By Noah Hubbell
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By Tom Murphy
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After doing the M.I.A. album, I was asked if I would be interested in writing some stuff for it," says Christopher Mercer almost nonchalantly of his recent production work for the upcoming Britney Spears album. "A good rule of thumb is that more tracks won't make it than will make it."
Born in Leeds, England, Mercer, who's better known as Rusko, the moniker under which he records and performs, has become one of the most sought-after dubstep producers in recent years. He inherited a love of music from his mother, a folk and country singer who performed in a band called Ventura Highway. She stopped being an active musician when he was still an infant, but being around guitars his entire life left a mark on Mercer, who learned how to play at a young age and who used two small tape recorders to record songs, radio shows and other sounds to fuel his creativity.
Mercer later attended the University of Leeds in the college of music, and that's when he focused his efforts on beat-making. "In my high school, there were people I sort of played in bands with, but no one who was ever interested in making beats, and no one who knew how to turn a synthesizer on," Mercer recalls. "So to turn seventeen and then move into a house with three other guys who all they did all day was make beats and smoke weed, I was like, 'Huh? There's other people like me?'
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"So three of us pooled all our stuff in one room and spent the whole time making beats and doing the minimum we could to scrape through," he continues. "That was the best kind of education, you know, being away from home, being able to stay up all day and all night and have a few like-minded people to bounce off. Really, that was kind of my college. Just having two years around creative people to make music — that was the start of my making electronic music properly."
But it wasn't just college collaborations that sparked Mercer's musical imagination; it was also the milieu of the sound-system culture in the north of England. "From age sixteen and seventeen, I started going to Club Dub, which is the name of the dub and drum-and-bass kind of night in Leeds," Mercer relates. "Eighteen is the legal age, but if you can grow a beard at sixteen and a half, you're pretty good to get in."
With their high population of people with origins in the West Indies, Leeds, Sheffield and other northern cities were known for their soundclashes and a take on dub unique to England as represented by artists like Iration Steppas, Bush Chemists and Vibronics — "that kind of tough, digital U.K. dub sound," Mercer says, "which is very different from traditional, King Tubby dub sound."
Attending similarly themed club nights and seeing soundclashes and other performances at community centers, Mercer had an epiphany about the kind of music he wanted to make. His earliest beats were essentially dub beats in the classic U.K. dub mold, but with his own twist. That difference came to the attention of a DJ named Gary McCann, aka Caspa, who got ahold of Mercer's tracks through a mutual friend. From there, Mercer and Caspa embarked on a mutually fruitful endeavor as joint owners of the Dub Police imprint and as musical collaborators.
"He taught me a lot of the music-industry side of it," says Mercer about his work with McCann. "He's more of a DJ, and I come from music and producing. I would teach him stuff about music — chords, melody and stuff like that — and he'd teach me about deejaying. It was a good trade-off. I gave him some more musicality to his beats, and he taught me the art of being a DJ."
From there, Mercer became immersed in the world of London club music, and he became friends with David "Switch" Taylor, a frequent collaborator with Thomas "Diplo" Pentz, through their connection with the dance club Fabric. It was Switch who convinced Mercer to move to California and get away from the claustrophobic atmosphere and hectic pace of London and its sister city in America, New York. "Generally, the pace of life in California is a heck of a lot slower than London," Mercer observes. "As a consequence, I get so much more music done, and I'm generally a lot more relaxed. It's great for being creative, definitely."
Since moving to Los Angeles last fall, Mercer has kept busy on the production end of things by collaborating with M.I.A. on her album, in addition to working on tracks with Rihanna and T.I. "I think the thing I've heard the most is that I bring a sense of fun to the music," he says. "A lot of music that's hard — the hard music that's club music — is quite aggressive. It's distorted and whatever. A lot of people mistake a track being hard with a track being angry and aggressive. I try and add a little more fun into the music while still being pumping and hard."
Despite all of his success and the bountiful artistic and professional opportunities he's had by the age of 25, Mercer has other ambitions.
"I'd just like there to be no bad connotations around dance music," he stresses. "Dance music still has kind of a bad name around it — rave, dance music and all of that. I just want to totally eradicate that. I want dance music to be as acceptable as rock music. If a sixteen-year-old kid wants to go see a DJ, the parents are going to be more worried than if they wanted to go see a band.
"It is changing," he concludes. "And if I can be a part of that change, then that's the coolest thing. That's what it's all about, really. I like releasing music, but it's really just to make sure there are people in a club. Record sales don't really matter; club sales, that's what matters to me — that there are people there having fun."
With his forays into mainstream music and the recent release of his first solo album, O.M.G.!, on Diplo's Mad Decent label, Rusko's vision could become a reality before we all know it.