Los Angeles—At first glance, Rusko doesn’t seem like any sort of threat to business as usual.
Fresh out of an inaugural meeting for his newly formed recording label, Rusko Recordings, the DJ/producer also known as Chris Mercer sports the tousled sandy brown mullet, unshaven face and jeans-and-tee profile of a guy who just rolled out of bed. And his perspective on the challenges awaiting him as a newly independent artist breaking away from his previous label—in his case, Diplo’s taste-making Mad Decent—extols the liberation rather than expresses the defiance such a career move usually indicates.
“This time I’ve taken it back a bit more organic just making tracks as they come,” he says in between cigarettes, referring to the free online release of “Kapow!,” his latest EP. “I kind of wanted to take it a little more old-school and underground. Things got a little too label-focused and deadline-focused. I kind of wanted to get it back to DIY.”
Scratching the surface to see what’s inspired Rusko over the years, it becomes apparent that creative independence, whether it be from a label or the unquestioned customs of an insular music underground and the pop world alike, has always been the name of his game, whether he knew it or not. Starting out as a reggae-loving music-engineering student at Leeds College Of Music making tracks on the side, Rusko had fate shine on him after seeing Digital Mystikz don/dubstep pioneer Mala perform at a local club night called Sub Dub, and he recognized that his own bass-heavy productions just might work for this brand-new audience.
Rusko saw initial support from the Sub Dub-aligned sound system crew Iration Steppas, whose testimony to music’s endless progression is sampled on the opening track to Songs, Rusko’s final LP for Mad Decent. But it wasn’t until Rusko moved to London and teamed up with Caspa for the fledgling dubstep label Dub Police that he struck paydirt.
While still aggressive and bombastic, early hits like “Jahova” and “Cockney Thug” eschewed the moody dystopian vistas of dubstep’s foundational tracks for a jauntier, energetic vibe which signaled a new approach to the nascent sound. The result at the time incurred the wrath of dubstep’s self-appointed gatekeepers, but it also helped provide the basis for dubstep’s now-undeniable global reach.
Rusko maintains an unapologetic focus on crafting fun-loving, accessible music—still he clearly intends to do this on his own terms. Speaking out with unusual candor on his conflicts with both the mainstream pop music world and the spate of aging GenX nu-metal acts currently jumping on the post-Korn dub-core basswagon, Rusko reveals himself to be an artist completely disinterested in compromising on the core vision that brought him to this point.
And while timing and luck may have played a large part in the initial surge that made Rusko a star, he possesses a sure-handed grip on the skills and strategies that can maintain his stature over the long haul. Before taking off on the wilds of Australia’s festival season, the U.K.-born/L.A.-based Rusko was kind enough to share those lessons with DJ Times, and showed us that despite his outside appearance, he clearly doesn’t need to Wake The Fuck Up. So rise and shine.
DJ Times: This year alone, you released Songs and the Cypress Hill collaboration and now this EP. Now that the brakes are off, how much music can people expect to hear from you?
Rusko: I don’t know. I finished Songs in November and it came out in March and I finished the Cypress Hill EP ["CypressXRusko”] in January and it came out in June. So pretty much the bulk of those records were made in 2011 and released in 2012. This year I haven’t been making that much, but it’s all about the timing of it really, being able to make it and get it out there quick. I don’t know how much is expected over a year. It’s gonna look a lot this year I guess, like a four-track EP and a full album and a five-track with Cypress. But by the end of the year, I’ll have the next four-track EP ready to go.
DJ Times: Wasn’t always like that, right?
Rusko: The first few years I released a lot of singles—the stuff with Dub Police and stuff with other labels—and then, when I started doing the album thing, it was more go on tour for three or four months and come back home and spend a couple of months in the studio making a record. But this time I’ve taken it back a bit more organic just making tracks on the fly as they come. With the last record, I didn’t give any tracks to any DJs. I wanted the release date to be the day all the tracks come out.
DJ Times: You didn’t play them out yourself?
Rusko: I didn’t play them a lot because I wanted it to be all secret on the day of release. It was a cool way of doing things and cool for the fans, just rather than a lot of dance-music records that come out when the album comes out—you’ve already heard half the tracks because all the DJs in the scene have been playing them. So I wanted to go against that and have a whole brand new record, like all in one go. It was a different way of doing things and I kind of wanted to take it kind of a little more old school and underground, do the DIY release and email it out to the DJs and share the track on AIM and just doing it more organically.
DJ Times: What can people expect from you on this tour?
Rusko: Production-wise, we’ve got some cryogenic smoke cannons and confetti cannons stage-wise, but musically, I’ve just bought a MIDI guitar, entire MIDI guitar, which is basically a full keyboard, but with actual guitar strings on it. It’s really, really, really hard to learn. I thought it would be, “Oh, I can play guitar. I can play keyboard—presto!” I thought it would be cool, but it’s actually proven to be hard. It’s my flippin’ rockstar fantasy, you know? One leg on the monitor on the front, one knee on the floor, riffing on the guitar.
DJ Times: You started out playing the bass at your shows. Tell me about those early performances. Why did that go out the door?
Rusko: I used to play bass and I was doing more of a live setup sort of a thing. But I was DJing as well, and I found that when I played the bass, I played the track more in its entirety.
DJ Times: Squarepusher started out that way, too.
Rusko: Of course! Squarepusher’s my favorite artist ever, so that was obviously a big influence. But really, the reason I stopped doing it was a question of pace. My DJ sets, it’s kind of like two in a minute at least. It’s kind of like bang, bang, bang. But when I’m performing with the bass, it would be me playing a song for three or four minute sometimes to do the whole, to make it a whole performance. You can’t really match the pace of a DJ set and doing the live setup at the same time back in the day.
DJ Times: What was it like?
Rusko: I was used to doing the DJ thing and people are just going crazy, and it’s like pow, pow, hitting them with the next ones and they’re all dancing. But when you’re standing up there doing instruments, people automatically sort of stand and stare. So, that was kind of an unusual reaction after being used to the instant intensity of a DJ set. But I did it for Glastonbury in the UK with that set-up, which was perfect. What I should have done was chosen the times when I did the live show with the bass rather than just do it for a whole year or so like I did. In a club environment, it’s gotta be a DJ set for that intensity.
DJ Times: What’s the gear you prefer to work on live?
Rusko: These days, I just use two CDJs and a mic—super, super simple. I can’t use CDJ-2000s, though.
DJ Times: You have a mixer?
Rusko: Yeah, a DJM-900. It’s all Pioneer, but I can’t use the CDJ-2000s, because around the jogwheel in the middle, the actual hole around the side isn’t sealed like it was on a 1000. So I get 30 minutes into my set with the sweat dripping down my arm—it drips into the wheel and it locks, and the CDJs just stop. On the last tour I went through three or four before I had to go to a secondhand place, because Pioneer couldn’t even get a hold of the 1000 themselves. Mark 2 is coming out at the end of the year and I actually took one apart and took all the photos on my iPhone, so I’m hoping I’ve pestered them enough that they’ve done something enough to fix them because they are really cool.
DJ Times: I’d like to talk about low-end strategies. You don’t do bass the way your peers do bass. You’re one of the people who really introduced midrange into the game. Is that for melodic purposes?
Rusko: In the old days, we would go to maybe Manchester and the turnout would be 150 to 200 people. We would be playing in way smaller clubs in the U.K. than we would in London or anywhere else and quite often, the sound systems just didn’t respond to a pure sub-bassline. You can only hear maybe three out of the seven notes in the bassline because all the rest of them are too low for the speakers. A lot of it was in the early days just making sure that it would cut through on even the not-so-good sound systems.
DJ Times: Things have changed, though.
Rusko: Now obviously, I’m very, very lucky to be playing places that have great sound systems, and it’s all the way there. What most people do with their basslines is have a sub track—just pure subwave underneath a midrange—so they have a midrange bass on one synth and the sub coming from another synth and they put them together. I’d say 99-percent of the people I’ve worked with do it that way, whereas I have them all going through the one channel and have the one synth. When I make the midrange bass, I’ll put the sub-oscillator underneath it on the same synth so the one synth is doing the sub and the mid at the same time. And rather than separating them and bringing the midrange out, I’ll just turn it up so it’s in the red, so it’s actually distorting on the channel and then EQ the top end out from there.
DJ Times: Sounds messy.
Rusko: It’s probably a less clean way of doing it, but it kind of does get a different sound. A lot of people have the solid bass that hits you in the chest, the solid sinewave bass, mixed with the drums, so it’s like really beefy and solid and then turn the midrange synth up, turn the volume on the midrange synth up, so it really cuts out without changing the bottom end or anything. But if you just put it all through once so the midrange is quieter and then turn the whole thing up, the bass is modulating exactly the same as the midrange. It sounds a bit complicated.
DJ Times: It sounds like you’re trying to simplify it.
Rusko: But basically just kind of distorting the one channel and a lot of people use Massive as their VST to make the basslines. With a lot of Massive basslines that I hear and see, people put distortion or gain on the synth itself. But you can get the same effect on a midrange synth just by peaking the channel, just by turning the synth down itself and by having the channel in your DAW just turned up so it’s literally distorting. So you get natural distortion, like a natural gain just so it sounds like it’s being pushed.
DJ Times: What’s your studio set-up? Have you changed anything from when I last saw it?
Rusko: I’ve bought a few ’80s synthesizers. I bought an original Roland SH-101, which is really cool. I use that for loads of my effects. All of my dub effects and the sort of laser sample stuff and any of the 8-bit sounds in my tracks come from Roland 101. A lot of those dub lasers and dub effects get used again and again and again. I never run the outboard synth with the sequencer. I have never sent MIDI from my sequencer to the outboard synths to record it back in. I usually use it as audio tools and kind of sit there without any music and kind of play in and record in what I’m doing on the synths.
DJ Times: Why not use an emulator?
Rusko: Yeah, I do, but I use them as the starting point of tracks. When I get to the studio at lunchtime or whatever, I’m not really focused on what I’m gonna do. I can just sit and make a folder of cool space sound effects or cool bass sounds or whatever. I’ll kind of use them to build up libraries of sounds that you can’t really have anywhere else—but really it’s more an inspiration thing for me. That’s why I like the ‘80s synths. I obviously love the sounds and the original FM sounds of some of those synths, but really for me I like them because they have loads more knobs to play with. I just get a bit more into it when it’s literal hands-on hardware. Sometimes they don’t even end up in the final track, but they’re just a good starting point.