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.
But as the sun drops and his set time draws nearer, Rebergen becomes more withdrawn. He may be among hardstyle’s leaders overseas, but here he’ll be playing to a crowd largely unfamiliar with his music, that’s spent the day listening to well-known EDM fare.
“I’m pretty nervous now,” Rebergen says. “Not about my performance, because I know it will sound right, but about the crowd. It could go so many ways.” He gets some last-minute reassurance in the form of a surprise visit from Insomniac CEO Pasquale Rotella, who’s placed Rebergen in high-profile time slots at all three EDC events this summer.
As Steve Angello winds down with a medley of Swedish House Mafia classics, Rebergen runs behind him and crouches behind the booth. The idea is to limit the time between the last notes of “Don’t You Worry Child” and Rebergen’s thunderous opening, keeping the Angello crowd in place. The transition is swift, and a large majority of the fans stay to see what Headhunterz is all about. By this point, the backstage is teeming with EDM brass, including Rebergen’s management team and higher-ups from Ultra Music. Nerves are running high. “Will they get it?” members of the team ask repeatedly, to no one in particular.
The answer comes quickly. Angello wraps up, and Rebergen’s easygoing demeanor is replaced by the raw energy of his Headhunterz persona, for whom DJ-ing is a full-body workout. When he’s not mixing in or out of a song, Rebergen throws his hands into the air, palms open, in perfect time with the music. The sharply articulated movement makes it appear as if he’s hoisting up his heavy bass and kicks to present to the fans before him, and they mimic him excitedly. In moving to the 140-beats-per-minute music — a tempo considerably faster than nearly every mainstream EDM track — Rebergen is teaching the fans how to do it too.
Early in the set, Romero comes onstage and grabs the mic: “This is the one and only Headhunterz,” he says. “He’s not only one of my best friends, he’s one of the most talented producers in the world… so if you’re ready to go a little harder, make some fucking noise!” When the beat drops, it sounds as if the whole crowd has followed his orders. Romero mans the decks for a moment while Rebergen does a victory lap of sorts around the DJ booth and, seeing the fervent response, his whole team visibly relaxes.
Rebergen also gets on the mic soon after, to introduce an unfinished demo of the Krewella collaboration. The instant the dance-pop trio’s name leaves his mouth, iPhones and cameras shoot skyward to capture the song’s debut. By this point, the Headhunterz team is pouring champagne to celebrate.
But then, disaster. Rebergen introduces his last song of the night, his remix of Hardwell’s festival favorite “Spaceman.” Just as the beat is about to hit, the clock strikes 11, the stage goes dark and fans are utterly bewildered. Some boo, some applaud and others chant for one more song. Rebergen is visibly crestfallen. Trying to salvage the night, he jumps offstage and greets the remaining fans, one by one. Rotella returns, apologizing profusely for the early ending — CitiField noise ordinances — but congratulating him on a successful set.
Redemption comes the following month at EDC Las Vegas (June 21-23), which takes place in the middle of the desert, where noise doesn’t matter. Rebergen’s performance was initially unlisted, marked just as a “surprise special guest.” Social media pundits said it couldn’t be Headhunterz; he was booked to play at the Defqon.1 Festival in Holland that weekend. But Rebergen came straight from Europe, still wearing his Defqon wristband. “I’m not jetlagged,” he said. “I’m too excited.”
After a well-received set, Rebergen dropped “Spaceman” just as he had in New York, with the blazing sun starting to rise in the sky. This time, however, nothing kept the crowd from experiencing the buzz of that final drop. In full daylight, tens of thousands of ravers jumped as high as they could in time to the beat.
After it was all over, attendees shuffled toward the exit — with the exception of a few diehard Headhunterz fans, who run toward the front of the stage are and lean over the metal barricades, yelling his name to catch his attention. Rebergen gamely makes his way down to ground level (a much tougher feat on this EDC stage) and shakes hands, poses for photos and accepts every manner of gift. After about 20 minutes and a bit of pressure from his tour manager, he finally departs, with arms full of inflatable animals and beaded bracelets. “It’s bad karma to turn it away,” he says while hauling the gifts to a waiting SUV. “At the end of the day, you live from your fans.”
“Explode” Tour Dates
09.19: Starlight Ballroom, Philadelphia, PA
09.20: Telus Theatre, Montreal, QC
09.22: Royale Nightclub, Boston, MA
09.24: Barrymore’s Music Hall, Ottawa
09.26: Revolution Live, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
09.27: South Side Music Hall, Dallas, TX
10.03: Foundations, Seattle, WA
10.04: Pne Coliseum, Vancouver, BC
10.05: Phoenix Theatre, Toronto, ON
10.10: Monarch Theatre, Phoenix, AZ
10.11: Shaw Centre, Edmonton, AB
10.12: Sound Republic, Winnipeg, MB
10.13: Concord Music Hall, Chicago, IL