It just doesn’t seem like the day to be making dubstep. To me, it’s a musical style birthed from rainy, dark, bleak UK days stuck indoors, rather than interminably bright afternoons in Perth. I might be wrong, but surely it’s always sunny in Perth, so it seems strange that this would be the locale where Kito creates her undulating, serpentine dubstep tunes, with throbbing bass drops and shattered beats. “I went to the shops to get some milk so I could have a coffee and I was like, ‘Oh it’s such a nice day, what am I doing inside?’,” she says, rounding it off with a breathy giggle that often punctuates her speech.
Maaike Kito Lepping – known professionally as Kito – is on the phone from her apartment in Claremont, a suburb about 20 minutes west of Perth. It’s a quiet part of the world: with no neighbours flanking her abode, it means the young producer can “make as much noise as I want during the day, or the evening, or whenever”. It’s three in the afternoon, and Kito’s spent the day working with Perth singer Reija Lee. The two aren’t strangers to collaborating together: Lee’s discombobulated and effected vocals feature on one of Kito’s strongest tracks to date, ‘LFO’. Along with Kito, Lee is another link in Perth’s tight dubstep and drum ’n’ bass clique. Her voice has appeared on ‘Polygon’ by her DnB-producing brother Karl Thomas, also known as ShockOne, as well as Shazam’s reinterpretation of Muscles’ narcissistic anthem ‘Sweaty’.
It’s surprising, then, to find out that Lee doesn’t have a natural predilection for the genre. “We’re all like, ‘Hey Reija, sing on this’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t know what I’m meant to sound like’,” giggles Kito. “But she picks it up so well. We just show her a few difference examples,” such as Uffie, Kid Sister, Peaches, Santogold and “things that [are] just dripping with attitude. Like, with ‘LFO’ I just kept showing her things with heaps of attitude so she wasn’t afraid to go for it.”
“Dripping with attitude” could also be an apt descriptor for the music itself. The 22-year-old Perth producer has only been visible on the Australian music landscape for around two years, but already one upstart journalist has labelled her with the sobriquet The First Lady of Dubstep. Kito laughs (well, more breathily giggles) the title off, but it’s hard to deny that the music of Kito belongs in the same league as international female dubstep counterparts like Vaccine and Ikonika. Gender aside, Kito’s forays into the genre are world class, a trait recognised by the doyen of dubstep Skream, who signed her to his label Disfigured Dubz after hearing some of her work on MySpace.
But why Perth? This was the question I wanted answered. Of all the places in Australia, why is it that Perth – sunny, bright, warm – has become a scene of drum ’n’ bass revivalism, with artists such as ShockOne and Phetsta at its apex, while Kito and fellow producer J. Nitrous lead the dubstep charge. Kito proffers a response: “I think because there have been a few successes in Perth, it’s a motivation for other people to give it a go. But I’m not sure. A lot of people I know that are into it have been living in the UK for a bit and have come back home. And it’s kind of infectious as well: when there’s a few people who are really, really into it and pushing it, then it kind of trickles down and other people get onto it.”
The answer hints at her own dubstep genesis. Growing up in the tiny coastal town of Denmark in Western Australia, Kito moved to Perth at the age of 17 to study fashion “and then quit that after a month,” she laughs, “and started working in a record store and I studied music for a year as well at TAFE.” Around the same time Kito began DJing at local Perth nightclubs and experimenting with her own beats at home. In 2006, a 19-year-old Kito travelled to Europe for a year, and “that’s when I really got into dubstep,” she explains. “I first started listening to it before I left Perth just because I was on the internet all the time looking for new music and then when I left that’s what was kind of on my iPod. So when I was travelling around that’s what I was listening to. I got to London and I started listening to all the different radio stations and that’s when I started getting into it more.”
Burial would have been the soundtrack from most of Kito’s European sojourn. “[He] was my biggest influence at the beginning,” she recalls. “And there were other producers like Luke Envoy and Vaccine from America.” But the nocturnal undulations and apocalyptic grandeur of Untrue are, at best, a subliminal influence on Kito’s music. Tracks like ‘Don’t Want To Lose You’ and ‘What If’ certainly share a similar disembodied vocal style, and ‘Cold’ conjures up the same snow-laden, post-rapture desolation as Cormac McCarthy does in his novel The Road. But much like Vaccine, Kito’s skill in the dubstep field is weaving a strong thread of melody around the wobbly bass and 2-step drum beats. Take a listen to her collaboration with Reija Lee, ‘LFO’: it’s ostensibly a dubstep tune, but the sassy electro artists that Kito played to inspire Lee – Uffie et al. – are as much an influence on Kito herself as they are on the singer.
But it’s dubstep that’s been Kito’s musical penchant from the beginning. “I just started a few different things but that’s what I was listening to at the time,” she explains. “I just kind of felt like that was the easiest thing to do when I started writing music. It must have been because I was listening to it so much.
“I mucked around for a few years when I was living in Perth, before I went away, and I wasn’t very good,” she continues. “Karl [Thomas, ShockOne] used to show me a few things, and same with Phetsta, but I wasn’t really that confident with it. But after I travelled, when I got back that’s when I really got serious about it and decided, ‘I have to do it!’ So I had no social life when I got back to Perth. So that was about two, two-and-a-half years ago.”
It’s amazing that in such a short space of time Kito’s been able to make a significant impact on the Australian dubstep scene. Sure, her gender, young age and Nordic beauty certainly help, but above all else it’s her assured music that’s opened up the ears of the dubstep fraternity both here and abroad. She’s helping to expand the still-undefined boundaries of this nascent genre even further. “It’s not like you’re kind of stuck in one style,” Kito says of dubstep. “There’s just so much room for experimentation and there is so much out there.”
What makes her impact more astounding is Kito’s distinct lack of physical releases. Aside from a 12″ single, she has no albums or EPs out, though a 7” vinyl featuring three of her tracks and a remix of a Vaccine tune is slated for release towards the end of 2009 through her UK label Disfigured Dubz. She’s also hoping to release an EP of her work with Reija Lee that’ll be more of a radio-friendly, “electro-poppy thing” with two dubstep tunes included.
Kito’s looking to build on her musical momentum in 2010, when she’ll be leaving the sunny horizon of Perth for the spiritual home of dubstep and the grey skyline of London. She’s applied for the Red Bull Music Academy, an annual, travelling school for producers and musicians. It’s being held in the Motherland next year, and Kito is one of what I suspect are thousands of musicians vying for the coveted 60 spots. “I find out at the end of February if I get in,” explains Kito. “So if I get in that’s when I’ll move, and if I don’t then I’ll probably leave it another two months and go over. I’m going to get my two year working visa and spend quite a bit of time over there and see how it goes. Put everything into it.”
It’s obvious that Australia’s appetite for dubstep, regardless of its blog hype and international stature as a genre, doesn’t exist above an underground level. It’s also a sad indictment of the music scene in this country that an artist as talented as Maaike Kito Lepping has to travel to the other side of the world in order to get her music out to a wider audience. But it’s an issue that Australian musicians have always faced – from The Go-Betweens in the Eighties right up until Pivot now – that in order for the world to hear your music, you have to take your music to the world.
Kito’s acutely aware of the quandary, and admits she needs to go to London to make a career out of music. “I think, especially with what I want to do, it is [a necessity],” she concludes. “I’m sure I could do things here if I stayed [but] my label’s in London and [so is] my agency. I think if I want to make a living from it and just go for it, there’s so many more opportunities over there. I think I’d be silly not to go at this point and work with different people. I think it’s going to be fun. I can’t wait.”
Kito’s 12″ release What If/Cold is available through Disfigured Dubz