How Youngsta’s Singular Vision Transformed Dubstep Forever

Words: Son Raw

How much power does a DJ have? Decades ago, they had it all—breaking songs, rocking parties and becoming the face of entire scenes, as they headlined titanic raves and super clubs. Today, that power is undoubtedly diminished: venues face an uncertain future while artists and producers can bypass both raves and radio to develop a fanbase via social media and streaming. This isn’t all bad. After all, why should fans be limited in their listening options? Why should artists have to go through gatekeepers to establish a fanbase?

Except, as Janet and Joni once said—you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Pirate radio DJs were gatekeepers, sure, but they used this power to connect disparate musical ideas and craft entire scenes out of dubplates. Think of Fabio and Grooverider assembling jungle from breakbeat heavy house, techno and the dancehall classics they grew up on, or The Dreem Team speeding up American Garage to kickstart the UK’s own take on the sound. Better yet, take DJ Youngsta: one of the selectors most responsible for shepherding dubstep from a garage variant to an international sensation, all from the confines of a tiny East End club and pirate station.

The brother of Rinse FM co-founder and FWD>> promoter Sarah Lockhart, Youngsta was practically born into a raving family and earned his moniker while mixing on Freek FM at age 13. By the time he was getting involved with Rinse and holding down a residency at FWD>>, he’d grown into a supremely confident DJ, particularly in regards to his patient, seamless mixes. Just as importantly, he was a singular tastemaker with a unique and uncompromising vision.: by playing dubs from just a handful of artists—Digital Mystikz, Loefah, Skream, Benga, D1 and a few others—Youngsta took dubstep to extremes few dance music subgenres would ever reach for.

When considering Youngsta’s impact, it’s essential to remember just how many paths dubstep could have taken early on. Before his residency, a half dozen DJs were presenting competing visions for the dark, broken UKG coalescing at FWD>>. His predecessor, Hatcha, initially dominated the scene with a percussive, tribal sound, while grime legend Slimzee and a few others pushed for breakstep, which combined corroded, industrial breakbeats with heavyweight basslines. Meanwhile, scene mainstays Horsepower Production and El-B kept things skippy, hewing closer to a dark take on the original UKG sound. Finally, Plastician was busy combining dubstep and grime, and northerners like Darqwan and MRK1 were bringing their own influences to the table. Dubstep was only barely its own genre, but it was already expanding in countless opposing directions.

Youngsta’s however, was the most extreme take yet—one focusing almost entirely on spartan, half-step dubs that essentially halved dubstep’s 140BPM tempo by placing a solitary snare on the third beat, rather than the traditional 2 and 4, all while maintaining garage’s skippy hi-hats over the top. This was key to developing the genre’s radical “slow/fast” dynamic, while also bringing an implied connection to dub-reggae to the forefront. Even today, despite dubstep’s growth and later implosion, the halfstep drum pattern, sullen mood, and rootsy signifiers still largely define the genre, keeping it at a distance from the wider garage world. On one hand, this focus on dark, haunted, moody halfstep was intentionally limiting, and you’ll find plenty of early scene advocates that wish dubstep would have remained a tad more diverse as it expanded. On the other, through his singular taste and platform, Youngsta became one of the world’s most influential DJs without ever needing to cater to a big-room crowd’s demands.

With Youngsta at the helm, artists in the DMZ and Tempa orbit were able to hone their production to his ear, pushing their sound ever further. Mala and Loefah, in particular—given that they rarely DJed on radio themselves—developed a particular synergy with Youngsta, hollowing out their productions while also maintaining the rhythmic energy to keep FWD>> bumping. Tracks like “Goat Stare” and “Ancient Memories” would receive a lot of play on dubplate, hyping up listeners and ravers long before the wax hit specialist shops, let alone mainstream radio. This developed a groundswell of enthusiasm so that by the time Youngsta-certified tunes became available, listeners weren’t just acclimated to these strange, half-time rhythms—they were positively chomping at the bit to own a copy. Youngsta undoubtedly embodied the DJ as gatekeeper—if your track didn’t fit his parameters, even if you were in his circle, he wouldn’t give it much play. Few, however, would argue that this careful curation and exclusive approach to selection didn’t pay off handsomely, both for the artists he developed and for ravers who fell in love with his radical reinvention of dance music.

That’s not even accounting for Youngsta’s prodigal mixing skills. While his equally iconic peers like DJ EZ and DJ Hype thrilled audiences with lightning-fast mixes, intricate scratching and mind-boggling effects, Youngsta’s dubstep-specific mixing style prized empty space above all else. Slowly layering one track into the next, Youngsta didn’t just live up to the DJ old cliché of “taking you on a journey”, he made it positively impossible to tell where one tune ended and the next began, further pushing dubstep towards a space where spliffed out meditation on bassweight trumped party-rocking euphoria. Even years later, he’s a positively thrilling presence on the decks: when I opened for him a few years ago, he walked on stage more than a few drinks in, only to perform ultra-tight mixes I’d struggle to string together completely sobre. With his cap tilted low and his eyes down, he embodied the dubstep DJ in all of its minimal, all-business glory.

Youngsta’s still killing it on the decks today, holding it down for the sound he helped define, but for those looking for touchstone mixes from dubstep’s prime, there are more than a few classics available online. First and foremost, check out Dubstep All Stars Vol. 2, a CD that helped root the genre in a dark, halftime skank. Forward Live Vol. 1, recorded at Plastic People, highlights not only Youngsta’s ability to rock a crowd, but the dubstep scene’s energy before it blew up worldwide. By the time he helmed half of Dubstep All Stars Vol. 4, he’d perfected his style, expanding his roster of collaborators ever so slightly to include names like Distance and Headhunter. And his 2011 Rinse 14 mix further highlights how he cultivated talent, showcasing the all-new selection of producers he developed once the original crew moved on. All are brilliant examples of how far music can go when the right music hits the right ear and the right skillset.

Posted on April 11, 2022