Dance music is eating itself. Is that such a bad thing? RA’s Michaelangelo Matos investigates the current state of permaretro.
The past is always with us. That’s a truism, yet it has never felt as present, as real, as it does in 2010. And there are few places it’s more clearly obvious, and more potent, than in dance music.
Right now, if you’re curious to learn about pretty much any audiovisually reproducible work made in the last century, you can find it without too much trouble. The effect of this flip-through history is a curious kind of flattening out. Arts lovers have always tended to experience individual works as part of a continuing historical line, and there has long been a nostalgia industry catering to aging music lovers who want to relive their salad days. But the Internet seems to be accelerating a shift in how people perceive the culture of the past. We’re reaching a state in which that past is more fully available to the present than ever before. Especially in dance music, the past has come to seem less like a weight and more like a playground—like being at a party where everyone’s talking about things that happened years ago but having a great time right now.
The term I’ve been throwing around to describe this state of affairs is “permaretro”: the cultural past and present coexisting at equal levels of accessibility. Well, not completely equal. In 2010, many people will think of Mad Men if you mention the ’60s. You can also pull up images, TV, film, music and all kinds of ephemera relating to the decade in basically no time. Unless you live in a dorm, the ’60s won’t necessarily greet you as you walk out the door. You still have to look. You just don’t have to look very hard. And having the past button-pushable changes people’s perceptions of it.
The past is still enthralling to young musicians, DJs, and listeners, of course. But having that past at our fingertips—not refracted through a modern filter, but the thing itself, via YouTube or iTunes or SoundCloud or Tumblr or whatever—demystifies it some. Young artists working in older styles—and this is across the board, not just in dance music—seem to have less of a hero-worship element to them that were once part and parcel of deliberate revivalism. Now, it seems less obeisant to not simply update an earlier style, but to reproduce it whole.
Any serious discussion of dance music in 2010 is saturated in old-school referents. Among the year’s big tracks are Ramadanman’s “Don’t Change for Me,” a perfect evocation of jungle in its 1994-95 prime; Deniz Kurtel’s “Yeah,” which throws back to bare early Chicago house; Lone’s “Pineapple Crush / Angel Brain,” which remind me of early Danny Breaks and early 808 State, respectively; and Tensnake’s euphoric “Coma Cat,” which could have been played at the Fun House in ’85. Last year, my favorite single was Walter Jones’ “Living without Your Love”: utterly mesmerizing ’82 synth-R&B melancholy released by DFA, a label that has built its name by lovingly evoking styles from decades earlier, without being cowed by living up to those styles’ historical reputations.
As more young acts join the dance music fray, that’s the attitude a lot of them seem to be adopting as well. With little of the cultural scarcity that often spurs scenes into being, things collide differently in terms of getting your influences together. And these artists don’t seem bored with their surfeit of options but swim in them as a matter of course. They enjoy and honor and pay homage to the past, and then they go right back to living in the present.
“For a lot of the producers revisiting old styles nowadays there is not really any nostalgia involved,” says Energy Flash (AKA Generation Ecstasy) and Rip It Up and Start Again author Simon Reynolds, whose next book is about retro-culture. “Revivalism in the past used to involve a mixture of anguish and reverence. The people really thought music was better back then and they really wished they could go back in time.
What is striking about musical production in the past decade is that people can revisit past styles without any apparent affect whatsoever. It’s much more like a stylistic exercise, like Queen doing ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love.’ I think it’s coming from a completely different place from things like old skool raves where it is a time travel trip on offer, a whole night of wallowing in nostalgia.”
“Every generation of musicians reinvestigates the music of their youth and their parents’ generation when they come to maturity,” says Rutgers professor Aram Sinnreich, author of Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. “What we’re seeing now is that the young musicians are the first ones to grow up in a sampling environment, where most music is filtered through a computer interface.
How many iPhone applications will give you an 808 to play with right now, on your phone? It’s part and parcel of the same movement: nostalgia—in all the different senses of the word—for a kind of authenticity that was communicated despite the mechanical and computerized channels that produced and distributed it. Ironically, that is something new. We’ve never had nostalgia for [the] ersatz before, not in quite this way.”
We’ve long been used to the past having a presence in the current day. In 1970s America, ’50s nostalgia became a cottage industry—think of Happy Days or Grease. Music fans wishing to relive the ’70s during the ’90s could choose from grunge, neo-soul, a boom in earnest singer-songwriters, the Eagles made manifest in both country music and Adult Album Alternative radio, hip-hop’s multiple ongoing funk revivals—not even singling out Beck or the Beastie Boys—and, of course, dance music, where everybody from Deee-Lite to DJ Sneak revived disco while fusion bubbled inside tracks by LTJ Bukem and Goldie. Now it’s time for the ’90s.
“It was inevitable that as producers’ understanding of earlier sounds and scenes grew, they’d get better and better at approximating those earlier styles,” says the London publisher and historian Frank Broughton. “That sexy, bass-driven house sound that’s emerging is another key style. To me it’s a continuation of the classic Sound Factory sound, but to anyone younger it’s amazing and fresh.”
In the case of 26-year-old Matt Cutler, AKA Lone, it was early ’90s breakbeats that keeps its fire. “Hardcore was the first music that I fell in love with,” says Cutler of the style that became drum & bass. “I think its influence is felt in everything I’ve ever done as a result.” That’s apparent on Lone’s 2009 album, Ecstasy and Friends, and the preceding 12-inch, “Joy Reel / Sunset Teens.” Both are ravey, but in a sublimated way—blurry, at the music’s root but not at its top. That changed this year thanks to “Pineapple Crush / Angel Brain,” the debut 10-inch on Cutler’s own label Magic Wire. “The truth is, ‘Pineapple Crush’ is probably the dumbest record I’ve ever made,” Cutler says, “simply an excuse to make a club friendly track in the only way I really know how—in the style of a hardcore/ house tune. My next releases will be different again—although that old-school feel I think will stay with me forever because of nostalgia and how personal that can be.”
Cutler says of the “kind of euphoric, lush sound” of early rave, “That style of writing was apparent in late ’80s, early ’90s electronic music, I think, due to primitive studio set ups and having to work around having, like, a second’s worth of sampling time. I find music made around those limitations totally beautiful.”
“I went to see [The Martinez Brothers]…
and they were better than most of the DJs
I’ve seen playing way older music.” – Jubilee
Brooklyn DJ-producer Jess Gentile, AKA Jubilee, cites similar methodology in others’ work. “The kids that I’ve been working with and meeting and observing, a lot of them are working off of some sample packs [of] songs from a long time ago,” she says. “I’ll know the sample, because I’m a little bit older than them—I’m 30. Maybe sometimes they don’t know the sample. But it doesn’t matter, because the sample sounds really good to them.”
Likewise, David Kennedy, AKA Ramadanman, utilized a distinctive palate when he made “Don’t Change for Me,” the last track on his self-titled EP for Hessle Audio in April and subsequently a huge DJ track. “I had been using quite a few jungle breaks around that time, and I’d recently had a sampling session with one of my old synths which is where the stabby bass comes from,” he says. “It’s definitely [a] closer, like playing an epic song at the end of a set to send everyone home all warm and fuzzy. But I still think it’s part of the same family that makes up the EP, shares a lot of the tropes than run through it. I wasn’t really trying to make an ‘old skool’ tune.”
A similar eternal-present argument comes from Walter Jones. “Dance music producers have been holding on to that throwback ’80s sound for at least ten years,” he says. “I have been going back to the older R&B sound [that] got me into dance music years ago. But there are a lot of younger people looking towards the past to be creative. Not to copy the songs, but because they want to actually write songs rather than throwaway tracks that we are used to in club culture.”
Maybe that’s due to a proprietary sense many artists have for the music they grew up on. “A lot of these kids are so young that their parents listened to this stuff,” says Jubilee, using the Martinez Brothers as an example. “I went to see them two years ago and they were so good; they were better than most of the DJs I’ve seen playing way older music. It wasn’t some little kid[s] making blog music from samples into crappy remixes. They knew their music. And they were definitely under 20 [then].”
That kind of everything-goes-together vibe is, of course, the hallmark of the wide, dense area with dubstep at its center and pretty much everything else swirling around it, as the DJs fit it all in. In January, for instance, Jackmaster’s Number Dazed Mix and Shortstuff’s XLR8R Podcast threw vintage jackin’ Chicago house tracks (DJ Slugo and Mike Dunn for the former, Steve Poindexter for the latter) into their bass-heavy sets. Not only does this maneuver nod to the music’s roots (“In the beginning, there was Jack,” indeed), but it also heightens the sense that this music can literally go anywhere, anytime and retain its identity.
“I think there are definitely similarities between some classic house and stuff that is being made today,” says Ramadanman. “Mixing together the two in a set sonically connects the dots between yesterday’s music and today’s—showing that perhaps there isn’t quite so much difference [as] previously thought.” This diminished sense of scene territorialism has often been attributed to purveyors of UK bass music. But it’s more prevalent than ever elsewhere too: Your progressive house isn’t necessarily stepping on my jungle anymore. And disco and rock made nice a while ago—but not too long.
“Genres [were once] set up in
opposition to what had gone before;
now there’s much less of that
antagonism.” – Frank Broughton
“Disco was a dance fad of the Seventies with a profound and unfortunate influence on popular music.”
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 1989
Frank Broughton cited that Penguin Encyclopedia quote in his response to my questions, and he’s made refuting it into his life’s work. Along with partner Bill Brewster, Broughton wrote Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and the new DJ Revolutionaries, and together they run DJ History, a website and independent publishing house.
Last Night was the first serious full-scale history not simply of post-rave dance music, but of everything from radio deejaying to stadium rave. It gave ample room to disco, right at a time when Larry Levan’s Live at the Paradise Garage came out and showed a new generation just how boldly outlandish disco could sound in the right hands. Brewster and Broughton’s book began a new wave of serious disco books, such as Tim Lawrence’s look into ’70s New York nightlife, Love Saves the Day. Shortly thereafter, disco-redux fever began spreading through nightlife.
“My own sense is that the engagement with these ‘past’ sounds is driven by affect, or a desire for a certain kind of physical sensation,” says Lawrence, more recently the author of the Arthur Russell biography Hold On to Your Dreams. “Just as the producers of mutant disco and other post-punk sounds wanted to break with the overly slick values of late disco, so the producers of contemporary dance want to disrupt the all-too-easy smoothness that came to dominate during the 1990s and 2000s.”
Broughton senses a slightly different shift: “It feels like there’s no longer any prejudice against old music. It used to be that genres set up in opposition to what had gone before; now there’s much less of that antagonism. Through the late ’90s, when the main DJ currency was the white label, everyone was so focused on the latest that anything older than a couple of months was forgotten. But with digital music the playing field is leveled. The whole edits thing was important, too. For a long time some of the best ‘new’ records were just reheated old ones. [That] helped to convince DJs that older music was important.”
The “importance” Broughton refers to has less to do with pure historicity than with active sensation. It isn’t a coincidence that all these newer artists are nodding to older music as dance music undergoes the biggest collective reissue campaign in its history. Rush Hour has hit its stride with a series of imaginative and loving 12-inch, album and compilation reissues; Plastikman offers his archives every way he can think of; Tresor is putting its classics back out, just like every other label from the ’90s seems to be doing: R&S, Reinforced, Strictly Rhythm. YouTube is not working alone.
Not only are newer listeners increasingly able to hear all those older tracks, they can hear them in situ. Scott Grooves’ recent RA Podcast, taken from a 1993 C-90, is only the tip of a dumbfounding array of vintage DJ mixtapes and live and radio sets available for stream or download, thanks to everything from R_co’s priceless SoundCloud archive (particularly for his pre-house disco sets) to Rave Archive’s daunting mixtape selection, just for starters.
Of course, retro is never far from the surface of pop or rock. Many R&B artists are including ’60s-style “throwback” tracks on their albums; one of the year’s big pop-critical hits is Cee-Lo’s Motown-like (and –unalike) “Fuck You,” while garage rock and plenty of indie strains are heavily indebted to any number of precedents, sometimes all at once. And dance music has its historical proclivities.
Still, says, Dan Balis, who plays guitar and keyboards in New York disco big band Escort, “I suspect that making a pop or rock record that explicitly references an ‘older’ sound seems less jarring to people, because there’s more of a continuity there. Rock never had its Comiskey Park.” (He’s referring, of course, to the infamous 1979 riot that broke out at rock radio DJ Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition Derby” during a Chicago White Sox double-header.) “No one blinks if a new record sounds like the Velvet Underground, Can or the Beatles,” Balis says. “I think probably the other thing at play is that underground dance music, whether it’s house, techno, or whatever, has always been tied up, to some extent, with the idea of the future, or at least newness. Does pop music, or underground dance music, still require ‘newness’ to be relevant? I’m not completely convinced it does anymore.”
“Does pop music, or underground
dance music, still require ‘newness’
to be relevant?” – Escort’s Dan Balis
“I think it is a structural feature of all musical genres or music formations, an inevitable stage they get to,” says Reynolds. “At a certain point, and unavoidably, a genre of music has accumulated sufficient history behind itself that new musicians are tempted to go back. They can either set up shop in a particular era or superceded genre-phase, or they can do recombinant work, creating hybrids out of what’s already been done. At a certain point, the only way(s) forward for a particular form of music are increasingly unlistenable, unpleasant or involve actively mutilating and wrecking what was good about the original music. So in response you get a kind of neo-classical approach.”
“Right now I feel like a lot of music is anything-goes,” says Jubilee. “Some songs that are big right now sound like trance music—they do. And nobody seems to be saying, ‘Eww, trance.’ There’s some stuff that is very drum & bass sounding. I don’t really hear anybody saying, ‘It sounds like a drum and bass song from 1998.’ It’s just, ‘Wow, this song is awesome.’”
Sinnreich stresses the melting-pot nature of East London, home of many of the savvier mixtures of old and new, as a kind of precursor to the ways the Web fluxes things up. “The genesis of that, what began as a fusion music, is a massive influx of West Indians into East London in the 1950s and ’60s.
That event was the big bang of that musical continuum. We’ve now reached three generations since it occurred, and what I think we’re seeing is another large-scale generational reinvestigation of that event, but with two other pre-existing degrees of abstraction. I do think that there are cultural cycles and periodicities in this process. But because of that kind of flattening effect, it’s hard to recognize them as such. They don’t sound like something new; they sound like a new perspective on something old.