Hopping from festival to festival, the hardstyle emissary teaches U.S. crowds how to dance -- at 140 BPM.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in May, Willem Rebergen – known to his nearly 800,000 social media followers as hardstyle star Headhunterz – sat in the back seat of an otherwise empty stretch limo, heading towards CitiField, the site of Electric Daisy Carnival New York (May 17-18). He scrolled through his Twitter feed, tapping out responses and thinking aloud.
“A fan tweeted me recently that my music is hard on the outside, soft on the inside,” says the 28-year-old DJ/producer, his round eyes brightening. “I liked that.”
Most listeners would be hard-pressed to detect softness in Dutch genre, known for its warp-speed beats and unrelenting bass hits. Hardstyle has been one of the Netherlands’ most popular dance genres since the early 2000s. It relies on a distorted, rounded kick drum, matched by thumping bass on the offbeat. Foreboding spoken-word breakdowns add to the menacing vibe already present in most tracks. It doesn’t sound like the type of thing American ravers, who love their big themes and sing-alongs, would go for. But that’s not stopping Headhunterz and his powerful team from trying.
At EDC, the DJ is scheduled to drop the speedy bass on the New York crowd: His primetime set is part of a well-orchestrated summer arranged by EDC promoters Insomniac, his record label Ultra Music, and booking agency William Morris to get American ravers as psyched about hardstyle as the Dutch. Thanks to that dedicated crowd, Rebergen is already the No. 11 DJ in the world, according to “DJ” magazine’s Top 100 poll. But even without that ranking, he’s still the best man for the job of emissary to the U.S. EDM massive, with an ear for melody and natural appeal that many other hardstyle DJs lack.
“A good melody has nothing to do with electronic music,” he says. “It is something that touches people in general, so this music, with the hard kick underneath, really gives a melody an extra energy boost.”
With the days getting shorter and Labor Day approaching, it seems that, despite some mishaps, the plan has worked. Headhunterz will embark on his first headlining North American tour, dubbed “Explode,” on September 19 in Philadelphia (full dates on Page 2). Momentum, achieved.
Since signing with Ultra back late last year, all of Rebergen’s musical output has been of the tuneful variety – markedly different from his more aggressive Dutch catalog. He has a collaboration with proven hit makers Krewella, “United (Kids of the World),” due for release soon. He’s remixed cuts friendly to the EDM ear, like festival staples “Spaceman” by Hardwell and “Toulouse” by Nicky Romero. A new single, the practically psychedelic “Colors,” drops tomorrow on Ultra, with a radio edit at the ready.
In addition to a pop-savvier ear, Rebergen has the unassuming cool and undeniable appeal of a readymade star. He dresses mostly in grey, favoring T-shirts and sneakers, with the occasional stud or rivet. “Sacrifice” is tattooed in bold script on his right forearm, with the text tailing off into the shape of a headphone jack. His shaved head and thick eyebrows are offset by dark eyes and a wide smile. He looks like Ultimate Fighting hunk George St. Pierre, if he were in a boy band.
Rebergen arrives at the EDC New York grounds early to check out other DJs, and make sure he didn’t miss a minute of Nicky Romero’s set: Romero is a neighbor in Holland and longtime friend. As he roams between the Kinetic Field and Circuit Grounds, where he’ll play hours later, he greets nearly every Dutch artist he sees and spends some time listening to each set. He nods along to Sunnery James and Ryan Marciano’s tribal beats, and marvels at R3Hab’s huge, energized crowd.