America has an amazing way of ruining most good things, in the process leaving a very bitter taste in our mouths. We took cheese, added chemicals, and packaged it in individual plastic wraps. We took vodka and added artificial fruit flavors and food coloring. We took wrestling and added fluorescent spandex. Quite recently we took dubstep (an electronic music genre evolved from UK garage, 2-step, and grime music) and added too much midrange (read: penises).
Before we delve into how America ruined what began as a noble musical experiment, lets review the genre’s humble beginnings; a history most American enthusiasts tend to ignore.
In the first few years of the 21st century, South London’s underground electronic scene was quite
obsessed with 2-step and grime. These genres were quite minimal, emphasizing bass and drum tracks
featuring stripped down melodic elements and occasional vocal and instrument sampling. The tone of
the music was typically quite dark, often dark to the point that it could even be considered… grimy (I
see what they did there…).
Groups of producers regularly meeting at local record shops (Big Apple Records in London is a
prominent example) began sharing music with each other that featured elements of 2-step, grime, and
dub. These tracks by the likes of Benga, Skream and Digital Mystikz were mostly showcased by DJs
in small underground shows. Most were held in garages with huge sound systems acquired through a
variety of methods. Over the course of a few years these gained attention and started
sprouting up in more mainstream venues. The characteristic rhythmic low frequency
oscillations (ok, fine… I’ll say it….. “wub-wubs”) sounded best when pumped out of huge
systems and received by people on various amphetamines.
Soon the London scene spread to Bristol and the genre was collectively christened dubstep. (There was a group of people who attempted to popularize the name “sub low,” but that ultimately failed). The dubstep of the early aughts differs insanely from the dubstep that America has come to know post 2008. That being the poor excuse for the most outrightly masculine and zealously heterosexual men to take off their shirts and hop around in close proximity whilst pumping their fists in synch.
The use of bass oscillation was much more tasteful back in them days and music relied
much more heavily on moodiness and a darker tone to express its individuality (also, most producers
were walking to their shows in ten feet of snow, uphill both ways). Then came the inevitable jump
across the ocean, but probably not where you might expect it…
Britney Spears’ 2007 album Blackout saw its producers politely joining in on Britney’s
desperate clawing for relevancy by digging deep into the electronic scenes from around the world.
Take a listen to the song “Freakshow” from that album. Within a few seconds fans of modern
dubstep may find themselves slowly closing their eyes and bowing their heads in shame muttering
something like, “Oh shit, wub-wubs… 2 or 3 years before any dubstep I’ve ever listened to came out…”.
Congrats bros, Britney Spears is responsible for your favorite parties of the last two years.
Pretty soon Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, and other mainstream artists were releasing dubstep
influenced tracks and remixes. At this point dubstep was pretty massive in the UK and some producers
had started adding some midrange overtones to the bass during breakdowns. This gave the bass a
dirtier, heavier sound that functioned exactly as a breakdown would in most metal genres. Instead of
heavy chug-chugs, you have heavy wub-wubs (because apparently popular music terminology is
coined and voted upon by a high council of toddlers). The breakdown is commonly preceded in both
genres by a “sick drop” and hopefully for the sake of humanity the planet is destroyed before music
historians have to start making use of these phrases in university settings.
As soon as America heard these filthy breakdowns every producer vying for a spot on the map
simultaneously unzipped their skinny jeans and removed their genitalia (for display purposes only). If
you talk to any fan or producer of mainstream North American dubstep today, most of them express
unwavering interest in only the noisiest, filthiest of wobbly basslines (see Skrillex, Bassnectar, Sluggo, Mimosa, Skrillex, Datsik, 12th Planet, Skrillex, Skrillex, Noah D, Starkey, aaaaaaaaaaannnnnnd Skrillex).
The artist who can produce the most tumultuous, grimiest basslines ultimately wins the cock-waving contest. With the North American producers completely abandoning the minimalist elements of UK 2-step and grime in favor of big wubs and electro beats that the bros can get behind, the understandably disenfranchised UK purists came up with a new name for this shameless bastardization of the genre: “brostep”.
Brostep is the musical equivalent of taking oreo cream, the best part of the cookie, and
concluding that oreos would be way better if they were just a fist-sized ball of mushy sugar. It sounds
awesome until you eat it and then feel like a crust punk is trying to kick his way out of your abdomen
with a muddy pair of Doc Martens.
Brostep has become an embarrassingly impossible-to-ignore American cultural movement.
Even the UK scene is now largely dominated by the brostep sound with Rusko, Zomboy, Joker, and
similar producers getting insanely paid to pump out cock-heavy DJ sets that mysteriously peel the cloth
off of every set of six pack abs in a half mile radius.
Since 2010 brostep has shown no signs of letting up on its firm grip of the American scene. Any
youtube video with the word “dubstep” in the title is guaranteed to garner more enthusiastic views than
sagging boobs at a Mötley Crüe concert. Furthermore, many of the vacant-eyed automatons giving the
most support to the genre have found themselves wearing shirts emblazoned with nothing more than
the word “dubstep”. Just ask punk rock how such commercially available apparel items serve to
legitimize a genre of music.
There are now “underground” garage DJ sets in America (misguided attempts to recapture what
must have been a magical atmosphere of the early 2000s UK scene) where molly seems to be all but
raining from the ceiling. Every sweaty, scantily clad faux club kid basks in an imagined
atmosphere of being part of some important moment in American pop culture. American music may
feel like it’s somehow moving forward and doing something important. Unfortunately we have a cultural history
of grasping to the worst parts of foreign musical movements and pretending to give it meaning. We
gave the world hair metal, pop punk, rap rock, and screamo then pretended for a while that any of it
But just as name-dropping Yellowcard, P.O.D., and Cinderella make most people say, “Oh,
yeeeaaaaahhhhh…. whatever happened to those guys?” so too will be the reaction to hearing the names
Bassnectar and Skrillex in a few years.
Just to help the point that brostep is dying sink in, check out Korn’s new “dubstep”
album. If anyone knows how to hammer nails into a musical coffin, it’s Korn.