Waiting for Rustie
On Rustie's BBC Essential Mix as the Rosetta Stone of internet music
About an hour and a half into his 2012 BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix, Rustie permits himself a brief detours from a torrent of original, unreleased songs to drop Danny Brown’s “WitIt.” The XXX bonus track is as straightforwardly a 2012 Danny Brown song as they come: over an infinitely climbing, colossal instrumental, Danny barks about drugs and sex in all its lurid detail. As the track nears its conclusion, Brown renders fucking in a way unprintable even on a little-read Substack (rhyming “ass cheeks” with “nasty;” “menace” with “appendix”). But by that point, you can hardly hear Brown’s vocals: from behind “WitIt” lurches another original, ultimately unreleased Rustie sketch. (1:39:03) The two songs climax together—Brown’s into a deluge of shit-talking, Rustie’s into a euphoric wail. In the more than ten years that I’ve lived with Rustie’s Essential Mix, the moment remains the most faithful musical rendering of love that I’ve ever encountered.
Rustie’s Essential Mix is a high water mark of the internet music canon, both shockingly vital after more than a decade while also imbued with the specific aura of the artifact. Its tightly wound two hours, having been played into the dust on laptop speakers and countless generations of plannedly-obsolescent Apple earbuds, feel every time both predetermined and brand new. It is the rare fountain of cultural influence that remains obviously significant, masterful, and alive despite having been so consistently and faithlessly ripped off.
The mix suggests its historical significance from the moment of its obligatory, prefatory Peter Tong masterclass. Tong, talking his shit like DJ Drama over “Hover Traps,” introduces you to the concept of the essential mix (“where we showcase the best, the hottest, the most talented producers and DJs from the world of electronic music”), its new time slot (1am on a Friday night), and the man given two hours of airtime to “run riot” (Glaswegian producer and DJ Russell Whyte). Tong hardly has time to politely ask you raise the roof before Rustie launches into his glistening introduction. The mix reveals its design and logic immediately: within fifteen minutes, the texture ranges from maximalist, mystical original recordings to hyperspecifically 2012 rap; from Zelda samples to Clams Casino and TNGHT before Kanye had ever heard of TNGHT. Even before transitioning into a breakneck back half of Rustie originals and gargantuan needle drops, the sound is in your face, all around you.
The proclamations over the past decade that Rustie’s Essential Mix is “ahead of its time,” are, like any effervescent praise, both spot on and dead wrong. Considered in a certain light, the mix is nothing short of a blueprint for the decade of music to follow: the Rosetta Stone of nightclub-demolishing dance music and avant-blog rap, a dispatch from the frontier of cultural maximalism. Despite the producer’s absence from public life since 2015 due to reported struggles with mental health and substance use, the last decade has been one that Rustie seems to have perfectly foreseen. His vision as expressed over the course of the mix’s two hours is one in which everything happens at once; his music takes on the warp speed of the internet (and life mediated by the internet) without a touch of cynicism or defeatism. Rustie was able to presage our moment of media saturation and constant stimulation by ramping his moment up past the point of absurdity. Such a vision now would be perceived, perhaps rightly, as cultural critique or ironic nihilism, but there is a heart to Rustie’s music that allows the enterprise to remain life-affirming. There is, in other words, an intentionality, curatorial spirit, and tremendous passion undergirding Rustie’s attempts to bridge it all.
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Rustie’s music remains so revelatory in large part because of, not in spite of, his pale imitators to follow. We live now in the era of the lazy cultural omnivore, the creature comfortable outsourcing the human tasks of discovery, obsession, and work so that they may graze from the best of the best. Our omnivores are born out of an arrangement of convenience, out of an understanding of what good cultural taste looks like today, out of a view of art as nothing more than self-branding. If Rustie was an omnivore, he gorged rather than nibbled. Rustie seamlessly ranged across genres, styles, and worlds not because he plucked the best of the best (again, listen to some of these rap songs) but because he understood through deep consideration the commonalities beginning to structure such a disparate range of sounds.
Whether Rustie was able to see the future or simply keyed people into where to go, the world we live in now feels a spectral betrayal of his vision. Genres have been obliterated except as aesthetic signifiers, but in service to a flattened and infinitely consumable culture rather than an authentic, generative, and maximalist universality. Rustie’s frantic BPMs, mad bloops, and thizzed-out sound still structure popular electronic music, but in a way that has been professionally manicured and carefully watered down. Maximalism has been recast from a triumphant, humanist hurrah and into a feeble surrender to forces more powerful than ourselves.
The Essential Mix is not merely an internet music milestone, though it synthesizes and integrates all of the promises the internet makes for democratizing music discovery and radically expanding the commonalities to be drawn across productive silos. It is not merely club music, but it will make you move. It’s not just a manifesto for a decade of popular yet boundary-pushing music to follow, nor just a blueprint for a wave of ripoff artists to facilitate the decline into a future of bland cultural omnivores. The mix sounds like it was beamed in from an alien civilization that made contact twenty years in the future, and yet it could not be a more specifically 2012 document—come and hear Rick Ross, Juicy J, Drake, Christ, A$AP Twelvyy and Big Sean. It is all of these things, and more, at once, which means it is the music of an inflection point. Listening to Rustie’s Essential Mix now, one feels both intense nostalgia and a vague sense of familiarity: Rustie’s future is not the one we currently inhabit but one that, had enough care been taken, we might have been able to.