“I just produce music; make a melody, write a bassline. I don’t try to change anything or make a statement. I’m a musician. This is what I do.”
even as 5 p.m. passes in Miami’s Bayfront Park on day two of the recent
t h r e e - d a y Ul t r a Mu s i c Fe s t i v a l
(UMF), it’s still scorching hot. The
sun has been slow-cooking the festival grounds all day, and the estimated 150,000
electronic music fans in attendance are starting
to show the wear. Glittery face paint is running.
Furry animal-ear hats are in hands rather than on
heads. And the branded Heineken booth is being
used more for its misting spigots than its beer.
But as the clock strikes 5:30, things start to stir.
The concession lines disperse. Dancers who were
hiding in the shade of the wooded areas appear
from the underbrush. From all corners, kids start
to converge on one of the six stages, some flatout running, when they realize the time.
Over at what UMF dubbed the Live Stage
(though many of its performers played prerecorded music), Skrillex is scheduled for a 5:30
set. And although the 23-year-old DJ/producer
looks as though the heat might kill him—he’s
Edward Scissorhands pale with a goth shock of
dyed black hair shaved on one side and long on
the other, and willfully oversized black-rimmed
spectacles—he can’t suppress his joy when he
gets behind the decks.
He needs no introduction to this crowd, but
he opens with the title track from his self-released
debut EP, “My Name Is Skrillex.” Disembodied
voices bleat the title in ascending and descending pitches, while bass and synth pile up beneath.
The crowd starts singing it back, punctuating
each word with outstretched fists. When the drop
finally comes—a storm of industrial synth that
would make Trent Reznor proud—the sweaty
throng explodes, jumping, thrashing and beaming ear to ear.
“I love melody, aggression and rhythm,” says
Skrillex (born Sonny Moore in Los Angeles) a few
weeks later, before an appearance at the Creamfields festival in Australia. “That’s what I can make
on my laptop, so that’s what happens.”
The rapid success of Skrillex (@skrillex) is the
definition of viral. Without any promotion, his
team estimates that more than 100,000 free copies
of “My Name Is Skrillex” have been downloaded
since June 2010, when it was first posted on his
manager Tim Smith’s website. “We love that he
hasn’t been marketed, that it’s been purely wordof-mouth,” Smith says. “We want people to have
that feeling of ownership and discovery.”
Skrillex’s follow-up EP “Scary Monsters & Nice
Sprites” (Big Beat/mau5trap/Atlantic)—a charismatic collision of sounds including French house,
reggae, hardcore and even melodic pop released
in November—topped iTunes’ dance chart. It also
took up eight of the top 10 slots on dance specialty
retailer Beatport’s Top 100 Downloads chart in
its first week. To date, it has sold about 40,000 copies:
36,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and
4,000 through Beatport, according to mau5trap.
But the biggest story is happening on the road,
where the DJ who was completely unknown less
than a year ago is now selling out hard-ticket venues with capacities of 3,000-plus, like Austin’s
Music Hall. “He’s one of the fastest-growing artists
I’ve ever seen,” says Skrillex’s booking agent, Lee
Anderson of AM Only.
Skrillex is at the forefront of a youth movement
in music, a subset of the larger migration toward
dance sounds on the pop dial, as embodied by
David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas. But the
unifier of this crew isn’t VIP style or a guitar hook:
It’s bass, or more specifically, bass that wobbles.
Meet dubstep. Born in the mid-2000s, dubstep
originated in the United Kingdom as a hybrid of
drum’n’bass, two-step and reggae. Like most styles
in dance music, dubstep has no one type.
“There’s a lot of different sounds to dubstep,”
says Sean Lewis, music editor for Beatport’s dubstep, breaks and hip-hop inventory. “It’s basically
a genre of its own influenced by other genres.”
In dubstep one will find the elegant and spooky
minimalism of Burial, and the cheeky yet hardedged fun of pioneers Benga and Skream.
Skrillex represents what’s considered to be the
American version: more aggressive, with a heavier focus on glitch and electro. But dubstep’s most
consistent elements—a bassline that oscillates
so hard it can induce nausea (aka the wobble) and
half-time syncopation rather than straight fouron-the-floor rhythm—are becoming some of the
defining sounds of the time.
“You turn on a television in the U.K. or Europe
and you see a video from [dubstep acts] Nero or
Magnetic Man in between Bruno Mars and Sara
Bareilles,” says Kevin Kusatsu, who manages
Skream, Benga and Diplo. “Snoop Dogg made a
dubstep record [“Snoop Dogg Millionaire”]. Britney Spears’ ‘Hold It Against Me’ uses elements
and sounds of the dubstep production swath.”
Even DJs from other genres are embracing it.
“Dubstep has definitely made a significant impact on dance music,” says Tiësto, one of the
world’s top-earning DJs who’s best-known for the
epic sounds of trance. “I enjoy listening to a lot of
the producers as they are pushing the envelope.”
The sonic affinity is translating to touring success for the genre’s artists, big and small. “The
way it’s moving kind of reminds me of electrohouse three years ago,” says Anderson, who also
represents dubsteppers Gemini, Mt Eden and
NiT GriT. “First bigger weekly parties got started
in L.A. and New York. Then weeklies started
popping up everywhere: Tuesday in Oklahoma,
Wednesday in Arizona. Now it’s moved from softticket clubs to hard-ticket touring venues.”
Skrillex could be easily grouped into the dubstep ranks, but the diversity of his sound shows
that he draws from a broader palette. “The thing
about electronic music is that it’s more of a platform than a genre,” he says. “Nine Inch Nails,
Prodigy, the whole Warp Records catalog. Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, glitch, acid house, breaks.
It’s all in my blood; it all comes out in my music.”
Skrillex is now working on his debut full-length,
scheduled for the fall. “It’s going to have the same
sort of vibe and intensity of the last few releases,
in the sense that it will go all over the spectrum,”
he says. “But I don’t really think about it. I just
produce music; make a melody, write a bassline.
I don’t try to change anything or make a statement. I’m a musician. This is what I do.” ••••
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