Jun 16, 2014

Chatting up the funny-toothed dubstep pioneer DJ Rusko

DJ Rusko

The thing about DJ Rusko is that he can talk A LOT. But that works for someone like me who loves finding out the back story to music anyway. I’m quite late in posting this interview but here goes nothing:
Has India lived up to your expectations? What impression of it did you have?

One thing I try and do when I go to a new place that I’ve never played before is try not to research at all. I know a lot of people Google where to go and what the crowd’s like but I spend most of my time playing shows in places I’ve been to before. So I already know the venue, the crowd, what they like. So it’s very rare these days that I get to go or play somewhere that I’ve never ever been to. So the best thing about it is the surprise. Even when I get to the venue, I’m not going to look at the crowd or anything. I just blind myself completely till it’s time to go on and then it’s the biggest surprise ever! When I’m writing new music, as I’m doing at the moment, I purposely try and not listen to other people’s music. Or you’ll end up making music like them. I try the same kind of blindfold there too.

You’ve been in reggae bands and played the saxophone and piano. How did dubstep happen?

Reggae is the middle path. When I was growing up, I played in rock and all kinds of bands. But I’ve always been a big fan of reggae and dub. So before I started making dubstep, I was playing the saxophone in reggae bands and producing reggae. The first dubstep tracks that people heard of mine and I put up were just dub-reggae tunes I was making. And people were like ‘huh, what is that?’

So was it much of a transition?

No! It wasn’t like I heard dubstep and decided to make it. There was no such thing then. People called the reggae that I was making ‘dubstep’.

Are there live elements in your performances?

No, my whole thing with the DJ set is that I try and play 100 songs in 100 minutes. My hands are a blur when I’m up there. I hate the DJ thing where they come on stage in sunglasses, press play, f*** around and look really cool.

How does your brain work in coordination with your hands?

Part of it, surprisingly, is muscle memory. Sometimes, I’ll walk off the stage and have no memory of what I played. It’s like I’m hovering above stage and watching myself sometimes. It’s that automatic.

Describe the feeling behind the consol.

That’s why I try and do the blindfold thing. Because walking up to the consol for the first time, having no music playing and putting in the CD is the best feeling in the world. So if I have no idea what to expect, it makes it even better.

Off the consol, what are you like? Is music always playing in your head or around you?

I listen to very little EDM. I listen to jazz and classical and stuff. I’m on the road a lot but I try and do it in blocks. I’ll do two months of playing every single night and then two months with no gigs at all, just in the studio. I know a few people who play a few gigs, then go back to the studio and then some more shows. But I can’t really do that. I’m pretty much the same person both in the studio and at gigs. It’s hard when I’m not playing shows because I’m used to that energy. So I need to do things to match that energy. I skateboard a little in California, where it’s sunny so you can actually skateboard. But I need that adrenaline, the rush everyday.

And cooking offers that?

Cooking is more of a necessity because living in Los Angeles, there are two things that I cannot find – good English food and good Indian food. My favourites are tadka dal, chickpea…I don’t want to embarrass myself by pronouncing the names wrong and stuff. I got really frustrated and so I just learnt how to make it myself.

You shifted from UK to USA five years ago. What are the differences you’ve seen?

The crowd is much, much bigger. Dance-wise, both are pretty much the same. But in US, it’s much louder. People really scream and shout and let you know that they’re having a good time.

And what prompted you to make the move?

Dubstep was just beginning in American when I moved. It was popular in Europe but in America, all they really had was us UK guys, going over there and doing a two-week tour, play Chicago, New York, LA and then go back. Every month, one of us would do that. It was supply and demand but also a business move. I thought that if I moved there, I’m not just going to play those cities but also the tiny cities. So for two years, I was the only dubstep DJ touring America. I played the first year doing shows everywhere. I did the first dubstep shows in so many cities – Denver, Houston Texas. I just kind of got there first.

But are you really business-minded given that you give out all your music for free?

I want as many people to have my music as possible. I get my money from the shows. If a 1000 people have my music because they got it for free, more people are going to buy tickets for my shows. The way to get more people in the shows is if they like your music. It kind of is a business move. People get it for free anyway; I just make it legal.

Let’s talk about the commercial DJ wave. Is it diluting the real sound?

Not really. It could get burned out because there are a lot of people jumping on it, if you know what I mean. There are a million house DJs, a million dubstep producers. There’s so much more of everything that it’s harder for someone to come into the game. I think I’m kind of lucky that I was there from the start.

Have you seen 24 Hour Party People?


So in the film, there’s the music cycle theory where at any given point, one genre is peaking while another is dying? What’s going on in the music world now?

I think dubstep is getting a little quieter and drum n bass is coming back bigtime! Drum n bass was huge in the 90s and early 2000s. It was THE sound. And then dubstep came along and took that audience. The same people who liked drum n bass liked dubstep for the same reason. At the time, in the mid-2000s, drum n bass wasn’t doing anything new. It was still good and really popular. But it was a sound. It didn’t really change. And people got a bit bored of it and got excited by dubstep. And that’s what’s happening with dubstep now – it became too formulaic. It used to be a mixed sound, where you’d hear a dubstep song that sounded like jazz, a dubstep song that sounded like heavy metal. And then it all became the same thing – the same Skrillex-y, noisy rubbish. So people got bored of it.

How would you define your sound? Have you consciously stayed clear of dark dubstep?

Just dark music in general. I like things fun, upbeat and silly. Even in my dark band, it’s not dark, serious music. Most music I make has always got that happiness to it.

Did you pioneer ‘brostep’?

I guess that was the sound that everybody copied. Dubstep was my sound originally. That’s why people talk about it.

In that case, do you see it as a ripoff?

No, it’s inspiring people. It’s humbling. It’s nice to think that so many people liked what I did with dubstep that they wanted to take that and run with it. It’s very flattering. But that is the sound that got burned out. People need to make something different now. That had been the processed sound of dubstep for a long time now.

What’s your drive to keep experimenting? Drugs?

Honestly, yes but no. Inspiration wise, I like to switch it up. The music that people here is like 10 %. I play in a rock band back home, sax for my friend’s band, and this. So really, my drive is to keep it totally varied. People only hear the dubstep-y stuff that I make. I want to keep experimenting. There are still lots of places to go. It’s just that people got so used to that brostep sound being dubstep that if you try and do something different with it, people are like ‘huh, what is this’. They forget what it originally was.

You’re quite the globetrotter. What have been some of your best gigs?

Exit Festival in Serbia (2009) with Caspa was 500000 people. That’s probably the biggest show I’ll ever play in my whole life. That was insane. I’ve never played a show where you couldn’t see the back of the audience. Like it went on like the sea and the horizon. Playing in Japan was really strange because they’re just so polite that unless you tell them to clap or shout, there’s complete silence. That’s really, really weird. But it was awesomely fun because it was like a challenge. I didn’t know what to expect.

You and Caspa ended on good terms?

Yeah, I was at his wedding last year. We’re still best friends. One was the fact that I was planning to move for a year or so before I actually did. But we still do the record label together on the side. We were friends before we worked together and then we were working together all the time. Just as friends, we figured that if we carried on working as Rusko and Caspa, we’d probably hate each right now and saying bad stuff about each other. Now we’re just best friends, keeping in touch. I talk to his mum and Dad to see how they are. It was almost really just a way to save the friendship.

Any regrets in your career?

Loads! I say ‘Yes’ to everything. That’s usually my problem. People suggest things to me, ask whether I want to do a show or a collaboration and I pretty much always say yes, which isn’t always a good idea.

What’s next on the cards?

I just started working on the new EP. I’m working with DJ Shadow, we’ll do some cool stuff. I’m just trying to work with people who aren’t EDM artistes. That’s why I chose Shadow because he’s this 90s hip-hop guy who’s totally out of the EDM scene. I’m just trying to do something weird! 

The shorter version of this interview was published back on December 30. Here's the link

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