Genre School: Electroby Roger Young with Bruno Morphet, Chris Powell & Wiki / 11.01.2011
For the same reason chords and colours have names, the naming of genres serves a purpose; however because artists denigrate genre as a restriction no one really takes it too seriously. Flagrant genre abuse abounds. Take R&B for example or film noir; what do those terms even mean anymore? The ultimate problem with Genre is firstly that it ends up being extremely subjective (Don’t you dare tell me that Seven is noir!) and secondly genres evolve; what was blues eighty years ago is not the same as what we refer to the blues now (just kidding, the blues never changes). Genre School is a weekly subjective viewpoint of one writer’s love and perception of a particular genre in a particular medium, be it film, literature, music or glass blowing.
This week: Roger Young on electro.
There’s a lot of abuse of the term electro going on lately. I’ve seen posters for house clubs in Joburg called Electro Mansion. Any band that has a beat pad and a synth gets the term with some sort of qualifier, even those synth soft rock fuckers Die Heuwels Fantasties use it in their PR. But when we use the term electro nowadays, mostly we’re either just shortening Electronic Music or referencing electropunk, a style of production that grew out of electroclash; a scene based mostly on aesthetics and started up almost simultaneously by Larry Tee and the Club Kids in New York and DJ Hell in Berlin in the dying days of the last century. True electro is a far groovier beast.
At the beginning of the eighties disco and funk had become largely played out. Synths and drum machines were starting to heavily influence new kinds of music. Hip hop had moved off the street corners and into the clubs. DJ’s were mining a range of Euro techno pop for beats to back MC’s. And then the Roland 808 drum machine bought the costs of producing electronic music way down. The distinction between early hip hop and early electro is simply that electro contained very little rapping instead relying heavily on samples, squelches and synth stabs. The 808 made it possible for electronic sound to become more than just an element of a song, as it was in disco or with the new romantics, but rather the entire song.
By 1980 hip hop had already crossed into mainstream culture with Blondie’s “Rapture” being the first rap single to debut on MTV; even though it was a white punk rock socialite rapping and not some kid from Hell’s Kitchen. She was, however, sussed enough to name check Fab Five Freddy, an already prolific hip hop DJ and activist who was the bridge between the hip hop of Harlem and the New York art and punk scenes (Freddy’s is the voice you hear proclaim “ahhh, this stuff is really fresh” on a million early hip hop tracks, sampled off the b side to his 1982 single “Change The Beat”). Fab Five is in the music video along with Jean Michelle Basquiat who was hired when Grandmaster Flash, electro’s foremost prophet, didn’t pitch on the shoot day. Flash samples “Rapture” in his 1981 epic The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel; a virtuoso display of his turntable skills. Flash also samples “Rapture” on the 12 inch version of “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” which is early electro in it’s purest form; all cold staccato break beats, super synthetic hi-hat sounds, a smattering of rapping, soul chorus, phrase shouting, synth breakdowns and a throbbing bass line.
Grandmaster Flash did more than make electro, as a DJ he played it and mixed in, alongside tracks like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” or Rocker’s Revenge’s “Walking On Sunshine”, a lot of proto Electro like Kraftwerk’s “Trance European Express”, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”, Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “E.V.A” and Yello’s “The Race”.
But it was Herbie Hancock, one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with synthesizers and drum machines, who really defined electro as a sound with “Rockit”. Turntablism, samples, sustained synth builds, a cheeky electronic melody, vocoder voices and staccato beats deeply rooted in funk; electro had arrived. From Newtraments’s languid and playful “London Bridge is Falling Down” to Hashim’s b-boy soundtrack “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” and even Time Zone’s news sample heavy “The Wild Style”, electro musicians were experimenting with space and bass, playing around with new technology while dreaming of a George Clinton future.
Electro was a loose term until UK label Mastercuts released a compilation in 1988 as a follow up to their series on funk. Most of the tracks on that compilation lean heavily toward early hip hop. There were, however, other harder edged electro artists who were left out of Mastercut’s definition of the genre; some of who went on to influence techno. Cybotron’s classic album Enter is according the Derrick May, electro’s most sampled and the source of their 1984 hit “Techno City”; a track that Juan Atkins once claimed inspired him to start making electro. Atkins’ first single “No UFO’s”, released under the name Model 500 was a huge 1985 Detroit and Chicago’s club hit. Derrick May’s classic 1987 track “Strings Of Life” was pushed heavily (and named) by Grandmaster Flash. May would go on to become one of techno’s biggest innovators and, weirdly, an anti drug campaigner because he believed that drugs were taking the soul out of electronic music.
By the mid Nineties the height of electro had passed with most artists moving into either techno or house; losing the funk edge. Electro continued only in tracks like Dopplereffekt’s “Scientist”, Aux 88’s “Techno/Electro” and Drexciya’s “Bang Bang”. Both Aux 88 and Dopplereffekt continued to produce electro up until the late 00s’. Electroclash, which blossomed between 2001 and 2005, borrowed a lot of elements from the same places electro did but whereas electro was all about a funk groove and bright tech noise of Kraftwerks’s “Trans European Express”, electroclash seems more concerned with the conceptual angles of tracks like “The Model” and the aesthetic of Gary Numan or the new romantics. Electropunk has taken this fascination with the aesthetic even further and as a genre bears little resemblance to the warm squidgy ass dropping funk of electro. As for electro house; don’t get me fucking started.