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Dubstep for Dummies

Hotflush, the UK dance label that made dubstep safe for pop fans, divides its future from its past on a new compilation.

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Back and 4th: A Hotflush Compilation Various artists (Hotflush)

Joy O "Wade In" b/w "Jels" (Hotflush)

Two years ago the Decibel Festival in Seattle, which had until then stuck closely to its original techno mission, had a new sound du jour: dubstep. It was 2009, the style's bumper year. The London club scene seemed to be leading the world by the collar, largely because so many people in it were playing everything they could get their hands on and treating it like it was all brand-new. Somehow this made it feel like the sands were shifting again—a new generation was rising up and seizing the reins, dissolving old hierarchies, dethroning the cult of the next by pilfering anything and everything it wanted from the entire history of electronic dance music. Under those circumstances, dubstep began to seem less like a style—British clubland's mid-00s take on Jamaican low end, spiked with techno synths and the euphoric bubbliness of house—and more like an umbrella. Jumpy and youthful, it could take in just about any other kind of DJ music (house, techno, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass) and still cohere as its own sensibility.

At Decibel that year, three DJs—Mary Anne Hobbs, DJG, and Sub Swara—all played the one record that seemed to sum up the way dubstep had captured the dance-music mainstream, entering into conversation with house and techno without genuflecting to them. The appeal of Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo" is obvious on first listen. After a rumbling buildup, a synthesizer as big as a cruise ship and as shiny as the ocean plays a swooping riff that's soon joined by darting bass and a pair of women's voices, alternating the words "I do" and "Ooh!" The beat is slippery, eccentric, and funky, but it also comes down hard on the two and four; rhythmically it reads as dubstep, but it's also easy to blend with the straighter beats of house and techno, which plenty of DJs did.

The main thing, though, is that "Hyph Mngo" seemed to transform the dour and sinister mood of dubstep. It's as pure a dance record as anybody has made—the vocals are treated like just another instrument, another little pattern to bounce against all the others and against the beat—but the energy it builds is enormous and hopeful. Like Alex Reece's 1995 single "Pulp Fiction," which smoothed out the kinks in jungle's knotty groove just enough to cross over with people who didn't know much about drum 'n' bass but knew what they liked, "Hyph Mngo" made dubstep suddenly seem like it could hit the charts. It was that rare happy accident: an actual underground dance record that the mainstream caught onto.

Most labels are lucky if they ever release a track that blows up, even within the circumscribed world of dance music. But not only was "Hyph Mngo" named top track of 2009 by dance-focused online publications Resident Advisor and Fact Magazine, it also placed 14th on Pitchfork's year-end list and 19th in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll—a great showing for an underground dance record even in an age of easy access to all music ever. As happy as this must have made Joy Orbison—aka Peter O'Grady, a bedroom producer from South London, then 22 years old—it was a game-changing moment for Hotflush Recordings, which had released the song. Founded in 2003 by Paul Rose—a London DJ who now lives in Berlin, where as Scuba he maintains a residency at notorious nightspot Berghain—Hotflush is one of the longest-running dubstep labels.

Now Rose has put together Back and 4th: A Hotflush Compilation, a double CD coming out next week that showcases his current roster. Like a few other recent dance-label comps, most notably 2009's 5 Years of Hyperdub, Back and 4th splits its contents between an all-new first disc and a hits-and-favorites second (which of course includes "Hyph Mngo"). It's an act of bravura, a way of demonstrating that things are just getting started for Hotflush.

Rather than coming across like the work of ambitious artists eager to take over the world, though, the first disc of Back and 4th is mostly languid and laid-back—by and large these tracks would rather undulate than hustle or scurry. It opens with Sepalcure's diaphanous "Taking You Back": disco a cappellas ("You just walk right in," screams Loleatta Holloway, who died of cancer on March 21) are filtered till they're foggy and luminous, as clacking percussion and wormy bass hold in place what sometimes seems like aural smoke. The next track, Boxcutter's brilliant "LOADtime," establishes the opposite pole of the Hotflush sound: over and over it goes off like a firework, feeding off the tension between its hard-knocking jungle breakbeat and glistening chimes.

Head food like this is typical of Hotflush's output. Before Joy Orbison, the label was best known for tracks that owe as much to IDM meant for headphones as they do to Jamaican low end meant for sound systems—as the second disc of Back and 4th demonstrates. In particular, Mount Kimbie's "Sketch on Glass" has the feel of late-90s laptop glitch transplanted a decade ahead to mingle with J Dilla/Flying Lotus beat crinkles, and James Blake's remix of Kimbie's "Maybes" ambles drunkenly over skipping percussion and a handful of haphazardly deployed vocal snippets ("Blonde hair!").

In a way these songs are just brain puzzles set to beats, but it's material like this that helped build an audience for dubstep and its offshoots among rock fans with a taste for electronic abstraction. Blake himself has become the go-to dubstep figure for much of this audience, in part because he's captivated the mainstream indie media: his three EPs collectively earned the number-eight spot on Pitchfork's 2010 top 50 albums list.

Unlike those dubstep-flavored 12-inches, though, Blake's self-titled debut full-length (released in February by Atlas/A&M) adopts something like a cut-up singer-songwriter style. His earlier work was the sort of dance music that can win over indie rockers on its own terms, but now he seems to have moved out of his comfort zone. It's an unfortunate replay of one of the worst habits that afflicted the 90s dance-music world: artists who seem to panic when they get popular, as though afraid that the very thing that got them noticed won't sustain them in the major-label ecosystem. Many turn to more traditional songwriting—something most of them haven't spent nearly enough time doing to be good at. It's easy to see Blake's case as an indie parallel to the stab at pop stardom that drum 'n' bass artist DJ Rap made in the late 90s—the type of flirtation with celebrity culture that dance music's reductionist ethos of the early 00s, from electroclash to glitch techno to microhouse to mashups, was meant to sweep away.

There's nothing exactly like Blake's album on Back and 4th, but artists on the Hotflush roster are making other kinds of crossover moves—because they're mostly hopping fences within the dance community, though, they're less likely to put a foot wrong. Even if dubstep weren't the site of so much stylistic intermingling, the fact that Rose runs around a nightclub where most of the DJs play house and techno would be bound to manifest itself in his curatorial choices. You can hear this in some recent Hotflush releases, like Sigha's "Shake EP (it evokes the twisted minimal house that Germany's Perlon label released in its early years) and the new 12-inch, "Wade In" b/w "Jels," by Joy Orbison—now calling himself Joy O—which is basically a rough, almost tribal house record. As SCB, Rose himself just issued a straight-up tech-house single for London's Aus Music (pronounced, of course, "house music").

A significant chunk of the first Back and 4th disc—the one with the new material—is given over to straight-four rhythms. Boddika's "Warehouse" (its title and its light, jabbering 303 line both nod to early Chicago house) and Scuba's "Feel It" use aggressive drum machines to hark back to an earlier time, and Sigha's "Fold" is more or less uncut techno.

The whole thing, across both CDs, sounds of a piece, which is good news for fans of compilations that sound like albums. Nevertheless, Back and 4th has me a little uneasy. The space-evoking synths and relatively languid feel of many of the newer tracks make me worry that the Hotflush crew will fall into the trap that catches so many dance-music artists whose scenes have enjoyed a "seize the moment" bubble of creative ferment—once it passes, they slide into terminal torpor, their increasingly fussy input leading to decreasingly interesting output.

Again, I'm reminded of Reece's "Pulp Fiction": by treating jazzy smoothness as an end in itself rather than a useful counterweight to the rhythmic excitement of drum 'n' bass, this great record opened the door for a lot of bad ones. Hotflush hasn't gone through a door like that yet. But I wouldn't be surprised if it does.

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