Ben UFO on Dubstep: "Now It's a Huge Global Movement, I No Longer Feel a Part of It"
Circa 2007, an obscure underground UK sound called dubstep erupted like a volcano. And it left behind a crater flooded with the molten elements of bass music that have since solidified into post-dubstep or future bass.
These aren't so much distinct genres of music, as a generation of producers with a shared penchant for sub-bass and broken beats -- and more importantly, a reverence for the roots of bass, from dub to jungle, drum 'n' bass, UK garage, and beyond.
One of the labels at the helm of this movement is Hessle Audio, the brainchild of DJ-producers Ben Thompson (AKA Ben UFO), Kevin McAuley (AKA Pangaea), and David Kennedy (AKA Pearson Sound and Ramadanman).
"David and I met in the queue for the FWD>> club night sometime in 2006," Thompson tells Crossfade. "It was the first regular dubstep night, run by the same people that run Rinse FM and the Tempa label. It was at a time when there were really very few releases, and even fewer opportunities to hear the music in the environment it was designed for -- on a powerful sound system. The crowds at these nights were small and loyal, and a lot of connections were made there."
By the time Hessle Audio was taking off, dubstep was going commercial and losing its dub low-end in favor of unrelenting distorted screech bass -- the kind of bastardization taken to the extreme by artists like Skrillex a couple of years later. Already, though, the Hessle boys were expanding their sonic horizons.
"We were all studying in Leeds at the time, running small parties and playing on an Internet radio station every week," Thompson reminisces. "We cultivated a small following through our radio show, which became known for its fairly varied selection of music, and for presenting dubstep alongside house, techno, and older UK garage records.
"We occupied a niche within an already very small scene," he adds. "There were very few outlets for the producers who were sending us music. It seemed like a natural step to start a label in order to try and release the most exciting music we were playing out, and to provide an outlet for David and Kevin's own productions."
To be clear, Hessle Audio's output bears no resemblance whatsoever to the brostep your bros play on their Top 40 radio dial. By looking to classic house, techno and garage for inspiration, Thompson and company have imbued their sound with soul and understated elegance. Not to mention that authentic sub-bass.
"Scenes change and music progresses," says Thompson. "The dubstep scene, as I knew it, was tiny, and it was local -- now it's a huge global movement. That's fine, but I no longer feel a part of it. The music we release and play has always had indirect links to sound-system culture. There has always been an emphasis on bass weight. We exist as part of a lineage of UK dance music which can be traced back to acid house and rave culture in the late '80s."
Hessle's infusion of styles also points to a growing eclecticism in the wider international dance music scene, which is seeing DJs mix different styles like house, techno, and bass much more liberally.
"We try to stay as flexible and adaptable as possible in order to be able to respond to the speed at which things seem to move these days," says Thompson. "If someone had told me five years ago that in 2012 we'd be selling records predominantly to house and techno DJs, I would've thought them insane.
"There's no rigidly defined Hessle Audio style," he explains. "When people send us demos adhering to what they perceive as 'our sound,' inevitably those demos fall short. But there does seem to be a common thread running through everything we've released so far.
"It's hopefully allowed us to release music from a few different areas without it sounding forced or incoherent. One of our goals has always been to provide a platform and an outlet for new and unrepresented producers, which is one of the reasons we've released a lot of debut records."
The future indeed looks bright for Ben UFO and Hessle Audio, and their dedication to sonic innovation doesn't seem to be waning. "We have no fixed goals," he says. "My only hope for the label is to continue releasing innovative new dance music that people enjoy."
Joy Orbison and Ben UFO. Presented by SAFE. Saturday, December 8. Cafeina, 297 NW 23rd St., Miami. The party starts at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $20 plus fees via residentadvisor.net. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-438-0792 or visit cafeinamiami.com.
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