Dubstep doesn't get much love these days, but that hasn't stopped it from dominating the top 40 charts. Here's the story of where dubstep came from and why there's more to it than meets the ear.
Imagine if we airlifted Skrillex back in time and dropped him into a crowd of 1920s Europeans, conveniently close to a power outlet. Would they scatter in fright, lamenting the end of the world, diving for cover from this blitzkrieg of sound (and perhaps his haircut)? Would they cry out, “Whither this alien clangor?! What hath rent the very firmament and sent us these accursed sounds from beyond the grave!”
Actually, they might say “What, this stuff again? Still not for me.”
They might have already heard the seeds of the musical movement of Dubstep. Its great-grandfather, Futurist Music, debuted at a concert in Milan in 1914. Italian inventor, composer and eccentric Luigi Russolo conducted “instruments” with names like second-string comic book characters, including “the Crackler,” the Scraper” and “the Exploder.” The audience hated it so much that fisticuffs broke out and rotten vegetables were involved.
The situation is different now. Dubstep has been blowing up the charts for the last decade and gone full-blown mainstream, appearing in songs by Britney Spears and Taylor Swift. Before we follow Gawker’s advice and put an end to Dubstep, let’s consider how far it has come.
It’s a genre of electronic dance music, with a sub-bass meant to vibrate your chest cavity, with the “dub” that came from 60s reggae and the “step” of London Garage house music. A dash of dubstep can make a regular track feel edgy and dynamic. It’s also pretty harsh and abrasive to unprepared ears.
This is the story of how Dubstep struggled against the odds of public revulsion in its infancy and (aided by a few convenient technological advancements) came to dominate the top 40 charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Electronic music might be a consequence of the discovery of electricity and the invention of devices like the microphone and the synthesizer. But there’s evidence that we, or at least some of us, wanted to create a Dubstep-esque genre of music as early as the 1600s, before any of that was possible. The fundamental theory behind Dubstep is that that you can break any sound down to its most basic components and rebuild it into music. In other words, you don’t have to be a slave to “actual instruments” – you can build any sound in your mind and make it from one machine. Sir Francis Bacon described a fairly modern sound studio in his 1626 book, “New Atlantis.”
While the Italian public threw tomatoes at Russolo, French composer Edgard Varèse thought his contemporaries weren’t going far enough. In a letter to a friend, Varèse wrote: “I dream of instruments obedient to my thoughts… Why, Italian Futurists, do you slavishly reproduce only what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of everyday life?”
Varèse’s story is like that of many great artists. He was born in the wrong time; his creations were often received with hostility, but he is now considered an influential pioneer.
Leon Theremin unknowingly followed Varese’s advice when he showed his musical invention to Lenin in the early 1920s. Two metal antennae stuck out of a box, which would sense the player’s hands as they moved between them and translate the movement into an eerie high-pitched sound. Lenin was tickled, and in 1951 composer Bernard Herrman used a theremin in the soundtrack to the sci-fi hit The Day the Earth Stood Still. To this day the eerie wavering ooowwWWEEuuuuu sound is a hallmark of the arrival of aliens in TV and film.
Lenin was so enthralled by this invention that he dispatched Leon to travel throughout the Soviet Union to demonstrate the machine. He was later sent to Europe and the U.S. (presumably to show off superior Soviet technology). Leon’s Soviet music machine kick-started The West’s interest in electronic music.
In the 1930s tape recording was invented, followed by stereo recording in 1940s. But it was the synthesizer that really changed things for electronic music and made Dubstep possible.
In 1956, after a decade of experimentation, engineers at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) introduced the first sound synthesizer, which electronically mimics other instruments and makes its own unique sounds.
“They broke down sound waves into their most basic ideas. It does a lot of the things that a piano does or what any of these woodwinds do, but in a different way, oscillating air molecules in different shapes and then using filter and amplifier to change the shape of those oscillations. The faster the air molecules move, the higher the sound pitch,” explains Sami Yenigun, resident Dubstep expert at the arts desk of National Public Radio. Synths use a combination of tone-generating and modulating devices to build sounds from their component parts.
The synth freed musicians from the tyranny of octaves, and from the limited number of pieces in an orchestra. You could create a sound, any sound you could imagine, from scratch. “You can get as specific as you want in terms of any kind of sound you want to make,” says Yenigun. Do you want a high A or a low G note or something in between that we don’t even have a name for? Fiddle with the frequency until you find it.
The commercially available synth launched a new era for electronic music. Yenigun breaks down Dubstep’s lineage since the synth: “Dubstep comes from UK garage and drum and bass and jungle and hip hop,” he said. “The break beats coming out of funk records – you can trace it all the way back to African rhythms.”
“Dubstep, especially in the US for a younger crowd, sort of took over in this insane way, rising from the UK in the early 2000s, and then it comes over here.”
“Now there’s a real market for it, because younger people in this country are listening to it in a big way.”
As our lives have become more wrapped up in computers, it’s no surprise our music has too. The Internet lives only in machines – it’s where we find jobs, watch porn, track the lives of high school acquaintances, look up recipes – it’s where we live now, and there is no “flesh and blood” equivalent of the Internet. Dubstep, too, lives in computers, making something that sounds like music from a bunch of zeroes and ones, which is probably why it resonates (no, reverberates) with people now more than it ever could before.
“To use a synthesizer you used to have to go to Princeton and the whole room was the synthesizer,” Yenigun says. “But the ease with which people can make it now is flooding the market with content. For better or for worse, tons and tons of bedroom producers are getting in on it.”
“You kinda gotta be a nerd about it but it’s possible now.”
This article originally appeared at Connectivist, an online magazine created in partnership with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association to connect the dots between technology, innovation, web culture and TV with bold, entertaining and counterintuitive content.
Top image: Checkyoponytail; Skrillex via aceshowbiz.