Two years ago, there would have been hundreds of half-naked kids shivering on the sidewalk outside Upstate Concert Hall, waiting to get in for a Monday night dubstep show. It wouldn’t have mattered who was DJing. Half of the crowd wouldn’t have even known the performer’s name. Such were the heights that the Americanized version of the genre reached within a very particular audience demographic for a very particular span of time. So, you can’t help but wonder what happened, looking out over a half-full Upstate Concert Hall dancing to British producer Rusko. It’s enough to make you a little wistful even, watching that juiced-up bro in his neon PARTY WITH SLUTS tank, pumping his fist all by his lonesome.
But this is how this kind of thing has always worked. The industry inherets a progressive sound from some underground vanguards, pumps it full of a high-grade empathogenic amphetamine, and blows its wad all across a youth culture suffering from socioeconomic-libinal repression. Let’s call it the money shot. It’s built into the very architecture of the dubstep sound. (In case they already lacked in subtlety, Rusko’s bass drops were enhanced with a set of floor-mounted smoke cannons, synched to the ejaculation of the subwoofers. Needless to say, they came hard and often.) The ones on top (Deadmau5, Skrillex, Afrojack) end up with astronomical contracts at Las Vegas casinos (the New Yorker ran a brilliant piece on this aspect of the industry in September) and the fans on the bottom end up with seratonin deficiencies when the party is over (look for a recent Atlantic piece on MDMA for more).
The thing is, the party doesn’t have to stop. But it’s not like that meglomaniacal mantra from James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers: “Spring break forever, bitches!” Like the seasons, the sound has to progress. To his credit, Rusko is trying. The man’s a born performer and his energy onstage is infectious. But to his former benefit and present burden, he’s been stuck with the dubstep label, while some of his EDM brethren have more readily turned to dubstep’s foundations in grime and garage or evolution into trap.
With his latest EP Lift Me Up, Rusko’s unfortuntate turn of course has been toward old-school drum ‘n’ bass. Opening for the tour was Roni Size, who rose to prominence in the mid ’90s on DnB’s first wave. There was something kind of nostalgic about Size’s 5 Hour Energy-binge of a set, and kind of sad about his MC’s insistence that a room full of 18-year-old American kids should know enough about the 43-year-old not to chant for the headliner. After pandering with “Seven Nation Army” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” samples, he almost found redemption (and legitimacy within current British dance music) in a remix of Disclosure’s “Latch.” But the DnB tempo pummeled the soul out of the original and fell on deaf ears anyway.
Rusko himself used the breakneck style more sparingly, often as a way to re-accelerate a track after dropping the bottom out of a dubstep hook, and would only hold the audience there to a natural point of fatigue (it’s amazing those older DnB DJs didn’t all die of heart attacks). Most surprising about Rusko’s set was the leftover influence from his time on Diplo’s Mad Decent records. The middle part of his set was straight dancehall in the manner of Major Lazer, with live reggae vocals performed by Tonn Piper, relieving him momentarily of his superfluous MCing duties (a peculiar convention of the genre). But at other times the set veered into the glossy pop-shlock of David Guetta, signaling the manner in which the mainstream has again gobbled a once-vital genre.
It’s not that dubstep is dead. Its rise was the moment that electronic dance music became an undeniable global commodity, like rock & roll before it—the moment the laptop eclipsed the electric guitar. And that fact won’t fade along with the neon rage socks.