Dubplates - one-off vinyl acetates that DJs cut for themselves - run things in the drum n' bass scene. The cutting houses also act as a
meeting place and drop off point for big DJs. Where better, then, to spend a Friday afternoon?
Writer: Dorian Lynskey
Photographer: Eddie Otchere
FIVE hours. Five hours sitting in the tiny lobby of a North London cutting house, staring up at the reggae and soul posters on the ceiling, listening to mobile phones ringing and DATs playing. Five hours for a ten inch platter of sweet smelling acetate, a record that no one who hasn't been there, and waited, and cut themselves, can play. Is it worth the wait? What do you think?
There are bigger and better cutting houses in London, where more DATs are passed around and the acetate will give you more plays before it decays, but none cheaper or with the same iconic status as this one, tucked away in a grimy back street off the Holloway Rd. And photographer Eddie has his own dubplate to cut. During just five hours Randall, DJ Zinc, Kenny Ken, Ed Rush, Fierce, Storm and Marley Marl all pass through to drop off a DAT or cut a plate to play out this weekend. They catch up with other DJs, ask about new DATs and complain about the queue. There's a strict order, regardless of status. Ed Rush is in a hurry to cut a tune for his mix on Radio One this evening but we still go ahead because we turned up first. It's a system no one really disputes: acetate etiquette.
THIS cutting house has been around for a while, plating reggae and dub, but drum n' bass, a genre that develops so quickly it's like watching one of those speeded up films of a flower blooming, has been built on dubplate culture. "I'm so far ahead that most of the time no one knows what I'm playing," says Grooverider, who plays the bulk of his sets off acetate, including many of his unreleased tunes. The previous weekend at Cream he played a dubplate of Doc Scott's 'Shadow Boxing' remix, a track we can hear being cut by another DJ this afternoon. Dubplates are what put the top flight DJs months ahead of those that only play vinyl. Classic tracks like Alex Reece's 'Pulp Fiction' were being played at clubs like Speed months before the vinyl promos emerged, building demand among regular clubbers to hysterical heights.
With exclusivity comes politics. Kemistry & Storm remember realising that the only way to compete with the big names was to get on to the dubplate circuit. A producer will go down to one or all of the most popular cutting houses to drop off a new tune on DAT, contacting the DJs that they want to play it and arranging a time to hear and, hopefully, cut it. Promos and test pressings are also dropped off for DJs. New DATs by in-demand names are specifically targeted at certain DJs for maximum impact, with someone like Grooverider receiving a massive amount. No DJ wants to have the same dubplates as everyone else. It's largely a network of friendship and support, but inevitably some of the less privileged DJs resent the one-upmanship.
Having a smoke in the alleyway outside are some DJs from the fast-expanding 'speed garage' scene. The sub-bass and timestretched vocals on some of their DATs show how drum n' bass has influenced their take on garage musically, but it has also influenced their wide use of dubplates. "The dubplate wars are starting," says one. "That's where the politics come in." At Metropolis, a cutting house whose clients include Peshay, a two track plate will cost at least £60, the most expensive in London. Here it costs half that, but at £15 a track it still requires serious financial commitment and high standards. One DJ has brought down ten DATs (£300 worth) to plate up for his weekend gigs. It's not unique to drum n' bass - the Chemical Brothers used acetates to test the dancefloor impact of their new album tracks at the Heavenly Social - but it's something that only this music, constantly obsessed with staying one step ahead and breaking new tunes, has made essential.
WHEN the time comes to press up the two tunes that Eddie made the previous night we finally step into the cutting room. The cutting equipment looks bizarre. A tall brown canister of helium is connected to what at first looks like a control from The Prisoner with optician's equipment mounted on it. The operator plays through the DAT to the heaviest part of the tune to adjust the levels, and rewinds it. Then he places a slab of acetate on the six-inch thick heavyweight turntable, moves an angled rod down to hold the centre, blows the dust off the needle, lowers the chunky cartridge and lets the tune roll. You can press up to eight and a half minutes of music on each side, depending on how heavy the bass is.
When the dubplate is lifted from the turntable, checked for sound quality, given a centre label and slipped into a generic yellow paper sleeve, we take it away. Slightly heavier than vinyl, with a strong whiff of acetate, it's not much to look at for £30. But then you remember that it's the only copy in the world. And of course it's worth every cent.