Radio jock, journalist, festival curator: All apply equally to Mary Anne Hobbs, host of BBC Radio 1’s Experimental Show. Weekly, she champions the best of the world’s bass-heavy club music, showcasing forward-thinking dubstep, drum ’n’ bass, hip-hop and all those genres’ tangents. Her latest compilation, Wild Angels, is out this week on Planet Mu Records, and her first U.S. tour kicks off at Smart Bar Thursday 10. We phoned Hobbs at her London home to find out how she’s become a global ambassador for underground sounds.
Of the U.K. electronic genre that’s recently found a foothold in the mainstream, Hobbs says, “My response to dubstep was very much like John Peel’s response to punk.” Referring to the late BBC radio host and early punk enthusiast, Hobbs continues, “He put punk on this global pedestal, championing it vigorously. I’ve done the same with dubstep.”
Hobbs is probably the genre’s most high-profile proponent. A music junkie since she dropped out of school and joined a rock band at 19, she left the U.K. for L.A. at 21 and slowly enmeshed herself in the city’s metal scene. A well-placed friend at NME brought her back to London for a job writing features for the magazine. In 1997, she jumped ship for the BBC. Now, at 45, she has a radio show and three compilations dedicated to the low-end-loving genre, as well as a gig curating a dubstep stage at Barcelona’s Sonar Festival.
Over the last four years, dubstep has become one of the biggest musical phenomenons in British DJ culture since drum ’n’ bass (its distant cousin). Dubstep—most of it produced by kids who’ve barely reached 25—draws from the reggae and dub sounds that came to Britain with its Caribbean immigrants, the moody influences of trip-hop, the syncopated shuffle of two-step and, most of all, the breaks and bass heaviness of drum ’n’ bass.
Dubstep—the U.K.’s latest bass-music obsession borne of drum ‘n’ bass and garage—has grown into such a phenomenon that the genre has garnered its own show on BBC’s Radio 1, has dedicated stages at electronic music festivals across Europe and has started making an inroads into popular culture here in the U.S.—various pop acts are incorporating it into their songs.
The genre’s most vocal spokesperson—and the woman behind its presence on the BBC and at the Sonar Festival in Barcelona— just touched down to begin her debut U.S. tour, bringing this distinctly British sound to the American masses. Mary Anne Hobbs has been involved with dubstep practically since day one. Speaking prior to the show, she recalled its early days when audiences would consist of her, the DJs and the DJ’s girlfriends. And that’s it. Now at the many regular London dubstep nights, fans will queue up down the block to get a taste of the bass. While the hype is not that large here in the U.S., the Midwest’s receptive DJ culture has given it legs here. This proved to be true at Smart Bar last night. The club wasn’t packed to the gills, but there was a respectable turnout and everyone was hyped for some low-end madness.
Those on the dance floor were front-and-center for Hobb’s set. Hands were in the air. MC Zulu’s job as hype man was a breeze with everyone already primed for fits of excitement with each new cut. So much so that the night even included not one, not two, but three rewinds—a technique that isn’t seen too much in U.S. club culture outside of hip-hop and reggae, but is a very regular part of the scene across the Atlantic. As each record wheeled backward with a sonic screech, the energy level in the place jumped exponentially and Hobbs would strike her signature pose, hair thrown back, hands in the air sporting double funk signs for the crowd.
If there had to be one criticism of the night, it wouldn’t be aimed at Hobbs, but at the crowd, who—while amped and well engaged in her set—wasn’t willing to be as adventurous as it should have been. At one point, one reveler commented to a friend over a particularly forward-thinking selection that she “thought this was supposed to be a dubstep night.” A sure sign for the imminent demise of a genre, it would seem that a certain cross section of the crowd couldn’t get down with the sounds unless they followed the dubstep framework verbatim: gritty half-time break + wonky bassline = dubstep. Ugh. Must it be so? Haven’t they learned that the reason drum ‘n’ bass parties are predominately filled with aggro males and devoid of soul (and ladies!) is because of its over-bearing, dark repetitiveness? Hobbs challenged those conventions at many points throughout her hour-and-a-half set to the overwhelming joy of the rest of us. She sampled from various movements in the sound from the West Coast abstract hip-hop fare to upbeat funky sounds that borrow from two-step. Sometimes it’s all about baby steps, and these were all steps in the right direction.