Dance music is for nerds.
Sure, the party people will try to fool you by posing with bottles of booze as they pout for Instagram. The truth, however, is that dance music is made by gear-obsessed people who pore over John Carpenter scores, idolize Kraftwerk and clamor for a chance to get into the annual music trade show NAMM.
Those nerd themes run deep in the music, too. Dig through the crates and you'll find tracks bursting with movie samples and songs about computers, robots and bizarre futures. You'll find the nerd dance jams.
The precursor for all modern nerd dance jams is “Doctorin' the Tardis,” a 1988 single from The Timelords that topped the U.K. charts. As the song title and band name indicate, the sample-heavy track makes ample use of the theme song from long-running science-fiction series Dr. Who. The members of The Timelords — who became even better known as The KLF — literally wrote the book on how to craft a chart-topping pop song. It's called The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) and offers wisdom like “Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits of other songs.”
After sifting through the dance songs that emerged in the following decade, it's hard not to wonder if every emerging producer of the era read that book. Many of them also seem to have taken inspiration from familiar movie and TV show references, as well as early examples of “viral media” on the internet. Here is a countdown of the 10 nerdiest dance jams of the 1990s.
10. Baz Lurhmann, “Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” (1999)
“Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” is more of a last call jam, slow and cheesy, with the ability to elicit sentimental feelings from groups of drunk people trying to figure out life after college. It's a graduation-type speech set to a mellow, late-'90s groove, an ode to the people who might actually miss sitting in class, helmed by a director who updated Romeo and Juliet with a soundtrack that included Garbage and The Cardigans. But that isn't even the nerdy part.
The story behind the song is one of viral popularity and misinformation. The whole thing is explained in a 2013 Open Culture article, but to summarize, an essay was mis-credited as a speech Kurt Vonnegut gave at MIT, spread via email and landed in Lurhmann's inbox. In 2016, that sounds like just another day on Facebook, but back in the '90s, building art out of online detritus that would later wind up on Snopes.com was still very much entering into nerd turf.
9. Smart E's, “Sesame's Treet” (1992)
If you want to understand the '90s, watch the video for “Sesame's Treet,” a dance hit for British trio Smart E's. It is the most accurate portrayal of '90s youth culture you'll see, juxtaposing footage of little kids with young adults who look like kids as they bounce around in their baggy clothes and messy hair to an updated version of the Sesame Street theme. If you want to write this off as hipster irony, you're mistaken. We're talking about an era where high school and college students walked around with metal lunch boxes and wore ringer T-shirts with iron-on Star Wars images. Embracing your inner geek and clinging to nostalgic bits of pop culture were as much a Gen X thing as they are a millennial thing — maybe even more so.
8. The Prodigy, “Charly” (1991)
A few years before The Prodigy hit it big with the album The Fat of the Land, the British dance group made its debut with “Charly,” a manic dance track that took its ear-catching sample from a U.K. children's safety film series called Charley Says. It made the charts in the U.K. “Charly” is a bit like “Sesame's Treet” in that the song relies on childhood pop culture. The difference, though, is that it's a reference that's specific to the U.K. So, if you heard the song in the U.S. — and if you were a dance music fan in the early '90s, you probably did — that reference would be a bit lost on you. Instead, it becomes like a lot of the memes we know today, where you maybe aren't familiar with the original reference, but you can still appreciate as something that's been cut-up and remixed in a humorous way.
7. Moby, “Go” (1990)
Moby's breakthrough hit, “Go,” is subtle in its nerdiness. It's not a movie quote or a universally popular opening theme song that he samples. Instead, he goes for the strings from “Laura Palmer's Theme” by composer Angelo Badalamenti from David Lynch's Twin Peaks. At the time of the song's release, Twin Peaks was still in the midst of its fairly short television run and was more of a cult hit than a mainstream one. In that sense, the song is the equivalent to wearing a Firefly beanie or Sailor Moon anything. The sample becomes a signifier telling those who get the reference, “If you like this same weird thing I do, we should be friends.” At least, that's how I felt as teenage Twin Peaks-watcher upon hearing “Go.” And, yeah, I still have a soft spot for the famed DJ/producer/fellow Twin Peaks fan.
6. S.P.O.C.K. — the whole catalog
If you've heard of Swedish band S.P.O.C.K., it's probably for two reasons: 1) You're really into synthpop that was made in an era when synthpop was not cool and 2) You're into science fiction and are possibly a Trekkie. S.P.O.C.K. has been around since the late '80s and continues today, but a good chunk of their memorably nerdy songs came out in the '90s. As their name indicates, these musicians play with a Star Trek bent. In their catalog, you'll find songs like “Never Trust a Klingon” and “Dr. McCoy.” But, they aren't merely a band of Trekkies. Check out 1997 single “E.T. Phone Home” for a melancholy synthpop tune that will make you move your feet.
5. Apotheosis, “O Fortuna” (1992)
Few things say epic in cinema like Carl Orff's famed 1937 composition “O Fortuna,” which has been used to soundtrack pretty much every sword-and-sorcery movie trailer ever. Just as the piece from his Carmina Burana cantata can make viewers feel like they are riding with King Arthur himself, it can make dancers feel like they are raving their way onto the front lines. Apotheosis' 1992 track “O Fortuna” uses the sample to great effect. If you've ever seen people dance to it, you'll watch them jump and flail as though they are cyber goth knights on the battlefield. A few years later, Norwegian outfit Apoptygma Berzerk similarly sampled the tune for the equally dance-y track “Love Never Dies.” If you really want to unleash your inner Excaliber nerd on the floor, play both songs back to back.
4. Messiah, “Temple of Dreams” (1992)
British duo Messiah were quite active during the early '90s heyday of electronic dance music, but they're best known as the guys who juxtaposed the dulcet vocals of Elizabeth Fraser with the bellow of Richard Dawson and made it work.
“Temple of Dreams” culled its hook — “Did I dream you dreamed about me?” — from This Mortal Coil's cover of “Song to the Siren.” (It's originally a Tim Buckley song.) Meanwhile, the bombastic cries of “Who loves you and who do you love?” and “It's time to start running!” came from Richard Dawson, playing a particularly evil game show host in The Running Man. This song was seemingly made for the graver (that's a goth raver) nerds. If you spent your youth listening to 4AD records and watching dystopian sci-fi films, blast this.
3. Eon, “Spice” (1990)
Eon, a name shared with both a sci-fi novel and a Marvel comic book character, was the rave alias of late musician Ian Loveday. As Eon, the British dance music artist helped define the sound of '90s jams with a smattering of tracks, the best-known of which was “Spice.”
“He who controls the spice, controls the universe,” the sample proclaimed. And he or she who recognized the sample was likely enough of a nerd to have spent nights curled up with a VHS copy of Dune, David Lynch's cinematic stab at Frank Herbert's sci-fi saga.
2. Alpha Team, “Speed” (1992)
“Go, Speed, go!” If you were a young person in the U.S. in the early 1990s, your knowledge of Japanese cartoons was likely very limited. You probably didn't even know that the cartoons were called anime, but you might have been a fan of a couple shows that came from Japan and were dubbed into English. One of those shows, Speed Racer, made its way onto the dance floor thank to Alpha Team. The 1992 single “Speed” gives the theme song a funky bass line and high energy synths. (If you're going to check out the song's “Hardcore Mix,” do it at home. It's NSFW.)
1. DJ Dado, “X-Files” (1996)
There are multiple dance music versions of the theme from The X-Files. However, DJ Dado's trance take on Mark Snow's tune gets the top spot for a few reasons. The Italian DJ actually added a touch of PLUR to multiple pieces of TV and film music, including the theme for Twin Peaks and Mission Impossible. That alone could make him king of the nerds. Moreover, “X-Files” ended up on Pure Moods, a compilation of new age and chillout music with a commercial that was in constant rotation during the latter half of the decade. Admitting you owned that CD was about as cool as, well, getting hooked on The X-Files because no one invited you to the high school parties.