In Off the Record, rave historian Michaelangelo Matos takes a critical look at the culture surrounding dance music—from food to clothes to design and writing. In this installment, he unpacks the idea of visual remixing in dance music via the new EDC 20-year anniversary poster.
In dance music, remixing isn't limited to what you hear. Certain visual signifiers pop up again and again on flyers, videos, and album covers: smiley faces, alien spacecraft, the fractal. These dance music tropes are as familiar to our eyes as the Amen break, the acid squelch, or the air-raid siren are to our ears and feet; they're part of our shared history. So is another dance-music design that has recurred less often but just as notably.
"Every DJ That Has Played EDC Over the Past 20 Years" is the title of a digital-only poster published on July 8 on the website of Los Angeles-based promoter Insomniac Productions, celebrating the twentieth year of its most successful festival, Electric Daisy Carnival. DJ names, over 1,600 of them, are laid out alphabetically over two large pages. From afar, it just looks like any other poster, with the "EDC 20" logo in greyscale against the black-white backdrop. But once you click to enlarge the picture, digging through all those performer names can be overwhelming.
Insomniac, long America's premiere rave promoters, was founded in 1993 by LA native Pasquale Rotella, who has built EDC since its 1997 debut into an international event brand. Multiple festivals per year, multiple days each, multiple stages apiece: those numbers add up. Who are you more surprised to find played EDC? Old-school throwback rappers Jurassic 5, arch electro act Gravy Train!!!!, or mid-'00s glam rockers Louis XIV? How many of the DJs on the poster do you even recognize? Not as many as you think, probably. That's the fun of trying, though: to jog dormant memories, and discover nuggets of buried history.
Insomniac was started in the middle of a police crackdown on parties, which was the city's response to riots that erupted after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. The rest of the LA rave's heyday had subsided, but one reason Insomniac's parties like EDC continued to do well is that they held fast to the scene's cartoonish iconography and carnival atmosphere. The early-90s rave community had its own tradition of visual remixing, thanks in large part to designer Rick Klotz. Fresh Jive, Klotz's company, merged pop art and streetwear with a Warhol-like tweak, repurposing consumer-goods logos such as Bazooka gum and Tide laundry soap, and replacing them with Fresh Jive's name on T-shirts. The company was also the go-to flyer designer for raves in the city, and their brazenly cartoonish aesthetic helped define the LA scene that Insomniac would come to dominate.
But Insomniac's EDC 20 poster looks a lot more somber than usual, with its black-and-white color palette, austere font style, and minimalist design. That's clearly on purpose. Insomniac's site doesn't credit a particular artist (THUMP's attempts to get the designer's name from Insomniac also proved fruitless), but the poster's visual template is a definite callback to another giant-sized thank-you letter to the dance-music scene: the Respect album, released in 1994 by Hardfloor, the duo of Oliver Bondzio and Ramon Zenker, on Frankfurt imprint Eye Q/Harthouse.
Like the EDC 20 poster, the Respect cover art is a list of dozens of musical acts—namely, the electronic music peers and precursors that Hardfloor considered their heroes. This roll call, says Zenker via email, "was Oliver Bondzio's idea in the first place; then [we] compiled the names together." The result is a who's-who of eighties and nineties electronic music icons, from house and techno's Chicago and Detroit roots (Marshall Jefferson, Derrick May, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Jeff Mills) to its US and European flag-wavers (Joey Beltram, Roland Casper, Patrick Pulsinger, Moritz Von Oswald).
Hardfloor have never been shy about naming their inspirations. For starters, they named their 1993 debut album TB Resuscitation, after their studio weapon of choice: the Roland TB-303, source of the acid sound—a silver box with a single-octave keyboard and five knobs to tweak its pitch. Hardfloor was homing in on the 303 at a time when almost nobody else was; by the start of the 1990s, the first wave of late-eighties Chicago acid producers had more or less dissipated, and a lot of people figured the sound was dead.
That early-eighties acid drought came to an end in 1992, when Hardfloor released the track "Acperience 1" and made the 303 au courant again. That year, the Dutch label Djax-Up Beats had sparked the beginning of an acid revival in Europe by licensing a handful of seminal late-eighties Chicago acid tracks, notably Mike Dunn's "Magic Feet". But while most acid producers were content to program one 303 riff and twist the knobs forever, Hardfloor arranged multiple 303s with unusual delicacy. "I know we used more than one acid line on a track before, but Hardfloor, the way they combined two or three different acid lines was incredible," DJ Pierre told RBMA in 2012 — high praise, indeed, coming from the guy whose twiddling fingers on Phuture's foundational "Acid Tracks" (1986) had minted the subgenre in the first place. "Being able to write melodies with a 303—a very small percentage of [us] could do that," fellow acid producer Woody McBride tells THUMP.
1994's Respect was Hardfloor's follow-up to TB Resuscitation, with the same 303 devotion but a leaner and tougher sound. Respect's cover image, was, in essence, a visual remix of the first album's, also designed in-house by the label's team. TB Resuscitation's cover had a yellow-and-white palette, with "Hardfloor" written in the middle in white typeface and the album's title in black on top of it. Respect follows the same layout, except with a black-and-silver color scheme—and added all those names. "We told them to use the same specifications [as] the TB Resuscitation album before — just switch the color to black," says Zenker.
Of course, paying explicit tribute to your heroes and forebears in album art is hardly a new idea. In 1979, Nurse with Wound, the British avant-garde band led by Steve Stapleton, released its debut album, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, which was packaged with a sheet of paper containing, in dense all-caps, a typewritten list of nearly 300 artist names, from British improv group AMM to Frank Zappa. The names were broken up by cloud-like white spaces, and arranged under the header, "Categories strain, crack, and sometimes break, under their burden — step out of the space provided." Quickly dubbed the "Nurse with Wound list," it became a go-to resource for fans seeking equally outré sounds — a role typically played in dance culture by DJ top tens in dance magazines and, later, websites from Beatport to Resident Advisor.
Both the EDC 20 poster and the Respect cover work in the same way — as a one-stop source for further musical exploration. It was one thing for Hardfloor to name their favorites in an interview, as when Bondzio told the Milwaukee zine Massive in 1995 that he dug the labels Peacefrog, Plus 8, Proper, Synewave, Djax-Up Beats, and Dance Mania ("I don't like the ghetto with the 'pussy' and 'fuck' thing," he added of the latter). It was another to see, in plain type, some seventy names that added up to the viable underground of the time. For anyone who'd flown the techno flag, seeing all those names together was a powerful validation of the music's reach, as well as the fervency of its constituency.
Being name-checked on the Respect cover "was one of the milestones of my career," says Woody McBride, the Minneapolis DJ-producer and fellow acid producer (and co-promoter of Even Furthur 2016, happening August 19-21 in "Somewhere, Wisconsin"); his name is in the second row beneath the R in "Hardfloor" on the cover. When I ask Zenker what the reaction of the other artists listed was, he emails back: "They made a fire in their gardens and danced a pentagram-formation in their underwear," followed by, ":) #justkidding." He adds, "The ones we've met said thank you—we haven't met them all."
Hardfloor's label would remix the Respect image several times over the next few years. In 1995, Eye Q ran an ad in the Milwaukee zine Massive as a thank-you gesture to the folks that supported the label throughout the years. The ad looked strikingly familiar—it used the same basic typography and design as the Respect cover, but with an updated list of shout-outs to labels like Alien Sanctuary, writers like CMJ's Kurt Reighley, and stores like Disc-O-Rama. Eye Q's roster and catalog titles were also printed at the bottom of the ad, with each section broken up visually by text that referenced its source material: "Respect - To Our Friends All Across the Country." "It worked because it was zeitgeist, and the scene worldwide was still small," explains Roth.
In 1996, Eye Q went even bigger with its next remix of the image—a full-sized, promo-only poster that included everyone from the Hardfloor cover and Massive ad but added several dozen more names. If the Respect cover was the radio edit and the Massive ad a 12-inch dance version, the 1996 version was more like a blowout so large it took three CDs to fit it all. The new Respect poster became one of electronic music's most iconic images, decorating the walls of many of the DJ-oriented shops that it named.
A recurring motif in dance music always carries some of its own backstory, especially—as in the case of EDC and Hardfloor—when that motif explicitly pays tribute to its historical origins. The power of visual remixing is that it signifies continuity, community, and tradition, while adding a fresh layer of elasticity and playfulness with each new iteration. Both the
cover/poster and the EDC 20 poster are about updating history while paying homage to their roots. Sometimes the only way forward is to look back.