Eight college-aged women are twerking furiously to EDM music in a brightly lit tent, dressed in scraps of nylon and spandex and holding numbered placards above their heads. They flip their hair and smile brightly amid the catcalls and boos that fly at them in equal measure. As far as beauty pageants go, this one, known as the “Most Ratchet Pageant,” will not be confused for Miss America anytime soon.
One contestant in ripped fishnets drops to the floor in a split and bounces; another shimmies to center stage, winks, and whips off her bedazzled bra to reveal glitter pasties. The grinning rapper Waka Flocka Flame, one of the contest’s judges, rushes over and dumps bottles of water down their backsides. The audience of nearly a thousand howls.
At the edge of the stage, a slight smile stretched across his face, is Borgore — the controversial dubstep DJ, producer, and aspiring president of Israel who is the star of this daylong rave at Governors Island in New York City. He wanders among the women, his ‘BG’ brand hat pulled low on his forehead, barking encouragement at the contestants as they gaze at him adoringly through thick eyelashes and reach out to stroke his arms and chest. After introducing the talent round of the competition (“You can twerk, dance on an imaginary pole, sing!” he suggests in a thick, Israeli accent), he hoots his approval for the twerkers (the lewder, the better), high-fives Waka, and occasionally ambles over to kiss a delighted dancer on her cheek.
Spectacles like this, and his lyrics that boast about the degradation of women, are why Borgore (real name: Asaf Borger) continues to draw contempt from his peers in the EDM community. Fellow DJs have called him a misogynist and blamed him for tarnishing the reputation of dubstep music. He regularly denies that he disrespects women — a point he makes forcefully during our time together at Governors Island — though his lyrics have intensified with time.
They vary from priapic bluster:
“Girl, when we in bed, act like a ho/Ho, when we in bed, act like a ho/Girl, take example from these bitches/In bed, act like a ho but first, do the dishes!” (“Act Like a Ho,” 2010)
To graphic dehumanization:
“Oh my god, it’s a whale/Wait, that’s your sister/Just take her to the glory hole/You wouldn’t have to kiss her/Nah, sea mammals are not on my fuck list/Man, it’s a glory hole, fuck if she’s obese” (“Glory Hole” 2011)
Borgore has earned constant ire for such lyrics since he first emerged as a producer of bone-rattling, rap-heavy dubstep — a hybrid he calls “gorestep” — seven years ago. First, the criticisms were contained to the dubstep underground, where he got his start releasing mixes and EPs while living in his native Israel. (One, a 2010 set of EPs called Borgore Ruined Dubstep, was an early rebuttal to critics.) But the complaints began to snowball in earnest in the summer of 2012, when he released the most well-known collaboration of his career: “Decisions,” a singsong, lackadaisical track that found him bragging about his virility and chanting “bitches love cake” with none other than Miley Cyrus on backing vocals.
“I didn’t think she was gonna go for it,” Borgore explains to me before the show in the narrow, dimly lit concrete room that serves as his private lounge. “I talk about getting drunk and porn stars, fucking five chicks — and that’s what she wanted. I was super happy about it.” The widely circulated video features Borgore and Cyrus flinging cake at each other, him with heavy-lidded hauteur and her with the wide-eyed zeal that would characterize her controversial “ratchet” reinvention.
With that track, Borgore was established as a swaggering new presence in the fast-ascendant American EDM scene. He amassed thousands more followers on Twitter (238,000 to date, many of whom retweet his incendiary rhetoric and flood his feed with revealing pictures and the hashtag #bootyforborgore), and performed at high-profile dance festivals including Ultra Music Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival — occasionally from within an LED van that reads “Cream Machine” and “Stops for Whores.” He released a collaboration with Waka Flocka Flame (“Wild Out”), and Steve Aoki enlisted him for his 2013 Aokify America stadium tour.
Borgore’s “gorestep” is his personal derivation of “brostep,” a generally more assaultive splinter scene of dubstep that’s arisen in the past few years and emphasizes distortion and bass drops while siphoning some of the heaviness of rock music. But Borgore is an outsider, says DJ and journalist Philip Sherburne. “His lyrical focus gives him more room to be more explicitly sexist or misogynist,” says Sherburne, who has written about electronic music for Pitchfork, SPIN, and Resident Advisor. He adds, “Though I can’t think of anybody that is quite as extreme or as explicit as Borgore.”
“Borgore is certainly a misogynist,” adds Kathryn Frazier, who owns Biz3 Publicity (which represents Daft Punk, Skrillex, and Bassnectar) and co-runs Skrillex’s OWSLA label. “He’s like the Eazy-E of EDM — the dim reality is that he’d probably take that as a compliment. I think most EDM is not inherently sexist, but someone like Borgore stands out like an overreacting teenager dying for attention. Anyone remotely evolved rolls their eyes at his desperate antics.”
Not all of Borgore’s DJ peers have appreciated his prominence; in 2012, dubstep producer Bassnectar called out Borgore in a long string of tweets, which began, “What is *UP* with jackass DJs thinking its cool to degrade women??? And what is UP with the girls who so weakly respond to those jackass DJs…im all about Peace Love Unity & Respect, so calling people out isn’t something I want to do, but I just can’t believe this guy @borgore” [sic]. In 2013, the DJ-producer BT tweeted to his fans, “I’d like to fight @Borgore in a cage match for charity. If I win, you’ll do 300 hours community service at an abused women’s center.” Borgore responded to both swiftly, calling Bassnectar a “hypocrite” for promoting drugs and declining BT’s offer with condescension. Bassnectar resolved the exchange with some placating words but BT has since fired further shots about Borgore’s lyrics and alleged crack smoking. Borgore denies he has ever done drugs. (BT declined to be interviewed for this story and Bassnectar was unavailable.)
Several other prominent DJs told BuzzFeed that they are repelled by Borgore’s lyrical content. “What a wanker. He’s an embarrassment,” says Nicole Moudaber, a London- and Ibiza-based house and techno DJ who will headline a stage of the Electric Zoo festival in New York in August. “It has been done years ago with urban music and it’s so dated, that whole way of attracting attention by putting other people down. I’ve got zero respect for people like this in general, not just Borgore.”
When I meet up with Borgore at Governors Island in July, it is a few hours before the Most Ratchet Pageant and his headlining DJ set; red Solo cups dot the floor of his lounge, relics of his earlier game of beer pong with a gaggle of young female fans (many of whom left with his signature scrawled across their cleavage). Sitting on a dirt-scuffed couch, he flatly denies that his music and antics are disrespectful to women.
“It’s the complete opposite — I fucking love women,” he says nonchalantly. “Half of my Twitter is me laughing about Jews, and I’m Jewish. It’s a joke. Life sucks. When people are degrading women, it’s stupid, so I’m laughing about it.”
It’s his stock response to a familiar accusation — but, as many times as he repeats this, it never fully addresses how inflammatory his lyrics can be. And as much as this caricatured extremism is his brand, it is also a narrative that he is now attempting to regulate: After a particularly critical concert review ran on RollingStone.com in May (reviewing his show at the Electric Daisy Carnival, reporter Julianne Escobedo Shepherd called out Borgore’s “over-the-top, sometimes violent misogyny” and his “dedication to denigrating women”), he and his publicist asked to meet me for breakfast in Manhattan, during which Borgore insisted over eggs and hummus that he is misunderstood and that he loves and admires women. I was surprised by his vehemence.
He remains on the offensive against potential criticism. “I’m the only artist in EDM that goes and says crazy things, so it’s kind of easy to pick on me,” he says at Governors Island with a level stare. “I don’t mind; I’ll be the scapegoat, I guess. I’m still here … If I don’t cause any reaction, there’s no point of what I’m doing.”
Some DJs dismiss him for that logic. “To a certain extent, there’s not that much respect for him in the industry because [his lyrics] are kind of a gimmick, and gimmicks lack musical integrity,” says the dubstep DJ-producer Rusko, whom Borgore has remixed. “Though I don’t think he’s meant to be taken seriously.”
When I first met Borgore, he locked eyes with me and said, “The thing I love most is cummin’ on your face, suck it bitch.” I was interviewing him at the 2012 Coachella festival for a video segment for Rolling Stone, and he was quoting a line that was from his recent song “Love,” which I had not yet heard. I stared at him, mouth agape, as he leaned back in his chair with a self-congratulatory grin. He spoke in what seemed to be deliberate, structured quotes and was satisfied that his first weekend’s stage show, which included scantily clad pole dancers, had annoyed Coachella’s organizers. He did not seem to remember this encounter over our subsequent damage-control breakfast.
Backstage at Governors Island, he is markedly more restrained; he greets me with a handshake and listens intently. He apologetically shoves his buzzing iPhone into a black Louis Vuitton backpack (after he shows me the BuzzFeed app on the front screen) and, overall, he is more polite and self-deprecating than his lyrics would suggest. Then again, that’s not the highest bar to cross; I ask him about the criticism he’s garnered for the hook of his new track, “Hate,” and quote it back to him: “So I fuck her like I hate her.”
“The song is 100% about this chick that I enjoy spending my time with right now, and she likes rough sex. And by rough sex I don’t mean whips and burning her and shit like that, just a little bit of pulling the hair,” he replies calmly. “It’s passionate, and hate is the closest thing to love. You know what I mean?”
I point out that this could be misinterpreted because her consent to be treated roughly isn’t in the song. He seems genuinely surprised. “The story is fully there,” he says, and chants more lyrics: “‘I can’t describe love, but I can feel it / My heart’s protected, but she can steal it / I can’t describe love, but I can feel it / My heart is broken, but she can heal it.’ The story is definitely there.”
I quote another much-protested line: “In bed, act like a ho / But first do the dishes.”
“That’s a joke. That’s a joke. In my house, my dad does the dishes,” he responds, a bit exasperatedly.
And about that Rolling Stone review that prompted Borgore and his publicity team to approach me? Borgore’s face flushes slightly at the reminder; he appears genuinely stricken by the accusations.
“I don’t hate women whatsoever. It’s a misinterpretation. But honestly, when someone has an opinion, it’s really hard to change his opinion,” he says brusquely. “If this chick thinks that I’m misogynistic, it doesn’t matter even if I start a political party and the five first picks will be chicks, she’ll still think I’m misogynistic.”
Misinterpretations seem to be happening an awful lot to a guy who’s so self-aware, so conspicuously a brand, that he’s currently wearing his own merch line’s T-shirt and hat. In fact, from his “Cream Machine” to #bootyforborgore, all his promotional efforts embrace a sexualization of women, the same trademark of his career that he deflects as unintentional during our conversation. It’s a disconnect in his strategy that he does not appear to have considered enough to warrant explanation; instead, he returns to his first stance of satire.
“Maybe I’m doing my job wrong, but the way I see it, I don’t think that Seth MacFarlane, the guy from Family Guy, is racist. I don’t think that Sacha Baron Cohen is racist,” he insists. “It’s just taking the piss.”
Asaf Borger was raised in Tel Aviv, Israel, in a happy and close-knit family; his mother imported and exported cosmetics, his father worked at IBM, and his sister shared his interest in music. However, outside their door, in the thick of the Israel–Palestine conflict, violence was a constant presence. “I had buses blown up around my house, people with Kalashnikov AK-47s shooting in restaurants. It wasn’t that scary to me; I’m a child, this is what’s around me,” he says, toying distractedly with the gold chain around his neck. “When you grow up in Compton, you know how to deal with Compton. When you grow up in Israel, you know how to deal with Israel.”
A musical prodigy, Borger studied jazz composition and performance at the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. His primary instrument was the saxophone, but it was only chosen under duress; his teachers initially encouraged him to concentrate on ballet dancing, but he staunchly rejected the prospect as unmasculine.
At age 18, after graduation, he enrolled in Israel’s national army for three years, a mandatory stint for all Israeli men. (Women’s compulsory military service is two years.) He was stationed as a fitness trainer in heavy combat areas, which did not prove the most productive of roles. “There were not a lot of times I could actually train [the soldiers],” he recalls. “I would have one or two trainings a day, and the rest of the day I’m just sitting there, getting shot at in the bunker, fucking doing nothing.”
Music offered a respite; he had recently signed on as the drummer of his friends’ metal band Shabira, and he practiced fills and rolls for hours against army furniture. But before an album was recorded, the group began unraveling as the members followed individual interests; the singer left to focus on his religious beliefs and Borger, enamored with the U.K. electronic scene, had started remixing Britney Spears and Rusko tracks. He began producing his own rap- and heavy rock-infused dance tracks — a process that could be done alone on a computer from any location, even the front lines — and punched out his first tracks in 2007–2008. By the end of his army service, Shabira had folded, and Borgore began touring his turbulent new dance mixes.
“When I came into dubstep, it was very mellow, deep, reggae-ish stuff,” he says. “And I brought hip-hop and metal into it, with a really horrible accent.” His incorporation of lazy rapping (which shares the slacker cadences of Mac Miller) and hair-raising distortion (a short leap from Shabira) didn’t appeal to many DJs in Israel or the burgeoning EDM scene stateside, nor lead to distribution offers, so Borger created his own label, Buygore Records, and picked up a new skill. “It’s why I became a DJ — because no one wanted to play my stuff,” he says.
Borgore relocated to Los Angeles a year and half ago, and he continues to operate with general autonomy: #NEWGOREORDER, his first studio album, was released in July on Buygore/Dim Mak and debuted at No. 2 on the iTunes dance albums chart. Its predictably heavy, dissonant screeds include ruminations on blow jobs (“Syrup”) and getting wasted (“Be Ourselves”). It yields one tender outlier in “Body and Soul,” a cover of the 1930s jazz standard that features his sister, Yael, on vocals and starts softly before transitioning into screeching electro calamity.
“I love my family more than anything, and I think she’s a super-talented singer,” he says. “So that’s my favorite song.” It’s become a staple of his live sets, and he will likely play it on his European tour this summer (which includes stops at the Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium and the Reading Festival in England). “Last Year” is a particularly revealing song, as it touches on the next phase of Borgore’s agenda: He aims to enter politics in Israel. (He also asks to receive nude pics from Taylor Swift — surely in the interest of diplomacy.) It’s a fitting goal for someone with a clearly healthy ego further abetted by swift success, and he speaks loftily about it.
“I will run for president. There’s no way around it,” he says. “The situation in the Middle East is fixable. The problem is that you need younger blood up there, on both sides.”
I ask him his strategy for fixing the Israel–Palestine conflict. “Just being rational … It’s not like I can go chill in Gaza as an Israeli. So why would I fucking even occupy it?” he says. “Just give them the fucking country. They wanna be Palestine, give them Palestine.”
“Right now it’s not the time for me [to run], but it’s burning in me,” he adds solemnly. “I don’t want my kids to grow up the way I grew up.”
The word, in EDM, is “filthy.” It refers to when a bass drop is so primal, so satisfying that it makes the listener’s face squinch up in a deep appreciation that resembles disgust.
Onstage, Borgore operates in a constant world of filth. He jumps up and down behind his DJ console with kindergarten enthusiasm, stabbing at buttons with sweeping arms, lifting a microphone to sing or rap a few lines and then dropping it with force. In his booming, breakneck 90-minute set at Governors Island — which includes semi-naked dancers, radioactively bright visuals, and cohorts spraying geysers of champagne onto the audience — his turned-up nose is the focal point of the show.
“That’s my favorite part; he gets really into it,” says Nichole Rouse, 23, the pasties-sporting contestant in the Most Ratchet Pageant. A dancer-entertainer from Philadelphia, she’s seen him in concert eight times and explains with a smile that she is “in love” with him. “His music’s so much fun. I don’t see it as woman-hating; if you don’t like it, why are you there?”
The fans I meet at Governors Island clearly agree with Rouse and don’t believe Borgore has any agenda, including against women. I only encounter one attendee all day who finds Borgore’s words to be sincere: a 19-year-old college student and aspiring DJ named Hamza Khan, who emphatically explains Borgore’s gospel for me and justifies his content as “he’s saying it about bitches.”
“In his youth, he probably got played by a bunch of girls and now he wants revenge. I think he’s serious, more or less,” Hamza says over Waka Flocka Flame’s set. “There’s two types of girls: There are ratchets, and then there are women. Bitches are bitches, but there are women. There’s a fine distinction between them.
“Look around; you can see a bunch of bitches. Look at how they act. They’re never gonna get anywhere, they’re never gonna find the right guy,” he shouts emphatically. “You have to be sophisticated and classy. And if you don’t choose that path, then you’re a bitch.”
At first glance, it would seem surprising that young people, especially women, do not blink at Borgore’s lyrics. But sexist undertones in electronic music are nothing new. Lasciviously dressed go-go dancers have long gyrated in cages at nightclubs in Las Vegas and Ibiza, and the influential Ultra Music label regularly dispatches compilations with skimpily clad women on its cover. The ubiquitous producer Diplo’s 2012 social media campaign for his bounce single “Express Yourself” (featuring Nicky Da B) encouraged fans to pose in the butt-emphasizing manner of the video, and yielded many racy results that he shared online; similar hashtag campaigns are now commonplace in EDM. The up-and-coming L.A. dance producer ZHU recently stuffed the video for his single “Faded” with cheesy, onanistic shots of submissive and writhing women with dazed expressions.
Borgore’s situation does run counter to the bohemian reputation of the young, typically accepting EDM scene. Tellingly, an enduring ritual at raves is trading beaded jewelry, or “kandi,” through a series of symbolic hand gestures for peace, love, unity, and respect (“PLUR”). EDM shows are generally a supportive if hectic atmosphere, even if drug overdoses by a few have marred the scene’s media representation. (Not every musical genre offers this buffer, including pop music: Look at the pushback to Robin Thicke’s new album Paula, itself a blatant bid for publicity and a feat of macho grandstanding, which debuted at an 86% drop-off from 2013 album Blurred Lines’ first week after the singer was accused of misogyny in that title hit.)
“This music and culture doesn’t create an environment of misogyny. In fact, we really can hope and believe that it’s the one place where everyone can be themselves,” says Tommie Sunshine, a longtime electronic and pop DJ-producer who has collaborated with James Murphy and Katy Perry. “When you dig a little deeper into it, yeah, there’s the economic consideration of people using misogyny to achieve commercial success, and then you have them using creative expression to justify any and all of their actions. That’s where it gets really hazy.”
After the release of #NEWGOREORDER, the EDM community remains split on Borgore; his album debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart. (Bassnectar’s Noise vs. Beauty debuted at No. 1 two weeks earlier). To some, he still has not earned the generosity of interpretation he feels entitled to.
“I don’t think ‘this is a joke’ ever justifies sexist speech,” says Sherburne. Of Borgore’s oft-defended humor, he adds, “It’s so ambiguous as to whether or not it’s a joke or whether it’s serious. I guess you could argue the opposite and say that’s precisely where button-pushing humor lies but, to me, it’s a failure because it’s too easy for people to take it at face value. The question is whether newer or younger artists are going to take up the mantle of what he’s doing — that remains to be seen.”
Frazier says that sexist lyrics “don’t have a place anywhere” but do appear throughout EDM culture. “I hear plenty of it on our own records we rep. There is some very sexual stuff that I feel is raw but not necessarily hostile to women. It’s all very nuanced and it’s not always clear-cut.” She points to a lack of assertive women in the genre. “Where are the riot grrrls of EDM? Where are the Kathleen Hannas or PJ Harveys or Karen Os or, god, even a Courtney Love at this point? They haven’t realized you can be hot, expressive, wild, and have power and dignity.”
Rusko says he won’t play Borgore in his live sets, but he points to the possibility of Borgore’s upbringing in Israel influencing his sense of satire. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit more acceptable to make those jokes in that culture, whereas in America, in 2014, it’s not really acceptable?” he wonders. He adds wryly that he’s been the subject of enough media scrutiny (for admitted drug and alcohol use) and that he believes DJs must consider their obligation to be role models. “In the bass music and dubstep world, the fan base is very, very young compared to techno and stuff. Dubstep shows are, like, 15-year-old kids,” he explains. “There is a degree more responsibility on people who play our type of music, just because the age range is younger.” In fact, this age range might factor in Borgore’s favor; teen audiences raised on hyperbolic, contentious internet exchanges are arguably more desensitized to Borgore’s controversial content about women.
Rusko also says that Borgore’s alleged sexism does not exist in a vacuum; while he says he has not seen incidents of prejudice against female DJs, he witnesses it regularly in business matters via his female manager. “Sometimes, when we go to a show, promoters and venue people treat her like a groupie,” he says. “It upsets me. I have to say to people, ‘She’s not my girlfriend. This is my manager.’”
However, the DJ-producer sisters Nervo, who have toured with Borgore and will perform at Electric Zoo, say they support him as an artist. “I think he’s a woman lover, not a woman hater,” says Miriam Nervo with a laugh. “He’s been nothing but a gent to us.”
For all his bravado, Borgore doesn’t envision his dubstep career as a blank check. He says a moment of clarity came in June, when he participated at the EDMbiz Artist Panel in Las Vegas with the house DJ-producer Carl Cox. “He said electronic music [would be popular] for 20 more years. And in my heart I was like, ‘You’re high. No way,’” he recalls. “Right now, I’m doing EDM. If tomorrow the biggest thing will be polka, I’ll do polka. It will still sound like Borgore, though. It’ll be like, ‘Cummin’ on your face, suck it, bitch, polka, polka, polka.’” It is a winking, doubly illustrative moment: On the one hand, he displays an awareness that degradation of women is his calling card and path to long-term success. And on the other, he reveals the lingering influence of his rigorous, classical past — he aptly chants “polka” in a 2/4 time signature.
Our interview over, Borgore opines disinterestedly on the lack of celebrated female DJs in EDM — “I have no idea…It’s a lot of traveling. Maybe that’s it?” — a fresh cluster of girls approach, giggling and clamoring for his attention. Turning back to me, he asks if I will be a judge in the Most Ratchet Pageant. He needs the panel to be fair, he insists: “We need two guys and two chicks.”