When the Beat Drops: The Implications of Dubstep in Kpop

Shinee does Dubstep right.We’ve all heard Dubstep infiltrate the dance breaks of some of our favorite artists since at least 2011. But Super Junior’s recent release of “Swing” and 2NE1’s “Come Back Home” got us thinking - if even the perennial favorites are using the familiar wub-wub sound, does that mean Dubstep has officially gone mainstream? And what implications does this have for the future of Kpop music?

Defining the Dubstep Revolution

If you’ve lived in the same building as a twenty-something college student in the last ten years, then you probably know Dubstep by its sub-bass sounds and the steady shaking of your floors and walls. Wub wub wub-wub-wub. Sound familiar?

That wub is a convenient onomatopoetic abbreviation for “wobble bass,” the most easily recognized sound in Dubstep. It’s a bass sound that gets electronically distorted and repeated. There are a few other signature elements of Dubstep, which we’ll talk about below, but it’s important to distinguish Dubstep from the broader category of electronic dance music (EDM). Because even though Kpop has embraced EDM wholeheartedly in the past few years, the recent trend toward Dubstep could have profound implications for the Kpop genre.

Dubstep is powerful. It is frequently overpowering. It has a sound that’s all its own, and that people are going crazy for right now. But Kpop artists that want to incorporate the wub-wub beats of Dubstep will have to contend with more than just courting new listeners. Some of the implications we outline below could leave long-term fans of the genre wishing for the good ol’ days.

Implication #1: Darker Moods Will Prevail

It’s not immediately obvious why incorporating Dubstep would darken the tone of Kpop music. But consider that Dubstep almost always relies on the minor key, otherwise known as the sad key. You know those links you keep clicking on, where people change popular sad songs into happy versions? What they’re doing is taking the song out of the minor key, and putting it into the major key. Generally speaking, actively incorporating Dubstep is going to affect the mood of any song. But an implication is not a certainty.

The minor key doesn’t have to be sad. Nor is a song required to stay in one key throughout. Take Super Junior’s new single, “Swing.” We wouldn’t categorize this song as dark, but there’s no question that the Dubstep dance break does not fit the overall mood. If even for fifteen seconds, Dubstep introduces a different tonal quality. Some more great examples of songs that use Dubstep but manage to avoid being overly dark would be CHI CHI’s “Love is Energy” or Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop.” But did you notice how it suddenly became night in the “Bubble Pop” music video during the Dubstep section? Even the most playful song has trouble handling Dubstep. And note that all of our examples so far use Dubstep only as a dance break. Heavier integration of Dubstep, it stands to reason, would darken a song further.

The dissonant harmonies of Dubstep can also darken the mood, but as an effect this is much less certain than the use of a minor key.

Implication #2: Less Focus on Lyrics

Another thing that unites electronic dance music, Dubstep included, is a diminished focus on lyrics. EDM grew up in the European club scene where languages mix like bodies on the dance floor. Fewer lyrics, as well as refrains in simple English, were a great help in the spread and acceptance of EDM music. Remixes of pop songs work much the same way - the DJ samples (takes a snippet) from the original song, usually the chorus, and leaves out the excess lyrics.

On the one hand, Kpop seems perfectly placed to capitalized on this. We’ve been listening to simple English refrains for years! Rock on! But not everything is sunshine and daisies, because Dubstep does not rely on lyrics or the human voice to drive the song. And that is an important distinction. Never in my life have I looked up the lyrics to a Dubstep song. If you want to be crass about it, the words just don’t matter in Dubstep, and that will be a hard pill to swallow for Kpop.

Because the words don’t matter, Dubstep has a tendency to over-sample, to reduce the lyrics to their very basic. Take a listen to 2NE1’s dance break in “Come Back Home” if you don’t believe us. Compare their lyrics with and without Dubstep. Come baby baby come come baby...

On a related note, if there’s an aspiring Dubstep DJ reading this, you’ve got a huge well of material in Kpop for sampling. Don’t forget to thank us when you make your first million.

Implication #3: More Dance Breaks with Catchier Beats than the Chorus

Music is not a color by numbers. You can’t point to a spot on the track and <insert Dubstep beat here>. Except in the dance break. In a dance break, anything goes! Right? And that’s where the majority of Kpop songs have attempted to incorporate Dubstep.

It’s great to see Kpop branching out to reach new audiences. Innovation is so important in music. But the introduction of Dubstep as a dance break has its own implications. As we mentioned above, Dubstep tends to overpower. The raw power is why so many people like this style of music (and probably why the haters hate). We’re not going to hate, but we are going to suggest that you should never introduce a beat into your song that is that much stronger than your chorus. At least, not if you’re trying to sell pop music. Move Entertainment made this mistake with their new group, Billion. The most powerful beat in “Dancing Alone” should not be the ten seconds of wub-wub, it should be that great chorus!

Integrating alternate genres into a song can produce some amazing music. But don’t expect great results if you’re only willing to plug ten seconds of Dubstep into a dance break. A dance break (or bridge, if we’re being technical), is supposed to introduce tension to the song. But that tension is also supposed to lend power to the next section. Dubstep isn’t good at sharing. As a dance break, it usually functions more as an interruption. NU’EST managed to create tension in “FACE” by giving the Dubstep a bit more time to develop, then letting it build up to a drop. This extra bit of work makes it the best Dubstep dance break we’ve heard so far. But it’s still only that: a dance break that interrupts the main thrust of the song.

EXO bucks the trend somewhat by overlaying Dubstep during the chorus in "Wolf" instead of the dance break. CL goes even further in "The Baddest Female," with a subtle Dubstep beat during the chorus, and a heavier beat during the dance break. But the effect of both is not much different from what we've seen so far. The mood grows darker. The importance of voice is diminished (EXO is barely able to sing during their chorus), and the lasting impact does not seem to work for the song, but to confuse the lasting impression.

The integration of alternate genres, when successful, is never a one-off or a clever nod to another beat. T-ara successfully integrated alternate genres in “Do You Know Me.” And we also have to give a shout out to Girls’ Generation for “I Got a Boy.” Though neither of these songs are specifically using Dubstep, they’re good models for integration. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is easy, or that a dance break is the perfect spot for a little Dubstepping.

Why We’re Not Really that Worried

We want to be sure we’re clear on this: we’re not that worried. Because Dubstep can work in Kpop. And it can work beautifully. Like most things, it just needs to be done right.

Shinee’s “Everybody” is the only song on our list that integrates Dubstep beyond slapping a few sick beats into the bridge. And they do it extremely well. You can hear the complexity of the song, and the care that went into making it (Shinee has Thomas Troelson and Coach & Sendo to thank for the arrangement). We love that this song feels like equal parts Kpop and Dubstep. Even during the more traditional Kpop sections, the Dubstep beat never feels too far away. “Everybody” even uses the riser (or “buildup”) to toy with the listener before the drop (the monstrous wub-wub section that everything builds up to) at 3:40, which is exactly when the traditional Dubstep drop occurs. Basically, Shinee went out and made the first ever Kpop/Dubstep song.

“Everybody” leans a bit darker, but it stays upbeat. We don’t notice any loss in terms of lyrics or the showcasing of the artists’ voices. And the catchy Dubstep dance breaks have been directly incorporated into the chorus, avoiding the usual interruption. All of this was accomplished because Shinee was willing to work Dubstep into the entire song, rather than spotlighting another genre for ten seconds. And that makes it easy for us. We don’t have to fear for the future of Kpop, because it’s not in any real danger. Shinee have shown us that.

But. Shinee’s success is not a pass for other would-be Dubsteppers. What worries us is the trend we saw this March. Three new songs all using Dubstep only as a dance break. Before that, it was relatively rare (though there are countless songs using other types of electronic music). And 2NE1 and Super Junior aren’t small time artists or crazy innovators. These are the big names. The mainstream artists. And if they’re going to use Dubstep, you can bet there are a bunch more groups pointing to their dance break and giving their producers puppy dog eyes. We just hope those producers understand the implications of incorporating Dubstep into Kpop. We’re stepping off our soap box now. Go out and make some great music!

Check out the full Dubstep in Kpop playlist!


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