“Can I Get Some Noise For The Skream?!”

Words: Son Raw

When DJ and producer Skream was photographed for the cover of his self-titled debut album in Leeds, at the West Indian centre after getting off stage, “dubstep”—as we know it today—wasn’t just a long shot: it seemed, quite frankly, an impossibility. Borne of 2-step B-sides made by an enterprising cadre of underground producers orbiting the FWD>> club night, the genre was best known as a moody, sophisticated take on a genre otherwise known for wild, champagne-soaked excess. Yes, the style had been building momentum: seminal crew Horsepower Productions had already dropped two critically acclaimed LPs expanding the concept of bass+space outwards, The Digital Mystikz and Loefah had launched their DMZ club nights to wide scene approval, and Skream himself had scored a crossover hit with “Midnight Request Line”, long simmering on dubplate. But these successes were relative. Grime, a genre that faced even more overt (and racist) headwinds than dubstep, was widely viewed as garage’s next great evolutionary leap; dubstep was just one of many offshoots making noise to the side of it.

So it’s safe to say that the sweaty, lanky DJ with the intense snare—captured by scene photographer Shaun Bloodworth for Skream!’s cover art—had no idea that in just a few years, he’d be headlining festivals and flying the flag for music that had evolved (some might say regressed) from underground garage to stadium-filling EDM. Dubstep has “gone mainstream” half a dozen times: when Caspa & Rusko helmed Fabriclive37, when Burial won the Mercury Prize, and when an advertising used wobbling basslines for a Weetabix commercial. But Skream! wasn’t just a successful album in an era when dubstep existed almost entirely on 12’ singles—it embodied the genre’s countless possibilities at a time when it was still unified enough to contain them all.

Just as importantly, it was the work of a producer barely out of his teens, and with that youth came a mix of headstrong confidence and curious naivety that stood apart from the perfectionism and seriousness of his peers. With dubstep thought unlikely to score mainstream admirers, most of the writers, label heads, DJs and supporters of the scene tended to sell it as a reflection of Britain’s Blair-era malaise, the music of multicultural working class forgotten in the boom years and suffering from institutional neglect. And yes, Skream! certainly has its fair share of downcast moments: the tension-building violins of opener “Tortured Soul”, the lurching reggae of “Auto-Dub”, the paranoid Jme collab “Tapped”, and the ironically titled “Colourful”, which refracts rave’s euphoria into a series of pained moans. Skream!’s great innovation, however, was proving that dubstep could also be… fun!

“Midnight Request Line” was the obvious banger—a tune with a synthesized lead so catchy yet so darkly menacing that it not only became a scene anthem on dubplate long before it hit store shelves, but also found a home in sets by everyone from grime DJs on Rinse FM to minimal techno maestro Ricardo Villalobos. But even beyond its big hit, the album was filled with bangers. “Blue Eyez”, “Check-It” (featuring a lively Warrior Queen) and “Dutch Flowerz” were the most forceful digi-dub tunes in at least a decade, all explicitly tying dubstep back to its dub-reggae roots. Sure, Kode9 and Benny Ill had tried a similar trick, but those early attempts like the “Fat Larry’s Skank” remix were the considered efforts of scene veterans knowingly winking at their predecessors. Skream, meanwhile, was like a kid in a sweet shop or a mad scientist, haphazardly mashing up old ideas into new shapes simply because it sounded cool. This adventurous kitchen sink approach meant Skream had no qualms with getting rid of 2-step’s sultry beats entirely, replacing UKG’s sensual cool with the ravey madness of tracks like “Stagger”, “Rutten” and “Kut-Off”, whose wobbling basslines would ultimately prove to be the blueprint for much of dubstep’s next generation. This was powerful, dancefloor-ready music that was meant to convince skunked-out lads in dark corners to hit the ‘floor, while hopefully inciting a load of girls to do the same. Suddenly, a genre most people looked at with bemusement—too slow, too dark, too moody—was sending a new class of ravers into fits of euphoria, and turning Skream into an international superstar.

Now, it’s worth noting that Skream wasn’t solely responsible for these musical ideas: he was one of many innovators in a rapidly shifting and expanding scene, and he’ll be the first to say just how much he learned from names like Hatcha, Youngsta, Artwork, Benga, DMZ and countless more. What Skream did have, however, were a few key advantages. First, he was incredibly prolific, writing hundreds of tracks in his teenage years. This meant that when it came time to release an album, he had plenty of material to draw from, and all of the experience necessary to perfect his ideas and mould them into a fully realised statement. Second, he was an incredible avatar for the scene. Long before Skrillex’s emo mullet became sadly synonymous with dubstep, Skream’s intense stare became the face of a genre that had until then remained mostly faceless.

The mid-2000s were an awkward time in the music industry, with analog-era superstars clinging to relevance while a new generation sought to make its mark. For listeners raised on the rush of jungle, hardcore, hip-hop and dancehall, it often seemed like a cadre of cool kids were singlehandedly deciding what received attention, mostly mediocre indie rehashes of decades-old rock tropes and trashy, poorly-made blog house. For those of us seeking something deeper, darker and more real, Skream was our champion—simultaneously untouchable, and one of us.

Skream!’s aftermath is as well known today as it was unexpected in 2006. Dubstep’s steady simmer became a rolling boil, as an increasing number of club-goers gravitated towards the genre’s wobblier, party-friendly tracks on one end, and its more sophisticated, techno-leaning side on the other. There was plenty of drink and drugs, a council-funded Magnetic Man project with Benga and Artwork, a few truly regrettable years when the word ‘dubstep’ came to mean mostly American, electronically-infused EDM metal, and then a slow fade back towards underground status. Skream, for his part, mostly left the genre to become a successful house and techno DJ, a move then met with plenty of angry tweets, but that, in hindsight, was the only logical decision for a man who didn’t want to be defined by his teenage years.

As for Skream!, the album still stands as one of dubstep’s great full-length statements—a set broad enough to encompass everything that made the genre so appealing, from the skulking rollers to the raucous bangers. And though it may surprise you, dubstep’s still around and kicking in dozens of underground scenes worldwide, representing with dark and dubby beats. You could drop “Midnight Request Line” at just about any of those parties today, and it’d still get a reload.

Posted on February 03, 2022