It’s a feeling that’s almost too nebulous to describe, but for those of us born on “the wrong side of the river (Thames),” there’s a sense in which dubstep has always sounded like South London.
It’s hard to pin down because South London, like North London, contains multitudes, contains millions, contains rich and poor, contains geographical and cultural variety that is almost too broad to generalise about. But South London is younger – look at a map of the British capital from 200 years ago, you’ll see that it barely exists – a bit more humble, terrain occupied by unshowy public parks, terraced houses and blocks of flats, rather than historic attractions, regal landmarks and glass-clad boondoggles.
In this open space beyond the tourist map, you can hear the rhythm of Londoners’ ordinary lives, and the low rumble of dubstep’s sub-low bass seems to breathe and vibrate across the skyline.
In tandem with the Rinse FM-affiliated night FWD>>, dubstep’s live incubation laboratory in its early years was the South London party DMZ (put on by Mala, Coki and Loefah), in 3rd Base inside a venue called Mass in St Matthews Church, a substantial, Grade II* listed 1820s church overlooking the heart of Brixton. 3rd Base was an entirely functional, 400-capacity oblong basement room, with a very low ceiling strung with camo netting, and a phenomenal, ribcage-shaking physical soundsystem reminiscent of an actual dub reggae night. When MC Crazy D said “feel this one in your nostril,” it wasn’t hyperbole.
“I remember when certain basslines would roll out; it would be almost like a delayed reaction in the dance.” Mala recalled of DMZ, in Lauren Martin’s oral history of dubstep. “The time it would take for the low, low bottom-end frequency to go through someone’s body, you would see and almost hear the audience respond at a slight delay from each other the further back in the dance you go, as the bass wave is physically moving through people. Before DMZ, I’d only ever really seen that happen at Jah Shaka dances.”
Of Digital Mystikz’ many phenomenal early tracks – “Neverland,” “Ancient Memories,” “Officer,” “Left Leg Out,” “Bury Da Bwoy,” “Changes” – there is one that stands above all. Mala began work on “Anti War Dub” as early as 2004, he explained in his RBMA lecture a few years later, with just Spen G’s rasta-pacifist vocal and the bassline, and let it be for nine months, before returning to it one day: “The ‘boom skat, boom skat’ beat just came to me.” He added with typical understatement, “It’s kind of crazy sometimes the reaction it gets when I play it.”
It is an anthem worthy of the name. “We don’t want a war tonight,” intones Spen G, “put down the guns and mek we all unite.” Vocal tracks were relatively rare in dubstep’s early years, but this short, perfectly formed message resonated with a spirit alive in Brixton, a place where peace and community togetherness have had to rise above police racism, tension and rioting more than once – and where, more straightforwardly, Brixton’s Windrush legacy means that for decades, various iterations of reggae have boomed out onto the streets from shops, houses, clubs and cars.
The message also resonated with a quasi-spiritual dedication to bass as a unifying force, encouraged by Digital Mystikz at the convivial early DMZ parties – “come meditate on bass weight” said the flyers. No one was lairy, no one was there to get laid or to fight. They were there to spend all night making friends and skanking out on the dancefloor, sharing a few drinks and maybe a joint – significantly, this was before the UK’s 2007 smoking ban, which drove the smokers outside, and helped intensify the music, and the narcotics and machismo, on the dancefloor.
“Anti War Dub” was released in February 2006, one month before DMZ’s first birthday party, and one month after Mary Anne Hobbs’ Radio 1 Dubstep Warz show broadcast the sound of (then, mostly) South London to parts far beyond, and accelerated a chain reaction that would, within a few years, see the genre transformed into a global phenomenon.
DMZ’s first birthday party has entered legend – with 3rd Base already full, and a queue of eager steppers snaking far into the Brixton night, just before midnight Mala took the mic and announced the party would be moving upstairs to Mass. The egalitarian dancefloor of 3rd Base, where the DJ booth sat at eye level in a far corner, contrasted with the overblown grandeur of Mass, where the DJ performed in an elevated pulpit to the skanking flock below, flanked by columns. It was a symbolic move, but at their subsequent DMZ parties in Brixton, Mala, Coki and Loefah rejected the main room and used Mass’s more humble second room – keeping the DJs closer to the dancers, and closer to the South London soil.