In the grand landscape of dubstep, a scene where each producer tries to out-bash the last with heavier, louder decibels of gurgling bass noise, Rusko sees himself as a bright ray of laughter.
“I’m the silly man in a room full of angry men,” he tells Billboard Dance. “It’s the antidote in a world of aggressive music … [and] it’s just nice to be different. You can tell sometimes when a crowd’s been just battered in the head with the same hard, hard for hours. It’s a nice little relief.”
Chris Mercer became Rusko nearly 15 years ago, and the fun-loving DJ has bounced his way from the London dubstep underground to main stages around the world. As one of the genre’s earliest innovators, he injects a bit of fun into the wobbliest corners of the electronic world. He started a family along the way, beat cancer in 2018, and if that wasn’t impossible enough, talked the legendary genre-innovator Skream (who famously left dubstep for house and disco) into playing his first dubstep set in nearly a decade.
Rusko has survived the fickle world of electronic music and the rest of life’s curveballs with an unshakable wit and lust for joy. Today, he released Genghis Danger on Deadbeats, a funny four-track EP that blends rainbow sounds with drum’n’bass rhythms, fat wobble synths, and classic reggae-infused UK dubstep. That’s his son’s face on the cover, and he’s currently on tour with Snails across the US. We caught up with the legend to hear all the grubby details.
1. Where are you right now?
I’m in my apartment in L.A. for the first time in about two and a half months. I just did the hometown show at the Palladium on Saturday night, which was amazing. We got the pop-up store today and record release. Ss well as doing all the exciting LA stuff, I’ve been doing loads of laundry, finding all the half-drunk coffee cups growing cultures in my room. I’d love to say that now I’m in my mid 30s and I’ve had it together life-wise, but it is what it is.
2. How do you pass the time on flights?
My number one thing on flights is podcasts. I hardly ever watch TV or anything on my phone. I’m all about listening. There’s something really intimate about podcasts. Every week, the same person is just talking to you directly. There’s a lot of really good UK comedians doing podcasts. The only thing about that is, I sit with my eyes closed and every two minutes just crack up laughing like a lunatic. I’m sure that whoever sits next to me on the flight when I listen to my comedy podcasts thinks I’m mad.
3. Do you want to name any podcast in particular?
There’s a show called Shagged, Married, Annoyed. It’s a UK comedian and his wife. Every week, they save up all their beef with each other, turn on the microphones and just have it out. It’s amazing. No holds barred, and they have a kid. They put the kid to bed, bring out the list of everything that’s been passing them off during the week, drink wine and they just have at it.
4. What’s distinctive about growing up in Leeds, and how did that place shape you?
The north of England, in particular, had a huge influx of Caribbean immigrants in the ’60s. We have a rich history of reggae in the UK, as is well known. Leeds was one of the huge places like 50 years ago for immigration from the Caribbean. As a result, we have a huge soundsystem culture. We have Carnival in the summer with the floats and the headdresses. That’s still a really healthy scene. Growing up with proper reggae music, really was a huge thing for me in making the music that I do. All my old songs were the dubbier side of dubstep, and I still keep that kind of thing. Where an American kid would grow up with hip hop all the time in the ’90s, for me it was reggae and soundsystems. I count myself really lucky – and I don’t know anything about hip hop.
5. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of your DJ career?
Do you know that I did my first shows as Rusko in 2005, and next year will be 15 years. That makes me feel old, but it’s true, and neither my mom nor my dad have seen me play once. Thanks for the support, guys. No, they love it, like obsessively. It’s annoying. I can’t phone them and tell them anything I’ve done, because they are constantly following my instagram stories and feeds. So I could be like, “oh my god, I played this amazing place” and my mom’s like, “oh, Red Rocks? Yeah, I saw it, great show.” From afar, they are my biggest fans – but neither of them are very musical. I’m the only one.
6. What is the first album or a piece of music that made a big impression on you?
Dangerous, the Michael Jackson album. I remember begging for that cassette and taking it everywhere with me. I wore that one out.
7. How old were you when you went to your first rave, and what was it like?
I went to my first rave, I was probably 17 and it was kind of scary. It was the first time I really heard drum’n’bass on proper speakers. I’d heard it in people’s cars who have the subs, but until you stood in front of a big fat wall of speakers, it’s hard to understand. A lot of people didn’t get dubstep until they felt it – and drum’n’bass was my first love, electronic music-wine, and it still is. It still holds the top spot.
8. There is some drum’n’bass on this E.P., and for years people have been like “yo, drum’n’bass is coming back.” Do you think it is?
Throughout my whole dubstep career, I’ve always had a drum’n’bass section in my set, like 10 minutes in the end, or almost half my set, which it is at the moment, which I love. Every two or three years, I think it’s gonna blow; finally the American EDM kids are going to get it, then it filters out. A lot of the cool guys right now are playing one or two drum’n’bass songs in their sets and making a couple of tracks, but it’s only ever a couple. I’m going out on a limb. These shows on the Snails tour, I only have an hour to play so I’ve been doing 30 minutes of dubstep and 50/50 drum’n’bass. It’s been going down better than it ever has. Noticeably, it’s going well. That was why I wanted to make one of the tracks on the EP a d’n’b tune. I’m not going to do a whole release yet, just edging it in, making it more of a thing. If I can, there will be one track on every release from now, just so I can play more in my sets.
9. Tell me about the first song you ever made.
My first forays into electronic beat making, I was recording TV theme tunes and remixing them. I was like 12 when I first worked out how to do that kind of stuff. It was before you could go and find the mp3. I literally recorded it into the microphone jack in the back of my mom’s P.C., put beats on the top, recorded it to a cassette tape and played for my friends who thought it was hilarious. Kind of weird, I suppose. Before that, I had a little four track recorder for my drums and guitar. I was always making little tracks like that, but my first beats were flippin The Simpsons. That basic.
A lot of my old Rusko tracks, I don’t have anymore. People often ask me if they can do a remix of “Hold On” or one of the classics. I’ve missed out on so many amazing remixes because I don’t have the parts or any of the files. I’m very much like that. Once it’s done, that’s it. I don’t need to go back to it. Im a bridge burner.
10. What was the last song you listened to?
That’s really embarrassing. The last song I listened to was “C’est La Vie” by B*witched. The ’90s Irish girl band. Last night, we were talking, me and my girl, remembering their songs. When we got home, I sneakily put the video on YouTube just to make her laugh. That was the last thing I listened to before I went to sleep. That’s my really cool and hip answer.
11. I saw you on Twitter say that you loved “stoner metal.” What is stoner metal?
Mainly instrument, really, really slow, and really stupid distorted and grungy, but kind of bluesy. A band I really love called Rezn, they are really amazing. The classic stoner metal band is a band called Sleep. it’s like if you took the big, heavy riffs of Rage Against the Machine, slowed it down like 50 percent and put even more distortion on everything. It’s psychedelic in a way as well. There’s one that’s really hard to pronounce, Belzebong. All the names of the bands are a mixture of the devil and weed. If you put one group on Spotify, you’ll get them all.
12. Speaking of slow, grungy sounds; when, where and how were you introduced to dubstep?
At the same event where I had my drum’n’bass epiphany back at 17. I went there for years and years, my regular monthly go-to rave up in Leeds. DMZ came and played in the back room, I think one of the first dubstep gigs out of London. That was just around the time that Skream put out “Midnight Request Line,” which was his proper first single. It was barely six months after that night that I moved to London for the sound itself. It was such a London-focused thing. There was no artists making it and playing it not in London. Really, I was lucky to catch a one-off show in Leeds. It was maybe three or four months after that I was sleeping on my friend’s couch in West London trying to make it work.
13. How crazy then was the explosion of dubstep from your perspective, in America and beyond?
I moved to London end of 2005. It was 2006 when I did a lot for my first release, a lot of shows around London and the UK. In 2007, we did the Fabric CD with Casper. We did the Fabric Live CD, which was the first commercially-available dubstep release for a long time. It was certainly the only physical release of dubstep you could buy in the US for about a year and a half. That’s a really cool thing, but it had this unexpected, amazing effect. Then 2009 is when I made the permanent move to the US, and that was just before the 2010 kick off here. It seems quick, but really it was a four or five year process.
14. How did you get Skream to do this back-to-back dubstep set with you at EDC Vegas? It felt legendary as soon as it was announced.
It’s been a long time coming, put it that way. I was an idea for a few different events. For a long time, it was just, “no, I don’t think I can do it. I don’t really want to do it.” I’m a huge fan of Skream’s recent output. All his house stuff, I’m a massive fan. You can tell his heart is 100 percent 120 bpm now. I get it. He has both arms in that world and he’s absolutely having the best time. But yeah, to finally get a yes was awesome. Tony, basically the guy that does all the booking and puts it on, was instrumental. It was a huge team effort. Everyone on my team, everyone from team EDC and even at that point, everyone on Skream’s management team. It was time to say yes, because everybody’s is board.
Yeah, but it was great. I don’t think I’ve ever spent two days in a room with some decks practicing for a show. Oli (Skream) really wanted to do that, because he hadn’t mixed dubstep for years. It was totally alien to him at that point. We had two awesome days, literally locked away in a tiny room, just working out what we were going to do. That’s unusual, because I freestyle and do my thing. Part of the fun for me is not knowing what’s going to happen, but we had to. We couldn’t have just been winging it because there was so much on that set. All the other DJs were there. I’ve never seen the stage so full with other DJs. If it was just Skream playing his first dubstep set in years, I’d have been at the front of that crowd. I got to do it even closer up.
15. Let’s talk about this release, Genghis Danger. I heard there’s a fun-loving story behind the title.
Naming tracks is really easy, because for the most part there’s a little vocal hook or sample, and that’s the name of the song. “Bumbaclat” has a guy going “Bumbaclat.” what else are we gonna call it song? When it comes to naming an EP or an album, if you’re not naming it after one of the songs, it’s really hard to do. My first album was called OMG, second one was just called Songs. That’s testament to the fact that I can never f*cking name or release. I thought it be a fun idea to ask my 3-year-old son. Most of the day he talks nonsense. I ask him what he wants for dinner and he says “yellow.” I said, what should daddy called his new music? Just out of nowhere, Genghis Danger. How does he even know the word Genghis? I just fell about laughing. That was before we even had the release together. It was just in the bank.
16. And he’s on the cover?
The last thing we always do is the artwork. What the hell Genghis Danger artwork can I put on that? What does that even mean? Well, let’s just put him on there. He’s going to hate me when he’s older, but everyone finds their dad embarrassing, right? Embarassing dad move number one is put your chocolate-covered face on my album cover for everyone to see.
17. Does he help out in other ways? Do you ever test your tracks with him?
He’s usually the first to hear a lot of my stuff. When he was a tiny little baby, I would bring my songs home from the studio and play them for him. I’d pick him up and bounce him around to them, and he’d laugh his head off. Now whenever I put my music on, that’s what he expects. If I put what he calls “daddy music” on, I have to pick him up and bounce him around the same way I did when you were six months. He’s heavy now, and I am sweating. I need to lay down after doing that. I have to be careful what I play if I’m not feeling particularly strong and energetic.
18. What’s one way you pushed yourself creatively on Genghis Danger?
The last year, I’ve had a totally different approach to making music. I do absolutely zero music making for about two months, then have two weeks where I do nothing else. When I’ve not been able to make music, even when I really want to, I don’t just to build it up. It’s like if you don’t have sex for three months, and finally you do have sex, it feels really fucking good. It’s the same thing, and a couple of songs come out a day. The tracks on Genghis Danger come from starving myself of creative time in order to make what I do extra explosive – not to use another sex joke.
19. You’re coming up on 15 years, and you’ve been through a lot. You’ve got a family, you went through your health scare a couple of years ago, and you seem like such a happy and fun loving person. What is the one thing that helps make this crazy, hectic lifestyle fun at the end of the day?
That’s really 100 percent my goal. I book my schedule with having fun as the number one. To the frustration of my management team, I turn down big offers because if I’ve already done two or three gigs that week, I’m not going to enjoy that. Even if I’m going to get a really good payday and it’s a big look. It’s taken a long time to get here, but I’m just choosy. It sounds a bit selfish in a way, but you have to be on that front. This Snails tour I’m doing until the end of January, the initial offer was to be on the tour bus permanently, so all the weekdays and weekends. I’ve arranged it so I’m just flying in and doing the weekend shows, then going home during the week. Definitely not as good for my profile or my bank account, but that’s gonna be more fun for me.
People can tell if I’m tired, burnt out and phoning it in. When they come see Rusko, they want me to be bouncing around and happy, frickin’ Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. That’s what they pay for, and that’s what I want to give them. That comes from such a genuine place, I have to really just focus on doing the ones that really make me happy and not having to do too much travel. I want to be as genuinely happy on stage as I can.
20. What does success for this EP and the future of Rusko look like to you?
Just continuation. I’m lucky to be doing what I was doing all those years ago ,making some tracks, playing some tracks. It’s not going crazy. I’m not walking down red carpets or headlining EDC. If I can stay in my lane for one more year, doing exactly the same thing, I’ll be the happiest man ever. I’m not trying to get crazy big, not trying to fall off, just stay in the lane, put out tracks on the regular and push drum’n’bass.
Genghis Danger is out now on Deadbeats. He marks the occasion with an album release party in Los Angeles Monday, Nov. 18. He’s currently on tour with Snails through 2020. Listen to Genghis Danger below.