Music & clubs

Bass in the house of techno

After years of neglect, it’s a high point for low sounds in Berlin. Here’s a quick primer on the city’s new bass music explosion. Get a taste of bass this month at Moonbootica at Gretchen on December 12 or catch Sick Girls at OHM on December 27.

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Photo by Tania Castellví

After years of neglect, it’s a high point for low sounds in Berlin. Here’s a quick primer on the city’s new bass music explosion. Get a taste of bass at Moonbootica at Gretchen on December 12 or catch Sick Girls at OHM on December 27.

The bass scene here reminds me of the beginning of the 1990s, when everything seemed possible,” claims Lars Döring. For 15 years, his Icon club was Berlin’s only venue dedicated to bass music. And why wouldn’t it be? Throughout the 1990s, Berlin ground to the mechanical sounds coming out of Detroit, which it eventually usurped as the global techno capital thanks to a favourable mix of copious space, lax legislation and the widespread hunger for party that results from high unemployment.

Berlin did have its hand in the creation of bass, if only through the dub-driven minimal techno pioneered by the Basic Channel label. But until recently, bass music languished here, cloaked in confidentiality – especially compared to the thriving UK scene. Demographics and immigration were to blame, according to Ngoma Sound’s DJ Zhao. “Afro-Caribbeans brought the heavy vibrations to the UK shores, didn’t they? Berlin’s scene would be much more Hammer if there were more African or Caribbean expats,” he hypothesises.

Fast-forward to 2005 and the advent of dubstep. Tempos slowed to 140BPM, with an emphasis on the kind of cavernous bass that would collapse a giant’s chest. Berlin took notice. “We were tired of house, techno and everything minimal in general,” says Alexandra Droener from DJ duo Sick Girls, who started the subheavy Revolution No.5 party series in 2005. Along with Icon, they brought the elite talents of the bass music world, from Major Lazer to Dizzee Rascal, to Berlin over the latter half of the 2000s. Berghain followed suit in 2008 with Hotflush label head and dubstep pioneer Scuba’s Sub:Stance parties, followed by the more off-key Leisure System nights.

When Icon closed in 2012, coinciding with the last Revolution No.5 party, the scene’s epicentre switched to Döring’s new club Gretchen, then underground locales like Chesters, laying the path for a new generation of local collectives.

The bass finally drops

Today, the common thread at bass music shows is the way the different subgenres borrow from hip hop fashion, codes and attitude. From the black and see-through ‘ghetto gothic’ uniforms of trap to the flat-peak caps and comfortable skateboard clothing of the more straightforward dubstep and grime scenes, the young, slightly male-dominated crowd is deeply looks-conscious and it often feels that many are here for the show and hype rather than the music. Faces go serious and tense, arms start pumping and crossing and gun fingers come up with the recognisable flows of Waka Flocka Flame, Chief Keef and Pusha T.

“You can’t really call it a scene yet,” notes Weboogie co-founder, Dutch expat Tim Lightenberg. With a focus on more US-based genres, such as the hectic blitzing of Chicago footwork and the haze-y synth and drilling snare triplets of trap, Weboogie pushes toward populism. Trap in particular has become the soundtrack of choice at all the hip parties throughout Berlin, with “girls dressing up like the ‘bitches’ in their favourite videos and guys desperately wanting to look like A$AP Rocky,” as Droener points out.

But, Lightenberg stresses, “Kids are getting more serious about the music.” Note the intense and crowd-engaging performances of the multinational, Berlin born-and-bred Bass Gang. There’s also a more musically aware crowd at the dub- and sub-heavy parties of Urban Mutations, Shlomp and Through My Speakers – now also a label. “So many people don’t even know that we have more than just techno producers,” explains Through My Speakers figurehead Sarah Farina. “When I play in different cities in Germany, most of the crowds have never heard these kind of sounds. But it works – you can definitely feel that they are more open than before.”

Bass not bass

On the other side of the spectrum, Berlin collective Janus and resident DJs Lotic and M.E.S.H. embrace the experimental, and have been verging on an international profile. M.E.S.H. explains that the Janus parties’ aim is “to present forward-looking music, but in a club environment.” Lotic is quick to point out that “people consider us bass because there is not a better word for it right now, which is fine.” Janus features some of the most forward-thinking line-ups in the city (from the Angolan kuduro of DJ Nigga Fox to the post-club intensities of Total Freedom and Rabit) and both DJs made noticeable waves in 2014: Lotic’s mixtape Damsel in Distress was named “one of the most important mixes to be released this year” by Fact Magazine, and M.E.S.H.’s first missive, on the avant-dance PAN Records, caught attentive ears left, right and centre.

The bass rises

Though sonically different, all of these amalgamations share a similar set of aesthetics, with a focus on big, sculpted low frequencies, ultra-percussive drums and a mix of deep soul and high-energy experimentation. Collectives often join forces on larger projects like 2013’s Homie Lover Friend Festival. In light of the everlasting popularity of house and techno in Berlin, is it ever going to have a bigger impact? “It’s not a competition,” stresses Droener. “The bass scene is not trying to overthrow the techno/house scene and run up a green-yellow-red flag on top of Berghain. The bass scene is part of the Berlin club scene and that’s it.”

Or is it? “In bass music, you are much freer. In house and techno you are reduced to just ONE beat,” ruminates Döring. “What the heck do you want to do with that over 15 years?”

A bass glossary

Dubstep: The genre that changed everything, ranging from dub-flavoured shuffling UK sounds to the market-dominating streamlined pop ventures of Skrillex and friends. (Benga & Coki, “Night”)

Grime: UK-centric genre, aggressive rapping on heavy shuffling beats. (Rascals ft. Big Narstie, “My Different”)

Footwork/Juke: Chicago-born genre, fast polyrhythmic drums, crazy use of samples and melodies and tidal waves of sub bass. (DJ Rashad, “I Don’t Give A Fuck”)

Jersey Club: Bouncy evolution of ghetto house, with excessive use of hip hop vocal samples. (DJ Sliink, “Put Cha Back In It”)

Trap: Heavy lingering sub-bass, ultra fast hi hats and snare triplets and aggressive vocal content. (Waka Flocka Flame, “O Lets Do It”)

Originally published in issue #131, October 2014.