Bass Oddity: Skrillex Brings Dubstep to the Masses
It's a good thing there aren't many residences near Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe. It's creeping toward midnight on a Friday night in October, and the Sound Wave Music Festival is in full swing, causing a maelstrom of electronic beats to echo across the pools and slides.
While Phoenix expat Z-Trip is putting on a major show on the main pavilion, a throng of skinny indie kids in striped V-necks and Wayfarers, rave kids in Ts and headbands, and chicas sporting bikinis and furry boots are pumping their fists and stomping to the beats in front of a side stage at the waterpark.
It might as well have been called "the dubstep stage." Most of the acts performing here tonight specialize in the bassy dance music genre, such as Calgary's Mark Instinct, London-based Trolley Snatcha, and local DJ/producer Nick "Sluggo" Suddarth. But dubstep isn't confined to the side stage; it's practically everywhere, even sneaking into the headlining sets of Z-Trip and Kaskade.
Besides scratching up a storm to Duck Sauce's popular anthem "Barbra Streisand," Z-Trip drops in "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," the breakthrough track by phenomenally popular EDM artist Skrillex.
Its usage by local legend Z-Trip is emblematic of the rampantly burgeoning fame of both dubstep and Skrillex himself. The British-born EDM genre, once heard only in clubs and at raves, seems to be growing more popular by the week.
It's been featured in the backing tracks of pop stars like Katy Perry and R&B artists like Rhianna and grafted into the hip-hop anthems of Xzibit. Nu-metal band Korn is readying The Path to Totality, an entire album of dubstep rock created in collaboration with artists like Skrillex, 12th Planet, and Excision and set for release next month.
Dubstep is breaking through to the mainstream, and so is Skrillex. The 23-year-old vocalist and guitarist, known as Sonny Moore when he fronted screamo act From First to Last, has spent the past 18 months going from packing club gigs to selling out concert halls.
His geeky looks have made him a heartthrob of Generation Y tweeners, and his style of electronic cacophony — the hybrid of dubstep, electro, house, and rock is similar to the audio brutality practiced by the likes of Rusko and Datsik — has picked up the (fairly pejorative) label of "brostep."
Despite the fact that Skrillex doesn't consider the tracks he produces to be purely dubstep, he's arguably become the genre's cutesy-pie poster boy. Dubstep aficionados hope his success will bring more attention to the genre and help it cross over fully into the mainstream. Purists, however, see it as something else: an invitation for the frat boy and lunkhead crowd to take over.
In an interview with Boston alt-weekly The Phoenix last month, U.K. electronic artist James Blake dissed Skrillex and other American artists who have made dubstep more "testosterone-driven."
"I think the dubstep that has come over to the U.S., and certain producers — who I can't even be bothered naming — have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there's this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds," Blake said. "It's been influenced so much by electro and rave, into who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound, almost like a pissing competition."
As Blake cattily implies, the bombastic brostep assaults generated by Skrillex are far removed from the chill soundscapes of a decade ago, when the dark offshoot of U.K. garage and grime was born in the clubs and record shops of South London in 2000.
Eschewing the traditionally relentless "four on the floor" tempo of trance, house music, and other EDM genres, early dubstep clocked in at 140-plus beats per minute and was submersed in an overwhelming sub-bass thrum. The influence spread: DJs like Joe Nice played it in Baltimore and NYC starting in 2002, and BBC Radio host Mary Anne Hobbs launched her influential Dubstep Warz program in 2006.
Here in the Valley, dubstep made its debut in 2007 at gigs like Subliminal Sundaze at the now-defunct Homme Lounge. DJ and producer Nick Suddarth, making a killing producing his own hard-charging dubstep as Sluggo, worked the event as a part of a duo called Ultrablack and says that when he first heard dubstep, he was hooked.
"I like all types of dubstep, whether it's disgusting or soft and minimal. It's got this versatility. The dope thing about it: You can be in your car kicking it, driving around listening to some chill shit, or at a party listening to the nastier stuff," Suddarth says.
Drew Best, who began blasting dubstep at his tastemaking L.A. dance night SMOG and on his record label of the same name in 2006, explains that dubstep grew as each DJ and producer "injected their particular influences" into it.
"You've got minimal dub-plates that were just pulling at your guts, and you've these cracks from high-hat cymbals that cut your fucking head off . . . It slowly became something else as time went on," he says.
Best feels L.A.-based Skrillex's hybridization is no different from that of any other dubstep-inspired artist.
"Skrillex himself would tell you that he's not a dubstep artist. He's making stuff with electro, and he's a big fan of stuff like Aphex Twin, and all over the board . . . He's also introducing electro-house and metal and [industrial dance music]. He's got this mix of things that are going on, and it's got a crazy pace."
Best met Skrillex after booking him at an edition of SMOG last summer, months before Skrillex's explosion of popularity. Moore had left From First to Last to pursue his own projects in 2006. He tried a solo rock career, but found his way to EDM, first as Twipz and later Skrillex.
A longtime dance music fan, Moore was a regular visitor to EDM nights around L.A. before he hooked up with eventual mentors John Dadzie (better known as influential dubstep DJ 12th Planet) and Deadmau5.
"I've been a friend of Sonny's for a long time," Dadzie says. "Even when he was in bands, he kept making electronic music and visiting dubstep parties . . . He didn't just come outta nowhere; he was around for a while."
The sick and brutal grindings of Skrillex-style dubstep are like the audio equivalent of a gory car crash. His most popular tracks — "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," "Kill Everybody," and "First of the Year (Equinox)" — feature all the hallmarks of his sound: a melodic, quasi-ambient intro followed by a vocal sample (typically ganked from YouTube) and a killer "drop" into a face-melting bass grind.
Dadzie and Deadmau5 both helped get Moore noticed, pimped him on social media, and influenced his sound. Drew, who says he isn't necessarily a fan of the heavier sound, remembers getting a Skrillex pitch from Dadzie.
"After 12th Planet was playing his sort of music, [he] said we should sign [him]. And I was like, 'I don't know if it's the sort of sound we want to be identified with.' But we didn't sign him and Deadmau5 did, and they ran with it," Drew says.
His second EP, Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, was co-released by Deadmau5's label and Atlantic Records imprint Big Beat. With each tour, he's performed in front of increasingly bigger crowds, like going from a packed house of around 300 at Tempe's 910 Live last December to more than 1,000 at the Venue Scottsdale in June.
Drew is happy that these same fans are getting exposed to dubstep through Skrillex.
"That's where I feel like Skrillex could do really good things for dubstep right now. But I hope [kids] also [will] take the time to dig a bit deeper and see who else is out there," he says. "They're like, 'Yeah, I love dubstep; Skrillex is great.' I was in London, and no one plays that stuff. It's people like Yungsta playing, like, really dark, heavy stuff. He's huge over there, but if we brought him over here, I don't think the kids would respond the same way. They'd be like, 'This is boring. When's it gonna get crazy?'"
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