Dubstep is breaking through to the mainstream. The British-born EDM genre, once heard only in clubs and at raves, seems to be growing more popular by the week.
Its trademarks — radically syncopated beats, wobble bass, shredded samples — have wormed their way into backing tracks for pop stars such as Katy Perry and R&B artists such as Rihanna while also being grafted onto the hip-hop anthems of Xzibit. Even nu-metal band Korn has released an entire album of dubstep rock, The Path to Totality, created in collaboration with artists including 12th Planet and Excision.
Another sign of dubstep's surging influence: the surprising crossover success of Skrillex, a 23-year-old DJ and producer (formerly known as Sonny Moore, the frontman for screamo act From First to Last) who has spent the past 18 months packing club gigs and selling out concert halls.
His geeky looks have made him a heartthrob among Generation Y tweens, and his style of electronic cacophony — a hybrid of dubstep, electro, house, and rock that's similar to the sonic brutality practiced by the likes of Rusko and Datsik — has picked up the (fairly pejorative) label "brostep."
Despite the fact that Moore doesn't consider the tracks he produces to be purely dubstep, he has arguably become the genre's cutesy-pie poster boy. In October, his pale, bespectacled face was splashed across the cover of Spin's Dance Issue. Then last month, the Recording Academy officially recognized his rapidly rising mainstream status with five Grammy nods in categories ranging from Best New Artist to Best Dance/Electronica Album.
There are certain dubstep aficionados who hope his success will bring more attention to the genre and help it flourish on the mainstream stage. Purists, however, see Skrillex as something else: an invitation for the frat-boy and lunkhead crowd to take over.
In an interview with Boston alt-weekly The Phoenix in September, UK electronic artist James Blake dissed Moore 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."
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As Blake cattily implies, Skrillex's bombastic brostep assaults are far removed from the chill soundscapes of a decade ago, when the dark offshoot of UK 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 it was submersed in an overwhelming sub-bass thrum. The influence spread as DJs such as Joe Nice played it in Baltimore and New York City beginning in 2002, and BBC Radio host Mary Anne Hobbs launched her influential Dubstep Warz program in 2006.
On America's West Coast, dubstep made its debut in 2007 with parties like Subliminal Sundaze at now-defunct club Homme Lounge. At the time, DJ-producer Nick Suddarth, now making a killing producing his own hard-charging dubstep as Sluggo, worked the event as part of a duo called Ultrablack. He 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 Los Angeles dance night SMOG in 2006 while also releasing dubstep records on his label of the same name, explains that the genre grew as DJs and producers "injected their particular influences" into it.
"You've got minimal dub-plates that were just pulling at your guts, and you've got these cracks from high-hat cymbals that cut your fucking head off... It slowly became something else as time went on," he says.
Best thinks Moore'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 into the formula]. He's got this mix of things that are going on, and it's got a crazy pace."
Best met Moore after booking him at an edition of SMOG, months before the young dubstepper's explosion in popularity. In 2006, Moore had left From First to Last to pursue his own projects. He tried a solo rock career but soon found his way to EDM, first as Twipz and later as Skrillex.
A longtime dance music fan, he was a regular visitor to EDM nights around L.A. before hooking 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 grinding of Skrillex-style dubstep is 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. Best, who says he isn't necessarily a fan of the heavier sound, remembers getting a Skrillex pitch from Dadzie.
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"After 12th Planet was playing his sort of music, [Dadzie] 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,'" Best says. "We didn't sign him and Deadmau5 did, and they ran with it."
Yet despite his refusal to sign Moore, Best is happy that so many fans are getting exposed to dubstep through Skrillex. "That's where I feel like [he] could do really good things for dubstep right now. But I hope [the kids will] also 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.' [But] I was in London, and no one plays that stuff. It's people like Yungsta playing, like, really dark, heavy stuff.
"[Yungsta] is 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?'"