Dubstep has become a dirty word. A victim of its own success, quickly reduced to supermarket CD bargain bins and advert music.
But it wasn’t always that way.
For some of us, it conjures up memories of dark rooms full of skunk smog, hearing a brand new sound for the first time.
A London sound, born in a Croydon bedroom.
DJ Oneman was there in Dubstep's heyday.
Whilst he was specially curating an exclusive mix for us at Wavey Garms, I met up with him in his studio to chat about what went wrong over a tea and a bit of bracken.
WG: Going to an early Dubstep night was completely different to other raves...
Oneman: It was eye opening because for the first time all these people were coming to the club just for the sound. You know what I mean? They weren’t coming for any other reason. They weren’t coming to get fucked up; they weren’t coming here to chirps girls…that was the difference, and that was something you had to get used to.
You’re ready, you’re ready to go out and get on that wave, and my first experience was a room full of men who literally wanted to network and meet like minded people. I wasn’t comfortable with it for time, until I realised how I could play this game.
I was working at Warner Bros. records at the time - in the post room - and my boss at Warner was an old jungle DJ who used to run a night called DOPE in Leeds with LTJ Bukem. He just showed me records, like this D1 record. [drops some D1 fire]
These are 2003 and came out on Soldier, part of Temper which Sarah owned who’s now a part of Rinse with Geeneus. This is like what you were saying, it’s pure sound, those weird noises…like that’s not a snare?! What is it? Some mad clap!
Bruv that’s what it was! Those new noises!
Yeah! Do you what the palette for me was for Dubstep? It was 140 BPM and sub bass. And on top of that - Kode 9 said this actually - on top of that you can build anything and that’s Dubstep. Whatever beat pattern you want, whatever sounds you wanna bring into it, as long as it was 140 and had sub it was Dubstep.
It was mad how quickly it moved. I first went there [Plastic People] in 04, and by 05, when Plastician - well, Plastic Man at the time - was playing pure Grime instrumental sets, you had people like Wiley and Skepta coming down and just vibeing off the music. They’d watch Crazy D on the mic and just how different he was compared with the Grime MCs. FWD>> opened the Dubstep sound to a lot of people. A lot of people…
The first time I went in there it was just a tiny bar, a thick black curtain, and a pitch black room that smelt of skunk...
Yeah! Bruv you could bill up zoots on the bar raggo, until the smoking ban came in. You know what? When the smoking ban came in they didn’t give a fuck bruv! They just put joss sticks around, there were incense sticks everywhere, just so the front door didn’t smell of weed when the feds come past.
Yeah they had no chance of getting rid of the weed in there.
Nah. It was part of it, because it wasn’t a cocaine or ecstasy scene, it was a big sound system, and weed, and a few Red Stripes. That was what it was. Then DMZ started in Brixton and that was a whole new thing.
It was in a bigger venue, in the basement of St. Matthew’s church in the crypt, which made it a bit more mystic. It was just a big, dark room with a blue light, and with that kind of music you just couldn’t help but feel like you were in another world; almost like you were underwater a lot of the time with this blue light and the massive waves of sound.
Hearing it in Plastic People, that’s what it was, like being in a fish tank…
Exactly. It was a dark room, a square box probably under 100 foot square, and you just had one orange light by the deck so you could vaguely make out the DJ, but you couldn’t see anything else in the room. You couldn’t see your hands in front of you…and that got rid of so many peoples inhibitions and just let them dance freely.
'Cos you forget that: in pure darkness you don’t care what anyone else around you is doing. You’re just in your little space with this music taking you over. You can’t hear someone talk…if you can hear someone talking in your ear then you’re in the wrong place.
You never really got trouble down there either. Until it moved onto Fridays and you got the office man turning up. Sundays were alright. When it moved to Sunday it was still kinda bless.
When did you first hear Dubstep?
So I started DJing when I was 14, and I was mainly buying - I didn’t know at the time - but now when I look back where these people were from, a lot of the producers of the records I was buying were from South London. LB, Sovereign, Brass Tooth…all people like that. All the records I seem to have from my old days are from my area and I only realised that recently when I went through them.
There’s tunes from crews that went to my school, there’s all types of madness. But when I first found Dubstep I’d already gone through a sort of mini UK Hip Hop phase, like we were talking about earlier.
I was going down to Deal Real Records every Friday and was really into that scene because it was a live scene. I’ve always been attracted to a scene rather than the music, especially in London.
The Garage scene I wanted to be a part of; then the Garage thing died out and no one was putting much out. So Solid sort of started to fall away, and a lot of the big crews now were made for major labels. They were concocted…they weren’t real and I didn’t like that.
I found some realness in UK Hip Hop. I listen back to a lot of it know and so much of it is shit [laughter] but at the time I was feeling it and I think that’s because it was a scene. When I started working at WB, my boss Rick had just got into this sound called ‘Forward Beats’ and ‘Future Sound’; it wasn’t called Dubstep at the time, but the ‘Forward Beats’ were the tunes being played at FWD>> so Dubstep was really called ‘Forward Beats’ before because it was only played there. The term Dubstep was coined by Neil who worked at Ammunition.
The first Dubstep tune I ever heard was Horror Show by Loefah, which was crruuuuuudddd. [makes noises] Just mad sub and the only melody was that [makes noises] like some fucking Psycho stabbing, d’you know what I mean?! Pure crud.
I bought that record that day on Piccadilly Records and took it round to my mate Billy’s who was as into UK Hip Hop as I was. He was like “What the fuck is this shit?!” I told him “Mate come to FWD>> and you’ll understand it; you don’t get it now. I didn’t understand it when I heard it in my bosses office, but come!"
It was like a virus bruv. It was like something spreading and everyone was getting into it and it was nice to be a part of something which was so important to me. 'Cos I feel like kids these days don’t have a chance to be a part of something like that. They don’t have a scene that is not available online to see, or producers that are making tracks purely out of their environment, rather than ‘I like the sound of that, that and that online and I’m gonna make that’.
I don’t think there will be another scene like Dubstep. Funky House was I think the last real scene that existed in London, but Dubstep was the real one. For me that was the realest.
I first heard Jungle when I was about 11 because of my older brother, and it was the Dub influence from the Jungle I loved that I heard in the Dubstep. The super dark and super heavy bass.
Funny you say that, 'cos a lot of the new fans of Dubstep around 04/05 when it was getting more popular, they all seemed to come from Drum & Bass and Jungle. I don’t know the first thing about Drum & Bass or Jungle; it wasn’t my time, I don’t have an older brother or anything like that, so I was never into it. But Garage caught me.
Then you started hearing that Jungle influence a lot more in the sound which was good, but my angle at that time was 'why does no one really know what Garage is?’ 'cos this come out of Garage, not Drum & Bass; 'why is the Garage 2 Step influence not there still?.
So thats when I put it upon myself to use all the records I’d bought from the age of 14, mix those with the new Dubstep records I was buying, and just create this sort of club sound which was up and down: the Dubstep would bring you down and the 2 Step would bring you up; and a lot of people loved it.
I was like ‘great what I’ve done is working’ and people were taking influence from that 'cos then you had tracks being made by producers that sounded like my sets; they sounded like 2 Step and Dubstep together. Things like Hyph Mngo by Joy Orbison, and a lot of the early Hessle Audio release by TRG and people like that, Paul Martin…they were all Dubstep tunes but they sounded like 2 Step. They had the 2 Step beats.
A lot of people at that time thought Garage was just Flowers and Joyrider, all these bait top 10 tunes that made it in the charts around 99/2000, but it weren’t; the millennium was dark, bruv. Some of the tunes coming out around the millennium, whether it was dark 2 Step or early proto-Grime, were crud bruv. It sounds like war. Even some of those nice, violin-y tunes, like the Dynasty Crew tune I played you AWOL and Chinatown, they all sound beautiful melodically, but to me it reminds me of crud and war and stabbings and MC clashes…all of that stuff. Hanging outside a chicken shop on my bike. It reminds me of those things. It don’t remind me of a nice orchestral piece. Other people probably hear that. My mum heard it and was like “Thats a nice tune” I’m like 'nah man, people got killed over that beat’.
Obviously not musically, but I’ve always seen a strong similarity between Punk and Grime. It was purely DIY - basically angry kids who wanted to make something. And those early Grime beats are so hard, so aggy…
And they’re all made on free software! A lot of early Grime stuff was made on Fruityloops, all those same sounds. The other thing that was popular round then was the Playstation game Music 2000, which I believe Pulse X was made on. I read something Youngsta said about that, something like ‘if you listen closely to Pulse X, you can hear the hiss from the audio cables coming out of the Playstation’ and I love that kind of stuff. It’s exactly what you’re talking about, that Punk ethic. Like I’ve got a Playstation, been playing these games for time, now all of a sudden there’s a game you can make music with.
If you look at the canvas you use for this game, it’s like Tetris. You’re just putting all these blocks together, and they’re all different colours and all make different sounds. To think Pulse X was made on a Playstation is fucking mad…so DIY.
London has always had a sick pirate radio scene, and Jungle was one of the first genres where radio played a massive role. Do you think Rinse played as important a part for Dubstep as pirate radio did for Jungle?
Yeah, definitely. But it’s different, in the sense that Jungle in 93, 94, 95 or whatever, was very localised and pirate radio was localised. So if you didn’t live in a small part of London, usually, that can pick up that station, you can’t hear it unless my don tapes it and gives you the tape 2 days later, and you’re already 2 days behind ‘cos pirate radio moved so quickly.
So with Rinse, it is as important to Dubstep definitely, but in the way that it became global and pirate radio was now available online. Someone could tape off the radio and upload the tape to the internet. There was a website called barefiles.com run by a kid called Deepo and he was the first guy to start cataloguing pirate radio online so you basically had a database of all these Rinse shows, all these Deja shows, and it wasn't for him with that website I don’t think Dubstep would have gone as global as quickly as it did.
Rinse started broadcasting online around 06/07, and then they really started to push that legal thing and then they got their license around 2011. But between 2006 and 2011, I would say Rinse were as important to Dubstep as pirate was to Jungle.
You still had the same things, like rave adverts.
Rave adverts were really important. You’d usually have the same two people doing them. Sam The Supplier used to do a lot of the shouty ones, you know like “BACK TO ’95 IN ROOM 1! 70 MCS! BLAH BLAH” [crack up laughing] and that sorta dried up. All the adverts became sort of nicer. The Funky House rave adverts were like “Come down to Purple, E3. Friday. Ladies free before midnight”
It got all smooth...
Yeah! It got all smooth! Then it sort of just died away, you didn’t hear any rave adverts anymore. It would always be an advert for a show, or one for a rave that Rinse were putting on. Not like an outsourced rave, or a promoter who has paid Rinse to put an advert on.
Grime and Dubstep pretty much developed side by side, like they came around at very similar times. When did Grime MCs start jumping onto Dubstep beats, as opposed to those faster, gun clappy Grime beats?
I’d say it was around 05/06. You had these situations like Wiley went on Kode 9’s show on Rinse one time; Skepta started coming down and going on Plastician’s when he started playing a bit more Dubstep. There was just this general interest in a different sound and I dunno whether it’s because at the time Grime was on a weird tangent, when everyone was putting out mixtapes and they weren’t really doing Grime anymore.
The dark ages kind of.
Yeah, it was a a lot of Hip Hop mixtape style stuff and it was quite dead. I feel like these guys found a realness in Dubstep, or something they probably hadn’t heard before and wanted to get involved with. A fresh energy. And I guess it’s still dark; it’s still rooted in that sinister, dark place.
Like Tapped that was on Skream’s album and had JME on it was all about getting your phone hacked. That beat was crud, it sounded like Request Line on ket; it was a mad tune. But yeah that Grime Dubstep crossover happened man.
As someone who was there and legitimately loved going to those early Dubstep nights, I was gassed off it until it died. But I can’t think of another musical genre that took as hard a hit as Dubstep did. Like you say it now and people almost snigger...
Yeah it’s strange.
This isn’t an attempt to get you to hot anyone up or name drop anyone, but what happened?!
There was an ‘Americanisation’ I call it. You know how we were talking before about how every scene, whether it’s graff or whether it’s music, is always best at its inception? It’s because people were just doing it…what was your question again?
I can’t remember. (laughter) Bro I’m buzzing…I swear it was quite a good question as well…oh yeah so basically, why did it die?
Oh yeah course. Well at the beginning there was no formula. There’s never a formula at the beginning. Someone just does something; there’s no rules to it. Rules became present I think when Rusko came about.
I used to talk to him at this time, used to go round his studio and chat, and i know what he wanted to do: he wanted to take the clip sound from Drum & Bass which was very heavy in the tops, and those sort of high end bassline sounds that a lot people didn’t really take to in the scene. But the Americans loved it.
Next thing you knew, Skrillex just come out of nowhere and that was the beginning of the formula. Whatever Skrillex makes, that’s Dubstep now, and everyone who copies Skrillex is a Dubstep producer now. Then it eventually went into Trap and instrumental Trap style, which for me personally came out of Dubstep. It fully came out of Dubstep! A lot of the beats are the same, with those Trappy snares, and a sample of Lil John going “TURN DOWN FOR WHAT?!”. It’s Dubstep otherwise man.
I’m gonna top my tea up.
Can you grab a Riz please? I grabbed the only thing which wasn’t a Rizla...So the demise…
Yeah the big demise. It was just weird when it happened, because it was like a switch flicked. From a DJ’s perspective as well, all of a sudden it went us all playing the same line ups at the same parties around the country - and even in Europe, like ‘Damn, Snow Bombing early on like 2010 we’d all go out there and all do the dubstep thing - then all of a sudden lineups started changing and there would be one headline DJ and a load of local residents…it just became fragmented.
When you lose the localisation of a scene you lose a lot. You lose a lot of integrity; you lose love for it, ‘cos it’s not as special as it was when it first started. When you were one of the only people into it. There’s always that magic about it.
Course man, it’s that mystery.
The unknown. Like with graffiti, once you’ve painted long enough and you’ve met everyone all that mystery goes.
I think as well when Burial’s album came out and the fact that no one knew who he was, there were no pictures of him online, and it was all this whole mystery about him. That was maybe the last mystery of Dubstep. Still no one really knows who he is, he doesn’t ever perform live. In interviews he’s said he just likes to make music for himself and goes back to that whole sort of Jungle, ancient way of making music.
For the love of it.
You’re doing it for yourself; you’re doing it for your brother. Like Burial always said that, “I make music for me and my brother to listen to” and he’s one of the biggest selling electronic artists of the last 10 years. He’s in the same bracket as people like Aphex Twin, Fourtet…he’s right up there as a name, but he came out of this tiny scene in South London. You know, the guy’s from Balham.
I met him once in the pub, you’d think he was a plumber - the time I met him in the pub actually was the time I nearly got murdered.
I was in a pub in Crystal Palace with Loefah, Burial and my mate Billy. I come out the pub to go into the garden for a cigarette, and this guy’s like barged me. I sorta looked around: big guy frothing at the mouth. You know the corners yeah? So I’m looking and him and I’m like “Sorry bruv” thought nothing of it, you know? You bump into someone, you say sorry and you walk off.
Went into the garden, lit my cigarette up. I’m chatting to Loefah and Burial, and Burial doesn’t know anything about me or DJing so I'm just having a nice normal conversation with a guy who’s selling loads of records but he seems like he’s never made a beat in his life. Like a normal fuckin’ don.
Then this guy comes back into the garden with an 8” blade axe. He walks over to me, I’m sitting at a pub picnic table thing, and puts the axe to my skull and he’s like “I’m gonna fucking kill you bruv”.
I’m not gonna lie, I started melting in that instant and I was like “Sorry bruv. Sorry. Sorry. Whatever I did yeah, I’m sorry” and he wouldn’t move this axe from my head. He was frothing at the mouth, “I’m gonna kill you”.
All of a sudden this don, this skinny little white rat, comes out of nowhere and he’s standing there. I’m thinking two of them and there’s four of us. My brain just switched innit and I was like ‘fuck this’. I went “Billy grab the fucking axe mate!” and we both got 4 hands on this axe at the same time. Wrestled it away from my skull and we’re pushing him pushing him, pushing him towards the pub door, like 'we’ve got him bruv'.
We push the axe onto him against the door and the door didn’t open. So I’m like 'fucking hell someone from the pub has seen what’s going on and locked the door' to protect the patrons inside the pub, so went “Let go of the axe” and we both let go of it. I covered my head with my hands thinking ‘he’s just gonna go for it now’; about 2 seconds later I looked up and the guy was gone. Completely gone. Like nothing had happened.
I remember it ‘cos it was the day it snowed more in this country than it had in 20 years and I drove to the pub and tried to drive my car back up Anerley Hill and man was just sliding back down, Burial’s in the car…can you imagine Burial’s just sitting there, he just saw someone almost get murdered, and he’s like “next time, do you think we should just have a cup of tea round mine? Is that alright bruv?” I was like yeah that sounds like a plan! (laughter)
But yeah man, that was the murder story…
One thing I’ve got to ask about which we were talking about earlier is the limited scope of UKG. Basically, why is everyone stuck in Pure Garage II in a nuthshell?
Bruv I know.
There must be good new tunes! I’ve heard you drop Garage I’ve never heard before?
I dunno, I feel like scenes generally aren’t the same without dedication to a craft. By that I mean putting out a vinyl that only DJs are gonna buy, and only DJs who have spent time on their craft are gonna play it.
'Cos now anyone can be a DJ bruv. Anyone can spend £200 on a controller, download some mp3s, press the ‘sync’ button, and boom: they’re mixing. The art of the craft is dying out and I feel like that definitely applies to the Garage scene dying.
There’s other things like Aya Napa and all the trouble that happened out there, and Romeo’s birthday bash when the gun went off in Room 2 at The Astoria…it just died out and became a dirty word. Garage become a dirty word and thats when Bassline come out of nowhere, which was basically Speed Garage. But you couldn’t call it Speed Garage because no promoters would fuckin’ book it!
So there’s all sorts of strains of Garage which exist now they’re just not called Garage.
I was talking to Brian Belle Fortune the other day and he said it was all those people who used to dress up for raves - in his words “in their Sunday best” - and smoke crack were the ones who went on to basically form the UK Garage scene. Despite the sexy, lavish flavour, from the start there was always a cruddy undertone.
Yeah I’ve heard that before. That a lot of the Garage sort of popped up in room 2 at Jungle raves, and it would be in a very crud environment but a different type of music.
I would love to have seen how that went down back then. I’d love to see some footage of Room 2 at a Jungle rave where they’re playing Garage, like US Garage. Talking like 95/95. Cos in the UK we didn’t really catch onto it til the end of 96/97, when people like Grant Nelson, 24 Hour Experience, people like Creed coming in on the mic at Gas Club. Then the UK really took it and made it their own do you know what i’m saying?
I’d love to have been there for that transition. When the first UKG people were getting inspired, to have been at those raves.
The first Garage raves in London started in the Elephant & Castle Pub. The pub bruv! UKG started in a pub, a fucking pub mate, in South London.
How fucking great is that?!
Written and photos by: Henry
Listen to Oneman's specially curated exclusive mix for Wavey Garms here: