How Low Can It Go?

Taken at the third-anniversary party of Dub War. Photo: Michael Schmelling

Dubstep, the U.K.’s fledgling dance music, is an elusive sound for Stateside music fans. The bass-obsessed genre can be heard properly only through a club’s megawatt sound system, and if you’re in New York, that opportunity comes once a month at Dub War, the first dubstep club night to emerge in North America. The party recently celebrated its third birthday with its biggest event ever; at the Village club Love, a crowd of 600, a mix of Brooklyn hipsters, dreadlocked hippies, rave survivors, reggae veterans, and hip-hop futurists, turned out to see Skream, the genre’s crown prince. Here’s how it all came together:

Breaking Point
At the turn of the 21st century, London’s two-step club music, a druggy, destabilized take on American R&B, was getting too slick, becoming attractive to a much wider audience, which in turn brought dress codes and velvet ropes to the clubs. And owing to the genre’s association with U.K.’s “gun culture,” the police were shutting down the parties of all but the most mainstream promoters. In response, producers like Zed Bias and El-B drew on Jamaican influences to take the two-step sound in a darker, more challenging direction, thereby alienating the trendsters. The split began when the Forward>> night was formed at the club Plastic People in East London, providing a home for darker two-step, grime, and the rest of garage music’s cutting edge. It was a classic case of a scene’s getting too professionalized, prompting malcontents to take the sound into grittier, less familiar territory.

Dub, Croydon Style
In the South London borough of Croydon circa 2002, producers like Horsepower Productions and DJ Hatcha took the ideas of Bias and El-B and forced the final break from two-step. By now, the sound was called dubstep. The music replicates the moment in dub reggae when the sound engineer phases out the melody and vocals, leaving a wide empty space between the treble and bass. It also borrows the hypersyncopation of two-step, with its shuffling kick drums and skittering high hats. But deviations abound from this loose template—a producer might incorporate the more languorous tempos of hip-hop or the melodic synthesizer textures of house music. These stylistic variations aside, adherence to the “dub” and “step” elements provides the glue of the genre.

Beats Via Broadband
Dave Q (David Quintiliani) and Joe Nice (Joe Knights) were two American D.J.’s keeping track of Croydon’s developments. Dave Q was a refugee from New York’s drum-and-bass scene, while Joe Nice’s background was in the club music of his hometown, Baltimore. They knew each other from the message boards on—then the virtual nerve center for the dubstep scene—and they met for the first time at a New York appearance of Horsepower Productions’ Benny Ill. Hoping to hear some dubstep, they left angry after Benny played a set of classic house and techno. Apparently, Benny Ill didn’t think New York was ready.

Out of the Bedroom
In June 2005, Dave Q and Joe Nice were D.J.-ing for about 40 people in the basement of Sputnik, a bar near Pratt Institute. It was the inaugural Dub War. Accompanying the two was Juakali, a Trinidad-born emcee who had seen a flyer for the party and contacted Dave Q about rhyming over their sets. “Dave and Joe were able to play their records out, rather than just listening to them in their bedrooms,” says Juakali. The club environment is crucial—it’s there that the intense, droning bass takes center stage. After outgrowing Sputnik, Dub War went through several venues until Dave Q and Joe Nice settled on Love and its state-of-the-art sound system.

The Church of Dubstep
Dave Q made the pilgrimage to dubstep’s spiritual home, the DMZ club night in London’s reggae-rich Brixton neighborhood, for its first-anniversary celebration, which featured scene heavyweights Mala, Loefah, Chefal, Vex’d, and Skream. At the party, Martin Clark, Pitchfork’s dubstep columnist, introduced Dave Q to Skream, who had just released dubstep’s signature tune, “Midnight Request Line.” Dave Q proposed that Skream come play at Dub War’s own anniversary show. Then 18 years old, Skream had never been to the States. Joe Nice was also on the DMZ bill that night, and after his set the event had to be moved from the club’s basement to the main room to accommodate the huge turnout. This was no trivial development. As Clark later wrote in his column, when it comes to dance music, experimentation and nuance work in small rooms; in big rooms, subtlety goes out the window. Amid the celebration that night, there was a nagging sense of loss.

Three Years Deep
At Dub War’s third birthday, Skream was again the star attraction. He’s a regular on, where he announces new tracks and gigs, offers opinions, and gives history lessons. Skream’s accessibility makes him something like the genre’s people’s champ, and his second appearance at Dub War pulled in the event’s biggest crowd to date. That night, Skream opted for quite a few “wobble” tracks—a popular, high-energy style that uses wobbling stabs of midrange bass line as surrogates for melody. Skream is the master of the wobble, and when his track “Oskillatah” came on, people began recklessly flailing their limbs. Outside, a Dub War veteran complained that the environment was becoming too “aggro,” too much like London now, where young men come to dubstep nights to thrash around. Some old heads worry that they’re ruining the scene, but Skream says New York is not in any danger yet: “It’s like London when the fires first started.”

How Low Can It Go?