(Welcome to tbt*'s Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we're spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Today: Rising dubstep star Nerd Rage.)
It's fitting that Nerd Rage is Tampa Bay's electronic music emissary of the moment.
The man born Devin Spears got his start in a metal band, as so many Tampa kids do, and he's brought that same aggressive, level-pushing, screamed-out sound to his beats.
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"My image is the crazy metal kid who likes to go hard and rage and scream and crowdsurf and all that," said Spears. "I don't run around screaming 'Tampa!', but everyone knows where I'm from."
Spears was calling from Austin, Texas, on an off day from his tour with Dirtyphonics and Le Castle Vania. It's a tour that has been packing venues from coast to coast – and which Spears has generously documented for fans' voyeuristic pleasure with plenty of Instagrams of booze, backstage bawdiness and party-brah poses.
This raucous rock-star lifestyle should come as no surprise to Nerd Rage devotees in Florida and beyond. As the DJ behind the Amphitheatre's Friday-night dubstep freakout Pound (stylized simply as "#") Nerd Rage regularly draws more than 1,000 partiers to Ybor City.
Far from a mere button-pusher, Spears has a stage presence that can be electrifying, which has helped him land gigs around the country and abroad, as well as collaborations with some big names. Nerd Rage has released music on Dim Mak, the label run by Steve Aoki. He shares management with the likes of Excision and Datsik, and shared bills with Pretty Lights, Borgore and Nero. In February, he played OK Magazine's pre-Grammys party alongside Flo Rida.
In May, he'll be back in Tampa for the second annual Sunset Music Festival, co-organized by Amphitheatre owner John Santoro, and headlined by A-list DJs like Aoki and David Guetta. Last year's Sunset, Spears said, was "amazing" and "surreal."
"People were absolutely blown away," he said. "Having a festival at Raymond James Stadium was so cool and unheard of. … It was very unexpected, but it was the first one, and we did incredibly well for the first one. I think this year's going to be insane – 10 times more crazy than last year, at least."
Nerd Rage's rise has dovetailed with that of electronic dance music (EDM) as a whole over the past three years. In Spring 2011 – before most of America had ever heard of Skrillex or Avicii – Nerd Rage was in charge of Dangerous Fridays, a hugely popular dubstep night at the Ybor Social Club. That summer, Santoro recruited him to headline a new EDM night at the Amphitheatre.
"The first show we did was an afterparty for Identity (Festival), and it was instantly 800 people," he said. "The next show was just like that, and it just kept growing – 1,000, 1,200, 1,500 people."
Pound's popularity is due in no small part to Spears' wild-child stage presence, which he embraced after seeing an EDM night run by Le Castle Vania in Atlanta. "People were cartwheeling inside the door," he said. "From the second the doors opened, they'd be crowdsurfing and going nuts, screaming and jumping. It blew me away to know that parties like that really existed. I wanted to have that for my hometown."
In his sets, he mixes in plenty of Nerd Rage originals. Producing music isn't how he makes a living, but he's currently collaborating with Arizona DJ Sluggo on a new EP that he hopes to release this summer.
"It's very different from my own style," he said. "I love '80s metal. That's where my heart is. Motley Crue is one of my favorite bands. So I'm starting to write a lot of dubstep with a very rock vibe, very uplifting, intricate melodies – feel-good music, but also incorporating the heavy rock and rage that I have in my sound."
Tampa's hard-partying multitudes would expect nothing less.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*