Standing in the backyard of his recently purchased Silver Lake house, U.K. dubstep producer Rusko is having an epiphany. “I'm a man!” 25-year-old Chris Mercer yells into the sky, standing in front of a barbecue and flexing areas that would otherwise be biceps on his skinny arms. It's a “London summer,” as the Leeds-raised producer calls it, and the Southern California sky is concrete gray. A cold wind starts to kick up and his unkempt hair, the floppy remnants of what was a mohawk a month ago, flaps in the wind. His puppy Bandit, “a cross between a skunk and raccoon,” nips at his ankles while his wife, Belinda, is inside, unpacking boxes and making an office where a big wall calendar displays Rusko's upcoming show dates.
It seems all too suburban for the purveyor of bowel-shaking beats that have assailed clubs from London to San Francisco. Why would one of the U.K.'s most prominent dubstep producers leave behind a BBC Radio show and a thriving dubstep scene he helped create for a backyard, a fuzzy dog and a barbecue?
Two words: world domination.
“I'm here to get dubstep into more people's conscious,” he says, toning down the hyperactive delivery of the self-professed sugar-rush addict. “In the U.K., you can hear it in the afternoon, but here you can't just turn on the radio and hear dubstep.”
Music journos have buzzed about dubstep for years but the bass-heavy, fist-pumping dance anthems have yet to break into the American mainstream. “Lots of people say they've heard dubstep, but they haven't heard dubstep,” Mercer says.
The sound evolved from the U.K.'s low-end-heavy garage and drum 'n' bass scenes. But instead of the hyperkinetic beats spawning light storms of glow sticks, dubstep focused on head-nodding swells of buzz-saw bass. Though the first word in the compound “dubstep” might lead people to associate it with dub, the instrumental chill-outs crafted by Jamaica's most innovative producers are merely distant relatives.
“Dub has a pumping underbeat but it's really quite slow,” Mercer explains, “and in dub reggae the main focus of the song is the bass. [In] Dubstep the main focus of the track is the bass line and the half-time beat.”
And dubstep is anything but chill.
“It's not superdeep, you don't listen to it on your iPod in bed with your eyes closed. It's for jumping up and down and getting wild. Dubstep has become the punk rock of the electronic-music world. Dubstep is … Bang!”
The eardrum assault of dubstep is essential for any DJ looking to unleash a bass tsunami on the dance floor. Some dubsteppers push the envelope into aggressive beats, but Mercer is interested in keeping it simple. His master plan for mainstreaming dubstep relies on his melodic breakdowns and instrumentation to candy-coat the speaker-busting bass.
Last year, Mercer began hanging around L.A. with his cohorts on Diplo's Mad Decent label. His longtime friend producer Dave “Switch” Taylor, who produced M.I.A. and Major Lazer with Diplo, had already left England for L.A., and Mercer followed suit.
“How could I not want to live in this situation? We all live in Silver Lake now,” he says of the Mad Decent crew. “Diplo has even moved from Philly. Paul Devro, Switch, the whole crew is on the Eastside. Maya [Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A.] even has a house over here.”
Mercer's L.A. move coincided with a series of professional milestones. In April, he played to massive crowds at his first Coachella performance (a bout of swine flu thwarted last year's show), his Mad Decent debut, O.M.G.!!!, just came out, and M.I.A.'s hotly anticipated album, which he mixed and helped produce with Switch, will be released in June.
Then his radio dream came true. L.A.'s hip-hop station, Power 106, played Rusko's dupstep take on Tupac's “California Love.” His “Cali Anthem” made dubstep history.
“The first dubstep song listed on commercial American radio,” he says. “Even though it's a song about Southern California with a big 'West Coast' lead in it, it's still a big milestone.”
With stage one of his mainstream-takeover master plan complete, Mercer is now focusing on stage two: major labels. He has produced songs for Rihanna and rapper T.I., and has begun work on a Britney Spears record with megaproducer and South Rakkas Crew label head Alex Greggs. The upcoming tracks may put dubstep, and Rusko, on the map. But he's not worried about going too pop, he says, as he unveils his M.I.A. tracks from his beat-up laptop.
“They approach me because they want me to do what I do. They don't want me to make a cheesy pop record. I just want to be known for my beats. It's simple. What you see is what you get. Bang! The music.”