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Dubstep is the first thing that comes to mind when people mention Rusko, and that’s almost become a disservice to the young UK-born DJ. While Chris Mercer is certainly credited as an innovator of the wobbly, bass-thwarting, and often numbingly gloomy genre of electronic music, he left the darkness behind a long time ago. Growing up in a Leeds, the young producer was immersed in local reggae and dub scenes; eventually he adopted those sounds and pushed out his experimental electronic tracks alongside co-conspirators Caspa and Skream. The sound caught on quickly among dub fiends, drum-n-bass heads, and even jungle lovers because of the way it gave the masses a more relaxed groove to soundtrack their dimly lit warehouse raves. But slow and steady is not what Rusko is about. Not too long after the genre’s inception Mercer veered away from its sticky basslines in search of uptempo beats and melodies, then took the hybridized results to audiences outside of the underground. And so far, it’s been working.
We caught up with the DJ while he was rehearsing for his tour–which arrives in New York tonight–to talk about his newest dub finds, “bro-step,” and his work in pop music.
I hear you’re in the middle of rehearsal.
Yeah! We have a big warehouse spot not too far from my house in LA. It has a giant stage and everything all lit up. It’s been very, very, very handy.
Yeah, I saw the light show.
Oh my gosh, yeah. We’ve been working it out. We also have cannons, like smoke cannons, and the DJ booth with the moving lights and stuff. We’ve been trying to work out particular parts of the stage show to fit the songs in the set. It’s been kind of choreographed almost. It’s been really fun to do, because normally the first few shows of the tour you’re getting it together and trying out the new mixes and getting it all together, but all that’s been done before the tour this time. So when I hit the first stop of the tour, it’s already polished.
Does that mean you’re forced to play the same set for the most part? How do they choreograph the lights with a DJ set?
We have markers. There are certain songs which I could never, ever get away without playing–songs like “Woo Boost” and “Everyday” and “Hold On” and “Cockney Thug.” If I didn’t play those songs, they would kill me. So what we do is that I always play those songs during certain times in the set. The songs between them change around, and every four or five tracks there’s a Rusko classic that we’ve set up with markers. We work around them. It’s really interesting, actually. Most of the time you just show up and wing it, but this time it’s different. It’s gonna be fun. Especially over here [in the US].
For a lot of American audiences, live dubstep has a reputation of revolving around heavy, distorted bass. I know you’ve said you specifically try to avoid that.
Yeah, for sure. I just try and put in as much musicality as I can. I try to use trance music and such so that it sounds hugely, and massively epic–massive build-ups, chord changes, key changes, crescendos and stuff like that. And it can sound even more massive without having to sound aggressive. I just try to make music that is hard and has impact and sounds big, but without being aggressive. I think that’s what gets so confused so much. For someone to say that for it to be big and heavy it has to sound aggressive… well, that’s just not the case. It’s not a heavy metal show.
Do you ever record your own instrumentals?
Yeah, quite a bit actually. I play guitar on some of the recent tracks I’ve done. On the Cypress Hill record I’ve been working on two tracks with guitar as well. So, yeah, recently I have been playing a bit of guitar on them. I really want to get my sax out as well but I haven’t found the right tracks yet. Or rather, I haven’t made the right tracks yet.
I feel like UK dubstep producers have stronger dub influences in their work while their American counterparts mostly come from a drum-n-bass background. Now that you’re in LA, how would you describe the differences between the two scenes? Or even just in production?
Production-wise, it’s kind of mixed. LA is kind of in its own little bubble, really. I don’t really get involved in the scene here, if you know what I mean. The time when I moved to LA was the point in which I was too busy to be hanging about in dubstep clubs really. If I’m ever at home for a few weeks, I’m working nonstop.
US producers in general–as far as dubstep producers go–they seem to kind of follow each other. There’s not a whole lot of variation as far as US producers. It seems to all sound like a lot of computer-malfunctioning noises. I got a promo CD the other day from a record label and it had ten different artists–ten different tracks by ten different artists–and every single one was called like, “Kill Your Mother” or “Baby Raper” or something like that. It just all sounded the same. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but for the most part a lot of the US producers are just very, very similar. It’s just more of the same. It’s really well produced–the production quality is a lot higher in the US.
Is there anyone doing it right?
I love Datsik’s stuff. He’s Canadian though. A lot of the producers I like from North America are Canadian, I guess. Matty G from Santa Cruz makes some really kind of West Coast style dubstep but he hasn’t made any tunes for a year or so. He’s been slacking. It would be nice if he could get back on it! But a lot of the North American stuff I play is actually coming out of Canada.
It’s interesting to me that you’re into that West Coast style, because to me a lot of that is based in that reggae/dub groove too. Have you been getting into anything new on that front?
Totally! Hmm, what have I bought recently? There’s a dub group in the U.K. called Vibronics and they released a series of 10-inches called the Scoop series. I’ve been listening to them a lot recently. And there’s this French artist called Kanka–his stuff is absolutely amazing. I heard a few tracks of his, saw that he’s got three albums out, and I had to just get everything. I’ve actually been trying to make a bit of stuff dub-wise for the new record actually. It’s funny that you ask that, I’ve been more into it recently.
UK dubstep DJs also tend to follow in a dancehall/grime path as far as working live MCs into their shows. Are you going to be traveling with an MC?
I host my own show. I like to host my own show, reggae style. I’m on the mic between every single track. I tell the crowd when I have a new track or new beats–throughout the whole show I’m on the mic. There’s even parts on the new show where I sing as well. On some of the newer tracks I’m singing myself. It’s all really part of the performance–I can get on the mic, or I can get on the table and get a bit more crazy. It’s all about communication for me–bridging the line between the crowd and the DJ. Especially for this tour, which is for the most part in the US, where there’s a noticeable difference from the place where the DJ is and where the crowd is. It helps when you’re on the mic the whole time. It helps to close that gap a little bit.
How do you feel about the direction that newer producers are taking? You know, as far as the whole “bro-step” movement or the Luvstep releases.
Um (long pause), I think it’s good. I think in a lot of ways dubstep is going to change. People are always going to go different ways with it. There was “rave-step” a while ago–these guys who were calling it that before there was anyone calling it “bro-step.” There’s always been a million different things. I think I just really try to close my eyes and ears to it. I’m really out of touch with all of that. I’m less in touch with dubstep now than I was a couple of years ago. I’m still in my own bubble, really. I mean, there is a lot more of it now, but I make a point of playing as musical and uptempo as I can. If it’s this new slow and aggressive music, to me, that’s just boring and I’m not going to play slow music. It’s just not what I’m about. I mean, it’s just something that’s been created by the media so that people can ask me questions like that.
Do you really think it’s that contrived?
Yeah. Completely. Absolutely. One hundred percent.
You realize that you’re on the same label as some of these artists, right?
Yeah, it’s fine. Wait, which label?
Both Luvstep mixes came out under Mad Decent.
Alright. Yeah, yeah, yeah. They did. But really, that’s all it is. It’s literally [a genre] just invented by the music media world so they can have shit to talk about when it’s all just the same. (Laughs.) I have no beef with bro-step artists or anything like that. It’s all good in the hood, really.
You mentioned earlier that you like to experiment a lot and do a little bit of everything. When you’re doing that, how do you pull together a focused album? Do you ever expect your album to tell any sort of story or carry a theme? Or is it just about having fun?
For my music, I wouldn’t ever try to tell a story, you know? I don’t think I’ve ever made a deep or serious track in my life. I would never describe my music as serious music. It’s just rave music to play really loud and jump and down and take drugs to. That’s it. I’m totally serious. That’s literally all it is. (Laughs.)
Really, the album is just trial and error. This album has been that way and the next album will be that way and the next one. I have about 18 to 20 three-quarter-way done tracks that I’m about to take out on the road for about five weeks. Probably half of them will get scrapped, but I’m also taking my monitors and my keyboards and everything out on the road with me, so the majority of them will get changed as we go. Ultimately it’s music made for the dance floor and the ultimate test is to see how it plays out on the dance floor.
The good thing about having a tour bus is that, for one, I can have my studio on me all day. And two, it’s always parked right outside of the club. So if I have an idea that I’ve just gotten down, it’s a two-second walk to see how it plays in the club. It’s really the ideal because a lot of producers spend weeks making stuff at home and then try it out at the club and it sounds completely different from their studio with their thousand-dollar monitors. It just sounds totally different in a club. So really, the tour is trial and error. Complete trial and error. I could be playing some bombs! I apologize in advance for the ones that don’t work! (Laughs.) Hopefully the ones that do will be insane enough to cover those up.
Tell us about your crossover into pop. What was your involvement with Britney?
I do a lot of writing. The funny thing is that Britney released a track with a dubstep bit in it and everyone thought it was me. The thing is that when I work as a songwriter, I work as Chris Mercer not Rusko. None of the three tracks that I did for the Britney project were dubstep. Very, very little of the pop writing I do is dubstep. It’s pop, you know? That was kind of crazy actually.
But yeah, I work with a writer and do bits with them. That’s just me working as a musician though–I write the words and make music that’s completely outside of dubstep. It’s the whole package. I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve been working with this kid Cody Wise in LA–the kid from the Lion King musical. He’s been recording and he’s about to pop next year. I’ve also been working with a chick called Lights who’ll be ready to go next year too. So yeah, I’ve been working with a lot of underground pop people that hopefully everyone’s gonna see in the few months time.
Does it bother you that there ultimately was a dubstep-influenced track that made it on to the Britney album… and it wasn’t one you worked on?
No, not really. The tracks that I wrote, I wrote the vocals, the melody, every single little piece of the track, I wrote and I own one-hundred percent of them. So of the three tracks I wrote, one of them has already gone to Pixie Lott, she’s this singer from the UK. And the other two have gone to another singer that I’m not allowed to tell anybody about yet. So the time I spent on the project has already been paid off because the songs have gone to other people. So yeah, it’s cool. It’s difficult sometimes and yeah, it can be weird, but it’s good. The new music I’m working on, it’s kind of spacey-party music, even further away from dubstep than the last record. I’m purposefully trying to veer a little away from dubstep and make party music, really.
Do you see that as a sign for what’s happening to the genre? Do you see dubstep existing in the same way for very much longer?
It’s still growing to fill its space, you know? It’s such a big-sounding music that it suits the bigger theaters and bigger arenas. It’s just such a massive music that it’s basically made perfectly for huge venues. It’s nice that it’s in that stage right now. I don’t think it’s going to die. I think it’s going to continue to grow since there’s so many different styles and different types and different bits and pieces to it.
People think that all everybody wants to hear is bro-step. All the people that interview me and talk to me online and stuff think that all the crowd wants to hear these days is bro-step. But 99% of the time the people who are asking me that haven’t actually been to a dubstep rave in the last year. So, it’s like, they can say that but then if you go to the club and see what the kids are dancing to, for the most part, it’s the more uptempo and musical tracks not the distorted heavy stuff. For the most part, I think the rest is all media bollocks.
Rusko performs at Terminal 5 tonight at 8 p.m.