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What to tell your parents about the history of electronica

by Chris Tweney

Unless you've been living under a rock, or touring with Phish for the last year, you've heard the shouts and whispers that electronica is the next big thing in music, the burgeoning tide of 1997 that's going to take over where alternarock left off and give the bank accounts of record company executives a big shot in the arm. Chances are you've also read rock critics complaining that the "big new sound" is faceless, devoid of personality, impossible to market, promote, or talk about -- something that in the consumptive paradigm of musical taste is tantamount to a socialist infiltration. And maybe you picked up a bargain copy of Portishead's already-classic 1995 LP, Dummy, and found yourself unable to meet the ultimate challenge in understanding music -- explaining it to your parents.

For starters, don't tell them about the drugs. Electronic music can be broken down into broad genres according to their psychoactive of choice: Jamaican dub, the bastard child of straight-up reggae and DJ mixing boards, is powered by massive amounts of ganja; British techno stomps out a frantic four-on-the-floor beat to the vibe of Ecstasy; crystal meth and cocaine propels the savage rhythms of German digital hardcore, a distant cousin of the techno-industrial sound invented in Detroit in the late '70s. Drugs don't define the sound of particular electronic genres; rather, subcultural movements arrange themselves around the double lifestyle choice of music and chemicals, creating a general mood that DJs and bedroom studio nuts tap on for inspiration and direction.

One major arm of electronica is techno, first heard in Detroit with some German influences (namely, the early '70s sound of Kraftwerk) and then brought to its fullest flowering at all-night rave parties in Berlin and London. The defining characteristic of techno is the unmistakable sonic fingerprint of two particular synthesizers: the Roland TB-303 bass machine and the 808 drum machine. The 303, originally intended by Roland as an easy party substitute for the always-put-upon human bass player, hit the techno scene around 1988 when various producers realized that its buttons could be twirled to produce a rolling, sinuous, "squelchy" bassline that moved butts like nothing else. The 808, with its slew of unabashedly artificial-sounding hi-hats, cymbals, and kick drums, paired up with the 303 in straight-ahead 4/4 rhythm lines: "boom-chick boom-chick boom-chick."

The earliest techno -- circa 1987-8 -- was typically at the "moderate" tempo of 100-120 beats per minute (closer to the tempo of house, the immediate precursor to techno). As Ecstasy use increased and became more tightly wound around the musical maypole, however, tempos sped up -- for the simple reason that the E rush intensifies with rapid physical movement. By 1988-9, as raves featuring mostly techno began to overshadow the house-driven club culture, tempos averaged 125-150 bpm (in certain countries, particularly Belgium and Germany, tunes were even faster, creating the splitoff genre known as hardcore techno).

The other big arm of electronica is dub. The term "dub" derives from "dub plate," the instrumental-only B-side to ska and reggae records pressed in Jamaica during the '50s and '60s. By the late '60s and early '70s, dancehall DJs in Kingston were using the dub plates as the basis for a two-turntable mix in the first appearance of DJing as a performance art as opposed to simple record-playing. Dub's sound is unmistakeable: an undulating reggae rhythm with huge, booming bass anchoring a melange of sampled noises, fragments of tunes, voices, and whatever else the DJ can think to throw in the mix. The close connection of Rastafarian ritual ganja smoking to reggae assured the central place of cannabis in dub's cosmogonic hierarchy; the cut-and-paste, plagiarize-at-will technique cleared the way for the constant reappropriation and musical quotation that defines DJing as an art form. When the two-turntable mixing tricks were exported to New York, the theological thread stayed back in Jamaica, but the imperative of sonic piracy survived the journey -- the result on the streets in America was the birth of hip-hop.

Although dub and techno are certainly alive and kicking it in various corners of the world, the "next big thing" that's tweaking the ears of record executives is jungle, or drum 'n' bass. Jungle was kickstarted around 1989-90 when DJs at all-black clubs in London began to play ragga (a dark, aggressive reggae/hip-hop hybrid) at double speed. Studio producers quickly jumped into the act, realizing that the drum-and-bass part of hip-hop rhythm tracks could be sampled, broken up into chunks, rearranged, sped up, and spit out to make techno tunes with far more rhythmic complexity than the standard 4/4 stomp beat then in favor. Jungle has gone through a number of distinct phases: the earliest, sometimes called "happy hardcore," was heavily reggae-based, with sped-up "chipmunk" vocals; later, darkside (or "darkstep") erupted, using more hip-hop beats, minor keys, and horror or sci-fi samples to create a terror effect.

Most recently (1996-7) the big split in jungle has been between the "intelligent jungle" stream represented by LTJ Bukem (sometimes called "dolphin jungle" for its swimming, gentle quality) and hardstep jungle, pioneered by Ed Rush, DJ Trace, and others. Hardstep -- and its very recent offshoot, techstep -- is fast, aggressive, and difficult to dance to, often using hip-hop style MCs rapping over the DJ's rhythms (used to brilliant effect in Elementz of Noize's "Hit the Deck" where the MC repeatedly intones "hit the deck, I got the Tek right on your neck"). Hardstep and techstep jungle is definitely not happy music -- in contrast to the upbeat, sometimes utopian tone taken at techno events, jungle gatherings are filled with affected menace, danger, compressed anxiety.

Structurally, jungle tracks (the term "song" is considered somewhat obsolete) are derived directly from the funk A-B-A-B pattern. A beatless intro, often layered with the MC's exhortations to the crowd ("all you jungle massive get ready to ROLL!"), followed by the "cut" or break into the groove for three minutes, then another ambient/wash section to give the dancers a chance to rest; the pattern repeats two or three times to fill out the typical six- to eight-minute track length. For jungle per se, the jungle meant to move the dancefloor, the requirements of dance events preclude greater experimentation with musical organization: as with P-Funk, interrogation of music's formal terms is left to the after-hours party or the headphone listener.

Jungle as a musical genre may prove to have less penetrating power than jungle as a technique, or aesthetic approach, due to the inextricable entanglement of the music itself with the total-lifestyle club/rave subculture. Thus far, 1997 has seen a massive influx of avant-garde and popular styles using bits and pieces of the jungle sound. On the pop side, David Bowie's Earthling, U2's Pop, the Prodigy, and the Chemical Brothers all incorporate drum 'n' bass sounds; shameless experimentalists like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher push the boundaries of "intelligent dance music" to create a bedroom-listening hybrid sometimes derogated as "drill 'n' bass" (after the Squarepusher's occasional use of electric drills as sound sources).

The main arena for assaults on conventional dance-music compositional principles still forges ahead under the wing of two massively influential sources, both German: the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the "Krautrock" band Can. Stockhausen's ouevre, starting in the mid-'50s, combines the found-object approach of John Cage (radio is a common source for the mix) with a mathematical approach to serial composition. New methods of musical notation, heavy use of chromaticism and complex rhythms (or no rhythms at all), and a radically cerebral approach are the signposts of Stockhausen's work. The result was a brand of challenging, eclectic minimalism that left an indelible stamp on the world of electronica.

While the progressive rock bands of the late '60s began incorporating a wide variety of classical influences (King Crimson looked to Shostakovich and Bartok; Yes took a celestial, almost Wagnerian tack at times), Can was plundering the methods of Stockhausen and others (including John Coltrane) for its own brand of avant-rock/psychedelia/funk/fusion. The flowing, almost oceanic quality of Can's largely-improvised music, beginning with 1971's Tago Mago and reaching its creative pinnacle in the 1973-5 trilogy of Future Days, Soon Over Babaluma, and Landed, set up a standard for rock's collision with minimalism. The end result was often organic, enveloping, but the path to the end was through machines: the early synthesizers, tape loops, whatever was to hand. This attempt at a reconciliation of the electronic and analog, machine and human, is a thread that begins with Can and continues from the ambient innovations of Eno to the emotional delicacy of Aphex Twin's decidedly digitalized bleeps and blips.

The huge, booming space of dub bass is another oft-explored region for the human/machine interface. Dub's theological underpinnings involve a complex dualism reflecting the interplay of the drum's cerebral qualities with the immediacy and interiority of the bass. Although this aspect was filtered out when dub invaded America in the form of hip-hop, illbient artists are rediscovering the cosmogony of dread: "dread" bass, in dub, is a backward-masked, terrifying sound that bypasses the cognitive and goes straight to the stomach. This ethic of existential angst, bolstered by the urban tension that pervades illbient, collides with the urge to boogie to create a groove that discards the sometimes-utopian yearnings of earlier ambient in favor of a profoundly ambivalent take on the world.

Where the explosion of rock 'n' roll was driven by the guitar riff, electronica distinguishes itself by the rhythm section: the bass ("how low can you go?") and the drums. The current tides favor the found object, the sampled beat and stolen bassline, over direct, "live" performance; this tendency, together with the general lack of vocal lyrics, has definitely contributed to the confusion of mainline rock critics in the face of electronica's upswing. In the mode of sound as enveloping/nurturing medium as well as block-rocking beats meant to get you out on the dancefloor, most electronica is music that's meant to disappear: rather than sitting down and paying direct attention to the performance, the listener is encouraged to do something else, whether it's dancing or staring at the wall. This presents traditional rock promotion strategies with a vast range of problems: the physical spaces required for electronica are different, the performers less immediately charismatic, the "hook" and crowd-drawing strategies less obvious. If 1997's electronica explosion is to be more than a flash in the pan, the outlook of everyone from critics to promoters and marketers will have to go through some serious revision. Old-school hip-hoppers Bootcamp Clique sum it up neatly in the title of their oft-sampled anthem: "Headz Ain't Ready."

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