone between the hardcore continuum's various historical strands, as well as like-minded artists equally dedicated to messing with sonic boundaries, such as L.A.'s Flying Lotus.

The de facto hub for much of this is FACT Magazine, a London print and web publication (factmagazine.co.uk) that focuses heavily on the post-dubstep diaspora (and for which, in interest of disclosure, I've written reviews). In addition to covering the London clubs where the music lives, FACT also puts up two podcasts a week, DJ mixes by largely emergent London talent, including several named above, and they provide a revealing glimpse into a scene where parameters not only between styles, but also eras seem to dissolve at will. (The mixes are typically kept on the FACT site for only three weeks, but it doesn't take much searching to find the earlier ones.)

'90s rave is a touchstone both sonically and presentation-wise. Take Zomby, a relative veteran in the area who doesn't give out personal information and whose first full album, the December '08-issued Where Were U in '92?, is a deliberately messy (and therefore precise) evocation of the drug-addled height of early-'90s rave, rather than the taffy-stretched dubstep he made his name with via songs like "Spliff Dub." Rustie's remix of that track, in particular, is a signpost for the more outré of dubstep variants: bass so wide it threatens to crack, glimmering synth shards that throw unexpected light onto the heaving whole.

Enigma is an outsider in this company--he's never been covered by FACT--but his remix of Imogen Heap's 2005 The O.C. soundtrack favorite "Hide and Seek" is a good example of this tendency. "Hide and Seek" is an a cappella number featuring Heap singing through heavy vocal processing--not AutoTune, but close. Enigma situates Heap's vocal with sharp snares, aquatic synths, and bass that's huge without being heavy--like mid-'90s L.T.J Bukem-style ambient jungle remade as dubstep. Similarly, Cooly G's recent single "Love Dub" (Hyperdub) recalls the aqueous vibe of tracks like Wax Doctor's "Never as Good" or Bukem's remix of R&B group Jodeci's "Feenin'," only with Cooly G's own sweetly deliberate croon replacing the sharper, more desperate vocal snippets of the earlier tracks.

Despite the obvious parallels, these acts don't treat rave as museum culture. Recent FACT mixes by Untold (No. 58 in the series) and Sbtrkt (66) especially brim with moments that have the vibe of the earlier stuff without replicating it wholesale. Untold's mix packs 19 cuts, nearly all as-yet-unreleased, into a brisk 37 minutes, and has the headlong rush of an early jungle mix even though the rhythms are very different. About eight minutes before the end (forgive this inexactness; the mixes are single MP3s of otherwise unfamiliar material) there's a squeal, repeated every couple of bars, that recall the yelps from Lyn Collins' "Think" and the Isley Brothers' "Get Into Something"--breakbeats popular with early drum 'n' bass producers--if it's not, in fact, one of them.

The mix by Sbtrkt ("subtract," very clever) is even more crammed--22 tracks in 30:25--but, if anything, it seems longer-limbed, creating a sinuous single line from a multitude of sources. Sbtrkt's own edits of tracks by the Nepa Allstars, Jack Penate, and--well, well, well--Goldie's '94 anthem "Inner City Life" skitter the snares like the Reinforced Records classics whose rhythm patterns were created in part by Goldie himself. Menta's early '00s drum 'n' bass hit "Sound of Da Future" fits like a glove in this company, but the mix never feels like a mere history lesson.

Nor are they eclectic for their own sake. These DJs and the producers whose work they showcase mine the past for inspiration, rather than as something to bow down to like schoolmarms in practice. (It doesn't seem like a coincidence that another standout recent FACT mix, by Woebot [61], is a sublime tour through circa-'94 ambient jungle.) These kids are restless but not bored, communicating not iPod-era ennui but a sense of real possibility in multitudes. It's a field whose future is still up in the air, and that's the draw: What it could change into might be even more exciting.

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