Since Avicii's "Wake Me Up," steamrolled its way through charts worldwide, there's been scope for a chronicle of EDM, an in-depth attempt at analyzing its inherent absurdity. Because sure, we can criticise the hackneyed song structures, the ridiculous inclusion of a banjo, the association with the bro, the awful dancing and the lucrative dark side of bottle service and live "experiences", but it's beyond most of us to properly explain how the situation got so out of hand.
Step in Michaelangelo Matos, seasoned raver, music journalist and author of a brilliant new compendium on the history of EDM and the dance music that came before it. The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, is released this week through Dey Street Books in the US, and set to arrive on our shores in early June.
Starting out in Chicago in 1983, Matos systematically tracks the transatlantic to-ing and fro-ing of dance music through the prism of raves, Molly and bourgeoning Internet culture, providing a convincing backdrop to the recent rise of EDM. Matos conducted over 300 interviews for the book (Derrick May apparently made for the best and wisest interviewee), and his writing really stands out in its painstaking and vibrant attention to detail, often drawn from mid 1990s rave forums and mailing list archives. There, yappy teenagers would come home still buzzing on E and splurge anecdotes from their nights out — a treasure trove for any rave historian.
I phoned up Matos last week to ask him about these mailing lists, the dangers of velvet rope VIP culture, and how Disclosure are a "line in the sand."
THUMP: Hi Michaelangelo. Please tell me about your first ever rave.
Michaelangelo Matos: It was at the Beast Puppet theatre in Minneapolis. You could tell that it was a puppet theatre. This wasn't necessarily a rave with all the trappings and there wasn't much of a commitment to the super-underground aspect of it, musically either.
So I went to that and I was like, "this is really cool," but I knew there was something more. Not long after that I went to my first real warehouse party. And that was revelatory. It was in very high-ceilinged warehouse in Saint Paul, which is a neighbouring city of Minneapolis. There was lighting, a big projection on the wall — it felt underground, and that was really what I had been looking for. It wasn't like "oh, we're in a theatre and all the lights are on." It was all the lights are off and everybody's here to commune with the music in some way. There were intellibeams and there were spotlights and lasers. That was what I was wanting.
The number of interviews you've conducted for the book is staggering. What other resources did you draw on to put together such a comprehensive history?
The main secondary sources I used included books, zines and mailing lists. David Prince, who I interviewed extensively for the book, gave me his back issues of Reactor, which are not online, and they were pretty helpful. But the main source was the six mailing lists whose archives are available on Hyperreal, which was the main server for a lot of the 90s mailing lists. What I did with those — and this is very wonky — they're all available as text files, so I resaved them as PDFs and then I put them on iPad and I did word searches.
I wound up with probably a couple of thousand pages of stuff I mined from those, at least. And that's nothing compared to the actual size of those archives, which are enormous. By 1999, MWRaves [Mid West raves] is averaging 3,000 pages a month, and SFRaves [San Francisco Raves] is averaging 5,000, so you have a lot of material to work with. They were incredibly helpful for gauging scene sentiment at the time – they had that "you are there" aspect.
You mention bottle service quite a lot in the book. What impact has it had on club culture and EDM in particular?
I think bottle service has been around for so long and was such an entrenched part of nightlife at the point when the EDM format began to form that it became intrinsic to it. Part of the appeal of EDM is bottle service. It is that sort of hugely materialistic idea of the good life. EDM really has a very little to do with the rave, the aspect of dance music that is idealistic and "equal opportunity", that idea that you don't have to be dressed up to get into the club. It's basically just rich people, or people who want to act rich. Bottle service put a huge wedge in nightlife. It turned it from "we're all in this together on the dancefloor" to the haves and have-nots. It's poisonous. Bottle service is the devil.
Where do you see mainstream EDM heading next? Is today's skewed take on deep house going to make it big?
I'm fascinated by the way the phrase 'deep house' is being contested because for a head like me, deep house means Ron Trent, Larry Heard and his disciples: a very specific melancholy, jazzy and soul-rooted type of music. It means like deep-crate disco. And for a lot of EDM kids, it means "not shallow." it means basically "after Disclosure." Disclosure are a line in the sand in dance culture, and this becomes more and more evident all the time.
The idea that Maya Jane Coles and George Fitzgerald are "deep house" is laughable to me. But this speaks to a lot of people. There's a real need for big-room EDM and the big-room EDM ethos to not be quite so…gross. I think by now there are just a lot of younger people who are like "this needs to get more serious for me to stay with it." And I feel like that's for the good. The culture has to keep shifting in order to stay alive, and that's true of any kind of music.
Are the EDM kids starting to discover their roots, too, then?
Yeah, and it isn't a simple kind of retromania. It's knowing your roots, it's wanting to do something with those roots. This is parallel to what I remember from the mid 1990s as well. By 1995, even by 1994, that was when a lot of the disco loop sample tracks were starting to happen: you had "The Bomb" by the Bucketheads, Paul Johnson's "Welcome to the Warehouse." all these different tracks that were mining disco samples and older music. That's happening now, but 20 years on.
My favourite track this year is this guy Eche Palante and "A Discussion Between Saxes." It's really great; you've got to be a Scrooge to hate that record. Even trying not to be a Scrooge, I didn't find a lot to like about EDM three or four years ago, and now I'm actually finding a fair amount to like. These guys are learning on their own time, and that's what they should be doing. It's coming from a basic impulse, and I think that's going to yield better music down the line.
The Underground is Massive by Michaelangelo Matos is released on 4th June by Dey Street.
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