Dubstep. Describe it to me. Try it. Okay, I’m counting down to ten….. nearly there. Time’s up. Did you say anything other than a random bit of mumbling perhaps interspaced with the words “dance” and a couple of band names? No? I’m not surprised. For all its relative hype and growth over the last couple of years, dubstep is a grey area, about as clear as a needle in a haystack that’s shrouded in a thick mist while wearing dark sunglasses.
Oh sure, we’ve all heard this:
But what makes Skream’s remix of La Roux’s “In For The Kill” specifically a dubstep reworking? Is it the haunting nature or the way that it builds up into a flurry of drum beats? My guess is that some other remixer could have done that to this track: Elly Jackson’s shrill nasal voice lends itself well to being the centre of attention alongside some darker melodies. Given enough time, I probably could have worked that out and done a remix similar to Skream’s (although I don’t profess to know a lot about the art of making music, so it would take a very long time. I do, however, know what sounds good).
Skream, of course, is now part of Magnetic Man alongside Benga and Artwork. They’re pretty much the first mainstream dubstep heroes…. but to backtrack a little, what is dubstep? On Wikipedia, dubstep is described as “tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples and occasional vocals.” Yes, that clears that up then. Basically, it’s a subgenre of dance that thinks it’s a bit more grown up than rave. I guess dubstep thinks it’s the sophisticated businessman alongside its deadbeat noise-makers rave and new-rave (although elements of new rave around the 2007/2008 period were entirely more listenable than dubstep).
So that’s what Magnetic Man are dealing in. Let’s examine their Top 10 hit single “I Need Air”:
Fair enough, it’s obviously lovingly crafted by Magnetic Man. After all, it’s got a lot of high production values and a lot of that stuff that we learned about from Wikipedia’s description except for one detail: “occasional vocals”. “I Need Air” doesn’t have this, it instead employs Katy B’s vocals pretty much all the way through the song, a point which I think turns this into a more conventional dance tune. Plus, I’m sure I heard those looping samples on some mid-to-late 90s dance tracks which makes me think more of dank clubs than sophisticated dance. I’m not slagging off Magnetic Man, I’m just pointing out that this isn’t dubstep in its purest form.
To see that we might have to turn to Joy Orbison, who uses sampled vocals and loops them rather than a recorded song with structured lyrics.
It should be instantly audible how different Joy Orbison is to Magnetic Man. If it’s not then… well, I don’t know. Joy Orbison has a clearer sound, uses that fast drumbeat on a loop and employs a good build-up. Personally, I feel the weight and work that’s gone into “Hyph Mngo” more than in “I Need Air”.
But therein lies the problems with dubstep. Pure dubstep like Joy Orbison has barely been heard outside of late-night slots on commercial radio shows and he’s unlikely to ever appear on any music video channels. With a more recognisable, commercial sound Magnetic Man have broken the charts, as has Katy B, but they haven’t stayed the course with real dubstep. That’s problem one. Problem two is that dubstep can often be could and doesn’t make a connection with the listener. Find “Hyph Mngo” on YouTube and you’ll see a host of comments saying that they just don’t “feel” the track at all. Because Magnetic Man have lyrics, they have got around this and established a form of connection with their listener. If they’d simply taken a piece of Katy B singing and looped it like Joy Orbison, would “I Need Air” be as successful?
Besides, anyone who has ever been on a UK bus will have heard some youth or other playing a piece of rave – this is incredibly annoying for anyone with musical taste. But hold on, don’t those squeaky vocals sound just a little bit like the autotune that Magnetic Man use? Eerie.