Over the last decade, dubstep has been a growing movement in the trendy U.K. music scene, changing its contours as rapidly as a shape-shifter does, perpetuated by those skillful DJs who attempt to maneuver its charms and charisma. Influenced by the more mellow resonance of Jamaican dub, a sub-genre of reggae that focuses on instrumentals and heavy sampling and originated in the ’60s with pioneers like King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, dubstep began quietly in East London during the mid-90s. Locally, it became a force to be reckoned with, thanks to BBC Radio 1’s involvement in popularizing its style and a small record store in Croydon, known then as Big Apple Records, which was at the center of its early developments.
As producer El-B helped industrialize the familiar dubstep sound (overpowering, explosive bass lines and slower, sample-friendly electronica), Oliver Dene Jones had ended his tenure at Big Apple and was readily formulating bass-heavy tunes of his own. Jones, known worldwide as Skream, is now considered one of the founding fathers of dubstep, having brought the genre to mainstream attention after remixing La Roux’s “In For The Kill” and releasing his well-received sophomore effort, Outside The Box. Along with fellow London enthusiasts of the scene (Benga and Artwork), Skream formed the supergroup trio Magnetic Man, seemingly at the pinnacle moment of dubstep’s livelihood.
In 2010, the genre literally conquered dance halls and club zones all across the U.K., and Magnetic Man was at the brink of it all. With amiable singles “I Need Air” and “Perfect Stranger”, Magnetic Man redefined dubstep and ruled the airwaves, adding vocals to an otherwise instrumental class and making their eponymous debut as accessible as possible. Magnetic Man merges a heavy fixation of drum & bass with glitchy, electro-pop enthusiasm. They enlist vocals from rising British pop stars Angela Hunte and Katy B, r&b soul slinger John Legend, reggae tyrant Ms. Dynamite, and squeaky, 8-bit addict Sam Frank. Though it’s assuredly intended for clubs, save for opener “Flying Into Tokyo”, Magnetic Man diverges in varying styles that make this record multi-dimensional, which might disappoint some hardcore dubstep fans.
Elements of pop glisten throughout the two aforementioned singles. The trio indulge profusely in drum & bass on “Perfect Stranger” and “Boiling Water” and craft instrumental electronica on “Ping Pong” and “Box Of Ghosts”. The remainder of Magnetic Man is straight-up dubstep. Album highlight “Fire” combines the classic nature of Jamaican dub with current, bass boisterous dub, augmented by Ms. Dynamite’s fierce swagger on the mic. “Karma Crazy” represents the genre superbly, a raging instrumental that intensifies precariously, the bass tempestuous, the beat down tempo, and the synths coming in blazing. “K Dance” and “The Bug” are electronic explorations that display the genre’s rapid maturity and the abilities these three have to sculpt it as they see fit. It might upset some people to find a supergroup dubstep trio coming out with a full-length that doesn’t seem to be devoted to the genre in its entirety, but remember, Skream’s last LP consists more of electronic compulsions than bass, and Benga’s Diary Of An Afro Warrior carries hints of hip-hop and house.
Dubstep, like any genre, is subjective and can be internalized by any musician as he or she chooses. Over the last few years, it’s slowly crept its way into North American society, though many are still unaware of its existence. Acts like Diplo and Switch implement it into their form of dancehall, Flying Lotus uses it (among jazz, rap, house, classical) in his critically acclaimed Cosmogramma, and Joker and Zed’s Dead apply it in its traditional fashion. Regardless of how these “dubstep” producers use it, it’s important to note that the three figures of Magnetic Man helped pave the way for these artists by dedicating performance after frenzied performance to its preservation. Now, half a year after their record’s release in the U.K., Magnetic Man has found their way into our culture. While Magnetic Man demonstrates their work candidly, you haven’t heard the works of Skream, Benga, or Artwork until you’ve seen them live.