THE CHANGING FACE OF BRITISH DANCE MUSIC
Over the last five years, dance music has erupted like a Babylonian ziggurat. Skream’s 2009 crossover remix of La Roux’s ‘In for the Kill’ was the watershed record that re-introduced mainstream ears to dance music. Now a diverse range of anybodies from vest wearing muscles, corporate suits and mainstream taste arbiters to ratchet girls, ghetto affiliates, fresher’s week fodder and musical hipsters engage, at least partially, with dance music and its culture.
As this new found popularity has surged, so the sounds, cultures and vogues that form dance music have changed - in an increasingly fleeting, fractious and commercially flirtatious manner. For 2009’s generation of dance music fans, those who had discovered its appeal during the internet age, Dubstep became the unquestionable byword for dance music. The genre acted as the exciting and ubiquitous, if misrepresentative, sound of an entire, previously underground, musical sub-culture. The ensuing cultural influence, such as in pop music and even advertising campaigns, manifests upon every screen, through every speaker and is splayed across innumerable t-shirt slogans.
By 2011 Dubstep record sales had risen faster than any other dance music genre. Productions multiplied as YouTube channels and internet forums dedicated to the deification of the sound thrived. DJs previously confined to playing half-empty rooms in South London, Leeds and Manchester became international superstars. Yet presently Dubstep records sell less than those of largely forgotten, late 80’s phenomenon: Breaks. A telling indictment. DJs and producers once central to the sound have either sought to re-invent themselves (Skream, Loefah, Plastician), faded away (Benga) or embraced their grotesque future as hyper-commercial American party staples with pulsing neon-lasers, huge paychecks and an over-reliance on excess bass (Skrillex, Flux Pavilion, Rusko).
Foregoing commercial distortion, in the UK the sounds of Post-Dubstep and Future Garage emerged as the successive reaction to, and a contributing factor in, the downfall of Dubstep’s popularity and commercial viability. However, these genres were not afforded the relative longevity of Dubstep’s success. Their popularity was fleeting, soon to be succeeded by Trap, Chillwave, Moombhaton, a reinvention of Industrial Techno and a commercially resurgent House music in turn. This ceaseless re-invention of the popular sound of Dance music, throughout the last five years is underwritten by the contemporary ease of music sharing. YouTube channels (UKF, Eton Messy and Majestic) provide a platform that promotes the sounds of bedroom producers alongside their critically acclaimed acolytes - giving listeners seemingly endless choice.
Coupled with the subsequent ease of retweeting, liking and sharing any of these tracks on social media, the listenership is saturated with the new music at a speed previously impossible. Underground music that would otherwise have been solely available to the anti-commercial (counter-cultural media, hipsters, creative producers, self-appointed music aficionados) and those invested in a particular scene is now, almost instantaneously, made available to mainstream media outlets, record labels and party promoters - who then promote, and inevitably monetize, said genre with greater amplification and social reach.
Yet the internet-fuelled accessibility of modern dance music only partly explains why a genre that monopolises popularity, taste and wider media attention is quickly superseded by another. The catalyst for this cycle of change is often the perception of ‘selling out.’ The commercial success of any musical genre will result in the anti-commercial seeking to align themselves with a fresher sound considered to hold greater integrity, creativity and soul - which, reflexively, ordains upon themselves these very qualities. Yet rejection of a sound that has become mainstream can equally be a result of the boredom of producers, frustrated with the parameters of a genre. Or promoters predicting a switch in taste. All of this culminates in a janus faced culture of dance music: with commercial and anti-commercial forces working in a tumultuous driving union. One that keeps the music constantly changing and relatively fresh, reworking the sounds that we consume and reworking our own perception of ourselves as we re-listen and realign ourselves as fans of the perennially changing sound of dance music.
As a final note, one that I feel is vital, many of the biggest forces that be in dance music consider that all of this change is merely a facade. That the music, Dubstep phenomena aside, rarely changes. Yet our desire for the new and the unique is so powerful that we allow ourselves to believe redressed sounds from yesteryear are the sparkling sounds of the near future. Having investigated the changing nature of contemporary dance music, the rest of the article is dedicated to exploring genres already past their popularity peak. Completed with predictions for genres to really come to into their own - via the tongue of my own cheek.
Brostep was Dubstep’s malformed brother. All tracks were built around an increasingly abrasive ‘drop’ - a bridge between the ‘melodic’ introduction and a subsequent invasion of bass. Today it flourishes in the fratboy infested West-Coast American EDM scene.
Fleetingly it managed to bring together the musical tribes of heavy metal fans, old dub heads and freshers week cannon fodder: all worshipping the dirty outer-parameters of bass. Eventually, as all grotesque and strange creatures must, it held a life as short as it was shocking. Defining Track: Bar 9 - Midnight.
FUTURE GARAGE & POST DUBSTEP
As the limits of dubstep’s musical monopoly became increasingly tired, post-dubstep and future-garage emerged as sensitive, nuanced and sparse re-imaginings of their unabashed ancestors. Dance music for people who wear skin tight jeans and take valium on a night out. Defining Track: XXXY - About You.
Moombahton was Dave Nada’s musical micro-snack. He momentarily dragged himself away from the head-pounding world of Dirty Dutch to make a sandwich of Dutch synths and reggaeton drum beats. In gastronomical terms, this is akin to putting a slice of plastic Kraft cheese on a freshly made batch of charlemagne bread. It shouldn’t happen. It did happen and it was only the small smattering of pre-ejaculate that acted as a forewarning for Diplo’s hard-house, lazer-filled worldwide orgy. Defining Track: They all sound like taking 5 pills at an University foam party in a feeder town and never quite coming up. Half a track of anything by Dave Nada or pre-2012 Dillon Francis is enough to give you a taster.
Chillwave was the first true sound of the post-internet age - with utopian musical ideas formed in the ether of your ethernet cables. It was meant to encapsulate the stretched out, endless optimism of early summer evenings and the slow-moving eureka of a thousand mellow acid trips. Springing from no geographically identifiable urban centre, it heralded the age of the internet. Defining Track: Search for ‘Chillwave Mix’ on Youtube. They’re all great for going to sleep or concentrating on impending writing deadlines. Now imagine trying to dance to this all night? Yeah right.
For the Generation Y dance music community, Bass Music was the umbrella term used by culture critics and DJs to herald the after-dubstep musical dawn. Notoriously difficult to define, aside from the music had to be made with a large hunk of bass, it re-galvanised a rave community that would’ve otherwise slumped into a depressive, nomadic state. Defining Track: Redlight - Source 16.
2013 and 2014 were dominated by Deep House. Yet the genre has become bloated with events, parties, near identical remixes and muscle-heavy, snapback wearing ‘culture-sheep’ attaching themselves to it. It’s not too long before real DJs, producers and musical hipsters get bored of what the genre can offer. With House events beginning to resemble vanity morgues, it’s surely an inevitability that passionate dance music aficionados realise these events offer less long term satisfaction than a hastily procured prostitute with a less than clean bill of sexual health. Defining Track: Route 94 - My Love.
As the dominance of house falls away with the last autumn leaves of 2014 the genre reacts against it’s own mainstream success. Gone is the overly-gymmed, tanning-salon optimism of the glorious summer days of vests, snapbacks, Vans and Huraches. Replaced by an introspective, self-aware mournful ethos. It's sparse, progressive and often entire minutes pass between snare-kicks during the build up of songs. Sometime in early 2015, Skream breaks down, donates all his money to charity and claims he’s been making this music for years.
In an effort to combat corporate festivalism and monetising promoters the remnants of the politically aware electro-swing, afrobeat, disco-house, four tet/aphex twin/burial loving fanbases forge a community and start making music together. Output focuses on live-bongos, samples from pre-2010 Obama speeches and drinking soy milk. There’s huge emphasis on lectures from Guardian columnists and health food stands but the scene is cauterized early due to limited coherent musical focus.
Very serious, minimal and bass-heavy. To the musically untuned it sounds exactly like dubstep. However those involved in the genre make it seriously clear that it’s nothing at all like dubstep. Eventually becomes clear that it actually is just a re-marketing of dubstep. Panned unilaterally for cultural plagiarism, eventually Plastician, Coki and Benga win millions in damages when they then patent the term ‘Dubstep’ and rights over making non-vocalled music at ‘140bpm’. Skream breaks down and claims he never really left the dubstep scene and rekindles his bromance with Benga.
When house dies on the underground, it’s appropriated by the imperious, Canary Wharf cocaine elite. It becomes the soundtrack to a thousand tailored suited, tanned, Patrick Bateman’s sniffing heavily as they explain to each other in ego-pumped monologues how they’ve managed to straddle the worlds of financial success and cultural relevance interluded by acute, technical deconstructions of the type of synths used to make (x) snare compression or (y) chord progression. Somehow the attorneys that work for these guys patent the sound, so anything between 117bpm and 124bpm can’t be played outside of a three mile radius to Canary Wharf. Skream, now back living in a flatshare in Croydon, breaks down and denies he ever made house music.
EDM begins to resemble one big, x-rated commercial for ‘having a good time’ as long as you belong to the 90210 elite, own a trust fund or are willing to give Diplo sexual favours. Shows which foreground visuals over music and are regularly interrupted by big-screen commercials for ‘Coors Light beer’ are an accepted facet of partying. The scene jizzes itself into orgasmic oblivion when Skrillex releases a 2 minutes 30 seconds track of pure, unadulterated ‘drop’.