Is 'The Underground Is Massive' the Dance Music History Lesson America's Been Waiting For?
In his latest book, Michaelangelo Matos meticulously recreates the overwhelming, epic story of dance music in America, and invites us all to join in.
It is impossible to deny one thing about Michaelangelo Matos's The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America: it really is overwhelmingly massive. I am always skeptical of huge books that begin by apologetically remarking that they could and probably should have been much, much longer. After all, an author's job as a historian and expert is to comb through the exhaustive list of scenes, parties, and artists that make up a cultural movement, and cherry-pick the essentials that make up a narrative. Clocking in around 400 pages, this book is massive—a huge, crazy, breathless beast trying to document a huge, crazy, breathless movement—and this is both its struggle and its success.
Matos lovingly speed-rushes us through roughly 35 years of the history of dance music in America, from its underground roots to its corporatized globalization; from Juan Atkins to Moby to Skrillex; from Frankie Knuckles (of "The Whistle Song") to Frankie Knuckles (remixing Hercules & Love Affair's "Blind") to Frankie Knuckles (RIP). In other words, The Underground Is Massive follows electronic dance music from the warehouses, "teen dances," and juice bars of Chicago and Detroit in the early-to-mid 80s, all the way up through, oh I don't know, some crazy $600-a-head rave on a cruise ship lost somewhere between Disney World and food poisoning. Countless interviews and decades of meticulous research (both in the library and in the clubs) send this tome directly into the canon of contemporary music history writing, bringing the project of mid-90's rave zines like Milwaukee-based Massive to join the ranks of influential music books like Simon Reynols's Energy Flash and Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop.
This breathless, manic drive to capture everybody-in-every-scene's two cents and then Frankenstein them all together is definitely the book's main weakness. It leads to what feels like a lack of sober, even-tempered curation, in which we're always blearily standing in the middle of a room of hundreds of people, catching wisps of a patched-together conversation that never actually happened, as if through a post-rave hangover as massive as the night before. Matos admits in the introduction, "For what it's worth, I attended precisely zero of the events for which the chapters are named." Perhaps this lack of first-person authority is why his voice as a critic is sometimes drowned out between the bleeps, bloops, and garrulous chatter about them.
While he adroitly plots the oral history of the battle planning that led to EDM's titular conquest of America, Matos misses the mark when it comes to representing the politics of said conquest—or critiquing it. Instead, the globalization of electronic music to the point of cultural ubiquity and lucrative economic potential is cast by Matos as as a "successful" one.
Despite what it lacks in overall coherence and critical engagement, The Underground Is Massive delivers an account of EDM's proliferation that feels much more immersive, immediate, and affectively charged than other history books in the past.
The Underground Is Massive is not just historical, it is transportive. Reading it makes you feel like you both were and are there, 19 years old and feeling it as hard as possible in some dripping hot, stank-ass barn off I-94 in a cornfield east of Midwest Godknowswheretheymadeusdriveto, knowing somehow that this rave scene is going to become something even more massive than your brain chemistry thinks it is right now. In some ways, this book is the result of dealing with the ultimate case of dance music history FOMO: since neither he or we could be there to feel it ourselves, Matos meticulously recreates it, in all of its massive, confusing, overwhelming, epic glory, and invites us all to join in.
This is why reading The Underground Is Massive feels so epic: both in its revisiting of many mythic, rave-to-end-all-raves, and in the sense of a history-changing epic poem like The Iliad. It throws us directly into the middle of the action and lets us find our own way through all of it as it's unfolding, as exciting and exhausting as that will be. This book is filled with seemingly-impossible, bizarre, and incomplete stories that changed history. Like that one time those relentlessly-tripping ravers got arrested by real cops in a fake prison-themed room at Grave in 1992 Milwaukee. Or that other time ambulances were called and riot ensued after some energy-drink corporation decided to stage some sort of proto-Red Bull acid test at the Seventh Heaven party in LA on New Years Eve 1996-1997.
After you read it, you're rightfully overwhelmed and a little fried. It's like that feeling of not remembering Achilles's boyfriend's boyfriend's name on your final exam in Literature 101, or that feeling of not remembering your friend Achilles's boyfriend's boyfriend's name after being introduced halfway through a Robert Hood set, when nobody should have even been talking in the first place. But it's good to be overwhelmed like this, because this is the only way to feel something this massive in the first place.
In "The Power Plant," Matos's chapter on the beginnings of Chicago house and Detroit techno, he explains the stylistic differences between "trax" and "house." While "trax" refers to the one-off, stripped-down, skeletal polyrhythms of minimal Detroit-style beats with little more than kick, snare, and 909s, Chicago-style "house" prefers melodies, songs, stories with soulful lyrics and compelling, resolved harmonies.
You could apply this contrast to the book as a whole. Matos's aim with The Underground Is Massive is to pay attention to both the "trax" and the "house" lines that make up the history of American electronic dance music. While heavy on the "trax" of individual, incomplete, one-off curiosities, Matos earnestly tries—with varying degrees of success—to capture the complete song, the "house"-style bigger picture way of telling the story of EDM that we've all been waiting for. In its successes and failures, The Underground Is Massive is a book that becomes most enjoyable after accepting the impossibility of telling the story of a movement so inexhaustible, without being exhausting.
Listen to a playlist based on 'The Underground Is Massive':
The Underground Is Massive is out now on Harper Collins
Nick Bazzano is a Ph.D. candidate in performance studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He is also a free jazz musician and experimental music producer based in Harlem.