#DERPHOUSE: The hashtag that momentarily stirred all of EDM during the first few days of March 2015. Created by influential Chicago house producer Derrick Carter, the rant seemed to be a condemnation of the tech- and deep-house subgenres. True, ketamine, deep V-necks, and sunglasses at 3 a.m. might all be easy identifiers of this burgeoning community, but Carter’s true targets are those that have pulled electronic dance music from gay after-hours into celebrity-fueled megaclubs.
A champion of the underground, Carter, along with many of these old-school “heads,” is understandably bothered by the takeover of the culture (i.e. Ultra Music Festival’s 2015 “underground” Resistance stage). Venue promoters and major record labels are not actually pushing for more experiments in electronic music; the term has simply been appropriated as a means to sound raw and edgy in an environment tipping toward the over-production of festival mainstages. From house and dubstep to techno and nu-disco, there are those individuals that have entered into the culture (be they fan, DJ, promoter, producer, etc.) for financial reasons; however, they are probably outnumbered by all the hardworking bedroom disciples that will always create rich harmonies or brutal bass lines — even if no five-figure payday awaits them every night.
Before criticizing a genre, listen deeper: What are its roots, its guiding principles, its prognosticators, its trajectory? Electronic music so often evolves through cross-pollination of its scenes, so to become too ingrained in one sound and culture limits your growth. In this volume of The Drop, we get backstage with Datsik’s recent Firepower tour to discuss the nature of this evolution.
“You can do a lot just through the internet now with building connections,” remarks Barely Alive’s Willie Watkins. “But there is a limitation, and I think that is where touring comes in.”
The youngest artist taking part in the 2015 edition of Firepower Records’ extended bus tour, Willie (along with his Barely Alive co-conspirator Matt Meier) understands how to maneuver through the blogosphere. He’s already posted four Beatport chart toppers and earned millions of plays on SoundCloud. Now sharing a ride with Firepower Records boss Datsik (Troy Beetles), UK dubstepper Trolley Snatcha (Zack London), and multi-genre DJ/MC Kennedy Jones, the up-and-comer is getting a crash course in the pleasures and tribulations of a lengthy tour — a much-needed learning experience for a young man still living in “middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts” that hadn’t even experienced club culture before Barely Alive started to tour heavily in 2014. Aside from all the new production tactics that Willie has picked up from his tour mates (Willie and Kennedy were even working on a fresh cut just moments after Willie left the stage), the bass whiz has one major tip: “Don’t cook while the bus is moving. I have already hurt myself a couple time the last few weeks. I cut myself making guacamole and that was a pretty gnarly cut that just started healing.”
Willie also had a firsthand encounter with international liquor laws. With the support of ColdCock Whiskey, the tour was able to take shape, but the crew were also serving as transportation for over 1,400 bottles of the herbal flavored spirit — which made crossing the border more challenging than anticipated. “I think this was the second night of tour,” begins Willy’s story of misadventure. “The bus is owned by this company ColdCock Whiskey, and there is a wrap around the bus, and it also goes around and distributes at all the shows. They have a lot of cases of whiskey on the bus, and when we are crossing the border into Canada, they realize we have, like, 50 cases of whiskey under the bus in the bays. And they took all of it. Literally, so much whiskey just gone.”
Just another tale in the life of Datsik and his Firepower ninjas. Still a young man, Datsik has positioned himself as a pivotal mentor in the 2015 bass music landscape. Aided by his early success and acclaim alongside fellow Kelowna-bred producer Excision, Datsik can now pull together the brightest bass titans for his Firepower Records bus tour, which celebrates its seventh anniversary this year. Despite packing the lower level of Cleveland’s House of Blues on a frigid Wednesday evening, Datsik is honest about the financial implications of the endeavor: “At the end of the day, I am not making money on these tours, but it allows me to play a bunch of shows with my homies, and write music and really experience this culture. Which is great, because then come summer and fall it is festival season and promoters are calling us up because we already played the area and all the shows were sick.”
But just because Datsik himself isn’t making money from these shows doesn’t mean his fellow mates are hurting. “It wasn’t until the day that I boarded this bus did I realize: this is now my job,” reveals Jones near the end of our conversation. Charismatic and adorned with his signature red beard and ballcap, Jones took a much different path into EDM than his contemporaries. “I hate being behind a computer. I grew up in a totally different way from a lot of people, and I liked street shit, and I was a gang member, and I liked being crazy and having fun and doing bad shit. I liked that.”
Despite his wayward adolescence, Jones eventually turned toward corporate life. “I was a senior case manager for Kaiser Permanente for five years. It was corporate, and I was at a senior level by the time I was 21,” he says. It was actually that position, not the EDM lifestyle, that almost claimed his life. After a lengthy illness following a transfer to San Diego, a wise doctor forced Jones to follow his passion for music. “The doctor just kept telling me that I should be writing music since I like it. I told him that I couldn’t because I would lose my job, but he was like, ‘I’m a doctor, yeah you can.’ A month turned into six and six months turned into a year, and the more I stressed about it the worse it got.”
Photo courtesy MSM Photography by Teaghan McGinnis
Once he accepted his new route in life, all other factors seemingly lined up. “Lo and behold, I made ‘Suavemente’, which is kind of a feeder tune that I came up with that I thought would be fun,” Jones says. “Borgore had it and he loved the record, then I sent it to 12th Planet and somebody else. My first Kennedy Jones show was in Portland Life in Color that night. Borgore was in New York City for a UKF show, and 12th Planet and Sonny [Skrillex] were playing down in Monterey, Mexico, and that night we all tried the record out to see what would happen. I woke up the next morning, and there were, like, 8,000 views of the record from some kid’s cell phone video. After that, shit just starting going so fast. Every second of this I learn to appreciate.”
That statement underscores the positive side of the polarizing digital/social landscape. Now part of the old-school dubstep brethren (they first met eight or nine years ago on a dubstep forum when the likes of Flux Pavilion, Doctor P, Benga, and Skream were all just getting started), Datsik and Trolley Snatcha can remember a time when dubplates were still being circulated among the sound’s major players. According to Datsik, “dubplate culture would kind of restrict the amount of music that would go out there. It was a double-edged sword — I loved it but also kind of hated it. Because I was in the inner circle, I could get everyone’s tunes and dubs.” This exclusivity created a demand for tracks that is hard to find today. “For example, let’s take an Emalkay tune: ‘When I look at You’, that track was getting rinsed for like a year and the only people on it were like Skream and Caspa, plus the other Dub Police guys — like, only the guys in the UK. And then these UK guys would come over stateside, and I remember Skream dropping that track and I was like, ‘What is this?!?’ I would hunt for it online, find YouTube videos of it, and then just want [a physical version] so bad. I think that exclusivity made the tracks even better.”
Trolley Snatcha is quick to add his opinion on the matter: “Everything is just so accessible these days. And the internet is literally the tool for this entire industry. Without that, this whole thing is just dead.” But what is the downside of every teenager with a computer being able to download Logic, create tracks, and then upload them to SoundCloud for the world to hear? Nothing, as long as the scene doesn’t continue its ascent into bottle-service decadence. “The real detrimental part is the commercialization of everything. There is always going to be someone thinking, ‘How can I make some money off of this?’” explains Trolley about the current state of EDM. “That’s the one really shitty element at the moment. That 16-year-old kid in his bedroom might not even know he can make millions off of this; he just likes writing music. That is the people that we need to nurture.” And that is why Trolley, Jones, and Datsik show so much support for Willy and Barely Alive; they, along with the producers and DJs that show up for their sets, are the reason they continue to spend so much time in the studio and on the road.
With the shower curtain rattling in the next room, Trolley explores the idea of production experimentation further: “If producers and DJs don’t do this, you will get stuck in a rut. I have almost been there myself. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I had a sound I was putting out and I started to get pigeon-holed.” It was people like Kennedy, who Trolley lovingly refers to as “Energy Jones,” that helped the bass-smith get comfortable outside of his earlier motifs — and readjust his outlook on the term EDM. “That is kind of where I thought EDM, or what people are now calling dance music, was four or five years ago,” he says. “Everyone was really liberal again, and you could just do what you want. Then it got closed again really quickly.”
A fan of hip-hop, Jones describes how this EDM mentality has also crossed over into rap communities, but to detrimental effect: “EDM professionals are starting to meet hip-hop people and teaching them faster and easier ways of doing things. If you haven’t noticed, all of the hip-hop legends have retreated; none of them are making music anymore. The reason being, [they’re] going to let all of this go on, and then I am going to come back and it will be real. Hip-hop artists never caught up with trends; they made them. They didn’t chase trends or hype; they were hype.”
By constantly catering to hype, artists from both EDM and hip-hop forget to forcibly push boundaries and potentially make some consumers uneasy in the process. Based in Southern California and friends with many on the business side, Jones has been on both sides of the converging EDM/hip-hop narrative. “Now all these guys are just cranking records,” he says. “Mike Will Made It is a fucking great artist, and all the instrumentals he made are dope. It is just unfortunate on the consumer end that it is okay to like that for a moment, but it is also cool to just drop that cool thing for something else. If you really appreciate something, it is timeless and that is it.”
To better control the hype, the path of his own career, and release timelines, Datsik knew he had to create his own imprint, thus the launch of Firepower Records in 2012. Though it started out as his own vanity imprint, after receiving so many demos, Datsik decided to release the best cuts. It wasn’t until the label’s 10th release that Datsik released his own material. While he had decent professional relationships with some major producers and their major label support, Datsik knew that no one understood the market and fan base in the same organic ways that he did. The producer uses Doctor P’s “Sweet Shop” to make a point about major record labels now handling so many EDM releases: “That track is one of the biggest tracks ever in dubstep, and it just changed everything. And the funny thing is, if you had sent that to a major label, they would have been like ‘fuck no!’ They wouldn’t have understood that that would have worked on the dance floor and that every big DJ would be playing it for the next year and a half. That’s why it’s good when DJs like myself run labels and have creative control. I have something that a major label doesn’t, and that is insight in the genre.”
Datsik and crew are ready to unleash a new set of bass-laden dancefloor staples on the masses. “The 100th release will be called the Shellshock Legends Compilation,“ says Datsik. “It is going to be 10 tracks from all the big heavy-hitters on Firepower.”
The near future for all the bus mates isn’t immediately clear. During our interviews, Barely Alive keeps busy on the computer, but opens up about some recent writer’s block, while Jones states that he plans on really slowing down his production output to better focus on the quality of each release. Trolley and Datsik express the need for some downtime off the road before the ideas really begin to materialize. Nonetheless, new collaborations have already begun to surface, including Barely Alive and Datsik’s “The Blastaz”.
Of course, there will also be plenty of video recaps that will eventually surface. Jones has been up to the task: “Yeah, I have been collecting mad b-roll. And when I say b-roll, I mean ‘blackmail roll.’ Ten years from now when someone is like, ‘I don’t want to do a publishing split,’ I’ll send Willy a locked version of some video he can’t erase. I have been really conscious about taking a lot of footage. This tour, I literally have [the GoPro] stuck in someone’s face every chance I get. I would rather have way too much shit for me to sift through when I get home than only four minutes of us on the bus.”
Ready to get raucous? The Ninja Nation tour continues through April. Next week on The Drop, Dirtybird’s Worthy shares his artistic saga — one that started with D.C. hardcore and went on to impact the booty-bass legions of clubland.