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What You Need to Know About Electronica
(for at least the next ten minutes)

by Chris Tweney

The next generation in music has arrived. Electronic music has officially been crowned "the next big thing," the new shit, the digital messiah poised to rescue dwindling record-label profit margins from pre-millennial consumer apathy and the dying breaths of alternative rock. The ferocious pace of record releases is a gold mine for those looking to score some hipness points at cocktail parties and watercooler gatherings. Electronica is so difficult to classify, and genres so quick to emerge and disappear, that the habitual bullshitter (that's you) will find that faking your way through the labyrinth isn't very difficult. So, in the spirit of boosting your indie cred and giving you the chance to bore your friends silly with paeans to the really new shit, herein lies everything you need to be able to fake a knowledge of electronica for at least the next ten minutes.


Jungle -- the term is synonymous with "drum 'n' bass," and don't let anyone tell you otherwise -- is the towering monolith of 1997. Jungle's signature sound is the breakbeat: Take a hip-hop drum/bass intro (the "break"), cut it to pieces, loop the pieces, speed up the loop, spit it out with some accompanying instrumental or vocal samples, and -- voila -- instant polyrhythmic funk and postmodern pastiche cred. Basslines, so critical to all dance music, typically roll at half the speed of the drum/melody track, presenting dancers with something of an existential crisis: Should I dance to the bass (around 80 beats per minute) or the drums (around 160bpm)? The synchronic dilemma of which rhythm section to move to is complemented by the diachronic dilemma of constantly-shifting breakbeats; to dance to jungle, you have to pay attention, because the beat won't stick around for very long.

And now, the inevitable subgenres:

Jazzstep, a/k/a Intelligent Jungle: Sometimes derided as "dolphin jungle" for its flowing, sinuous, easy quality; mellow, obsessively clean basslines anchor the crystalline drums and synth washes, saxophone solo samples, and windchimes for a soothing, enveloping effect. Pioneer: LTJ Bukem, whose Logical Progression compilation (1996) was the definitive first transmission of the sound. Artists: LTJ Bukem, Alex Reece, Goldie. Labels: Metalheadz, Good Looking/Looking Good. Future projections: According to the critics both in the U.K. and stateside, jazzstep is dead; U.S. jungle DJs seem to think otherwise, but the jazzier side is definitely losing favor. What to buy: Logical Progression is representative of early jazzstep, but short on soul; Metalheadz Presents Platinum Breaks wraps up most of the essential jazzy tracks (including Alex Reece's megahit "Pulp Fiction").

Hardstep: Tougher beats with a more audible hip-hop influence and less rigorous cleanliness than jazzstep, often augmented by the rapping of an MC; hardstep eschews the protective, nurturing jazzstep aesthetic for a more aggressive, terror-inflected tone. Sci-fi and horror movie samples are common, as are lyrics filled with threat and braggadocio (in Elementz of Noize's "Hit the Deck," the MC chants "hit the deck, I got the Tek right on your neck"). Jump-up is a close cousin of hardstep but tends to have a happier, more boogie-oriented drive.

Hardstep artists to watch: Capone, Souljah, Elementz of Noize, T-Power. Labels: Sour, Hardleaders, Trouble on Vinyl, Renegade Hardware (the companion label, Renegade, focuses on lighter sounds). Hardstep per se is waning, overtaken by the more intense techstep (see below), but it still has a few months of life left. What to buy: Nu Skool Flava (on Sour, called Nu Skool Update for the U.S. release); Suspect Package (Hardleaders, featuring Capone's amazing "Guess Who" and Souljah's anthemic "Down With the Lites," which exhorts "if you got a lighter in your pocket / light it up") and its sequel, Way Out Chapter.

Techstep: Currently the dark, dank, and rough apotheosis of terror-beats, all militaristic swagger, bone-crunching scattershot drumlines and spleen-shattering bass, techstep is the jungle critics' current fave. Techstep's masculine, anxiety-compressed ethos is notably accessible to those weaned on the anti-syncopated heartbeat of punk, so critics nervous about the overshadowing of guitar-driven rock may well flock to the techstep bandwagon. Artists overlap heavily with the hardstep genre; the dominant posse is the trio of DJ Trace, Ed Rush, and the rarely-seen but massively influential producer Nico (not to be confused with the sometime-Velvet Underground chanteuse). Other notables include Boymerang and the German Panacea. Very little techstep is available on CD as of this writing; the one essential buy is Torque on No U Turn. More techstep compilations will undoubtedly emerge as the angry beats expand from their ganja-ridden takeover of the disaffected club scene in the U.K. to widespread dancefloor acceptance.

Avant-garde: Not really a sound at all, but a method: jungle breakbeats as bedroom listening, a handy new compositional tool. Club- and rave-scene advocates often turn their noses up at avant-jungle, calling it "drill 'n' bass" for Squarepusher's infamous use of electric drills as sound sources, but the experimental hangers-on are definitely more willing to rock wild, difficult beats than the "mainstream" junglists. Squarepusher's 1996 LP, Feed Me Weird Things, is seminal, as is his sometime-flatmate and highly-visible weirdstep posterboy, Aphex Twin (Richard D. James Album, 1996). Other avant-jungle albums of note include Plug's Drum 'n' Bass for Papa (a concentrated dose of Luke Vibert's incredibly voluminous work guaranteed to please the parents) and u-Ziq's Urmur Bile Trax.

Pop Jungle: Drum 'n' bass for the masses; a domesticated sound derived from jazzstep/intelligent jungle, sometimes dropping the breakbeat in favor of beats produced directly through drum machines and synths, often featuring a female "diva" singer and soaring sax or flute sounds. The Prodigy are the canonical pop junglists; their smash hit "Firestarter" is considered by many the first explosion of jungle outside its ancestral home in the club/rave scene. Also up for consideration in pop jungle: Everything But the Girl, some earlier Photek tracks, Underworld ("Born Slippy" rode a popularity wave after its inclusion in the soundtrack to "Trainspotting"). For a two-CD dose of accessible coffee-table jungle, pick up a copy of 100% Drum 'n' Bass (1995, on Telstar).


The entire trip-hop genre can be mapped out by two hugely influential 1995 albums from the Bristol mutant-hip-hop scene: Tricky's unsettled, roaming, noisy Maxinquaye and Portishead's brooding, romantic Dummy. As you've probably heard, the term "trip-hop" is a four-letter word in most circles; the incredible dominance of Maxinquaye and Dummy is such that every new entrant into the field has to distance itself from the precursors just to be heard. Despite the constant denials of everyone involved, there are unifying features to the downtempo vibe: slow hip-hop beats (sometimes played on instruments or synths, sometimes sampled and mutated as breakbeats) with a "stoned," melancholy feel, lots of sprawling, fat bass, and the presence of a vocalist, often female.

Current players for mass-market downtempo appeal include Sneaker Pimps (currently receiving massive airplay), Morcheeba (a shameless Portishead knockoff, but there's enough soul to grab you for a while), the kitschy-cutesy pop-hop of Moloko (the title of their debut, Do You Like My Tight Sweater, says it all), and the ex-punk duo Lamb. On the underground side of things, the Pork label is home to boundary-pushing acts like Fila Brazillia; Tricky producer and recent U2 advisor Howie B commands the Pussyfoot label, whose James-Bond-in-a-jar compilation Pussy Galore is an underground trip-hop manifesto extraordinaire.


Really, it's not the same thing as trip-hop, although the cast and crew sometimes overlap. Abstract hip-hop, or "leftfield," covers a wider range of tempo and mood than trip-hop, whose melancholy brooding is almost universal; standing out in leftfield, the art of the scratch DJ comes to the fore and vocalists start to disappear under layers of digital effects. Leftfield's force comes from its reappropriation and increased sophistication through borrowing of the hip-hop musical lexicon: scratch, funky beats, acoustic piracy, an ethic of get-on-the-floor-and-boogie held in check with a sharp critical edge.

British label Ninja Tune is a major player in the abstract hip-hop scene; the space-funk jam DJ collective Coldcut and DJ Food head up the label's acts, followed closely by master scratch whiz-kid DJ Kid Koala, Amon Tobin, the Russian-born DJ Vadim, and a host of others. Ninja Tune's Stealth Tour, which kicked off stateside in February, was so well-received that an encore tour featuring most of the Ninja crew is slated for this summer. Mo'Wax, known best for its advocacy of the early acid jazz/trip-hop sound, is also making forays into abstract hip-hop. In the U.S., DJ Shadow heads up the leftfield charts; further underground, the Los Angeles-based trio Invisibl Skratch Piklz are poised to make a few ripples with their recent signing to Asphodel Records. Other names to keep at the tip of your tongue: DJ Wally, Q-Burn (getting his name from the worn area where a record is cued up most frequently), Automator, Camp Lo, and the DJ-advocacy collective International Turntablist Federation, which aims to increase acceptance of the turntable as a musical instrument through frequent DJ competitions.


DJ Spooky, the most vocal and media-savvy illbient provocateur, coined the term "illbient" to capture the mood of an ambient genre born and bred in the grit of urban decay. Unlike earlier ambient music, with its often pastoral, lush soundscapes (think of Brian Eno's early work, or the Vangelis soundtrack to Blade Runner), illbient feeds on the overcrowding, noise, and filth of street life, mixing hip-hop, dub reggae, drum 'n' bass, electrical hum, Arabic percussion lines, and anything else within reach of the sampler's line-level inputs.

In illbient circles, the rule of the day is shifting collaborations and morphing collectives rather than lone artists or stable groups: hence the Brooklyn-based Wordsound is part record label, part DJ posse, and part commune. And because of its roots in ambient, "chill-out" sounds, and the compositional directions of minimalism, illbient often sets itself up with an anti-performance ethic -- a live illbient show, like the Soundlab events that happen off and on in New York, isn't about watching the DJ spin the tables and tweak the mixer knobs so much as lounging around in an immersive (if angst-ridden) atmosphere. Illbient shows often go to great lengths to achieve the urban atmospheric requirements: from all-night roaming parties in San Francisco to concerts under the supports of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We, a trio comprising DJ Olive, Lloop, and Once11, is currently one of the hottest illbient names; We's debut LP, As Is (Asphodel), is a staggeringly brilliant, sprawling message from the bowels of the deepest bass imaginable. We is also touring the "remix circuit," mixing up the beats with the likes of eclectic jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood (on the recent Bubblehouse EP). The Wordsound crew includes Spectre (gothic, dark, sci-fi tinged hip-hop abstraction), Dr Israel, OHM, Roots Control, and many others. The tone of Wordsound can be sampled on either of their two Crooklyn Dub Consortium compilations. Sub Dub, noted for their dub-inflected live performances stitched with the excellent multicultural drumming of Raz "The Bedouin" Mesinai, show up frequently on the illbient radar. Byzar, another loose collective unit, also get high marks for an unclassifiable but inescapably funky mixology.

Good listening for the illbient sound: Incursions in Illbient, a DJ Spooky project also featuring Byzar, We, and Sub Dub; parts of Axiom Dub: Mysteries of Creation (Axiom); Land of Baboon (Silent). The postmodern theoretical underpinnings of illbient are summed up nicely on the liner notes to DJ Spooky's Songs of a Dead Dreamer (Asphodel), which cites authorities as diverse as Susan Sontag and Francis Bacon.


Dub, the godchild of reggae and grandfather of all turntable and mixological craft, lives on in the likes of modern dubsters Bill Laswell, Mad Professor, the Orb, Dub Syndicate, and the experimental forays of techno wizards such as Porter Ricks, Rhys Chatham, and Nonplace Urban Field. Macro Dub Infection vols. 1 & 2 are the prime library for neo-dub research. Also worth a listen is the dub/illbient compilation Axiom Dub: Mysteries of Creation. If anything, dub as a distinct genre is disappearing, swallowed up in the ongoing adoption and reformation of new sounds, but its sonic influence and cut-and-paste ontology -- not to mention its Rastafarian theological elements -- are still plainly visible on the forefront of electronic artists.

For the pomo-theory nuts, assorted techno/electronica musicians lie on the fringes of the dance scene (sometimes rounded up under the impossibly vague title "intelligent dance music"). Acts like Autechre, Banco de Gaia, Scanner, Oval, Main, and Muslimgauze infect minimalistic bleeps, blips, and mechanical noises with the critical theory of Gilles Deleuze, Heidegger, Derrida, and a host of other left-bank intellectuals. Labels of note in this category: Milles Plateaux (whose compilation In Memoriam Gilles Deleuze is the most-mentioned work in this non-category), Skam, and Incoming!.

And let's not forget rock 'n' roll, which has also seen a recent influx of samplers and (especially) analog synthesizers like the classic Moog. The word to know here is "post-rock," a stupefyingly pretentious term, but one that's useful nonetheless: It corrals a range of rock bands that do away with vocalists and the three-minute song format in favor of minimalism, repetition, and slow development of drone lines. The biggest influence on post-rock is the "Krautrock" of the '60s and '70s: German bands like Can, Neu!, and Faust. (Proto-techno deities Kraftwerk are also frequently cited and sampled.) The Chicago-based Tortoise, headed up by the promiscuous drummer John McEntire, reign as kings of post-rock (their 1996 LP Millions Now Living Will Never Die is a gorgeous meta-theoretical take on the idea of percussive sounds as melodic principle). Tortoise's label, Thrill Jockey, is the most important post-rock publishing house; fans of post-rock are well-advised to pick up anything from the Thrill warehouse. Other post-rockers to check: guitar/sampler noodlers Laika; hard-rockers turned Moog freaks Trans Am (Surrender to the Night will convice you of the musical value of cheesy synth attacks); drone-pop Marxists Stereolab; and the Boston-based avant-garage band Cul de Sac.

Coming up next week: All the electronica historical background you never wanted to know and were afraid to ask, from the dancehall dub of Kingston's '70s sound to the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen on, well, everybody. Don't touch that dial.

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