Too many new ideas in electronic music quickly become decoration to match the drapes at the IKEA showroom. But, as with the Jackson Pollock that hangs over the corporate conference table, we forget that today's sonic wallpaper was last decade's felony-level vandalism. Drum 'n' bass, now frequently used for selling cars to retirees, once sent even the majority of ravers — a famously undiscerning lot — to the emergency exits.
Strange, then, that dubstep, which has been around for at least seven years, can still genuinely surprise beat aficionados jaded by many waves of new studio trickery. The otherness of the music stubbornly persists. Maybe its sounds are too dark and bass-rich for jingles — the average television speakers would clip off a good chunk of the low frequencies. Or maybe it's because dubstep is the first dance music in a long time that isn't about beats. English producer Skream, who has produced the largest share of dubstep's memorable tracks, spends almost all his time working on the bass line. He then throws in "just a little hook around it just to keep your mind going," as he explained during a tutorial he gave at the Red Bull Music Academy last October in Melbourne. In a Skream song, the bass line calls all the shots, pushing the drums aside and fluctuating across octaves so that at times it almost sings.
The shuffle rhythm that dubstep inherited from U.K. garage — the sound Skream was trying to mimic on cheap software at age 15 — merely suggests movement rather than dictates it, as house and trance do. So when Skream played his anthem "Midnight Request Line" for the roomful of aspiring producers after his Red Bull discussion, heads nodded in quite different ways, looking more like sunflowers blowing in the wind than the bowing of the faithful to Mecca.
Skream became the first dubstep producer to have his records played by prominent DJs in more mainstream scenes — Bassnectar, François K, Gilles Peterson, and Ricardo Villalobos among them — and managed to do so before turning 20. His much-imitated work from 2005 to 2006 emphasized a lurching half-time groove that tended to slow dancefloors to a Caribbean simmer, so main-floor selectors have played it strategically and in small doses. These cuts, released on such EPs as Skreamizm Volumes 1 and 2, worked well for Skream's own sets at his residency at Forward>>, the outpost for dubstep in his native London, where clubgoers reared on reggae-infused drum 'n' bass were allowed to puff away in peace. But a recent ban on smoking in clubs has caused Skream to push along his signature gathering-thundercloud pacing and paddle out of the deep dub undertow.
"From a DJ's perspective, it changed everything," he says in a recent phone interview. "The people who usually smoke weed are drinking now, where it was really heavily smoking before. So partly because of that, and partly because I'm playing big festivals now where almost no one knows dubstep, my music is getting more up-tempo, more dancefloor."
Indeed, more-dub-minded fans have been grumbling in online forums about Skream's perceived turn toward techno, the more precise structures of which are clear on "2-D," a song from his newly released Skreamizm Volume 4. While not a compromise, his latest direction suggests dubstep might be tidying up its slack rulebook, perhaps as a step along the inevitable march to assimilation. A little more than a year ago, Skream predicted dubstep would never go commercial. But today, even after a run of widely touted tracks and a DJ mix on BBC Radio One, the 21-year-old hasn't made enough to move out of mum's house yet.
"I can't see me doing big pop tunes at this point in my life, but my parents will be after me soon," he chuckles. "Might have to make something a bit cheesy to pay the bills one of these days." Skream's low ends are probably still too denture-rattling for a spot with Buick, but now is the time to catch dubstep — before it gets long in the tooth.