In Pictures: The Heyday Of London's Dubstep Scene

By Londonist Last edited 6 months ago
In Pictures: The Heyday Of London's Dubstep Scene

When music blogger and photographer Georgina Cook announced a Kickstarter campaign for a book about London's dubstep scene, she was blown away by the response. Here, she talks about Drumz Of The South: The Dubstep Years (2004-2007), and the artists and music that inspired it.

young people partying on the dance floor - a couple of them wearing caps
Dance floor - BASH! at Plastic People, 2006. "Bash! was a night put on by The Bug and Loefah that emphasised dancehall, dub, reggae and the other soundsystem music that dubstep is rooted in. It was SO much fun."

For me dubstep means community, creativity, innovation, friendship and so much more. It means being in dark and entirely safe spaces, engulfed in low end frequencies, and lost in music. It sounds cheesy but I saw Sister Sledge play last year and when they played Lost In Music and I properly listened to the lyrics, I thought, "that was me". I had literally quit my 9-5 to be part of that thing, haha.

a hazy view of people partying in a club
Dancefloor - DMZ at 3rd Base, Brixton, London, 2005. "I always think of Kode9 when I see this picture because he once described DMZ as like being on the seabed and I think that comes across here."

I don't know if there is a dubstep scene in the UK now and that's not a bad thing. It seems to me that the idea of music scenes in a traditional sense is being blown open by a generation of people that are interested in (and have access) to many genres and the continua and contexts that those genres sit within.

two young men enjoying themselves in the music studio
Coki & Mala (Digital Mystikz) in their studio, Croydon, 2004. "What you can’t see in this photo is that there was a big loud storm going on outside. What you can see, other than two very talented friends having a laugh, are lots of indicators of the time and era in which the photo was taken."

For example where there was once a dubstep scene, now there are 140 [bpm] and bass music scenes; and there are communities that prioritise vibe or self-expression in the way that youth cultures have always done, but without having one specific genre attached to that expression or vibe. I really like that about today's music and culture.

A south London housing estate illuminated in golden sunlight whizzes by a train window
View from south London train, 2007. "Photographs of London’s urban environment have also been integral to Drumz Of The South. For me the environment reflected the music and vice versa, but also, it was natural to take photographs while travelling to and from venues and meet ups. This is a particularly special one for me as it illustrates London's graffiti culture which is something I feel passionately about."

There's an ongoing conversation in photographic theory about the relationship between memory and photography and how they can get mixed up. Honestly it's like that for me. My memorable experiences are in the photos that you see in the book — driving through London to reach FWD>> at Plastic People every Thursday, experiencing Mala dropping Skream's game changing Midnight Request Line in front of a crowd that included Skepta and JME, meeting and photographing different artists. I remember all of those moments so vividly, and undoubtedly that vividness is because I photographed them and that's a large reason that I take photographs.

A young man in a white cap spinning decks
Youngsta DJing at FWD>>, Plastic People, London, 2004. "Youngsta was my fave DJ of that time so it was fortunate that he was a resident at FWD>> and on Rinse FM. He was very picky about the music he played and only really played music by a handful of artists which meant his sets were really distinctive. This photo was the cover of Dubstep Allstars Vol.2 which was such an honour for me as Vol.1 mixed by DJ Hatcha was life-changing for me."

Why was London's dubstep scene unique? A few reasons but one of the key ones was the marriage of existing analogue technologies with the new and emerging digital and virtual technologies of the era. My understanding/experience is that dubstep and grime were among the first genres to make use of Web 2.0 while still being rooted in analogue. So for example, you had music and events being shared on forums, blogs and MySpace but were listening to very physical dubplates at events that were also advertised on paper flyers.

A dreadlocked man in the throes of DJing with a party crowd behind him
Dancefloor at Fwd>> at Plastic People, London, 2005. "This is one of my most widely published images. It's from FWD>> at Plastic People which was notoriously dark, which means I had to use a bright flash in order to register this scene. I'm so glad I did because there's so much going on."

I love all of the early artists because they all brought their own influences and distinctive sounds. Mary Anne Hobbs' legendary Dubstep Wars show is the perfect example of this, as well as the albums made around then. If you listen to Distance's My Demons next to Vex'd’s Degenerate, next to Burial, next to Skream's Music To Make You Stagger next to Kode9 & The Spaceape's Memories of The Future, you will hear five entirely different soundscapes. Never a dull moment.

young men crowd round a mixing desk at a club night
FWD>> at Plastic People, LDN 2005. L-R: Skream, Jammer, Blackdown, JME, Jackie Steppa, Wiley, Sgt. Pokes, Mala, Crazy D, Tubby, Chef. "Another from FWD>>; this time showing Mala dropping Skream's Midnight Request Line to a crowd of grime royalty. That tune was one of the first dubstep tracks to emerge from the underground into more mainstream spaces."

I started dreaming this book into existence many years ago, but it was turning 40 that was the catalyst for finally making it happen. Even from the beginning, when none of us knew how big the genre would become, I knew that I was documenting something for future generations to see and be inspired by and learn from. I greatly value creativity and community and that's what the book is about essentially. But it's also a sort of family photo album in a way.

A man and a lamppose reflected in a puddle
Burial, London, 2007." This was taken just before the release of Burial’s Mercury nominated Untrue. I hadn’t heard the record by this point, so it’s pretty special that the vibe of the photograph fits the vibe of the music."

The way that people that are so passionate about dubstep and the wider cultures and contexts that it sits within came together to help make the book happen is reminiscent of the way early dubstep operated. A DIY, community thing.

Loefah’s Mug, London, 2005. "Loefah with his Croydon Borough mug."

Drumz Of The South: The Dubstep Years (2004-2007) by Georgina Cook, available to pre-order now, RRP £35

The book smashed its Kickstart target.

All images © Georgina Cook

Last Updated 06 April 2023