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Before he touched any DJ equipment, Christopher Mercer wanted to make music that sounded like the Santa Barbara punk band Mad Caddies. He was a 16-year-old in Leeds, England, handling guitar and saxophone duties in ska and reggae groups. One outfit was an English Beat/The Business-influenced eight-piece he played with from ages 17 to 21. "I used to write out all the saxophone parts, all the trumpet parts, all the trombone parts, all the rest of the band's parts on proper music paper and everything," the Los Angeles-based Mercer says. "After a few years of telling seven other people what to play, I was like, 'Hang on, this could be way easier if I just did it all myself.'"
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Today, he continues to do everything alone—just while working in a vastly different genre. The 27-year-old known as Rusko is one of contemporary dubstep's biggest names, hovering in the spotlight alongside Skrillex, Skream, Nero, and Chase & Status. Mercer's transition wasn't abrupt or immediate. Instead, he largely used dub music—the reggae substyle focusing on instrumental remixes—to bridge the gap. "Really, my segue into electronic music was making dub reggae at home on the computer, which was an extension of what I was already doing in a live setting, but then I realized I could literally have it exactly the way I wanted it because I'm a crazy control freak," he explains. Rusko's debut single, 2006's "SNES Dub" on Dub Police Records, consisted of "pretty much just straight dub tunes."
All his recording and remixing of live instrumentation for dub songs eventually led him to do the same with synthesizers for dubstep. He began building his name at an ideal time—just as the genre was gaining ground and setting up the groundwork for today's massively successful scene. After releasing his first works, Mercer quit his job and moved from his hometown to London to pursue his music career. In 2007, he and fellow producer Caspa teamed up on FabricLive.37, their contribution to an ongoing series of records issued by prominent London nightclub Fabric. This pushed Rusko up another level. In March 2012, he released his second record, Songs, and those values of creating dub still inform his process. "I mix my tracks through a small mixing desk, so I'm kind of dropping elements in and out on the fly while I'm making the tunes, which is pretty much unheard of in dance music, but the norm for dub," Mercer says. "When I finish, two versions of a track can be completely different depending on how I work the mixer. That's definitely one thing I've brought with me from the dub/reggae world, but really, [I also believe in] just the whole bassline culture, [with] the bassline being the most important part of the tune and often the first part of the track that I make."
Tonally, Rusko's dubstep has much in common with reggae and ska. His work is more melodic and playful than it is dark, and the jubilant Songs also features strains of bubblegum pop and R&B. "I try to have a little bit of humor in my music. I want people to listen to a Rusko record and smile. Talking to a lot of DJs, before the show, they're like, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to kill everybody tonight! I've got the most gnarly, hardcore shit!' I just think there's sometimes a little bit too much aggression in dance music, period, joining a lot of the ex-rock crowd, which EDM has done in the past couple of years," Mercer says, emphasizing his interest in the heritage of uplifting dance music. "I guess I try to keep that early-'90s dance-music vibe [filled] with love and hope and everybody with their hands in the air, rather than everybody in a circle pit. I love punk rock, and I love being in a circle pit when the time is right, but I guess that's not what I set out to do. My personality is just like that, generally, in life. Even when I'm laying in a hospital, I'm always trying to make the doctors laugh."
This article appeared in print as "Putting the Dub Back In Dubstep: Rusko brings old values to current sounds."
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