In the year 2014, John Dadzie — better known as the pioneering American dubstep producer 12th Planet, whom Skrillex, among others, counts as a mentor — was in a funk. “I was caught in this place where I’m like, ‘why am I even making music?'” he tells Billboard Dance. He barely put out any music that year, but this week, 12th Planet is back with the seven-track Gully Squad EP — his second release of 2016. He’s re-opened the spigot just as his genre is experiencing a new wave of popularity.
This is fitting, since 12th Planet is often credited with helping expose dubstep to an American audience. He came to the genre through its older, faster predecessor: drum and bass. As a young raver, Dadzie found a community in this scene. “You go to a rave and in the main room there’s trance and a bunch of people wearing Mickey Mouse gloves and really big pants and they’re all sitting down in the middle of the rave fucked up on ecstasy,” he remembers. “The little tiny room in the back was the jungle or drum and bass room. It was always the same 50 to 100 kids, they dressed normal and smoked weed and did normal people shit.”
“I thought that it was more accessible,” he continues. “And the fact that it sampled a lot of hip-hop and dancehall that I was really familiar with, I just identified with it more.”
Soon Dadzie was on the drum and bass message boards, learning to DJ, and starting to produce. “I got really sucked in,” he says. “I knew a group of 200 to 300 people that lived in L.A. that went to the same party every week.” He released his first record at age 19, soon adopting the name Infiltrata.
But an unswerving, cradle-to-grave career in drum and bass was partially derailed when he heard dubstep for the first time while touring in England in the mid ’00s. His first reaction: “What is this slow drum and bass?” He fell for it soon after. “It was like a breath of fresh air,” he says. “Nowadays, a producer doing multiple genres is encouraged. 15 years ago, that was not the case. It was a whole new medium that I could still use my skills from drum and bass but apply it to a slower b.p.m. and not get backlash from everyone.”
When he returned to L.A., he brought his new passion for dubstep with him. Mostly it fell on deaf ears. “We were trying to have a night where you could go there and have five hours of dubstep,” he explains. “Ten years ago, when we threw the first Smog party [Smog is his brand/label], we were hard pressed to find a DJ that had even 45 minutes of dubstep.” This forced Dadzie and his cohort to look harder for material to play and to make more of their own records. Dadzie adopted the 12th Planet moniker for these productions. “When dubstep first came around [in the U.S.], it was the black sheep,” he says. “No one wanted to f–k with it.”
But that was about to change — dubstep was beginning to yield hits overseas, and producers like Burial were earning critical acclaim. The New York Times‘ Kelefa Sanneh wrote about the genre’s emergence on these shores in January of 2008. To Dadzie’s surprise, 500 people showed up at Smog’s two year anniversary party. Two months after that, 12th Planet opened for Rusko, an English dubstep producer, in L.A., and roughly 3,000 people showed up. “That’s when I was like, ‘oh shit — this is out of control,'” Dadzie recalls. “There are like high school kids here now. I never even knew that people in high school had heard dubstep because that shit was only in 21+ clubs then.”
As dubstep showed its profitability, it quickly attracted interest from major corporate players, which helped propel the sound into the mainstream even as it removed most of the conditions that nourished the scene in the first place. “Big money people started booking all the guys and saying, ‘if you play for us, you can’t play for anyone else,’ and putting radius clauses up,” Dadzie says. “Then all the local promoters who started with the genre and understand it more get left behind. As an artist, you’re looking out for yourself — the scene is amazing, but the scene ain’t gonna pay your rent. I’m taking the same exact shows: I can’t even play for my own club.”
The eventual over-saturation was inevitable, leading to Dadzie’s feelings of gloom in 2014. “I put out like one record, but that was one of the most lucrative years for me,” he explains. “I’m sitting pretty, I’m making enough money, but I’m playing the records from two years before, and no one gave a fuck. Up until that point I’d been working so hard, it almost seemed pointless.”
But the scene he loved and nurtured eventually reinvigorated him. “A few collaborations really got me excited about making music again,” Dadzie says. Working with Lumberjvck, who appears on Gully Squad, “was like having a little brother come in and show you a secret level in a video game.” He also credits Datsik and Dodge & Fuski with showing him different ways to approach the songwriting process. “Once you figure one thing out, it leads to breakthroughs on all different types of shit,” Dadzie adds.
Dadzie’s’ rejuvenation mirrors one taking place in his genre as a whole: he suggests that dubstep experienced a “back to basics” moment last year that provided it with a new jolt of energy. 12th Planet is currently on tour, and he’s played a string of sold-out shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of Smog. “In terms of ticket sales, dubstep is probably the biggest it’s ever been,” he says. “But in terms of [mainstream] popularity and radio play, it’s nowhere near where it was in 2011 and 2012.” That’s probably better for the genre’s long-term health. Dadzie’s renewed enthusiasm is also a good sign for the future of dubstep: “Now I’m back in that place where all I want to do is write music again.”