In 2007, Parisian nouveau disco duo Justice turned in 44 minutes of sultry synth-rock for their contribution to Fabric’s hallowed FABRICLIVE DJ mixes. The series had debuted in 2001, borrowing its name from the London venue’s Friday club nights, which skewed toward drum’n’bass, breaks, and hip-hop. The franchise alternated monthly with a house and techno twin, fabric, that reflected its Saturday night lineups. Curated and commissioned by the club’s in-house label, the two strands operated as an extension of the Farringdon haunt outside of its labyrinthine HQ: In high-street record stores, car stereos, and adolescent bedrooms, the FABRICLIVE and fabric mix CDs gradually established something like a canonical picture of contemporary UK club culture, as determined by one of the world’s most recognizable clubbing brands.
Before Justice, FABRICLIVE mixes had been delivered by everyone from James Lavelle to John Peel, J Majik, James Murphy, and a number of other blokes whose names did or didn’t begin with “J”. But the French pair’s offering hadn’t, apparently, gone down so well with the folks at Fabric. The mix was rejected. Rumors as to why abounded in the forum-sphere, commenters freely wheeling out theories, substantiated or not, from beneath a cloak of online anonymity: The mix was too short; it didn’t fit the vibe; it was shit.
But for the series’ commissioners, there was little time to kill. December loomed, and a new release was needed. Two young upstarts from the burgeoning dubstep scene—25-year-old West Londoner Gary McCann, aka Caspa, and Rusko, the Yorkshire-born Christopher Mercer, aged 22—got the call. They were familiar faces in the club and the office, having signed a publishing deal with the label earlier in the year. And they were, crucially, considered reliable.
Caspa and Rusko were given three days to deliver their mix. They played a Halloween show in Sheffield on the weekend, put together a rough tracklist on the drive back to London, and, come Monday, were recording live from dubplate and vinyl in Fabric Room 3—a cramped space on the club’s mezzanine level, with the booth shrouded in Victorian brickwork. It was, in many ways, just like any other show—except the club was empty, it was 4 p.m., and the sound engineer wanted to be out by six in time for his tea. The final recording was mastered on Tuesday morning, burned to CD on Wednesday, and promo copies were in the post by Friday.
The unusual time pressure meant the tracklist was selected from a limited pot. Not just because there wasn’t the time to agonize over peaks, troughs, transitions, and breakdowns—all that journey stuff that DJs love to mythologize—but because there was no time to arrange licensing deals either: They had to pick songs they knew they could clear. As a result, 15 of the 29 tracks were by Caspa and Rusko themselves, and 17 were lifted from Caspa’s Dub Police and Sub Soldiers labels.
The fact that FABRICLIVE.37 would be Fabric’s first purely dubstep-focused mix carried an implicit responsibility to represent the scene as a whole. No easy task: By 2007, dubstep had coalesced from its initial pairing of dark garage and jungle into a recognizable style, and it was already beginning to mutate. Sub-shoots were spreading outward—first by word-of-mouth, then online—from London, where it had originated. There was the “purple” sound in Bristol, which elevated melody, color, and sci-fi synths; in Leeds, DJs put stacked dub reggae soundsystems through their paces in rickety community centers; specialist DJs like Youngsta and Hatcha had their own orbits, with producers honing their sounds to fit each selector’s style. The DNA of jump-up drum’n’bass—already derided as “clownstep” by more seasoned ravers—could be found in dubstep’s more aggressive iteration, later slapped with its own pejorative: brostep. Factions were forming, each with their own devoted advocates and critics.
Caspa and Rusko were flying the flag for their very own variant of the sound: loud, rude, and rowdy, with a dash of dub sensibility (Rusko styled his debut EP cover on photos of Haile Selassie). Even without the time constraints, FABRICLIVE.37 was never going to be a true representation of all that was dubstep. This was a Caspa and Rusko set, a near mirror of the show they’d played in Sheffield just days before. It was also a premonition of a cultural shift that would soon prioritize attention over everything: The listening equivalent of scrolling through social media, presented with an unending, increasingly bewildering stream of content designed to not just to shock or entertain you, but to keep you rolling your thumb back for more. In Silicon Valley a year earlier, Aza Raskin had first presented the concept of “infinite scroll,” later described as a “dopamine seeking reward loop” by behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk—and by Raskin as one of his biggest professional regrets. Now, hits are minted on TikTok. Scenes no longer crystallize on mix CDs.
Two other things happened around this time.
On July 1st, 2007, smoking in pubs, restaurants, and nightclubs became illegal in the UK. DJs found themselves contending with a new phenomenon: the smokers’ exodus. Playing more daring tunes now carried the added risk of half the dancefloor departing for a roll-up. For dubstep in particular, a sound that in its early days attracted a distinctly red-eyed crowd, this represented an especially significant shift.
A decade after the ban came into effect, drum‘n’bass kingpin Andy C—famed for his double drops and multi-deck mixing—recalled his approach of “pulling some bangers out” to keep people engaged and away from the smoking area. Caspa and Rusko’s barraging FABRICLIVE.37 mid-section complemented the fast-evolving attention economy approach: More, bigger, louder, faster, newer. Better? The jury was in the smoking area.
At the same time, in Cambodia, there were raids and clampdowns on the production of safrole oil—a key component in the production of MDMA. The resulting shortages caused an MDMA drought that dragged out for several years and was exploited by wily entrepreneurs who met the demand for uppers with an array of substitute chemical compounds, either stuffing them into pill presses and hoping people wouldn’t notice the lack of actual MDMA in their eccies (EU seizure data in 2009 revealed that most pills being necked at the time didn’t include any MDMA at all) or marketing them as something entirely new.
The big success story of this particular wave of pleasure innovation was mephedrone, or simply “drone.” Also known by a variety of tabloid-concocted names including M-CAT, White Magic, and Meow Meow—a nod to its chemical name as opposed to the fact it smells like cat piss—the drug’s popularity exploded in the UK. By 2010, it was the fourth most popular drug among clubbers in the country. Its white-powdered appearance, extreme moreishness, and attractive price point (at a tenner a gram, it was at least four times cheaper than the going rate of what was being sold as MDMA at the time) all contributed to the boom. The fact that it was also legal and very easy to come by made it appealing to those dabbling in their first tastes of adult freedom—which, for many, included going out to clubs and listening to exuberant dance music of the kind plied by Caspa and Rusko. Dubstep, born under a cloud of weed smoke, sounded different with a sprinkle of synthetic amphetamine.
In many ways, these conditions suited Caspa and Rusko’s blunt-force, humorous, adrenalized style. Their rowdy, juvenile appeal is perhaps best encapsulated by the soccer-chant horns of Rusko’s “Cockney Thug” and its repeated, context-free interjection of Alan Ford saying the word “fuck” in the thickest of East End accents (the tune was originally just called “FAK”). This was good, dumb fun. Even if its legacy has been more dumb than fun.
The rush to assemble the mix goes some way to explaining its truncated style. Tracks slam from drop to drop, with little by way of crossover, fade, or creative combination. Throughout the 20-track middle section, songs are flung in and jerked out after just a minute or so, each making way for something that sounded similar, perhaps familiar, but also totally different. It pulls you by the ears from one minute to the next; from the rumble of Cotti & ClueKid’s “Legacy,” to Caspa’s warped, underwater horns on “Big Headed Slags,” or Rusko’s various squealing synth experiments—gesticulating at the unbolted creativity and expansiveness that made dubstep such an appealing prospect in its early days, yet landing consistently on the same note over and over again.
Caspa and Rusko’s mix featured more tracks than any other FABRICLIVE release to date. This was a point noted proudly by the pair in interviews, presumably following the logic that bigger could also mean better and, maybe, more representative. But the cramped, attention-sucking mid-section ultimately masked the more musically interesting (and enduring) moments of the mix. These are found in its bookends: The soaring sax of L-Wiz’ “Girl From Codeine City,” Caspa’s Lin Wenzheng-sampling “Cockney Violin,” or ConQuest’s dubby, seven-minute closing meditation, “Forever.”
Their appointment to record Fabric’s first dubstep mix was not without controversy—few things in dubstep ever were, such was the protective zeal that many of its fans had inherited from the sometimes dogmatic drum’n’bass and garage scenes. Loefah, a key player in south London’s DMZ crew, known for their weighty, almost spiritual take on dubstep and its soundsystem roots, claimed in 2015 that the opportunity had been turned down by various people in the scene before Caspa and Rusko were brought on board. DMZ’s resident host, Sgt Pokes, writing under the “poax” pseudonym on Dubstepforum.com, reported similarly. Martin Clark, who was blogging and producing as Blackdown (as well as writing a monthly grime and dubstep column for Pitchfork), said he’d been lobbying for a dubstep contribution to Fabric’s mix series since the early noughties to no avail.
The influential pirates at Rinse FM had launched their own mix CD series in the same year, with Skream’s expansive Rinse:02 contribution preceding FABRICLIVE.37 by a matter of days. Tempa’s Dubstep Allstars showcases had been ticking over since 2004, with N-Type’s Volume 5, also released in 2007, among the best encapsulations of the genre’s broad tent. But these were still, mostly, underground interests. It was Fabric’s above-ground entry that arguably shifted the sound from young pretender to new contender and, for better or worse, would solidify a narrower interpretation of it in the popular consciousness.
The label arranged a whole day of international press for Caspa and Rusko. By the time the pair sat down for the day’s final engagement—a late-evening chat with veteran Rinse FM DJ Darkside for his GetDarker platform—Caspa said they’d done 31 interviews. The pair were excited, they said, for people to hear what they’d produced. A week later, the 8,000 people signed up to the club’s monthly FabricFirst subscription service would be among the first to experience it. FABRICLIVE.37 accelerated a singular version of dubstep into the mainstream; it placed an authoritative, globally recognized stamp on the genre’s spectrum. What Caspa and Rusko had produced, it turned out, was a spark to EDM’s strobe-lit explosion.
Within a couple of years, dubstep was the loudest, dirtiest word in global dance music. There were lots of DJs standing on desks in front of elaborate pyrotechnics displays and thousands of neck-swinging fans. Internet Explorer had a dubstep ad. The Weetabix one was worse. Some producers made hay turning out turgid, front-loaded remixes for major labels. Others slunk back to their underground communities, bitter, embarrassed even, at how quickly and easily commercial interests had swallowed their subculture. But dubstep’s moment in the zeitgeist was a boon to many in the community, too: UK-based events like SubDub expanded into international, festival-scale showcases of soundsystem culture; originators like Mala and Kode9 forged careers and nurtured labels in their own vision; it pushed others, like Loefah, Peverelist, and Pinch to explore rewarding new musical paths. Embossed CD tins, totems of Fabric’s releases, changed hands among intrigued young music fans—fans like Sherelle Thomas, the latest contributor to the new fabric presents mix series (which replaced the concurrent FABRICLIVE and fabric offerings) who pinpointed Caspa and Rusko’s mix as a key entry point to club culture.
Since its fated release, FABRICLIVE.37 has followed an arc that’s become typical of such flashpoint moments: Something that feels incredibly exciting to many and ominous to others, ages badly very quickly, and then, on reappraisal years later, reveals its true magnetic value. And there’s the realization that these are the things the mind clings to despite the attrition of daily life, in spite of the infinite scroll. Maybe that’s what Justice’s Gaspard and Xavier had in mind as they stitched together their own version of FABRICLIVE.37—plumbing ’70s disco hits and spandex rock, searching for those moments that move you to pause, breathe, and, gently, to no one in particular, whisper “FAK.”
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