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Liner Notes: A Guide to Dubstep and James Blake

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By J Freitag on February 8, 2011

“I don’t mind people calling it dubstep, but if somebody wants to call it something else, I’ve got no problem with that either. The beauty it is that if you try and write in a certain way, it goes through this kaleidoscope and comes out as something completely different.”James Blake, 4/2/10

James Blake is a 22 year-old musician from London. His eponymous debut album drops today. You can listen to it here. And my co-contributor reviews it here. This post provides some context about Blake’s music and discuss his releases so far.

As you can tell from the intro quote, Blake’s music is generally labeled “dubstep.” What’s that? Here’s Wikipedia:

“Dubstep is a genre of electronic dance music that originated in South East London. Its overall sound has been described as ‘tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples, and occasional vocals.’”

Got it? Yeah, me neither. Dubstep is a tag dating back to 1998 for electronic music that melds both Jamaican dub and Brit 2-step. According to Wiki, the earliest dubstep music was experimental and instrumental remixes of garage tracks. (Garage was/is a decendant of techno, or what we dumb Yanks would call dance music.) These remixes attempted to graft the darker elements of drum and bass onto house. They frequently used a minor key and samples, and featured a propulsive, syncopated rhythm at a half-time tempo and a prominent, deep bass at often double-time tempo.

This juxtaposition created a weird sense of space. As famed producer Kode9 explained, certain dubstep tracks are so empty, they “makes [the listener] nervous.” True story. This is unsettling music.  (For example, check out the self-titled debut and its fantastic follow-up Untrue from another young Londoner, William Bevan, who records under the name Burial.)

James Blake began in this arena. His first single, “Air & Lack Thereof,” is very much in this vein. But he had more in mind. Blake studied contemporary music at Goldsmiths University in London. He plays piano and sings, and he records himself at home on a computer. But the music he makes doesn’t sound like Elton John. It’s heavily tweaked.

Here’s what he said last year: “I just got into dubstep in a really heavy way when I first went to uni, so I started producing in that style. I’ve come out the other end now after absolutely blitzing dance music for ages. I’ve come to a wider understanding of my music through writing a lot of electronic music because now I can see the beauty in the contrast.” And his three eps from last year show this contrast: the dubstep thesis The Bells Sketch, the r&b sampler CMYK, and the haunting mission statement of Klavierwerke, which is of a piece with his debut album.

Per Blake, “I’m confident that if I love something, it’s OK to put out. I’ve got no intention of becoming some sort of major label pop star. It’s not about that. I’m still deeply into electronic music, but I’ve got other avenues that I want to take. There’s a thread running through everything. I suppose the constant is me.”

That’s probably why he named his first record James Blake. The first single off his debut is a cover of Leslie Feist’s “The Limit to Your Love.” Watch Blake’s amazing video here. Fun to compare/contrast.

James Blake’s music is personal and beautiful, and ultimately exciting. You should listen to it.

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