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The dubstep DJ Rusko (aka Christopher Mercer) is coming to Track 29 next week. Asked to describe his sets in an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian, he said, “I make heavy, dirty, wobbly, party-time dubstep.” Ranked alongside Skrillex (who credits Rusko with introducing him to dubstep), Deadmau5 and Caspa in dubstep blogs, Rusko was introduced by DJ Pete Tong on BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix in 2008 as “a … DJ from Leeds whose bass-driven take on dub step has re-energized that scene over the last 12 months.” Since then his reputation has been growing.
Listening to Rusko’s seamless mix on the Radio 1 show from 2008 is akin to being inside a video game—a virtual firestorm of high-pitched synths and low-bass explosions popping at a frenetic pace. It’s a slightly disorienting experience. He calls it dubstep, but while the core rhythm is bass-heavy dubstep, it’s overlaid with rapid-fire, tightly wound, skittering synth drums scattering like light on water.
Dubstep, a drowsy, syncopated rhythm with a sensual swing, originated in South London in the late 1990s. An amalgam of a myriad styles of electronic dance music, dubstep uses the studio as an instrument much as the pioneering Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and his many acolytes (including Augustus Pablo and The Mad Professor) did in the 1970s. Perry produced some of The Wailers’ early records, but he’s best known for being one of the progenitors of dub reggae—taking fully mixed tracks and stripping them down to their rhythmic foundation with an accent on the bass. The resulting tracks slowed the sinuous reggae rhythm to a thunderous walk.
Dubstep retained the bass heavy emphasis of those early experiments, adding the increasingly manic synth drum rhythms that originated in the UK with “jungle” and “garage” music—heavily percussive offshoots of American “house” played at spontaneous raves in the early and mid ’90s in and around London. The original dubstep records hewed closer to Perry’s vision of a darkly rhythmic, almost claustrophobic density. But as Pete Tong noted in his introduction to Rusko’s set for Radio 1 in 2008, Rusko has “re-energized” the music adding a lyrical and melodic pop sensibility making it accessible to a wider audience.
Rusko isn’t from London; he grew up in Leeds, a city about 200 miles north of the capital. He moved to London to work with Caspa, one of the progenitors of dubstep. But within a few years he’d moved to Los Angeles (his wife is American). Interviewed recently in the UK magazine SQ about his success in America, he attributed it to his “in your face” approach both on stage and in the studio. Like Girl Talk, Rusko recognized the need for a DJ to do more than simply stand behind a bank of laptops. “There’s nothing that’s too subtle or serious about my music, it’s just BANG!” he explained. “All that translates well over here. My songs are the type of songs that you’ll hear once, love it for a month and then get bored of it. They’re not the type of songs that you hear and grow on you after weeks—my tunes are just simple bangers. That’s all it is. Simple rave music. Americans are into that, they like it bang in the face—POW!”
Fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol (he claims to consume a bottle of vodka a day when he’s working) as well as a range of other recreational drugs, Rusko’s stage show is a non-stop aural and visual assault. Following a show in Houston this past summer, the reviewer for The Houston Press noted, “Hell, if a DJ can dance that hard and keep the beats going, it can be assured that the crowd couldn’t stop dancing.”