Turn Down for What? Why EDM Is Entering Its Punk Phase - Rolling Stone
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Turn Down for What? Why EDM Is Entering Its Punk Phase

New bass bombadeers like DJ Snake, Martin Garrix and Bassjackers bring harder EDM to the charts

DJ Snake hard edmDJ Snake hard edm

DJ Snake spins in Miami.

Daniel Boot

On a Friday night in Montreal, DJ Vice, a eight-year resident DJ at Tao Las Vegas, held out about an hour to play DJ Snake’s crunktacular “Turn Down for What” – at the time the fourth most popular song in America, and easily the most raucous thing on the entire Hot 100. “I was playing more of a deeper house set, and then I kind of wanted to erupt the crowd in a moment – and I use those records almost like an M-80 I light and throw into the crowd.”

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These records – “Turn Down for What” and Martin Garrix’s aggro-house banger “Animals” – are not only a DJ’s best weapon at 2 a.m., they’re unlikely pop hits too. Hard-edged, mean, a little obnoxious, these bass bombs are decidedly more explosive than the radio-ready superstar collabos of DJs like Calvin Harris or David Guetta – and they’ve yielded chart success that Rolling Stone cover stars like Deadmau5 and Skrillex can, currently, only dream of.

“This young generation that are listening to this for the first time, it’s something that’s in-your-face and something that’s going to give you a rush of energy off the first listen,” says Vice of the pair of songs. “I really look at it like how punk music came into the scene and shook shit up. I really feel that this is kind of a revolution starting.

Before he teamed with Lil Jon for “Turn Down,” DJ Snake, a self-identified Parisian “street kid,” spent years behind the scenes producing songs for artists including Pitbull and Lady Gaga. His booming, 808-heavy “Bird Machine” became a DJ fave in 2013 (Diplo and Baauer both spun it) and “Turn Down for What” rocketed him into the stratosphere. “At the end of the day, all I know is I’m creating sounds that have tapped into a lot of people’s primal zone that hasn’t been felt since the early grunge or heavy metal eras,” says Snake. “I’ve produced more mellow tracks in the past and people feel it, but they’ve reacted to my hostile beats more. It’s funny, because I’m really a quiet and reserved guy away from the stage. I don’t know why my music is so belligerent.”

“Turn Down for What” is nothing short of a sensation. Cats shimmy to it on YouTube, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Rogan undulated along to it on Late Night, and French tennis star Gaël Monfils danced to it at the French Open. “I laugh about it because when I was young, a guy like me wouldn’t be accepted in a place like that,” says Snake. “These places were persona non grata for my people and now we run the whole joint! The epitome of bourgeoisie disrupted and taken control of by the hood. Magnifique.”

Martin Garrix doesn’t have the pop background of Snake – or much of a background to speak of at all, since the Dutch DJ only surfaced two years ago and turned 18 in May. “I made the track as a club record to play in my own sets and at the festivals and suddenly, the radio picked it up,” he says. “It wasn’t like the intention of, ‘Oh, this track can play on the radio.'”

“Animals” actually went through a stage where a more commercial element – a rapper or a singer – was being tried out, but Garrix settled for his friend, MC Tjen, saying three words and a rather radio-unfriendly swear into a vocoder: “We’re the fuckin’ animals!” Nonetheless, it peaked at Number 21 on Billboard and the video, starring animal-masked party-people breakdancing and burning a car, has more than 262 million views. “With everything getting so big, people are attending my shows with animal masks, which is crazy,” he says. And when he plays it? “You see people jumping in one big wave.”

Snake will get the occasional moshpit. “This is the first time I’ve experienced this shit. I never get used to it,” he says. “I love the fact that people that come to my shows literally don’t give a shit about their bodies. No fucks are given in that department, ever.”

The trend may be only be expanding: Lil Jon’s new single “Bend Ova” is “automatically working” in DJ Vice’s sets and Steve Aoki, whose self-explanatory “Rage the Night Away” features hip-hop shoutmaster Waka Flocka Flame, is headlining Madison Square in August. But no one seems more poised to have the next crunkbeat smash than Dutch DJ/producer duo Bassjackers. “Derp,” their collaboration with MAKJ, has an almost comically lengthy build, a huge drop and a five-word hook (again, one swear word) that’s a party-rock call-to-arms: “Turn the fucking bass up!”

“That’s never what you aim for,” says Bassjacker Marlon Flohr about the imminent possibility of radio play for a song sitting among Zedd and Avicii on the iTunes Dance chart. “When you see the other tracks in the Top 20, most of them have vocals. And this is just like a fucking rager… What’s happening right now is the radio is embracing electronic music – it’s not the other way around. Those songs are not songs that you write to get played on the radio, but radio is embracing it.”

While songs like “Derp” may eventually get to the radio via a record label or a savvy promotions team, it’s also a movement that social media is helping dictate. “Where we’re at right now is these major festivals, whether its Electric Zoo or Mysteryland – I mean, you’re talking about people who are just taking videos or Snapchatting like you would not believe. And it’s up to the DJs to keep pushing the envelope to keep going harder and harder and harder,” says Bartel, the music director and an on-air personality at New York’s “rhythmic contemporary” station WKTU. “I remember Afrojack’s “Take Over Control,” three or four years ago. My program director had said that, he felt, was too edgy. Now, that’s like kindergarten.”

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