Skip to content
Cover Story

The New Rave Generation

Almost 15 years after SPIN prematurely declared an American “electronica revolution,” it’s happening. Led by a former emo foot soldier turned mini-shaman, kids are going mad for electronic dance music. And a frenzied tribe of ravers is on a previously unimaginable roll. [Magazine Excerpt]

Planting his black boots squarely between a laptop and a MIDI controller, Sonny Moore stands atop his gear table and surveys the scene. As far as the eye can see, there’s an ocean of bodies spangled with flash bulbs, crowned by colorful headgear, covered in Spandex, face paint, glitter, and beads. The horizon smolders in a neon haze of fireworks smoke. Glow sticks erupt from the crowd, mimicking the jets of flame that periodically burst from the top of the stage. It’s like Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights meets the bridge battle from Apocalypse Now — a riot of flesh and light and dizzying excess.

Of the 85,000 people who have ventured out into the desert to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on this June night for the 2011 edition of Electric Daisy Carnival, a significant proportion of them are now watching Moore, a former screamo frontman who has reinvented himself as Skrillex, a maker of hyper hybrids of electronic dance music. The diminutive, bespectacled Californian is one of the most closely watched artists on the dance scene, and he’s playing his biggest show yet in his 23 years on the planet.

There must be 200 people onstage. A camera crew is filming for the documentary The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience. Photographers scrum for position around Moore, ducking under the boom overhead. An intense-looking stage manager shoos back scores of VIPs and hangers-on, yelling, “Get away from my lights!” A steady stream of go-go dancers files out, commanded by a stern choreographer who practically shoves them into formation — waves of performers who look like refugees from Brazilian Carnaval and Blade Runner, cast in a strip-club version of Cirque du Soleil. Their ?attire includes hot pants, fishnets, bandeau tops, platform boots, fright wigs, feather headdresses and eyelashes, jester caps, and multifarious scraps of sci-fi cosplay detritus. One troupe of performers wear spooky white contact lenses to match their ice-colored vinyl capes, which are boned with glowing blue strips. A man cloaked in mirror shards, from his shoes to his face to his fedora, paces the front of the stage. Invisible but for a fleeting, fractured outline, he is the sum of everything around us: Look close, and you’re sucked into a kaleidoscopic vortex, the Big Bang behind all of the videos of this moment that will surface on YouTube tomorrow — every millisecond glimpsed from every angle.

A honeyed, Auto-Tuned chorus blasts from the stage monitors that flank Moore, as he leans down to flick a fader. It’s Skrillex’s breakout hit, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” a song that will be heard umpteen times this weekend, in DJ set after DJ set. As the music quiets, a familiar voice tears through the speakers. It’s Speed Stacking Girl, a minor YouTube sensation whom Moore sampled for the song’s breakdown. “Oh my gosh!” she shrieks, a ragged cry of teenage abandon.

Suddenly, Moore is airborne. He hits the ground as a wave of bass radiates outward, and the crowd goes weightless in response. Every arm is upstretched; and above those, the upstretched arms of all the girls sitting on boys’ shoulders. The bass snaps back and forth across the crowd like a towel, like a whip, like a weed-whacker. A dude standing next to me cups his hands around his mouth and screams, “Kiiiiill ’em, Skrillex!”

Oh my gosh, indeed.

This is a new era in American electronic dance music. And if you want to understand it, keep your eye on Skrillex, regardless of what you think of dance music’s current ultracommercial turn, or of dubstep’s regressive macho tendencies, or of the genre’s 30-plus years of rhythmic refinement threatening to devolve into a Pauly D fist-pump.Dance music fans have been like those ornery partisans in the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials, pre-epiphany: “You got electro in my techno!” “You got commercial in my underground!” Skrillex manically disposes of those dichotomies; his music is like a melted goo of influences, sticky and chemically sweet. And the kids are eating it up.

See Skrillex perform and you understand why Deadmau5 — the genre’s most spectacular, or at least recognizable, act — has anointed him with his magic mouse pheromones, releasing Skrillex’s official debut EP on his own label, Mau5trap. You understand why Atlantic Records has made Skrillex a cornerstone of Big Beat, its recently relaunched dance-music imprint. “It’s changing so rapidly, it’s just crazy,” cool-hunting DJ/producer Diplo shouts into my ear backstage at Electric Daisy Carnival while Skrillex plays. Diplo’s T-shirt reads BABYLON IS FALLING.

“You can’t put a fuckin’ timeline on it,” he continues, “but what Skrillex does, it’s really grassroots, man. The energy here at this stage is, like, 40 times bigger than what [David] Guetta ?has right now.”

After years of being relegated to the margins, the American dance-music scene is reaching critical mass. And though international superstar DJs like Guetta or Swedish House Mafia, and their glossy pop crossovers, have been part of the process, it goes deeper now. At ?every level — from Las Vegas superclubs hosting millionaire trance DJs for the striped-shirted and miniskirted to parties on the Burning Man playa fueled by ketamine and tweaked-out ?underground house music — dance is back, bigger than it’s been since the last days of disco. Bigger even than in the “electronica” boom of the late-’90s, which produced a No. 1 album — the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land — and sowed the seeds for today’s bumper crop of beats.

Consider these numbers: The total of 230,000 attendees this year at Electric Daisy Carnival surpassed Coachella, which sold 75,000 three-day passes (a reported drop from 2010’s take). In its 12 years, Coachella has grown into a cultural institution, an event whose imprimatur makes stars, confirms legends, and attracts a parade of willowy starlets who are chronicled from the Huffington Post to US Weekly. Electric Daisy Carnival’s profile is sketchier, to say the least (see SPIN magazine’s “Electric Mayhem,” page 54). But even indie-centric Coachella has been skewing its lineup towards electronic dance music over the past several years.

At this year’s Lollapalooza, the granddaddy of the Alternative Nation, Deadmau5 closed out the festival on one of the two main stages — the same stage and time slot given to Coldplay and My Morning Jacket the two previous nights. And for the tens of thousands of kids who raved along in a torrential downpour, it may be cherished and embellished as a historic moment:
?”I was there when Deadmau5 mashed up ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ with ‘Moar Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff’! I was soaked to the bone!

Electric Daisy Carnival is the biggest, and perhaps raviest, electronic dance music event in North America, but it’s hardly alone. Insomniac, the Los Angeles promoter behind the event, puts on large-scale “massives” across the country, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, as well as scores of club nights that it promotes across the nation, from Austin to Ypsilanti. New York’s Electric Zoo festival expanded from two to three days this year, after selling out its 50,000 tickets in 2010. Miami’s Ultra Music Festival also expanded from two nights to three in 2011, and its attendance jumped from 100,000 to 150,000. Ultra is also sponsoring this summer’s Identity Festival, a 20-city tour featuring Kaskade, Afrojack, Steve Lawler, DJ Shadow, Pretty Lights, Rusko, Nero, Holy Ghost!, and Skrillex, among others.

Identity’s traditional touring model, similar to Lollapalooza of yore or the Vans Warped Tour, suggests the extent to which this new electronic movement is being tailored to fit the particulars of American large-scale entertainment. But it’s not just a festival thing. Las Vegas is hyping itself as “the new Ibiza,” with casinos hosting DJ residencies from Tiësto, Afrojack, and the comparatively underground DJ Boys Noize. It’s a ludicrous idea on face; Ibiza has a three-decade tradition of cutting-edge club ?music — and vital links with Europe’s dance-music underground. Vegas’ velvet-roped nightspots and “day clubs” feel about as authentic to club culture as the gigantic P.F. Chang’s on the Strip is to Szechuan cuisine.

But the ubiquity of four-to-the-floor beats in Vegas reflects how electronic dance music has become the soundtrack for officially sanctioned hedonism. (Given the way the genre has been marketed for years, with dripping, half-naked vixens holding strategically placed headphones, it feels like a natural progression.) And where there is bottle service, there are suits. WME Entertainment, a talent agency whose roster includes Lady Gaga, Eminem, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Taylor Swift, has launched WME Electronic, which specializes in dance music, from big-room jocks like Deadmau5 and Avicii to hipster draws like James Murphy and Ellen Allien.

“Promoters make a lot more money on the DJ shows,” explains Diplo, a few weeks after EDC. “A band plays, it’s 45 minutes; DJs can play for four hours. Rock bands — there’s a few headliner dudes that can play 3,000��”4,000-capacity venues, but DJs play the same venues, they turn the crowd over two times, people buy drinks all night long at higher prices — it’s a win-win.”

Even Tiësto, recently crowned the “Greatest DJ of All Time” by England’s Mixmag, turned to America this year with his College Invasion Tour, a 14-city itinerary aimed squarely at the student set. It’s doubtful he needed the money: The Wall Street Journal estimated the Dutch ?superstar DJ’s annual income at $20 million. It’s doubtful that he even needs the fans, having played to more than a million people during his 15-month, five-continent Kaleidoscope World Tour in 2009-10. (And that’s small potatoes compared to his performance at the opening of the 2004 Olympics, which reached a televised audience of several billion.)

Yet for most dance-music artists, both domestic and foreign, the fact that America is no longer the impossible final frontier, that the market is being cracked wide open, changes the game entirely.

Dance music, of course, never went away.

By 2002, when Eminem sneered, “Nobody listens to techno,” it’s true that a lot of those Moby and Fatboy Slim CDs had been deposited in used record stores. Domestic house and techno artists always had to focus on the European market to make a living, and electronica ultimately didn’t change that dynamic. Richie Hawtin, whose Detroit-area parties helped shape the thriving ’90s rave scene in the Midwest, moved to Berlin, where he became an icon of the city’s “Easyjet set,” constantly flying from club nights to after-parties.

Back in North America, the music itself kept percolating. Miami’s Winter Music Conference, founded in 1985 as a kind of spring break for house-heads, grew to accommodate tens of thousands of DJs, producers, and schmoozers. The Detroit Electronic Music Festival, started in 2000 with Motor City legend Carl Craig as artistic director, drew crowds making pilgrimages to techno’s birthplace, while festivals like Montreal’s MUTEK catered to chin-strokers and all-night partiers alike. Even indie-rock loyalists became more receptive around the turn of the millennium, as electroclash coincided with dance-punk crossovers such as !!! and the Rapture, and James Murphy’s DFA label parlayed punk-funk into a full-on disco revival (see “Second Coming,” page 64). Girl Talk brought his house-party mash-ups to festival stages; and the Postal Service taught wistful indie kids that laptops could be emo, too. Diplo, with help from M.I.A., became an ambassador for the global electronic dance scene, hawking Baltimore club and funk carioca, microgenres that flourished as Internet access expanded. In L.A., Steve Aoki flew in his buddies from French label Ed Banger (Justice, DJ Mehdi) for raucous parties photographed by the Cobrasnake and published on the web as American Apparel ads come to life.

The tipping point was Coachella 2006 — the event, pace James Murphy’s rant on LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” that truly introduced Daft Punk to the rock kids. Performing inside a gigantic, glowing pyramid, dressed like robots from the future, these survivors of the electronica bust were right on time for a first wave of nostalgia (the French duo’s debut album, Homework, came out in 1997). Not only did they prove that live electronic music could be captivating, but they set a new standard for spectacle. Virtually every main-stage headliner — Deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner, Plastikman, the Glitch Mob — has since tried to assemble a flashier light rig that ups the ante in an audio-visual arms race.

Rap, meanwhile, has been borrowing from techno ever since the emergence of Southern-based bounce and crunk, which favored 808s and garish, Eurotrance synths. Today, wherever you look, you’ll find collabos between dance producers and rappers or R&B singers. David Guetta had No. 1 singles with the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and “When Love Takes Over,” featuring Kelly Rowland. Miami rapper Pitbull called in Afrojack, a rising Dutch house producer, for his recent No. 1 hit “Give Me Everything.” Kanye West and Jay-Z sampled French house duo Cassius and British dubstep producer Flux Pavilion on Watch the Throne. Even AraabMuzik, who made his name with beats for Cam’ron and Dipset, has turned to fluffy choruses and lumbering dubstep cadences for Electronic Dream, an instrumental mixtape sampling trance acts like Jam & Spoon and Dutch gabber producer DJ Nosferatu.

Then there’s Diddy, who sometimes feels like a one-man crusade to bring dance music to the masses. I remember watching him jump on top of a Miami DJ booth back in the early 2000s, yelling house-music platitudes through a megaphone while Felix Da Housecat warily spun records. On YouTube, you can see Diddy crowding the booth or down amid the throngs at Ibiza’s Circoloco parties. After dipping his toes into dance music with last year’s Diddy-Dirty Money project, he recently recorded an album with the Israeli tech-house producer Guy Gerber.

Hell, even Diplo — whose Mad Decent label released a dubstep compilation that featured experimentalists like Untold and James Blake alongside “brostep” mavens Caspa and Rusko — teamed up with Tiësto for “C’mon,” a gaudy slab of maximalist club trance.

“I remember the first review we had was on XLR8R,” Diplo says of the single, “and it was like, ‘This is the worst piece of shit I’ve ever heard in my life.'” He’s close: The actual headline was “Tiësto and Diplo take huge crap in your ears,” and the article went on to call the record “the aural equivalent of santorum….Be prepared to hear this playing at the next Lakers game.”

But maybe the joke is on the tastemakers. “Now it gets played at NBA games,” marvels Diplo, laughing. “I did so little to that record. Like, I made a beat for them, and then it went into the world of labels and stuff, and I had no control over it. But it went bigger than any other record I did. Bigger than [M.I.A.’s] ‘Paper Planes.’?”

Of course, admitting that he basically phoned in a beat is one way of absolving himself from judgment by underground gatekeepers, but Diplo also wants to let you know that he doesn’t give a fuck. “Tiësto is every stereotype and crazy thing I know about DJs,” he says. “He reached out to me, and he’s seriously one of the coolest guys I’ve ever hung out with — flies a private jet, DJs for millions all over China. It’s like, you Google ‘DJ,’ he’s what comes up, y’know?”

Read the complete feature in the October 2011 issue, on newsstands now!