Rave on

Nelson Mail, 13 September 2001

Click image for larger version

It's dance party time in Nelson - a time of mysterious music for people older than the rave generation. Techno, house, trance, hardcore, dub... what do all these names mean? Widely-published Nelson music writer Grant Smithies offers a guide. Electronic dance music is everywhere. House music, not rock 'n' roll, soundtracks our nation's more fashionable bars and nightclubs.

The radio plays more hip hop and R&B than it does rock music, and behind every car ad on the telly comes the futuristic clatter of techno or drum and bass.

Dance-oriented events like our own Gathering attract huge crowds. Teenagers that once might have spent years in their bedroom learning to play the guitar are now more likely to be pestering their parents to buy them a set of turntables so they can learn to be a DJ.

The electric guitar is starting to look positively Jurassic, an outmoded relic, like the caveman's log drum.

If you're young, the repetitive beats 'n' bleeps of electronic music make perfect sense because you've grown up on the stuff.

If you're older, however, or a proudly unreconstructed rock fan, dance music's ever-multiplying array of genres and sub-genres is bewildering.

So, to help you appear hip and knowledgeable at your next dance event, or even just so you can embarrass your teenagers by discussing techno over the breakfast table, let's have a quick, and not-altogether-serious, look at some of the main strands of electronic music.

Disco: Flares, platforms shoes, tight body shirts. Try though we might to distance ourselves from the fashion crimes of the late '70s, one thing lives on to haunt us: disco, the mother of all contemporary club music.

Tempering the repetitive, bass-heavy funk sound of James Brown, George Clinton and Sly Stone with the complex string arrangements and smooth vocal style of Philadelphia Soul, early disco producers created a monster that still dominates clubland today.

They emphasised the beat above everything else, even the singer and the song, and released their music on extended 12-inch vinyl singles marked with the beats per minute so that DJs could mix them seamlessly together, creating a continuous soundtrack for hedonistic abandon.

Same as today, then, 25 years later. While Donna Summer, Chic, The Village People etc became huge, disco was primarily a producer's medium since they created the tracks and wrote the songs.

By the end of the '70s disco's musical dominance had annoyed the hell out of the mainstream and a "disco sucks" backlash began. The music went back underground, mutating into the myriad dance music styles that we know today.

House: House music grew out of post-disco club culture in Chicago during the early '80s. The beat became more mechanical, the bass grooves became deeper and extra flavour was added to the sound by grafting other styles such as latin, rap and jazz over the insistent 4-4 beat.

House music was (and still is) largely instrumental, but occasionally rent-a-voice female divas were drafted in to moan fairly mindless "I wanna make you sweat" palaver over the melody.

Again, no changes there. By the late '80s, house had fragmented even further, the most significant offshoot being Acid House.

Acid House: Chicago's first acid house stars (DJ Pierre, Adonis, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Phuture) mixed elements of traditional house music with the exciting squelchy sounds and deep bassline of the then fearsomely modern-sounding TB-303 synthesiser.

Soon their early singles were having an impact in the UK and, by 1986-87, dancing to acid house in the outdoors or in disused warehouses had become the main weekend leisure activity of millions of British youth. Rave culture had arrived!

Soon British producers were jumping on the bandwagon, with tunes such as Pump Up the Volume by M/A/R/R/S and Theme from S'Express by S'Express both hitting No 1 in the charts by the dawn of the '90s.

Chicago producers like Cajmere and Felix Da Housecat are still making acid house today, and very tasty it is too. Other house sub-genres include progressive house (house with harder elements of trance and techno welded on), ambient house (house with dreamier, more atmospheric elements to the fore, including occasional hideous hippy-isms like whale song and didjeridoos), garage (named after a famous early house club, New York's Paradise Garage, basically house reunited with soulful disco elements and often featuring gospel vocalists), deep house (less blunt and obvious than most club music - warm, fluffy, often jazzy), hard house (the tedious, blunt and banging stuff that gives house a bad name), the immaculately-named Handbag ("poppy" commercial house, often with very cheesy vocals) and euro (an even more saccharine, teen-friendly version of handbag house, often made in production-line studios in Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain).

Are you still with me? Righto, on to techno then.

Techno: While Chicago's producers were developing the more soulful, human aspects of disco into house music, a small bunch of innovative black producers (Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May) in Detroit were experimenting with disco's more repetitive, electronic aspects.

They wanted to make music that was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Music a robot might make, or that you might hear in space - the less human it sounded the better.

Besides disco, they took their inspiration from British synth acts like Depeche Mode and German minimalists Kraftwerk, and their early releases are characterized by a startling collision of opposites: there's a dark, melancholy undercurrent, echoing the city's desolation and decay in the wake of the collapse of the automotive industry there, and a smooth, bright, soulful feel relating back to Detroit's other main musical creation, the Motown sound.

Nelson Mail, 13 September 2001

Click image for larger version

Today the techno scene is huge across Germany, the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, and the music has split into numerous subgenres including hardcore, ambient and jungle.

Hardcore techno: Also charmingly known as "Nosebleed" or "Gabba", hardcore techno is the fastest, most abrasive form of dance music available - the punk rock of the dance world.

Initiated when DJs would speed up house or techno records to excite ravers, there are now hundreds of producers around the world - grown men who should know better - making this stuff deliberately.

Huge in Belgium, Holland, Scotland and, for some reason, Christchurch, this worrying sound can also be experienced by the brave in the hardcore tent at the Gathering. Generally enjoyed by angst-addled rock fans who don't usually like dance music.

Ambient Techno: As with ambient house, this is where you'll find all those gentle mesmerising rhythms, pulsating minor-key melodies, drifting beat-less interludes and spacy experimental bits 'n' pieces. Often played in the "chill out" room at dance parties so that overheated dancers can calm down and recharge themselves for a while. With a good DJ selecting the tunes, the Chill Out room (usually far lower volume and full of couches and soft lighting) is often, ironically, the best place to be at a big dance event.

Trance: A hellish racket, in my opinion, but hugely popular in Nelson due to it being the music played in the main outdoor zone at the Gathering.

Developing out of the German techno scene of the early '90s, trance emphasises brief synthesiser lines and hypnotic electronic sound patterns repeated endlessly over a fast 4-4 kick drum, with only very minimal rhythmic changes distinguishing one track from the next - in effect, putting listeners into a trance.

Each track goes on for years, full of endless crescendos, lots of psychedelic wobbly bits and occasionally laughable "Beam me up Scotty" vocal excerpts nicked from early sci-fi movies.

Despite its hopelessly predictable nature (or perhaps because of it), trance has become the most popular style of electronic music in the world over the last few years.

Me, I'd rather listen to rock. Or country. Brass band music. Anything!

Equally hideous sub-genres include hard trance, acid trance, trancecore (a mixture of trance and hardcore), goa trance and progressive trance. All should be avoided like the plague.

Hip Hop: Emerging in New York in the 1970s, hip hop is the catch-all term for rap and the culture that surrounds it (breakdancing, graffiti etc).

Initially, rap was quite simple, with vocalists intoning party lyrics over scratched records and synthesised drum beats, but as it progressed it became much more complex.

These days the instrumentals incorporate elements of funk, soul, jazz, blues and occasionally even classical music while the lyrics explore all aspects of black culture, including several that more delicate or PC listeners would rather been left unexplored.

Even if they don't realise it, local teenagers who wear their jeans at half-mast, exposing acres of their boxer shorts, are actually emulating early rappers in poor areas like Brooklyn and the Bronx who wore their clothes big and baggy because they were hand-me-downs from their older brother or their dad. The look was picked up by American skateboarders and now it's worldwide.

In America, hip hop is now the most commercially successful genre of music, but in Nelson the scene is small with very few live events.

Trip Hop: A term coined in the early '90s by the English music press for slow, moody hip hop that replaced the vocals with electronic squiggles swiped from techno and disorienting, echo-laden atmospherics lifted from Jamaican dub.

Basically, it's hip hop for sensitive souls who can't abide all the angry shouting of your average gangster rapper. Trip hop is now the soundtrack of choice for genteel cafes, bars and hair salons the world over.

Big Beat: Basically beefed-up and dumbed-down party-time hip hop without the vocals - big, loud and hugely popular with the heavy-drinking masses, particularly in the UK. Again, a form of dance music enjoyed by people who don't usually like dance music.

Kings of the genre? Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Bently Rhythm Ace and The Propellerheads from the UK and America's Crystal Method.

Often full of beats and samples that have been used a million times before and big, grunty samples swiped from old rock, techno or funk records. Approach with caution.

Drum 'n' Bass: Drum'n'bass, or jungle as it used to be known, is one of the very few dance music genres to originate in the UK. A fast and frantic permutation of hardcore techno that emerged in the early '90s, it is the most rhythmically elaborate of all forms of dance music.

Initially built on sped-up drum breaks taken from old funk or jazz records and deep, heavy reggae basslines, these days drum 'n' bass displays the most complex and intricate drum programming of any dance genre.

TV ad agencies love it. It's now heard everywhere from TV adverts to shopping malls, much to the fans' disgust. Subgenres range from the cool and jazzy (liquid funk, jazzstep) to frantic yet funky (jump up, hard step) and on to harsh, aggressive, distorted sound of techstep, basically drum 'n' bass's answer to heavy metal. Again, there is also a kaftan-friendly ambient version.

Dub: Dub is a studio-based artform where the producer becomes the artist, cunningly manipulating the master tapes to create strange and exciting new soundscapes. It originated around 1972 in Jamaica, pioneered by producer Osbourne Ruddock, aka King Tubby, a sonic adventurer who's early experiments changed the course of recorded music worldwide, kicking off the all-important concept of the "remix".

In Jamaica, a desperately poor country, necessity has always been the mother of invention. Because studios and session musicians were expensive, Ruddock (and others such as Lee "Scratch" Perry, Errol Thompson, Scientist and Prince Jammy) would take the master tape of an existing reggae song, remove the vocals and go seriously crazy with the remaining instruments, boosting the bass and then applying all manner of studio effects (delay, echo, phasing, distortion, EQ) and sound effects (babies crying, cows mooing, sirens, gunfire, revving motorbikes) to bedazzle and excite the listener.

Often Ruddock would peel back all instruments except the bass and the drums, the skeleton of the tune, and then re-introduce them unexpectedly one by one to accentuate various rhythms within the main rhythm, a practice still at the heart of the dance remix today.

These "dub" or "version" mixes were initially featured on the flip side of Jamaican vocal 45s, but soon proved so popular that whole albums of dub tomfoolery were strapped together for the local and international market.

New Zealanders buy more reggae and dub records per capita than anywhere outside Jamaica, which probably helps explain the huge turnouts for local gigs by UK dubmeister The Mad Professor and homegrown heroes, Salmonella Dub.

And that's probably enough to digest for one day. Alas, we didn't get anywhere near electro, nu-energy, speed garage, two step, ragga, dancehall, steppers, miami bass, glitch, turntablism, abstract and a couple of dozen other significant musical sub-cultures, all with their own sound, terminology, hair style and dress code.

As with all the other musical advancements since our ancestors first shed their animal skins and danced around the fire together banging sticks, some of these are marvellous while some are just migraine-inducing.

Best advice I can give is to ignore all the definitions and just trust your ears. Music that moves you is good music, surely, and music that doesn't, well, who needs it?

Grant Smithies writes review columns and regular features in The Real Groove, Pulp and the Sunday Star Times. He also writes for several overseas publications, has so many records they barely fit in his house and DJs around Nelson as DJ Soundboy.

Grant Smithies, Nelson Mail, 13 September 2001

Page last updated: