If the electronic dance music scene in Atlanta has a godfather, it's Michael Jackson. No, not that one. Jackson, better known around town as MJ, has been at the center of dance music in Atlanta for 17 years, throwing huge parties with such world-famous artists as the Chemical Brothers. When the focus of dance music shifted toward drum 'n' bass in the late '90s, MJ shifted with it. And when attendance at local shows fell off drastically in the early 2000s, he started Household Management, a talent agency that would go on to manage more than 60 bass-centric electronic musicians worldwide.
At the moment, he's in the main room at QUAD, behind the oversized DJ booth with Charlie P, his partner in the duo the Living Experience — so-named for the glitch-hop instrumentals they compose on the spot. As MJ crouches over a synthesizer and Korg Kaossilator beat machine tapping out a throbbing beat, he slowly bobs his neck back and forth. Beside him, Charlie P raves out while sequencing their sounds using Ableton Live software. A hefty, bald guy with a rather intimidating look more suitable for working the door than twiddling nobs, MJ's almost meditative, eyes-closed stance provides the perfect contrast to the taller, slimmer Charlie P and his rhythmic body-jacking. Together, they're like a much cooler version of Ren and Stimpy.
Each beat MJ bangs out with his index fingers seems to send the 18-and-over crowd into an incomprehensible frenzy. It's as if he's pushing their buttons. After the duo's hour-long set, MJ introduces the night's headliner — the London-based dubstep DJ/producer Flux Pavillion, who's Atlanta appearance is part of his first international tour — before promptly disappearing into the sweaty, half-shirtless mass of glow-stick-adorned kids.
The next afternoon on the phone, he still sounds energized from the previous night. He can't get over the sold-out line of 1,450 ticket-holders that snaked from the entrance of QUAD and down Spring Street before turning the corner and spilling out into the rear of Arby's parking lot. More than anything, he seems eager to distinguish his weekly Friday night bass bashes, booked solid through October, from what he calls the illegal "crackhead warehouse" rave written up in a Creative Loafing nightlife column back in March that sent the whole dubstep scene into a tizzy.
"What happened last night, that's how a dubstep show should be," he says. "And when you see it done right, in a legitimate venue with legitimate headliners, that's what it's supposed to be like."
Though it may seem trivial to the uninitiated, there's a good reason why MJ's eager to push the musical movement behind the party. Parties are fads. Music is fashion. Parties, especially the unruly kind, spawn legislation. Music, even when deemed disposable, creates legacies. As difficult as it may be to separate glow sticks from wobbling bass lines, that slight distinction could be the difference between a bankable future for Atlanta's dubstep scene and a repeat of the past.
The worst-case scenario, according to MJ, would be a replay of what happened around the turn of the century, when Ecstacy use became so closely associated with rave culture that it caused local governments nationwide, and the Feds, to go off the deep end. He still recalls the apex, when New Orleans rave promoter Disco Donnie was nearly prosecuted in 2000 by the Drug Enforcement Agency under the "crack house law" for throwing huge parties at the State Palace Theatre, where Ecstacy and LSD were allegedly being sold on the premises. Under the DEA's case, glow sticks, pacifiers, even bottled water were deemed "drug paraphernalia." That incident was followed three years later by the passing of the RAVE Act (Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act), originally sponsored by current Vice President Joe Biden.
"The next thing you know [local news networks were] showing up at these parties with hidden cameras like, 'It's 2 a.m. Do you know where your children are?'" MJ recalls. "That pretty much killed everything for, like, years. And now there's a resurgence of that going on, largely in part to dubstep and kids getting back into electronic music. I don't want it to turn into a repeat of the '90s, where parents had a misunderstanding of what kids were doing."
The other misunderstanding, of course, is over the music. The subgenre has evolved from something exclusively for electronic music geeks to the preferred soundtrack for drunken fraternity brothers in an astonishingly short amount of time. As a result, one of its defining characteristics has become an ongoing identity crisis over what dubstep really is. "It's an experience. You walk into a show and literally feel the music. You feel that bass," says Adam Golden, a local 19-year old dubstep/hip-hop promoter and DJ. "It sounds like robots having apocalyptic sex."
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