Magnetic Man

photography by Jake Walters

The press in England is currently hyping dubstep, a mix of dub reggae, grime, garage, classic rave, techno and soul, as the most innovative sound to come out of British dance clubs in a decade. Magnetic Man, a trio of producers and songwriters from Croydon—ground zero for the dubstep movement—are currently the face of dubstep, although they’re still a bit hesitant to show their actual faces. At their first live gigs at Forward, the club that gave birth to dubstep, Skream (Oliver Jones), Benga (Beni Adejumo) and Artwork (Arthur Smith) performed behind a sheet to protect their anonymity.

“The press is saying that dubstep is a new thing in music,” Artwork says, “but we’ve been doing dubstep tracks for 10 years. The first time we played Forward, there were 50 people there; half of them were other producers. We thought we’d be a success if we could get 100 people. When we had 100 coming every week, we wondered if we could get 200. Now it’s hundreds of thousands, but for us, it’s been a gradual kind of curve.”

Artwork was one of the in-house producers at Big Apple, a record store and label in Croydon. His local hit, “Red,” is credited with being the first dubstep single. “Benga and Skream were 15 and hanging around the shop,” Artwork recalls. “They showed me beats they made on their PlayStations that had better sound than I was getting on 30,000 pounds worth of studio gear.”

After Big Apple released singles by Benga and Skream, the trio decided to collaborate on a live gig and see what happened. “We didn’t think the singles would ever be heard,” Artwork explains. “We played ‘em at the club and the record store and gave ‘em away to our friends on CDs. We made small quantities, so people would have to come into the store, or a gig, to hear them.” When the crowds grew too big for Forward, the band started touring. In three years they were playing to 8,000 people at the Roskilde Festival.

“Sony came to us and asked why our music wasn’t available. We told them it had never been properly released, except to friends and fans. We went about things backwards by building up a following before we had a record deal or even a record release.

“When we got signed, we [rented] a mansion in Cornwall for two months. In the first two weeks, we wrote all of the singles that became hits, but over the next two months, we were going a bit mad. We were cut off from everyone we knew, so we came back to London and finished the album up here.

“We all contributed equally to the process. Our goal wasn’t hits, we just wanted to make good music and have fun. The only guideline was [a tempo of] 140 BPM. We made dubstep tracks, orchestral tracks, and songs as well, not just dance tracks. When we told our publisher we were thinking about songs, he said he was going to send the track that became ‘Getting Nowhere’ to John Legend. We said, ‘Yeah, sure, John Legend,’ but he liked it and straightaway sent back a vocal track over the Internet. We sent it back and forth a few times and it was done. It was pretty wild. Angie Hunte, who co-wrote Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State Of Mind,’ flew over from the States to write with us. She was going to stay for one day, but the volcano stopped all the flights, so she stayed for three days and did the vocals on ‘I Need Air.’”

“I Need Air” became the first mainstream dubstep hit. The video for the track got three million hits the first month it was up on YouTube. “People think that having a #5 record means you’re driving around in a Maserati,” Artwork concludes. “We haven’t seen any money from record sales yet. Most people are downloading the music on to their iPods for free, so we’re not doing too well financially. When we start touring again, the shows will get bigger and we’ll be making money. We didn’t start this thing to make money, though, we just wanted to make music. In the UK, having a hit doesn’t mean you’re rich, like it does in the US. Over here, you can have a Top 5 album and a Top 10 single and the next door neighbor still doesn’t know who you are.”

– J. Poet

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