Josh Steele, better known as the U.K.dubstep songwriter and producer Flux Pavilion who has been championed by Kanye West andJay-Z, started out as an aspiring rock star. Guitars and drums were his preferred mode of expression in a handful of U.K. bands. But while working in his bedroom on songs, he began tinkering with samplers, keyboards and drum machines and his new musical future became apparent.
“Electronic music was a way for me to pretend I was making full band music in my bedroom,” the 23-year-old multiple-threat songwriter says. “Then things got out of my hand.”
Dubstep has been around for more than a decade, an offshoot of electronic music that began in the South of London with deep, sinister bass lines, skittering drums and a distinctly underground vibe. It has since morphed into heavier, harder territory, especially in North America, where it has made deep commercial impact, mostly as heard on tracks by pop stars such as Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj.
Steele heard dubstep as not just club music, but a songwriting vehicle. “I heard it during my first week at university, and everything changed,” he says. “There were a whole bunch of ideas in one genre, like nothing I’ve ever heard before.”
He cofounded his own label, Circus Records, and his song-oriented approach to dubstep attracted the attention of West and Jay-Z, who sampled the Flux Pavilion track “I Can’t Stop” on their 2011 “Watch the Throne” album.
“How did it feel? Pretty damn good,” Steele says with a laugh. “I’ve always respected the music Kanye samples, and I also liked the way they used the sample. They didn’t just rap over the original track, they sampled my composition, my ideas, and then treated them in a new way, putting new beats to my notes. They were a lot more creative than most people when they borrow from someone else.”
For dubstep to thrive, Steele believes, it will need to keep growing as a songwriting outlet. In wedding melodies with cutting-edge textures and beats, Steele says he strives to create “emotional dance epics – I want to make people dance and cry at the same time.”
“It’s not easy to pin down. It’s like trying to define what is emotion, or explain to me what love is in an easy sentence. It’s a feeling. You can get it from a cowbell – a particularly emotional cowbell.”
His next move is a full-length album, a dubstep project that he’ll record with a band.
“I want to take a different view of what dubstep can be,” he says. “Even though I work within electronic music, I also write songs on a guitar. I’m not doing it much with Flux Pavilion, but I’m trying to make an album like that, with all those ideas. It’s not just about dancefloor bangers. People like Nero and Skrillex are moving on to that. We’re not really defining ourselves as DJs or producers. We’re musicians who happen to use computers as an instrument. There used to be a gap: A DJ is a DJ, a guitarist is a musician, and you couldn’t be both. Now you have the in-between, you can play guitar and work with a computer. The genre, the movement is quite a free thing -- it’s a free-for-all, with no rules, and the big hits are always a surprise because people are only now starting to become conscious that the mainstream cares about what we do.”
So what exactly is dubstep? The dirty little secret is that there is no longer one way to describe it. It depends on whom you ask. For Steele “it’s more of a platform, an opportunity for creative people to do whatever they want. It was a genre that turned into movement. It’s electronic music that has become a culture. Anyone, anywhere in the world can make a tune in their bedroom and get it to thousands of people right away.”
Steele’s description sounds a lot like the opportunities thrown open by punk and hip-hop when those art forms first emerged from the streets: a type of post-modern, urban folk music that is low-budget, accessible and extremely democratic.
“I wasn’t alive back when those movements started, but, yeah, I can see the connection,” he says. “Punk and hip-hop are massive movements, historical musical things. Dubstep is something I’m a part of, and it’s hard for me to imagine myself as part of a big historical movement just yet. I still have to wash my socks every day.”
Flux Pavilion at the Spring Awakening Festival, noon Saturday-Sunday at Soldier Field, $119.99 for two-day pass; clubix.com.
Saturday: Skrillex, Benny Benassi, A-Trak, Ferry Corsten, Markus Schulz, Dillon Francis, Garbriel & Dresden, Morgan Page, Claude Vonstroke, Kill the Noise, Joachim Gerraud, Designer Drugs, Bart Bmore, Downlink, Midnight Conspiracy, Nathan Scott, Krewella, Zebo, Nobody Beats the Drum, Tommie Sunshine, Stratus, Lobounce, Willy Joy, Porn N Chicken
Sunday: Afrojack, Moby, Flux Pavilion, Carl Cox, Laidback Luke, Wolfgang Gartner, Diplo, Datsik, Hardwell, Arty, R3Hab, Green Velvet, Felix Cartal, Derrick Carter, Nervo, Sandro Silva, Oliver Twizt, Destructo, Lance Herbstrong, Quintino, Sharmanology, Team Bayside High, Thibault, Robots on the Run, NORdjs, David S.