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This lesson will explore the basic elements and history of the electronic dance music subgenre known as dubstep.

Other genres that have influenced dubstep will be discussed and the trajectory of the subgenre will be detailed.

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Defining Dubstep

Dubstep is a subgenre of electronic dance music that originated in England around the turn of the 21st century. Bass is the key element to dubstep and serves as the defining feature of the subgenre’s sound.

The herky-jerky rhythmic element of dubstep takes its cues from related genres like drum ‘n’ bass, garage, and grime. Beyond two basic structural elements – heavy bass and skittering beats – dubstep is a rather open-ended genre with significant room for variation and incorporation of other styles.

Putting the Dub in Dubstep

Before getting to dubstep, we must begin by looking at the genre known as dub. Dub is the most experimental and abstract of the family of Jamaican musical genres that emerged from the Kingston music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. These genres are often grouped under the heading reggae, but dub can be considered a distinct genre in its own right.According to ethnomusicologist Michael Veal, dub was one of the first genres of popular music to use the studio and the recording/remixing process as a musical instrument. Dub takes fragments of recordings and cuts and pastes them into new arrangements, then layers them over a repetitive, grooving reggae beat.

The result is a psychedelic m;lange of bass-heavy, reverb drenched sound. Voices and snippets of instrumentation echo around the track in a disorienting, hypnotic haze. The sound and technique pioneered by dub were immensely influential to many later forms of popular music including hip-hop, house, and techno, but most notably for the purposes of this lesson, dubstep.

Drum ‘n’ Bass, Garage, and the Rise of Dubstep in the U.K.

Electronic dance music subgenres derived from house and techno gained immense popularity in the U.K during the late 1980s and 1990s.

Fashionable clubs in London and Manchester eventually gave way to huge outdoor raves that reoriented how British music fans experienced music. These massive raves enraged conservatives within British society who feared the drug culture that came to be associated with the rave scene. In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act contained provisions explicitly designed to crack down on raves.As a result of the official crackdown in outdoor raves, dance music returned to the clubs. Many fans felt that house and techno were becoming too commercial and sought a grittier, more hardcore sound. Subgenres like drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, and garage filled this void with frantic, skittering beats and a hip-hop oriented aesthetic.

The connection between Jamaican music and the music scene in the U.K. runs deep. The faster, more hectic strain of Jamaican music known as dancehall had been gaining popularity in Jamaica since the early 1980s, and was a heavy influence on drum ‘n’ bass and other related genres. The back-and-forth between Jamaican music and the U.K. dance music scene would continue throughout the 1990s, eventually producing dubstep.

Croydon and the Jump Across the Atlantic

In the South London borough of Croydon, a small scene of DJs and producers began remixing 2-step, garage, and drum ‘n’ bass tracks with lower bass frequencies, more syncopation, and more elements drawn from dub music. These remixes eventually came to be known as dubstep. Producers like Zed Bias, Youngsta, Digital Mystikz, and DJ Hatcha were early innovators of the new subgenre.The early dubstep tracks are quite varied in style. Some are catchy and melodic with strong ties to house music, while others are experimental and less dance oriented. The concept of the bass drop, in which a pause in the beat is followed by a low bass sub-frequency and then resumption of percussion, came to be a hallmark of the dubstep genre.

Tracks like ‘Gorgon Sound’ by Horsepower Productions, ‘Midnight Request Line’ by Skream, as well as the ‘Dubstep All-stars’ compilations released by Tempa Records serve as good examples of the early dubstep scene in South London. The club night DMZ in the London neighborhood of Brixton served as an important venue for dubstep performance and reception.

dubstep producer Skream.
Skream

The popularity of dubstep in the UK eventually led to dubstep nights in New York City, with the Dub War events being the most famous. UK dubstep artists like Skream caught on with New York audiences and dubstep quickly became the popular new sound for North American dance music aficionados.

Dubstep Goes Mainstream

Skrillex.
Skrillex

By the late 2000s, the dubstep sound, particularly the ‘wobble’ technique evident in many of the more popular tracks, came to be incorporated into mainstream popular music. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Rihanna to Britney Spears has incorporated dubstep elements into a pop music context.

American artists such as Skrillex, Bassnectar, and Deadmau5 as well as U.K. artists such as Flux Pavilion and Rusko have formulated a more accessible version of dubstep that has been very popular in the U.S. since 2008.

Lesson Summary

Dubstep is a subgenre of electronic dance music with roots in Jamaican dub, British drum’n’bass, and garage. The experimental, bass heavy, remix friendly genre of dub music that was pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s in Jamaica served as a deeply important forerunner for dubstep. The British rave scene of the 1980s and 1990s and dance music elements drawn from house and techno provided a context for dubstep to exist. The dubstep scene that coalesced in South London around the turn of the 21st century added sub-bass frequencies, wobble bass techniques, and other structural elements to existing electronic music subgenres to create dubstep. Since 2008, dubstep has been incorporated into pop genres in the United States and elsewhere, making dubstep one of the most popular and influential electronic dance music genres since the turn of the millennium.

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