Foto: Jason Davis/Ilustración: Nayon Cho

Skrillex Is Pop Music's Best Collaborator

Recent singles with Wale, Ty Dolla $ign and more demonstrate that Sonny Moore has become even more effective at helping his friends than as a dubstep destroyer.

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Sep 18 2017, 3:26pm

Foto: Jason Davis/Ilustración: Nayon Cho

There was a time earlier this decade when virtually everyone thought they understood what Skrillex did. After an adolescence schooled on screamo, nü metal, and Daft Punk stadium shows, he forged bass-drop battering rams, stormed the gates of the pop music establishment, and introduced the American public to a crushing transformation of dubstep. He even managed to run off with a few Grammys in the midst of the chaos. Even when he produced and remixed for others, he brought a similar sort of fury, turning tracks by everyone from A$AP Rocky to his childhood heroes in Korn into bass-scorched earth. A Skrillex refix was once a way of dragging a familiar vocal into his world, crumbling and dystopian as that often was.

Somewhere along the line, though, it became a little less clear exactly what exactly you were going to get when you saw the producer born Sonny Moore's name in the credits of a new song. As the years went on, he became more chameleonic and his work more adaptable. Though you could sense a shift afoot if you were following his work closely, the first major changes came in 2015. He worked on legitimate pop hits as part of Jack Ü, his duo with Diplo, warping the voices of the biggest singers in the world into saccharine instrumentation—as if he'd turned their vocal cords into Nerds Ropes. He was pulled into the fold to produce much of Justin Bieber's most recent album, Purpose, casting a cyberpunk's neon over those dimly-lit confessionals. Ever since Skrillex first emerged he's always been wildly popular, but when he started working on songs that were going to actually get played on the radio, something softened.

Without the screeching synths and apocalyptic atmospheres, it's now a little more difficult to tell exactly what his contributions are to a given track. As such, the preferred metaphors that his collaborators use to describe what he brings to their work have gotten a bit out there over the years. They say that what he does is, simply, "fucking different." Or it's "magic." Or he's "sprinkl[ing] his magical alien dust on it, as he does so effortlessly." Or they say, vexingly and crudely, it's "Like he had Tourette's or something." (Though it must have been something of a shock for a member of Spoon to see him unplugging glitchy audio interfaces and muttering into a microphone.)

What this really means is that after all Skrillex's success, he's been afforded the slack to do pretty much whatever he wants—even when the people he's working with don't know exactly what that is. This year, across a series of standalone singles and production jobs, he's made the most of that freedom, taking it as an occasion to do a little bit of everything. Just within the last couple of months, he's had a hand in producing shattered club music with the Jersey Club King Sliink, aqueous indie pop with Hundred Waters, sunny EDM-pop echoes with another frequent Bieber collaborator called Poo Bear, and digitalist reggae R&B with Damian Marley and Ty Dolla $ign. Earlier this year he produced a dizzy comeback record for the alt-rock radio standbys in Incubus. He curated a house compilation for his label OWSLA. He even found time to return to his old emo band From First to Last for a belt-sanded vocal turn on their most recent single. There's nary a drop in sight on any of it.

If you line all those projects all up in a playlist, it can be jarring to flick between them. But that only highlights what's become his greatest strength as a producer over the last few years: his ability to disappear. With his most recent longer solo works a few years in the rearview, he's mostly been working to fold himself into new styles—to augment and elevate styles other than his own, using a lighter touch and fading into the background.

A couple weeks ago, Ty Dolla $ign released "So Am I," on which Skrillex is credited as a featured artist alongside Damian Marley, a potent example of Moore's new approach. The digital dub that makes up the track's backbone is so far from Skrillex's traditional wheelhouse that it had me digging to see if there were any other producers credited on the track (there aren't!). And yet it feels shockingly natural, the sort of buoyant updraft of a beat that Marley's been gliding over his whole career.

"Saint Laurent," his recent team-up with Sliink and Wale takes a similar approach. It starts with a pretty standard rap beat supporting Wale's dreary drawl before turning into a slivered Jersey club riff that stands up with Sliink's best kick-drum exercises. Both of these tracks—along with "Favor" his bubbly track with Vindata and NSTASIA—allow Skrillex to utilize his collaborators strengths rather than forcing them to unite over his shreddy sounds, which paradoxically ends up making for tracks as singular as he ever made on his own.

His production tics still make appearances though. On "So Am I" he sneaks in one of his post-"Where Are Ü Now" signatures, twisting a vocal take into something like a pitch-shifted bird call. "Saint Laurent" too finds him and Sliink goofing with Wale's vocal take, turning the title phrase into a slurry, stuttering chorus that double dutches over the flying kicks. These are familiar tools from his bag of tricks, but they get a breath of fresh air in these new contexts—all of a sudden his twist on the laptop reggae formula is like nothing you've ever heard before, his club flip gets a burst of energy befitting festival mainstages. It's not a reinvention of the genres—nor even an improvement necessarily—but it does sound exciting, as if you're hearing him discover how to play with new sounds in real time. There's a life in the sound of hearing him work it out, like the furious scribblings of someone trying to solve a particularly complicated math problem.

Running parallel to these aesthetic shifts is, of course, the news that the sounds that birthed Moore's career aren't quite the commercial successes they once were. Vegas clubowners have by-and-large shifted their money away from EDM DJs. The scene's biggest stars were declaring dubstep dead as early as 2013. But Skrillex's tastes and fascinations have always been a little more complicated than his hits and festival sets suggest. He loves Aphex Twin and making songs that sound like Burial and he talks to reporters about aliens. He runs a label at the cutting edge of dance music, but he also puts out records by rising singer-songwriters.

He was never just going to make bangers, so it's been compelling to watch him figure out how to navigate a shift away from a sound that won him lots of awards and undoubtedly earned him a lot of money. As he continues to take on collaborations with pals in different scenes and styles, it seems increasingly convincing that he'll be pretty good at whatever it is he tries to do next—even if that's everything at once.

Colin Joyce still loves EDM. You can find him on Twitter.