It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Perhaps Rusko never set out to be dubstep's chief ambassador to the Americas — first with screw-faced bangers like "Cockney Thug," which suited the aggressive tastes of stateside fans weaned on rock, and then with his debut album, O.M.G., which had just enough variety to appeal to listeners not yet ready for an hour of unremitting wobble. (Getting signed to Diplo's Mad Decent label didn't hurt, either; an anointing from the king of coolhunting does wonders for your bookings.) Released in 2010, it came just in time to establish Rusko as one of dubstep's most versatile performers, and one capable of bringing together both hardcore moshers and fair-weather fans, all while retaining his credibility as one of the U.K. scene's true innovators.
In the meantime, of course, came Skrillex and a host of domestic dubsteppers with a homegrown take on the music, sometimes derisively called "brostep" — rougher, uglier and far less rooted in dub than its British sibling. Wisely, for his sophomore album, 2012's Songs, Rusko bowed out of the bass-driven arms race, disavowed his ties to brostep and expanded the parameters of his sound to include buoyant melodic house, old-school jungle, radio-ready R&B and even fizzy, uplifting trance. Just as importantly, though, he celebrated the musical continuum that made his own career possible — both a sign of respect and a canny means of cementing his own authority.
The opening track makes it clear that he's all about homage, as a narrator pays tribute to Jamaica's reggae pioneers. (At the same time, he's not afraid to be a little audacious, as claiming the mantle of King Tubby certainly is.) Throughout the LP, Rusko avails himself of dance music's most enduring tropes, from piano house's thumping chords to jungle's roiling breaks and incendiary MC chatter; "Love No More," "Be Free" and "Mek More Green" are all essentially purist digi-dub tunes. At the same time, with his whole-hearted embrace of mainstream dance styles — just check the trance stabs of "Thunder" — he shows that he's not about to get bogged down in tradition. Not all of his populist gestures are successful, but even his failures are interesting. With Rusko's Songs, dubstep becomes less a format than a platform.
Dubstep's debt to Jamaica is right there in its name. These days, it might be hard to detect much actual reggae in the harder, nastier, super-sized variants that have captured mainstream ravers' imaginations, but in the beginning, dubstep was essentially dub by another means. The genre's originators – artists like Horsepower Productions, Skream, Benga, Digital Mystikz's Mala and Loefah – raided grime and drum 'n' bass for their sounds (industrial strength percussion, cheap synth presets, cavernous sub-bass) and reengineered them for a skanking, half-time groove that was unmistakably Jamaican in origin.
Rusko's name may be associated with the aggressive excesses of so-called "brostep," but dude knows his history. To that end, Songs opens with an explicit tribute to one of reggae's greats, as an unidentified speaker explains to a chorus of assenting voices, "You see, roots music is creative musicâ€¦You check out all dem man like King Tubbys and dem man dem, what were they doing? [â€¦] They pushed the boundaries and made different sounds, and experimented with sounds and echo, reverb and all dem kind of stuff. So what we're doing is the same ting!"
If anyone pushed the boundaries of Jamaican music, it would be King Tubby, a Kingston radio repairman who applied his knowledge of electronics to building some of the island's most powerful sound systems; from there, he went on to pioneer the use of the mixing desk as an instrument in its own right, using delay effects and tape dubs to spin barebones rhythm tracks into 4D worlds of echo and phase. This 1994 compilation from Blood & Fire showcases Tubby's work alongside the producer Bunny Lee and his band the Aggrovators, backing a rotating cast of vocalists including Prince Jazzbo, Dillinger and Dr. Alimantado. With Tubby on the boards, hi-hats spin like flying saucers, voices spiral through wormholes and guitars shimmer like the Aurora Borealis. To hear how far out Tubby could get, just check "Barber Feel It," a black hole of a tune suffused in mad laughter and buzzing chainsaws.
The Breakbeat Scientists
Although breakbeats play only a minor role in dubstep, the latter genre's loping, swinging cadences are a direct offshoot of the chopped-up drum patterns that distinguished both drum 'n' bass and the more amorphous breakbeat hardcore that preceded it. Rusko's Songs makes no secret of his debt to jungle: "Roll Da Beats (Old School Edition)" and "Whistle Crew" both ride shuddering breakbeat grooves with an early-'90s feel, complete with hiccupping vocal samples, sped-up piano chords and, in "Whistle Crew," riotous MCs hyping up the crowd with cries of "Whistles and horns!" While hundreds of producers, DJs and MCs contributed to the "scenius" that birthed hardcore, jungle and d 'n' b, few actors were more influential than 4Hero, who came up in the UK hip-hop scene before finding their true calling as master manipulators of breakbeat rhythms. The Early Plates surveys the dark, volatile material of the years before drum 'n' bass calcified, and 4Hero, reigning kings of the scene, moved on into an idiosyncratic brand of electronic jazz fusion. Here, the tempos vary according to the contours of their funk samples, from the slow-motion swagger of "Rising Son" to the speedy, slippery "Cookin' Up Your Brain." The rattling break behind "Kirk's Back" serves as the template for the rolling rhythm in Rusko's "Roll Da Beats"; the manic club energy of "Whistle Crew" is exactly what you would have encountered at one of 4Hero's Reinforced parties, back in the day.
The line between pop and rave music has never been as clear as some critics would like to believe, especially in the U.K. From the earliest days of acid house, pop and dance music commingled freely, whether it was bubblegum samples spun into sly pop culture references or underground club tunes that stormed the charts. (Heck, even Seal's "Killer" started out as a lumbering techno anthem.) But no one has managed to blur the boundaries between dance floor and airwaves quite like Basement Jaxx, a Brixton duo that wrapped up Carnival bombast, rave cheek, acid-house grooves and gloriously over-the-top melodies into a druggy, jubilant sound.
Rusko has clearly spent his time listening to Basement Jaxx; his zippy, 2-stepping vocal-house tune "Pressure" is obviously modeled on Jaxx hits like "Romeo" and "Jus' 1 Kiss." In fact, you could argue that, from its title on down, Rusko's sophomore album takes its inspiration from the way that Rooty (Basement Jaxx's second album, for what it's worth) is first and foremost about songs, no matter what the club-ready beats might suggest. (From hard funk to lilting reggae, it's also about variety – another lesson Rusko applied to his own LP.) Practically every tune on the album is a genuine anthem, from the sing-songy "Romeo" to the sweaty "Get Me Off." And if you're looking for the blueprint for today's amped-up festival sound, look no further than "Where's Your Head At," a hard-charging call to (flailing) arms.
Rusko began releasing music in 2006 – early in dubstep's ascendance, but still late enough to make him a second-generation producer, raised in the wake of pioneers like Mala, Loefah, Benga and Skream. In fact, it was the supergroup Magnetic Man – the trio of Benga, Skream and fellow Croydon first-waver Artwork – who came up with dubstep's first real crossover album, in 2010; before that, though, Skream was responsible for dubstep's first solo long-player, 2006's Skream!. Although the album features plenty of searing rave tunes, like the grimy "Tapped," the unhinged "Kut-Off" and the anthemic "Midnight Request Line," Skream wisely balanced them out with plenty of laid-back digi-dub ("Blue Eyez," "Auto-Dub," "Dutch Flowerz") and even an unlikely foray into jazzy house ("Summer Dreams"). Taking cues from Skream, Rusko's Songs similarly makes extensive use of relatively purist dub reggae as a way of fleshing out his album – and adding some welcome respite from corrosive dubstep overload.
As electronic dance music has metastasized in the popular consciousness, a funny thing has happened: Genre distinctions like house, trance, electro and even dubstep have been steadily dissolving, and dance music's hyper-partisan culture has given way to the amorphous, all-encompassing "EDM." It's doubtless due in part to the format of today's large-scale festivals: In order to crack the short attention spans of tens of thousands of ravers roaming from tent to tent, DJs have to offer a little bit of everything. That helps explain Rusko's forays into full-on, lighters-in-the-air trance music with "Opium" and "Thunder" and the incongruous R&B of "Dirty Sexy": in order to woo Tiesto and David Guetta's fans, he has to become them – at least for the span of a song or two. You can observe a parallel phenomenon in the work of Araabmuzik, an MPC champion and beat-maker for Cam'ron's Dipset who indulged a yen for airy trance on his 2011 album Electronic Dream. Sampling trance and progressive house icons like Jam & Spoon and Kaskade, the album catapulted Araabmuzik from the hip-hop world into festivals like the kandi-rave staple Electric Daisy Carnival, where he performed alongside acts like TiÃ«sto, Guetta and, yes, Rusko.