Kevin Saunderson, MK, Max McFerren, and more weigh in on the present and future of dance music’s bedrock genres.
Illustration by Che Saitta-Zelterman. All other photos courtesy of the artists.
Illustration by Che Saitta-Zelterman. All other photos courtesy of the artists.
The world of electronic music is always in motion, but 2015 was a particularly busy year. As dance-centric sounds continued to infiltrate mainstream pop and the upper tiers of festival lineups, artists operating in the underground cast the genre into challenging, thrilling new shapes, combining jagged synthetic production with powerful statements on identity politics, societal surveillance, and the military industrial complex. The elastic, grid-defying productions of artists like Arca, Holly Herndon, and Lotic might not be for everyone, but it's impossible to deny that they and others have made dance and electronic music more exciting than ever.
Amidst all this musical upheaval, one has to ask where house and techno—the historical bedrocks of dance music—factor into the current landscape. On the one hand, they still dominate dancefloors all over the world, continuing to inspire everyone from underground auteurs like Gonno and Juju & Jordash to mainstream heavyweights like Calvin Harris, Adam Lambert, and Kanye West. On the other, in the face of so much innovation coming from other corners of electronic music, one could easily argue that house and techno are genres trapped in stasis.
"At this point, middleground club music—not quite mainstream but not really underground—is a lot like indie rock: a self-sustaining community with relatively fixed aesthetic and social norms," music critic Philip Sherburne wrote last year for Pitchfork's Year in Electronic Music essay. Granted, there's still plenty of good tunes to be found, but Sherburne's argument that "house music [...] has been whitewashed and straightened out in its latest wave of mainstreaming" is one to consider, especially considering the underground's bold strides in representing the cultural communities and socio-political interests that were responsible for birthing house and techno in the first place.
So we've collected a group of people from the dance music community to weigh in on the state of house and techno in 2016—where the genres are at, where they're going, and in some cases, whether or not they can be saved. The responses we received—a group that includes techno legend Kevin Saunderson, Dirtybird founder Claude VonStroke, FIT SOUND boss Aaron Siegel, and music journalist Ruth Saxelby—traversed a range of topics, including identity politics, the potential death of DJing as an artform, the future of the music business, and whether it's even necessary to talk about music in genre terms at all.
Waajeed/Jeedo, Producer/Founder, Bling47
I'm deeply afraid for House and Techno. In the same way, my fear for hip-hop has been validated over the last several years. Most new house and techno makes me want to take a fucking nap. The genres have gained popularity at the cost of losing the community that built it. Inner city black folks. There are not enough people of color in dominant positions despite the fact that they started this shit. Why?
I'm continually disappointed in new releases that lack edge, originality, and a definitive point of view. Maybe this is a byproduct of leaving the ghetto for trendy bars in London where you couldn't get in without a cool haircut. I attribute this to both genres losing the spirit of why they were created in the first place—to shake shit up! These art forms were created to disrupt the establishment and embark into the future.
Can you imagine being a teenager on the South side of Chicago or the East side of Detroit in the early 80s? The 808 drum machine and a pair of turntables may have been the only platform to show the world that you mattered. Those DJs were shamans calling for war—a war of love. The future had to be better than the conditions you had to live in. Through this, a path was made—one that is now being shit upon by trendy dogs.
Ruth Saxelby, Managing Editor, The FADER
When I was a young and enthusiastic clubber in the late 90s and early 00s in the north of England, Chicago house and Detroit techno were legends to me as much as they were genres of dance music. I had visited neither city, but was in awe of both for their seemingly endless stream of talent: Chicago was home to Joe Smooth, Frankie Knuckles, and DJ Sneak, while Detroit had birthed Derrick May, Underground Resistance, and Carl Craig. I didn't have the internet at my student digs in Leeds—I used a word processor to write my essays with a big pile of books by my side—so I knew these names and their peers either because they flew in to spin at the clubs I frequented, by asking a DJ for track IDs, or from consuming dance music-centric magazines and radio shows. In Leeds, which balanced a big working class and student population, everyone lived for the weekend, and house and techno was what we were all hungry for: a soundtrack to sweat out our troubles to.
Today the majority of dance music that earns accolades and profits is made in London, Los Angeles, Berlin, and New York, and disproportionately by white producers. It is no coincidence that these cities are also media hubs and tourist destinations. Much of the dance music that grabs the headlines is derived from house and techno yet removes them from their original contexts: house as a safe space for young, gay, communities of color in which to self-create a more inclusive world; and techno's invention by working class black youth as a means to deconstruct ideas of the future in order to exert control over the present.
What was once the music of the marginalized has become the music of the mainstream. Technology has played its part in that: synths, samplers, and software often come with preset beats for easy emulation without ever setting foot inside a club. But sometimes to bemoan the state of house and techno is to overlook the music's virility in other directions. You can find traces of their DNA in a phenomenal number of regional dance music forms, including Baltimore and Jersey club, footwork, trance, and UK garage, to name but a very small handful. It's in these beautiful mutations that the legacy of house and techno should also be read.
Music is dialogue; the only way to meaningfully take part in the conversation is to be cognizant and respectful of the history. That said, purism does the communities that birthed house and techno a disservice. Instead of closing a door, the most exciting examples of both always reached out a hand. When I see things like Discwoman's recent takeover of Boiler Room featuring UNiiQU3, Juliana Huxtable, BEARCAT, and SHYBOI, I can hear, amongst other things, the spirit of house and techno's subversive offspring. Today's most essential club music proudly, and very necessarily, keeps evolving—stretching out across borders, embracing likeminded musical languages, magnetically drawn to new rhythms and tempos—forever in love with motion.
DJ Shiva, DJ/Producer
Personally, I think techno music in 2016 is as healthy as it's ever been. There's a ton of variety to be found in the music itself, and though that means digging through a lot of different stuff, frankly, if you don't enjoy the process of digging for music, you probably should not be a DJ. It's always taken work to find the gems and it still does, but they are there and our access to them is unprecedented (thanks Internet!). And I am okay with that.
Which brings me to an important point: access. I am personally invested in access for people who may not have had it before, and that is something that continues to frustrate purists of all kinds. The expense of vinyl, the expense of music-making gear—all of these things have traditionally been points of gatekeeping that are now disappearing. To some, this is frustrating because they feel like their control over things is fading. To this I say: good.
The sterile, music industry version of rich, (mostly) white dudes making music in fully stocked studios and jet-setting around the world with their expensive record boxes can die a million deaths. Right now, collectives of women and queers and trans folk and people of color and non-Western people and combinations of all of those are rising and building their own communities and networks alongside (or completely independent of) the "mainstream" music industry ride. Marginalized people building their own communities through music is literally where all of this began.
The lower entry costs to making music, the ability to run a music label without massive overhead, the cost of buying music and DJ equipment...these are the reasons purists complain that "anybody" can make music or DJ now, but that's entirely the point. "Anybody" means "the people who could never access it before," and surely we are open to hearing new voices, from new places, from new people that we would never have heard before now. Because if we're not—if things like costly vinyl records, or the intimidating need for expertise, or musical virtuosity are meant to keep people out—then we should all really look at what we believe any of this music means. If it's just a soundtrack for the wealthy, the white, and the Western to engage in weekend hedonism, then it's really just a bleepier form of pop music. And I think better of techno than that.
Steve Mizek, Producer/DJ/Founder, Argot/Tasteful Nudes
Although it's probably true of other genres, dance music seems particularly prone to cyclical trends. The most obvious of these regular shifts is the pendulum-like popularity of house versus techno sounds. After swinging far into the house direction over the last five or six years—during which house became above-ground popular—the underground has swung toward techno.
Last year saw many producers employing more aggressive sounds and faster tempos where they were once sprinkling Rhodes lines at a more languid pace. More DJs lauded for their house sets liberated and expanded their techno collections. Perhaps it's a reaction to the EDM-level house bubble reaching its apex. Maybe it's a contemporary echo of the mid-90s, when house first hit pop saturation levels and gave rise to pummelling Detroit and Swedish techno. Both seem feasible given the underground's reverence for dance music's past and distaste for commercial success.
Benjamin Myers, Benoit & Sergio
The dance music world is, like the world in general, incredibly diverse, variform and particular. So general claims always risk doing damage to this pluralism and difference. That said, it seems that techno, rather than house, in the eternal horse race between the two, has nudged ahead recently in terms of what people want to hear in a DJ. Techno's fetishistic, sophisticated iterations of production techniques and tricks really seem to be important to people at the moment—like guitar solos in the 80s. This isn't to say that house isn't well produced or that techno hasn't always been invested in the materiality and shape of sound. But it just feels like what people want to hear right now is techno.
The world is super vast (and wealthy enough at this point in history) and infinite enough in music-space for niche markets, fetish objects/genres, clandestine gatherings for lovers of all shapes, big and small, plus size and petite. All that said, dance music, no matter its genre, is clearly thriving. It is becoming hegemonic. Radio music sounds like dance music—it has co-opted the kicks, the tricks, the crescendos, the vibe. Even rap, which is the dominant cultural form, gets its ideas from dance music now, of course.
The underground house and techno scene has undeniably blown up in recent years, but I don't see this as a bad thing. The more obscure corners of the sound are receiving an audience and in turn being able to survive financially. I believe this can only be beneficial for the progress of underground dance music as a whole. The broad parameters of house and techno are alluring and liberating for DJs, producers, and punters alike. There are few constraints regarding tempo, groove, or mood, meaning my take on either sound is likely to be very different from the next man's. This freedom allows people to push the scene in any direction they want, and I believe that's when the magic happens.
In terms of dance music hitting the mainstream, I don't think this is anything new; there was jungle, garage, and acid house on Top Of The Pops almost immediately after their conception. Nobody's surprised to see Disclosure top the charts or Rihanna at a muddy free party in Middle England. As long as there are people willing to scratch away at the shiny surface, there'll always be an audience for new underground music.
Max McFerren, DJ/Producer
Here in New York, the new wave of talent after L.I.E.S. is starting to get some spotlight and is organising in pockets surrounding Bossa Nova Civic Club. We're all meeting outside the club, getting to know and trust each other—but there still needs to be more IRL forums beyond the club and the studio. There's more to the scene than partying. There's real community work that could be done, and it would help to have a meeting place where ideas on sustainability, resources, equality/integration, intentions, and motivations can take a greater role. With more local DJs/producers gaining the attention of the media, it will be interesting to see everyone's motivations and intentions, and how they react to money.
More and more people are self-releasing, which I think is an essential education in making this community healthy and financially viable. I want more people to consider the idea of growth and sharing your music with different audiences, including bigger clubs and media outlets. I still see people trying to isolate themselves, and I don't blame them (the music business sucks!), but there is more to be gained for all of us by learning to scale your own work to larger audiences and bigger clubs. I think there is definitely a huge pool of talent, and if there were proper P&D deals given out by a local distro, the scene would explode.
Musically, I'm really happy to hear a more playful, freaky, and funky stream of tracks emerging out of the raw house and techno greyscale we've been hearing for a while now. I think there's definitely a big flow of super young producers performing live hardware sets that are super stream-of-consciousness. At the same time, I don't really see many young DJs. Maybe DJing is a less appealing form of expression these days, as it's more nerdy, takes a lot of time, is rigid, and needs patience. Maybe house and techno aren't cool. Maybe DJing is something that comes with age—I didn't really get it until I was 25. Maybe people just need access to equipment and someone who can just teach them how to use it. I would love to see some young talent just shred on the decks, and I'm down to teach anyone what I know how to do.
Yousef, Producer/DJ/Promoter/Founder, Circus Recordings
It's all about your perspective, position, and time served in an industry that helps you personally evaluate the state of house and techno in 2016. I've been a touring DJ for 15 years, a producer for 12, label head for eight, and have ran successful events for 13, so I've seen developments and changes. The ability to make sonically proficient music has never been easier, and the ability to share that music has never been quicker. So there's actually a lot of very well-made house and techno in 2016.
Just today, I've sat here listening to demo after demo for Circus Recordings, and although few have the magic I'm looking for, almost all of them are well made and sonically very good, which is positive. In a time when it's almost impossible for artists to make money from music, the artist must, by definition, be making music for the right reasons—to satisfy a personal thirst.
The fact that there are new generations of artists and DJs literally pounding away aiming to be part of "the scene" and contribute to it, for me, is only positive. It keeps the scene fresh and alive, and it also keeps complacent people on their toes, which again is only positive. Forward only.
Brian Tappert, former Jazz-N-Groove member and Traxsource founder
Musically, things are better then they have been in a very long time. You can really hear and feel that people are reaching deep down and making music for the right reasons. House music is feeling fresher than ever, and we couldn't be happier about this.
Business-wise, I cannot be so optimistic. In my opinion, the culprits are the new streaming models, fueled by gigantic corporations with alternative agendas. These types have made music a loss leader to achieve something else—like sell hardware, or up sell you a premium membership, or worse.
As an industry, we have consistently made wrong turns at every single fork in the road, and I believe we are at a critical stage. Streaming as it exists today is broken. (If you think I'm wrong—which I would love to be—then please show me just one company who hasn't lost millions of dollars attempting to build a business with streaming music and royalties for artists.)
To fix it, I believe it's so simple, yet nearly impossible, since the 100% free model has become expected. The music business needs to learn from film and TV in order to maximize its revenues. For example you don't find the latest movies which are in the theatre for free or on Netflix, and we need to learn and adopt the same windowed approach as is utilized here. Then—and maybe then—our beloved music business has a real chance to thrive again.
House and techno are the genres that nurture all of the other kinds of electronic music made for the dance floor, and will probably never disappear. The large amount of techno DJs with high performance fees are probably a perfect example of this. It is very important to me that these styles remain successful, otherwise something would be very wrong with the scene. They serve not only as a source of inspiration for the development of new subgenres, but also as an anchor, a starting point, a reference for the upcoming generations of artists, and the public as well.
I am interested in everything between house and techno, but I am not stuck to any subgenres or movements specifically, as I find that to be quite limiting. Obviously, my biggest influence is techno, and I'm pretty sure it will always be. One thing I think is important is that the artists get to know the roots of techno and house, the pioneer artists, and their sound, so we don't go around calling anything "techno" or "house." I try to innovate and incorporate new elements from house and techno into my music, of course, but the foundation is always there.
Claude VonStroke, Producer/DJ/Founder, Dirtybird Recordings
House and techno seem to be stronger than ever. When there's strong interest in them, the competition gets tougher, which sometimes means higher quality music. But right now, I feel the amount of choices are endless, while the amount of really good stuff is not increasing in tandem with the higher quantities. I don't think anything I could say would affect the outcome of music trends, so I just do my own thing and hope for the best.
Aaron "FIT" Siegel, Producer/DJ/Distributor/Founder, FIT SOUND
I was never one to forecast trends of any kind. Most of the time I don't know what's going on in the bigger picture. It's hard to step back, when you are deep in "it." As a producer, DJ, label owner, and owner of a distribution company, I'm pretty deep in it, and only concerned with getting original, strange and funky music out to the world. How that fits into a bigger context is for others to decide.
So when I'm asked, "What is the state of underground music in 2016?," I have no idea. I imagine it won't be much different than 2015. I think using a year as a the benchmark for these things is silly. Most people are waiting ages to get a record made, so in essence, a "year" of music is really what happened in 4-6 months. The rest of the year was spent trying to get the thing out, while working on other music that will probably come out the next year.
As a record buyer, most years feel similar, since my buying habits are guided by my taste and interests as they mutate. I buy new records and old records, original copies and reissues, 12"s, 7"s, and LPs of many genres. There are good records and shit records in every genre, every year. I don't expect that to change.
Most importantly, I hope to hear more producers/DJs/promoters push themselves, challenge their listeners, and keep things weird. It is the only way to keep our "underground" world habitable.
Ben Pearce, Producer/Singer
In my humble opinion, house and techno are going in a positive direction. There's so much good music around. Some chin-strokers are getting annoyed that it's in the mainstream, but so what? More people are listening and interacting and that can only be a good thing in the long run. One thing that I would ask to be stopped is taxis, shops, and other places with shitty sound systems playing house music. That um-tiss-um-tiss is beyond annoying when you can't hear the low end.
Patrick Topping, Producer/DJ
I would say house and techno are very healthy. Musically, there's so much more available now, with an ever expanding array of subgenres and styles. The democratization of production and music consumption, mainly through software and the internet, has played a major part in this. House and techno has benefited from this with a huge influx of producers who are bringing even more ideas to the genres and new fans to these styles—fans who are increasingly looking for more interesting takes on the music. There's so much good music coming out that I think I'm able to play quite a varied set, even if I was just to play within house to techno. That being said, there is also so much bad music coming out too, that it's a proper search to find something good enough to play out.
House and techno still seem to be the major electronic genres. After EDM, it's probably the most popular. Although they're not as big in the States, in certain markets, like Ibiza, they do eclipse the more commercial sounds.The culture seems to be all-time high, at least as far as I'm aware.
As I was coming up on the DJ circuit, especially more so at the beginning, I played lots small UK cities and towns, such as Shrewsbury and Warrington. Speaking with older DJ peers, these places were not markets when they came up, so that kind of thing highlights the growth. Then you also just have to look at the sheer number of festivals taking place now which cater to this culture and it's obvious how much the culture is exploding. You can now go to a festival at regional secondary market and still see a massive lineup that in the past would have been only seen in the big cities. America is getting really fun too and there seems to be a growing feeling of excitement throughout the US.
The state of house and techno is really good. It seems like there are more festivals leaning toward house and techno than there has been in years, especially in the States, which is really great. It's great to see that people are finally people are getting into house and techno in a bigger way in the US.
After spending so much time in Europe and being home for almost four months, I would say that the shift away from the EDM movement is happening now. By EDM, I mean all the cannons and fireworks and mediocre music that accompanies the special effects. I think house is going to be a strong influence in music and live shows in the US in the coming years. I love house music so this shift makes me happy. There is always room for improvement, but now that the internet has made a more level playing field for everyone, I think it will be easy to separate what is good from what is not so good. There is always room for improvement in music, in live shows, in everything.
We now have social media to express our feelings about what needs to be fixed, changed or made better, but other than that, money has always been a great way to express your feelings. For instance, if a festival shows no respect for the audience, people need to stop going. If there is not enough water, food, bathroom facilities, or if the production and sound are no good, you vote with your money and you don't buy tickets to that particular event or show anymore. The promoters will get the message fast. Or as in the case of Coachella, where there is everything from diverse music programming, art installations, vegan food, incredible productions, to courtesy and respect for the audience, support from the fans grows it into one of the biggest and most successful festivals in the world.
Kevin Saunderson, DJ/Producer/Founder, KMS
From where I am sitting in Detroit, everything is finally coming together. The techno sound is breaking through in a new and fresher way than it was before. I think in 2016, we will see just the beginning of techno music coming back strong. I see it in Europe and I am feeling it here.
The culture is heading towards a good place where people recognize the essence and purity of the music and can express themselves on the dancefloor, and that's always a good thing. There are always aspects of everything that need improvement—that's life. I don't know if the dance community can fix what is wrong, but we can all start within ourselves, we all need to find our spiritual centers and our humanity so we can be good and kind to one another. Once we try to improve on that, everything else will start to fall into place. There is no better place to find your center than when you are feeling the rhythm and moving on the dancefloor. It is a primal experience when you let the music take you. It begins and ends with love.