Describing dubstep might get you into trouble.
As musical pundits try their best to coin phrases to explain the dub and the step, many lump dubstep in the category of "slowed-down UK garage." That may work for now, but as this new form of electronic music takes a bigger, more global hold, it transforms on a daily basis.
Having begun about four years ago as a tangent of UK grime sans MC, dubstep incorporates the foundation of dub with hip-hop, dancehall, electronica, rock and roll, and even death metal.
"Dubstep is constantly evolving and morphing into new styles," says J.J. Soderling, a Kansas City dubstep DJ who spins under the alias FSTZ. "Dubstep will soon manifest itself as something else, and it might even have a different name, but the main ingredients will stay the same."
One of those ingredients: sub bass. This music is physical. The essence of dub music is in the vibrations that the listener can actually feel: Your ears tend to ring, your chest stutters and, if you're checking out a DJ set by New York dubstep maestro Claw, your heart might implode.
Claw, whose real name is Alan Letko, is a 23-year-old dubstep villain hiding out in the sleepy town of New Paltz in upstate New York. Aside from caring for his mini dachshund, Clawdia, or indulging his sports-car hobby, Claw is just your regular guy who makes really scary music.
"I like metal and anything else you can punch someone in the face to," he says.
A rising star on the underground dubstep scene, Letko makes music that's a combination of irony, dark humor and really loud bass.
"It's snappy and makes no mistake," says Will, aka High Rankin, UK dubstep producer and head of Suicide Dub, the label to which Letko is signed. "It pinches you where it hurts and won't let go," he adds. "There is something about a Claw track that makes you wanna get up and move — sideways, of course."
A rebel from his early days, Letko played in punk bands and went to warehouse raves in his hometown of Houston.
"I played guitar and even attempted drums for a bit," Letko recalls, "but eventually I got tired of dealing with band mates and the horrible sound that me and my friends made and chose to go a more solo-production route."
Around the same time, Letko was exposed to electronic music. Starting at age 15, he "trainwrecked" his way through many drum-'n'-bass sets at a Monday night weekly party in Houston. After sinking his teeth into DJ culture, Letko realized that producing music was more fulfilling. He enrolled in a four-year music school in Florida, where he learned the joys of production and sound engineering. Now Letko is a sought-after dubstep producer and DJ.
The story of how he found his niche in the genre echoes his lifelong pursuit of heavy, loud music.
"About two years ago, I was getting frustrated with my music and the whole drum-'n'-bass sound I had been pursuing, and I was looking for something that just came more naturally to me," Letko says. "I had heard people whispering about dubstep on the forums here and there. After a few months of searching through the more known dubstep names, I came across a few guys making heavier stuff. Eventually the fascination with dubstep led me to go check out a live show. That was the first time I got to hear it on a loud system, and that's all it takes to fall in love."
Along with Letko, local DJs FSTZ, Pat Hopewell, Always420 and Bristol, UK, DJ Superisk are on board for Kablammo, Kansas City's first major dubstep night, Saturday at the Record Bar.
But is KC ready for this brave new genre?
"The response to dubstep has been great everywhere I've gone," Letko says. "It's still really new in a lot of areas, so the local scenes are just getting up and running but are already establishing themselves as a solid force."
Here's hoping Kablammo gets the local scene started with a bang.