Having hosted the experimental new music show on the BBC’s Radio 1 for over ten years, Mary Anne Hobbs knows her stuff. She wants to know what else is out there, and she wants to share it with you. She is arguably the person who turned the world on to dubstep, in the early hours of January 10th 2006 on a very special Breezeblock entitled Dubstep Warz. Since then, she put together two eclectic compilations for Planet Mu (Warrior Dubz in 2006 and Evangeline in 2008) and is about to release a third called Wild Angels. LWE caught up with MAH a couple weeks before her 10-date American tour in support of that record. We spoke to her about the rise in popularity of dubstep and her experiences as a BBC broadcaster and globetrotting DJ.
I’ve got to start by asking about Dubstep Warz. Did you have a sense at the time the show would get the huge reception it did?
Mary Anne Hobbs: What was incredible, I think, was on a very, very small scale I could feel in South London an amazing sense of creative momentum building in the dubstep scene. You could feel the kind of groundswell in terms of the number of people attending the clubs, swelling week on week, month on month. You could feel this real sense of family beginning to form and the notion that it was a group of people creating this momentum, which was pushing the scene forward. And so, it felt to me as if a flashpoint was approaching. I guess what I wanted to do was capture something of that excitement, something of that energy, and something of that spirit. And also just give people a sense of all the different types of textures and sounds. There’s a myriad of different textures and flavors of the dubstep sound, so I wanted to give people a taste of all of those different types of flavors, really. So I picked who I perceived to be the key players in the scene at that time, which was incredibly small still in London.
We put together this awesome show, but what was really funny about it was they were all still working day jobs at the time. I remember one case in point particularly was Loefah. Loefah was working with Sgt Pokes at a company that stuck advertisements, basically, on the side of black taxis in London. He was literally working in a cold garage on his knees all day and up to his neck in glue. I remember he’d been at work all the previous day and he actually stayed awake the previous night to finish the tune “Mud,” especially for that particular show. There was just an incredible excitement in the air that night. I mean, the magic was tangible in the studio and I knew the producers were ready. I knew they could come with the goods. I knew they had a sound that would really, really turn heads and change lives. I was really confident; I had absolute belief in that. We all knew that we put together an amazing radio show and there was such a phenomenal sense of excitement as the whole thing rolled out in the studio that night. But I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the massive global response the program got. I remember DJ Distance, who played on the show that night, putting a little post on dubstepforum, which at the time had literally about 200 members and within the space of five days there were 20,000 hits on the thread. And we absolutely couldn’t believe it. The global response was just totally overwhelming for that show.
What’s interesting now is I think you still feel the ripples. Everywhere I go — in every kind of far flung location in the world — to DJ there’s never a week goes by when somebody doesn’t turn around and say to me “Dubstep Warz changed my life.” And I think, wow that’s absolutely incredible since [it was broadcast] three years ago now. So I guess, in short, there was definitely this amazing sense of momentum building in the scene in London, which is why I chose that particular moment to put it together. But, like I said, the global response — it was a real tipping point (to quote Malcolm Gladwell) to the sound in a way that none of us could have perceived. And certainly that was not the prescription of the show that night, you know what I mean? We just came to put some incredible music on a BBC pedestal, thinking that we would definitely move a handful of people, but not in such mass numbers, and not still three years later. It’s remarkable, really.
What have you found most interesting or surprising about the rise in popularity of dubstep since then?
For me, my mission is always progression and it’s progression with the show on a weekly basis. In 2009 the show is moving faster creatively than it ever has done, really, but I think the really interesting kind of crossover points for me now are the types of relationships that you find between, say for example, the whole country of Scottish producers, people like Rustie, like Hudson Mohawke, like Mike Slott (now based in New York, but formerly Glaswegian). So you have this really fascinating, very particular Glaswegian sound. You find this amazing relationship between those producers and producers who are operating on the West Coast, all the Brainfeeder crew, all the Low End Theory crew, all of whom sort of headed up by Flying Lotus and Daddy Kev out there, but all kinds of really fascinating young producers, people like Nosaj Thing, Take, Mono/Poly, Exile, Teebs, the Gaslamp Killer, Samiyam, Ras G — that whole family of producers. And then also you frequently see these people working with, playing with, and having a fantastic symbiotic creative relationship with the likes of Kode9 — the whole Hyperdub stable, which is a fascinating collection of producers as well. Also obviously with DMZ and Digital Mystikz, and also with DJ Pinch and the whole of the Bristol family. And I think what you find now is people are not so much — not necessarily what you’d perceive as a core dubstep sound. You see the way the influence has traveled between Bristol, between people like Dorian Concept and all the people out in Vienna that are forming their own little scene out there, between the West Coast of America, between South London, between Glasgow. There are, I think, amazing symbiotic relationships, creative relationships between all those communities that are becoming very deep and very, very significant. And it’s wonderful to see that transition of ideas between different camps in spite of the fact their sounds are very particular. When you see the exchange of energy and just what can really be achieved as the barriers collapse globally — it’s a fantastic thing to watch, I think, in these times.
I was just watching some of the impressive video footage from Sónar. What can you tell us about your experience there?
The Sónar festival in 2007 was really such an incredibly important moment for the whole of dubstep, really. That was the big acid test, like, can we take this sound out of tiny, intense little club environment and out onto an international festival stage. And can we make this run, can we make it real in front of eight and a half thousand people. To be realistic, that’s probably the biggest stage dubstep has ever had, globally, I would think. I’ve done [the festival] three years in a row. But again it was kind of crazy. The first year was unbelievable because I remember when we showed up and we walked out into this gigantic open space for the sound check. Skream turned around to me and he was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the type of space that Faithless would play! Are you sure we’re doing the right thing here?!’ And I said to him look, I’ve spent six month priming people, people know that we’re coming. Let’s just wait and see. If we pull a couple hundred people it’l still be a wicked night. Look at this sound system, you know, it’s just the most incredible — I mean it’s a beautiful setting with one of the greatest — well probably the greatest festival sound systems I’ve ever seen in my entire life, to be honest. It’s absolutely state of the art.
I remember also in 2007 the Beastie Boys were headlining at the exact same time that our showcase was taking place. And the way Sónar’s laid out, that means they are literally about ten paces away. So I remember just before the showcase was due to start at midnight there were literally about seven or eight people hanging about dancing to the warm-up DJ and that was it. The whole of the rest of this gigantic open space was completely empty. But almost as soon as I started playing, just a couple records into my set there were just streams of bodies coming in the hundreds, in the thousands, just pouring into this arena. And I remember Kode9 running up to me and going, ‘Oh my god, look, they’re coming! They’re coming!’ It was this incredible feeling as people flooded in, in the hundreds and thousands to watch that scene. By the end of the night — I’m sure you’ve seen the footage on YouTube — you can see the whole place right to the very horizon completely going wild while Skream played. I remember speaking to him after the set had finished that night and he said to me, ‘That was the greatest night of my entire life up to this point.’ I don’t think, again, any of us could have — we knew people had some awareness of what dubstep was and that they were hungry to hear it, but to get the reaction that we did, which was absolutely incendiary, I mean it was completely wild that night. It was more than any of us could have ever dreamed of, really. Obviously I’ve gone back subsequently: I went in 2008 with Mala from Digital Mystikz, Shackelton, and Flying Lotus; and then this year I took Joker, Martyn and the Gaslamp Killer and similarly the responses were absolutely massive. It’s a strange thing when I think back on it… it doesn’t seem real, it almost has a dreamlike quality about it because it is so extraordinary to see that number of people.
Did you get a chance to go out into the crowd?
Yeah, me and Pinch! What’s really great about Sónar is you don’t get that massive crush down the front like you do at most festivals because the sound system is so fantastic. You can hear it with absolute clarity all the way back. If you were to stand at the very, very back you could still hear it with immense volume and incredible clarity even at that distance. So everybody gives each other plenty of space to dance, and to move, and to do their thing in the crowd. It’s just really mellow. Yeah, me and Pinch were out in the crowd dancing to everybody else’s set. It’s beautiful, everybody — all of the other artists do it; they go out and check out each other from the side of the stage or the center of the crowd. Everybody walks around to figure out the exact, the best vantage point to capture the glorious frequencies of that Sónar system out there.
Do you see a divide between the more aggressive sounds of producers like Joker and Rusko and the softer 2-step influenced shuffle of Martyn and TRG, or do you think these are all just points on the same spectrum?
For me, one of the beauties of the dubstep sound is it’s so diverse ,and really there are no parameters and there are no rules whatsoever, and you can draw in any conceivable influence. I’m sure you see it: there’s a myriad of different colors and textures of sound. Obviously, as you say, people were originally inspired by dark garage in the UK so you still feel that fabulous kind of really deep, sexy 2-step vibe going on. But then, also, we were just speaking earlier about the Bristol crew, who are very much influenced and inspired by Berlin’s minimal techno. And then you have the DMZ massive, you can hear the Jamaican Channel One influences echoing through all of those different types of textures of sound. There’s Distance and Vex’d who are openly huge fans of extreme metal bands, so Distance will talk to you about the fact that he’s influenced by Korn and by SOAD, and Vex’d will talk about how much they love Sunn O))). That’s kind of what I really love about this entire spectrum, really, is that there genuinely are no parameters. I think Caspa and Rusko are very open about they’re influences. You know, they’re white boys, and they enjoy much more aggressive influences and quite a lot of midrange they put into their music. But I think for all of us, there’s a great love of one another’s styles and most DJs — myself included — I will play absolutely every conceivable texture of the sound right across the rainbow spectrum in a set because I like to do that. I like to show how diverse the sound is and I think it’s one of the things that keeps it so fresh — you never know what’s around the next corner and there are no rules, which, in 2009, has got to be a really liberating thing.
What do you think of UK funky?
I think it’s still in the very, very early stages of the sound, really. But I think, one of my favorite DJs in the whole electronic music at large really the whole electronic music stratosphere is Kode9 and I think, for me, Kode9 is the man that really gives funky some context. I mean, if you were to absorb and experience and witness one of his funky sets it would absolutely set you on fire. Completely. And I think, in many ways a really incredible DJ will interpret it for you in a completely unique and elemental way. That for me is the best way to absorb funky. Listen to Kode9 play it and then you will kind of understand how it’s meant to be, I think. But you know, it’s an interesting sound and it’s very, very young and it’s very much in its formative stages so it will be really interesting to see how it rolls out over the next couple of years.
Many of these British subgenres, including grime, dubstep, and funky seem to live on pirate radio in their early stages. What is your take on this?
It’s part of the tradition of the British underground, really. Pirate radio has been around for, I don’t know… since broadcasting was invented, practically. Pirate radio has been a great passion for many people, both broadcasters and listeners. If you go down to South London and you drive around in a car for a couple hours you can pick up all kinds of fantastic signals but they.re only maybe broadcasting within a mile radius or something like that. I mean, obviously with the Internet opening up in the way that it has done these days, things like Sub FM, Rinse FM — everybody’s online now and I think their bandwidth is improving on a monthly basis really at the moment.
[Pirate radio is] an amazing resource in the UK and it always has been really. It ranges from literally people kind of hanging a coat hanger out of their bedroom window — they’re watching the front door with a Rottweiler while they kick out their own little show from their bedroom — to stations that are vastly more sophisticated like Rinse, that run 24/7 with some of the biggest producers in the UK broadcasting on that network. Rinse is now in the process of trying to win a proper license so they can actually broadcast legitimately in the UK and, to be honest, I think the radio authority would be crazy not to give them a license at this point because they’re so successful. Really, pirate radio is where you hear the absolute genesis of sound because so many of the producers are broadcasting on those networks, especially on a network like Rinse, and they are bringing the freshest dubs onto the program every week. So if you’re unable to get to a club locally to see these people play, it’s the fastest way to really get a handle on absolutely every conceivable piece of music that’s fresh, really. I have a huge love of pirate radio in spite of the fact I’m a BBC broadcaster. I absolutely love it, I love the fire and energy and that kind of raw sense of chaos, that kind of “be damned” sense about it. I mean, everybody knows it’s illegal, but they’re going to do it anyway because their belief and their passion in the music is so strong.
Speaking of people with a strong passion for music, you’ve had Wiley on your show at least once. What was that like?
Yeah, I did once, actually. I had a really fantastic conversation with Wiley. It was very confessional. He spoke a lot about what he felt were his own mistakes, his own downfalls. And he said to me that he regretted letting people down so often. His no-show record in terms of not showing up for gigs, not showing up for interviews, not showing up for sessions — it happened all the time. He was speaking about the fact that he deeply regretted his behavior. We were also talking about the fact that the grime scene in the UK suffered from basically a great deal of violence, which was kind of erupting around the scene and within the scene and made promoters shy away from allowing grime nights in their venues, from booking artists who were perceived as grime artists on their broader electronic bills because they didn’t want to bring trouble into the clubs. They didn’t want knives or guns in the club.
We spoke at great length about the fact there was a real problem, it seemed, in grime to know where art stops and life begins. The line was not clear for some people, albeit a small minority. There was a sense grime lyrics had always been perceived in the first person, if you see what I mean. A man on a mic spitting aggressive lyrics was an automatic call to arms for some people. Wiley and I spoke about it at great length. He confessed on air, he said, ‘It’s partly my fault. I have put this into people.’ He conceded on air to me he felt some of what he did as a younger man has fueled this fire. But now it was partly his responsibility to try to quell the flames and try to re-establish where the line is between art and life. Obviously there’s a huge history in MC culture of hostile and aggressive spitting on microphones. It goes all the way back to hip-hop, I’m sure you know, so it’s nothing new, people dissing each other on mics — it’s happened for generations. But it’s knowing when to put a mic down and go home peacefully, isn’t it. It’s trying to establish a culture where whatever happens on stage doesn’t then spill over into the streets. It was a fascinating conversation. Definitely my favorite grime MC of all time and probably always will be.
You’ve been as much a champion of grime as you have of dubstep on your show. How do you see the relationship between grime and dubstep?
In spite of the fact that the two cultures have been linked, dubstep is all about the producers whereas grime is all about the MC. Dubstep was quite careful to distance itself a little bit from grime because it didn’t want to draw the same problems into the clubs. I wished earlier on that grime and dubstep could have retained a closer relationship. But I can understand the wisdom of the dubstep community wanting to pull away a little bit. If you were to understand what was going on, on the ground, especially in London, in the UK about three years ago, I think you would see why the dubstep people took a step back.
You do kind of see the two paths.
It’s funny because a lot of the producers are very, very deeply influenced by grime. I mean, Kode9 will talk to you about how much he loves grime and how much it’s influenced his sound. But I think the dubstep people were looking at what happened with garage and garage was torn apart by violence. I mean, the whole scene completely melted down because people were getting shot and stabbed in the clubs. Promoters just wouldn’t take the risk putting on garage nights any longer. So I think the dubstep community still had that very, very fresh in their minds: we don;t want to go down the same pathway as garage and be obliterated after a few years because the violence is out of hand. So they went down a completely different sort of, much more spiritual, “peace and love” pathway. It was a very, very good decision to make, I think, in those early days.
Yeah, dubstep’s got a great vibe to it. There’s a certain positive quality about the music itself that, I think, can be heard wherever it pops up around the world.
Sonically it’s much less aggressive than grime, definitely, but there was a definite step back from the dubstep community in terms of wanting to establish a different vibe at the raves. I mean, the energy is absolutely phenomenal at a grime rave. Chantelle Fiddy used to run the best ones where she’d have 30 people up on stage all spitting, passing mics, and it’s just absolutely wild. But the tension in the audience was palpable. You could feel it, it was thick in the air; whereas at dubstep raves it;s completely different. It’s 100% peace and love. It really, really is markedly different.
So, you’re going on a tour of America this month. How is this different from previous out of town gigs?
I’m on the road pretty much all the time. Every weekend I’ll pack my bags and shoot off somewhere, but this is different in terms of the fact it’s actually three entire weeks away from home — three weeks away from the show. I’m kind of on the road in America, so aesthetically it’s different to me, in my mind it’s like a “real” tour. It’s like the sort of thing a band would do, in a way. Normally I would go do one or two shows then come back home again and prepare for the Radio 1 show and go and do that midweek. Aesthetically it’s different, in my mind. It feels like an old school tour, you know in the most traditional sense of the word. It’s almost like being 16 again, being told you’ve got a three week tour of America. I can’t tell you how exciting that is. I’ve never attempted anything like this so I have no concept of what it’s going to be like to be on tour, but you know I get to pretend that I’m in Motley Cru for a couple of weeks. It’s going to be fantastic.
You’re not driving between any cities are you?
No, no, I’m flying. I would love to do it on a motorcycle. I mean, that would be my dream. It’s always been my dream to ride across America on a Harley Davidson. But I don’t think it’s practical, covering so many miles in an incredibly short space of time. But in an ideal world, that would be the dream ticket, really.
Photo by Merlijn Hoek
You’ve played a few one-off shows here, Sub Swara in New York, Low End Theory in LA, and West Coast Rocks in San Francisco this past January. What are your impressions of the American scene and sound?
Do you know what was interesting, certainly in terms of my trip to the west coast, I felt this incredible sense of momentum building on the west coast much in the same way as I had in 2006 in South London with the dubstep scene. I could feel there was a tangible energy. Many of the artists I had supported individually on the show — people like Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer, Flying Lotus — I heard about this mystical club, and I know how very important clubs are in terms of really being the central hub for a scene. And I had heard time and time again about this fantastic place called Low End Theory and I thought, ‘god, you know what, I’ve absolutely got to get out to the west coast and experience this place. I get this overwhelming feeling something really, really special is happening out there, even an ocean away. And actually what was interesting was that, ostensibly, I went to the west coast to see what they had got. I mean, I was going to put together a special for the BBC Radio 1 show and also I was going to shoot a little movie out there, which I did do, but it was very much my mission to see what they got. But then when they found out I was coming, Low End Theory immediately said to me, ‘Well you know what, if you’re coming you’ve got to play.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know man, I haven’t got a visa or anything like that, so it would only be for fun.’ So they said ‘Yeah, for sure, just come play half an hour it’d be absolutely wicked.’
And it’s kind of interesting because everybody had said to me LA is, you know they’re very cool, the audience, they will probably watch you with their arms folded. But when I got there that night it was literally one of the greatest nights of my life on earth. It was just completely incredible. The whole place was road-blocked. People were screaming down the front, it was just crazy. It was absolutely unbelievable. I felt like this must be what it’s like to be in The Beatles. Absolutely wild. I also thought to myself, you know, there’ll be a few people who know who I am, but it’ll only be a handful of people, people who like the show and stuff like that. But when I got to Low End Theory almost the entire producer community of LA had showed up, all of whom seem to have listened to the show on a weekly basis and were intimately familiar with everything that I’ve done and I was completely overwhelmed.
Similarly in San Francisco, they heard that I was coming and Loefah said to me actually, ‘You know you really should play in San Francisco, if you’re going to go there you’ve got to play there.’ Again I said, ‘I don’t have a visa, so I’ll play for free in a little bar or something.’ Kid Kameleon set up a show at seven days notice and put together myself and a bill of another six artists he knew I would love to see playing. And again they’d said to me, ‘It’s a Thursday night, so it might be a little bit quiet in San Francisco. So don’t worry if we only get 100 people in or so, but come and do it for the hell of it.’ But again, the place was completely mobbed and just went off in the most incredible way, in a way I couldn’t have conceived of at all. And I remember meeting this guy in SF, he came at the end of the set and said I came from Peru I wanted to tell you my story. And I said ‘god, wow that’s amazing you’ve come so far at a week’s notice. He said he lived on this little island off the coast of Peru and it’s been his mission for many, many years to download the BBC show every single week, and he said it normally takes him about five or six days to do it because the Internet connection is so bad and if a bird sits on the wire or something like that it gets interrupted and he has to start again from scratch. But he said for years he downloaded every single show and burns the show on to CD, and he’s taken the CDs to every bar and every club on the island. He said it’s the only kind of music they have on the island other than traditional Peruvian music. But he said everybody listens to the show on this island and he’s converted everybody. And I was so blown away, so moved, so touched he would come all that way just to tell me his story. It’s just completely mind blowing really. So, yeah, the reactions on the west coast when I came in January were absolutely phenomenal. That was what kind of inspired this tour, if you like. I got in touch with Surefire, just an amazing agency, and they said ‘Look, why don’t we get you a visa and do a real tour and actually spend some time out here.’ So I thought that sounds like a dream come true, so that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Wild Angels is very eclectic — it includes a variety of moods and tempos, and the artists are certainly not from the UK. What do you think is the common thread?
I wanted to represent a collection of producers that are literally building new causeways, brick by brick, out to the future spaces beyond dubstep, beyond techno, beyond hip-hop, beyond soul music. You can almost identify where core sounds come from, but you can see how these people are building new pathways out into the future. The thing that tied it together is that sense, even if it’s only philosophical, is really looking for future sounds beyond the key, core genre sounds. People who are literally building out on their own, on a new trajectory. The whole notion of future sounds, really.
What do you hope to achieve with this compilation?
I always hope it will prick people’’s imaginations, really, as much as anything. If people are inspired to go on their own missions and go seeking for themselves as a consequence of listening to that record and they discover more, that would be a wonderful thing for me.
Do you have any advice for budding writers, DJs, or broadcasters?
Charge at your dreams and don’t ever look back. People in this day and age go to university to study [media] and yet I would say to people in this industry, you are completely and utterly the master of your own destiny. I think, to a degree, Darwinism is never more prevalent than it is in this industry. It’s all about survival of the fittest and I think the people who are the most passionate, the people who are the most committed, and the most driven, the people who literally cannot conceive of living a different way are the ones that will make it through. You can’t study this in the same way that you can study to become a doctor or a lawyer. I suppose you can theorize about it. You can write a PhD thesis on any conceivable part of the media. But once you actually become a player, once you enter into the game, there literally are no rules. What I would say to people is every time you see a little chink of light, run towards it and look at it. Look in there and see what’s behind the light. Every time you see a threshold that looks as if it’s a little bit dangerous to cross, leap right at it. You do need to just charge at your dreams because there is no pathway set out in stone that you can follow. It really isn’t like any kind of traditional career and I really think that’s a great leveler because you don’t need some fancy education that’s going to leave you in debt. I just think in many ways that’s the beauty of this industry, of what we do in the media, in the arts, in music, as DJs, as writers, as broadcasters. It’s all driven by our passion and it will be your passion that powers you and that will drive you so much further forward than anything, any type of qualification you could ever acquire. So, I love that about what it is that we do that I think it’s one of the few industries where you can genuinely say everybody’s on level ground here.