At the 2:17 mark of Britney Spears' 2011 hit single "Hold It Against Me," dubstep entered the mainstream.
It had been bubbling around pop's surface before Spears put her glossy touch on it, but this was Top 40's most blatant — and effective — use of the increasingly popular electronic dance music sub-genre.
As Spears' vocals cut out, the track builds to a climactic "breakdown," signified by dubstep's trademark bass wobble. It's deep enough to crush your chest, and it's a huge part of what makes the genre so appealing: A song builds and builds until the rug is suddenly ripped from under it, only to re-form. It's dance music that constantly rewards listeners with its ebb-and-flow design.
Now, dubstep's fingerprints are everywhere. Whether it's Kanye West and Jay-Z's "Watch the Throne," a blockbuster album with multiple songs full of breakdowns and bass drops, or the half-time tempo of Katy Perry's "E.T.," there are dubstep elements all over the Billboard charts. It's the classic case of pop producers mining the underground for new sounds.
So where do they look for inspiration?
The answer could come on Saturday, when some of dubstep's rising artists — including Vaski, Terravita, Crizzly and more — bring their dub-takes on electronic dance music to Baltimore Soundstage for Dub Nation's 3 Year Anniversary dance party.
Electronic dance music is frequently splintering in new directions. Terravita, a three-piece group from Boston, considers its music "drumstep" because it takes '80s-style drum-and-bass beats and fuses them with dubstep's 140 beats-per-minute pacing. It can get pretty technical, but Terravita's Chris Barlow said the nuances are what keep acts from blending all together.
"To a layperson not in the scene, [the acts] all probably sound like the same thing, but even within the genre, there's vastly different-sounding artists," Barlow said. "It's like saying Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath are the same genre."
Saturday's bill exemplifies how this goes. Along with Terravita's drumstep, there's Vaski's aggressive take on dubstep and Crizzly's "crunkstep," a blending of Southern crunk-rap over dubstep beats.
The audience continues to surge, thanks to Dub Nation-sponsored parties across the country and the growing popularity of acts such as Deadmau5, who had the closing set — and what looked to be the largest audience — at last year's Virgin Mobile FreeFest.
Alex Vaski, who calls dubstep "the most up-and-coming, aggressive style of music right now," said the genre is only getting started.
"It hasn't peaked yet," Vaski said. "A lot of people in our culture are trying to find the new big thing. Everyone knows [dubstep] is going to get more and more popular."
The catalyst could be the genre's current wunderkind, Skrillex, aka Sonny Moore, an emo kid who left his band, From First to Last, to pursue a career as a producer and DJ. It has paid off, as he's become capable of selling out venues many mainstream artists could not. His name often comes up during talks with Barlow and Vaski, as if Skrillex is the measuring stick of success.
"At least right now, I think there's people that only listen to Skrillex and don't listen to other dubstep artists," said Vaski, 21, who calls Moore's music "really, really good."
"That's frustrating for a lot of people, but I don't think it'll be that way forever," he said.
Of course, it wouldn't be a rising genre without backlash, and dubstep's comes from within its ranks. What started in South London in the late '90s as "chilled-out listening music to … hang out with" — Vaski's words — has evolved into marketable, fist-pumping rave music.
British dubstep producer James Blake made Internet headlines last year when he said U.S. dubstep had found a "frat-boy market where there's this machoism being reflected in the sounds."
"People like James Blake are mad because it's different than it used to be," Vaski said. "People feel like they own dubstep."
Artists such as Terravita and Vaski seem more interested in their own sounds' futures than arguing over semantics. To them, dubstep's expansion presents many possibilities.
"That's the one thing people don't understand," Vaski said. "Just because people in the genre are going in one direction, doesn't mean everyone is going that way."
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Dub Nation's 3 Year Anniversary, featuring Vaski, Terravita and others, is Saturday at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 8 p.m. $10-$15. 18 and older. Call 410-244-0057 or go to baltimoresoundstage.com.