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ARTWORK: KATE GIBB, CHEMICAL BROTHERS SURRENDER

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22 May 2024

20 Years Of Dubstep: In Conversation With Feena

MYRTLE BOOT

During the sunny months of the first lockdown of 2020, familiar sounds of breakbeats, 2-step rhythms and laid-back vocals began to circulate online.

 

PinkPantheress caught the imagination of TikTok, heralding an onslaught of users posing in low rise jeans to snippets of her track ‘Pain’, released some months after. Jungle has had a similar resurgence to mainstream attention, despite some cynicism (Ben U.F.O’s quip “there have been ‘jungle revivals’ regularly for at least as long as I’ve been DJing”). Acts such as Nia Archives have shot to icon status. Her self-released, high-energy EPs have culminated in a host of award nods, as well as the coveted spot of supporting Beyonce in the London leg of her Renaissance world tour. Even University Challenge cottoned on, with Amol Rajan’s immortal words, ‘we need jungle, I’m afraid’, leading to countless sampling by drum and bass enthusiasts. 

 

The resurgence of 90s and noughties electronic music has awakened a blissful union between nostalgic ravers and their Zoomer counterparts.

 

Older generations of Junglists and UK garage heads have garnered considerable followings by delving into their expansive collections. Fish56octagon, a drum and bass loving dad, has gained over 500k followers across Instagram and TikTok. His unconventional dance moves to hardcore classics (usually performed in a dressing gown) has gained the attention of Gen Xers, hearing these tracks with virgin ears. 

 

Yet, there is an exception to the trend, a notable omission from these resurrected UK electronic genres. Dubstep. 

 

For many, dubstep is a baffling genre. Darker than garage, faster than dub and stripped of the lyricism of its sister genre, grime, its unique sound emerged in the early noughties, emanating from South London’s underground. Its earliest incarnations were shaped by the likes of Horsepower Productions, Artwork and Zed Bias, whose bassier, stripped back productions of two-step tracks were the blueprint for future adopters. 

 

Dubstep swiftly cemented its position in the vanguard of UK electronic music, due in part to its distinct sonic qualities and 140 tempo.

 

Patchworks of sound were assimilated with once-cutting-edge software like FruityLoops, then fresh pressed onto dubplates to be spun at legendary club nights, such as Forward>>. Mala, Coki and Kode9, amongst others, led the genre to new, cosmopolitan territory, infusing tracks with musical motifs from across the globe. Pirate radio provided the means for younger DJs to infiltrate the scene. Skream and Benga, the teen leading lights of Croydon’s Big Apple Records, brought their darker, minor key tracks to guest slots on Rinse FM. 

 

Of equal import to dubstep’s burgeoning success was its adjacent culture, born from a love of subwoofers, excessive reloads and weed. According to Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark, the tipping point arrived in the mid-Noughties. Joe Nice, the exuberant Baltimore DJ, rolled up to mix for DMZ’s monthly night at the Mass club complex. The energy charged set resulted in the entire 400-strong venue moving to accommodate for the swelling crowd. ‘So the bizarre situation came about whereby Mala DMZ went on the mic’, Clark recalled, ‘The whole club traipsed up the stairs and what felt like a new era of dubstep began’. Dubstep had finally emerged from its basement and grown up. 

The year was 2007, Channel 4’s Skins had made teenagehood the coolest thing imaginable, the indoor smoking ban had come into effect and Kode9’s Hyperdub label released Untrue.

 

Burial’s self-titled debut the previous year had firmly established the reclusive South Londoner within the capital’s booming dubstep scene. But it was his genre-bending, seminal album, Untrue, that found critical acclaim far beyond dubstep's typical reach, earning a Mercury Prize nod in 2008. His brooding, complex production asserted itself as distinct from the UK’s stagnating dubstep scene, described by Nate Patrin as ‘left to a war of darker-and-harder attrition’. Burial had opened the floodgates for producers wanting to shake the mould of dubstep purism, paving the way for the likes of James Blake and Mount Kimbie. 

 

Dubstep’s wane appeared two-fold. UK producers seemed to have exhausted their efforts in finding deeper, bassier and darker tracks, whilst the uptake of ‘Brostep’ across the Atlantic, spearheaded by the absurdly popular Skrillex, tarnished the genre’s sanctity. Dubstep had reached terminal velocity and at the start of the 2010s, its once subversive sound was now conceived as mainstream and commercial. Countless sub-genres, such as catstep and filthstep, drew its sound ever further away from its sonic origins in Croydon. Whilst an undercurrent of UK dubstep activity remained faithful to its roots, it returned to the margins. 

So, in 2024, where does dubstep stand? What does it sound like and who still holds a torch for its wobbling bass lines?

 

DJ, radio producer and resident at Edinburgh’s famed Sneaky Pete’s, Feena is at the forefront of Scotland’s music scene. Her grassroots involvement ranges from overseeing eclectic broadcasts on EHFM, to gathering oral histories of the capital’s burgeoning electronic music scene during her stint at record store, Underground Solu'shn. ‘I feel very strongly about contributing to what's around you and your local scene’, she explains, ‘Most people go clubbing, it's a huge part of our culture’. 

FEENA

Feena is certainly no stranger to dubstep, ‘it’s what I was first into when I was going out’, but it was only recently that she began to drop it into her mixes, ‘I didn’t start playing dubstep out until a couple of years ago, after lockdown’. She admits ‘even then, I wouldn’t regularly play out proper, spacious, sub-bass, 140 bpm, aside from at Headset or SSL which were basically the only nights playing that sound’ for fear of losing the clubbers’ interest, ‘it can be quite introspective’. Inspiration came at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe when founder of Dublin label Woozy, Ema, came to Sneaky’s for their last Summer party. ‘I saw Ema do a set for Club Silkie and I was playing after’, she recalls thinking, ‘there’s someone who’s mixing that kind of sound and it still feels exciting and it still feels like a club set’. 

Ema and Feena aren’t the only female DJs interested in resurrecting a bass-heavy, early dubstep sound.

 

Sicaria and Mia Koden have found considerable success in their joint venture, Sicaria Sound, and more recently as solo artists. As Feena puts it, ‘there’s a lot more people who don’t fit into the stereotypical image of a dubstep producer. It’s not some guy in a hoodie in his bedroom with a can of monster’. It’s certainly true that the height of UK dubstep was driven by a select, masculine cohort of producers. The dedicated work of Sarah ‘Soulja’ Lockhart, co-founder of Rinse FM, Tempa records and pivotal club night FWD>>, was instrumental in nurturing the sound of UK dubstep. Similarly, Mary Anne Hobbs’ BBC Radio 1 show, Dubstep Warz united the UK’s finest selectors for a landmark show in 2006. Yet, female dubstep producers went under the radar. 

Nearly twenty years on, the gender imbalance within electronic music has certainly come far, albeit with a long way to go. The assortment of DJs, male, female and non-binary, has been noted by Feena, ‘there’s definitely been a lot more accessible, interesting and inclusive parties happening that involve that sound’. This diversity isn’t limited to the person behind the decks. ‘A lot of new dubstep coming out sounds old, but there's also weird, modern, techy influences’, the lapse in time has brought with it technology unthinkable to 2004’s standards, ‘things can be really clean and crisp and you can make these sounds with a million different plug-ins.’ 

The possibilities provided by technology aren’t limited to production. Social media has placed distribution in the hands of algorithms, rather than the lofty recommendations of record shop owners. ‘Back in the day it would be dubplates, but now that’s not as much of a thing, it’s less accessible’, Feena says, ‘I appreciate the culture around vinyl, the collector’s aspect to it’. Limited release or one-off dubplates brought an air of exclusivity and mysticism to the scene, both for avid collectors and clubbers hoping to hear the latest cuts. Dubplate culture hasn’t been entirely forgotten. ‘The Dubstep Forum was used by all the people who ended up making the leading sounds of the genre’, this dedication to scavenging the internet for new releases has found its new home as subreddit, r/realdubstep. ‘There’s an interesting new culture of trying to recreate that exclusivity with download codes, exclusive discord servers or sites’. The creativity of producers goes to extremes. Feena mentions electronic duo, Two Shell, who gained attention by selling rocks for £5 on bandcamp, giving hopeful fans the chance to find USBs of new music hidden inside, ‘it’s just an extra bit of lore, something fun and playful that listeners can engage with’. 

With innovation and experimentation still alive and well within the dubstep community, it seems a matter of time before the genre reemerges to wider appreciation. With the recent popularity of tracks heavily inspired by UK garage, namely Eliza Rose’s number 1 hit “B.O.T.A (Baddest of Them All)”, Feena notes the similarities, ‘the sub bass in some of those tracks and the wubs are similar to the kind in a dubstep track, people make that transition naturally’. ‘It's all cyclical, it'll change soon to something else. Maybe there will be a mainstream dubstep revival’, she adds jokingly, ‘or a Billie Eilish dubstep album!’ Only time (and TikTok) will tell.

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