Electronica. A favoured term for electronic music among the media and those listeners who think the idea was a brand new thing in 1995, when the term first surfaced. Little do they know. Prior to that year it was usually called techno, house, occasionally rave music. At least, the stuff you could dance to. They already had a term for rit amongst classical music sorts: Electronic Music. Why? It tells you exactly what it is. Simply. No stupid catch- phrase. But what, exactly is Electronic Music, then?
Well, here is what it is: thinking realistically, it is nearly every record recorded in the last few years since any guitar with a distortion pedal, phaser or what have you is now an electronic instrument. Unless it’s a clean guitar tone with spring reverb as the most processing it gets, it electronic. So, that said, what are people referring to when they say electronic music? Lots of stuff. Everything from blindly formulaic dance records made by some stupid loser in Wichita (not aiming that at anyone in particular) to the brilliance that is the Tabla Beat Science CD entitled Tala Matrix.
Obviously, that isn’t much help. Therefore we need some history. My colleague Gary Arthur Brown has stated Brian Eno and Kraftwerk as being pioneers. Well, yes, but it goes back a few decades before that. Electronic Music is older than Rock n Roll. The first instance of turntablism (that being using a turntable to create a new piece of music) occurred in 1939, in John Cage’s piece Imaginary Landscape No. 1. So, Electronic music is OLD. Schaeffer, Cage, Cocteau, Theremin (thought it was just an instrument, did you?), these are SOME of the early electronic musicians. Most of Stckhausen’s most groundbreaking stuff was done in the 50s. People call the Beatles’ use of tape loops innovative. This must be a joke. As soon as the tape recorder was invented, people started splicing tapes of musical performances, traffic, whatever they felt was needed for the piece they were creating.
All this is, of course under the blanket name of Musique Concrete. This movement was as much a reaction to the sappy lameness of Hollywood musicals as anything else. This was music made by composers who often felt that the violin had been done to death. Although there were also those who noticed, as if for the first time in centuries that violins had NO frets, and took advantage of this. But these pieces were not electronic, so we’ll ignore them for now. Electronic music is old, very old. But it wasn’t until the electric guitar was invented that is started to creep into mainstream music. True, the theremin was a staple in bad horror movie soundtracks, but this was many decades before people would actually buy a copy of a film’s score and enjoy it ON IT”S OWN.
Electronic music began to slide it’s way into mainstream music in Jamaica. The style of music was called DUB. Before dub, there was no such concept of different MIXES of a song being released. Different takes, yes. Lots of that in jazz. But different mixes of the same recording? Unfathomable by the standard industry nay- sayers (the same sort of people who didn’t want Buddy Holly to write AND perform AND produce his records, because it just wasn’t done). Jamaicans are responsible for the very concept of a remix. An important thing when you consider that even country singers and jazz musicians are getting songs remixed these days. Dub featured heavy electronic processing of the bed tracks, and also had a fair amount of use of some of those new things like Rhodes pianos and other early synthesizers. The electric organ in the first widely used electronic instrument, BTW.
Moving over to the US, it’s now the 70’s, and you have two things happening: many bands, mostly funk and fusion bands, are using nifty new keyboards called Moog synthesizers. The Mini- Moog is responsible for the bassline in Parliament’s Flashlight, just as a frame of reference. And Hip Hop is invented. DJs like Grandmaster Flash come up with the idea of Beat juggling: the earliest, most primitive version of a sampler, because a DJ would take two copies of the same record and repeat a break over and over, cueing one side while the other played. A third thing that was happening was in Germany, with Kraftwerk and other bands using drum pads and synths (often of their own invention) to create songs. The music style called techno has begun.
Brian Eno then creates ambient music with Music for Airports. Interestingly enough, this work is very light on the non- acoustic instruments. Unlike modern ambient as done by most people. This is when the herd really starts out the gate. The bulls are now running. New Wave bands use synths like it’s fun. Herbie Hancock wins a Grammy (in the Jazz category) for a record that features at most a bit of percussion on a couple songs and no other acoustic instruments at all. Depeche Mode formed, and the US simply does not understand. Did I mention that House music has begun in Chicago and Techno in Detroit? And Jungle in the UK? By 1988 the US has figured out Depeche Mode (just in time for them to start touring with a live drummer) and there’s not too many hip hop records produced without at least one DJ feature house track on them.
A couple years later, The Prodigy puts out their first album. Five years later, the media notices they exist, along with a whole bunch of others. By this time, DJ Babu (I thinks that’s right) has decided to separate the men from the boys by calling himself and others with a certain degree of accomplishment playing turntables with the title “turntablist” bands made up of DJs like United Future Orginisation, Invisible Scrathc Picklz (featuring Q- Bert and Mixmaster Mike), the Beat Junkies, the X-Cutioners (then known as the X-Men), and Clark Kent’s Supermen start to appear. Coldcut had been around since 1987 or thereabouts, BTW. Plus ordinary DJs (the sort that Babu needed to separate himself from) like Junior Vasquez and Chris Sheppard actually think they have the ability to make music, and begin producing sad- assed, no brain dance tracks (rather akin to disco, the dilution of funk). Then the Internet happened. Mp3.com and IUMA.com happened. People had wide access to cheap, easy to use music making programs (so long as you want to make boring formula nonsense) and access to a means of spreading it all over the place. Electronic music has become perhaps the most popular music on the planet. Elements of it are seen from the use of undisguised digital manipulation of voices (once done mostly to correct pitch mistakes, and in fact still is, they just don’t hide it anymore) to the fact that there’s three or more remixes for every Bjork song ever recorded.
It’s the new toy that musicians play with. But more should know the history of it. More should know how to make an actual blues song. More (many more. Many many more) should study Latin and African rhythms. Out of respect for all music.
But it is Electronic Music. Not Electronica.