Electronic Music Theory: From Funk and Metal to Dubstep (Excision, Rage Against The Machine)

The harder dubstep that has been popular in recent years from artists like Excision and Datsik often seems to have more in common with metal, rock and funk than with the deep dub of their predecessors. Dubspot blogger John von traces an alternative history of funk-rock-metal and electronic beats.

Many listeners and critics have remarked on how many recent dubstep tracks bear the influence of rock, funk and metal in their overall sound and attitude. While artists from the first pioneering wave of UK dubstep like Loefah, Digital Mystikz and Pinch have always emphasized cavernous subbass lines and deep vibey atmospheres reminscent of original Jamaican dub in their music, more recent North American dubstep releases from the likes of Excision, Datsik, and Skrillex often use piledriver breakbeats and heavy distorted riffs more reminiscent of funk-rock-metal bands like Rage Against The Machine, Limp Bizkit or the Red Hot Chili Peppers than classic dubstep sounds.

To hear what I’m talking about here, let’s listen to the recent track “Underground” by Excision. Although he is usually categorized as a “dubstep” artist, you can also hear strong influences of metal, funk, and other styles in many of his releases. “Underground” is based on a hard funky breakbeat groove clocking in at around 110 bpm and an aggro distorted bass sound that saws and stutters its way through a repeated heavy syncopated riff for the better part of the track, let’s take a listen. The main riff and drum groove come in just after the 30-second mark:

Now let’s compare a rock song based on a similar combination of elements, a funk-influenced breakbeat groove and a heavy riff played on electric guitar and bass, “Guerrilla Radio” by Rage Against The Machine. This song also clocks in around 110 bpm and the basic rhythmic feel is very similar to the Excision track we just heard, have a listen (note that the actual song starts after the video intro at about 12 seconds in):

Both of these songs are using a heavy breakbeat drum groove combined with a hard repetitive riff played by an aggressive combination of distorted lead and bass sounds. The difference is in the sound sources that they are using (synths and samplers vs. guitars and drums) and the greater rhythmic complexity of the riff Excision is using—although in “Underground” the bass is basically playing the same riff over and over again, we can hear complex variations in the rhythm as it repeats.

In order to better understand the sounds of today and where they are going in the future, it is always helpful to understand where they came from, so let’s take a step back for a second and think about how this whole funk-metal-dance sound got started and developed over the years. We’ll listen to a few examples and then look again at “Underground” and how Excision has taken this style a step further with his use of the latest music technologies to sculpt his sounds.

Breakbeat Progenitor: James Brown

I mentioned above that both the Excision track and the Rage Against the Machine song we listened to were based on a “breakbeat” and you have probably heard this term before, but what is a breakbeat anyway?

The term actually originates from the early days of sampling: hip hop producers and DJs would dig through old funk records looking for the one-bar break between two sections of a song, where the band and singer would drop out and the drummer would play a fill leading into the next part. Taking this little bit of a record and looping it turned it into a “break beat” or breakbeat that could serve as the basis for a whole new track. Many of these early breakbeats came from records by “The Godfather of Funk,” James Brown, and were often played by his drummer Clyde Stubblefield, the original “Funky Drummer.” This video shows Stubblefield playing one of his famous grooves and talking about how the early James Brown band wrote music together:

Brown and his various 60s and 70s backing bands are credited with defining the classic funk sound with tracks like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,”  “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and ““Sex Machine.” Funk generally deemphasized the soulful chord progressions and melodies of earlier genres of African American music like R&B and jazz in favor of complex and infectious dance grooves based around dynamic active drum beats and the powerful low end of the relatively new Fender bass guitar (which had only been invented in 1951).

Listening here to “Static” by James Brown, we can hear all the elements of the classic funk formula: a danceable drum groove driven forward by a complex alternating kick and snare pattern and a pumping syncopated line played on electric bass. There is no chord progression in the song, basically just one chord played over and over in alternation by the electric guitar. Brown is not singing a pretty melody either, his performance is all about dynamism, groove and vibe:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSXZdKbDTyw

Can you hear the connection between this James Brown groove and the later beats we heard from Excision and RATM? This is where it all started as far as breakbeat music is concerned.

Early Combinations of Funk and Rock: Led Zeppelin

The compelling funk sound of James Brown and his many imitators became a strong influence on many later musicians in various genres, and it wasn’t long before hard rock bands were incorporating funk beats and riffs into their songs. Led Zeppelin drew on many different influences in their music, but African American styles like blues and rock’n'roll were at the center of their sound, and their song “The Crunge” famously combined hard rock and funk influences:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rzX9sZrtlw

Listening to “The Crunge” now, it sounds very much like a James Brown groove, but the members of Zeppelin play their parts with a heavier attitude and sound than Brown’s band, pointing to new ways of making funk beats heavier and harder that would be further explored by later bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and RATM.

(Also, just to be tricky, they added an extra half-beat to the funk rhythm here in the first part of the song: they play a bar made of four beats and then add an extra eighth note on the end every time, making a bar of 9/8. Then when the second part of the song comes in (at 0:25 the first time), they play three straight 4/4 bars just like James Brown would have done it plus a bar of 9/8 every time the phrase repeats.)

Hip Hop, Rock and Metal: Aerosmith/Run DMC, Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine

Hip hop picked up where funk left off in the 80s, recycling many of the classic funk breakbeats through sampling and adding a lyrical flow on top. As the music progressed through the 80s and 90s, various artists experimented with different combinations of hard rock energy and hip hop rhythm and flow. Run DMC released a landmark cover of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith in 1986, incorporating vocals and guitar parts from Aerosmith members Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. The original video for this song humorously dramatized the collision between rock and hip hop that was going on at the time and how this was thought of as something new.

Other groups that pursued similar sounds at various times included Public Enemy, whose “Fight The Power” (1989) used sampled distorted rock guitar sounds to create a fearsome wall of sound even harder than what Aerosmith were playing live:

Rage Against The Machine and other bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Limp Bizkit took this rap rock sound and ran with it, combining funk beats, hard rock/metal guitars, and (often) rap-influenced vocals into a style that grew in popularity as the 1990s progressed into the 2000s. The guitar and drum sounds they used seemed to grow harder as well: the metal guitar crunch of Limp Bizkit is a whole lot heavier than most of the funk-rock hybrids that had come before.

Funk Metal Dubstep: Excision

So this brings us back to the present, with Excision and his peers in the contemporary EDM scene combining funk-derived breakbeats and heavy riffs once more. The difference this time is that their music is created with synthesizers and samplers instead of drums and guitars, programmed on a computer instead of played on an instruments in a recording studio. However the basic elements are the same as earlier funk-rock-metal styles as we have seen above. Listen to “Underground” again above and focus on the main drumbeat, hopefully you can hear the continuity between James Brown’s funk beats through the funk-rock and rap-rock hybrids of the 80s and 90s to Excision’s hard breaks.

The main difference I hear here is that in this latest music, it has become common to twist and contort the main riff of the track in more devious and complex ways than we would usually hear from a live rock band. Where many rock bands will hammer away on a riff relentlessly without much variation, it has become common in recent dubstep releases to use various MIDI programming techniques to craft increasingly twisted bass riffs with complex rhythmic modulations and subtle changes. Listen again to the main bass riff of “Underground” and try to hear how it is basically the same simple three-note riff over and over again, but many of the notes are repeated very rapidly in various complicated rhythmic patterns:

In this way Excision is using technology to take a concept from non-electronic music and extend it, creating a phrase that would be difficult for a human rhythm section to play accurately without losing the groove. Nonetheless I think we can still hear a direct connection between this hard-hitting phrase and the kind of riffs we heard Rage Against The Machine pounding out at the beginning of this article, and back to James Brown before them. All of these artists based their music largely around short repeated rhythmic lead/bass motives that drive a breakbeat groove forward, and this is a music theory concept that will never go out of style.


Dubspot blogger/instructor John von Seggern has been producing and performing music with computers since his first DJ gigs in 1999 with his Hong Kong-based group Digital Cutup Lounge. Since then he has played techno at massive underground parties in China, remixed major Western pop artists for the Indian music market (and vice versa), designed orchestral electronic sounds and effects for the Pixar film Wall-E, and presented his anthropological research on music technology at academic conferences. He has authored two instructional books about computer music production and performance as well as the manual for Native Instruments’ popular software synthesizer Massive.


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