When Steinway hits the Main Stage at 7:30 PM, his set differs from the rest. The visuals are arresting but simple. Outside of Sus Boy's vivid imagery, there are usually just one or two colors, making Steinway a stark silhouette against the massive screens that surround him. His DJing also avoids big-budget clichés: though he isn't allergic to the occasional moment of bass-heavy madness, he tends to mix out of tracks before the drop hits, or fake it out with a dip into rap music. It's my fourth time seeing him play in as many nights, but his set still feels unpredictable, a step removed from the run-of-the-mill EDM formula so common among his contemporaries.
A few days earlier, when I first approach the RL Grime tour bus in Philadelphia, it's quiet and empty. Steinway is sleeping off his eight-hour redeye flight from LA. The Philly gig is the start of his massive Void tour, a four-month slog in support of his upcoming debut album. It's a little different than your average club tour. Each date takes place in a venue more suited for rock shows, a decision made with both capacity considerations and production values in mind.
Steinway doesn't emerge until it's time for the first meet-and-greet of the tour. The idea strikes me as odd, not just because it's something we associate with rock stars, but also because Steinway has the demeanor of the quietly brilliant student in class who never speaks up. He's often too shy to complain or make a fuss about anything—if there were too many strangers on the tour bus, for example, Steinway would just hide in the back and play video games.
In reality, the meet-and-greet is about as adorably awkward as you'd expect. He has reservations about it—"if anyone says the T-word, I'm out of here," he says with a laugh, referring to his association with trap—but Steinway is friendly as fans approach him and attempt to make conversation. One guy I met had driven all night from a Skrillex show in Tallahassee, Florida. "I can't miss the start of RL Grime's tour in my home city," he said. "That's my shit."
Steinway has a dedicated following because his music bridges so many different gaps. He's got the big, honking horns to lure in the candy ravers, the downtempo boom-bap and rap tracks to coax the hip-hop heads, and the high production values and taste for relative subtlety to pull in dance music snobs. As a result, he has fans that come at his music from many angles.
After the meet-and-greet, we go back to the bus, where Steinway starts flipping through songs. He predicts that "festival Jersey" will be the next big thing to infiltrate American dance music on a large scale. The rowdy tunes he's playing with have more in common with the music he makes as Clockwork, the bloghouse-inspired project that he started a few years back.
Clockwork was Steinway's first brush with the music industry. He signed to Steve Aoki's Dim Mak label, where his raucous style of electro house was right at home. Steinway says that he had more interest in that style when he was 20 than he does now. (The latest track on the Clockwork SoundCloud is stamped with the tag "BIG ROOM," as if it were a joke).
RL Grime was conceived as an escape from the expectations of the big-ticket EDM world. It was inspired by Steinway's stint in New York, where he fell in love with the unconventional dance music coming out of the UK, particularly stuff like James Blake and Night Slugs. Those influences, when combined with his lifelong love of hip-hop, became the building blocks for the trap sound that would sweep electronic music in 2012—a wave the early RL Grime tunes had a big part in creating. Not that he identifies with the tag.
"Trap has just become this sort of gimmick," he says. "I'm not mad at it, I understand where it comes from and that things need a label. I'm trying not to get pigeonholed into that—it's fine that people call it that, I just... wanna be able to move out of that."
Operating under the influential Wedidit label that he started with LA friends Nick Melons and Shlohmo, early RL Grime releases like Grapes Alla Vodka and his mega-hit edit of Kanye West's "Mercy" (made in collaboration with Salva) fused rap's swagger with UK club music's focus on form and function. These tracks were more about sub-bass impact than EDM histrionics. The idea hit its apex with "Trap On Acid," which perfectly executed the "anti-drop," a track arrangement where the drop emphasizes space and inaudible frequencies over big dubstep wobbles and midrange screeches. "Trap On Acid" and other tracks like it were a powerful antidote to the overly macho wave of dubstep that was dominating American dance music at the time. Since then, RL Grime's star has grown to eclipse Clockwork's.
Steinway's projects might seem pretty different, but I find that people at the meet-and-greets were fans of both, and had been following him since the Clockwork days. Though some might compartmentalize the acts as separate entities in separate scenes—a dichotomy Steinway himself recognizes—for the fans, it all seems to be the same. There's no difference between overground and underground. It's all just dance music.
I get that feeling from the crowd at the show in Philly, too. The audience is mainly very young, and their styles of dress vary from full-on costume to spirit hoods, neon sunglasses or baseball caps emblazoned with slogans like "BASSHEAD." They're enraptured by the music, and though they're knowledgeable and eager, the chin-stroker stereotype seems completely absent from this group.
As the first gig wraps up around 1 AM, Steinway encounters a pack of fans waiting outside the back entrance, and dutifully takes pictures with each one of them. Though I expect him to be weary of the drunken kids and amateur producers trying to hock their music, Steinway doesn't mind all the attention.
"Social media's a big part of it," Steinway says. "People follow you and start to understand your personality on a deeper level. When I was growing up, I wasn't following MSTRKRFT on Twitter, seeing what they're eating for lunch in some city. It's weird right now, because it's so personal. But it's cool, because you'll get more fans that way. You definitely lose some of the mystique, but people start to understand more about you. At the end the day, these are people who are paying their hard-earned money to come and see you. If they want a picture, I think it's the least you can do to repay them."
Back on the tour bus, it turns out the post-show ritual is a relatively tame one: they sit around, listen to music, make jokes and occasionally someone disappears into the back room lounge for a match of NBA 2K or FIFA. Their bread and butter is hip-hop and R&B; the crew rarely plays dance music on the bus, unless it's to prepare for a set. And there's not much "partying," with the exception of the Hennessy bottles that seem to be everywhere. "I love this shit, with everyone just chilling and listening to music," Tommy Kruise tells me that night. "Way better than a fucking afterparty."
Later that night, the venue is packed as expected, with costumed revelers spilling into the streets outside. One fan, decked head-to-toe in bright colors and glittery makeup tells me about all the recent shows she's been to in DC, mixing up acts like Carnage with The Incredible String Band. The borders between EDM and not-EDM—and hell, even jam bands—are growing more porous with this younger crowd, who seem eager to absorb any new style they can. This crowd also tends to idolize DJs like Hollywood celebrities. She gives me a homemade bracelet of inverted crosses to give to Steinway. When I give it to him he seems genuinely impressed, posing for a picture with it to show her later.
After the gig, we head two blocks down to U Street Music Hall, DC's most respected and credible dance music venue, for an afterparty. The gig was only announced a few hours earlier, and it followed a headlining session from Breach, so the audience was an odd mixture of kids from 9:30 Club and older, more experienced clubbers, the kind who are into what gets called "deep house" in the States these days.
The hour-long party comprises a back-to-back-to-back set from RL Grime, Kruise and Branchez. The trio revel in the more low-stakes circumstances, dropping house and techno before things evolve into a battle of rap and R&B anthems. With maybe 40 people in the club (and another ten behind the DJ booth), it's wild and intimate in a way that feels totally different than the more polished stage show. Beaming as the lights went on at 4 AM, Steinway seems equally at home in a sweaty basement club as he is commanding a thousand-strong crowd from a pyramidal throne.
Our third stop is Richmond, Virginia, the self-proclaimed capital of the South and a much smaller city than the two we visited before. The crowd is the most unusual we've seen yet. Some are costumed (including some regrettable Confederate garb), but I also spot some plaid-sporting Dad-types with arms covered in rows of kandi bracelets.
Three nights in a row and a formula begins to emerge—Steinway's sets typically begin and end the same way. What goes in between is more uncertain. He consistently throws curveballs at the audience, and they react just as feverishly to a Rustie track as they do to Bobby Shmurda's "Hot Nigga" or the old Crookers remix of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," a cheeky inclusion Steinway calls a "throwback." It seems like Steinway is challenging the crowd, rarely giving into the bass-drop mentality.
"I like playing regional songs," Steinway says. "I really love playing something in Atlanta that's some throwback to Atlanta. And in the UK I can play some cooler stuff, I can play drum & bass, you know, old Dizzee Rascal or whatever that'll go off. But I try to make the set so that it makes sense globally. But in the UK, people may expect different things because they've grown up in a different scene and less of the EDM stuff has come through there. I guess I try to tone down the EDM stuff when I'm in Europe."
The E-word continually rears its head. A good portion of the audience Steinway courts are the kind of neon-clad, hyper-excited kids that dance music snobs love to make fun of, the kind that represent the over-commercialized EDM sound rather an idealized underground dance culture. "I understand why someone would dislike that crowd, but at the end of the day, they're there to listen to music," Steinway says. "I had friends in high school who were doing the same thing. A lot of the younger kids are doing it because it's their first time and that's how they perceive it. So I welcome it. I think there are definitely fans who understand RL Grime as more than just a show of bangers. You see kids that are obviously here to party but are still into the whole aesthetic... That's really cool to see, and gives me more confidence in pursuing this."
The shift away from big-room sounds is reflected on Void, a diverse collection meant to skew halfway between banging club tracks and home listening fare. It features some weepy ballads (the How To Dress Well-featuring "Reminder"), mainstream rap (Big Sean hops on "Kingpin"), the kind of horn-led bangers that Steinway has become famous for lately ("Scylla," "Core") and more reflective, UK-inspired material ("Always" or "Julia," which is straight-up drum & bass). Compared to Steinway's early run of material, Void goes deep.
"The art director David Rudnick came out to LA, and we sat down and just started bouncing ideas off each other," Steinway says. "We started talking about the deep sea and how there's this allure... It's this dark space, there's no light anywhere, but there are these crazy beautiful creatures. I liked that as a concept—really, really dark, but there are these moments of beauty. I wanted the album to reflect that idea. There's a dark string along all the tracks, but there's definitely moments of beauty, of energy, and of being mellow. As you know, on the bus, all we listen to is R&B, slower stuff, because I love that right now. I wanted to reflect that in the album."
At 5 AM, with everyone already low on sleep, we fly from Richmond to LA, where Steinway is due to play two sets at HARD Day Of The Dead. It's a landmark occasion for him: he's playing the massive Main Stage at the festival that helped him get into electronic music, and he also has a stage dedicated to the Void album, housed in one of the massive buildings in Pomona's sprawling Fairplex.
In the dressing room at HARD, Steinway seems easygoing despite nerves and a 36-hour stretch with no sleep (he's an avid traveller but hasn't quite mastered the art of sleeping on planes). The surreal feeling of what he's about to do on the Main Stage is shared by a close group of fellow artists, managers and agents, all of whom grew up with him in LA. We're driven through the crowd to the stage via golf cart. It's hard not to feel in awe of the huge metal structure set down in the middle of the field. Thousands of ravers—one holding an oversized cardboard cutout of Steinway's face—loudly mark the five-minute changeover between Destructo and RL Grime, before he plays an abridged, hour-long version of his Void set.
Once the hour is up, two drunk fans come out of nowhere and ambush Steinway, following him back to the dressing room area. He has another set coming up in just over an hour, this time a quick turn DJing for the rapper Cam'ron, but he's kind and gracious, inviting them to sit in his dressing room while he prepares for the second performance. The second set over at the Void Stage is smaller in scale but high-pressure in its own way: Steinway is about to host one of his childhood heroes on stage. By the time Cam'ron rolls out, Steinway looks elated, filming the performance and ad-libbing a section of "Hey Ma," looking back at his friends behind the booth with a big, goofy smile.
There's an obvious sense of relief once Steinway closes his own stage around 10 PM. Calvin Harris is still plugging away at the Main Stage, whose distant boom and massive bright lights are visible from hundreds of meters away. There's doubtless afterparties going on, but we leave the festival as everyone figures out how to get their hour-long ride back to LA proper. After four straight days of playing shows, Steinway doesn't need a massive celebration to stroke his ego. He just wants to go to bed.