By John Alex Colon
In just six years, Gary McCann became the most visible ghost in dubstep. Under his Caspa alias, McCann engineered a three-label assault on the world’s ears, with wobbling basslines and crushing breakbeats as weapons of choice. In 2003, after DJing in West London’s clubs as DJ Quiet Storm, McCann released “Bass Bins,” his first foray into production and an eventual hit on BBC Radio’s 1Xtra show. He and Leeds-based DJ partner Rusko collaborated on FabricLive.37, a mixed compilation that, upon its 2007 release, added to the genre’s growing appeal. This year, Caspa released his first full-length album, “Everybody’s Talking, Nobody’s Listening” (Fabric).
McCann seems most content when facing numerous challenges. Managing three dubstep labels and a club event is not enough, so he’s embarked on his biggest tour to date to gain support for the U.S. release of his new album (released in UK March 2009), which should appear on shelves just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Two of the album’s singles, “Marmite” and “The Takeover,” are already flooring crowds.
Takeover is, perhaps, apt for a discussion of dubstep. Like its faster, breaks-driven cousin, drum ‘n’ bass in the 1990s, dubstep has quickly become more than a “second-room” phenomenon. In the U.S., it spawned numerous events, triggering tours by celebrated UK artists and confirming the message for longtime genre champions. Chicago’s start came in 2007 with the “Bassgoesboom” monthly event (Lava), and the city remains home to several dubstep crews that often collaborate. Thanks to these DJs and producers, local fans can experience the sound through regular events taking place around the city. As Stateside cities developed their scenes and traded gigs—Chicago often hosts artists from other cities, including Florida, Baltimore, New York and Los Angeles—their UK mentors plotted to send the sound to all reaches of the globe.
In recent press, Caspa was called the genre’s ambassador, but he quickly recognizes the efforts of his UK peers, some of whom—like Skream, Benga and Kode9—visited Chicago recently.
“I think every major place in UK has someone who is a sort of soldier,” McCann says, “pushing the sound.”
He explains, confirming dubstep’s collegiality, that “everyone works with each other—there’s no huge rivalry, it’s not competitive. People play each other’s nights and help each other out. That’s what’s special about this scene—it started out like that and it’s still like that. We’re all trying to do the same thing, to push and play music that we love. To work against each other would just be stupid.”
McCann speaks highly of the U.S. fanbase: “Years ago, when you would go to different cities [in the U.S.] you felt like you were away from home. I’m in L.A. at the moment, and it feels like I am in London…it’s really welcoming.” Caspa appeared at Smart Bar in January 2009, proving the steady demand for dubstep’s staggering basslines and choppy breaks.
McCann’s goal is to build on the genre’s early successes. “Everybody’s Listening…” serves as an invitation to the dubstep party, particularly to U.S. crowds, with a track list boasting both crushing dance-floor energy and lounge-centric grooves. McCann’s DJ skills inspire a production approach that he hopes will guide dubstep’s journey toward some mainstream love. Remixes for arena-filling legends like Depeche Mode and dance-music stars like Kaskade certainly help.
This point is crucial for McCann because dubstep is often dismissed by critics as dark or angry, laden with frustrating drum programming and basslines serving only to shock crowds. Pointing out that criticism exists for all genres, he admits that “this music is not a healing sort. If everybody liked it, it wouldn’t be that cool.”
Dubstep is “a simple formula…just beats and bass,” McCann asserts. It can, as did hip-hop, support diverse approaches, with the potential to “cross over into different genres,” and he thinks this trend is already underway. Dubstep, he states, “is the only scene at the moment that is causing other scenes to step up their game.”
This diverse approach is heard in “Lon-Don City,” which appears on the album and features auto-tuned vocal support from Uncle Sam. Horns and strings join the bass and breakbeat, and the structure resembles today’s R&B-meets-hip-hop affairs. It is sure to elicit an equally diverse set of criticism, but McCann is unfazed. Though the anthemic remix of TC’s “Where’s My Money” was widely praised, he is just as proud of his understated, yet haunting version of “I Remember” by Deadmaus and Kaskade.
“It’s easy to take a track, add a little vocal, and turn it into a massive, bangin’ wobbler tune, but there’s no appreciation of the track behind it—for me, it goes deeper than that. With every remix, I hope it offers something different.”
Caspa performs September 24 at Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, (773)549-0203, at 10pm. $10-$12.