DarkGrey is Obsessed — A look inside the mind of Cedar Falls up-and-comer Charlie Smith
It’s 4:45 A.M. and everyone is still awake. The hotel has free wifi, so the guys have been watching videos on YouTube since returning from the after-party. No one is altered on anything other than a lot of whiskey, but no one wants to sleep either.
“Breakfast starts at six,” Charlie proclaims to the room. Everyone nods and mutters in agreement, and a tenuous hour is had. Cue restless waiting, and after that, breakfast table conversation between a small mass of DJs too tired to be coherent.
Charlie is so overjoyed at the presence of breakfast food, he practically cries — a long awaited meal after a long night of DJing and (quite literally) raving in a new city. Smith, known to many as DarkGrey, clearly loves the lifestyle of the DJ in all aspects (at 19, he is still too young for many of the aspects, but he hardly concerns himself with that technicality).
He is a tank of a guy, a machine fuelled by a college student’s diet and armed with a persistently sheepish grin. Hours earlier, hundreds gathered in Lincoln, Nebraska’s Bourbon Theater as DarkGrey played an energetic blend of bass-heavy dubstep and electro sounds. This is more than his hobby or a night job, but an ultra-loud projection of his feelings and enthusiasm to enraptured concert-goers.
Snap back into the now and everyone is wolfing down eggs and sausage and orange juice, utterly exhausted, before loading back into the crowded hotel suite to crash for a few hours before check out. A five-hour drive from Lincoln, Neb. to Iowa City lies ahead, before a change of cars, followed by another 90-minute drive to Cedar Falls.
Accompanying him on this trip are his friends and fellow producers Jake Moore, who goes by Kickshifta, and Chris Baish, who with his brother makes up the production duo Defender. Based primarily out of Cedar Falls, the group of friends calls themselves Subfix — a title that seems to describe more of a social club than a music label, but the work ethic of a label all the same.
In the short existence of Subfix (only a year in September), they’ve spawned a festival appearance, a weekly residency, a weekly radio show, Midwest tours, label signings, and a laundry list of other opportunities for the near future. This is all while balancing full-time work and school schedules in a hometown that could be considered largely unappeased by electronic music until recent months.
Even with a full schedule, the real priorities of the producers which Subfix comprises are crystal clear.
“Everyone in Subfix values music higher than anything else. Our grades and work probably suffer a great deal more than they should… Don’t get me wrong, school is a priority and we know that one day we (might) have to grow up, whatever that means.” Charlie notes that all-nighters with other Subfix members to finish new productions are not uncommon. It becomes evident that Subfix is not simply riding the wave as it sweeps through Iowa — they are making it. “At this point, music is almost breathing. Unless we’re in class or at work, I guarantee you we’re either with each other or working on something … It’s ridiculous the amount of time we spend on computers.”
Six hours later and the return trip home is well underway. Smith and the boys chatter away about music production, exchanging tips and criticisms. There really is no break for these people — the creation of their music is something approached with equal amounts childlike eagerness and remarkable consideration by each of them.
When asked if he sleeps, Smith simply smirks. “Not often, really. Unless it’s a weeknight.” Smith’s history and experience with production is not quite as glossy as it might seem for others with comparable levels of talent, but he seems blessed with the good fortune and ability to draw upon poor musical experiences as well as great ones.
He began producing at 14, using a program called Sony Acid to make music on his computer. “But from there, I kind of fell off,” he admits with a grin. “I started producing Christian acoustic rock in high school, and I played in a Christian rock band, for a youth group, for about a year.” It comes with a shock — Smith is far from the traditional Iowa guy in present-day persona, certainly not what comes to mind when you describe a Christian man.
This said, a rapid change went through him as he grew up. “After senior year of high school, I met Chris and we started to mess around with FL [Studio],” another music production software. “From there it really took off.”
Chris Baish shares a high opinion of Charlie, inside and out of the studio. “He’s a really easy person to work with, for me. We have the same feelings towards most things,” he says with a laugh. Charlie smirks. “It’s sort of a running joke. Every Subfix show we’ll have, you’ll find us typically with each other, and we’ll be the most f—ed up of everyone there … But yes, (Chris) is way easy to work with. He slows me down when I’m rushing things, which is very good, believe me. We level each other out, artistically.”
It seems an easy observation to make; that Smith’s early enthusiasm outpaced the rate at which he could learn to make the music he wanted to — an example of adversity that only served to fuel Smith’s ambition.
“I was just trying my hardest to emulate that late-90s electronic sound, before I even knew the distinction between genres. I don’t know any better way to put it than ‘electronica’ — [consider] Daft Punk and Prodigy, how do you even begin to categorize that? I quickly found that it was a lot harder than some might think.”
Smith’s production set up appropriately reflects a lack of any serious concern for genre distinctions. “I had a Dell Inspiron 1000 desktop, and an electric guitar, which actually found its way into a few of my songs. That’s all I had really. I just used a really poorly cracked version of (FL Studio).”
The humble beginnings have paid off — Smith now produces on a laptop that seldom leaves his side, and statistics from his SoundCloud site, an online showcase of his musical work, show that many thousands around the world have downloaded new or remixed material from DarkGrey. “I came from a small town — 48 kids in my graduating class. I went to Buckcherry long before I went to an electronic [music] show. It took me a while… But hearing live, raunchy dubstep for the first time not only made me want to make the music, but play it live.”
The inspiration and passion that drives Charlie Smith and Subfix has also landed him in hot water. Subfix has come to be known in recent weeks for taking a strong and public adversarial stance against Des Moines dubstep and electro music promoter Jesse Aldridge (who DJs under the name Jesse Jamz).
Subfix members sounded off about Aldridge via social media outlets, alleging (among other claims too unsubstantiated to reprint) that he has refused to pay DJs at his events and incessantly spams social media outlets. The claims were made largely without solid evidence. In general, Smith describes their stance against Aldridge as rebellion against a promoter who, Smith argues, has questionable practices.
“He f—ed us in the past, trashed us verbally. One day we just kind of got fed up — we’ve been rebuilding a scene in Cedar Falls and we wanted to spread that around Iowa … Jesse has singlehandedly put us in a chokehold and has practically made it impossible for us to break into Des Moines, and then verbally abused us about it later on, privately, to his peers.”
Smith neglects to say exactly how he knows this, but his demeanor is visibly serious — he believes what he says is true, regardless of what anyone else has to say on the matter. He is absolutely unapologetic for the Facebook posts and verbal spars between Subfix and Aldridge.
“Everything turned out the way it should have. We wanted (Aldridge) to take a good hard look at himself, and maybe realize that something needs to change … I want people to understand that there’s an alternative. There is no alternative in Des Moines for an [ages] 18 and up dubstep event. Competition makes everybody better in the long run, and that’s really what Des Moines could use right now.”
. . . . .
Jump ahead three weeks, and the Subfix crew is in Iowa City once more.
They have all travelled down for an event at Blue Moose Taphouse, for which they are all DJing. Everyone has crowded into a single booth, and Charlie has his laptop out, unable to pry himself from it. Jake notices a slew of attractive women across the bar, and starts yelling out “TAILS, TAILS!” at the top of his lungs. Charlie, and soon Chris and Aaron perk up and join in, bellowing indiscriminately at any and all females in the room.
They are halfway joking, halfway not — they are intentionally acting foolish, but to their surprise, a few of the women notice them as DJs and introduce themselves. Charlie is amused at the spectacle of it all, clearly not taking it seriously, but also wholly and genuinely enjoying every moment.
He closes his laptop and smiles. He is with his friends, everyone is enjoying themselves, and each are about to get paid to play their favorite music. “I could do this forever,” Smith says with a smile on his face. He of course knows he cannot — no one can be a rockstar forever — but he is certainly obsessed enough to try.
words by josh messer
image credits: mark marogil (first image), chris baish (second image).
this piece was originally created for anne duggan’s undergraduate magazine reporting and writing course at the University of Iowa in february, 2012. special thanks to her as that class provided the impetus for this story.