That incandescent, pistol-spark moment in an artist's career when he or she actually steers the culture is rare, and usually fleeting. For Skrillex – the tiny, fidgety embodiment of America's electronic dance music upheaval – it's lasted longer than anyone could've predicted. As we get amped for his Rolling Stone cover and another mega-rave season, officially starting with Miami's Ultra Music Festival at the end of this month, the reign of Prince Skrillie as enigmatic, generation-defining Pied Piper continues (though a lawsuit brought against the DJ/producer by a fan over a recent stage-diving incident could be a sign that he's now viewed as more of a moneybags pop star). Before Skrills goes the way of your Fatboys and Firestarters, let's reflect on all the ways the floppy-haired imp has reshaped pop culture. By Charles Aaron
Skrillex became EDM's everykid Generational Connector, providing a bridge back to the great (primarily white) youth-culture movements of the 1990s and 2000s – from goth to industrial to alternative rock to electronica to emo. He was recognizable to outsiders as a flag-bearer for the next Youth Culture Uprising. And by not being able to articulate any of this, he seemed to be a particularly authentic emissary. First, as an L.A. punk-urchin guitarist weaned on Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar, he became the unlikely 15-year-old frontman for screamo contenders From First to Last. Then, he signed a solo deal with Atlantic and released an electro-pop EP under his own name (Sonny Moore) that recalled Postal Service being lightly whipped by Trent Reznor. Later, after having an Aphex Twin epiphany and being influenced by local dubstep champs 12th Planet and Dr. P, he evolved the Skrillex project into something darker and more crowd-pleasing, gradually dominating the Beatport charts and pointing the way forward.
Skrillex's enviable touring revenue, his astonishing YouTube views (millions, even billions), and the success of his label OWSLA, have all been crucial to validating U.S. electronic dance music's ground-up, money-making schemes. Despite negligible record sales, he was an indisputable wake-up call to industry execs that EDM represented an undeniable youth demo they needed to exploit/co-op in a serious way.
In the same way that Moby provided an American visual image for '90s techno/rave/electronica, Skrillex became EDM's unmistakable avatar, giving print media, especially, a face for coverage and cover. But while Moby openly campaigned for the position, Skrillie kept his hype machine on the DL, never becoming an annoying meme in your feed until he was fully established.
Redirecting the future of dance music, Skrillex became the first American artist who forced the U.K. scene to look to the U.S. for cultural and commercial, not just musical, cues. An infamous Guardian article called him "the most hated man in dubstep," but genre icon Skream paid respect, calling U.K. haters "pathetic" and "ridiculous."
Building off the pas-de-deux pastiche of Daft Punk, Skrillex once and for all made it permissible for DJs to do virtually nothing technical, or even musical, onstage – that is, if they provided something else interesting to watch. In the past, that included wearing a helmet or a mask, but for Skrillex, it meant bouncing behind the decks like a jumping bean in a slam pit, pumping his fists, raising his arms, and hooting into a mic. His shtick was so kinetic for an electronic-music performer that he earned a rep for being "great live," simply due to the energy in the room. His extremely young, blindly agog crowds were certainly startling to witness.
By the late 2000s, "dubstep" had become a term that denoted bowel-loosening beats, grim bros in hoodies, low-ceilinged clubs, clouds of weed smoke, and zilch commercial appeal. But Skrillex gave it new (mainstream) life. Post-Skrill, if acne-shy teens wanted to prove they weren't musical noobs, they simply whispered conspiratorially: "Bass."
More than anyone, Skrillex helped turn deploying dubstep's signature, roller-coaster-stomach-churn bass detonation into the guitar solo of the 21st century.
With his hardcore roots and screamo ambition still fresh, a young Skrillex toured with hair-metal method actor, enthusiastic penis-person, and aspiring DJ Tommy Lee, throwing debauched dance parties in sold-out rock venues. As an avowed Korn fan, he assisted the band on their dubby The Path of Totality album. After Lars Ulrich saw a Skrillex show, Metallica introduced an EDM stage at their Orion festival. Skrillex metal mash-ups vs. Slipknot, Disturbed, and other metal acts are now commonplace. Though Bassnectar made the literal transition from metalhead to dubstepper, Skrillex has been the primary trigger setting off the metal/EDM crossover.
He jammed with Hannibal Burress on "Gibberish Rap." He was featured on 2013's YouTube Comedy week, appearing or being spoofed in numerous comic sketches. And he even drove comedian-musician Reggie Watts to pen an anti-Skrillex track that made Watts sound like a grouchy, slow-drip-sipping, Brooklyn condo-owner who still fancied himself a hipster arbiter. Get out of my foyer, you meddling ravers!
By dating winsome British pop star Ellie Goulding, Skrillex became EDM's first TMZ target despite having no connection whatsoever to Paris Hilton.
Via his Atlantic-distributed OWLSA imprint, Skrillex has helped launch the careers of Porter Robinson, Birdy Nam Nam, Dillon Francis, Zedd, and more, giving the impression that his movement is an unstoppable force that doesn't need major-label advice to unlock millenials' wallets. The truth's knottier, but isn't it always?
Perhaps Skrillex's most powerful role has been as the official Generational/Cultural Dividing Line. When his name crops up in conversation amongst, say, over-25s, it's usually someone noting how creaky and out-of-it he or she feel upon hearing his music. That effect is magnified by ten when you talk about over 35s: For them, he's the bridge too far, the line they can't cross, the signal they can't unscramble, a noisy signifier that their youth is lost forever and death is afoot. Even in the supposedly cutting-edge indie world, Skrillex elicits an immediate sweating of palms. Pitchfork first mentioned him in a 2012 live review, with writer Carrie Battan framing her experience thusly: "What I did to feel young again after Skrillex fans made me look like a crotchety old woman." Answer: "Secretly passed off my wristband (not allowed!) to a kid who hadn't been able to get into the showcase."
Sure, Tiësto and other superstar DJs may make more money, but they haven't won six Grammys or scored a major motion picture (Spring Breakers) or won an Annie Award (for helping to score the animated feature Wreck-It Ralph, in which Skrillex also appeared). A punch line for many critics, Skrillex quietly has become a go-to creative.
After bomb track "Nice Sprites and Scary Monsters," the most memorable aspect of Skrillex's ascent has been his signature coiffure – basically, buzzed off on one side with a long emo flip opposite (possibly with some sort of grid or message or tattoo adorning the shaved side). Like all enduring cultural phenomena, the Skrill cut has been roundly mocked (see the Tumblr goofs "Girls That Look Like Skrillex" and "Lesbians Who Look Like Skrillex") and widely copied (see Ellie Goulding, Rihanna, Cassie, Ke$ha, Avril Lavigne, plus various models/actresses/international It Girls). Electric Valentine (feat. Kids on Drugs) recorded a bass-squelchy dubstep track titled "Girl, You Got Skrillex Hair," and when the infamous 'do caught fire at his 25th birthday party, TMZ deemed it worthy of coverage. Feminist snark site Jezebel despairingly opined in 2012: "It seems like it's shaping up to be the hairdo of the summer despite the fact that it is totally ugly and it leaves people looking like they're recovering from a brain tumor." You were on the wrong side of this war, y'all.