Some club people in the U.K., where dubstep was birthed, sneer that the genre jumped the shark a decade ago. There are DJs and promoters in the United States who believe that it's the future of the live-music industry. At least one Facebook page and numerous Web forums exist solely to explain why Skrillex, perhaps the most famous dubstep artist in the world, is not actually a dubstep artist.
Is dubstep over or is it just beginning? Who is dubstep, and who is not dubstep? What is dubstep? These are not calm waters.
Some facts exist. On December 1, 2011, Skrillex — a Los Angeles-based DJ who has integrated dubstep aesthetics into more traditional electronic dance music — was nominated for five Grammys, including Best New Artist. Two days prior, nu-metal relic Korn linked a stream to its latest, dubstep-influenced album, The Path to Totality. In October, international heartthrob Justin Bieber revealed that his upcoming album would experiment with the genre. Just over a year ago, in January 2011, Britney Spears released "Hold It Against Me," a Dr. Luke- and Max Martin-produced single that cliff-jumps into a classic dubstep bass-drop two-thirds of the way in.
Friday, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people — mostly teenagers and 20-somethings, many of them wearing bright colors, some of them waving glow sticks — will attend Connectorville, a dubstep party at the Midland headlined by the influential British DJ and producer Caspa.
"Kansas City is one of the fastest-growing dubstep scenes in the country," says Eric Noble, a St. Louis promoter and booking agent who is producing the show. "And it's really exploded in the past year or so. It's caught on huge with all these 18- to 22-year-old kids in the Midwest."
Noble came to electronic music, like a sizable segment of current dubstep audiences, via the jam-band festival scene. "I started to notice, a few years ago, how packed the late-night electronic tents were getting at these festivals," he says. "There was a real shift happening in that culture."
Noble began managing and booking shows for Kevin Moore, aka Spankalicious, a St. Louis DJ now living in Cincinnati. Moore, a former drum instructor, was spinning hip-hop when he was first exposed to dubstep, in 2008. (The first artist he heard, coincidentally, was Caspa.) "I loved that it had the bass tones of hip-hop — those sounds that make you want to nod your head — but without all the bullshit of contemporary rap lyrics," Moore says. "It's like getting back to the roots, where you actually feel the music."
Dubstep's appeal can be a puzzling thing to grasp. Like house or trance, dubstep is, at its core, a manipulation of tension and release. A house track, for example, tends to build hypnotically, crest as the energy in the room crystallizes, and then explode into a propulsive disco beat. We receive the sounds our bodies crave. Dubstep songs — to the extent that they can be generalized — are set to skittish beats and offer no such intuitive musical relief. The payoff moment is instead the arrival of a rumbling, amorphous bass, delivered at a frequency so low that it mostly negates its harmonic value. The DJ often joggles the note to create a jagged, metallic stutter, known as "wobble bass." Think of a robot farting or a frog croaking out lasers — or, increasingly, a thrash-metal band crashing a rave.
"I see dubstep going two ways right now," Moore says. "There's some people sticking to the dub-reggae roots, with that low sub-bass sound. Then there's the Texas Chainsaw Massacre stuff, the horror-film stuff, where it's gotten to be more like a metal thing with the drops. It's like an early '90s Pantera mosh pit or something. It's mayhem. But it's not violent."
"Locally, it's become more focused on that harder, screechy metal sound that Skrillex does," says JJ Soderling, a local DJ who performs as FSTZ and hosts a dubstep-centric party at the Gusto Lounge with Barbaric Merits the first Friday of every month. "It definitely picked up around here sometime around 2010, I'd say. The trance scene died, electro and house could only go so far, and so a lot of people slid over to dubstep. It's what the kids want."
Given that it brushes up against the aesthetic sweet spots of jam bands, metal and hip-hop (its tempo is not far off from Southern rap), it is perhaps not surprising that dubstep is taking root in American youth culture. The physicality of the experience also helps explain why venues can charge $35 a head for a show like Connectorville and count on people showing up. "In a huge venue like the Midland, a dubstep show can be like a psychedelic opera," Moore says. "There's a culture and a fashion to the scene — girls dress up, there's sex appeal to it. But, really, it's all about the laser lighting and feeling that bass drop in your chest."
There's a gold-rush quality to the dubstep craze. "The St. Louis market for dubstep is totally saturated right now — so many promoters have popped up," Noble says.
"Two years ago, I played Iowa City, and 60 kids showed up," Moore says. "Last time, we had 350."
Caspa (real name: Gary McCann) has temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to take advantage of an abundance of shows like Connectorville. "I was at the forefront of dubstep in the U.K., and I want to be at the forefront in the States," he says. "It's not about playing L.A., Chicago, New York. I want to play places like Nashville, Houston, Kansas City. It's important to push the sound at these places. I'd come over in 2006, 2007, and my shows would be 25 guys holding beers in Kentucky. Now it's young girls dancing."