Stop Saying EDM: The Rookie’s Guide To Electronic Dance Music (Part I)
14 August 2015
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘EDM’?
I asked a bunch of people and got an interesting selection of answers, from the predictable (“DJs”, “dance”, “untz untz untz”, “recreational drugs”) to the less predictable (“purple”). What was clear however, was how polarised peoples opinions and reactions towards the term were. Their faces either displayed fondness (presumably) at memories of drunkenly vomiting on their own shoes to ‘Lean On’ or sheer scorn for computer music, which is obviously not real music.
‘EDM’ now dominates the mainstream space. It’s this generation’s pop. Calvin Harris and Avicii are today what the Spice Girls were in the late 90s, minus the lip gloss. The era of the idolised rock star is slowly coming to an end (though not while Dave Grohl still sits on his guitar Iron Throne) and buff, sunglass donning, slick haired producers and DJs on elaborate Tomorrowland stages are now taking their place.
If you’ve been following us you’ll know that we’re very reluctant to use the term ‘EDM’. It’s an empty buzzword that reduces a rich history and culture of music that spans generations, to a miserable pile of ‘untz’. Those three obnoxious little letters have become a grossly misappropriated catchphrase for electronic dance music, which is in reality a vast genre that was making waves way before 21st century Mary Antoinette-Steve Aoki first started flinging cake at his fans. (Check out the very interesting, albeit outdated, Ishkur’s guide to electronic music to gauge just how expansive it really is.)
I’m not saying that mainstream ‘EDM’ is all bad, it’s just mostly bad (as is most music made with formulaic marketing algorithms in mind). And you deserve better.
Which is why we’ve put together a broad list of electronic music’s most popular subgenres, with a brief descriptor along with some notable examples. Knowing more about it will help you discover a world of music you like and filter out that which doesn’t quite float your boat. We've also included early sounds from each genre in this list.
This list has been tailored in context with India’s own artists and our strange relationship with the history of electronic music. This kind of sound isn’t really what we grew up listening to. We’re educating ourselves backwards, like any other non European/North American state). A small sum of us started with our parents records, but most learned about contemporary music from what filtered down to Indian MTV and VH1 (think about when The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Prodigy first made their way to MTV in the early 2000s). Finally, came the Internet and the infinite well of music we’ve immersed ourselves in now. We’re listening to so much, but most of us don’t know what to call it or (more importantly) what context and history it emerged from.
So consider this feature a PSA – stop calling all electronic music ‘EDM’ and read on to learn about some of dance music’s most influential subgenres.
Artists: Frankie Knuckles, Daft Punk, David Guetta, Afrojack, Charanjit Singh
Average bpm: 120-130
Notable subgenres: acid house, Balearic beat, deep house, electro swing, funky house, tribal house, Afro house, Baltimore Club, French house, Dutch house.
Birthed in the early 80s in Chicago, house music is a direct descendant of disco. This is probably the most popular subgenre within electronic dance music, with Zedd, David Guetta, Daft Punk and so many more commercial artists giving their own spin on the addictive and repetitive 4/4 beat with the soulful vocals of traditional Chicago house. In fact, when the term ‘EDM’ was first coined it was used to describe, very specifically, Dutch house and it’s no coincidence that even now, a lot of ‘EDM’ megastars (house or otherwise) hail from The Netherlands. The Dutch like their untz.
Many credit the origin of the term, to a Chicago club called the Warehouse, where the ‘Godfather of house’ Frankie Knuckles played as resident DJ to largely black, gay crowds. He once referred to the Warehouse as a "church for people who have fallen from grace". If only Ten Walls was informed.
I’m not getting into details about subgenres (here’s a wiki link) but we will give a special mention to acid house and its unwitting inventor, Charanjit Singh. Though acid flourished in Chicago, its first example is said to come from his 1982 album ‘Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat’.
Who: Arjun Vagale, Brodinski, Gessaffelstein, Ritchie Hawtin, Carl Cox.
Notable subgenres: minimal, ambient techno, tech-house
Average bpm: 120-150
Techno’s origins are often traced back to Detroit, Michigan in the late 80s, around the time house music was starting to flourish. The genres it drew influence from were European electro pop and Italo disco, and acts like Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Giorgio Moroder. So it isn’t much of a surprise that early techno sounds more like less hectic electro music, with barely any inflection from the industrial, mechanical sounds the genre has come to be associated with now.
Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins, in particular, are widely seen as the top instigators and originators of techno, though of course like every other genre there are many more.
When I think of no-nonsense Indian techno, Arjun Vagale’s name is the first that comes to mind. He’s out biggest electronic music export, after all. Delhi’s own Hashback Hashish is also a techno producer but of a very different breed; employing techno elements in his minimal, ambient work.
Notable artists: Armin Van Buuren, Tiēsto, Above & Beyond.
Notable subgenres: Goa, psytrance, progressive trance, acid, Balearic
Average bpm: 125-150
Trance easily has one of the most loyal fanbases of any subgenre worldwide, particularly in this peninsula. Many attribute its popularity in India to its (oh-so-Indian) ‘spiritual’ nature, hypnotic melodies and/or its relation to certain intoxicants.
The genre really took off in the early 90s in Europe (Germany, Netherlands and Belgium mainly), but many would argue that it was born in the 60s and 70s when Goa was the hippie capital of the world. Goan trance incorporated elements of industrial music with another regrettably titled style of music trance fans call ‘EBM’, or electronic body music.
As its title suggests, the aim of trance, specifically Goa trance was to achieve a kind of euphoric, bodily transcendence and reach a heightened level of consciousness. So its (mostly instrumental) sound is all about that repetitive build up of melody, followed by an intense, cathartic release.
Notable artists: Mala, Skream, Benga, Coki, Kode9
Notable subgenres: Brostep, post-dubstep
Average bpm: 138–142
After the more generic ‘EDM’, dubstep might be the single most misappropriated term in electronic music history i.e. there is a big difference between bad dubstep, usually of the questionable ‘brostep’ variety and the darker, room shaking, wubby goodness that influenced so many of the worlds top selectors and beat makers when it first emerged in the late 90s/early naughties in South London.
Contrary to popular belief, dubstep did not just emerge directly out of a love for Jamaican dub, but came instead as a dark evolution of 2-step garage (usually featuring on b-sides), broken beat, drum1468857'1468859' bass, jungle and more forms of bass music (which is not all dubstep).
Think room shaking, sub bass frequencies and syncopated percussion patterns of the variety you hear at Delhi’s Echo club nights or if you were present, Mala’s legendary Magnetic Fields set.
Dubstep took off in the early 2000s after iconic London club Plastic People (R.I.P.) began showcasing experimental 2-step garage b-sides at their ‘Forward’ (FWD>>) club nights. It continued to grow with support from DJs like John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs.
Today, the sound that is associated with dubstep is a far cry from what it was originally meant to be. After mixing dubstep with different genres, producers (specifically American producers) began pushing fusion genres like the more experimental ‘post-dubstep’ and harsher, more aggressive metal influenced brostep, which has seen huge mainstream popularity in the US.
Notable Artists: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards Of Canada, Squarepusher, The Orb, Radiohead
Notable subgenres: Glitch, ambient house, ambient techno
Average bpm: ?
In their list of top 100 IDM tracks, Fact echoed an emotion that every electronic music fan harbours when they stated that “Nobody ever wanted to call it IDM.”
The acronym stands for intelligent dance music, a (vaguely defamatory) misnomer that traces its roots back to Hyperreal’s 1993 electronic mailing list ‘The IDM List’, which was originally compiled to discuss and group together a set of artists who were dabbling in electronic music of the glitchier, bleepier, more experimental variety (you can still sign up for it here). ‘IDM’ artists dump traditional genre structures and bending the rules by applying a more individualistic take to conventional forms.
When ‘IDM’ started it was more a ‘scene’ than a specific sound; i.e. it was defined more by its prominent Internet existence (yes, we’re talking back in the early 90’s, when the Internet was barely a bawling babe) and record labels (Warp, Planet Mu, Skam, Toytronic) than a specific sound or bpm range. Most of it was versatile music that worked equally well on the dancefloor and at home, and while the term is a bit vague and more than a little laughable, its engrained in our music culture and it's staying put.
***This is the first of a comprehensive two-part guide. Here's Part II. Make sure you follow Wild City on Facebook and Twitter for updates***
Words: Diya Gupta
Image (thumb): Israeli composer Josef Tal Electronic Music Studio in Jerusalem, 1965
Image (main): Bebe and Louis Barron