The bass-heavy U.K. phenomenon known as dubstep began life as a niche genre, confined to tiny basement venues catering to old drum ‘n’ bass kids. Not anymore. In the past year, leading lights like Skream, Benga, and Rusko have played sold-out U.S. shows from the Hard Festival to Terminal 5. But while they’ve been sensations in Europe for ages, the stateside, mainstream-club demand for this wobbly, bass-thwarting music has come only recently.
There’s a few things that brought about the wave — “brostep,” initially a jokey sub-genre that quickly became dubstep’s gateway into clubs that once catered to techno-fiending dance crowds, is one. Famous collaborations (La Roux and Skream, Britney and Rusko), along with the pioneering work of Katy B, helped too, transforming a formerly isolating, somewhat mind-numbing style into pop-infused dance music easily mixed for club floors. You either love or hate dubstep, but more and more people are crossing over to the former. Not sold yet? That’s where Luvstep comes in.
The self-explanatory project is the brainchild of an unlikely pair: Dirty South Joe and Flufftronix. The duo’s annual Luvstep mixtape highlights swoony dubstep remixes of songs that cover everything from shoegaze to lesser-known r&b songstresses to straight bangers from within the genre itself. But the real beauty of the series lies in the composition: The usual weighty tracks that just kind of drag along are toned down (with emo vocals highlighted for maximum heartwrenching), while airy melodies are stretched out and mixed together to create a surprisingly coherent, drawn-out daydream perfect for long car rides or calming pre-date nerves. (That said, it’s also perfect for listless bouts of depression.) We loved the first Luvstep, and were anxious to talk to the duo about the sequel (out on Mad Decent on Valentine’s Day), and their series’ slow mutation into a genre of its own.
An ex-hardcore indie promoter from Indiana and an ex-hip-hop and club DJ from Philly make for an odd pair.
Joe: Well, we met first on an online music message board. Michael flew me out to play his party in Bloomington at some point three or four years ago, and sent me tracks here and there to get my opinion. We kept in touch through music stuff. Then, as soon as he moved [to Philadelphia], one day he was like, “Hey, do you wanna do a yacht rock party?” I was more than ready to do it, too. I did a yacht rock party with Low Budget a few years ago, but this seemed more, I don’t know, advanced, and now we’ve been doing that party for three years. That’s kind of where things kicked off. Because of that we started doing a lot of DJ gigs around the city together, and as it goes with DJ duos, when you have that common understanding and vibe, and are into the same things . . .
You have a mutual love of yacht rock.
Joe: Mutual love of yacht rock for sure.
Michael: Also, we had been DJing together all over the city for all sorts of things and got to know each other’s work styles through that. I mean, even just doing club gigs. A lot of our gigs are mainstream. We were DJs that had to work in clubs and do different types of scenes, like the spots in the Rittenhouse area where we were playing these Top 40 clubs, and had to play Gaga and Britney for the normals.
Joe: Yeah, we were just always working together. This summer we were doing a Saturday daytime gig and also DJing together at a night gig. So we were DJing together for 11 hours a day, and that’s the sort of thing where you get pretty close and used to working together.
When did working on Top 40 and yacht rock gigs turn into working on Luvstep?
Joe: Right away, as soon as Fluff moved to Philly, he had a huge and positive effect on the music scene here. He definitely stepped out of his way to bring global bass sound to the city — whether it be dubstep, U.K. funky, or whatever else, he would be the one taking the risk to bring these people to town and then bring people out to see them. It wasn’t always immediately rewarding, but he did it. So on top of the Top 40 and yacht rock stuff, we were definitely working with the underground dance scene and trying to bring them onto parties. We brought Sinden, we had a huge party at the Mad Decent mausoleum with Liv-1990, Bok Bok, Kingdom, Joker, and Fluff’s crew — Subdivision — and the Brick Bandits crew. It’s been pretty awesome, really.
So yeah, we were doing these types of one-off parties together. And then Luvstep came about because of an idea I had. It was basically based on this song I had heard — the Caspa remix of Deadmaus and Kaskade’s “I Remember.” That song and this other song that this producer Alex RX did. It was a remix of . . . what band was that?
Michael: Jupiter One.
Joe: Yeah, Jupiter One’s “Find Me a Place.” When he first was like, “Hey check out this song. This remix that I did,” instantly my mind started racing. Not to knock on dubstep, but it’s — and deservedly so — got such a reputation to be this kind of testosterone-driven, bro-down music, that you forget that there are a lot of beautiful, melodic songs out there. So immediately I tried to collect as many of those songs and stuff that had that similar vibe as possible. It was actually a few months later that I realized to bring Fluff onto it. He is just so deep in that game, and I just knew that if we did this together, it would be better than if I did it myself. He had more music for the project, and we started working on it immediately. The first mix came out pretty much exactly how it was in my head. So that was a success, to me at least.
By avoiding the “testosterone-driven, bro-down” tag, are you trying to direct Luvstep at women? It also seems like an attempt to welcome entry-level dubstep listeners.
Joe: Yeah, I think that it’s perfect for entry-level dubstep listeners. I’d like to think that this is the kind of thing you could play for your children or your grandparents, or your nerdy dubstep-head friend. For me, it has this universal appeal to it. I mean also, you know, good love songs get to people, no matter what.
Michael: One of the reasons that I like this Luvstep concept so much is it creates a new way of grouping songs together that otherwise wouldn’t coexist, except under a much bigger “bass music” umbrella. We’ve worked in festival anthems, quiet downtempo soundtrack-ish stuff, and even some halftime drum ‘n’ bass, all into what we’re hoping is a unified whole. They all share a certain mood, or range of moods at least, and some common rhythmic themes. And as far as who appreciates the mix, we definitely want it to be satisfying, but still a little bit challenging and eye-opening for both old and new listeners of dubstep. It all has a certain pop sensibility that helps with making the appeal widespread. But for the heads, it’s also intentionally disparate in a more traditional genre/sub-genre kind of way, which we want to present as a different way of classifying sounds outside of “dubstep,” “future garage,” “brostep,” “atmospheric,” “two step,” and so on.
Joe: You know, we were talking about something a few weeks ago. As much as I love all the artists that are on the mix, I don’t think that their individual albums are necessarily better than Luvstep, you know? We’re trying to make this the “best of the best” — a compilation of the smoother tracks — and turn them into something that just wasn’t out there. And now, whether people are admittedly producing under the umbrella of “luvstep” or not, we’re seeing a whole lot more of it. It’s a good thing that just balances that heavier dubstep, that harder stuff in the clubs.
That said, this is coming at a time when more than a handful of mainstream DJs, artists, and producers are embracing dubstep as dance music. Take the Rusko/Britney collaboration for example. Is luvstep ever meant to be dance music?
Joe: No, I’d say not.
Joe: (Laughs.) Well, okay, please share your opinion with the group.
Michael: It is! Not all of it, exactly, but the set that we played over the summer at the Mad Decent Block Party speaks to the types of tracks that are definitely danceable. We’re going to sneak in some stuff that you might not consider particularly dance-y, but in the context of our live sets, it works. It’s kind of like what we did with our yacht rock night, Smooth Sailing, actually, where a bunch of music Joe and I would normally play during opening sets was transformed into scream-along smooth bangers. Also, most of these tracks, even the timid and shy ones, are made with club systems in mind and move you a lot more when there’s a row of bass bins pushing those low frequencies at you.
Joe: The best thing is that there is a lot more to it than people think. There’s a lot of different styles: traditional dubstep, the more experimental, minimal stuff. The U.K. funky side. Then there’s also other softer, lighter, more intimate sides of it. Which is personally my most favorite part. We’re trying to bring those two sides together. It’s what you do with the silence between the notes that makes luvstep interesting to me. It’s kind of smoky in a way, if you know what I mean, it has this kind of ethereal quality to it. That’s obviously not stuff you’ll hear in the club, but that’s why we try to give it as much of a universal appeal as possible. Instead of catering just to the nerds that are into this, I guess it’s cool to try to appeal to all the cute girls at the club that are dancing to Britney, and then going home and putting on Luvstep.
Looking at your tracklist for volume two, most of the producers are U.K.-based. Are there producers in the U.S. that you see making this kind of crossover dubstep?
Michael: Yeah, there’s a great crop of U.S. producers doing pop-friendly, digestible dubstep. Rx and Gladkill are both out of NYC. Kastle from Pittsburgh has great remix of “Blu Mar Ten” on Luvstep 2, too. Starkey from here in Philly was interviewed along with the first mix on the Mad Decent podcast, and I think his tracks since then have even more crossover potential. We put two of them on Luvstep 2, and they’re both some of my favorite tracks from the mix. And Derek “DJA” Allen, from Kentucky and currently out in L.A. has been a huge part of the Mad Decent sound as a sound engineer, and his first vocal track is on Luvstep 2. We didn’t really set out to feature U.S. producers in our mixes, but there are a lot in there.
I’m curious as to how this will translate live. You’re going on a tour, right?
Joe: Well, we have eight shows booked. Four this week, actually.
Michael: Yeah, and four more in the works.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. We’re doing shows all over . . . we’re probably touring until fall.
Michael: The way we’ll have it set up for our live shows is with four turntables and two mixers onstage so that we can actually play together and do a little of everything. We want to come as close to the mix’s format in a live setting as possible, except with a priority on keeping things danceable. Joe and I both DJ out all the time for a wide variety of crowds, so hopefully everything that makes the mixes stand out can make our lives sets stand out, too. There’s a good chunk of headphone/bedroom music on the mix we might never have the chance to play out, but we hope to keep things as varied and interesting as possible.
Joe: Obviously in a live set there’s going to be a few more of the bangers and the heavier dance stuff instead of the quieter stuff. Like he said, we want to get some of the quieter tracks in there, but keeping the dance floor interested, occupied, and percolating is definitely what we’re going for.
Luvstep 2 comes out on Valentine’s Day. What’s the ideal setting for someone’s first listening?
Joe: Our answers are going to be very different, so I’ll let him go first.
Michael: In headphones. In headphones while walking through a park.
Joe: In your bedroom with a loved one, preferably naked. Going back to what you asked earlier about what we wanted to achieve from this . . . well, I wanna see luvstep babies. I mean, as long as people keep putting out good music, we’ll keep making these mixes. And hopefully, in a few years, we’ll see a whole lot of luvstep babies running around as a result.