A dubstep in the right direction

Skrillex’s Bluesfest appearance shows that popular music genre has hit the mainstream

When DJ Skrillex steps off the train to take over the main stage Saturday night at Bluesfest, dubstep will have well and truly arrived in the Ottawa music scene’s mainstream.

Over the past two years the phenomenon that started in the clubs of Europe has dropped into North America, becoming a big attraction at dedicated electronic music festivals like Ottawa’s Escapade, and mainstream ones like Bluesfest.

Over the past two years the phenomenon that started in the clubs of Europe has dropped into North America, becoming a big attraction at dedicated electronic music festivals like Ottawa’s Escapade, and mainstream ones like Bluesfest. Photo by: David Kawai, The Ottawa Citizen.

But dubstep’s roots in Ottawa run way deeper than the festival scene. As the country has jumped on the genre’s bandwagon, the capital has been involved in a big way.

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The name “dubstep” sounds as rough as the electronic music it classifies. It draws large crowds of young people, their eardrums vibrating to a throbbing bass beat. While some listeners think it’s just noise, defining what separates dubstep from other kinds of electronic music is tough because every dubstep artist has their own specific sound. But the elements common to the genre include syncopated rhythms and that big bass sound, and its local adherents are only growing in number.

Start with Pierce White-Joncas and DJ JC Boom, the founders of Capital Boom Records. Based here, they want to become a stepping stone for Canadian artists such as Ottawa’s Bass Machines, Montreal’s The Warriors and Vancouver’s 1uP.

The label has operated for over a year, but as bass music spikes in popularity, business is picking up speed.

JC Boom’s first show in Ottawa in the summer of 2010 drew just 30 people.

“From then until now, it’s just expanded and grown so much, to the point where we’re looking at venues that are hitting capacity and lineups to get in,” he says.

The label hopes to bring their own artists to the level reached by Toronto’s Zeds Dead and The Killabits, who’ve gone from playing basements to touring internationally. JC Boom says he thinks the local scene could go either way, depending on the promoters, and the connection they’re able to forge with university and college students in the fall.

“I think it all come down to who’s getting involved, because it is about the artists and how they progress, and that is what is going to make the scene in Ottawa grow.”

The ‘electro-fied’ Bluesfest lineup has done much to advance that agenda.

“I talked to older people who went to Bluesfest when it was actually blues, and they’re not too happy about it,” he says. “But I mean, that’s the old generation. It’s the new generation that we have to feed.”

Being connected to so many fans and DJs, Capital Boom knows all about the bonding between bass lovers in Ottawa.

“It’s not just that we see each other every Friday or Saturday night, it’s to the point where we’re calling them saying, ‘Hey, we’re postering, wanna come help?’ That’s where the family aspect is, everyone’s willing to help us out to make it a better scene, because they’re at the parties and they want the parties to be big too,” White-Joncas says.

For now, Capital Boom is open to any promoter, venue and artist in the city, knowing everyone involved has the same interest at heart — pushing the dubstep agenda.

“We’re going to be one of those places that people are going to want to come to because of the parties we have,” JC Boom says. “Even just with Escapade and Bluesfest, it’s going to keep expanding.”

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Back in December of 2010, before Skrillex won his three Grammys, he played at Ritual Nightclub in front of hundreds of sweaty fans at an event called Dubsmack. The fledgling dubstep night had started mere months before by a promoter known as THEKNWLDG.com.

Carlyle Doherty, CEO and founder of THEKNWLDG.com, is the 23-year-old marketing student behind Dubsmack. A former bouncer at Pub 101, Doherty was tired of listening to top 40 music. So to hear the music he loves, Doherty started an old-school hip hop event in the basement of The Great Canadian Cabin.

That caught the attention of the management of the then-newly opened Ritual Nightclub. Since then, Doherty and Ritual have worked together to host some of Ottawa’s “bass-iest” events. Dubsmack, with resident producers and DJs Rainman and Dubspec, has become the best-known.

“When you go to a top 40 club, it’s more about knowing what you’re getting into — drinking with some friends while the music blends into the background,” Doherty says. “We want the music to be the foreground, putting new artists and producers on stage to show what they’ve created. We see bass music as something fun, and something you may not expect to enjoy, but once you have tossed yourself into the atmosphere you only want more. The energy is unparalleled.”

Dubstep, he says, has the “grassroots” feel that hip hop once had, with producers experimenting, mixing new sounds and creating something cutting-edge. And because of how easy it is to obtain the software used to produce bass music, it can only grow.

“You don’t need five guys,” Doherty says. “You can sit in front of your computer, have those five guys in your computer, and you can make that music. And the way that people are connected now, you can have a team of producers and they can be in all different places in the world.

“There’s a feeling of euphoria that comes with it. You’re jumping around and having fun, and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. You can’t get that from your day-to-day life — it’s an escape. We all work our butts off to survive; we need a release, and that’s what bass music provides,” Doherty says.

How you hear it for the first time matters. Not with headphones or on your computer, but in a crowd and the feeling that brings. Listen with “open ears,” Doherty says.

“You can’t go into it saying ‘I’m going to hate this.’ You have to go in there and stand there for a good hour, and really listen. If you’re listening to a good producer, they are going to make you move. It’s true with any music, bass music is just a little heavier and a little louder.

“These additions of sound that you can’t get from a vocalist or that you can’t necessarily get from an instrument, you can create and manifest through these electronic devices. That is how music works — it’s progression. People are not going to listen to the same thing their whole life, they’re going to want something new, productions that make them feel a way they cannot feel doing anything else or being anywhere else.”

Danya D is one of the newest, and one of the only females, on the DJ scene in Ottawa. She decided she wanted to become a DJ about a year and a half ago, and ever since has been releasing tracks for local fans during live shows.

“It’s amazing to see how fast the scene has grown in Ottawa,” says the 22-year-old. “I’m not going to lie, it is a little intimidating for a DJ, but it makes me want to work harder and faster to make sure I can keep on being a part of it.”

In one of the ultimate stamps of Ottawa music scene approval, Zaphod’s Beeblebrox, the ByWard Market club that’s practically a civic institution, is creating its own answer for bass fans.

“We’ve always kept our ears and minds open at Zaphod’s,” says owner Eugene Haslam. The bar is starting Electronic Mondays, shortly after Bluesfest finishes.

“We have a vast compendium of knowledge of music and the music business. We’re musically inclined but more than that we’re a social hub for musically oriented people. We pay attention to our customers’ requests and we also lead them in new directions,” Haslam says.

Local artist DJ Lowpass pitched the idea and Haslam decided to run with it.

“Perhaps having a few bevvies and listening to boss tunes on a kick-ass sound system helps the process. We’re not concerned about how Ottawa is embracing EDM or any other music, we just want Ottawans to embrace each other,” Haslam explained.

Hugs all around.

And perhaps like any other musical genre, it’s that sense of community that’s helping dubstep achieve critical mass — a community that’s never feels more vital than when the music’s played live.

Matt Menard, known to his friends as ‘Skittles,’ started off like many other bass-lovers as a fan of punk and hardcore music.

“Once I discovered dubstep, I knew right away this is the music I needed,” he says.

For the better part of two years, Menard has been attending events all over the city, even making the trip to WEMF, an electronic music festival held in the Madawaska Valley near Algonquin Park. This type of festival is popular out west, but WEMF is the first in Ontario.

“The live show atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” Menard says.

Since then I’ve been going to Ritual just about every other weekend to check out local and North American dubstep artists.

“I can personally say that I’ve helped all of my friends find their inner dubstep. I believe anyone who is an open minded will feel that completely new euphoric feeling that takes over your body,” Menard says.

“You really don’t have to go far for a good time.”

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