By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Comes right down to it, the dance imperative is a bossy thing. YOU MUST DANCE, this music tells us. So we sheepishly dance -- often quite badly -- and we suffer. But some of us don‘t lightly cotton to being bossed. And we especially don’t enjoy being harassed into making fools of ourselves in public. In the privacy of our own homes, behind the shed, yeah, no biggie. But not in public.
There‘s a good reason people feel like big dummies dancing in front of other people: Dancing, it must be said, is kind of a goofy thing to do. ”Oh, look at me, I’m so uninhibited, my body is so sensual.“ Uh-huh. No, you can‘t dance, just look at you, you look foolish. Friends, now be honest with yourselves and concede that most of the time you do not feel like dancing -- you know, deep inside, that it’s unnatural. Mainly, you can‘t handle looking like a big dork. Not in public.
But dancing, in the traditional sense at least, is hardly the issue in much of the electronic-dance-aligned music that’s come to the fore in modern times. And that‘s a very interesting, non-race-or-gender-related phenomenon, not the least because it has come with the development of technology geared specifically for dance music, and mostly because it has taken the utilitarian aspect of music for dancing -- dance music should be danceable -- and eliminated it. Or, better, deepened it. That means we’re creating, maybe for the first time, a potentially popular and influential art form whose primary attraction is its deliberately dysfunctional utilitarianism.
I can hear all you liberals squarking: ”No, white man, you‘ve got to get into your body and dance. Stop intellectualizing the music!“ My artless, freestyling brethren, I couldn’t agree more, only to observe that it‘s of dire importance in these variegated musical times to finally quit with the usefuluseless polarity that plagues most discussion of contemporary music. Don’t mean to sermonize, but dag, dawgs, music is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, a pill that always will.
Anyway, entire genres of music have evolved out of or alongside electronic dance, to a point where today we have a legion of musicians whose initial erection for rhythm-based music has led them if-A-then-B-therefore-D-style to make radical music that‘s not dance-friendly in the slightest, or more intriguingly reinterprets the word dance to suggest new ways to dance -- or brings the dance even further inside our brains & bods. Perhaps as intriguing is the idea that it lures listeners by its pedigree, or like some kind of sensual fulfillment is encoded within its frequencies.
Since none of the musical particulars that make up the current genre of ”intelligent dance music“ originated in R&B or soul or funk or disco or whatever, for ease of use let’s have hip-hop serve as a musical entity out of which, or at least alongside which, electronic dancenon-dance might be said to have evolved. And hip-hop, at least back in the ‘80s, was like punk rock -- at a Run-D.M.C. Friday-nighter, for example, when you heard those raps and felt those beats, you’d want to stomp around a bit and pump your fists in the air: kind of like dancing, except the more stylish aspect of physical expression was discarded -- i.e., you could be an ”idiot dancer,“ and no one was gonna judge you too harshly for it, and, you know, fuck ‘em even if they can take a joke.
In retrospect, that era passed soon, superseded by politicized stuff like Public Enemy and thus N.W.A, where the times and the misery and the violence dictated that the beats slow down, the bass get vibey-er, the whole trip more minimalistic and aggressive and hostile and threatening and chilling. That sound was body-rockin’ as opposed to dance-worthy -- you wouldn‘t want to be caught dancing to it -- the idea was to lean against the wall and look like a bad motherfucker, not a pussy.
That’s cool, but being a bad motherfucker isn‘t for everyone -- one size doesn’t fit all, it never did; for some, it wasn‘t natural, legions of yearning white fake homeboys notwithstanding. And what about the gurls? Didn’t they need someone to dance with them? Wasn‘t dancing on a Saturday night our civilization’s most time-honored mating ritual? Meanwhile, gay people (and others, I suppose) hadn‘t felt dorky about expressing themselves on the dance floor; indeed it was there that they felt most ”real.“ Disco hadn’t died -- in fact it had easily triumphed over punk rock as a club-filler, and by the late ‘80s, in Detroit, Chicago, New York, they were calling it house, or techno.
Homies and faux homies who attended the hip-hop events watched the DJs mix & scratch. It was the sound, and the way the DJs were getting it, that struck a chord with these lads. Simple technology at first: two turntables, a mixer & a mic. A bit further down the road, add some effects to freak it out. Then things started happening fast, because the DJs, requiring an ever bigger and badder sound and faster ways to achieve it, needed improvements on their equipment.