Correction (April 10, 2012) : This article incorrectly reports the name of the company that created the Wall of Bass™. The correct name is AURA System. Also, Gritsy did not create or own Wall of Bass™; it was AURA System that hand-engineered and designed the Wall of Bass™. Gritsy used the Wall of Bass at its parties.
Also check out our slideshow of the dubstep DJ collective Gritsy.
Suraj Kurian is tired. But he's finished. And he's happy.
He just spent the last hour with a man who calls himself John The 3rd hauling cinder blocks around Engine Room, a medium-sized venue in downtown Houston.
It's one of a handful of unique precautions they know they have to employ for the dubstep party they're throwing later in the evening. Because at a good dubstep show, the music will make the room pulsate. But at a great one, it'll wobble it the fuck apart completely.
And the group Kurian and The 3rd are a part of — Gritsy — a DIY promotion company composed of 11 DJs, an emcee, a vocalist, a photographer or two, a graphic designer and a someone in charge of social media and production, has earned a reputation nationally for throwing great ones.
Dubstep is a branch of electronic dance music. Despite being actively championed on indie-cool music sites on the Internet since 2005, and despite having been the subject of trend pieces in The New York Times, Spin, Rolling Stone and more, it's still a relatively new, mostly unknown music to mainstream America. But the nation's pop stars have noticed; Jay-Z and Kanye, Britney Spears, Usher and handfuls of other superstars have begun incorporating it into their music the past year or so. It's popped up in Nike's ad campaigns and Mortal Kombat's ad campaigns alike.
Spawned in the dank corners of London nightclubs right at the end of the last century, dubstep was fashioned as a slowed-down amalgam of 2-step garage and drum and bass, genres made (reasonably) popular in Europe in the mid-to-late '90s. It borrowed style and influence heavily from Jamaican dub and other variations of EDM, eventually settling in as dawdling and obliquely sexual. Unlike with other kinds of EDM (fairly or unfairly), the stigma of heavy drug use has never been attached to dubstep.
Over its 13-or-so-year history, though, and particularly since 2005, when it began popping up in different parts of the United States, dubstep has mutated aggressively, due in equal parts to the Internet's acceleration of cultural change and the correlation between the relative youthfulness of dubstep's American fan base and how quickly that fan base is expanding.
What started in London as an organic, hyper-niche genre with a small appeal has evolved into a bombastic, layered wave of digital destruction.
The original and the new strains of dubstep sound totally different (slower and methodical vs. frenetic and spastic). But they're still tied to one another by their most important, most easily identifiable trait: the bass.
Where, say, electronic dance music sprigs such as house or techno move like jittery hummingbirds, fluttering in one place for a few moments before shooting to the next, dubstep's core moves like robo-elephants, purposeful and slow, stomping and plodding along.
A long-standing criticism of EDM (among those who own zero pairs of fuzzy boots, at least) has been that its songs justneverfuckingend; they seem to wander on without direction for weeks. With dubstep, however, there are gargantuan, black hole heavy bass drops and WAH-WAH-WAHs that are built up into moments of climax.
In their most effective fashion, the drops are meant to rattle a listener's spine. Experienced en masse, they toe up against being transcendent, and serve as the primary mechanism responsible for turning dubstep into the most unilaterally consumable party music of this generation.
The Gritsy gang knows this. More than that, though, they understand it.
In 2006, they created the Wall of Bass™ for their parties, a trademarked phrase for their show blueprint. It was hand-engineered and designed by AuraSound after the sound company that Gritsy used to employ killed too many subwoofers. And it is exactly what it sounds like it'd be: a big, big stack of speakers.
There are a few variations of the setup, but the most massive one, the Super Wall of Bass™, is composed of 28 18-inch subwoofers housed in 14 separate speaker cabinets. It requires seven 9K amps to operate.
The structure forms a barrier around the DJ. At its highest point, it reaches about seven feet. An average household consumes 14,000 watts of power a day. A typical Wall of Bass™ setup will eat more than one million watts. It is a destructive maelstrom of thump.
During sound check, after everything had been hooked up to Engine Room's main electrical source (the regular house power wasn't sufficient), the empty room shook with enough force that it worked insulation loose from the exposed ceiling.
The cinder blocks that Kurian and The 3rd moved inside were used to make a station for the DJ. Because a traditional table wouldn't work. Because the bass causes regular tables to rattle all over the place each time there's a big hit in the music.
The turntables had to be encased in flight tape, a foam composite that helps reduce the shaking even more. Because 800 pounds of cast concrete and cinder isn't enough. These are things learned empirically.
The first time they held a show at Engine Room, the mirrors in the bathroom vibrated so violently that they shattered. They know to take them off beforehand now.
At a smaller spot called GRAB Bar (now closed), lightbulbs that had been slightly loosened to darken the room shook until they either screwed themselves back in or fell all the way out. Everything gets tightened or removed before the shows now.
At Fox Hollow, a gastropub in the Heights, liquor bottles were shaken clean off the shelves. A heads-up is given now.
There are more stories, so there are more precautions.
The show today will be a small one, a last-minute free party thrown together for those that didn't trek down to Austin's SXSW. A full-fledged Gritsy gathering can draw 1,200-plus; this one, they're expecting 200.
Still, setup takes nearly eight hours.
And even that won't be enough.
In 2006, while influential English DJ/journalist Mary Anne Hobbs was breaking dubstep to the substantial listening audience of her BBC Radio 1 show, Suraj Kurian was already DJing dubstep shows in Houston.
By then he had been an EDM DJ for ten years, focusing the bulk of his effort on the drum and bass offshoot. When he heard dubstep the first time, his brain immediately had an inkling it could grow into something great. His testicles, however, needed to be convinced.
"At first, I didn't have the balls to go after it," remembers Kurian. "I remember sitting there talking to my roommate like, 'This music is amazing. It's so easy to digest.'
"After a while, I was like, 'Fuck it. I don't care. If we lose money, we lose money. I wanna do something I'm personally going to enjoy.'"
Shortly thereafter, Gritsy, then a three-man operation, began throwing parties.
"On a national scale, Houston is one of the oldest dubstep cities in America," says 12th Planet, a Los Angeles-based DJ recently described by LA Weekly as "the DJ and producer responsible for bringing the emerging electronic strain of dubstep to America." "Gritsy has been going hard for six years without any corporate help."
Gritsy became more and more ambitious. Eventually, they began reaching out to the European DJs. Soon enough, the DJs were talking back. And then they were coming to town.
They booked major acts from other countries, including Tunnidge, an underground legend in Europe, New Zealand super duo Truth, and London's Mala, among the most important and influential characters in all of dubstep.
"Mala is...[deep breath]," says Kurian. "He's kind of like what Bob Dylan is to rock and roll. When he came, we were, like, following him around, kissing the ground he walked on [laughs]. I mean, not really, but you get the point. It was huge."
"No lie, Gritsy in Houston and Mad Classy in Austin are on my list of favorite places to play in the world," says Mala. "They care deeply about the music, the artists they book and their audience. I have seen Suraj and Lea [Scott, Gritsy's social media/production person] in three different countries; they make an effort to travel and see how the music is in different parts of the world.
"They make sure proper sound systems are provided for [the] artist to play on. Their care and attention to details make a massive difference to everything and everyone."
Gritsy grew as dubstep grew. When Americans began making proper noise, they pulled them in, too.
They booked Matty G., one of the earliest hip-hop/dubstep advocates. They booked 12th Planet. They booked Joe Nice, the Baltimore DJ who founded the first dubstep club night in America (New York's Dub War) and is considered by many to be the genre's ambassador to foreign affairs.
They booked more and their reputation grew. Gritsy was credited with being among the first in the nation to establish a recurring dubstep party, a grassroots campaign counted as integral as New York's Dub War, L.A.'s Smog, Denver's Sub.mission and Miami's Basshead.
And then dubstep broke in America.
Recently, a DJ playing a show at Southern California EDM festival Beyond Wonderland received death threats via Facebook when she spliced dubstep into a trance-music set. But while dubstep has certainly faced disdain from those outside of its still-narrow purview, most of the chastising comes from within the genre itself.
Today, the difference in the dubstep morphs is readily apparent. The traditional Euro dubstep and the new(ish) American style are vastly different. Naturally, so are their functions. And that's where the issue comes in.
Within the musical canon, the original version of dubstep now serves as an underground antihero of sorts, which is a cloaked way of saying it's less popular. Those parties are darker and heavier and the music is more melodic and meditative.
Its proponents still use vinyl during their sets, championing the "bass and space" structure of their forefathers. Often, stalwarts will even incorporate the use of dubplates into their mixing.
A dubplate is a record cut out of acetate rather than plastic vinyl, and is considerably more expensive. A good 12", which will hold at most ten minutes of music on each side, will cost about $100 and can only be used about 30 times before it becomes useless.
Key players in this dubstep are revered on the margins, God-like almost, but generally invisible to teenage girls and their dollars.
The new strand, which is already about one million times more commercially successful than its predecessor, is the version that L.A. wunderkind Skrillex turned into five Grammy nominations and three wins this past February.
This dubstep, which is now popping up in your life if you are a human with a pulse, plays antagonist. It is cast as the vampire capitalist.
To reduce the situation to its bones: One of them gets the integrity, the other one gets the check. Or, better still, one gets the music, the other gets butt rockets.
"I can't speak for the Gritsy posse," says Matty G., "but it would seem as though we share the same perspective when it comes to music.
"We're all about the music. The people who come to their shows are about the music. They don't come out to a Gritsy show to run around half naked with glow-in-the-dark body paint on and watch a stripper shoot a bottle rocket out her ass, they come to a Gritsy show to hear good music."
Both are fun, just different sorts of fun.
It seems like they'd be natural allies.
Layne Schmerin and Raj Rao run a concert promotion company called 2 Tone ENT. They've booked Lupe Fiasco, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, Curren$y, Pac Div and more. They even managed to sell out a show that had Afroman on the bill.
Flux Pavillion is a DJ/producer who performs at concerts that are promoted. Last year, Jay-Z and Kanye West used his song "I Can't Stop," which has amassed more than 20 million YouTube views, on their platinum-selling album Watch the Throne. Pavillion has become one of the marquee names in Electronic Dance Music.
It fits. Except that it doesn't.
"I offered Flux Pavillion's manager $20,000 for a show," says Schmerin. "They didn't even look at me," he adds with an only semi-sincere laugh.
"A lot of these guys now [EDM DJs], they're tied in with networks and other channels already," says Schmerin. "I'd love to do a dubstep show. It's hard to get them. Everybody wants them."
Where five years ago a good dubstep DJ in the United States could expect to receive no money for a show, booking fees can now range anywhere from $3,000 for a lesser-known-but-still-known act to upwards of $50K for peak-time performances by the genre's stars.
As dubstep has become more viable, larger-scale booking agencies have become more involved. And bigger acts are regularly linking with bigger promoters for bigger shows with bigger money.
To wit: Night Culture is a concert/events producer based in Houston with ties to mega-show coordinator Insomniac Events. Currently, Night Culture operates as the only publicly traded electronic dance music concert company in existence.
They've booked world-class EDM acts, Tiësto, deadmau5, Afrojack, Will.i.am. and more. In an ultracompetitive market, they are thriving. And recently they began booking dubstep acts.
"Gritsy did awesome with [AURA System's] Wall of Bass™ and introducing Houston to the national market," says Night Culture's Ron Madriz. "And now we're starting to see where the bigger shows are coming in now."
A Night Culture show can draw 2,000 concertgoers, easy.
"The main thing I have noticed is the use of hard-ticket venues rather than nightclubs," says 12th Planet when asked about the difference between groups putting on dubstep shows before it was popular and promoters booking shows now.
"People like Live Nation, Insomniac and Golden Voice have really started taking notice to the genre, and it shows in the shows that they buy," he says. "Like, five years ago, I could not think of one hard-ticket venue that would even take the risk of doing a dubstep show."
This is a logical extension of dubstep's success, and basically the foundation of capitalism. But that doesn't make it any more palatable for smaller camps like Gritsy that are not able to compete.
"I knew this was coming when I started Gritsy," says Kurian. "It didn't dawn on me how big everything was until Skrillex happened.
"Initially, sure, I was a little frustrated. I wanna book a guy and we offer him this much and then a company that doesn't really have a connection with the music comes in and gives him that much? What can you do?
"Everyone has parts of the scene that they play too. Critically, one might be better-received or something like that, but that's not a call that needs to be made. If Skrillex comes to town, and one out of ten people that see him dig a little deeper into the history, they'll find us.
"Happiness is concentrating on what you have, and we have a pretty good thing."
It is 1:16 a.m. on a Sunday, but really it's still a Saturday night.
A hustle of concertgoers, maybe 250 people, is inside Engine Room, pressed up as close to a wall of subwoofers as they can get.
There is only a little bit of light in the room, located near the bar and adjacent to the DJ station. It does not flicker and it does not shoot lasers. It does not do anything except exist as a little bit of light.
There is no confetti and there are no smoke machines, either. DJ + speakers + people. That's about it. It all feels very industrial.
Pejman, one of Gritsy's DJs, works through a set of heavy, traditional dubstep. He's only been spinning for ten minutes and already has the crowd wholly engaged.
As he grows the beat towards a crescendo, the crowd's energy rises. They follow the leader.
Then a pause.
And then obliteration.
It's a hundred capital letters followed by a hundred exclamation points. Everybody on the planet with a cell phone set it to Vibrate and then placed it on the floor, and then Thor called them all at the same time. Bumblebee body-slammed Megatron into a heap of Decepticon remains while Optimus Prime masturbated.
The menace that comes out of the speakers is hard to describe. It might require shaking someone by his shoulders or dropping a townhome filled with rhinos on their sternums. It is literally physically moving.
The bottoms of your pant legs, your cheeks, the hair on your arms, eyebrows and at the crown of your forehead, it all moves.
The people lose it.
Hands are in the air and chins are in the air. Feet are on the ground, but only because gravity isn't yet a dubstep fan. Soon it will be, and people will float.
Bodies writhe and sweat and jump and sway. Nobody seems to know exactly what to do, so they all must be doing it right.
Pejman is unfazed. He has two 12-inch studio monitors facing directly at his head to help him keep track of the assault. He is plugged into The Matrix. After 20 seconds, he lets everyone breathe.
Then he starts the growing again and the crowd starts the rising again. They'll go through the whole process several more times before the end of his set. Earth will only have lower-case letters afterwards.
Nobody will be able to express excitement via text, because he will have gobbled up all the exclamation points in existence.
Six days later, something very similar happens at a separate dubstep concert, except it happens in a completely different way.
Night Culture has booked Knife Party, an act that is thriving within dubstep's more modernized soundscape, and the Australian duo is now onstage at Richmond nightclub Stereo Live. Stereo Live looks somewhat similar to Engine Room: Mostly it's empty space but it's about six times as big.
Rather than standing in relative darkness, the twosome is flanked by light and laser towers. Rather than empty airspace, smoke sprays from cannons toward the crowd every few minutes.
Rather than set up directly in front of the DJs, speakers hang from the ceiling. The crowd wears sunglasses that blink, gloves with fingertips that light up, what appear to be bathing-suit tops for shirts, and some dudes wear no shirt at all.
This crowd is about seven times as large as the one at Gritsy. Cosmetically and ideologically, the Knife Party show is altogether different from the one at Engine Room.
If the point of a Gritsy show, and by extension a traditional dubstep concert, is to nurture and propagate the music, then the point of a Night Culture show — and by extension a latter-day dubstep concert — is to nurture and propagate the party.
But viscerally, the two are exactly the same.
All of the parts. All of the fun. All of the energy. All of the excitement.
As Knife Party manipulates their machinery, the crowd senses the apex, follows along, then goes yo-yo when the music reaches its peak.
The most immediately fun Knife Party song is called "Internet Friends." It is narrated by an obsessive femme automaton and builds itself up into a hyper-creepy swell wherein the music rapidly evolves into horror-movie atmospherics and everything gets magnified by ten.
You hear the sound of someone walking, then knocking on a door, then a cell phone ringing and vibrating and being messaged, then a window smash, then a dead "You blocked me on Facebook. And now you're going to die."
It's a brilliant bit of marksmanship, and maybe the smartest moment of any of the songs Knife Party (and maybe any of their contemporaries) has made. Even if it was accidental, the use of Internet terminology is still insightful, shorthand for exactly what dubstep is and exactly how it got here.
But as soon as the drop comes, the feeding frenzy starts, and all of everything not immediately instinctive gets pushed to the posterior.
Because that moment, more specifically what that moment represents, fucking rocks balls.
That's sort of the point of this whole thing, maybe.
Dubstep is the first music genre to have been birthed and cultivated in the thick of the Information Age. It is becoming the Internet's version of rock and roll, a unique musical happening gobbled up at 4G.
It's Elvis shaking his hips on YouTube or Michael Jackson debuting the moonwalk on Vimeo.
"When this started, people were saying that it was just another drug music phase," says Kurian. "But it has this rich past and is living its own excellent history right now. We all get to be a part of that, and that's what we or anybody that was around when it started wanted."
That's sort of the point of this whole thing, too, maybe.
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