The Changing Face of Dance Music
ONE of the biggest changes I have noticed over…
the past few decades is how ‘Dance’ music has evolved. I use that ('Dance') word advisedly as it is hard to define what that really means. I get it is, rather obviously, music one can dance to. I was born in 1983 and remember growing up with a lot of music from the 1960s and '70s. My earliest memories of Dance music, I guess, were formed around the late-'80s. At that time, one was starting to hear those great Club anthems arrive. My fondest recollections of music began as a young child. It is eye-opening thinking about acts like Snap! and Soul II Soul. In broad terms, one sees few comparisons between them but they each made music designed to get people moving. One can quibble regarding genre-terms and terminology but, in its wide remit, there is a lot of flexibility regarding Dance. It was a glorious era – the late-'80s/early-'90s – for transformative and hugely evocative sounds. The clubs were different then: just as sweaty but not quite as ultra-modern as they are today. That seems insane as they can only be as developed as the world around them - but there is a different pulse and sensation today. I will look at today’s market but, flicking back the 1990s and it is, without doubt, one of those decades where music stepped up and changed the world. I won’t chat about the Grunge, Britpop and Alternative sounds that were setting the world on fire – they definitely had an impact and influence on the Dance artists of the time. Most people’s exposure to the floor-bangers of that period is through compilation albums. They hand-pick the ‘greatest’ Dance anthem (or whatever) from the period – in order to give a taste of what it was all about. Actually having grown up in that time meant I, like many people, had a much more tangible and realistic impression of the scene. One of my favourite childhood recollections is hearing The Key The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective. The Eurodance band hardly stuck around long – and the song is horribly dated now – but, in 1993, it was quite something.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Again, without sounding like I am scanning down a compilation C.D., I recall the likes of Haddaway (What Is Love) and Dr. Albarn (It’s My Life) light up the charts. I was, perhaps, a little immature to appreciate how they songs translated in the clubs but, marvelling today, I am struck by how innovative and timeless those songs are. Few would have predicted the way Dance transformed from the 1980s. I know there was a sturdy Dance scene in the 1980s but nothing as varied and compelling as the decade that followed. To me, it is the innocence and freedom of the songs that strike. There is sexuality and suggestion in some songs: the music was not as direct and one-minded as it is today. A lot of the tracks dealt with self-determination and expression; surrendering to the rhythm and purity of love - such an exciting, refreshing and moral style of music. Yes, I am not naïve enough to suggest Dance music was attending church and helping the elderly at the weekend. There was plenty of sex and rudeness stuffed in-between the crevices. Towards the end of the 1990s, there was a definite turn towards a more throbbing and hardcore vibe. Maybe, in order to shake off music like Britpop and U.S. guitar music; Dance artists felt they needed to reflect a more edgy and futuristic style of music. It is interesting how fast that transition happened and how the form evolved in the decade. I have a fondness for the Dance music from, say, 1988-1995. That was, in many ways, the first time Dance took a huge role in the mainstream and was translating worldwide. At that time, the finest Dance artists came from Europe: today, there is a greater reliance on U.S. and U.K. artists. It is interesting seeing why there is a nationality/continent change from the 1990s to the current time. There were fewer artists around in the 1990s – getting into the studio meant you probably had a record deal – so the quality-quantity ratio was a lot better.
It was that sense of fun and playfulness that struck my tender mind. I listen to the songs now and many of them have not dated. Those themes of togetherness, losing oneself and feeling good are as relevant now as they were then. If the likes of Dr. Albarn, Baby D and Snap! were ruling the charts in the late-'80s/early-mid-'90s; then it was Fatboy Slim, Underworld and The Prodigy who took over from them. The younger siblings were a lot more intense, dangerous and fuelled-up. If the predecessors were giddy and loveable from being tipsy: the grittier and more experimental Dance that ended the 1990s was sampling everything it had shoved down its throats. Acid, cocaine and heroin mixed with booze and cigarettes. I am not suggesting Dance lost its innocence and become an irascible and undisciplined hell-raiser. Maybe there was a desire for something more ‘mature’, sexualised and bangin’. It was during the late-'90s I was starting to get into artists like The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx and Underworld. There is a need for clarification when we talk about ‘Dance’ as a genre. I have seen Reggae and Pop songs go into that category which is fair enough. It can, in broad terms, be seen as music that makes you move and hit the dancefloor. If we talk in pure terms: the end of the 1990s saw Dance music become more muscular, darker and progressive. The mantle switched from brilliant Eurodance to the new generation of British and American Dance artists. This country, especially, started to make its mark on Dance at the end of the '90s. Basement Jaxx, when writing their album, Remedy, were annoyed at the void that was left in Dance after the real buzz and carnival of the early-mid-'90s. The fun had gone and was replaced by something generic, repetitive and unengaging.
Something had happened between the time those classic '90s anthems were released and the final stages of the decade. There was derivative rehash and a real deflation that seemed to happen – perhaps Dance was becoming more underground and has reached a zenith it was unable to sustain. Basement Jaxx, among others, articulated a desire to push Dance/Electronic music to the next decade. In 1999, when they released their debut, new cultures, sounds and ideas were brought into the music. They added back the fun and ensured songs exploded with colour and huge choruses. Epics like Red Alert signified a return to that classic Dance sound: songs that make you sing loud and flock to the dancefloor. The Brighton duo was not the only artists to breathe life into the spluttering corpse of Dance music. I have mentioned artists like The Prodigy and Orbital. Trip-Hop acts like Massive Attack provided a shadowy, night-crawling sound that beautifully contrasted the bright and cheery Dance of the early-'90s. Thematically, things started to change, too. There was a turn from the universal and celebratory to a more insular and negative tone. Again; that is not the case with all Dance. Maybe there were doubts as we headed into the new century but I definitely detected a harder crust and less optimistic disposition. What was inspiring was how artists were pushing beyond Europe and bringing new sounds to the game. The Prodigy sampled a lot – Nirvana’s Very Ape was used on their hit, Voodoo People – and other artists were fusing elements of the 1980s (New Order was an act that were still being incorporated) and suggesting what the future held. It was a stunning clash of past and present that broadened Dance and took it to new heights.
IN THIS PHOTO: Basement Jaxx
Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem were the kinds of artists who were redefining and reshaping Dance/Electronic music of the '00s. Maybe that is just a sign of time and growth but it is interesting seeing how a shift between European and British/American Dance radically transformed the genre. Throwing forward to today and I see Dance acts fusing the harder and bolder sounds of the '00s with the coquettish and spirited anthems of the '90s. The worst thing about that shift was the fact the music was tender and less relaxed: the greatest aspect was it was becoming broader and more experimental. Not as one-note as a lot of the anthems from the 1990s: the finest Dance purveyors of the following decade were unafraid to push forward and bring in new sounds in order to create something incredible. One of the worst things about an open music market is the fact a lot of today’s Dance artists employ basic elements and rely on the machine. Too many songs are processed through laptops and lean on samples and digital intervention. The vocals, often, are processed and the lyrics depend upon clichés and basic language. Maybe music, to an extent, has witnessed too much and there is little room for innovation. One of the good things about modern Dance is the fact it does not remain rooted in the present. I hear a lot of artists nod to the 1990s and that reckless light and smile – mixing it with the of-the-moment technology and demands. Dance, as a genre, is not as big in the mainstream as Pop and Alternative but the genre is still thriving and influencing artists. My big desire is to see a semi-return to the greatest Dance music of all-time: that mid-'90s-cum-early-'00s blend. THAT would be incredible! I know technologies are more advanced and the charts have modernised - I could not see many objecting to a reinvestigation of the older, more fun Dance sounds. I love how Dance music still has a place and can throw up epic tunes. The best and most original Dance songs are those that get out of the mindset of chart positions and disposability and dig deeper.
IN THIS PHOTO: Nicolas Jaar
The more youthful and BBC Radio 1-minded Dance artists tend to go for the easy height and are less concerned with preserving Dance’s ethic and pushing it on – nodding to the past and creating a balance of light and dark. The Dance music (of today) I love most can be distilled into an album like Sirens – released last year; it is the finest work from the Chilean-American producer, Nicolas Jaar. That album – one of the best Electronic Dance Music albums of last year – looks at his home in Chile and the political turmoil it faced after General Pinochet’s junta; how it is coping and the issues it needs to tackle. There is a split between artists like Jaar, Aphex Twin and Björk who represent that innovative, genre-fusing and deeper style of Dance/Electronic that brings in multiple genres and has a much more intelligent and mindful approach. There is that contrasting band of sweaty and juvenile Dance that employs anodyne beats and aimless electronics – designed to get the clubs jumping but not linger in the mind. Dance will always campaign and impress but I feel it is going through cycles. Right now, it is broader and less definable than it has been in decades. It is a wider genre that seems to reflect the cross-pollinating nature of the artists. I do miss the values Dance espoused in the 1990s but realise how extraordinary the artists that picked up its baton contributed so much. I will not put a playlist at the bottom – you can do your own research – but I have touched upon how changes and time have impinged on Dance music. It is a genre I still love but I wonder whether we will see artists embracing the quality and innovative spirit of the late-1980s and early-1990s. I shall put on the childhood bangers I love but keep my ear open to the best of the modern breed. I feel Pop still dominates the mainstream: if Dance were more variegated and consistent, I would like to feel it could have the same vanguard drive it did during its heyday. In a dark and unsettled time; that is a dream we…
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
ALL would like to see realised.