Right now the UK dance scene seems to be all about debate. The battle to retain a culture so many revelers and ravers hold dear to their hearts is very much on, with the police and the state—in London at least—very much a threat.
Over in Germany, and specifically Berlin, the picture looks markedly different, with Berghain recently being given the same status as museums and galleries by some unarguably forward thinking local authorities. All of which raises a very serious question: away from Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, is electronic music taken seriously enough as an artistic and cultural pursuit by the powers that be?
The obvious answer would be a straight-up "no", but when a subject is this important it warrants a little more consideration than that. This month the Red Bull Music Academy tour hits two British cities—first Liverpool, and then Leeds—an entity that's all about promoting bass and beats as something more. Something more than simply fuel for debauched evenings out that may or may not end in someone being sick on another person's shoe, at least.
For the Merseyside leg the legendary Kenny Dope, one half of Masters At Work and a decade-spanning house music originator, is among the names involved, and as such the time seemed right to give him a call and ask his opinion on a few things not least whether or not he sees enough being done to nurture aspiring talent, and support for the scene in general. This is what he had to say.
THUMP: Hey Kenny, hope you're good today? So why do you think events like RBMA are important?
Kenny Dope: I'm good, thanks. Well I've done quite a few RBMA events, lectures and so on. It's fun, and I've always welcomed the opportunity to pass on information, let kids know the good things and the bad things to do. It's good to see the energy in people's eyes, the hunger. They want to learn, and you learn from them too.
In terms of your own view on where things are at the moment with house music—are things looking positive or not?
I think it's in a great space, honestly. I love what kids are doing—the technology available is making things happen so much faster. You have to understand, when I was making tunes in the 90s it could take three days to finish a track because of how they had to be recorded. Now I can travel with my laptop, and do the same thing in three hours.
It almost feels like things are at the beginning again, like when I was first starting out. The kids are making raw tracks, which I love, and the vocals will come into play again soon I'm sure. Right now everything is about techno—not loud, noisy, 160BPM stuff, I'm talking about really funky stuff, which to me is really just straight house music.
And what about the cultural value of the scene itself? Is there enough support out there?
Well, one thing I gotta say is this—when I was coming up, "a DJ" wasn't really a profession. I remember when I told my mum I wanted to play records she thought I was fucking crazy. It's not like saying "I want to become a doctor", or a lawyer, or whatever, going to college and stuff. You're not a musician or anything, you play other people's records. Now, with the right team, the right brains, the right promotion and network, this is very much a profession. I know guys that are making anywhere between $5 and $20 million a year playing those records. And, you know what, you don't have to sell out, and you ain't gotta sound like the next man.
Obviously it's going to start small, you're not going to walk in and start doing arenas straight off. Or if you do you'll be gone the next year. But I do think things are in a great place right now and this is a definite sign. It's really all about what you do as an individual.
And how about people seeing house music as an art form. Is that even a relevant argument?
Let's be realistic here. A couple of years ago we had R&B singers using house music in their music. If you listen to Neo, Justin Timberlake, the commercial side of things, that's also house music. So the whole thing has broadened, and that's what I mean with it coming back to that original stage again.
For a minute things seemed to get really weighed down with the whole syncing thing. A few of the really big guys got caught not playing live, and that definitely bothered me. Someone walks on stage with a USB stick and the kids have no idea they just paid $100 to see an artist they admire who isn't actually doing anything. That side of the art form is where things have become a little bit ridiculous, and so I totally get what you mean on that side of it all.
The irony is that electronic music has always been scorned, with naysayers claiming it's not a real form of music, simply because it's made from synths or because turntables are not "instruments"…
A turntable is an instrument, it's just a different kind of instrument. If I gave a guitarist a turntable and told them to mix tracks together they wouldn't be able to do it, in the same way that if a guitarist gave me a guitar I'm not going to play that shit. I mean, I know DJs that were playing in musical keys long before a computer could even identify them. They would play for a few hours and keep taking the music up and up because they knew how to use keys properly. But I understand the criticisms. When the whole EDM thing started up, that shit was just noise.
You were not a fan then?
It was the same record, pretty much, over and over again. You could take two tracks and play them together and you'd see they broke down at the same time, dropped at the same time. So I get it, what people say about that sound, but as with everything else it comes down to the people playing it and the people making it, and their integrity.
Last night I played Hyte in Ibiza with Loco Dice, record for record back-to-back for seven hours. Do you know the mind and vision you need to keep bouncing back and forth for that long? I don't know what he's going to play next, he doesn't know what I'm going to play. But we have to create an experience, we have to elevate the people, on the spot. I have to compliment his selections, and he has to compliment mine. That's an art form in itself, because if you play the wrong record you're going to lose the crowd
Kenny Dope performs at The Immortal Sounds of Hip House tonight, as part of Red Bull Music Academy's UK Tour, Liverpool. Find out more about this event and others here.