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War of the Wubs: The Strange and Contentious History of Dubstep

dubstepWhile it’s certainly useful and necessary to divide and classify music into discrete genres for the purpose of organization, things can sometimes go awry. This can occur because like language, music is an alive and breathing cultural phenomenon, and attempts to solidify the epitome of a particular music’s style can be tricky, as changes are occurring within that style as people are trying to define it.

In regards to a particular case of dispute among fans of electronic music, I am referring to the one of the most misunderstood labels in EDM, “dubstep.” Depending on your frame of mind, images may come to mind of aggressive, alien-sounding robotic noises or may conjure images of peaceful, spacious bass vibes. This is more of a problem than you’d expect, given that one single label is being used to describe two totally different, and occasionally, polar opposite, sounds. Take a look a look at the Digital Mystikz’s classic dubstep song “Anti-War Dub.”

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Audiences only exposed to dubstep phenomenons such as Excision, Skrillex and Skism can be confused about the use of the term “dubstep” as utilized to classify the preceding composition. No robotic screaming noises, no midrange abominations or other stereotypical sounds are attributed to the genre are to be found in this song. How can this particular genre of music allow for there to be such disparity among two seemingly opposite styles of music, yet house them under the same classification?

The term “dubstep” itself has become removed from its original effectiveness in describing the sound of the genre. The term “dub” is a reference to the subgenre of Jamaican music known as dub music which emphasizes bass and atmosphere. The “step” section of the term refers to the attempt to integrate the two-step drum rhythm, which is still heavily emphasized in modern dubstep, into dub music. The two-step rhythm involves a kick and snare drum pattern, placing the kick drum on beat one and the snare drum on beat 3, resulting in a powerful and danceable, “head-nodding” rhythm. This rhythmic influence is attributable to British 2-step garage, another genre that has undeniable ties to dubstep.

In another one of my gross oversimplifications, dubstep grew out of a desire to combine this:

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with this:

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The following tracks best exemplify early attempts to combine the elements of dub and two-step rhythm patterns. The resulting transmogrifications resulted in some extremely unique and imaginative creations. Pioneers of this new genre produced a distinct and expressive form of music by combining elements of already mystifying genres.

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Dubstep known for its “wobble” didn’t appear until a later period, with artists such as Slkie and Skream giving a subtle modulated bassline-wobble, but still retaining a heavy emphasis on atmosphere and melody:

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Listening to the music that the term “dubstep” refers to today (usually anything from VitalDubstep or Dubstep.NET serves to epitomize the modern interpretation of the genre), it doesn’t take long to realize that most of the original characteristics of dub, the slow basslines and atmosphere have been replaced with aggressive, futuristic characteristics. The existence of the futuristic elements of dubstep aren’t necessarily a problem, as experimentation, development and nuances within music are natural occurrences, and lead to new and exciting productions. This became a problem, however, once the aggressive and futuristic end of the spectrum developed into a false representation of all that the genre has to offer. The recent nuance of alien-sounding screeches has all but overshadowed the original characteristics of atmosphere and vibe, leading to some unfortunate outcomes. One particular artist tends to get blamed for causing dubstep to progress (or decline, depending on your frame of mind) into its current state. Rusko is generally credited with popularizing “new” dubstep through experimenting with harsher and more futuristic tones.

Below is an excerpt of his thoughts on the popularization of the aggressive nuance of dubstep which he refers to as “brostep,” a pejorative term used to describe the more aggressive side of dubstep.

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While people (especially American audiences) gravitated to this new sound, admirers of the old style became agitated. As aggressive dubstep became more well-known, patrons of the classical side of genre felt alienated and marginalized, feeling that the soul of the music has been replaced with a gimmick. Adding insult to injury, statements from not-so-thrilled music listeners, unfamiliar with early dubstep and whose only experience with it involved the newer, more aggressive flavor bitterly announced, “dubstep is just noise!” This further angered fans of the original sound as the term was never meant to describe the “noisy alien music of the future” but a melodic, beautiful and graceful genre that critics of dubstep ever experienced.

This animosity towards brostep’s overshadowing of old-school dubstep can be seen on countless social media message boards, facebook fan pages, and YouTube comments on early, as well as recent dubstep videos (at the time I am writing this, the top 2 comments of the “Rusko’s thoughts on brostep” video serve nicely to illustrate this point). It can obviously be seen how many feel that an art form, once exemplified by heavy atmosphere and almost entirely devoid of the aggressive sounds, has been damaged by this new form of what once was a very melodic genre. One fateful event—the ascent of one of the most successful “brostep” artists of all time—threw gasoline on the fire that has been brewing within the realm of EDM.

If this image gives you an aneurysm, you might just hate “brostep.”

If this image gives you an aneurysm, you might just hate “brostep.”

With Skrillex’s ascent to mainstream fame, and his fateful act of labeling his music with the loaded term of “dubstep,” the already heated dubstep world was further divided into a schism (or a SKisM, if you like, haha) between patrons of the old style and lovers of new style. Skrillex, being a icon of popular electronic music, could now perpetuate the concept that the epitome of dubstep was loud, lurching and aggressive to an unprecedented audience. This was an old-school dubstep fan’s nightmare.

The problem becomes even more complicated, given the different types of audiences associated with the two styles of dubstep. Early dubstep was associated with a more underground audience, whereas the popularity of “brostep” garnered a more mainstream crowd. More than just a difference in a stylistic taste of music, the cultural associations behind the music can perpetuate an interesting friction: those who favor the original sound are viewed as purist hipsters that won’t join the fun, and those who favor the new style are viewed as kids jumping on the brostep bandwagon without any regard for the original sound.

There is an obvious poverty of knowledge and appreciation for the original sounds of dubstep among mainstream audiences (for instance, say “Skrillex” in a crowded room, and regardless of positive or negative response, chances are, the congregation knows who you’re talking about; saying “Coki” or “Benga” has a higher chance of gathering confused looks). This tension between the old and new styles of dubstep is an issue of semantics combined with the problem of the currently-evolving-as-we-are-trying-to-define-it genre. Artists who used wobbles, screeches and growls obviously heavily appreciated the atmosphere of original dubstep; they had nothing else to call their music that what they believed they were innovating. They had no intention of antagonizing the original sound; artists like Rusko were simply having fun with their craft. By calling this new development by the only way to describe it that they had, the nuance of the dubstep sound unintentionally became a contentious element.

I do not think that this apparent conflict between the two styles is necessary, but I don’t think it’s a simple problem that will go away anytime soon. It is a matter of stylistic difference and a disagreement over what the term “dubstep” describes. Both sides of the spectrum have incredible value and worlds of imaginative artistry to explore. The atmospheric vibes of old-school dubstep are an incredible experience  and blend the emotions of spirituality, contemplative thought and the invigoration of deep bass music perfectly.  Likewise, “brostep” is great at bringing high-energy impact, and the grotesque and chaotic nature of it can evoke an adrenaline-fueled ambiance. Having two entirely distinct sounds under one roof can cause some peculiar cultural outcomes, but as music is constantly developing, can lead to an exciting and diverse pool of music. Surviving the “war of the wubs” is a matter of understanding the spectrum of music contained under the “dubstep” label.

By | 2016-12-02T14:47:12+00:00 August 14, 2013|News, Opinion|0 Comments