Backtracks; a series from Melodic Distraction dipping back into the archives in search of tracks that shifted the electronic music landscape. With each edition, we invite a local artist or DJ to share their most impactful music and the history behind it. This week, Charles Vaughan touches on a genre and era defining London club track by Benga & Coki.
It’s 2010 and I’m 13 years old. I’ve been endlessly playing with my Argos DJ controller whilst trying to wrap my head around Pendulum’s Jungle Sound Gold. Whilst exploring the depths of YouTube’s recommendations, I stumbled onto a music video depicting a strange animated jellyfish pulsing to a deep sub-bass. Benga & Coki’s ‘Night’ marked the peak of dubstep’s development: piecing together fragments of the South London scene into a movement destined to break free of the underground, for better or for worse.
To understand the importance of ‘Night’, first we must understand dubstep’s path to popularity. In the late 90s, garage was quickly becoming a staple of the UK club scene. But as UKG started crossing over into a more commercial sound with tunes like Sunship’s ‘Flowers’ and MJ Cole’s ‘Sincere’, MC’s began to take the genre down a darker path back into the underground, evolving into grime. Grime looked to reflect the grey and harsh reality of London living. Wiley became the godfather and Dizzee Rascal the prodigal son, over a decade before Stormzy would become the first black solo British headliner at Glastonbury.
But the sound splintered again, darkening once more on the streets of Croydon. Ammunition Promotions’ sub label Tempa Records would capture this energy and birth a movement, with head honcho Neil Jolliffe first coining the term ‘dubstep’ in 2002. But Dubstep was as much about the presence of the sound as it was the underground ethos. The dubs required a physical space to pressurise so Tempa created ‘FWD>>’ an open free flowing sub-focused environment for producers to refine their sound and experiment.
Originally hosted in Soho’s Velvet Rooms, the night took on a new life in the formidable ‘Plastic People’. Run by Ade Fakile, the club concentrated on creating an intimate space with a tightly designed soundsystem that encouraged producers and DJs to innovate. The club’s ethos and community was pivotal to many movements, not just FWD>>. Nights like CDR and Co-Op utilised the space as a platform to forge their own communities, with DJs such as Floating Points and Four Tet cutting their teeth in that world-renowned basement.
“That’s one of its legacies: it’s a blueprint for seeking perfection.” –
FWD>> quickly became the epicentre of the Dubstep movement, with exclusive dubplates tested and anthems shaped at the events. FWD>> could not have existed without the strong community spirit and openness of Plastic People, forging a unique relationship between the venue, the community and the DJs which propelled the genre to new heights. This certainly does not discount other formative dubstep nights including Brixton’s DMZ, hosted by Mala, Coki, Loefah and Sgt Pokes, which were just as crucial to the emergence of the new sound.
Back in Croydon, Big Apple Records was shaping history. Having opened in 1992, the shop became the heart of the area’s underground scene. Two teenage regulars were Benga and Skream. Inspired by the new, darker sounds promoted at Big Apple, the two began experimenting on FL Studio and soon caught the ear of studio manager Artwork. In 2002, aged just 15, Benga released his first song on Big Apple Records, unaware of the impact his music would have on the UK scene over the next decade.
The pressure was slowly building. By 2005 Skream had unleashed ‘Midnight Request Line’ via Tempa Records at just 17 years old. Originally titled ‘Minus C’ and later renamed in homage to The Dynamic Three’s ‘Request Line’, the record initially picked up little interest from the dubstep scene. But it found a home in grime, with Skepta blasting it across pirate radio, even asking for £500 from Skream for pushing the tune. After doing the rounds at FWD>> ‘Midnight Request Line’ made its way onto the turntables of Laurent Garnier, Annie Mac and, crucially, Mary Anne Hobbs.
Unexpectedly, Mary Anne Hobbs would become one of the key voices taking Dubstep out of the underground. The BBC Radio 1 presenter first experienced the movement in the mid-naughties and became entranced by its rawness and power. In a historic moment, she invited Mala, Spaceacpe, Skream, Kode 9, Vex’d, Crazy D, Loefah, Sgt Pokes and Distance onto Radio 1 for a special ‘Dubstep Warz’ show. The 2006 broadcast became legendary, representing the growth and rawness of the genre in all its glory.
“If, as a broadcaster, you can deliver one show with the cultural & historical impact of this one in a lifetime… it’s a miracle…”
Mary Anne Hobbs
Thanks to Dubstep Warz and the dubstep stage Mary Anne Hobbs later curated at Sonar Festival, the movement was slowly fighting its way out of the underground. Dubstep couldn’t be missed.
Then, in 2008, Tempa Records released the hotly anticipated single from Benga’s second album Diary of an Afro Warrior. ‘Night’ was a collaboration with Coki and became an instant classic within the community. Outside of the underground, it reached 98th in the UK charts and became the first dubstep tune to be playlisted by Radio 1. But as impressive as this is, that is not why I selected this track.
It’s hard to describe a tune that I know so intimately; something so woven into my musical being that it cannot be detached. ‘Night’ captures the physicality of dubstep at its most raw; dark and minimal, restrained and yet powerful. Its presence within your body brings you as close to dubstep’s potential as is the needle on the record. At its core, ‘Night’ has come to represent the iconic communities that built the UK underground. Capturing an intimate blend of struggle and passion, it not only provides a voice for those forgotten by mainstream media, but forces others to listen and take note. That’s why ‘Night’ matters, perhaps now more than ever.
Dubstep was now destined for a level of mainstream success that would crumble its foundations. Benga, Skream and Artwork would soon join forces as Magnetic Man, broadcasting Croydon to the world with their debut album on Sony Records in 2010. The unlikely trio would break the Top 10 UK singles and collaborate with Katy B, soon to become the commercial voice of dubstep. A born and bred Peckham talent, she first appeared on releases with Ministry of Sound and Rinse FM’s label. On her debut album ‘On A Mission’, Katy B took her authentic dubstep roots and translated them into an innovative pop formula, breaking the Top 10 UK singles charts once more and firmly embedding dubstep in the mainstream.
Yet it was too good to last, as mainstream artists rushed to capitalise on the latest underground trend. Britney Spears announced a collaboration with Rusko, Chase and Status with Snoop Dogg. In a bizarre turn of events, dubstep even became a plot point of the Australian soap Neighbours. The genre’s roots became a distant memory for many, its identity distorted into an aggressive and lacklustre buzzword, endlessly debated in YouTube comments by purists.
“The only people that say dubstep’s not happening anymore are the people that fell out of love with it.”
Dubstep’s commercial success brought a new generation of listeners to the movement, including myself. Yet paradoxically, the genre’s purists laid the blame for its apparent demise at my generation’s infatuation with UKF and Skrillex. I feel that many fail to consider the importance of dubstep as a new generation’s point of entry into understanding the UK underground’s deep cultural history. When tracing dubstep’s origin, we can see that the genre’s energy and identity was birthed from a rich history of underground music. When tracing its legacy, it is clear that dubstep laid the blueprint for countless bass focussed movements over the last decade. Its commercial appeal only serves to educate a generation on our history, community and sound. Dubstep will forever remain a true representation of the UK underground, and ‘Night’ is the anthem that I and many others will hold onto for our lives.