So last Friday, I finally made it along to a dubstep night. DMZ made the trip up from London to play at the Art School, and they brought along their core crew: Mala and Loefah djing with Sgt Pokes on the mic.
Over-preparing for any potential queues or complications, I arrived at 11, with the doors to the union just freshly opened and only a handfull of people about. I was flying solo for the night, which tbh I'm starting to find a bit of a drag these days. I mean, I long ago got over being self-conscious about it and I nearly always manage to have a good time regardless, but it just feels unnatural and adds an extra layer of stress to preceding. In fact, sitting on one of several empty and extremely comfy old couches along the side of the union's main room, I felt strangely like I could have been relaxing back in my living room. A version of my living room with a collosal soundsystem freshly installed, however, as Electric Elimantors, the night's regular residents and a more than worthy opening outfit for the night, were already banging out tunes on the decks.
One of the bonus benefits of the night was the way that it gave me, after a long abscence, an excuse to experience just how fun and well-equipped a venue for a night out the Art School can be. The soundsystem for the night was simply but expertly organised, with a hefty bank of speakers placed haflway between the stage/dj area and the bar, providing everyone in the main dancefloor area with deep, enthralling surround sound. The Eleminators stretched out for a good couple of hours, and were a worthy opener to the line-up. As far as I could tell, they operated as a kind of revolving team, with about four different people taking turns on the decks. Their early material was closer to instrumental hip-hop than dubstep, but after about 20 mins, as people steadily streamed into the room, I first heard what I'd come for: the bass.
I may as well get if off my chest at this stage: prior to this night, I had been a sub-bass virgin. Well, sort of: it had been a part of much of the music I know and love, and for some time I’d roughly understood how it worked in principle, bit I’d never experienced sub pressure out over a big system. My speakers at home clearly couldn’t compare. Sub-bass produces a rich, unusual sensory response; the sound is physically felt as much as it is heard. Sitting there, adsorbing the music, it felt as if each bass note was pinpointing and focussing in on me directly, in a similar motion to the stroboscopic lights beaming across the dancefloor. As the Eliminators’ set continued, and the room began steadily to fill up, I made my way over to stand by the speakers, and from there gradually found myself starting to dance in what I hoped was a nicely inconspicuous spot of my own. Nothing but good things to be said about the rest of the crowd though: as far from oppressively student as was ever going to be possible for a night held in a student union, there was very little of the ‘professionally scruffy’ stereotype for which dubstep fans are sometimes slagged off on display. Another nice blow against the preconceptions was the healthy proportion of females in attendance, at least 40% of the crowd in my estimation, all totally into the music.
Electric Eliminators stetched out for a good two hours, and played a varied selection which reached beyond strictly dubstep. To my delight, there was grime in the form of Wiley’s Bow E3 ( possibly in remix form, I couldn’t be sure), which drew a great crowd response, seemingly telling against the perception that grime travels less well outside of London than dubstep. We were also treated to some dancehall, with Warrior Queen’s anthem Almighty Father getting a play (I only realised recently just how filthy the lyrics to this song actually are, luvvit though). And perhaps best of all, I was very pleased to hear the appearance of some UK funky house, as the Eleminators dropped NB Funky’s big current tune Riddim Box towards the end of their set. I have a lot of hopes that this sort of music could do well in Glasgow, given the city’s longstanding appreciation for soul. Certainly, there were plenty smiles around me on the floor while it played, although many people still seemed to be learning how to dance to the new kinds of grooves. Riddim Box was also important for marking the first rewind of the night. Indeed, this was the first time I’d heard records being rewound in a Glasgow club, but the crowd seemed to get into it straight away. Over the course of the night, the djs seemed to strike the right balance between hyping up the crowd and interrupting the flow, with about 5 of the big tunes getting pulled back.
With the dancefloor now increasingly busy, the DMZ crew finally took over the decks at about 1 am. I was to recongise only a small fraction of the records that they played, but this element of surprise only seemed to add to the experience. Mala was up first, and it quickly became clear that he had an expert grasp of how to structure a set. Although the majority of the tracks that he chose fitted into the half-step format, he seemed to know exactly when to switch it up by reaching for some, erm, ‘full-step’. I was impressed by the flexibility, complexity and enthusiastic energy of the percussion on the more uptempo tracks, provoking plenty of rapid hand movements and upper-body action from the dancers. Just seeing and experiencing the particular type of dancing that this music enforces – a strange, somewhat jerky movement equally balanced between skanking and moshing – was a revelation. His selections with a slower feel were dark, appealingly so from my perspective, but also contained plenty of breathing space, and featured a certain sort of sonic depth. Both of these factors seemed to demonstrate a flourishing of the ‘dub’ aspects in dubstep in a way that avoided being strictly imitative.
Along with the music, the other key factor in the performance was Sgt Pokes’ MCing. As with the rewinds, to the best of my knowledge this was the first time I’d experience someone chatting on a mic over records. Pokes worked up the crowd with ease, his controlling impact aided by his imposing physical presence. His repeated catchphrases – ‘original skankage’, ‘this one’s industrial’, ‘eyes down!’, ‘fortified!’ and others which were sadly half-forgotten once the night was over – often helped set the tone for appropriate type of dancing to match each tune. My one gripe with him would be that he repeated his cackling, demonic laugh to the point where it became a bit corny – although I was certainly impressed by the perfect accuracy with which he reproduced it each time.
Slightly over an hour into proceedings, Pokes began to chant ‘last one Mala’, and with applause for all involved, Loefah seamlessly took over control of the turntables. It quickly became clear that his set would focus more closely on the ‘standard’ half-step sound with which dubstep is now widely associated, and sometimes criticised for. However, his particular take on it appealed to me a good deal, as it tended to center on the caustic, heavy, bordering on industrial textures which represent one of the substyles within this template that I find more exciting (the other being the tunes that take the wobbling basslines in a more fun-centred, jump-up direction). Around 30-40 minutes in, there was a short spell where he seemed to be losing us; the tune selection shifted more into the sort of buzzing mid-range riffs combined with uneventful beats which have drawn some legitimate discontent. You could see the change on the dancefloor; it might have been the time of night as much as the music, but the energy levels dropped, people began moving in a more sluggish, trudging fashion.
But Loeafah must have quickly noticed the change in vibe himself, and he reached for an anthem, dropping the Bug’s collaboration with Warrior Queen, Poison Dart. This received the biggest crowd reaction of the night, with cheers and a huge surge towards the stage. For the next 20 minutes in he kept the energy level right up, with a continual flow of bangers. The Bug’s album London Zoo must have made an impact up here, as Ganja, his b-side featuring Flowdan, garnered another strong response from the floor. As the immediately following tune entered into the mix, we were already beyond 3 o’clock, and so were treated to the house lights being turned on, in combination with various organisor-looking types wandering on to the stage and gesturing to DMZ to start wrapping it up. This seemed merely to work up the crowd even further, with one lad even leaping up to dance on stage. As Loefah finally wound to a stop, he was greeted with cheers, hearty applause and chants of ‘one more tune’, but I decided that with licensing laws involved an encore was unlikely, so began to make my way home (would love to hear from someone if I turned out to be wrong!). The end to the night strengthened my longstanding conviction that extended licenses ought to be granted more readily in Glasgow for these sorts of events. But I’m not going to let a moan spoil my judgement of a fantastic night. It was a night of important musical firsts for me, and well worth the wait.