Why Dance Music is Bigger than Ever

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 12.21.11 in Spotlights

James Blake

James Blake

In 2010, the unthinkable occurred. I was 35, and I had never been so excited about electronic dance music. That’s not usually how it works – dance music’s turnover rate often leads to early burnout even among diehards, and particularly among diehards over 30. But throughout the past half-decade, dance music has been both cutting-edge and conscious of its own legacy; an irresistible combination for anyone who wants to have a good time first and think about it later.

Birthed in the mid ’80s via Chicago house and Detroit techno, then spreading to Europe later in the decade, the big umbrella of electronic dance grew exponentially throughout the ’90s, a seemingly unending yield of new styles and terrific records – it was as fecund a time as the mid ’60s or the late ’70s were for rock, or the late ’80s for hip-hop. The 2000s, on the other hand, were not so magical. After the late ’90s promised a wave of album-oriented artists (the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Underworld, Orbital), most rethought their game plan and either retired (then came back) or took too long to make a follow-up. While the music itself receded back into nicheville, its influence was spread so fine that everyone from Radiohead to Hot Chip could essentially jack it for parts and still come out revered by old techno-heads and young rockers alike. In fact, dance music’s sonic innovations were everywhere in the 2000s but dance music, from Timbaland going drum ‘n’ bass with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” to Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” versioning early DFA.

Gradually, something seemed to change. Berlin had already been in place as techno’s more-or-less official headquarters for a few years by then, and by this point, the ferment that started there began to seep out and make itself legible. Dubstep, U.K. garage and L.A.’s warped beat scene all began to remake the idea of “bass music.” And now, dance music is undergoing its biggest youthquake in two decades. There’s been a huge upswing in young electronic/dance producers across the spectrum, from house to techno to dubstep to countless hybrids. The big names are Deadmau5 and Skrillex, but connoisseurs are having a field day, too. Acts as varied as James Blake, Kyle Hall, Soul Clap, Joy Orbison, Egyptrixx, Deniz Kurtel, /Pearson Sound, Ikonika, Nicolas Jaar, Lone and Nosaj Thing, to pick a few, are not only making consistently interesting, challenging, just-plain-enjoyable music, they’re doing so with clear signatures. In their hands, the non-dance-fan hand-waving “it all sounds alike” dismissal is more of a canard than ever.

Veteran artists seem revitalized: Frankie Knuckles got a booster shot when he remixed Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” Richie Hawtin tours his back catalog. Carl Craig went on a remix tear in 2006 and hasn’t looked back until this year, when he put together the superb 20 Fucking Years of Planet E: We Ain’t Dead Yet compilation. Minimal techno veteran Surgeon has just issued the hugest-sounding album of his career. Longstanding low-end theorist Kevin Martin is just reaching his peak with latter-day projects the Bug and King Midas Sound. Old British disco guys are having a field day: DJ Harvey just released his well-received album as Locussolus, while Greg Wilson has been on a mixing tear (his SoundCloud page is a treasure house: Start with Big Chill 08.08.10, featuring the greatest Beatles edit in history).

Even labels are bullish. Planet Mu started in the ’90s as a showcase for label head Mike Paradinsas’s IDM pals, but has quietly assembled one of the sharpest rosters going, with assured forays into dubstep (Distance) and juke/footwork (Machinedrum, Chrissy Murderbot). And who’d have expected R&S Records – the original home of James Blake and the label responsible for Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works collection in 1992 – to be not just relevant but crucial in the 2010s? All these folks have a lot to teach, and we’ve got a lot to learn.

In fact, one of the most striking features of the electronic-dance surge is that interest in older music has become more pronounced. Podcasts have played into dance music’s retro surge, with veteran DJs tapped for “old-school” sets. (The XLR8R Podcast from Virgo Four and Goldie’s FACT Mix are good recent examples.) SoundCloud hosts uncountable hours’ worth of vintage DJ mixes, from radio and live tapes, not to mention the thousands of old mixtapes up at Rave Archive. Add in everything from paid sites, as well as YouTube uploads and less-than-legal back channels (that are as close as the other things a lot of the time), and you’ve got an old-school smorgasbord, aided by official reissues such as Rush Hour’s mammoth, lovable three-CD set by Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Frictionalism: 1994-2009.

One present-day result is a lot of music tied hard to the old school, as on several tracks on the excellent Heidi Presents the Jackathon compilation, or the 2010-11 flurry of work from Lone, working consciously to recreate the otherworldly lift of ’90-93 breakbeat hardcore and house. Then there’s a release like the compilation Swing Diskoteka, on which 15 artists adapt big-band swing to techno ends. It’s a double-look-back: to the ’40s, of course, but also to the ’70s, when Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Donna Summer’s “I Remember Yesterday” made disco’s debt to the swing era explicit.

Then there is the vast middle – acts bred in the ’00s who have become the dance world’s 30-something legacy artists. Albums by Matthew Dear, Ellen Allien, Caribou, Pantha du Prince, Four Tet, Ricardo Villalobos, Tiga, DJ Koze and Isolée cross over to rock fans, but their DJ sets, singles and remixes are ingrained into their narratives. (In Koze’s case, the remixes tell much of the tale: his Reincarnations, which collects 14 of them, is as singular an album-length work as any in the field.) There were plenty of those in the ’90s, too, but they didn’t last; partly because the field was changing so fast that once you’d made your mark, it defined you more easily, and partly because the infrastructure and history that has been in place for the last decade (and counting) was still being made. The kids learn from the elders’ mistakes, so to speak.

But let’s be real: Most of the kids going to Electric Daisy Carnival or its nearest like couldn’t care less about legacy. They want to see big new names like Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex do their bludgeoning thing. And of course, those acts are all too easy to for a techno hipster to complain about: Those big, stupid hooks miss the subtlety of a long, satisfying arc from a patient, skillful DJ.

Fair enough – but cheap thrills are worth having, too. Besides, it doesn’t take a taste for what he’s doing to hear that Deadmau5 is making what is, at root, techno, whatever its crossover appeal. It may not be very good techno – I don’t think so, anyway – but the point is that he wasn’t pre-sold by an industry desperate to put some new gewgaws on song-doctored would-be hits. Call him whatever you want – a gimmick with the mouse ears, cheesy with the tunes, an arrogant jerk for how he comes across sometimes in interviews – but Deadmau5 built his empire from the ground up, and did it the way he wanted to, just like any serious musician aspires to. Even better, he’s bringing new people into the music, and the more that are lured further into it the more new ideas come in.

In fact, festival culture’s recent U.S. entrenchment has helped lead to dance culture’s reawakening here. More and more dance tents and side stages with DJs have proliferated over the years, with purely dance music festivals gaining traction as well: Electric Daisy is only the biggest. (Let’s not forget Burning Man, with its scheduled DJ sets by big names in the midst of the handmade desert bacchanal, either.) When you invest time and money into travel, food, lodging and miscellaneous expenses, chances are you’re not going to sit on the sidelines. It’s participatory the way dance music is, and just as England’s long-established festival circuit helped make the music resonate over there, so it has been here.

But no matter how many kids embrace it – and whether they continue to over the long haul – dance music is so full of hidden byways, endless mixes and tracks, and ephemera that it’s hard to run out of things to discover. The ease of discovery can be daunting, of course. But appreciating the hunt is a big part of being a music lover. Two of my favorite recent tracks have never been made officially available as MP3s: Blawan’s “Getting Me Down,” issued this year as a white-label 12-inch, and Kornél Kovács’ “Baby Step,” from an October 2010 EP that eMusic has three-quarters of. Both tracks run on sampled vocals – Blawan’s features lines from Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down,” Kovács from an unknown-to-me male falsetto – so which might be why they haven’t made it to digital.

Yet their MP3 scarcity is part of what draws me in. To listen to “Baby Step” not as part of a DJ set or podcast (I first caught it on John Talabot’s XLR8R Podcast), but unimpeded, I need to open a Web page (YouTube or SoundCloud) to listen. It’s not quite a pre-Walkman sensation, but it’s not dissimilar, either. It’s something to look forward to, something specific to that song, branding it on the heart that much more. It also means that the tracks seep into the culture rather than stamping it, which is pretty analog by itself.