Back in the ’90s, during the heyday of rave culture, a few educated scenesters developed an interesting idea, casting the dance club as something Foucault had called a “heterotopia.” The idea was that through a combination of electronic music, drugs, and dancing, people could create a space to temporarily escape the constructions that shape everyday life – namely the holy trinity of race, class, and gender – and even shed their individual identities to share in a moment of redemptive collective euphoria. I wasn’t there, but it sounds kind of cool. Of course, by the turn of the century, the scene dried up – I was talking to someone who attended a rave recently, and she described it as nothing but a bunch of “hippies and junkies.” Appropriately enough, the latest big thing in electronic music is dubstep, which sounds a lot like a heterotopia that’s been broken up by cops. It still sounds anonymous and hypnotic, and most of these producers release music under pseudonyms and stay out of the public eye, but all the joy has been replaced by isolation, paranoia, and menace.
Of course, for the last few years, dubstep has been something you read about more than you hear. While music writers love talking about it, precious few releases have been available, especially in America. Lucky for us, Hyperdub, the English label responsible for most of the best of the genre, has provided a fabulous introduction with the release of the new compilation “5: Five Years of Hyperdub” (appropriately enough, to celebrate the label’s fifth anniversary).
The comp is split into two discs, the first full of new material, and the second made up of the label’s “classics.” But aside from a few artists who have broken through on this side of the Atlantic, like Burial, who’s released some of the only high-quality dubstep LPs, and Flying Lotus (who actually hails from L.A.), the majority of names on this disc are going to be unfamiliar. While most of this music is full of skittering or stuttering downtempo beats and wailing siren-like synths, and heavily processed vocals, these artists can be all over the map stylistically. Some of the music sounds vaguely ambient, some is like a warped, woozy version of Timbaland or The Neptunes, some sounds like nightmarish club music. There are also a lot of oddities: Kode9 & Spaceape have a bizarre cover of the Specials classic protest song “Ghost Town,” which suggests that streets and dancefloors have been cleared by nuclear fallout rather than racial strife, and Black Chow’s “Purple Smoke” sounds like a remix of Japanese radio ad.
But the thing that’s clear on “5” is that dubstep is defined as much by an ambience as by a particular sound. Over at Pitchfork, Mike Powell wrote that dubstep sounds like the 21st Century as imagined by noir-ish science fiction: “a procession of fluorescent signs over an empty street.” That’s a pretty apt description – none of this music would sound particularly out of place in “Bladerunner” or “Akira.” A lot of the comp sounds like a musical expression of a cyberpunk dystopia: distorted human voices lost in a bunch of mechanical blips and squeals.
Much like rave, house, or trance music, these tracks tend to bleed together, especially since “5” clocks in at an epic two and a half hours. Of course dubstep is definitively intended for headphones rather than dancefloors, but like dance music of old, it’s mostly about setting a mood. There’s no euphoria here, but if you ever find yourself walking around alone at night, this is your soundtrack.