Does digital represent the death of the dubplate?

“Pull up that – what is that called? What is that called, Tubs? It’s just a black thing. It’s a dub and there’s nothing [on it].”

That was Wiley in 2006, riding a set with Newham Generals DJ Tubby. The tune in question, as it happens, was a beat by Mr. Keaz – who would go on to be best known by his other alias: Skream.

Until it was unearthed and uploaded by the dubstep originator around four years ago (and six after it was given the wheel-up treatment by Tubby), the recording of that radio set was one of the only places you could hear the tune.

The “black thing” that Wiley refers to is what’s known as a dubplate – or “dub” in the vernacular – and this little radio clip is a potted version of how dubplate culture works.

“In a physical sense, you can look at [dubplates] as a sort of prototype of a product,” says Henry Bainbridge, who founded Bristol’s Dub Studio in 2003. “The set up costs for a vinyl pressing are a few hundred quid, and results can be quite unexpected, so it’s a good idea to run off a dub to see what the finished product will be like.”

Jason Goz, whose Transition Mastering Studio (like Bainbridge’s) has been servicing DJs and producers within the jungle, garage, grime and dubstep scenes for years, elaborates: “Because a master lacquer has to be microscopically flawless, any discs that do not pass the strict QC controls have a second hole drilled in them so as to stop them from being used as a master and are then sold off at a discount price as a dubplate.”

That’s not to say that they can’t be used for playback though, and in fact it’s arguably the culture that has grown up around their use by DJs that has most contributed to the fascination around the practice of cutting dubplates.

“As a concept, a dub is just an exclusive track (regardless of the format), that’s not yet in general circulation,” says Bainbridge. This sense of exclusivity forms the real basis of dubplate culture.

“Dubplate culture originated from reggae soundsystems in the ‘70s,” explains Goz, “kudos was given to soundsystems who had special versions of new and previously unreleased songs, sometimes with the system’s name sung by the original artist as an intro to the ‘version.’”

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Many soundsystems pride themselves on the number of exclusive cuts they have...

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In the same way that bands will typically road test new material to live audiences when on tour, DJs using dubplates were able to bring a sense of exclusivity and individuality to each performance at a dance. The fact that a typical acetate dubplate will only survive around fifty plays furthers this sense of exclusivity.

“Many soundsystems pride themselves on the number of exclusive cuts they have,” says Bainbridge, “and they use them to compete with other soundsystems, either informally through their dances or more formally in competitions known as sound clashes.” With the outcome of sound clashes typically based on crowd reaction, being able to elicit a wild response from the participating audience is key.

A pretty simple way to achieve this is to enrol the element of surprise by playing a special version of a recognisable track – “re-workings of existing tracks for specific soundsystems to use,” according to Bainbridge – or something entirely new that is bound to move the room.

“There’s a bit of mystery to it all, which I think is appealing to people,” says Kahn, a Bristol-based DJ and producer whose music – spanning dancehall, dub reggae, grime and dubstep – is firmly rooted in soundsystem culture. “One of the best things I find in a dance is when you hear something you know isn’t released and only the people in the room will be experiencing. It’s exciting.”

Like so many innovations, dubplate culture and the excitement and fascination that surrounds it was largely born out of necessity. “From a purely physical perspective, it’s hard to see how sound system culture could have ever arisen without the ability to cut dubs,” says Bainbridge. “For many decades it was the only way to get material fresher than the commercially-released fodder out from the studio and into the air in a timely manner.”

(Bainbridge even goes as far as to argue that dubplate culture is at least partly responsible for the existence of dance music as a whole, his argument being that “the fact that dubs have two sides means that instrumental cuts of tracks became popular, arguably enabling the creation of dub [reggae], MCing [over instrumentals] and, later, dance music.)

There’s a sense of romance associated with the format too, and the physicality of it – which in turn can enhance its sense of exclusivity.

Bainbridge explains: “You can hold a dub up in the air, knowing that the sole purpose of this unique object is to contain your music in its grooves. Once it’s cut, it’s cut. It cannot be changed or edited, or reused. It gives a sense of finality and closure that a digital bounce never can – and just before you release that track into the public domain, for a few precious moments you know that music is yours, and yours alone.”

But as time and technology have progressed, dubplate culture has moved into the digital age too: from the physical to the intangible – from the actual to the conceptual, if you will. And the extent to which that romantic affiliation can cure a bad back or a hefty airport luggage fee induced by a stuffed record back is easily brought into question.

“Things evolve,” says Youngsta, a pioneer of the dubstep sound whose switch away from vinyl and acetate dubplates came as a surprise and caused some consternation among fans. “At the time when you think something really is the one for you,” he explains, “you would never assume or imagine that there’s another, better format. And then the future comes, and it’s like ‘wow, fuck.’”

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And then the future comes, and it’s like ‘wow, fuck.’

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CDs, Serato, USB keys: these are the mainstay DJ formats in 2016. The debate over preference often revolves around factors of sound quality and convenience, with the latter arguably being the more influential when it comes to opting for the digital side of life.

The convenience is undeniable, not only within the context of dubplate culture and getting music from the studio to the dancefloor as quickly as possible but also the nuts and bolts of the equipment used to play out in clubs.

“I didn’t want to give up [on acetate dubplates], but there was no need for me to cut anymore,” says Youngsta. “There were very, very few places that were looking after their analogue [equipment] because they were embracing the new technology and everyone was switching to digital.”

“When you’re travelling across the world with a big bag of dubs, to get there and play them and it sounds like shit because the needles are jumping everywhere or you’re getting mad bass feedback back up through the needles because the decks haven’t been set up properly,” he continues, “it ruined it for me.”

To Kahn, though, the romantic appeal remains – despite having to lug a heavy record box around. “There is something special about the whole process and physicality of building the tunes, getting one-off records made with the music on and taking them sometimes half way across the world to play for people,” he tells us, “It makes the whole act of DJing more enjoyable for me.”

Sound quality, on the other hand, is a trickier issue, and physical format purists are well known for espousing the perceived superior quality of analogue. Much of this is to do with the fact that, for a tune to be pressed to dubplate it requires the attention of a professional mastering engineer.

“A lot of music nowadays isn't mastered properly,” says V.I.V.E.K., a dubstep producer who’s been cutting dubplates regularly since 2008 and whose SYSTEM label and clubnight is staunchly pro-vinyl. “[People] just bang a limiter on the master and make it loud and think it’s good to go,” he explains, “with dubs the track is properly mastered by an engineer. There’s a massive difference in quality without a doubt.”

Goz, of Transition, agrees: “I like to think of it as quality control, meaning that someone who is not [directly] connected to the track being cut has actually tweaked the cut to make it sound right.”

It’s a fair point. However, just as technology has evolved so too has the producer’s craft and Youngsta recalls moments at which the level of skill employed by producers sending him music began to negate the role of the mastering engineer.

“The engineering of [the music], the mixdowns – just the whole sound was a lot better, and it was almost like the tunes needed less ‘help,’” he explains, “less attention, less things to be altered or adjusted slightly. So the cutter had to do less and less work.”

When a single dubplate with a limited lifespan could be setting you back thirty or forty quid, how much you’re getting for your money can be a consideration worth making. “I was taking tunes to Beau [Thomas, of Ten Seven Eight Mastering] and he was saying to me ‘they’re perfect, there’s nothing I can do to this, it’s perfect.’”

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You do often find yourself in the minority if you’re playing vinyl and dubplates out in clubs nowadays...

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The effect of these various shifts on the culture associated with cutting and playing dubplates is a difficult one to pinpoint.

“You do often find yourself in the minority if you’re playing vinyl and dubplates out in clubs nowadays,” says Kahn, “but I think the actual culture of it hasn’t gone away and I’m always meeting younger people starting out who are interested in it.”

Bainbridge agrees: “The idea behind a dubplate has remained the same for decades. Its physical form may change over time, but the essence remains,” he says, “essentially a dubplate is a way to differentiate between different soundsystems and DJs.”

In some ways, the democratisation of DJing – via technology – has made dubplate culture all the more important, and prevalent. With more people having access to the tools needed to hone their DJing craft, selection becomes a defining factor in differentiating between them. Having a stack of unreleased or exclusive tunes can give a decent boost to your capital as a DJ.

And to some, having these tunes cut to acetate is a sign of dedication to that craft. “The best comment I’ve heard, from DJ Hype if I remember correctly,” says Goz, “is that dubplates are a filter: if you’re going to spend money to get some tracks cut then you will make sure that they are as good as can be.”

Youngsta, however, remains slightly cynical: “I think a lot of people are starting to do it now because it’s a bit of a cool thing – it’s a bit Shoreditch, it’s a bit trendy,” he says, “you see people cashing in on it, this renaissance, but it never left dub or reggae: them man are still doing it, very few went to CD.”

Trendy or not, there’s plenty to be said for the apparent good health of the physical music market – particularly when it comes to vinyl.

Last year the Official Charts Company launched two new charts dedicated to vinyl sales, and revenues from vinyl sales topped those recorded for free streaming services for the first time. (Though it’s worth noting that paid-for streaming outstrips vinyl earnings by some margin).

It’s even been suggested that streaming has helped open up new sales opportunities for the vinyl market; an ICM poll from earlier this year stated that half of consumers used online streaming to check a release out before purchasing a physical copy.

Of course these figures can be picked over until the end of time, with credible arguments being made for the skewing of sales towards expensive reissues of classic records and the kind of impulse, one-off purchases made in the aisles of your local Tesco. But, it would appear, the value of owning physical, tangible objects in an increasingly digital world is one with real staying power.

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In the future, who knows?

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“In the future, who knows?” says V.I.V.E.K., “vinyl is selling well, which is great and long may it continue. The purists will stay purists and hopefully the format grows from strength to strength.”

It seems, however, that despite the various fluctuations affecting the music industry, dubplate culture is holding steadfast.

“I don’t really think the Internet has made such a great difference when it comes to dubplates, because the sharing is quite closely monitored anyway and it’s easy to tell who did the dirty,” says Bainbridge, of Dub Studio, “some tracks are even watermarked. But once a track has been released, the control goes completely out of the window. So despite the advances in technology, its really only the general public's consumption of music that has changed.”

This increasingly insatiable demand for new releases has arguably played a part in shortening the lifespan of tunes as unreleased dubplates, since the ease with which people can set up record labels in the digital age means that new recordings are snapped up and locked down more quickly. The days of the legendary dubplate – Bainbridge references ‘Kunta Kinte,’ a tune that existed as a sought-after dub for nearly three decades before being released – may be coming to an end.

Perhaps most telling, though, is Goz’ admission that “he stopped trying to predict this business many years ago.” In truly innovative tradition, if there’s a demand for the unheard then someone will be there to provide it.

Producers are increasingly opting to develop live shows in which they experiment with stems and effects, pulling together new compositions live on stage using studio equipment – in a way not dissimilar, funnily enough, to the producer-engineers of the dub tradition.

“It’s a win-win situation really,” says Bainbridge, “[performers] can guarantee their shows will be completely unique, even though some of the elements will be recognisable to the audience.”

Youngsta puts it similarly: “An exclusive’s an exclusive. Exclusivity and the music are what will never change for the DJs, because it’s about selection more than ever in this day and age.”

After all, concurs Bainbridge, “dubs really are the be-all and end-all of soundsystem culture.” And if weekly packed out events up and down the country are anything to go by – never mind the likes of Notting Hill Carnival which draw the world’s ears and eyeballs – then we can rest assured that soundsystem culture is still alive and well.

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Words: Will Pritchard (@HedMuk)

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