Just because this is about the modern musical genre Dubstep, it doesn’t mean you won’t learn something about music and music theory. Ready?
The other day a friend asked me why the music genre Dubstep is called Dubstep. What does “Dubstep” mean? I felt like I understood the answer, but I couldn’t articulate it without making deep “brahhhh whaaaa” sounds.
So let’s try again. And unfortunately it’s actually a bit complicated. And perhaps kinda heady. First…
WHAT IS DUBSTEP?
Wikipedia says it’s
a genre of electronic dance music that originated in South London, United Kingdom. Its overall sound has been described as ‘tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples, and occasional vocals’.
Perhaps the quintessential modern example of this is by a Dubstep artist who goes by the moniker “Skrillex” and his mega-hit from 2010 (and Grammy Award winner for Best Dance Recording in 2012) “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”. In this track you’ll hear heavy wobble-bass (a low-frequency, oscillating timbre) and syncopated (‘off-beat’) drum rhythms. Accompanying these characteristics are more typical Dubstep themes of an intensifying build-up with a bass-drop as the build-up conclusion then becoming the thrust.
Sorry. Got off-track there. Now,
WHY IS IT CALLED DUBSTEP?
I really wish I could find an easier way do describe this, but, like I said, it’s kinda complicated. So let’s break it down…
DUB – In this case, it refers to the focus on the drum and bass
To dub something is really to duplicate, copy, or transfer recorded material from one medium to another. In the 1960’s, a sub-genre of Reggae music emerged that took an emphasis of the bass and drum samples and dubbed them into a new (often instrumental) track becoming Dub music. For Reggae legend Bob Marley, “dub this one!” meant “put an emphasis on bass and drums”. Fast-forward to the 1990’s and you’ll find a new genre of music called “Bass and Drum” emerge laying the groundwork for the “Dub” in Dubstep.
STEP – In this case, it refers to the style of rhythm
This may be even more difficult to explain. Modern music typically follows a 4/4 rhythm in which you can count a “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” pattern per measure. Electronic music (going back to Disco up to and including House/Techno) often places a kick drum (bass) on each of the 4 beats in the measure. If you put the kick on the 1 and 3, you’re now talking about a 2-step beat which is sometimes used in Country and Pop music, but especially used in Jazz, Blues, and Boogie.
What sets the latter apart from the former is something referred to as a shuffle. The ‘shuffle’ adds tuplets to the beat. In other words, you get a kick or snare on some or all of the 8’s, 16’s, and 32’s in the 4/4 measure. Sounds complicated, but you recognize it when you say “that beat is funky”. Hip-hop used it effectively and perhaps can be thanked for reintroducing the syncopated rhythm. In this case, you’ll typically find the snare resting on an off-beat such as a 16, 32, or even an 8 that feels ‘one moment too late or early’.
ARRGH! Okay, just watch this…
Whew! Told you this was complicated. See why I can really respect some of these Dubstep artists? There’s real music theory behind it — whether they know it or not!
So to bring this back home, Dubstep it called Dubstep because of the focus on the drums and bass, along with it’s irregular step in it’s rhythm.