So What Do You Mean...Electro?

Electro. We have all heard the word at some point in our lives whether we were warned against being electrocuted as children, or received an Electrocardiogram at a hospital; but perhaps not as much until we began to listen to a style of music for a long time referred to as “Electro”. More properly defined as Electro Funk, "Electro", as it began to be called for short, was not just one of the first actual sub-genres of Electronic Music to come about in 1982, but also in many ways part of the beginning of Hip Hop ; where bands like Newcleus, along with producers like Unknown DJ and Pretty Tony would popularize the sound and continue to lay the foundation throughout the first half of the '80s for what later became Rap, influencing even the direction Pop music such as Madonna and Michael Jackson would take for some time; not to mention Miami Bass and the plethora of musical styles born out of the drum machine and synthesizer, which still prevail and actually continue to grow in popularity today.

 

The curious part about all this, is that just a year before in 1981, the actual oldest sub-genre of Electronic Music was born, as Cybotron's "Alleys Of Your Mind" was released on Deep Space Records, 2 years later further building upon this new genre with the album "Enter" on Fantasy Records, and more specifically via a song that die-hard Electro Funk enthusiasts would claim was another building block for their beloved style: Cybotron’s “Clear”. Something writer and producer Juan Atkins, one of the 3 pioneers of American Techno, would refer to exactly as that: Techno Music. Having been greatly influenced not just by bands like Parliament, but also the iconic German pioneering group Kraftwerk; who in their approach and overall image presented themselves as a band of pure Technology, Juan Atkins and his fellow band of brothers known as the “Belleville Three”, would themselves embrace this vision, influenced by growing up in the machine-like city of Detroit, where this would in fact become their response to the growing popularity in Breakdance, Hip Hop and Electronic Dance Music. As Juan Atkins would explain in a 2007 interview: "I don’t really separate Techno from Electro".

 

Up until this point, it is interesting to point out, that already in the mid to late 70's as Electronic Music grew and became an actual genre of music itself, popularized and evolved to that point by great artists such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre to name a few, people in the UK had already been referring to this music as “Electro”; short for Electronic, and even perhaps derived in some way from the initial introduction of Electronic Music Instruments and even the music itself into the mainstream public in the 60's as “Electro-Acoustic”. 

 

It’s also interesting to mention that in the U.S., you had West Coast “Electro”, headed by Dr. Dre and World Class Wrecking Cru, as well as Unknown DJ, Egyptian Lover, and Arabian Prince, who called this music “Rap”, not Electro. In parts of New York like Brooklyn, bands such as Newcleus referred to this music simply as “Soul Music”, and considered their work as an evolution of that sound, and not so much a pioneering of another. Bronx area Pioneers Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaata, and DJ Kool Herc called it Hip-Hop (He is credited as coining that term), only later to be known as "Electro-Funk" as it derived influence from German Electronic Music, Funk, and early forms of underground Bronx Hip-Hop. 

 

The problem with such confusion on the term "Electro" and what music should have been classified as such, seems to have begun in the early 80's in the UK with the founding of the infamous imprint Street Sounds, which as Kurt Baggaley aka Scape One explains, came about when: “Morgan Khan and the like started to refer to Electronic Dance Music as “Electro” for the Street Sounds series, which really were Hip Hop, R’n'B, Disco, etc, but influenced by the European Electro Pop music that was being played in the New York clubs in the early 80's”. Essentially giving the title of “Electro” to what later became known as Electro Funk, whose die-hard fans would continue to call “Electro” for short thereafter.

 

In the late 80's, after the decline of Electro Funk, and the birth of Miami Bass, a new sound would come into being, seemingly unconnected, yet clearly influenced by two powers in the Electronic Music scene: Detroit and Miami. That sound would be “Techno Bass”, which in Miami was an evolution of Miami Bass, attempting to gravitate away from the sex-oriented movement of “Booty Bass”, though clearly influenced by Detroit Techno. As David Noller of Dynamix II explains: "I added the chocolate (2 live crew Miami Bass) to the peanut butter (stiff Detroit Techno) and Techno Bass was born". In Detroit however, this sound was part of what is known as Techno’s “2nd Wave”. This in many ways influenced by Miami Bass and artists like Dynamix II and Maggotron, with bands like Aux 88, and artists such as DJ Di’jital, Will Web, and Posatronix clearly evolving the Techno sound into something that seemed to be trying to revive in some ways what was lost after Electro Funk’s decline in popularity. The beats, while often times bassier than Techno or even old school Electro Funk beats, as well as the rhythms, echoed back in time to Breakdance music and the fame of the 808 drum machine, while incorporating the much more syncopated “programmed” sound of Techno.

 

Interestingly enough, the term “Techno Bass”, while widely used in Detroit, Miami, and even in the UK up until the late 90’s; primarily by Ed DMX of DMX Krew and Breakin’ Records, as well as Dynamix II, and legendary producer Beat Dominator to name a few, would itself begin to get lost in translation, as many places eventually began to call this new sound of Electro Funk, Techno, and Miami Bass as “Electro Bass”; not long after becoming simply “Electro” once again. By the early 2000’s, while in the middle of another revival of this so called “Electro” music via the websites Electro Empire and Electro Alliance, and the growing popularity of artists like Anthony Rother, and groups like Adult and Rude 66, the term Electro found itself exactly where it wanted to be: in its own space!

 

People from the 70s era, at this point a bit older and not as connected with the younger circles of Electronic Music enthusiasts, would not have much say or influence as to whether the music in its origin was also Electro, not to mention that by this time, the only thing aside from Detroit and Miami Techno Bass that seemed to have any influence on “Electro”, was Electro Funk itself from back in the 80's; many of whose pioneering artists were making a huge comeback, not to mention the sound itself was also in a state of revival as powerful labels such as Dominance Electricity out of Germany began heavily pushing the era of Breakdance music, along with the fashion of Adidas tracksuits and fat shoelaces.

 

That is of course, until that fateful day when, as far as we can see for the foreseeable future, the word Electro was “hijacked” as some would argue, perhaps never to be used again by those who had enjoyed such freedoms for around 15 years. The beginning of Electro Clash, and the subsequent growing popularity of sub-genres like Electro House, who became one of many in the coming of the so called "Digital Revolution" to begin to call their music “Electro”.

 

As obvious as it may seem, the outrage caused by all this is perhaps not nearly as much the problem as it was the loss of identity and marketability of a sound once only known as Electro. Soon, stores such as Juno and Beatport, who grew to huge proportions after the advent of digital downloadable music, began to cater to all of this new music with large sections filled with “Electro” music, none of which represented what everyone up until that point considered it as such. Even today, while countless Facebook groups militantly claim to be only for “True Electro”, not to mention thread after thread of non stop arguments between die-hard ‘Electro” fans, those who remembered it as something different prior to Electro Funk, and even those who are pushing Electro House as something that ought to be recognized and allowed to be called “Electro”, the fight for the word seems more futile than ever, as the popularity of the word grows, while the popularity of the sound once only known as this continues to decline into oblivion.

 

The argument that has to be made however; and this is where history and knowing it becomes important, is the origin of the word tied to 80's Hip Hop and what many call “Electro Funk”, or does it go further back, making the case for the term Electro being used to refer to Electronic Music as a whole much more legitimate? If so, then perhaps the argument that only a specific form of Electronic Music can be labeled “Electro” becomes much more illegitimate, and perhaps even the very dagger being driven into the heart of something we love, yet somehow seem not to understand.

 

Given the origins of the music itself, and the perception of the artists who pioneered it, one has to almost wonder if in some way its all just as much Electro as it is Techno. Perhaps the over-genrification of music, especially this day in age not only blurries the past and our understanding of it, but disconnects us from the only thing that really ought to matter: Music, good soulful innovative, original music. As Cozmo D of the legendary pioneering group Newcleus likes to point out: "I've always been glad that I didn't hear of the term "Electro" until about 1999, so I never formed any sense of attachment to it. I was just trying to make good, funky music. When they started calling it Hip-Hop I said "fine". When they called it Dance or Club music I said "fine". Now they call it Electro... fine. The only thing that matters to me is that it's MY music, I could give a damn about a genre".

 

The truth is that no artist or label in today’s so called “Real Electro” scene, who are more properly producing and releasing either 80's inspired Electro Funk or Techno Bass (Electro Bass) music, will ever be able to change what is an entire industry approach to terming styles of Electronic Music as Electro, and perhaps we cannot blame them. At one point before the birth of what became known as "Electro", all Electronic Music was called by that name in parts of the world; primarily the UK, and in some places simply Techno. As Baggaley explains: “Basically, Electro is a category not a genre; thus you end up with Electro-Techno, Electro-Pop, Electro-Funk, Electro-House, Electro-Bass, etc.”. Meaning perhaps the important thing is for everyone who produces such music, whether it is Electro Bass, or Electro House, to understand the history of Electronic Music, and that it isn’t neither the latest “Hip” word to call EDM by, nor is it an old term used to describe only one style of music. It is quite literally, a word used to describe Electronic Music as a whole, and a word that can be used to categorize sub-styles of the genre. As Ben Spaander of Cosmic Force once explained in the movie Darkbeat: "Electro is not a kind of music, it is a way to approaching a kind of music, and that you do that with electronic gear".

 

In essence, if we are to see our music move forward, then understanding our place within the genre of Electronic Music is most important, perhaps only secondary to the fact that if we continue down the misguided path of ignorance of our own history, coupled with the elitism that prevails in this scene, then the only ones nailing the coffin of our music are those who persist in continuing to neglect and overlook the important facts that many of us have tried to bring up for many years, and that are here now staring them in the face.

 

Perhaps one day there will be a time when the industry will get away from this trend, and people may no longer call other types of music Electro, however, given the origins, and the fact that the word only came oddly enough as a "Hip" word for the time used to describe Electronic Music long ago, and then later attached to a sub-genre of it, it seems the term Electro being used for all Electronic music is here to stay as it was in the beginning.

 

Our job is to make great music first and foremost, and to label it accordingly so that people know what they are buying, and so stores eventually follow suit like with Deep House or other sub-categories of an EDM sub-genre. The music we make is either Electro Funk, Electro Bass, or Electro Pop to name a few styles; but here what we like to drop is Techno Bass; what some of you like to call Electro Bass! In the end, perhaps it really is all Electro as much as it is Techno: Electronic Music of Technology.

 

One thing is for sure, while the road ahead may not be easy, we must take this very seriously as we are literally in a crisis of historical proportions as one of the closest descendants of the origins of Electronic Music is being pushed into the darkness without anyone with the power to do so noticing or doing anything about it; except for a few of us of course. Educate yourself, and be smart about how you market yourself, Electro is no longer a fish in the sea, but the sea itself, and we must learn to adapt! For some reason, things have gone back to how they were in the beginning, yet with the return of analog hardware and old vintage gear re-issues, perhaps the future holds something much more intriguing for us than just a word.

 

 

Written by: Santino Fernandez

Edition: 
July 2015