Dubstepping toward the future

A once underground musical genre wobbles its way into mainstream culture

With regular shows, like Bass Drive Wednesdays at the nightclub Le Belmont, and its status as a regular tour stop for international artists, Montreal has become a major Canadian outpost for the dubstep music community. Christopher Mercer’s, known to music fans as Rusko, recent show at Telus Theater was one episode in our city’s dubstep story. On April 24th, the venue was filled with eager fans anxious to dance to the beats of the popular British DJ. Rusko did not disappoint, delivering an extraordinarily energetic performance. However, even with the persistent presence of the heavy bass effect known as the “dubstep wobble,” there was something different about this particular show. With the elaborate set design and production, the use of a relatively large capacity venue, and a high-profile headliner, the evening had many of the characteristics of a mainstream music concert: the type you’d expect from pop or rock acts with top selling albums. In this way, the Rusko show seemed to be a manifestation of dubstep’s diffusion into mainstream music culture.

The bass-heavy sounds of dubstep were first heard in south London a little over a decade ago. As dubstep spread throughout the 2000s, it evolved as a genre, reaching broader radio audiences as it was incorporated into songs by mainstream pop artists like Rihanna and Britney Spears. “I’ve seen dubstep explode and spread more quickly than any other electronic genre I’ve known,” explained Montreal-based DJ Jen Carmichael in an e-mail. This is a major shift for a genre that began so distinctly as a musical subculture. “I’m not sure if distance from the mainstream is necessarily linked to dubstep’s identity anymore” Carmichael, who plays under the moniker Vilify, admitted. “In its earlier days dubstep definitely had a different sound and feel: more low end, minimal and deep. With its increased popularity dubstep has emerged into more of the mainstream and been influenced by more popular genres.”

This transformation is particularly evident in Montreal’s own music scene. “From just over a year ago to where we are now dubstep has spread like wildfire” Carmichael observed. “To fill some of the largest venues in Montreal with this recently underground genre is still astounding to me.”

It is difficult to pinpoint precisely why dubstep has gained so much ground in so little time. A large part of this success may be the accessibility of the genre, and of electronic music in general. As these musical forms are less reliant on typical instruments and formal musical technique, they are often more accessible to average music consumers, as well as aspiring artists who may not have traditional musical training. In a way, the newness of dubstep may level the playing field, making it a more relatable genre.

Even in light of this metamorphosis, dubstep has not yet fully entered the realm of mainstream music, and it is hard to say whether or not it ever will. As Carmichael noted, “people will often ask me what kind of music I play, and when I say dubstep, they have no idea what that is. I guess time will tell if it’s reached its peak in terms of spreading into mainstream or if it will continue to expand past subculture.”

While many genres that have emerged from beyond the borders of mainstream taste, such as punk rock in the mid seventies, carry with them some sort of political attitude or agenda, the dubstep community seems less socially conscious. Dubstep appears to be focused on the musical experience itself rather than on its political ramifications. Carmichael echoed the sentiments of many dubstep artists when she explained that, “really I’m just sharing the music I love with others and watching the world of electronic music change and grow.”

Dubstep may be a relatively new addition to the Montreal music scene, but many issues present in other electronic music communities carry over to the dubstep scene. Perhaps most obvious is the overrepresentation of male DJs. This inequality inevitably effects the experience of both the consumers and creators of dubstep music. “I’m sure I’ve faced both advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps I’ve received more attention (both good and bad), maybe it’s increased my number of bookings, I think certain times I’ve been judged more harshly or had more pressure put on me” revealed Carmichael. However, the variety found in both dubstep listeners and DJs has certainly broken boundaries; perhaps gender equality is not far away. Given the flourishing of dubstep in the past year, it will be interesting to see how much the bass line rises or falls. As Carmichael said, “I guess time will tell if it’s reached its peak in terms of spreading into mainstream or if it will continue to expand past subculture.”