Are we in thrall to the past or are we stuck in the present?
One hand's holding a crumpled print out of a PDF, the other's clasping a tatty rollie and a can of Stella. Sat in a post-war bungalow that didn't seem to have changed at all since teenagers were invented, we were a bunch of grown adults meticulously planning the itinerary for a weekend at Butlins.
"So we start with Hessle Audio, then Hudson Mohawke, then Modeselektor for a bit, back for a couple more drinks and then we try and catch Robert Hood." We moved our sights on to the rest of the weekend. "Moodyman, Carl Craig and Jeff Mills are all locked in, then there's the Ben UFO jungle set, oh and we can see out Saturday with the World Unknown."
I looked around the room, the crowd were all roughly my age, the twenty-something blog-reading semi-employed with good bone structure and Soundcloud Pro accounts market. People who, for lack of a better phrase, are on trend. That notion of trendiness haunted me all weekend. What 'trend' did we think we were on? The selections we'd made, crudely highlighted with a dying biro, enveloped the best part of the last 40 years of dance music. There was techno, house, acid house, jungle, trap, with the high chance of garage and shades of drum and bass making appearances. We weren't just on trend, we were on all of them.
It's something that's followed me since university. The 19 year olds I started with spent their Friday nights wearing hi-tops to garage nights in sweaty basements, Saturdays saw them ditch the fluoro for monochrome and techno, and they ended the weekend in glittery crop tops boogying down to disco. As a student I knew that I was going to be going out week after week but I never really knew what form those nocturnal escapades would take. We were spoilt and nights out became all-you-could-eat scene buffets. I'd hop from a housemate's funk and soul party to the free-entry house night that had been flyered to buggery on campus that week. This is what has become of the internet generation. We have everything at our disposal and want to dance to it all.
That sense of freedom comes at a cost. We're doomed, it seems, to living in the ominous shadow of the mythical 'back in the day,' a constant reminder that however good things seem now, they'll never reach the organic heights of the first time round. And how could they? As beautiful as "It's Hard Sometimes" sounds bouncing off the dying grass of that Croatian festival you went to, it'll never again be blessed with the same pride and energy it was when Frankie Knuckles was first revealing himself to those Chicago crowds. It was their moment. We can enjoy it now, retroactively, but we can't do that without remembering them.
The biggest danger with this current all-pervading sense of a nostalgic wallowing, and the attendant obsession with revivalism is this: we might miss our moment. Though I appreciate that this sounds like a huge buzz kill, and I'm not suggesting that we suddenly disengage from the history of dance music, but we can't just get comfortable with the assumption that things have already been as good as they're going to get.
Musical empires have always risen and fallen, only to rise again, but there's something to be said for the idea that we are approaching saturation point. Where movements have previously dipped and resurfaced naturally, we're now drawing on 40 years worth of dance music. There's a genuine history. Add in the internet's never-ending process of storage and remembrance — every song, ever, pretty much, is just a few clicks and clacks away — and you've got an environment where new producers and DJs aren't just stumbling across older movements, older forms of expression — they're practically gorging on them.
Carl Craig sets out on a Detroit Love tour, DJ Luck & MC Neat spin old school garage, Prins Thomas and Dimitri from Paris carry us vicariously to Studio 54: we are swarmed by innumerable opportunities to relive past glories. By fixating on the 'greatness' of a past we've never experienced, we're turning clubs into dance music Disneylands, replete with themed kingdoms awaiting us in each room. In fact, according to speculative internet music writers (just like me), in the last five years the UK has enjoyed a garage revival, a jungle revival, a drum & bass revival, a disco revival, a house revival, and an industrial techno revival. We are trapped in a perpetual state of revivalism, looking so far back we've forgotten which way we're supposed to be facing.
I was keen to test the idea on others, just to check I wasn't having an existential clanger. One of the first names that came to mind was Simon Reynolds. As a music critic and cultural theorist, he has concerned himself with these very ideas, chiefly in his 2011 book Retromania, an exploration of pop culture's obsession with its own past. Reynolds is also the author of the seminal Energy Flash, one of the few books of note that position dance music as something more than just the stuff you hear in clubs. Given the amount of time he has spent considering these phenomena, he was keen to point out the cyclical nature of revivalism when we spoke. "When any music genre or movement has been around long enough, it builds up a history behind it – and it becomes increasingly tempting to go back and revisit earlier styles."
DJ Harvey, as forward-thinking as he can be, is primarily known for his peerless dedication to disco. He shared similar thoughts to those of Reynolds. "It doesn't really change. You can't look forward because there isn't any future, there's only a past, so you have to look back at what's gone by and a lot of what has happened is good." Yet despite his theory — loosely that the same sounds will always come around — he has noticed a perceptible and recent shift. "I was just watching a video of young DJ who is 'really happening' and his music was all from 25 years ago. It got me thinking, in 1976 was I playing something from 1949? No I wasn't. It's really retro now."
Part of this new saturation point could be a perceived desire to hit back at what is possibly the only completely new scene to emerge in dance music within the last few years: EDM. Many collective responses to the commercially-minded and hugely mainstream genre have been, in a way, regressive. We've reflexively begun relying on bygone eras to 'fight' current injustices. Take Seth Troxler's recently announced Acid Future event at London's Tobacco Dock. The night itself looks fantastic, a chance to wear out your trainers soundtracked by the second summer of love. Yet the event is being marketed as a response to the "rise of EDM" about which Troxler has "misgivings". As a response it sounds like a galvanising call to arms – a return to lost values. But long term, as a reaction to an issue with EDM, it is surely stalling. I'm not sure how pretending that it's still 1989, and Skrillex is in nappies, really helps anyone in the longterm.
As far as Reynolds is concerned, to dismiss EDM could be missing a trick. "I think the EDM scene maybe has the right attitude which is that they don't give a shit about the past, they are totally immersed in the present. They don't know their history or exhibit the sort of reverence for tradition that seems to be intrinsic to your more cognoscenti oriented scenes like deep house or serious techno." It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but there is a truth in it. We might think we are listening to better tunes, but are we always immersed in the present? "That said," Reynolds adds, "EDM itself is a sort of mish-mash of house, trance, electro and dubstep, with this hyper-digital production, so it's not creating much of a future musically."
So we swamp our lineups with masters, and immerse ourselves in retrospectives, every night knowing how amazing they will be. In this secure safe-space, we block out the risk of the new, the untested. I've noticed this on a ground level. As someone in their early twenties I am consistently struck by how much stock my peers place in history. Whereas with alternative guitar music, or hip-hop, the challenge is finding the newest sound before anyone else, dance music seems fixated on rediscovery. Whoever's able to dig back the furthest, unearth the deepest cuts, comes out on top. You will no doubt have had similar conversations with pious dance-heads, solemnly dismissing current electronic music in favour of a Throbbing Gristle track you now feel inadequate for not knowing.
The immediate question to ask, then, is what are the exciting new scenes or sounds we should be focusing on instead? Oneman is a DJ who treads an interesting line with the music he plays. On one hand, he does dig back over his decade long career that sees him blend garage, uk funky, and dubstep, but equally he constantly has his finger on the current – blending contemporary grime and hip-hop into his sets for example. His thoughts on the present state of affairs weren't altogether optimistic. "I don't see anything coming up right now that I really latch on to. The last big scene for me was the Jersey stuff, the Fade to Mind guys, but I even feel like they are falling away. So in terms of music I'm just waiting. I'm waiting for something big to happen." Working out exactly what that 'something big' is, is complicated. Many of the biggest emergent figures are creating their names through the reimagining of past techniques and textures. These sounds are new, but they are also composite – creating often brilliant music but lacking the singularity to completely represent an ethos.
Scuba, another DJ and producer who has genre-straddled from dubstep, through house, to techno, echoed this idea, less of an absence of originality but rather a glut of re-imagining. "I was reading recently about some supposed new genre called Deep Tech which is apparently massive in the UK now. Maybe it is, but the music just sounds like bad tech house." Simon Reynolds perhaps put it best when he gave me his thoughts on the rise of Disclosure. "It's sometimes a little disheartening for someone like me, who lived through and participated in many of these phases when they happened the first time, to see Disclosure going back to 2step garage – it feels eerie that the sound has been reenacted."
Perhaps the other stand-out issue getting in the way is that the forefront of experimentation in electronic music just isn't making music 'for' clubs. Arca's Xen, released last year, was a truly original collection of warped electronic melodies and spooky beats, yet it in a club environment it behaves more like an art installation – paired with Jesse Kanda's visuals the live experience is not about dance as much as it is abrasive contemplation. Then there are the likes of the PC Music cartel, who make a kind of nominal dance music that actually pulls itself so far into the sugar soaked terrain of pop that playing it in the context of the club is a risky move.
Original dance music, and electronic production, has arguably switched from being a club culture, to an internet culture. Whereas the emergence of hardcore was tested in illegal raves to first-time listeners already locked in to a space, producers are now making tracks for an online audience with a short attention span. Their music requires an immediacy in order to survive, and in doing so never has the chance to manifest in a physical environment. Then there is the thorny issue of club closures, with venues disappearing faster than the bees, it seems unlikely any sort of space-based-movement could take hold anytime soon.
Added to this is the stranglehold of technology. While the internet behaves as our encyclopedia, we are lacking the breakthroughs in instrumentation and production that have defined previous movements. As Reynolds puts it, "it's harder to do 'future' sounding, never-heard-before dance music because so many extremes were reached in the Nineties, in terms of speed, minimalism, noise, abstraction. It's been a while since a machine has been invented that has enabled producers to think completely new musical thoughts."
Which leaves us where we are now. New things are happening, but nothing cohesive, no movement, no scene. Perhaps this is the problem then, or at least the misconception. Maybe dance music does have a nostalgia problem, perhaps we genuinely are too entrenched in sifting through and re-hashing the past. But equally perhaps the situation is bigger – has dance music simply changed entirely. Is the concept of subcultures emerging now a redundant paradigm? After all, we now live in a world of glorious possibility, where a person can lose their shit to the future-trap of Hudson Mohawke and a Ben Klock Marcel Dettman B2B at the same festival.
While I complain about the stifling effects of looking back, I am also privileged to have been exposed and introduced several lifetimes worth of soul-churning, head-nodding music. Maybe dance music is just finally taking the time to appreciate everything that has been achieved up until this point. My only recurring worry is, with all of history on offer at once, what will we remember as being 'now'? I envy the generation before me, who can look at an image or an outfit, hear a single track or step foot in one club, and be returned to a singular moment that was theirs. I struggle to see what crystal of current dance music culture will do the same for me. Unless of course, I look back and remember – everything was now.