“House Music, as defined by the original creators is music that moves your mind, body and soul.” [Afro Acid Trax]
It’s 1997. I’m sat at Heathrow airport with my bandmate Howie, and our manager Graham and we’re about to embark on our first ever trip to the US. We sit there dumbstruck as the early morning TV reports flash up on the screen. “Princess Diana killed in high speed road crash in Paris”. I’ll never forget that morning, and I’ll never forget those first tentative steps into the seemingly alien musical landscape of America in the late 90s.
This was billed as a fact-finding mission, a chance (at the record company’s expense – ie. ultimately our expense) to research this brave new world we were entering into, to grasp the mettle, to ‘press some flesh’, to return full of wisdom, vitality and then to return and take the US by storm. As it was, we wound up twisted as hell in New York, wasted in LA, then in an act of crazy we hired a Cadillac and drove to Vegas where we partied like kings. Two weeks later we flew back to the UK where the mass hysteria of Diana’s death was slowly subsiding, and there in the relative calm of home we digested what we’d seen and heard in the States.
The most striking thing was that you just didn’t hear dance music. The radio stations were breathtakingly conservative at the time, sticking to tried & tested Hip Hop, Soft Rock and Country playlists, and stations like KROC and Grooveradio were seen as rare beacons of light as the internet was slowly taking it’s first baby steps. We’d come from a country with a rich base level of knowledge, where dance music wasn’t just accepted, it was about the biggest thing in all our lives. Ever since Acid House revolutionized our lives in 1989 and politicized the art of dancing, we had had our heroes – Underworld, Orbital, Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, and then subsequently the likes of The Prodigy stepped up, crossed over and became national treasures by the end of ’97.
In the US it felt very different.
Music is all about tribes, all about a sense of belonging, a sense of shared history. It felt like there was no common ground, no continuity of purpose, of sound, no tribe to belong to … the only people who were doing really well out there were The Crystal Method who were trailblazing their way around the country on tour after tour, filling a massive void where there should have been a hundred acts of their stature doing the same each year. What was interesting was how they got their music heard & how they made their connection – through a series of movie & game licenses and then crucially an advert for Gap which was the one thing that took the music national overnight … and that, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, was most likely the Tipping Point that made for a million-selling album.
Fast-forward the present, and let’s look at the gulf of change that we’ve seen & what impact that’s had on the music people are making.
There’s been an exponential BOOM in the past 5 years in dance music in America, and most especially in the past 2-3 years where the likes of Ultra Music Festival and EDC have created behemoth-brands. The likes of Deadmau5, Guetta, Avicii, Tiesto and Skrillex have all become household names, no longer having to rely on Gap adverts to spread their musical message. They tour stadiums, their music is widescreen, their visuals & production values are stunning … and by the very nature of appealing to such vast audiences the scope for depth and subtlety has been quickly eroded. The music itself has quickly veered towards the binary – POP HOOK – air punch – MASSIVE BASS – air punch – SYNTH HOOK – air punch - REPEAT. To work on that scale, the dynamics have changed. Dumbed down for added directness, to unite the enormous numbers as one – terrace chant vocals – terrace chant basslines – terrace chant synth hooks.
DJ Line-ups at these massive festivals have become a scramble to book every A-Lister under the sun, and in doing so production size and scale has expanded whilst set lengths have decreased. The acronym EDM has become synonymous with this mainstreaming of the music, and in many circles especially of the old guard, there has been no shortage of disquiet over the brickwall culture we’ve so quickly moved towards. It’s not hard to see why. Where underground club music has for years been about an intimate journey and a direct communication with people through music, played and consumed with soul, it’s increasingly becoming the preserve of the mega-rave, and without these personal connections to the DJ, to the music, we will lose a huge slice of experience.
Meanwhile The Crystal Method no longer have to rely on a chance clothing advert to spread the word about a new release. None of us do. The internet and global high-speed broadband has brought the music to all of us instantaneously; in a parallel to the musical developments this accelerated delivery mechanism has had it’s own savage effect on the industry. We no longer have to source our music, to look to those with knowledge and expertise. We no longer have the filters in place to strip the wheat from the chaff, so we gravitate more towards grabbing bushels of wheat, for nothing if possible, and sifting through it in our own way. We no longer truly feel ownership over the music we buy, or more likely download for nothing. The value has been stripped from the having, and people’s tolerance of waiting has decreased exponentially.
The net effect on the music? Has it lost some of those core virtues (“moving your mind, body and soul”), especially when it comes to DJ sets? Do producers care enough about ‘finishing’ the track, mastering it, ensuring everything is perfect? Is the networking, the immediacy, the dissemination of the music the override here? Is there time for the music to sit with people, for them to live with it? Do the DJs care about the promos they’re sent, given the whole world has access to those same promos at about the same time? The answer for me to all those questions is a resounding no, and the net effect is a driving down of standards in all aspects of the industry.
So look, I’m not here to argue against this new music, although I can’t say I’m a fan of many of these ongoing ‘industry’ developments. It’s not for me to argue against anything that people do musically, although I have to confess to feeling increasingly disenfranchised from it. I’ve never liked pop music, and I’ve never been a fan of the LCD-approach, of reducing an art form to its lowest common denominator to appease the legions, the masses.
What I am saying though is that in this increasingly ADHD business, I think there is more than enough room for alternatives and there’s no shortage of people who love their electronic music and crave the diametric opposite to the fast-food McMusic culture we’re increasingly seeing at every turn.
In many ways this popularism ferments the underground. It inspires people to create alternatives and it’s a big part of why I’ve chosen to launch my own alternative take in The One Series with One Room, One DJ, All Night. These long sets allow for range, for distance, for depth and for story-telling on a much broader canvas. As a DJ you are setting to out tell a story in a number of chapters, not in bitesize soundbites. You are the warm-up, the peaktime, the closer, and the feeling the whole crowd have at the end of these sets is far greater than the sum of its parts.
A big driver of this passion is the simple notion that when it comes to DJaying, it’s all about the context – how you set moments up, how you create curves in your sets, of the peaks and the troughs, the deliberate breathers, the space to listen, to move to engage with the sounds on a deeper level. It’s how you present a track that makes it grow, that makes it hit home much harder than it could ever do in isolation. If we lose those skills, and people become disassociated with the concept of movement and context in a set, we wind up with what we’re edging ever closing towards – a monochrome landscape of brickwall noise, where there’s no scope for growth, for exploration, for creativity.
Whilst EDM continues to gather pace in a staggering rush of gluttony and the perennial pursuit of ‘the dollar’, let’s not forget the music’s roots and it’s core purpose. Too much music, and too many events seem locked into a race to the bottom, in search of the lowest common denominator. Now this music’s being heard far and wide, let’s not lose sight of those core values …. music that moves your mind, body and soul.