My full piece on the ‘Great EDM Debate’ for Mixmag… without the added Tommie Sunshine
I wrote a piece about the EDM explosion for Mixmag following Ed Simons of The Chemical Brothers’ Twitter spat with Tommie Sunshine. They had to cut some of my article off – chiefly the last 3 paragraphs – to fit it in – so here’s the full thing.
“Why is everyone from the roots of this music so fucking salty about the ones who are going mainstream”? American DJ and producer Tommie Sunshine asked FIVE TIME UK NUMBER ONE ALBUM ARTIST Ed Simmons of The Chemical Brothers on Twitter this week, seemingly without a hint of irony. He and others have totally missed the point. Ed – and people like myself – don’t have a problem with artists “going mainstream” if they continue to make good, heartfelt, sophisticated, challenging music. Daft Punk, The Prodigy and Basement Jaxx all did it successfully and maintained both a degree of underground dance music cool plus global chart and mega-festival headlining success. Alas, in these super-manufactured, low-rent days of X-Factor and laptop producers, it’s a balance that is struck less often.
What ‘we’ have a problem with is the current raft of identikit drivel that soaks up the chart; anaemic facsimiles of music we love. We have a problem with the music not being the focal point (cake and rubber dinghy ahoy). We have a problem with dance music being used as a template for pop music if it has everything that made it so good for dancing to sucked right out of it.
Dance music was born in the USA. R&B, Motown, disco, hip-hop, house. acid, techno, minimal and garage were all American inventions. But, hip-hop offshoots aside, the USA ceased to be the electronic pioneer that once was come the mid-’90s. England and Germany proliferated, while the US continued to have an underground electronic music scene that helped to nurture and shape the current generation of American underground electronica stars. From Dirtybird to Visionquest to Brainfeeder, many of the world’s most exciting and innovative stars continue to emerge from the USA. While dance music was has certainly been under-provided in many areas, there’s a whole generation of incredible talents who have managed to rise in the absence of dance music having any notable presence in the US Top 40 Singles Chart.
There has been major money in dance music before – in the UK. The reason I believe so much ‘commercial’ dance music from the mid-’90s to early ’00s stands the test of time is that in most cases, these were tracks that crossed over from the clubs into the charts unintentionally. Armand Van Helden wasn’t thinking about the UK Number 1 spot when he remixed Tori Amos’ Professional Widow in revolutionary fashion. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and his Stardust cohorts can’t have anticipated what would have happened to their vinyl-only pressing of Music Sounds Better With You. Josh Wink’s Higher State Of Consciousness in the Top 10 of the UK chart? A track with acid squeals so shrill it’s almost painful to listen to and the smallest hint of a vocal? Can you even imagine an instrumental track of any kind making it into the charts these days? And this was before tracks could gain popularity through the internet.
Major labels were investing tons of money in that era to scout and sign dancefloor fillers with crossover appeal. As a result, dozens of quality, credible classics remain in the collective consciousness of people who grew up in those years – whether they were listening to their siblings’ Now compilations or clubbing themselves. This bubble burst not long after the major labels decided to exploit the sounds they had found so much success with and attempt to reverse engineer chart hits with supposed club sensibility. These chart dance hits became contrived and increasingly tacky, and experiments in applying electronic cool to pop stars’ careers only seldom yielded positive results (The good: Madonna’s Mirwaïs-produced Music; the bad: anything by Sophie Ellis-Bextor).
In the USA mainstream, dance music is once again being exploited. By that I’m not trying to be dramatic; I simply mean that I don’t believe that many of its most commercial protagonists give a flying fuck about it or its long-term future. As we’ve seen with hip-hop, the American music mainstream has a way of taking something incredible that it originally created and bastardising it almost beyond recognition.
If it’s done well, dance-meets-pop can be interesting and exciting while maintaining widespread appeal. Much of Madonna’s best work rooted its feet in the dancefloors of New York, for one notable example. In terms of contemporary success, Chase & Status have injected new energy into Roc Nation’s biggest names, bass and garage-minded producers are helping the likes of Jessie Ware proliferate, and dubstep had moments of genius via La Roux and others before it become just another pop beat template with none of the vigour and bite that made it so exciting in the first place. But since Calvin Harris started injecting vapid trance synths into urban artists, globally successful pop music has found itself at a serious nadir.
If you’d played Ludacris and Busta Rhymes some trance a decade ago and told them they’d be rapping over a watered-down version of it in ten years from now aimed at people half their age or less to wave their alcopops around in naff clubs with no sensuality, sexiness, blackness, soul, rhythm or groove involved, they would have laughed in your face and told you to do one. Shock horror I know: pop artists may not believe in their music – but surely there’s never been quite this level of seeming insincerity in many artists’ musical choices.
The most exciting thing about electronic music is its lack of limitations, and how it has lead the way in musical innovation since the 1970s. From the dance scene being the first to adopt digital downloads en masse to being the only area of music to truly evolve in the last 40 years in terms of technology, composition and texture, it’s something we dance lovers should always remember, promote and cherish. I implore producers in the USA to be inspired by the countless electronic innovators it can claim: the Dres, the Timbalands, the Saunderson, Atkins and Mays, the Hawtins, the Hoods, the Jeffersons, the Terrys, the Levans, the Pierres…
The potential is there for commercial dance pop to sound a lot better than it does now, but few are daring to tap it up. If this is the beginning of a brave new world that sees electronic pop take more risks and become more sophisticated, then great. If it provides a gateway into less commercially-minded, more underground dance music to millions of young Americans, then even better. But at this point, I don’t feel hugely sanguine about the situation. I see an increasing polarisation, with ‘EDM’ continuing to become a increasingly OTT MTV caricature of itself until it implodes into nothingness. When the music is this disposable, I can see the bubble bursting quicker than it ever inflated. DJ Shadow-Mansion-gate provided a potent example of how vile dance music culture has become in certain pockets of US nightclub society (see also Dennis Ferrer and that man Tommie Sunshine also getting thrown off the decks at his own release party established US clubs in the past six months).
As many commentators have said – Sunshine included – the underground will always be there, and hopefully it may even be stronger as a result of this current wave of hyper-success, both through a potentially greater audience being available to recruit and also by way of a reaffirmation of it being about everything that the mainstream is not. Key proponents of the underground are certainly concerned enough with the situation to be actively trying to preserve their culture – Richie Hawtin’s CTRL tour of the US a prime example of one such stalwart trying to show this emerging audience the other side of the coin, for instance.
Kudos to the ones making interesting music and finding huge success in the US. To the bandwagon jumpers, hypocrites and dance-pop-by-numbers contingent – enjoy the charade while it lasts. And remember, just like Trancesetters’ Roaches told us back in 1999: “Underground will live forever baby… we’re just like roaches… never dying… always living”.