AKA: grime, sublow, Eight-bar and eskibea

Example artists: Skream, Digital Mystikz,

What it is: A subtle wobble bass–often being played as a melody in a register so low it effects the bowels–under jazz, reggae and rock samples. Some variations feature a rapper or multiple MCs.

“It’s a sound coming from the imaginations of the first generation to have grown up surrounded by digital technology – from gaming consoles and computers to mobile phones, CD burners and MP3 players.” –Kevin Braddock, the U.K. Independent, 2004

“The sound evolved from the U.K.’s low-end-heavy garage and drum ‘n’ bass scenes. But instead of the hyperkinetic beats spawning light storms of glow sticks, dubstep focused on head-nodding swells of buzz-saw bass. Though the first word in the compound “dubstep” might lead people to associate it with dub, the instrumental chill-outs crafted by Jamaica’s most innovative producers are merely distant relatives.” –Drew Tewksbury, L.A. Weekly, 2010


Dubstep 101: A U.S. Primer


by Andrew Gaerig

Alongside Skrillex’s rise, “dubstep” is becoming pop’s buzziest new word. But figuring out what the hell it means is another story altogether.

Skrillex, shot for SPIN’s October 2011 issue by Jason Nocito

“Who gon stop me,” from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, begins with an orbiting, distorted vocal sample, then explodes into a rush of quaking bottom-end and pulsating, chunky mid-range. These are the blatant hallmarks of dubstep, the floor-shaking, multifaceted electronic music that began on South London pirate radio nearly a decade ago and now peppers U.S. pop radio. If you’re looking for a bellwether moment to signal this genre’s American takeover, you could do worse.

“Who Gon Stop Me” won’t break dubstep, though, because dubstep, depending on your perspective, already has arrived broken, dead, or unrecognizable. Similarly, recent dubstep-inflected pop tracks by Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, and Korn are mile markers, not destinations. This is, in part, because American audiences and artists are caught in a geographical divide that has fractured the genre’s identity.

“The stuff that’s popular in America is different than the London dubstep sound,” explains Drew Best, cofounder of Los Angeles-based Smog, one of America’s first dubstep parties. “The scene in America is massive. It’s way bigger than it is in the U.K.” This massiveness is a tribute to the music’s power, but also to the support of Best, along with scene starters like New York’s Dave Q and Joe Nice, and the Bay Area’s Nick Argon and Bassnectar.

Dubstep may be the closest British analog to American hip-hop (though drum’n’bass and grime traditionally have played that role), with its sonic upheaval, aggressive posturing, and intense debate about the music’s origins and true nature. Roughly, dubstep began as a reaction to U.K. garage music, itself an innovative, underground club movement that had been polished to a pop sheen. Artists such as Horsepower Productions, El-B, and Digital Mystikz slowed the sound way down while looking to dub reggae’s dystopian worldview for inspiration. Influential DJs (the BBC’s John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs) and stations (Rinse FM) spread the sound to a wider audience.

By the time dubstep crested in the U.K. in 2006, it was already rebelling against itself. Spare, moody subwoofer odysseys by Burial, Kode9, and Shackleton gave way to artists such as Skream, Caspa, and Rusko, who produced booming, disorienting tracks stuffed with jagged keyboard riffs. The music was still slow, but also intense and active, and more appealing to American teenagers raised on rock radio. It’s a sound that Caspa calls “noisy, mid-range-tearing-through-the-system dubstep. Americans like it pretty hard.”

For producers, this iteration of dubstep was fresh and exciting, but it was also convenient — tempos and textures aligned nicely with current rap tracks, particularly from the South, which blasted blocky synth melodies that seemed to split the difference between metal and techno. “Wobble,” as it came to be known for its oscillating bass, could rattle ribs in dingy clubs, festival tents, or on the radio.

“If you listen to the metal, aggro stuff, you don’t need a good sound system to impact people,” says Starkey, one of the first American producers to incorporate the sound.

Club nights began bubbling up: Smog in Los Angeles and Dub War in New York. Britney took her first stab at the genre back in 2007 (“Freakshow,” which she followed up this year with “Hold It Against Me”), and soon U.K. artists like Rusko, Chase & Status, and Nero were producing tracks for major pop acts. The large outdoor festival circuit converted groups of sweaty adolescents.

“I started turning to festivals that were usually associated with jam bands,” says Bassnectar. “Not because I liked the jam-band music, but because in America that’s where youth culture would go to experience frenzied music gatherings.” Live events became a focus of the U.S. scene, and if explosive, breakdown-oriented artists like 12th Planet and Flinch don’t inspire much dancing, they inspire the next best thing: appreciative, orgiastic headbanging.

Bonnaroo, Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Burning Man have booked American dubstep DJs en masse. Newer festivals, like North Coast in Chicago, seem uniquely tailored to the cross-section of jam, hip-hop, and dubstep. Fueled by club culture’s wane, Bassnectar and Skrillex have aggressively toured rock halls that hadn’t previously hosted DJs.

All of a sudden, dubstep looks, sounds, and pays like rock’n’roll. “Right now, in America, the work has been done, the road is paved,” says Bassnectar, who was instrumental in that progress. “If someone offered me Tokyo or Paris on a Saturday or Kentucky or Mississippi on a Tuesday, I’d take Kentucky.”

“You’ve got people like Skrillex who are on these 48-stop tours,” says Best. “He’s selling out amphitheaters in Idaho and Nebraska and Arkansas.”

American audiences have yet to embrace the diversity of U.K. dubstep (or “post-dubstep”), ranging from the pure pop moves of Katy B and Magnetic Man to the artful impressionism of James Blake and Mount Kimbie. Lurching and aggressive remains the prevailing style in the States, a sound sometimes derided as “brostep.”

“It’s just people taking it to extremes,” says Caspa. “Where they’re going wrong is that it’s just got no rhythm, and you can’t move to it or understand it.” Drew Best sums it up: “Bigger, badder, crazier — that’s embedded in us.”

Fights over dubstep’s meaning or terminology, and so-called brostep’s arrested development, notwithstanding, “bass music” (the insider’s preferred term) is arguably the most influential, grass-roots electronic movement in America ever. Neither house nor the rave-centric techno culture of the early ’90s penetrated middle America so deeply; the electronica movement of the late ’90s sold records but didn’t result in thriving local scenes.

“The next step is radio…someone having a big crossover hit in America,” adds Caspa. Dubstep’s viral, volatile pedigree in the U.S. suggests that such a hit may be as likely to come from a random YouTube hippie as from Kanye or Britney or even Skrillex. “It’s changed the way people think about making music,” he continues, “how they think about promoting music, how they think about DJ’ing.”

Even if fewer and fewer people agree on exactly what it is.

Skrillex: Eight Wild Nights and Busy Days With the Superstar

Inside the success, philosophy and love life of electronic music’s current king

By Neil Strauss
March 1, 2012 11:00 AM ET

“Want to go to a party at the drummer from Muse’s house?” Skrillex turns and asks.

“Sure, why not.”

Fifteen minutes later, the car is full and navigating through the Hollywood Hills. Skrillex is in the back seat with his girlfriend, U.K. singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding, and the bartender from the hotel we just left. In the front seat is his tour manager, Road Hog, who’s never been in the hills before.

Ratatat’s “Loud Pipes” is blasting through the car. Goulding and Road Hog are celebrating the moment, singing “the Hog is in the hills” to the instrumental track. Skrillex – nee Sonny Moore, known to close friends as Skrilly and drunk friends as the Skrill– is recording the jam on his iPhone. “This is going to be a track,” he says excitedly as we park. Behind us, another carload of Skrillex’s friends and crew unloads, and they all climb the hill, a mobile party. “Every night is like this,” Skrillex says, bounding up to the house. “It’s just totally random.”

To spend a week with Skrillex is to learn to operate with no sleep, no silence and no pause. Even sitting still, he’s moving – bouncing a leg up and down, tapping his fingers, looking around the room to take in everything going on. “He’s inhuman,” says his European booking agent, Simon Clarkson. “We gave him only one night off in Europe, and he calls and tells me he’s putting together a party that night so he can DJ. He doesn’t stop.”

“I book myself tight,” Skrillex confirms. “If I have any time off, I get antsy. I haven’t taken a vacation in, like, eight years.”

It is this tireless, jittery energy that’s propelled Skrillex through an accelerated music career: He joined his first indie and punk bands when he was 12, toured the world fronting the Top 40 screamo band From First to Last at 16, and signed a solo deal with Atlantic Records the year he turned old enough to legally go to the clubs he’d been performing at. Now, at 24, he’s performing 300 shows a year playing the most noncommercial music of his career – his tonally dirty, dynamically aggressive brand of bass-rattling dubstep – and to everyone’s surprise, most of all his own, he has become the most exciting thing happening in popular music this moment. He won three Grammys in February. His Facebook page has been growing by 300,000 new fans a week. And everyone is blowing up his phone, from Dr. Dre to Kanye West, who took Skrillex to Vegas in his private jet, watched him DJ and then invited him to his hotel room to cut some tracks.

“I’m aware of what’s going on, but at the same time there are parts I can’t see with any perspective and don’t know if I should,” he says as we stand in a bedroom with Muse drummer Dominic Howard and four girls who are cavorting around the room, hungry for the pair’s attention. “I mean, it’s surreal when you step back and see everything going on. But when I’m in the moment, I don’t realize it.”

If Skrillex continues to have his way, he will never realize it. “I don’t like being overexposed,” he says. “I don’t like being on covers. And I don’t like people talking about me.”

So in order to get a better understanding of who he is, here are a few scenes culled from eight days spent in a nonstop maelstrom of vodka, bass and late nights with pop’s reluctant phenomenon.