Run into a dance crowd, yell "Skrillex" and shield yourself from projectile vomiting, shrieking teens and arms-flailing party bro howls. Follow it with the question, "What is dubstep?" and throw on a flak jacket for the barrage of opinions. What was once a burgeoning electronic music obscurity has become a synonym for gym-mom dance-pop, pimply high school party music and the butt of a poorly written music joke in 2012.
In the late '90s, South London DJs chopped up 2-step, dub reggae and drum-and-bass elements distinct from the powerhouse grime and house music scenes dominating the clubs. Subtle pitch shifts and dark, bass-heavy "drops" and sparse beats were defining characteristics. Fast-forward to 2011, and a former emo band frontman in oversized sunglasses and a goofy haircut has amassed three Grammy Awards and millions of fans for his take on the genre. Skrillex (real name Sonny John Moore) relies on aggressive drops and explosively warped sub-bass robot blasts, taking the club culture to packed stadiums, with DJ as heavy metal guitar wizard.
Skrillex released a string of EPs in 2010 — breakout hit and Grammy-winning single "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," with its skittering patterns and big beat electro-pop, introduced the "drop" to mainstream audiences. Forty seconds in, Skrillex turns the knobs to Transformers frequencies. That "drop" is his signature, and its imitators and contemporaries of what is derogatively named "brostep" rely on the drop's success on the dance floor, or in the car or dorm room.
Though critics and DJs deny Skrillex as a "true" dubstep producer, he isn't attached to the name, either. He points to progressive electronic producers like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher as primary influences. Last year's "Bangarang," his biggest hit to date, is a straight-forward house banger, equal parts Daft Punk dance party and radio-friendly dance rock, a la fellow Voodoo headliners Justice. Skrillex mines dubstep's bass-obsessed breakdowns but cranks the volume to sugary highs with absolutely no room for club dance floor subtlety. — ALEX WOODWARD