’90s electronica

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: ’90s electronica

Why it’s daunting: Seemingly created and foisted onto an indifferent American public by major labels and the music press, “electronica” was a catch-all phrase used for album-centric, producer, and DJ-based music in the 1990s. The pseudo-genre’s succession of primarily British groups inspired by late-’80s acid house and early-’90s rave gathered momentum throughout the decade and seemed poised to peak around 1997, creating the illusion of a codified movement. In spite of some mild success—and some extremely good records—many American rock fans resisted and even resented having new, unfamiliar sounds forced upon them, while longtime dance fans didn’t hear in the music much of the rave culture on which they were raised. Although most involved were seasoned producers with both good intentions and a deep base of knowledge—the carpetbaggers came later—they also performed and released music in the manner of rock bands rather than techno or house artists. By splitting the difference between rock and dance, the movement wound up satisfying neither camp. To top it all off, the inelegant name and memories of the aggressive marketing campaigns have dampened enthusiasm for revisiting the era.

Possible gateway: The Chemical Brothers

Why: In the news this year for their laudatory concert film, Don’t Think, The Chemical Brothers have spent nearly two decades with their critical reputation fully intact. Beginning their career as The Dust Brothers before having to change their moniker because of the Beastie Boys/Beck production duo of the same name, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons captured the tension and release of house and techno and shortened the routes to a track’s peak, making instrumental dance music that captured the immediacy of rock.

Borrowing heavily from Public Enemy production team The Bomb Squad, The Chemical Brothers were also among the first non-jungle UK dance acts to reckon properly with the riffs and breakbeats of U.S. hip-hop, which are particularly potent on early tracks such as “Chemical Beats,” “Song To The Siren,” and “Leave Home”—all of which appeared on the 1995 debut LP Exit Planet Dust in some form. (Around the time the Chems debuted, The Prodigy was doing the same.) 

The Chems took a SportsCenter approach to dance music, chopping the typical dance 12-inch into bite-sized, action-packed sequences. Incredibly, they managed to do this without feeling like a compromise between sounds, seeming dismissive of any element of their musical DNA, or shaving off their sharper edges for the sake of compromise. And yet in every way, they carried themselves and came across like a rock band. Even the dependably predictable rotation of guest stars nodded heavily to rock: Northern English frontmen (Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, New Order’s Bernard Sumner, Verve’s Richard Ashcroft), American psych-rock explorers (Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, The Flaming LipsWayne Coyne), and ethereal female vocalists (Beth Orton, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval).

The Chemical Brothers’ 1997 album Dig Your Own Hole and the Loops Of Fury EP remain the best introductions to electronica. They’re more sophisticated and direct than the debut album, without losing any of the urgency or wit. Continuing to step further from their sub-bass and breakbeats origins, songs like “Private Psychedelic Reel” and “Lost In The K Hole” stretched new muscles for the group. The pattern continued on 1999’s Surrender, where the more the duo experimented with fresh elements, the better the results sounded. Between three rock-solid albums, fan-base-stretching remixes for Spiritualized, Mercury Rev, Bomb The Bass, and Method Man (as well as The Prodigy), and their status as dependable festival fixtures—among their peers, perhaps only Orbital is a better big-tent live act—The Chemical Brothers enjoyed an unimpeachable decade.

Next steps: Broadly speaking, two branches of electronica split off from The Chemical Brothers: The ego-first populist frontman approach best characterized by The Prodigy and Moby, and the DJ-as-album-artist and festival-star approach of Orbital and Underworld. (The Chems work both sides of the aisle effectively; that’s the surest reason to begin with them.)

The more familiar route is with The Prodigy and Moby: strong, quotable, personality-driven acts who recorded numerous verse/chorus/verse songs, benefitted from supportive U.S. labels and big-budget music videos, sometimes used a sledgehammer approach to sampling, and eventually shipped in outsiders to share the mic with their home-team vocalists. Each act also made better music in the early and middle parts of the decade than their better-known and more celebrated late-’90s period.

The Prodigy’s members have been credited/blamed with “killing rave” by acting like actual pop artists rather than producer artistes. The group’s big, candy-flavored rave hits were derided at the time, but classically trained whiz-kid producer Liam Howlett earned his chart success with impeccably constructed tracks that showed off his ear for melody and drew from teen years spent gorging on hip-hop and jungle. Whether sampling Jamaican legend Max Romeo (for “Out Of Space”) or a cartoon cat from a childhood PSA (“Charly”), Howlett’s vision of rave—collected on The Prodigy Experience LP—was fizzy and fun, but also demonstrated a mastery of breakdowns and dynamics.

Howlett took a more ferocious approach on the 1994 follow-up, Music For The Jilted Generation, ostensibly a reaction to the UK’s crackdown on raves and warehouse parties. Raising the velocity and volume, the record hit a lot harder than its predecessor, though it didn’t cut any deeper. Big, loud, and dumb as it may seem, this is as perfect as big, loud, dumb dance music gets. Ironically, the more The Prodigy emphasized the living, breathing frontmen in the group, the more its music became two-dimensional. While the calling-card singles “Firestarter” and “Breathe” remain monumental rock-dance hybrids, much of 1997’s The Fat Of The Land is sluggish or irredeemable, somehow missing the agility of Howlett’s earlier work. Given that it was electronica’s biggest U.S. hit—Land went to No. 1 in America the same week Radiohead’s OK Computer debuted and peaked at No. 21—it’s no wonder curious onlookers who only checked out this often knuckle-dragging record came away scornful of electronic music.

Moby at this point is almost synonymous the boom and bust of U.S. dance music. By licensing much of the music on his 1999 LP Play, Moby secured his financial future and soured his artistic credibility. (With hindsight, his location of new revenue streams was prescient, but that hasn’t helped salvage his reputation.) In spite of some ill-advised forays into rock, Moby was at his best as a producer: The Twin Peaks-sampling single “Go” and 1995’s Everything Is Wrong are magnificent records. Mixing hardcore rave, jungle, full-throated house, and techno, Moby’s grab-bag approach offers an oddly appropriate introduction to the breadth of mainstream ’90s dance.

Not every crossover dance act of the decade seemed poised to reach the mainstream, however, and Underworld and Orbital took two of the more unlikely paths to success and wound up with, alongside the Chems, electronica’s richest catalogs. Underworld sometimes seemed to be running a sprint and a marathon at the same time, churning out epic 4/4 bangers that wove meticulous patterns and took unexpected detours beneath Karl Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. It’s no wonder it was tagged “progressive house.” All three of Underworld’s ’90s albums are excellent, with 1996’s Second Toughest In The Infants just shading 1994’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman and 1999’s Beaucoup Fish. But the 2000 live LP Everything Everything best introduces Underworld’s dark, long detours to neophytes. Underworld forged a sound that’s unmistakably its own: instantly recognizable, yet also blissful, confounding, and transportive.

Where Underworld occasionally seems to have one great song it keeps recording over and over, Orbital can’t be so easily pigeonholed. From its crude, cheap, beeps’n’bloops beginnings—the debut single “Chime” reportedly was recorded for less than the cost of a cup of coffee—the Hartnoll brothers built a cerebral, surprising career. All five of the group’s ’90s albums deserve attention, but special mention goes to In Sides (1996) and the often-overlooked Snivilisation (1994), which was punished at the time for confounding expectations, but in hindsight should be praised for the same reason. Melodic and euphoric, Orbital is the most heart-bursting of the electronica acts; at its best—“Halcyon And On And On,” “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head,” “Lush 3-1 & 3-2,” and “Forever”—the duo produces a sense of relief and optimism rare even in the techno world.

Of the rest, Leftfield’s dubby progressive house, Fatboy Slim’s lampshade-on-head chart pop, Lo-Fidelity All-Stars’ pub-Dadaism, and the jazz-noir of future Steven Soderbergh and Darren Aronofsky collaborator David Holmes are all worth exploring beyond the odd single or two.

Where not to start: Almost anything called “big beat,” anything that seems addicted to film samples, any dance group other than the Chems with a song title that includes the word “rock,” anything that seems reminiscent of a late-’90s Internet company, and almost anything from a group that didn’t exist prior to 1997. A lot of the acts that arrived in the wake of The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were the electronic equivalents of the dullard bro-rockers taking cues from Oasis at the time. Often lumbering, obvious, and oddly self-satisfied, acts like The Crystal Method, Bentley Rhythm Ace, Propellerheads, Death In Vegas, Groove Armada, and Apollo 440 now sound like relics. If you’re new to not only electronica, but ’90s electronic music, it’s best to avoid diminishing returns by moving on to the wider expanse of the decade:  IDM and the Warp Records roster, hardcore rave, production house, trip-hop, ambient house, the KLF, Black Dog Productions, Basic Channel, Underground Resistance and the second wave of Detroit techno, jungle and drum-and-bass, French house, and filter disco.

Filed Under: Music, Twin Peaks

More Gateways To Geekery