2011: The Year Dubstep Broke

[caption id="attachment_22331" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Infographic by Ho-Mui Wong"]2011: The Year Dubstep Broke Graphic[/caption]

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What happened in dubstep this year requires no punchline. 2011 opened with a Britney Spears dubstep song—”Hold It Against Me,” a predictably catchy, vampy come-on with a bass-throb breakdown, along with major Mandee in-store potential. And 2011 closed with a Korn dubstep album, The Path of Totality, a development of imaginable absurdity that actually ended up being somewhat legit (if slightly less listenable), including a collaboration with LA’s 12th Planet and The xx remixer Flinch, which also seems to paraphrase Martika’s 1988 hit “Toy Soldiers.” (It’s called “Way Too Far,” and is a good album taste-tester if you’re not testosteroney enough for the full experience.) Lead singer Jonathan Davis praised dubstep, telling Billboard he finds it “completely innovative and new... not like stale-ass metal and rock'n'roll.” He also said that Korn was “dubstep before there was dubstep.”

"Whatever your opinion, it was undeniable this year that mainstream America throbbed with wobble, a development heretofore unseen."

Stateside fans who were passing around crude MP3 files of Burial’s first album and tracks like Atki2’s “Guilty Pleasures (Pinch Remix)” around six years ago might beg to differ. But herein lies the crux of dubstep ‘11: the big-room, arena-shattering bass that attracted a new, headbanging dance mass this year had little to do with the painstaking, intellectual music of dubstep’s genesis. Some were mad about this influx of fratboy attracting “brostep”—the dunderheaded, all-funtime arena version of dubstep—sullying the landscape. Others saw it as an opportunity to be open-minded. As Jubilee, the DJ/producer known as “Brooklyn’s bass sweetheart” puts it, “It was a weird year, but now there is this fine line between techno and ‘dubstep’... there are no rules right now, which is good.”

Whatever your opinion, it was undeniable this year that mainstream America throbbed with wobble, a development heretofore unseen. Spears’ dalliance with dubstep (and admitted brostep godfather Rusko, who submitted tracks for her album) was predicated by Rihanna’s 2009 album Rated R, courtesy of London duo Chase & Status. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne cribbed a track by Brit Flux Pavilion for “Who Gon Stop Me.” But even the pop stars couldn’t trump the massive fame and influence of wee Skrillex, the musician whose trajectory followed his teen emo band From First to Last, to being the biggest new producer in the country. (In November, he was nominated for five Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist.) Skrillex’s sound is a melange of rave-ready techno and sound barrier-breaking bass orbs, as heard most delectably on addictive single “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” which seemingly propelled him out of nowhere early in the year. His spry styles and enthusiasm not only earned him the Grammy noms, a Spin Magazine cover, a collaboration with the surviving members of the Doors (!) and a spot producing on the aforementioned Korn album -- but Skrillex became one of the funnest internet memes ever. The Tumblr “Girls That Look Like Skrillex” was a fan fave despite the grammatical issues, but even better was Hipster Runoff christening him “alt Corey Feldman,” and their subsequent union.

The most popular style this year, promulgated by artist like Skrillex, Bassnectar, and Nero, combined a melange of dance threads with dubstep’s basic components writ large: 140 beats per minute and triumphant crescendo shuffle punctuated by sub-bass cranked up to sound, at times, like a puking Transformer. But the heart of early dubstep was not lost, most notably in more experimental releases like James Blake’s pulsating debut, Zomby’s sublimely minimal Dedication, and SBTRKT’s bass-textured pop album. The U.K. had their own dubstep breakthroughs: interminably lovable dance diva Katy B became a pop star with production by dubstep pioneers Benga, Skream and DJ Zinc, while Nero’s “Symphony 2808” was performed live on Radio 1 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It even showed up in a Weetabix commercial. Meanwhile, the genre’s influence trickled through to the mainstream in other, stealthier ways. Nicki Minaj’s “Roman’s Revenge,” produced by Swizz Beatz, had a roiling synth that hearkened back to dubstep’s roots in grime. Araabmuzik, the MPC-playing wunderkind rap producer, began cutting short his own hit singles like “Salute” during live shows, preferring to foray into dubstep. “N****s in Paris,” the most popular song off Watch the Throne thus far, had a bomb-drop of a breakdown that helped producer Hit Boy outshine his extravagant rapping employers. And, perhaps weirdly, Tyra Banks used dubstep to soundtrack a film she shot for the latest “America’s Next Top Model: All Stars.” Says The Captain, DJ and manager of revered label Trouble & Bass, “This sound has been around for over 5 years before its current state of mass appeal, and I think it will stick around for even longer after its cult popularity is over. There are many different, amazing facets of this style and BPM of music. No doubt the sound will keep evolving.”

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the more bro-dacious qualities of dubstep caught on in the States with an economy-beleagured audience looking for release—and huge rave festivals, with stacked line-ups and cheap MDMA, offered more bang for everyone’s buck. Stylistically, the arguments about classical vs. nu-school genre sounds are nothing new—recall 2009 handwringing over Borgore’s banging bro-step prototype “Love,” for instance. As with any genre, pick your poison. But what’s most exciting is the fact that dubstep’s popularity is opening up musicians and audiences to new ideas—even Korn!—and will continue to do so. “I think in 2012, dubstep will continue to blend with other kinds of popular (and unpopular) music to create many more internet arguments about what exactly dubstep is, or what it is "supposed" to be,” says Kill the Noise, the longtime producer whose most recent release is on Skrillex’s OWSLA label. “Meanwhile, the rest of us will have a blast listening to some great new music and artists.”  As if to underscore a point: late this week, druggy Toronto R&B singer The Weeknd dropped a new mixtape, which featured a dubstep-infused cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” It doesn’t get much more pop than that.