Dreams rendered in metal: A look into dubplate culture

Dubplates are an essential part of the culture and history of soundsystem music from reggae to jungle to grime and dubstep. Though it has to be said that the same culture also represents some of the worst traits of specialist dance music and soundsystem culture: retrograde fetishism, pedantic one-upmanship, and downright musical snobbery.

For the uninitiated, a dubplate (or acetate) is a one-off record, pressed not on vinyl, but on lacquered aluminum. It is designed for DJs to road-test tracks on club systems, gauge dancefloor reaction and then tweak accordingly before a commercial release. Tracks are pressed, one on each side (and typically on a 10 inch plate) on to a metal disk, and sound beautifully bassy and clear, before wearing out after about 50 plays. Each dubplate represents an exclusive, as well as considerable financial investment (each plate typically costs £30-£50).

Dubplates sound good, they even smell good (everyone who has ever used a dubplate can attest to their unique smell), and give the DJ a secret weapon unknown to the rest of the dancefloor community. If owning a standard vinyl pressing feels like possessing the first edition of a novel, then having a tune on dubplate is like owning the author’s original handwritten manuscript, midnight candlewax spillages on the pages and all. In the days before CDRs, mp3s and SoundCloud, dubplates had a more practical application: they provided the most effective (and pretty much only) way for DJs and producers to share ideas, garner hype for to-be-released dancefloor tools and provide DJs with unique calling cards.

If owning a standard vinyl pressing feels like possessing the first edition of a novel, then having a tune on dubplate is like owning the author’s original handwritten manuscript, midnight candlewax spillages on the pages and all.

Dubplates always carried a talismanic significance. The exclusivity of access and the high possibility that the tracks on dubplates would never be commercially released, gave them almost mystical significance to reggae, jungle and dubstep heads alike. Even the fact that dubplates typically wear down to crackles after around 50 plays lent each dubplate the potential to be considered a historical artefact that would disappear into legend. With this transient, mystical status, dubplates cemented the reputation of certain DJs, but also enabled them to pull the ladder up after them. The fact that only a chosen elect with a scene would have first dibs on the dubs of the most illustrious producers, helped to cement leading DJs’ stature in that scene, and effectively block out newcomers.

The music scenes that carried the dubplate torch were the antecedents on Jamaican soundsystem culture, wherever first-hand or second-hand. House and techno had no such dubplate culture: to a large degree, this is probably down to the more international desperation of house and techno, compared to reggae, jungle and dubstep, which were more geographically concentrated, and had more of a tightly-knit cognoscenti.

Competition provided a further catalyst for dubplate culture, with rival Jamaican soundsystems out-doing each in having first refusal on the latest pre-releases, ensuring that the only way to hear them would be to go to actual dance, and allowing public airing of tracks outside of a standard record label release schedule. They also play a valuable role in establishing not just the producers’ profile, but also that of the DJ playing them, as DJ Rap noted: ‘If you’re a DJ, and I’m a DJ, you can go to a record shop, you can buy exactly what I can buy, so how are we going to be different? Now, if you can get certain dubplates, and I can get certain dubplates, that’s a chance for me to prove my style against yours.’

Of course, this is hardly done on a level playing field. You either have access to dubplates, or you don’t. And in smaller scenes where there is less proliferation of releases, if is often a matter of access, rather than taste, or the ability to dig, that raises the DJ’s profile. House and techno DJs, who can dig through a seemingly never-ending catalogue of releases from the late 80’s forward, can, with enough taste and dedication, dig amongst available releases and find enough unique records to cement their own identity as a DJ. In a smaller, geographically concentrated scene, this is less feasible. And where there is less opportunity for digging, dubplate culture often serves to fill the gap.

Dubplate culture had its detractors: prominent jungle/dnb labels such as Reinforced Records and Moving Shadow tended not to participate in the culture of tracks floating around on dubplates for month before release. If a tune had any traction, it would not linger tantalisingly on dubplate, it would simply be released for more public consumption. Many a producer was cheated out of a tune which in the heydays of jungle/dubstep would have sold several thousand copies, but were denied by the inertia or the unwillingness to release the record commercially. It also warps the continuity and development of music in a particular scene. Tunes may be floating around for 18 months on dubplate before being released (or in the case of dubstep stalwart Loefah, over ten years, with Woman triggering a Black Friday stampede at specialist vinyl joints when it was finally released after ten years on dubplate.)

This prevarication may not just cause the producer to lose out on record sales, as the dance floor potential of a tune may have been exhausted by the time a tune hits the shops, but affect the development of the music. People who may have been inspired by a tune available in the general marketplace and had used it as an inspiration to further their own productions and potentially the development of the music as a whole, are less likely to do it if only two DJs have such a tune on dubplate.

Dubplates, as well as vinyl itself, does still carry value as what DJ Hype calls a ‘shit filter.’ The cost and the effort in producing and playing them ensure that they are only used if considered fully and judged to be appropriate. This could be argued that this made scenes more stale and DJs less risk-adverse and flexible. Richie Hawtin, an early adopter of Traktor noted in an interview that using Traktor allowed him to play, ‘material which may not be ready to be played by itself, but could be a perfect transition, or a perfect bassline to someone else’s hi-hats.’ However, this just creates the likelihood of random elements being tossed into the mix in the off-chance that they will work, rather than presenting beautifully crafted tracks to an audience which has not heard them before.

Dubplate culture also provides a social outlet. The lot of an electronic music producer/DJ is often a lonely one; Beatport, Discogs and Boiler Room effectively allow people to participate in the culture without actually meeting a single human being. Dubplates provide a further social experience, and ensures that someone with a manufacturing skill gets paid. They can cement important professional relationships between producers and DJs, and the gifting of a dubplate is a sign of great musical, (as well as personal) esteem.

The gifting of a dubplate is a sign of great musical, (as well as personal) esteem.

And yes, there are still places to get your dubplates cut, especially for Londoners. Music House, with its cut-while-you-wait service, operates out of a lock-up on a Tottenham estate, having cut plates from luminaries from Jah Shaka to Goldie within its hallowed and graffitied walls. Transition Studios, down in comparatively leafy Forest Hill, was the cutting house of choice for the dubstep vanguard (Skream, DMZ). Dub Studios down in Bristol still knock out dubplates for local dub reggae crews such as Ishan Sound. There are still enough people who think dubplates look, smell good and sound wicked. They are expensive to press, hard to maintain, and have been trumped in must cases, first by CD, and then by digital files, but still preserver for the those bowled over by their sheer quality, as well as the feeling of continuing a musical tradition.

At best, dubplates are dreams rendered in metal, rather than commercial expediency pressed onto wax. They are not hopeless tools uploaded onto SoundCloud by a producer who is merely throwing musical shit at the wall just to see if any of it sticks. At worst, these days, dubplates can be viewed pretentious, prohibitively expensive exercises in snobbish subcultural one-upmanship. Evidently, pressing dubplates represents a luxury these days, and is not an option for every DJ or producer who may be restricted by available technology, budget and geography.

Nowadays, the dubplate feels like the leather hardback or the gold-framed easel, a previously everyday, yet expensive format superseded by something cheaper and more convenient, but not necessarily better, and certainly less meaningful. And while it is true that the medium is not the message, the choice of medium serves as a good filter for those who have something to say musically, rather than those who are just making conversation.

Words: Alex Caldwell

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