You could tell this wasn’t a normal dance party because the music kept doing something strange: stopping. The record would spin backward, the dancers would cheer, the D.J. would pause, and then the song would start again, from the top. This crowd-teasing technique — the rewind — has long been a major element of reggae concerts and parties. And as a few hundred dancers were reminded on Friday night, it also lives on in the reggae-influenced electronic genre known as dubstep, which has sprouted around London over the last few years.
The location was Love, a subterranean nightclub in Greenwich Village. The party was Dub War, a monthly get-together for the obsessed and the curious. And Friday’s headliner was D1, a dubstep producer and D.J. from Fulham, in West London; the gig was billed as his American debut.
On paper the labyrinth of British dance genres and microgenres can seem hopelessly complicated. But at Love D1 emphasized the basics, and he got a big cheer every time he dropped one of the monstrous bass lines that dubstep is known for. Although “bass line” scarcely seems like the right term: the timbres are scrambled and the tones are obliterated; instead of a melodic groove, you get a huge, serrated blob.
Dubstep is one more aftershock of an explosion that happened in the early 1990s, when British producers drew from electronic dance music and dance-hall reggae to create a furiously syncopated genre called jungle — and, later, drum and bass. Since then the sound has been mutating, spinning off new genres as producers and D.J.s change their priorities: hot declaration versus cool abstraction; voices versus beats; fits and starts versus nonstop dancing.
Earlier this decade grime emerged, with dirty bass lines and sparse beats that left plenty of room for rappers. Dubstep is nimbler and lighter, with skittering beats that hint at 1990s-era syncopation without sounding busy. One dubstep producer, Burial, has converted some American listeners with an excellent pair of murky, melancholy albums that seem designed for bedroom (or iPod) listening.
By contrast, the party on Friday showed off the genre’s gregarious side, thanks partly to those frequent rewinds. The party’s hosts were a pair of D.J.s, Joe Nice and Dave Q, and an M.C., Juakali, who stayed in the booth during D1’s set, providing public-service announcements (“Bass line!”) and hospitable encouragement (“D1!”).
D1 specializes in moody, bittersweet tracks that sometimes emphasize dubstep’s debt to house music. Last year he released “Trial Run” (Tempa), a six-track EP that included “Mind and Soul,” which already feels like a dubstep classic. It’s based on pitched-up snippets of “Give It Back,” by the Atlanta-based R&B singer Gaelle, with brisk drums that keep switching in and out of half-time. (Like many dubstep tracks, this one makes it difficult to say which is the true tempo.)
“Mind and Soul” is light and sublime and (thanks to those sped-up vocals) girly, but on Friday night, D1 mainly stuck to heavier, tougher tracks, which seemed to please the crowd. Often the warped bass lines pulled the tracks toward hard techno, even as Juakali’s patter underscored the link to dancehall reggae. And by the end of the set, the term dubstep was starting to seem too big, or too vague. This is cellular music, and it grows by dividing. How long will dubstep stay whole?