Dubstep has suddenly become huge. Maybe not massive, but big enough for the average subcultural junkie to know what you are talking about when you use it as shorthand for a sound. It is even starting to appear with regularity on flyers and gig posters, and demo CDs from local Australia producers are starting to land in my letterbox.
So, this little compilation from the seminal Tempa label is most welcome especially as back in 2001/2, when some of us started hearing about a new kind of garage sound, deeper, darker and more dub-oriented, we’d have to order in, almost blind, 12″s from mail order services in the UK (I’ve since realised I’m sitting on an eBay goldmine of almost mint vinyl!). Much of the best material was released on tiny labels in even smaller pressing runs. There is also an interest in these early years because of the enormous success of Burial’s self titled debut on the Hyperdub label, that mines the rhythmic ticks and syncopation of these early garage/dubstep hybrid years especially the production of El-B.
Martin Blackdown who has been responsible for sorting out the digital distribution of many current dubstep labels through Bleep.com is behind what is hopefully just the first in an ongoing series of compilations re-releasing some of the most important and, for newcomers, unheard key tracks. Martin has made some great choices, opening with a trilogy of absolutely essential tracks – Steve Gurley’s Hoyboys, and El-B’s Express and Buck & Bury. These three tracks capture a sound at its birth – the jittery, itchy syncopation of 2-step being pulled and stretched and drained of light by darker atmospheres. On Buck & Bury the beat is so hurried that it almost feels as if it skipping, chased by the dark. Horsepower Productions delivers their finest moment with Gorgon Sound, a long time favourite, and some of the other early vinyl-only Tempa releases also feature. introducing the ‘tribal’ period of dubstep with Highland Spring and Sholay. Menta follows with his super stripped back Snake Charmer, an example of orientalist tendencies which probably can be traced back to Timbaland’s early production work which impacted virtually every urban style for years. Artwork’s Red, a long lost classic on Big Apple Records (of the now defunct South Croydon record store) finally gets reborn – a track that crossed broefly into breaks circles; and other lost Big Apple productions from Digital Mystikz, Benga and Skream demonstrate just how long these key figures have been putting out music.
Although some of this music has dated – particularly the tribal-influenced tracks – this compilation reveals much of the innovation that occured under everyone’s noses and laid the foundations for what is now a sound and style on the rise. Interestingly it also shows just how under-explored a lot of the rhythmic impulses of 2-step still are – and how the secrets of beat producers like El-B still remain unknown, and offer potentially fertile ground for future music.