How dubplates fuelled the rise of drum & bass in the ‘90s
In the early ‘90s, dubplates, exclusive early pressings of unreleased music, fuelled the buzz around DJs in the emergent jungle scene. In an excerpt from their new book on the history of drum & bass, Renegade Snares, DJ Mag editor Carl Loben and Ben Murphy chat to DJ Storm, Digital, Fabio and Grooverider about the vital role of these unique cuts, and how their cutting houses became social hubs for artists
Exalted among the many musical innovations that Jamaica has given the world is the dubplate. An acetate pressing of unreleased music, produced especially for DJs and soundsystems, the dubplate was the secret weapon with which top selectors could annihilate their rivals in a soundclash. Originally consisting of dub or vocal reggae tracks, having a selection of plates in your record bag was a form of one-upmanship that could give you an edge: after all, the DJ with the baddest tunes wins the battle.
Successful soundsystems in Jamaica, and then in the UK, could draw ever larger crowds with the promise of exclusive, exceptional tracks; and the dubplate idea, like other facets of reggae, was carried over to jungle/drum & bass.
Fabio & Grooverider were the first DJs from the acid-house era to cut their own dubplates—closely followed by Micky Finn. Before the existence of CDJs, a dubplate allowed a DJ to play a just-finished track before its official release—sometimes months and months upfront. ‘Groove would play something brand new, and everyone would talk about it,’ explains Fabio. ‘That would create a buzz on the track—that’s how you’d do the hype.
"We had access to music that no one else did, so it was really important that we went out there and did our thing," Fabio continues. "No one had these tunes. Groove would go and play a set down Blue Note, and some of these tunes would come out eighteen months later. He had instant access to Photek, Dillinja... and no one else would have access to them. So we were in control. Goldie never used to give his tunes to more than two people. Groove used to get it first, then me and Randall and [Doc] Scotty—and that was it. So we controlled everything. You couldn’t get these tunes, no matter how hard you tried."
Just as floor-rumbling bass and reggae samples were highly prized in the jungle scene, so too was having tracks that no one else had. It was a way for DJs to compete and keep crowds coming back, especially during a pre-internet era when pirate radio, raves, and record shops were the only places you could hear new music prior to its release. While dubplate cutting began in earnest in the UK in the 1980s, it was the Music House cutting facility that popularised making jungle plates. In the early 90s, more and more DJs began to walk through its hallowed doors.
A place that rapidly acquired a social dimension, as DJs from all areas of the d&b scene met and got to know each other while they waited in line for their plates to be cut, Music House (and other cutting houses, such as JTS Studio) became an information network and hub in a similar way to pirate radio. ‘It forced people to have to sit with [others] they may not normally socialise with," J Majik told Drum & Bass Arena. "Music House brought all the styles together and made you sit together. You didn’t send a DAT to them by post or send a cab down there. If you wanted it, you waited, and it forced interactions, which were great because, after spending five or so hours with someone, you understand them on a different level."
The dubplates a DJ would cut also affirmed their identity to the scene: the music they had access to would reveal a chain of musical and familial connections. "That was really important, what dubplates you had in your bag showed where you came from," says DJ Storm. "People were like, Who are these girls with all these Reinforced dubplates? They go around with this guy with the crazy gold teeth. People would say at Music House, Does anyone know that guy with the gold teeth? Yeah, we do.
"The more you went down there, the more you became part of the community. Because that was the beauty of Music House as well, you’d meet people you’d never met before. It was exciting, I met so many DJs down there: Frosty, Kenny Ken, Shy FX, Roni Size. It was face to face there, and if someone turned up, you might be lucky that you were there at that time and they allowed you to cut [their tune]. We were there for hours, we loved it."
Storm was never a dubplate elitist, though. "I think you should play a good combination of vinyl and the latest plates," she said in 1999. "For me, DJing is about dealing with what you’ve got, and making it something spectacular." Dubplates are typically cut onto acetate, a usually ten-inch slab of metal that wears out far quicker than vinyl but has a warmth and depth of tone that makes them ideal for playing out. Another advantage of dubplates was as a litmus test, allowing DJs to check how the tunes sounded in a club environment, gauge the crowd reaction, and decide if the tunes needed any additional changes, or even if they were suitable for release. Dubplates were also a way for producers to create their own special remixes of their own most popular tracks. Called VIP mixes (‘Variation In Production’), these versions would be the secret weapons of DJs, sometimes eventually making their way to official release.
Started by Chris Hanson of the UK reggae band Black Slate in the 80s, and originally based in his home in Finsbury Park, then on Holloway Road, Music House later moved to nearby Tottenham Hale. It featured renowned cutting engineer Leon Chue (who sadly died in December 2020) among its employees.
"When it first started, it was mostly reggae," Chue says in the Dubplate Classics documentary programme on YouTube. "You’d have soundsystems cutting. Chris [Hanson] started in his house. He was in Black Slate and could see the decline in touring, and wanted to do something else. He sold his car and bought a mono cutting machine, then started cutting dubs. Me and my brother and sister all worked with Chris, ’cause my dad [Paul Chue] was working with him before.
"Why I’m here is ’cause of jungle and ’cause of Kool FM. I didn’t know anything about Grooverider, Micky Finn, Kenny Ken. I just knew about Brockie, MC Det, DJ Pressure X, Mampi Swift. When I came here to see my dad, the big tune at the time was [dancehall song] General Degree’s Papa Lover, the Stretch remix, so my eyes were opened, like, What’s going on here? And then my dad said, Brockie, you want one of these?"
Another aspect of the cutting process was the high quality of productions it brought about. While Music House was renowned for producing these dubs to a superior standard, and cutting them with the required bass weight and crispness—knowledge accrued through the reggae connection—it also encouraged producers to make sure their tunes were flawless, as they’d be standing in line with the great and good of the d&b scene, and they didn’t want their material to sound lacklustre by comparison.
"It would keep you on your toes—you couldn’t make a shit tune and go down there, ’cause everyone is going to hear it,’ says Digital. ‘You’d have to do your best to make the tune good. That would help you get a bit of a standard. Dubplate culture helped keep that standard up in people’s sets. You’d think, I’m cutting the best tunes here. I’m from Ipswich, so that’s how I got to meet a lot of people in London. I got to know what they’re about and to know a lot of DJs and artists."
In addition to Music House there was Jah Tubby’s Studio, later shortened to JTS Studios. Based in Homerton, it had a similar journey from reggae to jungle, responsible for mastering reggae tracks for artists like Neville Brown and Frankie Paul, before later cutting records for hardcore and house acts like Phuture Assassins and Infamix (an early alias of B12). Another cutting house, Transition Studios in Forest Hill, would become a hub for the dubstep scene, itself a mutation/evolution of the bass sound that began with jungle.
Dubplates and vinyl persisted for the whole of the 90s and past the millennium. While DJs in other electronic music genres started switching to playing CDs on the new Pioneer CDJs that were sneaking into booths, drum & bass resisted for quite a while. America’s top d&b DJ, Dieselboy, raised a few eyebrows when he played Movement in London in the early 2000s and played entirely digitally, but pretty soon—if gradually—most DJs made the switch.
Every early drum & bass DJ has their own story about when and why they switched to digital DJing. For Fabio, who used to get dubs thrown up to the DJ booth when playing Rage at Heaven, it was when he turned up to play at his night Swerve, and the DJ on before him was playing a new tune off CD that he’d just spent a load of cash cutting onto a plate. "I started thinking, Why am I doing this?" says Fabio. "Towards the end of buying plates, I remember once I was talking to my accountant and he said, Do you know how much money you’re spending on dubs? It was something like eleven grand a year. One plate was £60 at one stage."
Bowing to technological inevitability and switching to digital also allowed travelling DJs to carry many more tunes with them. Grooverider used to carry four heavy record boxes around to his gigs at one stage. "I’ve always been into carrying thousands of tunes, it’s always been my thing,’ he says. ‘Even when I was using vinyl, I’d carry more records than anybody else. So, for me, to slim it down and just put it in my laptop worked for me."
Groove was an early adopter of Serato, the digital DJing system that allows you to play from a linked-in portable laptop computer. Fabio now uses USB drives after a decade or so on CDs, having got caught out once during a set when the CDJs were jumping, and he’s never looked back. The guys certainly aren’t vinyl purists anymore. "I’m not one of those geezers putting records on thinking, That’s a great warm sound—it’s all about what’s on it that counts," says Groove. They believe they served their time playing off the physical format.
"We paid our debt to vinyl and dubplates, ’cause we were carrying ’em around for years—breaking our backs,’ says Fabio. "I’ve got two rooms full of shit out there," says Groove, motioning towards his back garden. "It’s whatever you find is easiest to work with," adds Fabio.
Beyond fetishisation, the use of dubplates was carried over into dubstep, and a select number of DJs still swear by their warm sound; new cutting houses have emerged to cater for the continuing use of dubs for DJs who play out on loud systems.
Renegade Snares: The Resistance And Resilience Of Drum & Bass is available now via Jawbrone Press. Order your copy here.