This is dubstep
A quest to learn to appreciate a new style of music
I love discovering new music. I especially enjoy learning to appreciate new genres, though sometimes that can be a challenge. Sometimes it takes years of trying before the right record finally connects to my brain in the right way. But the great thing about discovering new genres is that it opens up my ears in new ways. It’s like suddenly hearing music for the first time again.
I grew up on rock ’n’ roll and its various subgenres but have since developed an appreciation for other styles, like soul, funk, hip-hop and jazz, and, to a lesser degree, country and western. These other genres are now part of who I am, and there are many others.
But for some reason, I’ve always struggled with electronic music, and electronic dance music in particular. Try as I might, I can’t usually get into it. It’s not that I don’t like to dance; I love to dance. Crank up some upbeat early rock ’n’ roll, or ’6os soul, or golden-age hip-hop, and you’ll have a hard time getting me to stand still.
But electronic music designed specifically to make people dance usually just makes me feel agitated. Or, worse yet, annoyed and bored. I’m not sure why. It might be because, as I said, the first music I learned to like was rock ’n’ roll.
As a rock fan, I learned to value two things: songwriting and musicianship. My interest in songwriting helped me appreciate folk music and hip-hop, and my interest in musicianship helped me appreciate jazz. Those two elements are present in electronic dance music, but a lot less conspicuously than in other genres. Nobody who’s ever really watched a professional DJ in action can plausibly deny that they’re musicians. And the few electronic music artists that I really like—Daft Punk, for example—craft tracks that can readily be called songs. But singing guitar-players seem more obviously musicians and songwriters to me than do sample-triggering DJs.
Another reason I’ve struggled with electronic dance music is that my first real exposure to it was at Burning Man during my teen years in the ’90s. Out in Black Rock City, the stuff is ubiquitous and incessant and guaranteed to be loudest whenever you’re trying to sleep, be it 2 a.m. or 2 p.m. So I developed a prejudice against electronic dance music. That’s not something I’m proud of—I try to be an open-minded music fan—but it’s a fact.
Then, over the course of the last couple of years, many of my music-lover and musician friends started talking more and more about a new genre, a style of electronic music supposedly guaranteed to shake booties, melt brains, and make ears glow: dubstep.
Until recently, I hadn’t heard much dubstep, and what I had heard, I didn’t really understand. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the distinguishing qualities of the genre—what separates it from any other style of electronic dance music. My recent first attempt to encounter the music out in the wild, in its natural element, proved to be an interesting misfire.
Google and Facebook had put me in touch with Jeremy “J-Man” Crank, the manager and resident DJ of Club Sin, a dance club near downtown Reno. On Friday nights, Club Sin hosts all-ages dance parties.
My buddy Scott and I went to the club around 10 p.m. on a recent Friday night, with RN&R photographer Audrey Love in tow. It turns out that, in dance clubs, “all-ages” really means “under 18.” I go to all-ages punk rock shows semi-regularly, and “all-ages” in that context really means “all-ages.” It’ll mostly be teenagers and early 20-somethings, but there are always a few older punks in their 30s and 40s, and other assorted misfit music nerds too old to mosh but not yet too deaf to rock out.
But Club Sin’s all-ages dance nights feature youngsters exclusively—skinny, scantily clad teens dancing their hearts out with abandon. It was straight out of Pinocchio or something. Wild, shirtless dudes doing backflips. Girls in big pink fuzzy boots grinding up on each other. I noticed a couple of eyebrow-raising group trips to the bathrooms, but it mostly seemed like good, semi-clean fun—well, fun for the kids, that is.
Here’s a science experiment for you: What happens when you take a fat, bearded, 30-year-old rock ’n’ roll nerd and plop him down in the middle of a dance floor full of happy-go-lucky jailbait club rats? The dude will immediately feel like a creep. I felt like a dog in a room full of cats. I probably looked like a monster to the kids, but I was way more frightened of them than they were of me.
After I got some semblance of bearings, I started to pay attention to the music, which spanned a moderate range of the dance music spectrum. There was plenty of house music—with its incessant bump, bump, bump, bump—but also some heavier, deeper stuff that seemed to drag on the brain in a pleasant way. Scott, fairly well-versed in electronic music—at least compared to me—helped me distinguish the dubstep: It has a stuttering, head-bobbing rhythm, and bass, lots of bass—thick, wobbly bass.
After about 30 minutes, I was able to pick out the dubstep tracks on my own. I realized that I’d heard a lot of the stuff on recent trips to Burning Man, and that it was some of the electronic music I had actually liked out there. I also realized why I had been unable to enjoy the music when listening to it at home on my computer or using head phones: In order to appreciate the heavy bass, the music needs to be played loud on speakers with serious subwoofers.
I also noticed that the kids didn’t respond to the dubstep songs as readily as they did the house tracks.
“I’d like to play more dubstep here, because that’s what I’m really into now,” J-Man told me after his DJ set. “But the kids aren’t that into it. Not yet. But they will be.”
J-Man explained the basics of the dubstep sound to me: Dubstep is dialed into a specific BPM (Beats Per Minute): 140 (or 70, depending on how you splice it). Rather than the relentless four-on-the-floor beat of house and techno music, wherein every beat of a standard four-count gets a bass drum hit, dubstep is often characterized by “two-step” beats, rhythms with alternating accents. The other distinguishing characteristic is the heavy, wobbly bass lines, created by Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs).
“It’s something new,” says Dustin “Synthascience” Keller, a dubstep DJ and producer based out of South Lake Tahoe. “It’s not like what we’re used to. It’s just bass-driven music. We’re basically always looking for that next heavy bass drop. … You don’t have to move as fast to dubstep as you do to techno and stuff like that. It’s appealing to the hip-hop kids because it’s got a hip-hop tempo, and it’s appealing to the techno kids because it’s got that raw bass line and those LFOs. That’s what it’s all about, is building that LFO that’s going to blow everybody’s mind.”
“There’s nothing really to compare it to,” says Derek “DeToX” Thomas, a Reno producer and DJ. “It’s like nothing you’ve heard before. It’s hard to explain. The best way to explain it is to hear it for the first time. … At bars, if I play after 12, I prefer to play just grimey dubstep, because that’s the time of the night when everyone’s had a bunch of drinks, and I think dubstep sounds better when you’re intoxicated. Because it’s so slow, and there’s so much time between the kick and the snare, you can do so much in that time. It’s mind-altering music, I’d say.”
The real epicenter of dubstep in Reno, I quickly discovered by asking around, is Club Würk, a bar in downtown Reno, with a distinct Burning Man energy. Events at Würk don’t usually even start until after many of the other downtown bars have closed. Headlining performers go on at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and the place gets packed, even on weeknights, with crowds, mostly college-aged, ready to party. The energy at Würk is so palatable that some DJs who specialize in dubstep and bass-centered dance music move to Reno just to be part of the scene.
“After I came up and played at Würk a couple of times and saw the response that people had to dubstep, it was like no-nonsense, like if I didn’t come, I was making a mistake,” says Hammel “Hamm F.M.” DeRosa, a DJ and producer, originally from Virginia who moved here to be a part of the scene. “There are very few places in the United States that respond to dubstep like Reno does. It’s kind of crazy. It’s definitely a huge thing all over the U.S., but in Reno especially. The first time I played [at Würk], I remember looking out and seeing girls in $300 jeans and corsets and high heels dancing on the speakers and getting down and being speaker freakers. … The energy that’s in this town—some people say it’s because we’re so close to Burning Man, I have no idea—the response here is phenomenal.”
Rub a dub
A central figure of the Würk scene is James Boggan, a big guy with a huge red beard and huge red ’fro. He’s the definition of hard to miss.
“When I first heard dubstep I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” he says, with awe, not disgust. “My mindset at the time was that I wanted something new. And it sounded like a light saber.”
That was in 2008. “I started DJing because I wanted to hear more dubstep,” says Boggan. “Back then, it was hard to find. Now, it’s everywhere. It’s come a long way in just two-and-a-half years.”
Boggan says he doesn’t just play dubstep anymore, but a variety of electronic styles that fall under his umbrella term, “bass-driven music.” This includes grime and glitch-hop, but it’s clear that dubstep is at the heart of what he does. I met him for a cup of coffee, and we spent a few hours talking. He would occasionally hand over his headphones—he’s actually sponsored by a headphone company—so that I could listen to a track. There’s no better way to learn an appreciation for this music than to spend time with Boggan. He knows what he’s talking about and can always illustrate his points with well-chosen tracks.
The term dubstep comes from a combination of “dub,” as in dub reggae, and the “step” refers to the two-step beats. It originated in London in the early 2000s and spread slowly and surely from there. A lot of contemporary dubstep doesn’t sound connected to dub reggae—a style of reggae, often associated with Lee “Scratch” Perry, that employs a wide range of studio effects, like echo and delay. A lot of contemporary dubstep has lost that dub connection, but it’s audible in early, minimalist dubstep tracks by artists like Skream. Dub reggae is also at the root of the dubstep fascination with bottomless low end.
“Dubstep is, in a nutshell, heavy sub-bass music at 70 or 140 bpm,” says Boggan. It’s a simple template. “It has a lot of crossover appeal.”
There are dubstep remixes of songs by everyone from Justin Timberlake to Slipknot to Lady Gaga to Lil Wayne. And, if there’s any doubt that dubstep has hit the mainstream: Dubstep producer Rusko is working with Britney Spears on her new album.
“It pulls the metal kids,” says Boggan. “It pulls the hip-hop kids. It pulls the indie kids.”
The simple template of the genre makes for open-ended possibilities, but it’s also an easy formula for generic music. The music has spread far enough that thuggish imitators now run rampant. Purists derisively dismiss a lot of the by-the-numbers dubstep as “bro-step.”
“There’s a lot of shitty dubstep,” says Sythascience. “About 90 percent of the music that comes out is not that good. My friends and I call it sleepy dubstep. Sleepy dubstep is basically just like, ‘kick … snare … kick … snare … kick … kick … kick … snare.’ Just really boring, and there’s a lot of that.”
“There’s so much saturation of dubstep right now, the production of it has become more about intelligent sound design and less about melodies,” says Hamm F.M. “With that being said, more harmonic music is the future.”
At a recent dubstep night at Würk, fully primed after my music lesson with Boggan, I bobbed my head as the music dug a happy little burrow into my brain. There’s something about that deep, oscillating subwoofer that’s hugely addictive. And the rhythm is like a hip-hop beat, but with just enough drag to make your brain and body quiver and spasm.
“They call it the dubstep experience,” says Hamm F.M. “Most people, the first time they hear it, they don’t know whether they like it, or they don’t like it, or they love it. They’re just like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this.’ And then you tend to have this one night, where the music kind of makes sense. Because the music is kind of abrasive. If you step back and listen to it all, the noises are gritty and hard and they’re moving a whole lot. It’s pretty intense. … Those sounds, that gnarly bass, includes certain frequencies—there are so many subwoofers in the club now—that bass line is including some frequencies that are used in subsonic healing. … That’s why these kids are gravitating so much to the speakers. They’re feeling so good. They’re having these experiences because the frequencies of the sub actually make you feel good. It literally makes you feel good at the same time as being dirty and nasty. People make these, like, stank faces, like somebody farted on the dance floor, because the bass line is so gnarly and they’re like, ‘Oh my god! It feels so good! I just want to party!’”
“It loosens the change in your pocket, and you melt,” says Boggan. “Whether you’re sober or not, you melt. … Dubstep, a few years ago, was clearing dance floors. You’d put on dubstep, and everyone would leave the dance floor. They didn’t understand it. … Every once in a while, I’ll have somebody come up and say, ‘Play something else!’ and then I will, and then five more people will come up and say, ‘Play more dubstep!’”