Hardstyle is Back, Bitches

Brutal kickdrums, euphoric build-ups, and phat pants. Get ready: hardstyle is coming for America.

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Dec 28 2013, 12:33am

The Sound of Q-Dance at LA's Shrine Expo Hall last Saturday.

For the first time in its 13-year history, the Dutch-born genre of jaw-clenching, heel-stomping dance music known as hardstyle is rallying its troops and storming the American coasts. Last weekend, Belgian festival Tomorrowland rebranded itself as TomorrowWorld for its US debut, devoted an entire stage to hardstyle and drew 150,000 ravers to a horse farm in Chattahoochee, Georgia, where somehow no one overdosed on molly. Then there was The Sound of Q-Dance, a massive concert in LA with some of hardstyle's most exciting up-and-comers, including Dim Mak's newly-minted star Coone, Dutch duo Psyko Punkz, and the seriously creepy Gunz for Hire

A close-up of Q-Dance's trademark: elaborate stage spectacles with a sinister theme. 

Characterized by brutal kick drums often bordering on 150 beats-per-minute, urgent melodies, and a complete lack of syncopation that gives it a feel not unlike polka, hardstyle is not for the weak-nerved. To untrained ears, like my friends who live for Willie Nelson and quinoa, hardstyle sounds like a torture chamber, or maybe just a bad European joke. But the same demented malevolence that freaks out the uninitiated has limitless appeal to young misfits sulking in society's fringes (or just wishing they were)—one of the reasons why hardstyle has thrived over the past decade, growing from a Dutch microgenre into one of the most popular EDM subcultures in the world. 

But what is hardstyle, exactly? Its phat pants-wearing adherents insist it's more than just music—it's a way of life. A way of life that is often ridiculed for its lack of a cheese filter, sometimes looked down upon for its working class roots, and occasionally lauded for its seratonin-fueled earnestness. It's impossible to deny that a big reason why hardstyle is so appealing—or repellent, if you cleave to snobby notions of "good taste"—is its blatant appeal to the lowest common denominator. Like big festival dubstep, hardstyle has perfected the dance music formula that sandwiches only the most euphoric build-ups between the gnarliest and most satisfying drops, with no fluff to get in the way. And with its coordinated shuffle dances and Hot Topic aesthetics, the genre has never been too concerned with being "cool," which is inevitably part of its appeal. But as the wheels of the hype cycle churn, hardstyle is finding plenty of new fans who are earnest, ironic, and somewhere in between, while creeping into the sound of everything else. (Even Krewella!)

Born in Amsterdam in the late 90s, hardstyle grew out of other pharmaceutically-fueled, testosterone-heavy genres of electronic dance music like hard house, hard trance and gabber. It quickly developed its own culture of dance moves, record labels, and superstars, with giant festivals like the (now defunct) Qlubtempo, Qlimax and Defqon. 1 propelling the movement across Europe and Asia. Australia, in fact, is now home to some of the genre's most die-hard devotees. 

But only now does hardstyle appear poised to break into mainstream America's iTunes libraries. Several signs point to the likelihood of it becoming the "next big thing" in EDM: the US debut of hardstyle festivals TomorrowWorld and Q-Dance; Ultra Music signing one of hardstyle's first and most prominent producers, Headhunterz, who also played closing sets at Electric Daisy Carnival in New York and Las Vegas; Dim Mak honcho Steve Aoki signing rising hardstyle talent Coone after hearing his song "Madness," which was made in collaboration with Dimitri Vegas, Like Mike, and, um, Lil Jon. Coone himself told me that "the main goal for working with Dim Mak is bringing hardstyle to America. We want to globalize the scene." 

But why is hardstyle only breaking into the US now? Billboard reporter Kerri Mason, who was one of the first to predict hardstyle's impending takeover of America, explained over email that the support of powerful, influential, and moneyed US-based companies like Ultra Music, Williams Morris, Insomniac Events, and even Q-Dance has been especially helpful. "Some people in the Dutch scene are wary of this top-down approach though," she added, "because over there it still has elements of an honest-to-God subculture… When you talk to guys who have been promoting it for a decade in the Netherlands, it's connected to a fierce subculture of misfits. It's not just the music." 

When I asked label reps from Ultra and Dim Mak the same question, Ultra's GM and Senior VP of A&R David Waxman pointed to the huge appeal of hardstyle's robust melodies, which he believes are just as big as those coming from other electronic chart-toppers. "It's a bit extreme to dive head first into an all night hardstyle event," Waxman acknowledged, but "mainstage marquee names like Hardwell, Steve Aoki, Tiesto and Porter Robinson have been dropping hardstyle in their sets… and fans are reacting positively." Waxman has a point—even Diplo has been dropping hardstyle into his music… and promptly getting called out on Twitter by GHE20G0TH1K's Venus X, who herself made a killer hardstyle mix with her DJ partner $hayne for V Magazine which they described as "a best-of hardstyle apocalypse mix with Nicki and RiRi cameos and mega witchcraft and cats." 

Similarly, Dim Mak's Director of Marketing, Bryan Linares, attributed hardstyle's rise to US audiences' tendency to move in trends. "We saw dubstep have its moment. Trap is having its moment now. Hardstyle is making waves in America because fans are looking for a new and exciting sound. It's fast, and kids love fast." 

If hardstyle's infiltration of America is bound to happen eventually, then so is its inevitable Americanization—just as dubstep mutated from melancholy, high-minded bass music into hyperactive, mindless "brostep" when it crossed over from the UK to our shores. "Hardstyle promoters are dreaming of a US hardstyle artist to emerge that would make it sound more 'American,'" says Mason, "That could include the addition of hip-hop or punk elements—which could, in fact, make it more like a harder brostep. Get ready for the inevitable 'grandparents listening to hardstyle' YouTube clip…" 

Even the Dutch hardstyle OG Headhunterz acknowledges that some kind of change is bound to happen. "Some ingredients of the hardstyle formula will probably be picked up more than others, and while touring in the US, that becomes more and more clear to me. How the genre will change is a mystery, and I'm just going with the flow. But I don't see change as a negative thing," he said. 

Regardless of whether its championed by label execs, old hardstyle masters, or trend-hunting tastemakers, one thing is clear: hardstyle is back, bitches. Better start learning how to shuffle. 

Michellez is hardstyle 4 lyfe - @MichelleLHOOQ

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