I saw a lot of great things at SXSW this year. Fiona Apple contorting her way through a raw and wracked and ultimately triumphant solo set, her first in years, proving on a grand stage that she’s still the mesmeric talent we remembered. Girls, buoyed by a trio of ebullient backup singers, beefing up the soul quotient from their excellent last album and finding new depths for their emotive psychedelia. Ceremony and Narrows and All Pigs Must Die and especially Trash Talk, all proving that old hardcore forms, done right, can be as immediate and as physically cathartic as ever. Rick Ross, bellowing his way through an absolutely bulletproof set of bangers in front of a rapturous Fader Fort crowd. Screaming Females and Free Energy and Cloud Nothings and Kendrick Lamar and Titus Andronicus and Action Bronson and Black Tusk and Killer Mike and Zola Jesus, all slaying. But none of these was my favorite act at the festival. The one I liked best was a tiny pale guy with a goofy name and a goofier haircut, crouching behind a couple of laptops. You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Around certain corners of the internet, the comments section of this site often included, Skrillex is an instant punchline. I’m not altogether certain why, though I have my theories. When James Blake derided the new wave of American dubstep producers for “macho-ism” and for not appealing to women, it’s a foregone conclusion that he mostly meant Skrillex, though Skrillex now has more female fans than James Blake will ever have. (Ask the girl who literally begged Corban for $25 to get into the warehouse where he was playing.) Skrillex does have a goofy name and a goofy haircut, but it’s not like pop music doesn’t have a grand history of both of those things. (Imagine clowning David Bowie for the Ziggy Stardust rooster mullet, or for calling himself “Ziggy Stardust.” Also, Skrillex’s haircut works as a nice live prop; he whips it around a lot.) A lot of people seem to think Skrillex is an emo guy, but the band that Sonny Moore used to lead was From First To Last, a screamy metalcore band who I first read about in underground-metal Bible Decibel; I once watched Moore climb a festival-stage scaffold with his mic chord between his teeth when he was singing for them. From First To Last weren’t an especially good band or anything, but they weren’t emo. They were way more badass than that.
The most common knock on Skrillex, though, is his reliance on the simple, serrated bass drop — the idea that his music is just WUB WUB WUB and nothing else. I’m way late in looking into this guy, and I went into the warehouse where he played essentially on curiosity alone; I certainly expected the WUB WUB WUB/nothing else thing. But what I found was one of the more dynamic sets I heard during all of SXSW. Skrillex, see, knows what he’s doing. He does what great DJs do: He layers sounds and ideas on top of each other, building tension and releasing it, moving fluidly from one thing to the next. Parts sounded like the sort of early-’90s hardcore techno that was popular with people who wore lots and lots of smiley faces. Other parts sounded like the sort of dark, broody late-’90s breakbeat techno that was popular with scary white guys with dreads. There was also a lot of robotic one-drop reggae in there. Early on, Skrillex played a big chunk of Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” unmolested. Later, he dug out Ini Kamoze’s “World-A-Music,” the song that Marley sampled on “Jamrock.” All of it fit in seamlessly. None of it was built around bass-drops. Those bass-drops, though…
I have a theory about Skrillex’s bass-drops. As previously mentioned, the man spent his late teens singing for a popular metalcore band. By and large, the best part of any metalcore song is the breakdown, the part where the song slows down and the riffs suddenly turn dark and martial. That’s the part where the pit suddenly fills with guys doing that inexplicable gymnastic fist-swinging spin-kicking dance that they do. Even if you think metalcore is dumb and formulaic music — and most of it absolutely is — it’s still a deeply impressive sight when the judder-riff starts and the floor suddenly fills with berserk ninjas. As a metalcore veteran, maybe Skrillex sees the bass-drop the way he once saw the breakdown — as a crude but ultimately effective-as-fuck maneuver that it’s worth building an entire track around because of the things it can do to a live crowd. Because when you’re in a sticky and sweltering warehouse full of deliriously excited kids and that bass-drop kicks in, it’s just a fucking incredible feeling. That bass gets so huge and so tangible that you can practically open your mouth and eat it. It rearranges your entire body-chemistry, and it affects everyone the same way. To be in a crowd of people losing your mind to this is to feel an intense feeling of self-erasure. You give yourself over to it. So does everyone around you. And then it ends, and Skrillex goes back to building up his next buildup, and you just sort of look around yourself and grin. It feels good.
I went to a few raves back in the day. These weren’t those late-’80s/early-’90s raves, the ones that writers like Simon Reynolds sermonize about, where revelers treated their Ecstasy experiments like religious sacraments. These were the sketchy, gross late-’90s/early-’00s versions, the ones where a bunch of tweaked-out kids would take over a concrete-bunker club or a dusty open field and party until the sun came up or until enough kids passed out that somebody had to shut it down. At those things, the entire point was to get fucked up, zone out on the lights, sweat a bunch, and walk out more destroyed than you came in. Those parties were fun, but they weren’t transformative; they didn’t make me feel the way punk shows felt. At those parties, journeyman DJs like Bad Boy Bill or Dieselboy would follow a rote but powerful blueprints, where tension in tracks would build to the part where the beat kicks in and the siren noises blare and everyone goes nuts.
This wasn’t that. For one thing, the only light show came from the few kids who were waving around glowsticks. (Not liquid-dancing with them, either; just waving them.) For another, Skrillex plays around with that old build-and-release dynamic, but he’s built his own dialect of it. When the bass-drop kicks in, the track usually slows down and stretches out. Sometimes, it comes with very little warning. Others, the buildup lasts so long that you almost think the drop is never going to come. And not all bass-drops are the same. Some are strobing machine-gun bursts; others sound like when that kid at your lunch table would burp for like a minute straight. The only constant: They move.
I’ve spent the morning listening to Skrillex’s three EPs, and they’re fun, but they’re not really any indication of what this guy does. Maybe he’ll make a great record some day, and his tracks certainly bring the hooks, and sometimes they sound the way people wish that last Justice album sounded. But at this point, listening to Skrillex at home is almost like listening to Gwar at home. The live experience is the thing. In the middle of SXSW, when I was tired and depleted as fuck from dragging my carcass around to god knows how many shows, that live experience made a believer out of me. And I didn’t have anything more than a couple of beers in my system. If I’d been on the right drugs, whatever those right drugs even are, I can’t even imagine what it would’ve done to me.