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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."
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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.