Why the underground should drop the grudge

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It’s Sunday night, and the Tomorrowland festival is in its final stages in the De Schorre National Park in Belgium. Berlin-based dubstep and techno producer Paul Rose, aka Scuba, obviously feels like stirring the pot a little. He retweets a photo from Nicky Romero, taken from behind the decks asDavid Guetta plays to a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands in in the final few hours of the festival, the Frenchman holding up a recording device up as a sea of punters raise their hands in the air.

Scuba’s posts are a little less effusive, though. “Could there be a more undeserving person on stage who records what he sees on a camcorder? If you’re on stage you’re performing, you’re not a tourist….perform, don’t take photos or video of the audience.”

Next, Scuba’s attention turns towards another of what he terms an “easy target”, Calvin Harris, the very same person the Wall Street Journal took to task in its infamous attack on ‘EDM’ culture for producing “cliché-riddled, white-bread house that don’t represent the best of the genre”. Scuba promises to share an “amazing story” about Harris for 100 retweets; within no time, he’s racked up over 150, he’s trending in the UK, and the revelation is dropped.

Scuba’s tweets are about as irreverent as they come, but they highlight one of dance music’s interesting dichotomies: the ‘Us vs Them’ tension between the ‘underground’ and the ‘overground’ (or what’s nowadays pretty much slapped with the term ‘EDM’). The argument is nearly as old as dance music itself: the ‘authentic’ underground steeling itself against the mass-market players responsible for polluting their subculture. It’s a contradiction that’s defined dance culture since its first peak of popularity in the late ‘90s.

Dance music embodies both the most creatively uncompromising and the tackiest elements that any music culture is capable of. On the one side, you’ve got the heads-down ‘underground’, driven by the supposed purity of its artistic integrity, producing music that’s impenetrable to anyone not already deeply entrenched in the culture. On the other side, you’ve got DJs popping champagne bottles and flying in private jets, surrounded by girls, glitz and glamour. They play a watered-down derivative, made by producers-for-hire and slapped with the name of the bankable DJ for mass consumption. Or so the story goes.

That narrative was given yet another whirl recently when Deadmau5 published his notorious ‘We all hit play’ blog post, later echoing similar sentiments when he graced the cover of Rolling Stone(who’ve all of a sudden discovered a newfound love of dance music, after pointedly ignoring it for decades). The comments actually ignited a fairly interesting debate, with everyone from A-Trak toBassnectar weighing in with measured commentary.

What was more interesting, though, was some of the vitriol it inspired from the underground house and techno scenes. London stalwart Mr C had only recently lambasted DJs as “fakes & charlatans” for standing “with their arms raised in the air”, so it’s hardly surprising he was less than pleased. “FUCK YOU IN EVERY ORIFICE,” was the conclusion of his message to Deadmau5.

A Guy Called Gerald’s most recent Australian tour was in late 2011, though his history in dance culture stretches back as far as the ‘80s, and his response was equally as vitriolic. “You come into our system that we have nurtured for the last 25 years, trick hardworking people into giving you their money, con honest promoters, take large sums of money out of the system and then spit back into our faces that YOU are tricking everyone,” he wrote on his blog. “I agree there are loads of people like you who do fake it. It is easy with the software you are using. Don’t worry we are going to find ways of stopping you. You greedy rat head fuck.”


Is the increasing commercialisation of dance music around the world actually posing a threat to the subculture? Looking beyond DJ Sneak’s ongoing war of attrition against the Swedish House Mafia, how much truth is there to these assertions?

To get some perspective on it all, inthemix sought out some of dance music’s most articulate players to weigh in on this feature. Last week we spoke to US mainstay and Ovum Records head Josh Wink, who was curating a stage at Tomorrowland. Wink has maintained a solid presence since rising from the American rave scene of the early ‘90s, with his own characteristic blend of house and techno that’s never gone out of style. He says he’s witnessed a shift in what motivates producers and DJs to get involved in the first place.

“I got into this music because it happened upon me, it was just something that I wanted to do, I didn’t know how to do anything else,” he told us. “The fame and the success was just a by-product mistake of doing something that I wanted to do.

“So many people now get involved because they solely want their face on a magazine, the champagne, the limousines, the models, the blowjobs in the booth,” he laughs. “It’s a different thing when you look at how people get into it these days, how they see it and what they want to emulate.”

Has social networking – the platform for breaking down the barriers between artists and fans – actually been responsible for transforming the way the music itself is produced? UK producer Matt Thomas, aka King Unique, told inthemix he’s witnessed dramatic changes in the past few years alone in the value attached to artistic output.

“It’s reflective of the whole Facebook culture, that steady stream of activity running past your eyes all the time,” Thomas told ITM. “If you have a YouTube link, there’s no need to own 90-percent of the music you’re hearing. There used to be a paradigm where you could make a fantastic tune, and rest on the laurels of that for a while. These days though, records have their day really quickly. There’s a living to be made in the studio, but you had better be prolific.”

It’s a trend that also highlighted by Australia’s own James Cayzer, better known as Jaytech, who just last week released his new Multiverse album on Anjunabeats. In some instances, he argues, social media actually affects the product. “It’s impacted music, via the fact that it’s encouraging the music industry, the producers and the DJs, to head in a musical direction that’s more viral and sharable,” he said. “Also because the scene has so much more attention now than it used to, it becomes about ‘attention grabbing’. There’s more techniques and tactics in place to try and win as much attention as possible… everyone is screaming out to get their little slice of attention from the overall populous.

“It’s quite obvious when people are making their music more about the marketing,” he adds. “The YouTube views, the Facebook fans, the hits on their websites and the results, rather than starting from the groundwork of the musical experience itself.”

Taken in this broader context of fame, fortune and Facebook, John Askew’s acerbic interview with inthemix last year starts to make a little more sense. “I have cut away all unnecessary and hugely time consuming online self masturbation that seems to have become so essential for those who care about ‘working their way up the ladder’,” he told us. “The attraction of making more money and getting a higher position in the DJ Mag Top 100 is a seductive prospect for a lot of impressionable young DJ/producers and I entirely sympathise with those who get sucked into it, but I’m not impressionable.”


There’s also the point of view that all the discussion centred around the ‘EDM explosion’ is actually a misnomer and misconception – the ‘underground’ and the ‘overground’ are in fact completely different things, with no tangible link. The latter is more a fleeting evolution of the standard pop market than anything else.

Paul van Dyk was another of the heavyweights hosting his own arena at the recent Tomorrowland festival. Though there’s many who’d lump him into the ‘EDM’ category, he’s always declared his own iron-fisted allegiance to ‘authentic’ underground music. In the current recent issue of the UK’s DJ Mag, he’s brought attention to what he labels as a fundamental disconnect in the discussion of the pop-dance phenomenon.

“Let’s put it this way. What I define as electronic music, it’s not any more popular now than it was two years ago. The stuff that is extremely popular in America is that danceable stuff that Rihanna produces; but I don’t think anybody would really think that Rihanna is suddenly an electronic act. It’s just basically the sound of the pop world right now,” he told DJ Mag.

“The fact that names like these are suddenly becoming representatives for American house music is a clear joke,” he went on. “Right now it seems to be acting like the normal touring pop market in many ways, and it’s not about a ‘scene’ as such. it still exists, and it’s still as big as it has been, but what people are referring to as the big ‘explosion’ of electronic dance music hasn’t much to do with that…I don’t really care much about Rihanna.” Or Calvin Harris, you’d assume; the regular tour DJ and We Found Love collaborator for the pop starlet.

It’s a topic that clearly gets PvD’s blood boiling, and near identical sentiments are expressed by Cayzar. However, he plays down any assertions that Guetta and co. are responsible for watering down dance culture on a grand scale.

“I have faith in the punter’s intelligence to discern between those two areas of music. I do feel the ‘EDM’ thing, the more pop-orientated house scene, and the more classic-style underground dance scene, are two very different things. Obviously it’s on a much bigger scale than anything that’s come before, but it also is a different classification of music. it’s a more commercially orientated style of music, and a more commercially orientated style of scene.”

Cayzer has a positive outlook on the possibility of the two zones to co-exist. “I don’t think there’s any reason underground dance music can’t thrive alongside the EDM scene…I never felt like it’s anything but a good thing, because it’s good to move things forward musically, and it’s good to move onto something else. If you don’t like where we’re at musically, you really only have to deal with it another five or so years, and the whole thing will disintegrate and put itself back together again, in another completely different form.”

Similarly to King Unique’s observations on the culture shock amongst his producer colleagues when looking at some of dance music’s big earners, Cayzer suggests those who’ve made their living in underground dance are somewhat resentful of the pop-dance success stories.

“You do have a lot of DJ/producers who are relatively new to the whole thing; even though their approach is quite similar to what people have done in the past, they’re being rewarded a thousand-fold more. I think that’s where a lot of the resentment comes from, but I think at the end of the day, everyone is just going out and making the music the way they want to.”

An event like Tomorrowland is the perfect example of where it becomes harder to lump the ‘underground’ and ‘overground’ into disparate camps. Guetta’s Sunday night performance felt much closer to a mass-scale rave than a pop concert; and meanwhile, on the same festival site, Chris Liebing and Dave Clarke led the Castle Stage, Richie Hawtin was manning his own dark and sweaty ENTER tent, and Steve Bug was getting ready to hand it over to Josh Wink at his Ovum Recordings arena.

While Scuba might enjoy hurling grenades on Twitter, there’s a well-placed sense of irony in his own work that’s seen him explicitly exploring these tensions himself. The opening of his 2012 album Personality sets itself up as an obtuse exercise in dubstep purism, with a grumpy opening monologue decrying the lack of substance in modern music; before subverting these expectations with his most melodic and accessible work to date. Ne1butu, Scuba’s old-school rave tribute, comes complete with piano riffs and high-pitched MC samples. The summery vibes and dizzying synth stabs of July, in turn, are more euphoric than anything Armada Music’s 30-strong posse of record labels could hope to manage.


Josh Wink has often enjoyed more of a natural affinity with Europe over the past decade than his home country. He’s not overflowing with affirmations that the pop-dance revolution will result in a considerable “trickle down” effect for underground dance in the USA. However, he remains positive about the potential for listeners to be guided in the right direction.

“Fads and trends run their course,” he says. “But if someone gets interested in electronic music through hearing a Swedish House Mafia track, and next thing you know they dig deeper, go to Discogs and see that Steve Angello had a release on Subliminal Records; then they check out Erick Morillo, who had a remix on one of his albums from Josh Wink. Next thing you know, someone getting into music for its commercial dance appeal will find somebody else like me, Jeff MillsJoey Beltram. You never know. So I look at it as a positive now.”

Equally, there’s artists who successfully straddle the divide. “Tiga went from being an underground name, to a more pop-orientated vocal artist, though he’s kept his underground credibility,” he says. “Luciano is someone who has an underground record label, and puts out underground music, but so many people know about him now. He becomes more of a commercial name, though the music that he releases and plays is still really cool and raw.”

And for all the artists like Sneak who view the pop-dance brigade as a genuine musical menace, there’s others who view it in a more positive fashion. Australia’s Rick Bull, aka Deepchild, departed Sydney for the techno capital of Berlin in 2009, and has become one of the country’s most successful exports on that end of the spectrum. Talking to inthemix for this feature, he admits he’s impartial to a bit of commercial hip hop and RnB, something that’s worked its way into his music via the distorted vocals that make a reappearance on his upcoming Neukölln Burning album.

“I don’t think exposure to a more diverse range of music, in any realm, is ever a bad thing,” Bull told inthemix. “I’ve benefitted so greatly from listening to a lot of commercial hip hop and RnB. I don’t think that’s damaged my own music, or narrowed my appreciation of different forms; I’d say it’s definitely widened it. A particular style of music might not be my thing, but I don’t think it’s helpful to judge other people because it is their thing. I think the renewed interest in pop-dance has been a great thing. It’s certainly no threat to me.”

Placing ‘authentic’ dance and ‘EDM’ in opposing camps might be missing the point, Bull adds. “I’ve never found the definitions to be useful ones, let alone reflective of the reality. When you have a club like Fabric releasing amazing mix compilations featuring so-called ‘underground’ music…and it’s a really popular club. How do you define it? It’s just a bit of a red herring. It’s kind of like the whole ‘vinyl vs CDs’ debate, all of a sudden the quality of the music becomes a secondary issue. Let’s just talk about the music we’re playing and listening to.”