Artists Weigh in on The Past, Present, and Future of the Electronic Music Movement That Has the U.S. Obsessed.
“We are in the crest of a wave, and whenever it’s rising we will be there.” — Fatboy Slim
For some, EDM means the newest, most intense electronic music available. It’s what you listen to in the gym, with your friends, in your car, or on those advertisements. It means putting on pasties and dancing in the sun for three days straight in a festival crowd of 200,000 people. Pop stars like Flo Rida, Nicki Minaj, and even Enrique Iglesias could show up on a track, and it would still be EDM. So long as you hear those anthemic beats and that stadium-scale, synthesized stimulus you want to distill and shoot in your veins, it’s EDM.
For others, EDM is an irritating word; an American invention that symbolizes the country’s rather late-coming commercialization of house music. To them, EDM is super-accessible, poppy, and sometimes, artless.
And still, for others, it’s just a cash goldmine.
Whatever your leanings, the world surrounding the term EDM has become something much larger than the standalone anthems of Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5, and the circle of celebrity DJ/producers on the inside of the movement. Gigantic electronic music festivals (a relatively new concept in the scheme of festivals) are selling out to teenagers around the world in minutes. Skrillex was nominated for a main category Grammy this year. It’s easier to find Afrojack or Avicii on the radio than it is Katy Perry. Companies are literally inventing technology to accommodate the growing LED spectacle of EDM performances.
Yes, EDM, whether you like the term or not, (and some aforementioned DJs don’t like it) is a huge commercial industry, and a significant movement in American pop culture. But why? Where did it come from? What makes it so important? And why, why, why is it everywhere?
Like most words that come into the public consciousness out of nowhere, ‘EDM’ is hard to define exactly. It literally means ‘electronic dance music’ and is supposedly a more danceable counterpart to its lesser-used brethren IDM (or “intelligent dance music,” like techno and supposedly higher-brow stuff). Yet, colloquially these days, EDM implies the most recent wave of commercial house producers seeping into the mainstream in the US.
“Basically I think EDM is a typical American term for what we used to call ‘house music,’” laughs Lucas Cornelis van Scheppingen, aka Dutch house producer Laidback Luke, in an interview. “But electronic dance music could be hip-hop as well. I mean every type of music is almost made electronically anyway now, and what, you don’t dance to rock music? It’s a tricky one.”
Watch our interview with Laidback Luke at Tomorrowland 2012.
As it turns out, nobody really knows. Some say the movement kicked off when Daft Punk topped US charts with the album Discovery, donning robot gear and making room for Justice and the Ed Banger crew, and prompting pop artists like Lady Gaga to use harder electronic beats. Then in 2008, producers like Deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner and Kaskade started gaining US chart and club traction, armed with a more anthemic, “progressive” sound than their tech-funky French house predecessors.
But the man really credited for changing everything is French juggernaut David Guetta. The now superpower producer had been climbing the Paris gay club scene for decades (though he’s straight and happily married), and was inspired by hip-hop, R&B and Chicago house scenes in the 80s. In the documentary film Nothing But The Beat, Guetta says hip-hop wasn’t particularly accepted in the gay clubs at the time, so he started fusing it with house “quite by accident.”
What tipped the scales was his 2009 album One Love, particularly the tracks “When Love Takes Over” and “Sexy Bitch,” which put EDM into a commercial American spotlight. The formula for the album was simple: combine huge house drops and icons Kelly Rowland, Akon, Black Eyed Peas, and Rihanna.
Suddenly, house in its new incarnation was mainstream, and the world changed forever.
“[David Guetta] is very criticized, some people love him for it, some people hate him because they think that it should all be underground,” says Gustavo Rozenthal of Brazilian house duo Felguk. “I’m not a huge fan, but I think it was a great thing he did for electronic music. He showed it to a lot of people it wouldn’t have reached.”
Soon, the word EDM was inescapable, sucking up everything in its path, including Dutch house, dubstep (the Skrillex kind, not the south London kind), trance, and the millions of subgenres American kids didn’t want to memorize. House artists around the world were blending their stuff with R&B, hip-hop, pop sounds and stars, making more and more facemelting beats, and climbing the ranks until they could stand as megastars on their own. No longer were the DJs just conduits for good music, they were stars with names and identities.
Suddenly, artists who had been popular in Europe for years — Swedish House Mafia, Laidback Luke and Tiësto to name a few – grew even bigger, in the coveted US market, no less. Hardworking producers like Steve Aoki and Nervo started getting their due, now aided and abetted by gigantic electronic music festivals around the world. Then they inspired a new guard of young, laptop-raised producers like Alesso, Porter Robinson, Avicii, Madeon, and more. Countless producers started getting attention from India (Jalabee Cartel) to Indonesia (Angger Dimas), and so on and so forth down the gold-paved, dude-dominated EDM road. Attendance at electronic music festivals swelled by about 400% in some cases. And, as it has always been in house music, producers sample one another, remix each other, regurgitate and revamp sounds constantly, thus keeping the genre alive and omnipresent.
“I’ve been DJing professionally for like, 15 years now, and I’ve been a producer for 20 years. I’ve always been doing this,” says Laidback Luke. “To see this in the states is a miracle. Ten years ago this happened in Europe and I was always waiting for it to happen in the US, and right now is the moment. My style has always been flirting with commercial anyways, so I’m happy it’s taking off.”
Watch music videos from Steve Aoki, Justice, Zedd, Noisia and Bloody Beetroots
For producers with different styles, however, the EDM effect isn’t such a blessing.
“The line ups of festivals are becoming boring, everyone plays the same music and what you see is always a DJ behind a console with lots of lights and huge LED screens,” says Bloody Beetroots‘ Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo. “What I’m trying to do with the BB DJ SET is to turn it into a show, giving new life to the songs, looking for some new reactions and also restore the true meaning of DJing.”
So, what is the true meaning of DJing?
Norman Cook, or UK’s legendary “big beat” maker Fatboy Slim, couldn’t have summed up the EDM phenomenon better during our recent interview at Tomorrowland.
“We’ve been doing this forever in Europe. Oh, 20 years. And now it’s going to America. Which is really funny, since it all started with black gay music in Chicago.”
Yes, house music made a tremendous, cross-continental, 30-year loop. It’s no secret that the genre started when a couple of gay, black DJs in Chicago tinkered with old soul, disco, funk, and R&B records using turntables, drum machines, and reel-to-reel cassettes in the 80s. Disco was dead, but Kraftwerk had pioneered electronic music in Germany, while new wave was happening in the UK. The young Chicagoans were inspired. They played their dance edits for audiences of like-minded weirdos in clubs — the original ravers really –and the scene proliferated, as well as a DJ’s technology options. Suddenly, kids in Chicago realized they could make hot beats, put out a record, and get girls (or boys) with basically no music knowledge or cash (though, it does help).
But the thing about house music, as well as the headier techno scene that was growing in Detroit during the 80s and 90s, is that it didn’t really take off in the US. Raves thrived underground through the years, but for better or worse, there were just no commercial hits. The music was simply too weird. Instead, the song “Love Can’t Turn Around” by Farley “Jackmaster” Funk charted in the UK of all places, and house basically took root there.
Yes, this song started it.
Until the EDM era of today, house music and techno has pretty much stayed in Europe on a commercial level; evolving, bisecting, birthing new genres like trance and dubstep and drum’n'bass and Balearic Ibiza stuff, creating megastars like Paul Van Dyk and Armin Van Buuren and other people with three names. For the most part, mainstream America would only see this kind of stuff on subway ads featuring women in bikinis for cheesy compilations, with an occasional crossover from the likes of The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Dirty Vegas, and of course, Daft Punk.
It seems unreal to be where we are today, when young Americans are traveling to other continents to hear house music and lose their minds over something that used to be next door. Yet, while it’s easy for elders to cram history down the young peoples’ throats, it wouldn’t be EDM, then. As it is, the movement is pure, hedonistic, non-hipster, maybe a little fratty, and it absolutely had to happen now. It’s the inevitable merging of commercial pop, hip-hop, and all the electronic music scenes that confounded Americans in the past; replacing it with something accessible and, above all, stimulating as hell.
And whether you like it or not, these beats are no joke. If the industry is laughing at all, it’s to the bank.