Tracing Back Bristol’s Unforgettable Influence In Dubstep

Words: Son Raw

Bristol’s unofficial title as dubstep’s second city barely does its legacy justice. Yes, the sound undoubtedly originated in Croydon’s Big Apple Records and London is where its twin poles of subby darkness and tear out intensity burned brightest; but it’s in Bristol where some of dubstep’s brightest offshoots and most interesting directions took root. From techno-indebted post-garage rollers, to grimey purple funk workouts to tracks drawing from the city’s rich history of jungle and trip-hop, Bristol dubstep took London’s 140BPM tempo and sub bass fetishism and ran wild, drastically expanding the genre’s possibilities. Fuelled by local institutions like Rooted Records, passionate labels like Tectonic and Punch Drunk, incredible nights like Context and Subloaded, and the city’s notoriously collaborative musical community, so many classic dubstep records emerged from this city that you could spin an entire night of Bristol dubstep without running out of records. Here are just a few of those stone-cold classics.


In a scene emphasising menace and darkness, Pinch’s “Qawwali” was an outlier—a subaquatic journey into the low-end that detoured through the gloom, but otherwise remained positively inviting. Combining Indian tablas with a penchant for the harmonica and enough sub frequencies to knock out a horse, this was bass music that rejected all conventional dancefloor demands; compare it to any white-knuckled D&B banger from ‘06 if you need proof. Even as dubstep was establishing itself as dreader than dread—and Pinch was unmatched in this regard—“Qawwali” offered an alternate, open-minded take on heavy bass’ possibilities, one that Bristol would adopt wholeheartedly.

Long before Drake was on Instagram jogging to samples of “Roll With The Punches”’ hypnotic flute loop, Peverelist’s original track was inspiring eyes-down meditation in the dance. As a key figure bridging jungle and dubstep’s emphasis on sub bass to techno’s rolling grooves, Pev’s productions were drop averse and almost always shied away from menace in favour of an atmosphere that mixed light and shadow in equal amounts. This early production falls squarely on the dubstep side of the equation however, and there’s even a hint of grime in that squarewave melody that creeps up a couple of minutes into the track.

Bonus listening: Kowtone’s 2014 Linear Mix of the track, which slows things down and chops up the groove.

From working on Massive Attack’s very first single to flying the flag for Bristol’s jungle, trip-hop and dub scenes, Rob Smith (of Smith & Mighty fame) is a certified legend whose contributions to UK soundsystem culture run 100 leagues deep. So much so that when dubstep first began attracting attention, one could have argued that it wasn’t breaking new ground so much as it was catching up to the ideas he’d been exploring for nearly two decades. This all but guaranteed he’d find a warm welcome at labels like Punch Drunk and Tectonic, and his rolling, roots-influenced takes on dubstep are some of the city’s most beloved tracks, synthesizing the energy and musical boldness that has Bristol competing with cities many times its size. “Forward Youth” is the perfect example, but you owe it to yourself to check out the entire Good Energy compilation on Punch Drunk, compiling his material from this era under the RSD moniker.

By the late 2000s, there was talk of a Bristol-Berlin connection, as continental dub-techno’s influence began to creep into dubstep’s more forward-thinking productions. “Circling” is ground zero for this cross-pollination, marrying the talents of on-off Bristol resident Appleblim and local institution Pev. Dropping just as the Caspa and Rusko-led tear-out sound was becoming dubstep’s defacto mainstream focus, “Circling” couldn’t have been more different. An almost endless groove of repeating pads and twitchy hi-hats, this was music for heads in the know, rather than teen ravers out to rage. The impact was enormous: soon, labels like Hessle Audio and Hot Flush were flying the flag for this sound, and you can trace the success of Peverelist’s Livity Sound label right back to ideas first premiered in this very track.

The flip-side to dubstep’s techno crossover, the “purple” sound led by Joker, Guido and Gemmy was bright, punchy and incredibly funky. Originally conceived as grime but fitting nicely into dubstep’s instrumental matrix, productions like “City Hopper” married squelchy lead melodies to hip- hop’s start-stop drums, delivering the perfect sound for dubstep fans who wanted something a bit ruder than eyes down maturity but that nevertheless didn’t devolve into full blown aggression. While “Purple City” is the subgenre’s uncontested classic, “City Hopper” might just beat it out for sheer groove: imagine Herbie Hancock having a go at Lil Jon’s synth patches and you’re most of the way there.

Hindsight being 20-20, “Beautiful Complication” predicts the direction R&B would take in the 2010s to a T: trap’s rhythmic influence, dance music’s bass weight and contemporary production technology’s digital sheen all come together with terrific songwriting to make for a dubstep (and R&G!) classic. While too few dubstep producers got the opportunity to combine their cavernous music to A-list vocal talent, “Beautiful Complication” shows just how brilliant that combination could be. It was also a showcase for how bass music’s high-powered productions could reinvigorate hip-hop and R&B, genres that were struggling to maintain creative momentum at the turn of the last decade.

Bonus listening: Guido’s Mad Sax, a completely bonkers and utterly unique slice of bass music.

As one half of the duo behind Bandulu Records, Kahn runs the dance when it comes to Bristol grime and dubstep today, and while it’s his productions with Neek that get the reloads in grime, his solo work stands as some of the best dubstep ever made. Equally adept at atmospheric rollers sampling Middle Eastern sounds and soundclash-influenced bangers, his output has served heads worldwide clamouring for contemporary takes on dubstep’s original musical M.O. “Dread” falls squarely in anthem territory, combining heavily distorted emcee chat to titanic low-end, and absolutely murders any event equipped with a proper sound system. It’s the most “traditional” dubstep track on this list, and ample proof that Bristol producers can deliver that too.

Bonus listening: his Gorgon Sound mix of the same track, which pushes the tune into full-on contemporary dub territory.

Having already released an admirable catalogue of grey-scale, steely-eyed dubstep as Headhunter by 2010, Tony Williams then re-emerged as Addison Groove and shocked bass music out of its doldrums with “Footcrab”. Borrowing liberally from Chicago Footwork but reconfiguring its grooves for slower tempos and UK production standards, it sounded like nothing else out there and was an honest-to-god scene anthem at a time when far too many dubstep DJs were rinsing out digital noise. A key marker in UK club music’s evolution towards house-oriented grooves, “Footcrab” was the way forward at a time when DJs were being forced to choose a side.

Posted on October 31, 2017