Morbid curiosity drove me to check out Mad Professor and the dB in Dub Finale on Sunday, the last night of this year's Decibel Festival. The thought of a whole night watching someone plod through a DJ set muddied in delay and reverb with a single kick drum once every five seconds didn't exactly give me the irie vibes. Fortunately I could not have been more mistaken.
Wearing a bright red t-shirt, a tidily groomed beard, and glasses (he is a professor after all), south London's Neil Fraser opened his 12:15am set with a crowd-pleasing dub version of Damien Marley's “Welcome to Jamrock.” I thought he might go for something a bit more obscure and unheard to show off his selectah skills and vinyl-digging chops instead of starting with the most famous (and obvious) reggae tune of the past ten years. But the response was terrific; hoots and hollers ascended from the audience as he expertly mixed an early-'90s jungle beat into the song that was so raw it sounded like he was rattling a wooden spoon in an empty coffee tin. Immediately afterwards came Max Romeo's “I Chase the Devil” and by now most of Neumos was heavily skanking to a set that was way more upbeat than you'd expect from the man who reduced Massive Attack's soulful second album Protection to little more than a series of phantom echoes. There was warmth and shelter from the rain and good energy inside Neumos Sunday night.
Dub is the musical style represented at Decibel that goes back the furthest, and for that it commands a certain respect. It isn't a Johnny-come-lately genre, like the ubiquitous 2011 tag “future bass music” that—as good as it is—has yet to prove itself over the long haul. It's an established musical movement both in age and in sheer volume of songs (Mad Professor alone has contributed production to over 200 “dub” albums). The weight of venerable music history was present in the room.
A schedule change saw support act Gaudi replace the Netherlands' Twilight Dub Circus as the lead-in to Mad Professor. The London-based Italian's wild hair and purple glasses (looking way more like a mad professor than Mad Professor) were joined on stage by his bouncing beatboxing partner who impressed the crowd with intricate dubstep mouth-sounds and a skillful rendition of intro to “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Gaudi filled in the gaps with a mic'd-up kazoo (which was nowhere near as horrible as it sounds) as the pair came out from the DJ desk and bounded about the front of the stage among the empty bottles of Red Stripe placed there by an excitedly dancing front row. The sound was terrible; bassy breakbeat farted out of the speakers but everyone was having too much fun to care. Gaudi joyously parped a real-life rave airhorn that actually sounded like a real-life rave airhorn and not the disappointing alternative, which is when it sounds like the start of a sailing race.
Later, at the Baltic Room, London's Darren White aka dBridge had the venue in full sway to artful and fluid drum 'n' bass. His style typically had one single kick-drum or snare removed from an otherwise robust d'n'b drum pattern; it's not really d'n'b or hip-hop or breakbeat but somewhere in the space between. Dancers swayed to the music because there wasn't really any other way to dance to it. He nodded his head rapidly to the beat and the bill of his blue cap pulled down low in the dark made him look like a giant duck frantically agreeing with everything. As a regular DJ on London's coolest former-pirate-radio station Rinse FM, dBridge wasn't shy about getting on the mic and every time he did so he was friendly with no front. He introduced a new track by Portsmouth, UK producer Lynx who came to infamy in 2007 with his controversially sparse d'n'b pounder “Disco Dodo.” Lynx's new tack followed much of the same formula—pummeling bass made your ribcage feel like a huge cellphone vibrating with a rhythmic ringtone. dBridge finally transitioned the later part of his set into full-blown drum 'n' bass and he phased in a remix of perennial end-of-night crowd-pleaser “Love Story” by Layo & Bushwacka fused with “Finally” by Kings of Tomorrow. The Baltic Room whooped with every new introduction of a bassline or Amen break and the dancing suddenly became more elastic—unabashed drum 'n' bass was what the crowd had been waiting for all along. He finished with the ivory-tinkling d'n'b anthem “Renegade Snares” by Omni Trio. Tired after days of dancing, we joined dBridge in raising our hands skyward as the track's euphoric piano and synth breakdown swirled about our heads as Decibel Festival 2011 drew to a close. We appealed to the heavens as we all sang along with the smiling DJ to the song's soaring rave vocal sample: “C'mon take me up!”