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What Was Everyone Running from in 90s Electronic Music Videos?

Everyone had cool sunglasses, a briefcase, and was fleeing from enemies. Why?

by Tiffany White
10 April 2019, 9:30am

Stills taken from music videos, featuring people running with a briefcase

At the beginning of Fluke’s video for their 1995 single “Bullet,” two women in Elvis masks run through the streets while carrying mysterious briefcases. They pull people out of cars and get into a high-speed chase around the city, culminating in a surprise ending where we find out the whole video is a virtual reality game being played by frontman Jon Fugler.

Although we often criminally leave Fluke out of the conversation when people reminisce about the “good ol’ days” of 90s electronic music, their “Bullet” video pulls a surprising amount of punches. At the time, most electronic videos were nothing more than abstract visuals or blurry shots of raver kids in oversized T-shirts, but by the later half of the decade, they started taking on a different form. Instead of trippy visuals, music videos became more like short action films where everyone wore cool sunglasses, ran around with mysterious briefcases, and tried to outrun evildoers. Of course, not every video followed this exact template, but so many of them involved a chase element, shot in a stylised, cinematic look that read as both high-energy and action-packed. Imagine if The Matrix got taken over by raver kids and the cast from Hackers. Sort of like that.

Just look at The Chemical Brothers’ video for their 1997 single “Block Rockin’ Beats,” (above) directed by Nick Goffey and Dominic Hawley, who work as Dom & Nic. The video had massive crossover appeal and received tons of airplay, and although there are no sunglasses or briefcases to be found, the plot centres on a guy and girl being chased by agents as they try to hide out at a club. The Crystal Method’s “Keep Hope Alive” video also checks all the boxes since it features clips from the action film The Replacement Killers. At the end, Crystal Method members Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland are chased by actor Danny Trejo, who makes a cameo as a sunglass-wearing pursuer who likes to stalk club kids. It’s probably no surprise the video was directed by Doug Liman, who went on to direct techno-action films like 1999’s Go and action-action films like The Bourne Identity.

However, probably the best example is Praga Khan’s classic track “Injected with a Poison” since the song has two videos: a version released in 1992 and one released in 1998. The original is a typical early 90s club video with lots of visual effects, strobe lights, and copious hair flipping courtesy of vocalist Jade 4U. But when the band released a remix video in 1998, the video featured, you guessed it, a woman with a briefcase being chased by dudes in sunglasses (watch below).

But why all the chasing? ''Making techno is not really that photogenic,'' director and multimedia artist Nick Philip told The New York Times back in 1997. ''Generally, it looks like old people eating food. It's very boring. So because the music is more anonymous and faceless, you get to base the videos more around a visual concept or an idea or emotion a track evokes.''

With thin budgets and a preference for visual art, the videos were simple and abstract. Philip’s video for Sun Electric’s “Meccano” was nothing more than computer blobs morphing for three minutes straight, and even old school classics like DHS’s “House of God” was just a doodle of a church spinning against a black background. But the fringe techno-art-school scene could only stay underground for so long. By the late 90s, bands like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers had more crossover appeal, and with bigger audiences came bigger budgets.

Dom & Nic, who directed The Chemical Brothers classic “Setting Sun” in addition to the aforementioned “Block Rockin’ Beats,” told me they started using the element of “chase” for narrative purposes. “The chase structure is good for a music video because there is a beginning, middle, and end that you can journey through quickly, and you don’t need any dialogue, it is a visual story,” they wrote me in an email. “We love movies, and chases in movies are often set to music – so it’s obvious that they work well in music videos.”

The duo cites Blade Runner and the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, an infamous bill that criminalised outdoor raves, as their inspiration for “Block Rockin’ Beats” and its anti-authority attitude. Other artists’ videos went on to play around with the theme, where you’d see “agents” signified by helicopters and “suitcases” sometimes standing in for magical dream girls. The micro-trend even started to bleed outside the genre, as with Filter’s “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do.” By 2000, Darude’s “Sandstorm” was one of the last to follow the theme (watch above). In the video, a woman is chased around a city while carrying, yet again, a mysterious yet oh-so-stylish briefcase.

“I have a feeling that the original idea for running came from my friend [film director] Misko Iho,” says director Juuso Syrjä, who now directs Netflix’s Bordertown. “The track itself has a sense of chase, and as we didn’t have money to do a proper car chase video, we ended up doing a running version.”

Syrjä, who at the time was mixing videos at house clubs and directing commercials, says he got his inspiration from films, not music videos. “We even have that poor-man’s Matrix effect [in “Sandstorm”] as the guy is flying in the air in kind of stop-motion effect,” he says.

But after “Sandstorm,” which stands out as one of the last and biggest of the “chasing” videos, not many others followed. By 2000, it appeared the trend was over before it even began. As electronic music entered into a new era, the scene made a left turn somewhere, and all that late ‘90s coolness disappeared along with JNCO pants and “smiley face” T-shirts.

“It’s easy to look back at work in a specific time period and see an overall style, movement, and aesthetic,” Dom & Nic tell me in an email. “At the time, we were all making it up as we went along, bouncing off each other and soaking up the musical and cultural climate… Every video we made was to reflect and enhance the music. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Although it’s easy to surmise all this as a quirky blip in electronic music history, according to Avant Burle (co-creator of MTV’s Amp, an electronic music show that ran from 1996 to 2001), the “chasing” trend wasn’t just a brief phenomenon, it was always part of the scene. “[It’s] because things are always moving,” he explains to me. “Someone’s running toward something, someone’s running away from something. Someone’s trying to reach out and do something… I think that’s always been a part of the language of [electronic music] itself because without movement you have no motion.” He added, “And at the same time too, for great late-night television, a chase scene is always cool.”

Can’t argue with that.

You can find Tiffany on Twitter.

Tagged:
running
Music
electronic music
90S
music videos
Noisey
The Matrix