Correction: This concert review incorrectly said that both Michael Vincent Patrick and Theodore Paul Nelson of the group Designer Drugs performed at U Street Music Hall. Only Michael Vincent Patrick performed.
New York-based DJs Michael Vincent Patrick and Theodore Paul Nelson, more affectionately known as Designer Drugs, played a raucous three-hour set at U Street Music Hall on Saturday night. Or at least, I think it was them. Signed to electronic music giant Ultra Records in February, they are on a world tour promoting their first album, “Hardcore/Softcore,” a deliciously dark dish of punishing house tracks. Unfortunately, very little of their set drew from it.
Instead, the duo delivered what food critics would call a “safe” meal: a collection of current dance hits with a heavy reliance on dubstep, the raunchy sonic trend sweeping nightclubs and high school house parties across the nation. Those who were looking to learn more about Designer Drugs left none the wiser, an unfortunate lost opportunity on the part of Patrick and Nelson.
The pair — who met in high school outside Philadelphia and have credited their turntable awakening to the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” — call their sound “industrial house,” an on-the-nail description of their recorded tracks. On “Hardcore/Softcore,” staple house beats are violently masticated over goth-infused garage rock, as if concocted for underground raves in the back-alleys of Philadelphia’s grimiest neighborhood. (Listen to “Riot” for a nutshell taste.)
Saturday night, though, they could have been anybody.
At about 2:30 am, a friend (in the electronic music industry, no less) shuffled over and asked me who was playing. I couldn’t have blamed him. That “industrial” sound was laid only intermittently, an afterthought among the wobbling bass and catchy choruses of their contemporaries. If I had told him that it were Skrillex (dubstep’s current sensation) in the booth, it would have been an easy sell.
But wait, isn’t it the DJ’s job to play to the crowd? (Ask for dubstep and ye shall receive!) Put frankly, not anymore. As electronic music cements itself as a distinct genre, the bar to become a successful turntablist has been raised considerably. These days, DJs have cult followings, world tours, record labels, fashion lines and residencies at clubs from Ibiza to Las Vegas, all driven by their signature sound. Attending an electronica show today is a more formal affair than wandering into any given nightclub on any given evening. Like any rock, pop or country concert, there is an expectation to hear the artist you’ve bought tickets for.
Who knows why Designer Drugs were so loath to give themselves to us? Perhaps it’s because they’re relatively new on the scene. Perhaps it’s because one-half of the duo is reportedly in medical school, a real, albeit admirable, interference. Perhaps it’s because the hunger to be a rockstar DJ in today’s world of paradisal dance festivals and champagne-soaked limos surpasses the desire for a sound of your own. If Saturday’s show was any indication, Designer Drugs should stick to their warehouse-meets-electroclash roots. In the studio, at least, they’re onto something.