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Steppas Delight

img  Tobias
Just like there is no story without an author writing it, there can be no red threads or lines of development without historians awarding meaning to otherwhise disconnected events. “Steppas’ Delight” is therefore more than just a compilation collecting some of the finest cuts from the creative forges of Croydon-and-beyond-based home-studios.

Effectively, it takes on the task of defining a genre that has haunted insider columns and pub talks ever since it first flapped its fledgling wings somwhere around 2003 and answers the questions that weigh heavy on many journalists’ and fans’ minds: What is Dubstep, where did it come from  and where is it headed?

A visceral gut-bass

Importantly and against what one might expect, “Steppas’ Delight” does not regard itself as a retrospective. “Dubstep Present to Future”, the headline says and maybe this tag already implies that it might be easier to predict the last part of the question than deciding on the style’s exact origins. That, in itself, is a wise decision. “Dubstep will prove the grounding for something different in the future”, Emma Warren says in the detailed and excuisitely designed booklet, “It’s part of a bigger picture, part of a lineage of English music that goes back decades, of not centuries.” Certainly, the genre owes a lot to Reggae and Punk – the latter one of the most important propriatary forms of art England has ever created and the former one of the styles it has soaked up and made its own like hardly any other nation in the world.

So, what is it then? Thanks to its wide outreach (19 tracks on 2 richly, albeit it not exhaustingly, filled discs) “Steppas’ Delight” manages to convey more than just a vague notion of Dubstep’s defining trademarks. While the echoes and dynamic extremes of Dub have subsided into textural factors, the visceral gut-bass of Drum n Bass has shifted upfront, lifting itself from its subsonic craters and turning into a more immediately accessible musical element.

Rather than merely providing resonance and vibration, it now keeps the beats together, acts as the core of the groove and even offers melodic impulses. The archetypical wobble-sounds, blown over from the more drastic incarnations of Drum n Bass, are still there, but their goal is no longer just the solar plexus – instead, they are aimed at both the left and right half of the brain, coming across as both warm and gentle as well as cool and aggressive.

Masking their half-beats
The drums, meanwhile, have become more slender and relaxed. Minute variations of hihat patterns or metallic particle shifts in the background have replaced complex breaks in polyrhythmic complexity. Several tunes here even return to the naive simplicity and almost bluntly pounding kickdrums of Hardcore and Techno – a feat rendered more noticeable by a shift in the sonic palette towards bleepy and squeaky timbres, narrowing the gap with Rave and other forms of dance culture.

This more recent phenomenon aside, the percussive aspect of Dubstep not only implies a shift in focus, but also a decided refinement: While the dancer will simply move to (or “between”) the beats, the attentive listener will notice delicate side-currents, gradually and subtly manifesting themselves and offering diverse perceptory experiences.

It is true, as Warren points out, that “Half-Step” beats, at first a deciding signature characteristic, are no longer a necessity. The term, as an explanatory aside, describes the snare drum being placed on the third beat of each bar, creating a laid-back, slow-motion-like feeling (effectively, it means that the piece seems to be moving in half its actual pace, while the other rhythmical elements are flying and buzzing about). It is an assertion somewhat verified by the tracks at hand, even though many artists have simply become more adept at masking their half-beats by myriads of parasitic lines, including adjacent percussive events to distract and dazzle the listener.

Replacing the hype

Put in a nutshell, then, Dubstep is marked by a playful and thematic use of deep bass lines, spacey dub effects and a high degree of minimalism in its arrangements. Even though it remains mainly instrumental, “Steppas Delight” also offers a glimpse of what Dubstep sounds like when enriched with HipHop (Plastician featuring Skepta), Soul, RnB and Cocktail Jazz (Geiom featuring Marita’s “Reminissin’”) or when leaning more obviously towards Reggae (Uncle Same). Never once, however, does it approximate the visionary quality Drum n Bass was able to evoke in its prime: Production and compositions clearly disclose its primary dance-roots, defying demands for a mind-shattering Über-Werk or for a more “intellectual” branch to manifest itself.
This may still change. The two albums London-based Burial has churned out to sensational reception over the last two years (“Burial” and “Untrue” were both Album of the Year in one influential Zine or the other) or the aspirations of someone like Benga to follow down this road as well, may prove sceptics wrong, even thoug it is currently hard to see anyone else included on this album to join them.

No reason to be disappointed, though: “Steppas Delight” gently destroys the myths that have risen even in serious publications (claims that “Dubstep is moving forward at a bewildering rate”, for example are disproved by the material at hand – it just isn’t there), but it replaces it with something infinitely more important: Music.

A piece like the frantically quirky “Gullybroker Lane”, with its shrill Synthesizer hollers shows just how far Dubstep is capable of reaching out into Funk and Jazz, a nerve-wrecking hymn like Ikonika’s “Please” pays hommage to the early incarnations of European Techno and Shonx’ “Canton” plays with Eastern influences in a highly convincing fashion. It is its ability to integrate the most diverse offerings onto its family that makes Dubsteps so potent and geared for the future. Instead of sealing itself off from other developments hermetically, it has opened the gates and allowed the flood in. You can easily imagine the positive energy and diverse moods an evening of Dubstep can evoke, contrasting starkly with the cold industrial flavour of Drum n Bass or the posh bubbliness of 2Step and Garage.

An international community

Its honesty and near-completeness make “Steppas Delight” such an... err... delight. The inclusion of Japanese act “Goth Trade” also demonstrates that Dubstep is already expanding internationally and maybe this is the most important message the album conveys: While, in itself, the genre may not offer a complete sonic revolution, it transports the enthusiasm and energy of an open-minded community, a contageous force that cuts through the hype like a beam of light through the stale darkness of a 21st century metropolis.

The more you immerse yourself in the music, the more it gives you that spinetingling sensation that something special is about to happen – even if you can’t quite put your finger on the why or what. In a sense, Dubstep makes you feel young again – and “Steppas Delight” is like a bar filled with elixir-shots, ready and waiting to be slammed down thirsty throats. If anything, this story has only just reached the end of its first chapter.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Souljazz Records

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