The sub-genre of electronic music spun off from UK garage and drum ’n’ bass has been steadily bubbling over in dance clubs around the world since its inception in the early part of the last decade. As tends to be the case with all such trends, the term has come to encompass an amorphous range of styles; but it’s most typically characterized by its distinctive half-time kick and snare, wobbling low-end bass lines, and buzzing chainsaw effects. This past year, the form saw its most obvious entrée into the mainstream (much to the dismay of fans who tend to hyperventilate about these sorts of things) when it showed up in the breakdown of Britney Spears’s “Hold It Against Me.’’ That was either the moment when the trend suffered a popular death, or gained new life by expanding to a much broader, untapped audience.
Count Christopher Mercer — the Leeds-born DJ, and recent Los Angeles transplant who records and performs under the name Rusko, and headlines at the House of Blues on Tuesday — in the latter camp.
“I think it’s really good,’’ he says. “I think it was kind of kept underground for so long. That’s why we DJ, to get music out to people, and for people to kind of hear where we come from. I’m not worried about that at all. The more the merrier, really. There’s purists, sure, but I don’t know, every scene tends to get bigger than where it started right?’’
Much of the blame (or credit) for dubstep’s stateside surge in popularity goes to Mercer. His 2009 cut “Cockney Thug,’’ with its thrumming bass pulses, blaring sirens, and threatening vocal sample from British actor Alan Ford (Brit tough-guy dialogue seems to be a recurring dubstep theme) was an international club sensation. His collaboration with M.I.A. on her last album brought him further exposure, as tracks like “Steppin’ Up’’ showcased his power-tool aesthetic, while “XXXO’’ showed off his deft touch with pop. “She’s super artistic, and super crazy, but she knows what she wants,’’ he says of M.I.A. “I’m really proud of that record. It was the record that she wanted to make.’’
For all the attention paid to that challenging album, it was one he didn’t end up on that pushed Rusko’s name further into the wider musical conversation. “Everyone talked about me working with Britney, but the reality was none of my cuts made the record, everyone forgets that.’’
He’s more excited at the moment about a forthcoming collaboration with hip-hop veterans Cypress Hill. “It’s like creatively the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard,’’ he says. “I’m a massive fan. It’s a dream come true.’’
On his own latest record, last summer’s “O.M.G.!,’’ Mercer proved adept at bouncing back and forth between styles and genres within the context of one project. On collaborations with the likes of Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors, rappers Gucci Mane and Redlight, and others, he stitched the fabric of dubstep into hip-hop, and pop vocal house. “Raver’s Special’’ is one case in point, with its staccato house-style piano stabs, talkbox warbling, and bass drop-outs conflicting against low-frequency squiggles.
The inherent tension of dubstep comes from the push and pull between the clattering tempos of the upbeat, and the lurching tectonics of the bass line and riffs. It doesn’t amount to dissonance, but there’s certainly conflict — and it may be part of the reason Mercer has often described dubstep as the punk rock of the electronic world. Is that still the case now that dubstep has found its way into top 40 radio?
“I kind of wish I never said that quote now,’’ he says. “But yeah, it still is. You can express yourself . . . there’s a dark and serious side, but it’s also fun. I guess that’s what punk was based on, fun, but it had a serious side. It was loud, furious, in your face, and didn’t need to make sense, but it always had a purpose.’’
For his current headlining tour, his biggest to date, he wants to bring the feel of a rock show into a dance environment.
“Everyone is doing LED lights and technology and things like that now. I wanted to take it back to the rock kind of vibe.’’ That means smoke machines, fire, and giant KISS-like letters that spell out his name. “All bangers all the time, too,’’ he says. “It’s pretty monster, pretty heavy-hitting.’’
Part of the appeal of dubstep to electronic fans weaned on thumping techno and house is its slower tempos. “I guess it’s a little less intimidating than a rave,’’ he says. “I’ve seen loads of older people, well not old people, between 30 to 40,’’ he says. “They can dance. Obviously there are bits where we give it hard, but there’s groove in dubstep, there’s soul. People can slow dance to it, or dance hard, go crazy.’’
Call it dubstep, or call it brostep — the derogatory term for mainstream examples — he’s not concerned with the name, as long as it sounds good.
“I just make music as I see it in my head. Obviously I’m true to the foundations of dub, but I take from everything. Otherwise you’d hit a barrier. If you limit yourself to making music based on what you think people are supposed to hear you make, what you’re supposed to like, then you hit a wall.’’