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.
A confluence of creativity related to music for dancing was taking shape, deriving not just from American R&Bdisco but from the dub deviltry of pothead Jamaicans such as Lee ”Scratch“ Perry (boosted in reputation by his association with the Clash), the advanced post-Stockhausen big-beatelectronics spontaneity of Cologne’s Can (big PR job via avid fan Johnny Rotten) and Dusseldorf‘s Kraftwerk. Proto-hip-hop’s Afrika Bambaataa and Detroit techno‘s Juan Atkins lifted elements of their sound (programmed funk-derived beats, minimalistic settings) from Kraftwerk, who in turn tipped their hats back to the black Americans who’d pursued, refined and built upon their African- and Latin-originated beats.
With the development of digital samplers, MIDI sequencers and time-code a 28 devices, certain things became clear and obvious to DJs and mixers: Stringing these items together with turntables (and eventually doing without the turntables) made the sound palette an open field — samplers and turntables allowed for any sonority whatsoever to be hurled into the mix; MIDI enabled those sounds to sequence to precisely programmed machine rhythms laid down on magnetic tape or DAT via time code. The musical implications were immediate, as with The Orb‘s electronic freestyle ravings. It made excellent dance fodder and, with its percussion removed from the mix and renamed ”ambient,“ relaxed the body and opened the mind. The machinery’s possibilities were then hinted at with the invention of jungle style by Goldie, among others, in England. Jungle, no doubt inspired by the prodigious amounts of amphetamines its adherents were gobbling, said, ”What‘d it be like if we took this beat and doubled or tripled its speed?“ and did just that. English drum ’n‘ bass, perhaps best exemplified by Luke Vibert a.k.a. Wagonchrist a.k.a. Plug, along with Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, grew out of this new ability to warp the sound, initially by further fracturing the by now virtual beats (which were not playable by even the most technically advanced human drummers, and not danceable, per se — they were aural moire patterns) and, like the best hip-hop DJs, stretching accepted harmonic boundaries by combining and mutating samples.
The development of 20- to 24-bit digital sampling rates meant that bass frequencies — such a crucial part in this music for the body — could be captured with much higher fidelity and physical prowess. It was now possible to explore the far lower ranges of the audio spectrum, down where sound can be felt but not actually heard — a big, big step forward. (Vinyl can’t handle such frequencies — the lathe would literally jump into the air while cutting the low-frequency groove — but CDs can contain them cleanly, which renders moot hip-hop DJs‘ traditional preference for analog waxings.) Recent works by Vladislav Delay and Pan Sonic in Finland, and by Pole and Oval in Berlin, have explored, with the aid of laptop computers and digital editing and filtering software, this hugely broadened frequency spectrum, from subliminal lows to for-dogs-only highs. Their examinations, among many others’, of the supermagnifying capabilities of digital equipment on analog sources, too, has given rise to an entire ”clicks & cuts“ school of thought. A recent piece by ex–Can member Holger Czukay explored the idea of making up to 80 percent of the audio frequencies inaudible — it‘s music that dances around your heart and other organs, that you ”hear“ inside the body. Its implications are rather mind-blowing.
If dancing is a great unifying force, in a paradoxical way it has also directly led to some of the most intellectually (and physically) deep and non-danceable music of our time. I remember how, when Miles Davis was asked what kind of sounds he was digging, he hissed, ”Stockhausen.“ Even among jazzers, it quickly became essential to say that you were really into electronic music. Miles was probably bullshitting — he said he was getting into Journey, too. But if he told the truth, he was saying a lot.