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Dubstep continues to grow in Champaign-Urbana

Champaign-Urbana is a hidden hot spot within the national music scene. While it may not always get the recognition it deserves for such things, Champaign-Urbana is host to a thriving local music scene, rife with emerging bands, concert venues, recording studios, record labels and a couple of its own music festivals.

Despite this, Champaign-Urbana is seen more as a stopping-off point for touring musicians than a location that fosters the growth and development of any particular music scene. Yet that is exactly what Champaign-Urbana has done with the dubstep music scene. With support from groups such as Chalice Dubs and Positive Vibr8ions, Champaign-Urbana has become one of the most happening dubstep scenes in the country.

Dubstep, a subgenre within the larger realm of electronic music, has roots firmly planted in the underground music scene of southeast London. London is where the genre got its start, and it was from London that dubstep was introduced to the rest of the world. Today, London remains the hotbed of dubstep activity, but the genre is becoming increasingly popular throughout the United States. While most major cities in the U.S. can offer some sort of dubstep scene to music lovers, Illinois is able to boast that it is home to two of the most flourishing dubstep communities: the fairly obvious: Chicago, and the less expected: Champaign-Urbana.

Mark Harrison, better know in Champaign-Urbana as Breezy, or one-half of DJ duo Positive Vibr8ions, moved to Illinois from east London to attend The University of Illinois. When he crossed the pond, Harrison brought with him his exposure to and love of dubstep.

“I’ve been listening to electronic music since I was a kid. In England, electronic music is really, really popular,” Harrison said. “It’s been in the forefront of music in England for a really long time, so I’ve been listening to that for ages.”

Although he had been listening to electronic-based music for a long time, it wasn’t until 2005 that Harrison first heard what has come to be known as dubstep. “There was a radio show on BBC Radio 1 and there was a woman called Mary Anne Hobbs. She was pushing a lot of experimental electronic music and she did a show called Dubstep Warz that blew my mind,” Harrison said.

Harrison downloaded the playlist of songs from Dubstep Warz and set about sharing the mix with as many people as he could. When he moved to Champaign, one of the first people he gave the mix to was Joe Castro, who performs under the name Substr8 and is the other half of Positive Vibr8ions.

“I knew he DJed so I handed the CD over to him and he absolutely loved it and was like, ‘Where do you buy this stuff from?’ He heard it and he told me ‘I think this is going to make it in America,'” Harrison said.

Although his background was primarily in hip-hop, Castro was constantly looking for ways to mix up the hip-hop sound. “I would have nights that wouldn’t be very crowded in the bar and I’d just kind of start testing these things out,” Castro said. “There were certain things that were in dubstep itself, certain elements that lent itself to being accessible in the American market. You know, when I first heard it and it was like this new thing that Mark had handed me and I was just like ‘Oh, this is the future of electronic music.'”

Castro felt that the sound culture of Champaign-Urbana was centered more around mainstream hip-hop and pop music than the underground electronic scene, and took on the challenge of finding dubstep versions of mainstream songs in order to introduce the community to the emerging genre by meshing what people were already used to with what he and Harrison felt was simply good music.

In the beginning, finding an outlet to really bring dubstep to light in Champaign-Urbana was a difficult task. DJs who were well known in the area hosted a night called “Chillax,” the focus of which was mellow electronic music. Dubstep was played, but often not presented in a way that got the audience dancing or involved in the music. On other nights, dubstep was nothing more than one of several types of music being played in an underground context.

By February 2009, though, dubstep had gained enough of a following in downtown Champaign that the first true dubstep party, “Dubstep Massacre,” was able to take place. The event was met with success and the DJs played to ever-growing crowds with each subsequent dubstep party. The size of the crowds at dubstep shows eventually outgrew the small downtown venues where the events were taking place. The “massacres” were moved to the Canopy Club, giving the campus community of the University of Illinois access to the blossoming genre.

“The Canopy Club, you know being 18 and up, lowered the bar; plus, being on campus it’s right here, so there were a lot of reasons why we moved over there,” said Castro. “That kind of coincided with some of the campus DJs … introducing dubstep into the campus scene…. It really kind of brought it to the mainstream and said, ‘No, this is the music of our time.'”

Both Castro and Harrison are quick to point out that they didn’t build the dubstep culture, but merely helped get it going in Champaign-Urbana. And their influence on the scene can’t be ignored. Harrison was the one who was responsible for introducing dubstep music to Castro who, through his own DJing, pushed other DJs to begin playing around with the genre as well, eventually leading to the creation of a collective of dubstep DJs called Chalice Dubs. The duo of Positive Vibr8ions chalks this up to simply being ahead of the game.

“We really got a head start in this town compared to a lot of other towns just because we’d been listening to it since day one, since it started,” Harrison said.

“I wanted to be involved in DJing and I was playing with a couple other styles, but the fact that I really enjoyed dubstep and thought about it as a movement I could be part of, since it was just starting, I was like, ‘Oh I can keep track of all the records that are coming out because I’m right here from day one,'” Castro echoed.

At the end of 2009, things came full-circle for Castro and Harrison when Harrison began DJing alongside Castro. The two adopted the moniker Positive Vibr8ions as a reflection of the message they try to spread through the tracks they create. Rather than putting in negative messages or messages that most people are unable to relate to, Positive Vibr8ions has a goal to “make being positive cool.”

“A lot of what we’re doing as artists is removing people from their lives…The goal is to keep yourself in the moment, don’t let all your stresses win the moment,” Harrison said.

This is a message the duo sees across the board in dubstep music.

“Producers put in messages that mean something to them, not just something that will make money,” Castro said .

Positive Vibr8ions also think that the connection audiences are able to make with dubstep music goes beyond the explicit message put into the music. The connection is created from the outset through the way in which dubstep music is created.

Check back tomorrow in the near future to read part 2…

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