Atlanta’s dubstep scene busts a move

From brostep to trapstep, local purveyors are bringing home the bass

If the electronic dance music scene in Atlanta has a godfather, it’s Michael Jackson. No, not that one. Jackson, better known around town as MJ, has been at the center of dance music in Atlanta for 17 years, throwing huge parties with such world-famous artists as the Chemical Brothers. When the focus of dance music shifted toward drum ‘n’ bass in the late ’90s, MJ shifted with it. And when attendance at local shows fell off drastically in the early 2000s, he started Household Management, a talent agency that would go on to manage more than 60 bass-centric electronic musicians worldwide.

At the moment, he’s in the main room at QUAD, behind the oversized DJ booth with Charlie P, his partner in the duo the Living Experience — so-named for the glitch-hop instrumentals they compose on the spot. As MJ crouches over a synthesizer and Korg Kaossilator beat machine tapping out a throbbing beat, he slowly bobs his neck back and forth. Beside him, Charlie P raves out while sequencing their sounds using Ableton Live software. A hefty, bald guy with a rather intimidating look more suitable for working the door than twiddling nobs, MJ’s almost meditative, eyes-closed stance provides the perfect contrast to the taller, slimmer Charlie P and his rhythmic body-jacking. Together, they’re like a much cooler version of Ren and Stimpy.

Each beat MJ bangs out with his index fingers seems to send the 18-and-over crowd into an incomprehensible frenzy. It’s as if he’s pushing their buttons. After the duo’s hour-long set, MJ introduces the night’s headliner — the London-based dubstep DJ/producer Flux Pavillion, who’s Atlanta appearance is part of his first international tour — before promptly disappearing into the sweaty, half-shirtless mass of glow-stick-adorned kids.

The next afternoon on the phone, he still sounds energized from the previous night. He can’t get over the sold-out line of 1,450 ticket-holders that snaked from the entrance of QUAD and down Spring Street before turning the corner and spilling out into the rear of Arby’s parking lot. More than anything, he seems eager to distinguish his weekly Friday night bass bashes, booked solid through October, from what he calls the illegal “crackhead warehouse” rave written up in a Creative Loafing nightlife column back in March that sent the whole dubstep scene into a tizzy.

“What happened last night, that’s how a dubstep show should be,” he says. “And when you see it done right, in a legitimate venue with legitimate headliners, that’s what it’s supposed to be like.”

Though it may seem trivial to the uninitiated, there’s a good reason why MJ’s eager to push the musical movement behind the party. Parties are fads. Music is fashion. Parties, especially the unruly kind, spawn legislation. Music, even when deemed disposable, creates legacies. As difficult as it may be to separate glow sticks from wobbling bass lines, that slight distinction could be the difference between a bankable future for Atlanta’s dubstep scene and a repeat of the past.

The worst-case scenario, according to MJ, would be a replay of what happened around the turn of the century, when Ecstacy use became so closely associated with rave culture that it caused local governments nationwide, and the Feds, to go off the deep end. He still recalls the apex, when New Orleans rave promoter Disco Donnie was nearly prosecuted in 2000 by the Drug Enforcement Agency under the “crack house law” for throwing huge parties at the State Palace Theatre, where Ecstacy and LSD were allegedly being sold on the premises. Under the DEA’s case, glow sticks, pacifiers, even bottled water were deemed “drug paraphernalia.” That incident was followed three years later by the passing of the RAVE Act (Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act), originally sponsored by current Vice President Joe Biden.

“The next thing you know local news networks were showing up at these parties with hidden cameras like, ‘It’s 2 a.m. Do you know where your children are?’” MJ recalls. “That pretty much killed everything for, like, years. And now there’s a resurgence of that going on, largely in part to dubstep and kids getting back into electronic music. I don’t want it to turn into a repeat of the ’90s, where parents had a misunderstanding of what kids were doing.”

The other misunderstanding, of course, is over the music. The subgenre has evolved from something exclusively for electronic music geeks to the preferred soundtrack for drunken fraternity brothers in an astonishingly short amount of time. As a result, one of its defining characteristics has become an ongoing identity crisis over what dubstep really is. “It’s an experience. You walk into a show and literally feel the music. You feel that bass,” says Adam Golden, a local 19-year old dubstep/hip-hop promoter and DJ. “It sounds like robots having apocalyptic sex.”

An outgrowth of British strains of dance music such as drum ‘n’ bass and 2-step garage, early dubstep was defined, circa 2000, by dark, downtempo rhythms before the more danceable offshoot developed, featuring the aggressive, wobbly bass lines that rapidly spread into an international underground phenomenon via YouTube-distributed videos of tracks.

Recent converts tend to be younger listeners who gravitate toward the harder, heavier strand, ridiculed as “brostep” by detractors, thanks to its frat-tastic fan base. But this rave-inducing strand is also behind the recent mainstreaming of dubstep. “That’s definitely what’s fueling it,” says Anthony Rotella, aka Mayhem, an 11-year veteran DJ/producer among Atlanta’s EDM scene and co-founder of Atlanta Dubstep. “It’s really what Atlanta nightlife was missing for a long time was that younger demographic, that next generation of kids getting into it.”

It felt like a sauna inside the main room at QUAD on the night of MJ’s party. Dudes raging out in wifebeaters. Coeds in halter tops and bikini bras. Everybody lubricated by a layer of sweat. And there was a surprising amount of spandex and tie-dye. It looked more like an uninhibited aerobics class than an illicit party scene. The closest thing I observed to a trippy encounter was when the innocent-looking girl wearing the orange stuffed animal-hat with dangly arms asked me if I’d take a photo with her and her “octopussy.” Well, that and the shirtless guy with the Jersey tan and the buck-eyed stare, who kept mouthing “Oh my god,” as the liquid raver donning the light-show gloves mesmerized him with magic hands.

“That usually just means they’re really high,” the gloved-one named Michael said later when I approached him. The 24-year-old Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduate, who asked that his last name not be used because he’s applying for med school, got into dance music eight years ago, when trance was the thing. He’s long since ditched the drugs, he says, though he still loves a good rave. Like most of the kids in QUAD that night, he seemed more peace-loving hippie than ironic hipster.

But the real cultural movers and shakers are the various promotion companies — such as MJ’s Household Management, Mayhem’s Atlanta Dubstep coalition, and DubSTOMP — and the dozens of reputable DJs that throw dubstep events nearly every night of the week in Atlanta. But sustaining that sort of hype will fall on the shoulders of producers.

“The determining factor will be whether producers are innovative and push the genre in new directions or whether they just stalemate and stay in the same place,” says Mayhem. “That will decide if it’ll be a sustainable genre or a one-trick pony that fades away.”

In Atlanta at least, dubstep is being pushed into new directions with hip-hop to a very receptive audience. In addition to Adam Golden’s shows that saw dubstep DJs open up for rappers such as CyHi da Prynce and Yelawolf on the same bill, local DJ/producer Taste Tester collaborated with local hip-hop artist Stanza on a track titled “Fate of the South.” Adult Swim released a remix compilation of other Atlanta rap artists over dubstep-influenced beats. And local production duo Heroes x Villains received international recognition for “trapstep” remixes of tracks by Gucci Mane (“Lemonade”), and Waka Flocka Flame (“O, Let’s Do It”).

Since inking a deal with tastemaker DJ Diplo’s label Mad Decent, Heroes x Villains has been collaborating with Mayhem to produce a dubstep-influenced EP chock full of emerging and established Atlanta artists such as Dreamer (of Hollyweerd), Grip Plyaz, FKi and Killer Mike.

Tentatively titled The Atlanta EP, the project could put a distinct ATL stamp on the dubstep craze. There’s also a Heroes x Villains tour with Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka planned that will bridge the gap. “I’m trying to figure out a way to bring that Atlanta vibe on the road, ‘cause a lot of white kids don’t wanna go to a hood place to see Gucci perform because they’re gonna feel uncomfortable,” says one-half of Heroes x Villains, Daniel Disaster.

While rap-influenced dubstep is certainly a thriving subgenre, it’s hardly the only game in town, with strains of dubstep influenced by everything from doom metal to minimal techno popping up.

Between the work of promoters importing international acts on a weekly basis and producers exporting an Atlanta derivative of dubstep, the local scene is on the verge of becoming a movement in its own right.

As for the parties, MJ’s sold-out shindig grossed $35,000 — nearly 30 percent of which was pure profit. Not bad margins for a subgenre that’s still defining itself. Ultimately, MJ believes dubstep could breathe new life, and an economic boost, into Atlanta’s long-stymied nightlife scene. He’s even pushing for a music festival to put Atlanta on par with other major EDM cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. In the meantime, he’ll keep promoting the positive within bass culture, because after 17 years it’s still the music that moves him most.

“I don’t think there’s been any other genre of music that’s come down in the past where kids are taking ownership of it, like, ‘This is our music, this is our sound.’ They’re producing it, they’re getting involved with throwing the shows, they’re getting involved in DJing. And I think it’s here to stay,” he says. “We believe in the movement behind the music.”

Additional reporting by Tim Webber.