Friday, February 11, 2005

How the half-tempo revolution in Grime and Dubstep is a brilliant coup

Anybody who reads this blog knows that I'm a member of that odd breed of American who follows with perverse interest every development in the evolution of UK's hardcore continuum, which in recent years roughly translates to grime, dubstep, and drum n bass and the underground institutions that produce and disseminate them (pirate radio, dubplate culture, etc). A surprising, mostly unspoken, phenomenon has been quietly taking hold within the garage "speed tribe" (as Kode 9 would say) - which adheres to roughly a 130-150 bpm tempo range...

An increasing number of tunes coming out of the current UK underground have skunked out their beats and effectively cut their tempos in half, so that they can still be mixed smoothly with 140 bpm beats, and perhaps retain the bubbling basslines or skittering hi-hats of garage's more danceable forefathers, but which clearly place the kick drum and snare such that they effectively pull the song's momentum down to a sludgy 70 bpm, slower even than hip hop.

It's a subtle transformation, masked in many ways by the toungue-twisting mc's that still lace many of these beats, but a significant break nonetheless with the usual break-neck acceleration that has marked hardcore's various incarnations throughout rave's history. The quality in drum n bass, grime, 2-step, jungle which has most been a turnoff to the uninitiated has always been its relentless, aggressive speed (often construed as absence of soul). Whenever I have attempted to turn hip hop heads on to grime, or even 2-step before it, the first reaction has usually been "It's too fast."

With the introduction of the "half steppa," grime has ingeniously, instantaneously aligned itself more closely with the syncopations of Dirty South hip hop than rave, without selling its soul to the U.S. (as so many of have done before, and uniformly failed).

For its part, dubstep has pulled a provocative coup as well. DJ Youngsta's sets, for example, are now composed almost entire of tunes that could be classified as half steppas, lending a supremely dark and skunked out dreadness which brings the "dub" in dubstep sharply into focus. Most of the big producers making waves in both scenes - Jamma, Wiley, Plasticman, Digital Mystikz, Loefah - are experimenting with spacing out their beats, which really opens them up in exciting ways.

Considering the reports of chronic head-nodding and nary a swerve of the hips to be found on the dancefloor, the only lingering question may be if we can even call this music dance music any longer?

Listen: Digital Mystikz - "Jah Fire" | Wonder - "What"
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