From Just Can’t Get Enough to #selfie: My History In Electronic Music Part 1
Updated: Mar 10, 2019
What started out as a period piece for what’s happening now, has turned into a much larger article about electronic music dating back to when I began producing and DJing, in 1987. This is not a history of genres or a debate about technology or underground vs mainstream, nor a discussion on what era of music is the best. I started at a time when vinyl reigned supreme, and I embrace the new era of technology fully. What this IS however, is a look back to where the path to EDM in terms of the scene, music and production started for me and where it is today, and the contrasts between then and now 27 years later.
I started producing with the desire to be in a Depeche Mode synth pop type band and went through several different groups most notably Reverse. Electronic music and computers have always been an interest of mine. The DJ part came about by accident. I bought my first pair of 1200mkII’s in 1987 and still have them to this day. So that’s where my story begins.
Around 1988 after spending years in Chicago during the summer I was heavily into house music even though I had no idea what that even was. It was just music I was hearing at the clubs and buying at Gramophone. I went back to Pittsburgh and did my best to try and figure it all out on my rudimentary studio at the time. Around that time the rave scene was blowing up and I started spinning and throwing events and was also hearing all the rave tracks coming out like Moby, 808 State, Quadrophonia, Prodigy, 2 Unlimited, and artists like Underground Resistance from Detroit and I was intrigued by the energy and started trying to produce my own on nothing more then an Atari computer running Cubase version 1with an Emu Emax and SP1200, a Roland Juno 106 and a Casio CZ-101.
I signed my first record as Euphoria to Quark Records in NYC in 1989. In 1990, I started touring the country performing as Strobe and Euphoria. Being an artist in the rave scene wasn’t about superstardom or fanfare. You couldn’t hope to get gigs based on “likes” or “plays” because the only social media at that time was passing out flyers by hand and write-ups in magazines. You earned spots and respect based on the merit of your releases, skills, and perseverance. You lugged records and gear around for yourself and other DJs. You weren’t entitled to anything. You paid dues.
The landscape of electronic music in the late 80s and early 90s was very different. For starters, if you were a DJ you were spinning vinyl because that was all there was. No CDs, no laptops, no controllers, no sync, and the Internet and MP3s weren’t even a thing yet. You dug for hours and bought records, expensive records, and you carried those records in crates to the point your back hurt for days. Airlines would lose them, they would warp and get scratched but each one was a little piece of a puzzle that when put together formed the overall picture of your sets.
Even the initial investment and requirements to be a DJ in 1990 versus today is significantly different. In 1990, you had to buy a pair of Technics 1200’s for about $500 a piece and a mixer and headphones. You had to buy some records, enough for a full gig or two at around $5-$20 a piece then learn how to mix them. Nowadays all you need is a laptop and Internet connection to download a torrent of whichever DJ software you choose and a blog to download the music for free (I am not advocating this). You don’t even need headphones since the software can mix and sync the tracks for you. I do need to add that I know more EDM Djs that can actually mix then I know who use pre-made mixes, so skills and ability still matter regardless what you use. Then you just needed a friend that’s a promoter or hype up your social media and grab yourself a gig. I know people who don’t even own DJ equipment, just a thumb drive full of music and headphones. While those are extreme examples and you can go any route from controllers to CDJs and timecode vinyl, and many legitimately pay for their music all of which add to the cost, the difference is you now have a choice. There is no longer a base commitment required to begin your journey towards superstar DJ status. Finding a way to stay relevant and have longevity in a culture swimming in entitlement and immediate gratification is a task I have seen many OG DJs struggle with both locally and around the globe. Social media has been both a blessing and a curse for the music community.
Back then there was no Beatport, Traxsource or iTunes, so you had brick and mortar stores that sold physical product. MP3s didn’t debut publicly nor become popular until the mid to late 90’s with Winamp which debuted in 1997 and Napster in 1999. The first mp3 DJ setups such as Final Scratch didn’t arrive until 2001 and weren’t a perfect or stable solution for some time after and still required turntables and timecode vinyl. There were no blogs to post your latest production, bootleg or mix to. If you wanted to put something out yourself you had to have an acetate or dubplate cut. There was no such thing as Soundcloud in 1991 so if you wanted someone to hear your mix you made a mixtape on cassette and chucked it in the mail. There was no Spotify to stream your music, which didn't come until 2008.
Speaking of production, regardless of the style of music you made which was likely either house, techno, jungle or breaks (notice no sub genres) you did it with hardware. Every sound, sample, drums, FX and step of the mix process required dedicated gear to achieve whatever you were going for. The concept of downloading Ableton or other DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) via bit torrent was decade away (the first versions of both didn’t come out until 2001). You had a lot of trial and error to piece together every bit of hardware that would make up your arsenal. From monophonic analog synths to polyphonic digital workstations and samplers, you had plenty of choices but only so much money and space. The more gear, the bigger the mixer you needed, or more patch bays. And if your synth didn't have built in effects, you needed outboard gear to handle that as well. And samplers unlike today had very limited sample time, sometimes less then a second for everything. Which made for creative decisions and workarounds. A Guy Called Gerald's classic "Voodoo Ray" would have been "Voodoo Rage" if there had been enough sample time to get the whole word. Don't get me started on the cable spaghetti.
It's interesting that some of the same gear that we used 20 years ago is as popular today as it was then, either in hardware or software form, most notably the Korg M1, Yamaha DX series, and of course the Roland TR series which never goes out of style.
Gear wasn’t cheap and thus was something you were pretty dedicated to doing, and that is why labels were more likely to pay good money for tracks because they were taking the risk and well as paying a sizable chunk of money for buying the track, producing the product, marketing, promotion and design. There was a process from the start of the tracks production to the moment it goes on sale that took many people from the artist to the studio, labels to manufacturing plants to distribution centers (anyone remember Watts?). That is why it was pretty standard to spend a few days in the studio, and then do the rounds shopping the tracks to any number of independent dance labels where one could easily get a few grand minimum for the tracks. Today that whole process can all be done by one person in their pajamas anywhere in the world with an Internet connection making the value of content decrease sharply. Since tracks can be made start to finish with nothing more then a laptop and a DAW and are now sold digitally for a dollar or two (if not downloaded illegally for free), multiplied by the sheer amount of music released, the return on investment per track is minimal barring a major hit. Labels are then less likely to spend money on content so advances are small (if any) leading to more people releasing their own music through digital stores. If you look at the majority of bedroom producers with labels, one can see it is true.
Take a second and catch your breath…
I moved to NYC in 1993 and left the rave scene for good. To me the 90’s we’re some of the best times for electronic music in terms of it maturing as a whole and the way it exploded into so many different things, including the creation of many of the sub-genres that led to the sub sub-genres we have to today. Even though in the 90’s being a DJ or producer didn’t come with the fame or fanfare it does today, it did give rise to some of the DJ legends many of which are still playing out today. Many of the legends of house music were forging their sound. Independent dance labels around the globe were becoming the hubs for whatever particular style they were representing, and DJs clamored to have their tracks released by their favorite labels. While there are many successful and prominent independent dance labels around the world, as stated above the process is very different with the exception of the labels that still release music on physical media.
With any advance in technology comes a period of trial by fire and the music that embraces that technology is usually reflected in that. When technology is basic and/or harder to get your hands on you tend to do more with what you have. Early house music in the 80’s was a combination of Roland drum machines and synthesizers and rudimentary samplers. The music that came out of them was raw but it was beautiful. From Chicago to New York the majority of the music was chopped up samples, robotic rhythms and pulsating basslines. It was the spark that fueled the flame that would burn until this day. Early pioneers like Adonis, Frankie Knuckles, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and Todd Terry were the ones that got me excited about house music, where technology was used to tell a story, not be the reason for it.
Fast forward 28 years and technology allows anyone to sound like anyone. In 2019 it is sometimes hard to tell one producer from another in EDM. Popular software synthesizers like Sylenth, Nexus and Massive have characterized genres and artists for years. Signature sounds are used, recycled, and used again by anyone looking to adopt a particular style. From the FM Pluck Bass to the Massive Wobbles, The M1 organ and piano, Sylenth and Nexus leads to the 303 acid lines any sound you hear, or any genre you want to produce is just a YouTube tutorial away. The days of figuring things out for yourself with a new piece of gear are lost on much of the newer generation of producers who have no attachment to hardware.
To be continued…