Smile Politely

Notes from the scene of a Massacre

The drive to Champaign was stark about 15 miles outside of the city.

When one can feel something massive coming, you happen to pay attention to some of the more prevalent details. The weak speakers in my car playing a jittered soundtrack, as I jumped between mix tapes from Rusko, Caspa, and the guest of honor that evening.

All of this while thinking that I would have 30 minutes to get ready before the show itself.

Alright, now we’re in town. Check-in, shower, dress, exercise your voice, and hit the road. When I arrived, the Highdive seemed strangely quiet; filled with a nervous reverence and respect of the events to take place. Hundreds of stomping feet, clapping hands, and yelling voices. All of these elements tuned to the minute, yet pivotal details of the devices and minds that made it not only run, but hum in distorted harmonies, sub-bass lines, and remix upon rework.

Red Bull, Highdive, and 217Mafia/Maximum Strength have done a hell of a job. The DJ booth is massive, the lights drawn low and fitting for the riot scene, and a single man running back and forth among snaked sets of acronymed cables: XLR, RCA. Rory Durkin is moving with every bit of purpose he can: plugging, testing, propping, fading, tuning. And now, all chaos is made harmony, all crooked made straight. This will be the eighth Dubstep Massacre, and the lot of everyone working in sync are here to make sure this one is just as “gruesome” as the predecessors.

Geist is up first; the man who can claim the throne to Drum & Bass/Jungle in C-U. He is strangely calm as the necks and heads in the room begin to sway and nod to the 140 BPM rhythm. He smiles, nods along, and jokes while drawing the masses closer and closer in to the bass-shaken stage. Suddenly, a curveball slips the catcher’s glove and the music goes a bit faster.

“I’m gonna throw in some Drum and Bass.”

The crowd shows no objection, and instead works up to a fever pitch. You can see whom the familiar faces are by how they dance. Those who are arriving for the first time are pleasantly awestruck, happily humbled, and straining their hands to touch a ceiling out of reach. A bow from Geist, smiling uncontrollably, as he hands off control of the decks and the crowd.

Now, Belly is stepping up. He’s got the coroner’s stare across his face; all too appropriate for a massacre. As some in-between music plays, he stretches his arms, fingers, and shoulders. It’s strange to think that he would play music while hurt, but he smiles and reassures the people around him.

“I don’t think I need my shoulder to spin tonight. I took some Ibuprofen…it’s all good.”

He promises Dubstep anthems; some of which he plays. Otherwise, he goes straight for the throat and head nods. The wobbling bass lines and grainy samples are the only thing that keep Belly smiling, aside from the crowd’s reaction, that is. He puts his good arm in the air as approval; now the crowd is getting there. There are murmurs in the background from 217Mafia capos scanning the floor and bar of the Highdive.

“Two hundred? Nah, it’s gotta be at least 250. Maybe three.”

We’re getting closer now, and the crowd can begin to feel it. I spot Trouble T-Roy and Panik from WPGU and UC Hip-Hop in the front row. Troy’s head full of knotty dreads hasn’t stopped moving the entire night; and now Mertz wants his shot at the crowd.

To understand the transformation necessary for Mertz to spin Dubstep is nearly impossible. As one of C-U’s heaviest hitters in the House and Funk genres, the squelching and rumbling bass lines of Dubstep are a far cry from the halls of his normal haunts.

He lays his hands to records, and what comes out is unpredictable: a two-record blend between a Stones’ Throw beat-box 45 from an artist named Red, and an eventual Dub-plate underbelly blended in. The crowd catches a foggy breath for just a moment, and then goes leaping right back into the chaos. Mertz plays “bangers” from the opening gun; a paint-by-RPM, low frequency thud-rumble that not only shakes the stage, but bones of the participants as well.

Suddenly, there’s a tap on my shoulder from Cosmo, he’s pulling me a few steps to the left to a wiry gentleman with a definitive Cockney accent.

“Hey Mos, this is Skream.”

To this point, it was mix tapes and reviews. Mumblings and sentences on electronic music blogs about who was “running” Dubstep in the world right now; this strange musical movement that took the world by storm. You come to know these names after you’ve listened to the genre for a bit: Caspa, Benga, Rusko, DZ, Datsik, Zomby, Skream. And here we were: a scene on the cusp of experiencing something great.

Mertz steps back, and there is a roar from the crowd. No ceremony, no pretense; just him, the decks, and the crowd. This is now Skream’s massacre.

The moment he dropped his first plate, I checked my watch. 12:00 midnight. Way too appropriate. Fever pitch is no longer an adequate term for this crowd. C-U has drawn the Midwest into its Dubstep scene for the eighth time. And now, we bring the world to the Midwest. Here we go.

At first, nearly all the Dub plates he plays are remixes that he’s done. A large crowd does not always mean a good audience; he’s feeling things out while the rest of 217Mafia is watching him work, with looks of stunned respect at the work being undertaken.

There’s no use in checking the watch now. Skream is controlling the sense of time we once had, bending an already malleable crowd to his rhythm. He’s feeling it just as much as they are, and it shows. Hands in the air, clapping, waving, and heads in sync with the 2-and-4 counts.

Suddenly, it’s 1 a.m. No pretense, and no encouragement; Skream has his headphones off, in front of the stage. A lanky leap, and the packed Highdive is now carrying him, ferrying him further away from the stage, and eventually back onto it. A roar of approval emerges from the crowd for his sense of strange bravery. Perhaps the new adage is true concerning crowd surfing: it’s a hell of a sense of trust.

By 1:30 a.m., Skream whips the record into his last call for a “rewind.” This mass of people has not stopped yelling for three-and-a-half hours. Mertz back in the driver’s seat, Skream grabs a microphone for a brief moment, and we have silence.

“This show has been amazing, and the best of my tour so far. Absolutely top notch.”

Mertz drops Dubstep anthems that the entire crowd knows until the lights finally will themselves on. 2:09 a.m.

Sweating masses of kids clamor to Skream for autographs, and he is more than happy to oblige. A handshake here and there, and a lot of respect for not only Skream, but also 217Mafia.

Outside we all go, nearly dizzy at the idea of silence, ears ringing with approval. A floor that was once full and clamoring is now growing ever more silent, as if in respect for what took place, and the community that helped it.

Dubstep Massacre 8. Another successful procedure.

All photos by Jane Mazur.

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