I wish I could say I'd been going to FWD ever since it started at the Velvet Rooms at 2001. Unfortunately back then I think I was just listening to The Bends over and over and over again. (I know I'm losing credibility here, but unless we have the odd anguished personal confession then there's no way this site is going to compete in a blog marketplace which is still ninety percent self-harming emo teenagers' Livejournals.) So I've got nothing but love for The Roots of Dubstep, which lets me pretend that I had any idea what dubstep was before Rephlex's (misnamed) Grime compilations came out in 2004. (Although I'm not sure when I'd actually have to pretend that. Maybe at a party. A really grim music journalists' party.)
Of course it doesn't sound much like dubstep does today, even though you'll spot familiar names like Skream, Benga and Digital Mystikz on the tracklist. This stuff (some of which is previously unreleased) is from around 2002/3, and no one had heard of halfstep back then. The phrase, really, is dark garage. You've still got the shuffled beats and smooth keyboards of classic two-step, but the punishing sub-bass, troubled dub landscapes, and general minimalism of later dubstep are beginning to creep in. Everything's instrumental apart from El-B's 'Buck and Bury' with Juiceman. My favourite track's probably Menta's 'Snake Charmer' with the Middle Eastern flute sample and grimey handclaps.
Tempa say that The Roots of Dubstep, co-compiled by Martin Clark aka Blackdown, 'is the only compilation to definitively document the early years of dubstep' – and I should note that while it may be the closest to definitive, it's certainly not the only compilation of its kind. Around the same time the Grime comps came out, I picked up the terrific Bingo Beats Volume 2 on DJ Zinc's label, which covers fairly similar ground without using any of the same tracks apart from Artwork's 'Red'. (The highlight is the unforgettable 'Said The Spider' by Darqwan, who seems to have found a new home on Storming Productions.)
The main problem with The Roots of Dubstep is that, unlike Bingo Beats, it's unmixed, which is nice for the DJs but also means that most of these tracks outstay their welcome (particularly DJ Abstract's 'Touch' at nearly nine minutes). A lot of them are still great, though, and not just as historical documents – in a way you've got the best of both worlds here, with garage's sinuous beats meeting dubstep's world-famous bass pressure. After Burial's LP came out, people were hoping it would inspire other dubstep producers to go back to those shuffled hi-hats, but I haven't seen much sign of that so far.
Remember, though, that there is still dubstep being made where you don't have to time to skin up between snares. The aforementioned Storming Productions and its sister label Destructive Recordings are still putting out dense, breaky dubstep of the highest calibre: listen to clips from their newest twelve inch, Elemental's 'Soulfire', here. And for more of this stuff, seek out their utterly amazing compilation Back to the Underground, which I must confess I still prefer to The Roots of Dubstep, Bingo Beats, Grime, or any of the Dubstep Allstars series.
Released 25/9 on Tempa.