So, a week or two ago, my sister Adiel did a brave thing. On Facebook, she admitted that she liked dubstep. So, I did the only reasonable thing.
I welcomed her to the dark side.
Some of you may not know that I’ve taken up DJing in my spare time. (Spare time, heh.) No, I’m not playing gigs to stadiums of thousands or anything like that. Mostly, I play little house parties that we put on at my house once a quarter. It started with just the family. Then, um, it expanded a bit. I think there were probably thirty people at the last party.
Dubstep is one of my favorite genres. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like, because it seems to be a specialized taste. But dubstep is some of my favorite music, and I wish I could convince more people to give it a go.
So, when Adiel made her confession, I told her that I’d offer some recommendations of artists. And then, since I was going to have to write it up anyways, I figured that I’d share with all of you.
A couple of notes before I begin. First, although these links are to Youtube, I own every single one of the tracks that I’m going to mention, and I like all of them. If it’s here, I think it’s worth hearing. Also, there are a lot of debates about what is and isn’t dubstep. I honestly don’t care. Genres mutate over time and influence new genres. In my collection, honestly, I label all these tracks as “Bass”, because it’s really how I think of them. So, if you know more about the genre than I do, that’s cool! Let’s all share our enjoyment of this music and not waste our time complaining about whether or not a given track is dubstep, glitch, bass, two-step, or whatever. Cool? Then let’s get started.
When discussing dubstep, a term that comes up a lot is “bass wobble”. This is the characteristic “wah wah” sound that ends up in a lot of dubstep. Check out these samples, starting at 0:30. That sound assaulting you? Those are bass wobbles.
Though, some of you might be wondering, “Yeah, but what is dubstep?” Well, here’s the Wikipedia article on the matter, but I generally prefer Ellaskin’s definition, which you’ll find here. You don’t have to watch the whole thing. Just start at 1:15 and play to 2:04. I laugh every time I hear this description. Alternately, you can check out this video of Elders react to dubstep. Which brings us to…
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Skrillex is dubstep. He represents a certain branch of dubstep known as “brostep”, which is pretty much what most people think about when they hear “dubstep”. Brostep tends to be fairly aggressive music, highly discordant with the bleeps and bass wobbles and the like. In a lot of ways, brostep is the heavy metal of the dance music world. Given that Skrillex comes from a metal background, it makes sense that he would gravitate towards brostep.
Skrillex is something of a polarizing topic. He’s been successful in the mainstream, even winning a couple of Grammys. Therefore, to some people, he is dubstep, and to others, he is the destroyer of dubstep. My opinion: as I read somewhere, you don’t get to pick your emissary to the mainstream. Skrillex is who we got, and we may as well embrace it and work with it. Also, after having listened to the Bangarang EP, I rather enjoyed it. It was surprisingly melodic, which is unlike much of the brostep I’ve heard.
The best intro to Skrillex is the title track off his current EP, “Bangarang”. I’ve provided a link to the music video, which is kinda nifty, actually.
It’s a distinct sound. Pretty upbeat, hip hop influenced, with a hook that’s hard to forget. It’s quite a ways from where dubstep started….
If I try to recite the history of dubstep, I’ll just butcher it. So I’ll point you to that Wikipedia article instead. Here’s the important thing to note: dubstep comes from experimentation with dark music. More brooding music from an industrial core than party music. It was originally the kind of music that you’d expect to hear in a dystopian urban science fiction music.
For example, here’s the track “Memories of 3rd Base” by Skream. This is a great example of the classic dubstep sound. Brooding, unsettling, dark. And, did you notice what’s missing? That’s right. Bass wobbles. There’s definitely a bass line, but the now-ubiquitous bass wobble is completely absent. In fact, a lot of classic dubstep has a lot to do with creating those open spaces in the music. You can hear the same kind of space in “The Gift (Tek-One Remix)” and “Could This Be Real (Joker Remix)”, with the slower kick drum on the half beats. “Could This Be Real” makes for an excellent case study. Listen here to the original track and compare to the remix that I linked above. Bass wobbles are present in both, but the dubstep remix is slower, more deliberate, darker, with more space.
As an aside, I really like “The Gift” remix that I linked to. It’s probably my second favorite “classic” dubstep track that I own. What’s my favorite? Well, I’ll tell you later. But since we’re talking about things I like….
DUBSTEP AS METAL
As I mentioned earlier, certain forms of dubstep are kinda like the metal of dance music. So, it makes sense that the kinds of things I like in my metal, I’d also like in my dubstep. In this case: female vocals and intense strings.
“Rain” by Klaypex (featuring Sara Kay) is one of my “play loudly in the car and sing along” tracks. It definitely has that aggressive brostep sound to it, but the female vocals well up from within the track and, in time, soar above it. I love it!
“Between Two Points” by the Glitch Mob (featuring Swan) lives at the downtempo end of the world. I’d say that this is my favorite track off their album Drink the Sea, but I’d be lying. They’re pretty much all my favorite. If I’m looking for background music, Drink the Sea is frequently my go-to album. (As a bonus, this link includes the music video!)
“Burning” by Ashes & Dialect is another example of female vocals in dubstep. And, in this case, the female vocals are Imogen Heap! (Sampled from “Just for Now”.)
As I was prepping for this post, I tripped over a video that I’d forgotten about and realized that I didn’t own the track. That’s been remedied so that I could follow my rule about owning all the music I referenced in this post. Because, well, I really wanted to share “Crystallize” by Lindsey Stirling with all of you. (The linkage includes the music video!) The music is great all by itself, with the beautiful violin soaring over the bassline, but the video is also lyrical and worth watching.
So, apparently dubstep can mix well with other forms of music….
DUBSTEP MEETS THE WORLD
Okay, so let’s be honest. “World music” is a terrible label. It means that the music doesn’t originate in white European musical styles. Well, that’s nice but it doesn’t really narrow it down, does it? So, if I said that dubstep mixes well with world music, it might not be as descriptive as we’d like.
So, how about I say that dubstep mixes well with Indian drumming (“Koli Stance (David Starfire remix)” by Sub Swara), Bollywood (“Eastern Jam” by Chase and Status), and bellydancing (“Spiderbite” by Beats Antique)? Does that work better? I think it does.
By the way, “Eastern Jam” is my favorite “classic” dubstep track. The video that I linked was my introduction to that track, and it contains some amazing dancing, which is worth your time to watch.
So that’s all well and good, but how well does dubstep mix with pop music? Well, it depends on what kind of pop music….
DUBSTEP REMIXES POP MUSIC
I really enjoyed the video game Mirror’s Edge, warts and all. But, even more than the game, I loved the soundtrack, especially the theme track, “Still Alive” by Lisa Miskovsky. (No, not the Portal song. It’s a completely different thing.) In fact, I’d have to say that this song have been my theme song for the past couple of years.
So, when I discovered a dubstep remix of “Still Alive” by Mt. Eden Dubstep, I was all over it. And somehow, it captures the intensity of the original without sacrificing the melodic nature of the track. Awesome!
Or, to be honest, I first encountered Ellie Goulding through Bassnectar’s remix of “Lights”. (You’ll notice that I didn’t link to the original. It’s because I don’t own it. Following the rules!)
Earlier I mentioned Imogen Heap. How about a dubstep remix of “Hide and Seek”? Probably didn’t think it was possible, eh?
But one of the weirdest, coolest, most fantastic dubstep discoveries I’ve made is this one: a dubstep remix of “Come Together” by the Beatles!!! No, seriously, this is the most respectful remix I’ve ever heard, and the breakdown and drop starting at 1:40 is simply incredible. Instead of guitar solos, bass wobbles!
And if that doesn’t prove the flexibility of the genre, I don’t know what will. Well, maybe this….
In all fairness, we may be out past the strict boundaries of dubstep at this point. But no one here cares, right? Good!
I was reading an academic paper on bass-heavy dance music (no, I’m not making this up), and it made a fascinating point. Our first exposure to sounds consist of bass. No, not at birth. Before. In the womb. Higher pitched sounds are filtered out by our mothers’ bodies. Only bass would pass through to intermingle with the steady kick drum of our mothers’ hearts.
There’s something very comforting about bass. So it’s not really surprising that there’s chillout music centered around bass.
Of the tracks I’m going to discuss in this section, “Only Fair” by Ill-Esha (off the Elusive History is the most upbeat, which isn’t saying much. Again, the female vocals. (What can I say? I’m a romantic at heart.)
For the truly downtempo, check out “Speaker Box” by Nico Luminous (featuring Reva DeVito). This isn’t dance music for an upbeat crowd. This is music for chilling. Slow, seductive, groovy, to be enjoyed with a beverage in a martini glass.
And I’ll wrap up with Thriftworks. When I’m not listening to Drink the Sea by The Glitch Mob, I’m listening to Raki Taki or Rainmaker by Thriftworks. (I like these albums so much I’ll actually link to them for you.) Here are just a couple of my favorite tracks: “Mother Raki” and “Pillow in the Woods”, which gets an honorable mention for best use of a koto sample in an electronic track.
And here we’ve come so far from Skrillex that we can barely see him from where we’re standing.
But why do I like this music so much?
WHY, SETH, WHY?
No, really, I haven’t actually thought about it until right now. So, I’m going to give this a shot, but I reserve the right to change my mind later.
I think that it’s music that suits my personality. There’s strength and passion and tenderness and power all rolled into one. It’s music that I can lose myself in. It’s music that I can feel literally. It absorbs and embraces me when I listen to it. It makes me happy.
And it gives me a reason to turn up the sub-woofer.
P.S. Adiel, hope that this was helpful.
P.P.S. Also, dubstep gave us this incredible thing.