Grammy Nominee

02.09.12

Meet Skrillex, the Divisive, Grammy-Nominated DJ Who’s Changing Dance Music

Skrillex has emerged as the most talked-about DJ in electronic music, drawing huge crowds to his raucous live shows, amassing millions of hits on YouTube, and garnering five Grammy nods—including Best New Artist. The 24-year-old opens up to Marlow Stern about his meteoric rise.

On a cool February evening in downtown New York City, a deluge of fans are packed against the glass of a trendy clothing store to see DJ phenom Skrillex. Earlier that day, black, medallion-like credentials were hand-delivered to attendees. One side bore the DJ’s logo; the other, a cryptic message to meet at the store and “BE BLINDFOLDED & DRIVEN TO A SECRET LOCATION.”

"Nobody knows what’s going on, but it’s going to be epic!” exclaims Annie, a 23-year-old elfin woman with pink bunny ears, two-rainbow hula-hoops slung over her shoulder like nightclub ammunition, and ripped fishnets. She took off work that evening to see Skrillex.

After collecting our blindfolds and being shepherded on buses, we’re driven to the secret location, blindfolds are removed, and we’re guided down a set of dark stairs only to be greeted by a bizarre shirtless man in an animal fur hat grunting and lighting small fires on the floor with a tube of kerosene. Walk a few steps further and there’s a topless woman covered in candle wax and a contortionist. Inside the caliginous lounge, there are lasers illuminating walls covered in graffiti, and staffers donning masquerade masks.

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A look at the phenomenon that is Skrillex

Just after midnight, Skrillex emerges and takes the reins behind the DJ booth. “MY NAME IS SKRILLEX!” he screams to wild applause, before dropping a remix of his genre-mashing dubstep anthem “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” that has racked up 62 million views on YouTube, and counting. With each wobbly, distorted bass riff and womp-womp-womp robotic fluctuation, bodies explode in epileptic fits.

In the DJ booth, Skrillex is a man possessed. His alert eyes dart back and forth between his laptop and MIDI controller like a cat on speed as he peers through oversized (prescription) nerd glasses obscuring his Corey Feldman-esque mug. Hopping back-and-forth behind a plethora of machinery, his elbows flail about in every direction like a hyphy dancer—furiously twisting knobs and pressing buttons—while his long, greasy black mane dances in the air to the music. Amid the controlled chaos, his intense gaze is broken only when he manages to stop every few moments and acknowledge the crowd with an arm wave or a shout of, “WHAT’S UP NEW YORK CITY!”

Earlier that day at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Skrillex is hunched over in a booth, sipping on a pineapple-grapefruit juice (he doesn’t do drugs, instead subsisting on a diet of sugar-free Red Bull and vodka).

“I passed out in the cab over here,” he says between yawns.

Given his non-stop touring schedule (322 performances in 2011 alone) and tireless work ethic (tinkering with new tracks in hotel rooms till the sun comes up), the diminutive mix-master is understandably exhausted.

“My music doesn’t really fit into what people think of as ‘pop music,’ and it’s not made for the radio.”

Sonny Moore, 24, has been producing and performing electronic music under the alias Skrillex since 2008. The name, he says, is something he created phonetically and proceeded to use as his email handle. He’s been called the Quentin Tarantino of dance music, pulling from a variety of different genres—dubstep, euro house, trance—and creating demented electro tapestries. Sunny melodies are interrupted by violent wobble bass drops, robotic yelps, and shrieking glitches with the cumulative effect of an aural spinal tap.

In the past year, however, Skrillex has experienced a meteoric rise—emerging as the de facto poster child for the recent dance craze stateside.

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With no major label marketing machine behind him, the surge in popularity was accomplished in true DIY fashion: through incessant touring and Internet word-of-mouth. He’s released four EPs over the Internet, the most recent of which is titled Bangarang. His YouTube videos get tens of millions of views. Facebook singled him out as one of the year’s most prolific artists, boasting two of the top six most-played songs on the social network. He’s one of the stars of director Amir Bar-Lev’s (The Tillman Story) music documentary RE:GENERATION, in theaters Feb. 16. And the cherry on top: he’s not only been nominated for five Grammy Awards—tied with music luminaries Radiohead and Lil Wayne for the third most of any musical act—including Best New Artist, but also has become the literal poster child for the Grammy Awards ceremony on Feb. 12.

“It has been great to see Skrillex come through over the last year,” Tiësto, a world-renowned Dutch DJ, told The Daily Beast. “He has brought a new fresh energy to dance music—inspiring up-and-coming producers as well as bringing a new audience to the scene.”

However, a handful of bloggers and electronic musicians from across the pond—where dubstep, the genre Skrillex most frequently toils in, originated in the late ‘90s—have taken issue with the DJ’s ascent. His detractors have dubbed his music “brostep” or “bruvstep”—a male-centric American style that they claim is akin to metal music, emphasizing middle-register sounds and characterized by aggressive timbres. “It’s like someone screaming in your face for an hour,” said Rusko, an acclaimed British dubstep DJ, in an interview with BBC Radio 1.

“What are we gonna do, form a united front against Skrillex?” said Skream, a British DJ regarded as the founding father of dubstep, in an interview with The Quietus. “It’s just bitchiness, it really is. You haven’t got to like his music, you don’t particularly have to like him, but there’s no reason you can’t like what he’s done—he’s smashed it. He’s up for five Grammys.”

Avicii, a rising star in the DJ scene from Sweden whose catchy song “Levels” is currently playing in taxi cabs across New York City, agrees with Skream, telling The Daily Beast: “Sonny is a very determined and passionate soul. His complete domination of an entire electronic sub-genre that he became the named leader of proves just how resourceful and respected he is.”

The other major misconception that bugs Skrillex, he says, is when people claim he received a record-label makeover similar to much-maligned pop star Lana Del Rey.

“That pisses me off ‘cause nobody gave me anything,” says Skrillex. “People think that a label came in, scooped me up, and created an image to sell to people. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

After discovering he was adopted in 2004, a then 16-year-old Moore ran off to Georgia and auditioned to be the guitarist for the screamo band, From First to Last—a group of Hot Topic-clad fellas rocking piercings and flat-ironed hair. He instead assumed the role of singer until leaving the group in 2007.

“[The adoption] tripped me out and I kind of went off and buried myself in the band and making music for a while, writing a lot of lyrics about being adopted,” said Skrillex. “I was too young to know about being a part of a band and the whole process.”

Skrillex, who has since made up with his adoptive parents, decided he wanted to be a DJ after witnessing Daft Punk—and their massive, monolithic DJ pyramid—at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in 2007. And he now sports a new, distinctive look—or more specifically, haircut. It’s an asymmetrical ‘do that’s shaved on the left, parted on the right, and has inspired a popular parody blog called Girls That Look Like Skrillex featuring young emo girls mimicking his signature hairstyle. Skrillex thinks the blog is “hilarious” and says he was simply bored in his hotel room a few years ago and decided to shave the side of his head. “It wasn’t a ‘look’ I was going for,” he says, “It just happened.”

When he wants to observe his fans up close, Skrillex says, he has a little trick he likes to employ at shows: he’ll tuck his hair under his ubiquitous hoodie and remove his glasses—creating a “unabomber” look—and wander about in the crowd.

And the fans, meanwhile, have spoken. In less than two years, Skrillex has gone from playing for hundreds in cramped L.A. clubs to landing headlining slots at major dance festivals—including this past summer’s Electric Daisy Carnival, which attracted an estimated 185,000 people. His recent Mothership Tour saw the DJ dazzle crowds in the tens of thousands using cutting-edge, motion-capture technology featuring gigantic projections of monsters, robots, and skeletons mimicking his movements. He’s been asked to remix several tracks by Gaga, and Kanye West recently called his Grammy-nominated remix of Benny Benassi’s “Cinema,” “one of the greatest works of art ever made.”

“Skrillex is a revolutionary, ground-breaking artist who is really good for the electronic-music genre and makes great-sounding music,” said his RE:GENERATION co-star, Ken Jordan, who is one-half of the acclaimed electronic act The Crystal Method.

Thanks to the influence of DJs like Skrillex, America has gone completely gaga for dance music. Once relegated to the nightclub circuit, euro-house acts like David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia are now selling out arenas such as Madison Square Garden. And the line between pop and dance is continually being blurred. Currently, three of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 are considered dance music—Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” produced by DJ Calvin Harris; “Turn Me On” by David Guetta; and “Sexy and I Know It” by dance-pop group LMFAO. Even tween pop star Justin Bieber is said to be experimenting with dubstep on his upcoming album.

“My music doesn’t really fit into what people think of as ‘pop music,’ and it’s not made for the radio,” said Skrillex. “It’s made for the shows.”

When the interview ends, Skrillex pops up from his chair, and says his goodbyes. After quickly packing up my things, I look up to see that he’s waiting at the hotel elevator all the way across the hall. He’s got a mini-studio in one of the suites upstairs and he’s eager to lay down some new tracks.