Zehn Jahre elektronische Musik in der Revue
Text: Philip Sherburne aus De:Bug 115

Zehn Jahre De:Bug, zehn Jahre Musik. Wir haben Trends, Genres und Akteure kommen und gehen sehen, Debatten geführt, Sensationen verkündet und Verbrechen im Boden verscharrt. Haben wir Dinge vergessen, ignoriert, falsch bewertet? Unser amerkanischer Kollege Philip Sherburne greift uns unter die Arme und lässt zehn Jahre Musik Revue passieren.

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From Glitch To Blog House

Digging through the DJ charts, the results aren’t terribly surprising. Carl Craig is all over the place, as is Theo Parrish. Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers represent the more mainstream end of the spectrum, while Justus Koehncke has disco on lockdown. Larry Heard is representing Chicago’s deepest. Richie Hawtin, Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio and the Kompakt label are there as well, assuring that minimalism never goes out of style. Oh, maybe I should have clarified one thing, though. These aren’t 2007 playlists; they’re charts from a decade earlier.

From Carl Craig’s remix of Faze Action’s “In the Trees” to the Sähkö records on the wall at Hardwax, it does occasionally feel like we’re back in 1997 all over again. Minimal techno still rules (except now it’s just called “minimal.”) Acid and classic deep house are so deeply entrenched, it’s like they never went away. Recent remixes of Cybotron’s “Clear” remind us that electro is less a genre than a kind of rhythmic time capsule orbiting the earth, beaming back coded data at regular intervals.

What’s going on?

French house, which in its cellophane gloss might have once seemed the most disposable of genres, has spawned an entire subculture worshipping at the base of Daft Punk’s pyramid. Dubstep is a relatively recent development, but as it slouches towards an increasingly standardized form, it often seems to spring from the same place that brought us the “neurofunk” of drum ‘n’ bass’s darkest moments, late in the ’90s. So many of the subgenres that sprang up in the last 10 years, meanwhile — glitch, electroclash, UK garage — have disappeared more or less without a trace.

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What’s going on? Is it simply a case of the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? Is electronic music — always thought to be as mercurial as the energy coursing through its circuits — more conservative than we thought? Do old habits simply die hard, or does the current state of things suggest a kind of musical Darwinism, proof of the survival of the fittest? (I’d like to believe that the continuing existence of Tiësto can’t be accounted for by a theory of musical evolution, but hey, every ecosystem has survivors we wish had gone the way of the Dodo.)

Time-Capsule Express

Electronic dance music is no spring chicken. Chicago house is over two decades old; Cybotron’s “Clear” is 24 this year. The UK’s acid house explosion and famed “Second Summer of Love” will celebrate their 20-year anniversary next year. (If you really want to put things into perspective, consider this: Kraftwerk’s Autobahn is closer to the end of World War II than to the present day.)

Some of this isn’t that surprising: last year’s brief buzz around “nu rave” reminded aging partiers that their youthful past is receding as quickly as their hairlines. Even before that, acid’s perennial revivals have long been a reminder that electronic music’s penchant for the new can just as easily be turned into a retro fixation. (Uwe Schmidt brilliantly skewered this idea with his fake compilation Acid Evolution 1988-2003, which purported to collect examples of acid’s development across a 16-year span. Schmidt recorded all the cuts himself, though — and in 2004 at that.)

Daft Punk, Pole und Porter Ricks

What’s more surprising is how many things that might feel comparatively recent turn out be 10 years old already. Here’s a shortlist of pivotal 1997 releases, many of which I’m betting feel much more recent — at least, that is if you’re like me, and the timeline of everything that happened more than six months ago is as tangled as a DJ’s headphone cord: Daft Punk’s Homework, Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, Carl Craig’s More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art, Porter Ricks’ self-titled first album, Doctor Rockit’s Music of Sound, i-F’s “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass,” Moodymann’s Silentintroduction, Squarepusher’s Hard Normal Daddy, Wolfgang Voigt’s Studio Eins CD, and the Kompakt 1 compilation on Profan. (Actually, that’s even a bit older: it came out in December ’96.)

Hot on the heels of all those records come a slew of 1998 releases that probably don’t feel nine years old, either: Pole’s debut album, Thomas Brinkmann’s Studio 1 Variationen, Bola’s Soup, Autechre’s LP5, Miss Kittin & the Hacker’s debut EP, Drexciya’s The Quest, Sun Electric’s Via Nostra, Herbert’s “Around the House,” Theo Parrish’s First Floor, and Plastikman’s Consumed.

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It’s been 130 years since the invention of the phonograph, of course. The gramophone, forefather of the Technics SL-1200MKII, is 120 years old. The market for recorded music has been around for over a century now. Ten years isn’t that long, in the grand scheme of things. But enough has happened in electronic-music culture since 1997 that any attempt to gloss the last decade will inevitably feel like an absurd generalization. The paths of electronic music’s many subgenres feel as tangled as the subplots of a 19th century novel. And far beyond mere aesthetic form, the technological and cultural underpinnings of the way that people experience and consume music have probably changed more in the past 10 years than they did in the 30 or 40 (or 50) before them.

Nevertheless, a cursory comparison between 1997 and 2007 does reveal certain developments in the genre that might not essentially seem self-evident — in spite of the fact (or maybe because of it) that they stare us in the face every day. But they reflect important shifts in electronic music — and perhaps even suggest the outlines of the shape the music will have taken by 2017.

Futurism Ain’t Shit to Me

It’s safe to say, at least for the time being, that electronic music’s futurist impulse has run its course. From Kraftwerk and Cybotron through Chicago house and Detroit techno, electronic music has always rooted itself firmly in a futurist continuum stretching back to the beginning of the 20th Century. Acid house began with a project called Phuture, after all, and throughout the ’90s, electronic music generally mirrored Western culture’s technological optimism, secure in the belief that advances in hardware and software were creating a better world one circuit at a time.

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New subgenres were often the result of new pieces of gear or novel developments in software. Electronic music’s futurist impulse probably peaked around the turn of the century, though, with the glitch phenomenon epitomized by Mille Plateaux’s Clicks + Cuts compilations. Glitch emphasized the sound of the tools themselves: the stutter of a skipping CD, the whir of a sluggish hard drive, the clipping of a sample chopped to a mere sliver. Even glitch music’s fetishization of the error, which might at first seem to run counter to a vision of techno-perfectionism, ties directly to the original Futurist movement, emphasizing the beauty of machines running of their own accord, with minimal human intervention.

The club of the future

Since glitch, however, self-conscious futurism’s influence has waned, from the design of album covers and flyers to the nomenclature of titles, labels and artist aliases. Software tools increasingly mimic classic hardware synthesizers and drum machines; new hardware synths themselves are likely to be contemporary replications of machines that became obsolete years ago.

I’d argue, in fact, that glitch lost its progressive impulse as artists turned away from the project of creating a new musical vocabulary out of digital tools, and began reconfiguring the clicks and pops into the familiar grammar of house and techno. And as the DJ’s trade slowly but surely goes digital — that is, as it shifts from a practice based upon playing vinyl records to one utilizing only digital files — the most popular digital DJ applications, like Final Scratch, Serato Scratch, and Traktor Scratch, remain dependent upon the turntable.

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Sonically speaking, the current moment looks backwards as well. Ricardo Villalobos talks in interviews about “the club of the future,” where pure sound reigns supreme, but the rest of the culture, plugged into iPods playing back files compressed at 128kbps or worse, seems to have lost interest in the compact disc’s forgotten promise of “perfect sound forever.” If mashups were a result of the democratization of tools that allowed on-the-fly reconfigurations of pop music, today’s “blog house” phenomenon embraces simplicity, foregoing traditional notions of audio craftsmanship in favor of DJ mixes incorporating low-fidelity MP3s and unofficial remixes made from low-resolution files grabbed off Myspace.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Perhaps Europe wasn’t that different 10 years ago, aside from the recent explosion of discount airlines. I wouldn’t know: 10 years ago, even the biggest U.S. cities could wait a long while before international talent, or at least international “underground” talent, passed through town. But that’s a thing of the past. The electronic-music scene in Austin, Texas or Buenos Aires may not be what it is in Berlin, but an ongoing consolidation of tastes has shifted the emphasis from local scenes to a global marketplace. London’s Crosstown Rebels has a residency in the dreary border town of Juarez, Mexico—and that’s just one example off the top of my head, out of thousands of labels and thousands of cities. Look at any DJ’s calendar on his or her Myspace page, and it’s likely to present a mish-mash of languages and time zones. The Detroit/Berlin techno axis has gone from being a straight line to a flexible wire connecting innumerable points on the map.

House and techno have, in many ways, conquered the world. The subgenres, or at least the names, may differ—earlier in the ’90s progressive house seemed like an imperial power, while today the nebulous entity called “minimal” is the colonizer—but dance music’s 4/4 formats have undoubtedly been the winners in establishing global disco dominance in the past 10 years.

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The Internet has certainly been pivotal in the streamlining of global tastes, and not only for the way it spreads information: the growth of P2P networks and now digital retailers like Beatport has finally disconnected dance-music culture from vinyl’s physical prison, making the music universally available around the globe. A few years ago, an aspiring DJ in South America would have been hard-pressed to build much of a vinyl collection, between the limited range available in local shops, the prohibitive exchange rate and import duties, and the astronomical cost of mail-order shipping. Today, virtually every new release, and plenty of back catalogue as well, is available at the click of a button.

A global techno monoculture

There is, of course, a downside to the phenomenon, as scenes homogenize and what used to be special about individual places disperses to the winds. (In 2007, could you really say that there’s a “sound of Cologne”?) That some members of Detroit’s techno community grumbled about the predominance of European artists in this year’s DEMF lineup is partly due to Detroit’s infamously insular attitude, but it also underscores a sensible distrust of what increasingly looks like a global techno monoculture.

At the same time, however, techno’s globalization has gradually worn down the traditional relationship between the “center” and the “margins.” Enabled by technology and telecommunications, artists living in Chile, Argentina and other Latin American countries have recently joined the global techno conversation, touring Europe and finding a level of recognition that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. More recently, electronic-music scenes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans have seen their status rise on the global stage. In a recent interview with England’s The Wire magazine, Ricardo Villalobos spoke at length about up-and-coming Romanian artists like Raresh, Rhadoo, and Petre Inspirescu; with extensive Ibiza bookings, European gigs, and releases on established labels like Cadenza, that trio is proving that geography is but a state of mind and a stamp in the passport.

Funk carioca is a global phenomenon

Indeed, scenes and sounds that were once strictly local affairs now have no problem connecting with niche publics anywhere on earth. When I visited São Paulo in 2002, it was virtually impossible to find any recordings of Rio de Janeiro’s funk carioca music, despite the fact that the cities are mere hours apart; returning home to the U.S., web searches and P2Ps proved far more useful in exploring the genre. A few years later — thanks in no small part to musical polyglots like Diplo and M.I.A., who have gone out of their way to promote underground Brazilian dance music to listeners living outside Brazil, funk carioca is a global phenomenon.

Grime and dubstep have followed a similar trajectory as they’ve found a geographically dispersed audience outside their origins in urban London. Both subgenres have presented themselves largely as locally specific scenes. But thanks to an online infrastructure — including forums, streaming radio, and of course Myspace — that UK garage never enjoyed, grime and dubstep have captured local imaginations in a way that two-step never did. Of course, it’s hard to quantify this kind of interest: sales for most grime and dubstep records remain pitifully low outside the UK. (Even Burial, whose debut album generated an avalanche of critical approval in the US, only sold 291 albums there, according to the sales metrics aggregator Nielsen SoundScan.)

One of Our Subgenres Is Missing

Electronic music is often characterized — and just as frequently criticized — for its tendency to splinter into ever narrower styles. But I would suggest that the idea of genre remains stronger than ever in electronic music. Sure, genres continue to mutate, just as dubstep and grime gradually evolved out of UK garage. But think of the proliferation of styles within garage that existed around the turn of the century — 8-bar, 4-beat, breakstep, and many more I can no longer recall. Grime and dubstep, meanwhile, seem to have remained essentially grime and dubstep, and while certain descriptors arise to denote stylistic differences between certain camps — “half-step,” for instance, to describe the more sluggish end of dubstep — they remain mere descriptors, not the battle flags that subgenres once were.

When was the last time you heard anyone seriously dispute the differences between “microhouse,” minimal techno, and minimal? The terms that do arise — like “fidget house,” to describe the kinetic style of London producers like Switch — by and large fail to stick. And as techno and house continue to blur, it seems that fewer and fewer people are interested in differentiating even between those two major pillars of electronic music. Today, subgenres are more likely to be objects of identification, more lifestyle brands than true subcultures. Whatever we’re to call the movement encompassing Ed Banger, Kitsuné, and rock remixes, it seems less a subgenre than a promiscuous, post-genre approach.

Back to an era of subgenres

Increasingly, for producers within a given scene, a single idea or two seems to dominate the conversation every season. Two years ago, it was the blippy chaos of minimal techno at its most color-free; today, it’s shoomping house chords borrowed from Carl Craig that animate producers’ imaginations. A few years ago, each of these formal shifts might well have spawned self-identifying subgenres, with message-boards to back them up.

But today, the most durable styles — house, techno, trance, drum’n’bass, dubstep — hew to specific tempos and rhythmic signatures, even as they allow seemingly infinite room for variation within those norms. Murkier subgenres like IDM and downtempo feel almost quaint. (Have you checked Hyperreal’s IDM list lately? Once an active, vital place, today it feels like the online equivalent of a ghost town waiting for its last few residents to die off.)

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times: given political unrest, economic instability, and a global sense of dread, maybe we simply don’t have time to parse the differences between microhouse and minimal techno, or between Schaffel and a swung 6/8 rhythm. Is this only a temporary phenomenon? Who knows – which direction the pendulum swings next depends upon the course of technology, the health of the music industry, and even geopolitics. Perhaps come the year 2017, electronic music — now downloaded directly to flash drives implanted in our skulls — will have regained its futurist impulse, and we’ll be back to an era of subgenres that are famous to 15 people. Whatever the case, I’m betting Carl Craig will still be on top of the charts.
http://www.philipsherburne.com

About The Author

Elektronische Lebensaspekte.