In Parking Lot 8 of RFK Stadium on Saturday night, Skream and Benga cranked the bass loud enough to remind you how much hair you had on your knuckles.
The only time the music stopped was when the London DJ duo paused to ask the sound engineer to turn it up even more. “This is bass music!” Skream shouted, frustrated with the mix. His gripe felt like a rallying cry. In EDM, more is never enough.
The genre — its catchall name stands for “electronic dance music” — has enjoyed a historic surge in popularity this year, with house music pumping in our gyms, electro pumping in our clubs and dubstep pumping in our high school parking lots.
So with Thanksgiving only 48 hours in the rearview, nearly 9,000 fans fittingly gorged themselves on 10 hours of digital rhythms at the Fall Massive festival outside RFK. It kicked off at a sunny 4 p.m. and included performances from electronica vet Moby, pop omnivore Diplo, house hero Armand Van Helden, dubstep rookie Excision and 50 other acts performing in a sprawling network of tents, each filled with kaleidoscopic light, billowing smoke and young fans that made Halloween look like casual Friday.
If anything, EDM is the one genre of music where the fans always out-dress the artists. Or out-undress: It’s a scene where you can wear as much fluorescent body paint and as little clothing as you like. On Saturday, there were NASA jumpsuits, surgeon scrubs, fake dreadlocks strewn with Christmas lights, and scores of young women dressed as bikini-clad, hula-hooping panda bears. The older guys in flak jackets even looked like real cops. Maybe they were real cops.
Musically, the festival felt more homogeneous. If contemporary strands of dubstep, electro and house have a common weakness, it’s that all three can too easily veer into sonic overload. The thrills come fast and furious, but there isn’t much sensuality to a lot of this stuff. Sometimes, there isn’t any. And when maximalism becomes an entire genre’s leading virtue, chaos and monotony quickly follow.
This was all too apparent beneath Fall Massive’s most crowded tent, where a handful of dubstep acts spent the night belching out tracks at unrelenting volumes. Smash Gordon endowed the Tetris theme song with enough bass to tickle your kneecaps, while Zeds Dead dished out convulsive remixes that made the Beatles sound as if they were suffering violent seizures. It was fatiguing — and it was only 9 p.m.
Skream and Benga, two of dubstep’s pioneers, were given the longest set of the night, perhaps to show the rookies how it’s done. Long before America got its hands on it, dubstep was born in London, and its roots can be traced back to the mysterious, subwoofing magic of dub reggae.
The duo drew a straight line to that heritage with the employ of Sgt. Pokes, a hypeman with a growling patois who didn’t toast over the cavernous tracks so much as sink into them. For two hours, Skream and Benga deftly twisted their lowest frequencies into a refreshingly vast variety of shapes, as if they were making balloon animals out of bass.
But by the time Excision took the stage after midnight, that bass had evaporated. An engineer working the mixing board said that noise complaints had forced the organizers to turn everything down, down, down.
Things were still booming in the neighboring tents. After warming up with some obligatory dubstep tunes, Diplo dug into his hip-hop grab bag, pulling out radio hits that provided a reliable, satisfying thump. One stage over, Moby played throbbing house tracks in relative darkness, silhouetted against a large video screen. (You know a bald man is famous when you can identify him by the shape of his cranium.)
That fame, of course, came during the short-lived electronica flare of the late ’90s. In those days, the neighboring D.C. Armory would host Thanksgiving weekend raves that featured the likes of Scott Henry and Feelgood — and both performed at Saturday’s Fall Massive, thoughtfully connecting the District’s dance music past to its future.
So what will it take to keep EDM aboveground this time around? More nuance, for sure. And more women, too. After 10 hours and 54 acts, the only women to grace the stage at Fall Massive were dancers in skimpy outfits. If this is a scene where truly anything goes, it can’t remain a boys’ club for long.