Songs That Defined the Decade

Songs That Defined the Decade: Skrillex's 'Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites'

"He was one of those human beings in music creating their own sound and doing something no one had ever heard of before."

Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.

It may sound hyperbolic to say that Skrillex expanded the limits of recorded sound, but when the producer opened his laptop during a late ‘00s meeting with the CEO of Atlantic Records Craig Kallman, the executive had certainly never heard anything like the sonic juggernauts that came blasting through the speakers. 

“The production, innovation, imagination and creativity going into these tracks was so extraordinary,” says Kallman, who founded Atlantic’s electronic subsidiary Big Beat Records in 1987. “[He] was a must-sign.” 

It was soon thereafter that the Los Angeles-based producer born Sonny Moore released his 2010 breakout EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, which would broaden the electronic music genre, help kickstart the EDM era in the United States and turn Skrillex into one of the most popular, and for a time controversial, electronic music producers in the mainstream. 

Released via Big Beat and deadmau5’s mau5trap label and named in homage to David Bowie’s 1980 new wave LP Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), the EP’s title track and lead single was an aural sleight of hand, beginning with a pitched-up, serpentine melody and pleasantly fragmented vocal samples. But at the 40 second mark, the song does a whiplash-inducing about-face via a scream of “YES OH MY GOD” (sampled from a video of a girl rapidly stacking plastic cups) and a load of bass bombs sounding like alien invasion. 

In fact it kind of was, with the song and the genre it ushered in feeling like a hostile takeover to many dance scene veterans. While the track became a massive hit in the burgeoning EDM scene, many old school scenesters did not take kindly to a sound many considered crass, simple and grossly populist. While Skrillex’s thrill-ride of a sound was widely defined as dubstep, critics argued that his music was vastly different from the U.K.-born genre, with many instead calling his sound “brostep” as a snide homage to the army of young men (and women) showing up en masse to thrash in the pit during shows. 

The track’s 14-week ride on the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 69, and prominent use in the 2012 film Spring Breakers only confirmed suspicions that dance music was going mainstream, to disastrous results. Resident Advisor’s 2010 review noted the EP’s “one-dimensional aggression and appeal to the lowest common denominator” and its title track’s “headache-inducing layers of abrasive muck.”

“To me, those were haters,” Kallman says of these critics, “because they weren't appreciating the incredible imagination, creativity and skill going into what he was doing.”

What Skrillex was doing, in fact, was changing the DNA of electronic music itself by forging a fresh sound with a rock mentality siphoned from Moore’s previous work as the lead singer of emo band From First to Last. And the scene needed it, as by the  late 00’s dance music in the U.S. was in a fallow period, with pop, hip-hop and alternative ruling the charts, the underground rave scene of the ‘90s long waned and international dance acts like Daft Punk getting the most love Stateside. Then along came a pale, emo looking kid with horn-rimmed glasses and a thrillride sound to push things forward with his relentless bass wobbles.  

“Skrillex pioneered a new genre and a new sound for the first time in a very long time in electronic music,” Kallman says. “He was one of those human beings in music creating their own sound and doing something no one had ever heard of before. That's very rare.”

The industry took notice, giving Skrillex its stamp of approval when the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP and title track won the 2012 Grammys for Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Dance Recording, as Skrillex scored another trophy for his now-classic remix of Benny Benassi’s “Cinema.” 

These were the first three of Skrillex’s eight Grammy wins to date, with the artist going on to become one of the most prolific producers both in and out of dance music, via his work with artists from Incubus to Ty Dolla $ign, and his infiltration of the pop realm via his work with Diplo on the collab project Jack Ü and their 2015 hits with Justin Bieber. Meanwhile, the countless producers he inspired -- RL Grime, Baauer and Porter Robinson among them --- were working their way up lineups of the era’s exploding electronic music festivals, adding their own weird, wild flourishes to the genre.  

“There are very few producers that you could say revolutionized the sound of dance music,” says Kallman. “Skrillex certainly did.”

Songs That Defined The Decade