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mo' fidelity | October 23, 2017

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Back to The Future: UK Dance Music Culture Today

Backto the future: UK Dance Music Scene today
Raya Raycheva

This is a feature I wrote as part of my Journalism Master’s dissertation. Working on it was a pleasure, albeit one marked by stress and uncertainty, so I really hope you find it interesting.

Header photo by Molly Macindoe.

 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

 

Why mapping the UK’s current dance music scene shouldn’t be limited to lamenting the past but enriched by assimilating it

 

It’s too big, too popular, too crap. Pop disguised as rave tunes with a target audience of 14-year-olds, who couldn’t possibly understand the outburst of love and subversion on the M25 that marked the original scene. The DJs are “names”, the clubs are the same, the organic fun has turned into a stadium rock nightmare and every track consists of a slightly crass melody, one keyboard noise, a couple of crowd noises and maybe one good idea. But back in the old days everything was amazing…

No, this is not another grumpy, expert opinion taken from the comment section of a YouTube video for the latest dance music hit produced by a 19-year-old from Surrey. Neither is it another scathing critique on the current state of dance music culture by a former regular at Shoom, waving a finger in your generation Y/Z face.

It is, in fact, my own mash-up of a 1992 Mixmag cover feature on the Prodigy titled “Did Charly Kill Rave?” and a 1990 fan letter to the cult acid house fanzine Boy’s Own. Yes, ‘oldies’, you’ve been caught.

 

Mixmag 1992 Prodigy cover - Did Charly Kill Rave

 

Looking at the past and seeing it as infinitely superior than the present is by no means a new notion when it comes to the world of art. In the microcosm of UK dance music however, the importance of the underground, authenticity and the perceived level of “hipness” – a phenomena that has been brilliantly documented by sociologist Sarah Thornton’s seminal work on club cultures and subcultural capital – has been thriving since day one.

It’s no wonder then that in the current climate of mainstream acceptance, crossover hits, packed clubs and booming festival culture, the all-knowing finger is once again in your still acne-riddled face and the lecture on ‘The Old Days’ is as passionate as ever.

But is it fair for any newer, younger generation that comes out on the dance music stage to be treated in the same patronizing way by the self-appointed elders of the community? How is it possible that dance music – the one musical genre innately connected to technological innovation, forward thinking and open-mindedness – can be wrapped in rehashed narratives for decades? Should we, the consistently presented as good-for-nothing youths of today, accept that our experiences are somehow “less than” and wallow in our perceived lack of originality and authenticity?

Or should we confidently take the reins of the contemporary scene and, instead of internalizing another generation’s nostalgia, declare that we feel good in our neghbourhood as much as they did in theirs back in the day? Isn’t it time that we take the past, truly learn from it, twist and turn it upside down through the prism of our 21st century context and… push the forward button?

 

The Prodigy – “Charly (Original Mix)” [1991]

 

*****

 

“I really do believe that we’re on the verge of great things to happen,” says veteran DJ Greg Wilson, who started out playing funk and soul in the 70s and who has been a resident DJ behind the decks of legendary venues such as Wigan Pier and The Haçienda.

Wilson, who was also the first DJ to mix live on British TV in 1983 and who is now a staple in the re-edit scene, is adamant that the condescending go-do-your-homework attitude that oftentimes meets young people’s excitement about discovering records from the past, is not doing anyone – old or young – a favour.

“I think that older people often tend to be unhelpful in that respect, whereas I see it as my duty to appreciate the interest and the enthusiasm,” says Greg, adding that when young people have at their disposal the past information, the modern technological tools and the vision how to fuse them together in a new and creative way, then wonderful things can happen. “The moment you say ‘It’s all been done before’, somebody comes along and completely shocks you once again.”

 

Greg Wilson 1979 in the DJ booth at the Golden Guinea in New Brighton. Photo taken from Greg Wilson's Facebook page.

Greg Wilson in 1979. In the DJ booth at the Golden Guinea in New Brighton. Photo taken from Greg Wilson’s Facebook page.

 

It is undoubtedly the technology – the tools, the constantly updated software, the infinite possibilities of the internet – that’s the most prominent characteristic of the current dance music and culture environment. Dance and electronic music has never been easier to produce and this is most evident in the surge in ‘bedroom producers’, some of which have become chart-topping household names like wunderkind brothers Disclosure.

“It’s the era of quantity,” says Nikolay Seizov, director at London-based managing agency Forward Thinking Music and a former electronic producer in his own right, It’s so much easier to create music and to access music these days, that a lot of it becomes very disposable and temporary.

The quantity of music being put out on a daily basis is a key component of the 21st century dance music scene. Whether you’re a professional DJ, a blogger or journalist, or a deeply devoted fan, it’s impossible to keep yourself 100% informed on the newest tunes coming out of lap tops all over the country. In other words, don’t be surprised that yesterday’s ritual of going to the DJ booth to ask what record is being played has turned into today’s habit of a hundred phones under one roof Shazaming.

“You can’t keep up with all the music,” concurs Greg. “At one point you could pretty much know nearly all of the dance music that was being released in Britain in the given month. Now I don’t even know a fraction, there are so many things. Also, back then you’d have to get into a recording studio and that cost a bit of money. Now anyone can make a track on their own computer.”

But Nikolay sees this as an opportunity for dance music to go back to basics. “Before, there would be ten producers dominating the whole scene, now there are a thousand producers dominating their own hundred circles within the scene,” he says, adding, “In its own way, this feels like a return towards dance music’s subcultural roots.”

It’s a sentiment that immediately reminds me of an article by author, musician, academic and all-around legend David Toop. “The gut feeling is uncomfortably reminiscent of the last days of disco in the late 70s,” Toop writes in Mixmag in 1992, “following which the record business blew up its engines and dance music was driven underground.”

 

Jamie xx – All Under One Roof Raving [2014]

 

*****

 

An allegorical ‘circle of life’ is an undeniable characteristic of any kind of art. And when today’s dance music punters are accused of not being able to come up with something of their own, the unfairness of such denunciations sounds outrageous in the context of a musical genre entirely built upon digging up past blueprints, cutting them up and creating new constructions which crop up in the middle of the current cultural zeitgeist.

“The really interesting thing now is that this is the internet age and, all of a sudden, music is massively accessible in a way it’s never been before,” says Greg Wilson. “In the past it was a very slow process.”

And it’s not just the easy access to new music that makes the times so exciting. According to Greg, the extended shelf life of music creates a whole new realm of advantageous possibilities. “In the past, when someone put a record out and it wasn’t doing well in the first month, it was a dead record,” he says. “Now you can put something out and it might not take off for a year or even for a number of years but the possibility for a DJ to catch up on that record and start playing it is still there.”

Photographer Molly Macindoe, whose book “Out of Order” documents a decade of the free party and Teknival scene between 1997 – 2007, agrees that technology has been a game-changer and the international exchange of ideas it enabled is one of the biggest pluses. “With the advent of new technology and the mobilization of ideas and people, the scene has spread across Europe and indeed the world,” she says, adding that this has helped transform something once considered just a youth fashion into “a definitive culture and a way of life for some”.

 

Molly Macindoe rave and teknival photography book Out of Order

Photo from Molly Macindoe’s book “Out of Order”. Photo taken from The Guardian.

 

But as big as the positive impact of creativity in the Internet age has been for producers, it has also faced them with a new set of challenges – namely, how to make a profit from their music. A lot of complaints by dance music fans and ‘bedroom critics’ have been directed to the fact that producers get DJing gigs on the back of their production, while not being particularly skilled or original in the DJ booth.

Nikolay points out that producers don’t necessarily want to DJ either and if they could pay the bills just from making music, they wouldn’t think twice. He gives me an example with a universally acclaimed London DJ/ producer, who apparently doesn’t enjoy being behind the decks and in front of a crowd at all, and who wouldn’t hesitate to quit DJing given the opportunity to earn money just from producing. Admittedly, the name surprises me. I would’ve never guessed.

“You don’t make money out of making records now, you make money out of live appearances,” confirms Greg Wilson, but he is quick to add that the ‘circle of life and art’ applies here as well. “There was a time, a time before the time when you were making money out of records, when you made money though live appearances,” he says, “Things go in cycles and to know the future you must know the past.”

 

Orbital – “Halcyon + On + On” [1992]

 

*****

 

It’s a refreshing change of narrative – from ‘Know the past because the past was better” to ‘Know the past so you can make the most out of the present’, the former being experienced by seemingly all generations of dance music fans so far. “I started going to free parties in 1997,” says Molly Macindoe, “and there were always some more seasoned ravers reminiscing about ‘back in the day’ – [in their case] the UK rave scene peaking around the famous Castlemorton party in 1992.”

But both Greg Wilson, as a highly experienced DJ, and Molly Macindoe, as a photographer and raver in her own right, are resolute that they won’t participate in this. “I’m not one of those people that sits there moaning about how it’s not like it used to be in the old days,” says Molly, “One of the most wonderful qualities of the scene is that it is ever-evolving and endlessly creative and resourceful.”

It’s that sentiment that makes me go back to David Toop’s piece in which he calls out the ghost of raves past on its “terminal nostalgia”: “Those who bemoan each new flood of excruciating pop-trash dance tracks or the stop-go economics of dance record trading ignore the fact that dance, more than pop music, has always veered between rapacious money grabbing and reckless innovation.” It’s one of the universal truths about any era in dance music’s history.

“Don’t tell me about the great days of 1988, 1981 or 1975 because the dross was just as insufferable as it is now,” writes Toop, “right now, there is dross but the good music still sounds brilliant.”

 

Four Tet – “Plastic People” [2010]

 

*****

 

Greg Wilson remembers when he first started hearing the word “set” used by younger DJs. It made him realize that massive changes were happening – techniques that have become a standard in today’s scene. “When I heard DJs talking about ‘sets’ I realized that what they were doing was practicing at home, track for track, exactly what they were gonna go and play in the club on Saturday night,” he says. “I also realized that a lot of DJs were selecting the tracks not necessarily for being the best tracks to play but for being the best track to mix with the previous one. So it was becoming a very technical thing, it was becoming a very clever thing. That kind of went against the grain of the idea that I grew up with of what a DJ was.”

Yet, “to know the future you must know the past” and Greg thinks that one of the markers of today’s scene, and something that will be becoming only more prominent in the future, is once again a return to the roots. “There seems to be a general feeling now that we’re moving away from the technical and we’re moving back into a more emotional thing,” he says, “I think that’s a necessary step because it was taken too far away from where it should’ve been really.”

He attributes that to people’s greater need to enjoy themselves, smile and be happy when harder times are present in society at large. With austerity and inequality in the UK and the severity of the many global crises developing at the moment, the shift from technical to emotional seems like a no-brainer. The way Greg sees it, “with dance music there’s the intellectual, the emotional and the physical – all of them are involved but the key to it is always the emotional.”

And it’s probably the emotional angle that has spurred a generation, who grew up with digital formats and USB sticks that can hold whole small record collections, to spawn afresh a cult to vinyl. Surely, some of it has to do with the ‘back in the day’ lecture we’ve all been given at one point but isn’t fetishizing vinyl-playing DJs getting out of hand?

“The format is a technicality,” says Nikolay, “it’s like obsessing over what shoes you’re wearing while you’re playing and how that’s going to translate into your performance.

‘There is such a huge amount of incredible music that will never get pressed on vinyl,’ he adds, ‘so being a wax purist, as romantic as it is does, limits the artist’s creative choices’.

Greg agrees that what’s coming out of the speakers is more important than the format it’s coming from and connects the re-born vinyl obsession to the very modern habit of watching the DJs, filming them and analyzing what they’re doing behind the decks.

 

Zed Bias – “Neighbourhood (Zed Bias Original Mix)” [2000]

 

*****

 

It’s been over half a century since the import of black American music sparked a passion for dancing and forgetting your daily struggles in a distressed generation of British youths in the island’s Northern parts. A quarter of a century since the two Summers of Love and the acid house moral panic that the British tabloids incited. Twenty years since the government attempted to shut down the party for good with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and the infamous “emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. And yet, in 2014, dance music has never been bigger.

“The media has followed the moral panic with embracing the scene, causing an explosion in popularity,” says Molly, “however, the underground never went away. There has always been a hardcore, cutting edge element, whose creative output will inevitably become the next wave of commercial music and fashion of the youth culture of the future.”

And it’s the never ending cycle, ironically reminiscent of the “repetitive beats” line, the understanding and embracing of which will enable us to move forward creatively. “Nothing comes from nothing,” says Greg Wilson, “any style of music that you want to look at you can go back and see where it comes from, who put those ideas out before.”

However, it’s the difference between mindless copying and inspired assimilation that is the mark of originality and forward thinking. “If you try to copy,” says Greg, “all you’ve done is make a good copy.” But he’s optimistic that people aren’t stupid, and provided with the information – the whole world and history of music that is now just one click away – they’re perfectly capable of seeing the difference and finding out more for themselves.

Nikolay Seizov concurs, citing Skream and Benga’s innovative approach to production in the noughties and James Blake’s and Mount Kimbie’s more recently. “The point is to take what’s happening today – the existing technology and scene – and build upon it,” he says. “The only way to make a difference is to make something that is completely your own.”

And something that today’s young generation of dance music fans have made their own is the booming festival scene that has seen UK’s DJs’ schedules fill up for whole summers. Greg also thinks that what’s happening now with the festival scene is very interesting and uniquely current. “Some of the festivals I’ve done this summer and some of the environments that I’ve played in and that young people now have are fantastic,” he says. “When I was younger maybe a group of friends would go to a seaside town for the weekend, go out to a few clubs, get drunk or whatever – now they go to a festival and they get all this music, these DJs, these bands.”

“This is the modern phenomena,” Wilson continues, “and it’s growing and growing and people will look back on this in the same way that you might look back on the disco era. There are great things happening all the time.”

“We’re at both the highest and lowest point of dance music,” says Nikolay, but before accusing him of taking the cynical route, he adds that he believes things will only be going up from here on now.

 

Mount Kimbie – “Made to Stray” [2013]

 

*****

 

And so it is – “Charly” didn’t kill rave, the superstar DJs came, went and came back again with a louder “Here we go!” than ever before, and Ebeneezer is still a real crowd pleaser. But young people in this complicated decade are shaping a world of sound and a party around it to suit our own particular context. The worthiness of our take on the subculture may not yet seem obvious to everyone but let’s talk about it again in fifteen years, when we become the grumpy old commentators.

After all, being part of the dance music scene has been such a deeply personal and personality-forming experience for so many people of different generations, it’s no wonder that the galaxy of dance music in the UK has always had its dedicated guardians. But it’s a new dawn and a new day and what we all need to do is come together on the dance floor and sweat it out. So keep calm and rave on.

 

The Chemical Brothers – “Hey Boy Hey Girl” [1999]

 

Raya is on Twitter @rayaiam


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