The evolution of electronic music and its influence on UK culture
An insight into the development of the underground music scene
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 30 years you'll know that electronic music has dominated the musical zeitgeist for some time, from full-body digital productions such as techno, to the inclusion of electronic elements in more traditional genres, the likes of rock music. But how did it all begin?
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers define electronic music as "music created using electronic devices", these devices being low-power systems that use components such as transistors and integrated circuits. Distinction can be made between instruments that produce sound through electromechanical means, the likes of the telharmonium and the electric guitar, and instruments that produce sound using electronic components, such as the Theremin, synthesiser, and computer.
Despite the invention of early influential electronic instruments, the likes of the Theremin in the early 1920s and the tape recorder during World War II, composing by electronic means proved complex and difficult.
"a composer working with electronic music is more like a painter or a sculptor, who works directly with his medium. You hear the sounds as they are created."
The first synthesiser, the Buchla, was invented in 1963, and was the product of efforts by musique concrete composer Morton Subotnik, his business partner Ramon Sender, and electrical engineer Don Buchla.
Another pioneering synthesiser, the Moog, of which prototypes of two voltage-controlled oscillators were layed out in 1964, was the creation of one Dr Robert Moog, after taking composer Herbert Deutsch's advice to build electronic music modules. Moog, in adherence with Deutsch’s musical experiments, subsequently built a voltage controlled filter to accompany his work and was invited to the AES Convention in New York City in September 1964, where he sold his first synthesiser modules to choreographer Alwin Nikolais.
In 1970, after working with Bill Hemsath, the man who built the first prototype of a synth, the pair released the Minimoog, intending for the instrument to be used in modern day music. Production of the famous synthesiser stopped in 1981, but was redesigned by Dr Moog in 2002 as the Minimoog Voyager.
As technology developed, and synthesisers became cheaper, rock bands such as Pink Floyd relied heavily on their use, although they generally only substituted for an organ. It wasn't until the 1970s that music produced entirely through electronic means became popular, with Dusseldorf band Kraftwerk using synthesisers to develop a weird and wonderful sound that combined robotics and simplicity to display the innovation of machines in the modern technological world.
Kraftwerk are to this day considered pioneers of the electronic music genre, and the majority, if not all, of electronic music that we are so accustom today was influenced by their experimental production techniques.
One of the first genres that Kraftwerk inspired was the rise of Techno music in Detroit, Michigan in the mid-late 80s.
Stylistically, techno is a generally repetitive form of electronic music that tends to be produced with intention of being used in a continuous DJ set. The central rhythmic component is usually a 4x4 kick, accompanied by a backbeat – a snare or clap – with hi-hats prominent throughout. The tempo can vary, but usually ranges between 120-135bpm.
The genre originated in the Motor City, where the 'Belleville Three'; Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins, sculpted Detroit’s sound through combining African American music, the likes of Chicago house, funk, and jazz, with electronic music by artists such as Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra.
The use of music production technology, such as drum machines, synthesisers, and digital audio workstations, is significant to Techno’s aesthetic. Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909 played a substantial role in generating the genres signature sound, with the likes of Plastikman’s (Richie Hawtin) ‘Spastik’, Jeff Mills’ ‘The Bells’, and Rhythim is Rhythim's (Derrick May) ‘Strings of Life’ all featuring detail from the beloved drum machines.
A couple of years prior, Chicago house dominated clubs across Illinois. Artists such as Frankie Knuckles, Derrick Carter, and Boo Williams used elements of disco and funk records, along with b-boy hip-hop, to recreate their favourite tracks as more groove-heavy dance-orientated affairs, with the 4x4 kick playing a pivotal role to the genre's style.
DJs produced and played their own edits, which focused on the more dancefloor-friendly components, mixing in effects and utilising electronic instruments such as drum machines to give the tracks bigger club appeal.
Along with replicating percussion through the Roland TR-808, the "originator of House music" Jesse Saunders added mesmeric lyrics to his productions, and used synthesisers such as Korg’s Poly-61 and Roland’s TB-303 to create warm strings, brass, and bass.
Saunders’ 1984 hit “On & On” inspired other DJs to use electronic means to produce records in a similar style, Farley 'Jackmaster’ Funk’s 1986 groover ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, and Frankie Knuckles’ 1987 synth-laden ‘Your Love’ being just a couple of its successors that entwined complex rhythms with simple bassline and sampling.
Although these producers were aided by affordable synthesisers and drum machines such as the 808 and 909, it was bass module Roland TB-303 that layed the foundations of the era defining sound of Acid House.
Acid House & Rave
Despite originating in Chicago in the mid-late 80s, it was in the UK that the acid house scene thrived. As mentioned in another article by myself, Rave, Drugs, and The Authorities, the Roland TB-303 was at the heart of the scene's origins, being used in an unorthodox manner to create a 'squelch’ sound, created by modulating its frequency and resonance to create movement in simple bass patterns. This, accompanied by Chicago house’s 4x4 beat, electronic strings, stabs, and vocals, formed the acid house genre.
Notable tracks include Pierre’s Pfantasy Club’s 1988 hit ‘Dream Girl’, Adonis’ 1987 deep bassline classic ‘No Way Back’, and Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’, also released in 1987, deemed ‘the ultimate defining acid track’ by Danny Rampling, one of the DJs responsible for Acid House’s proliferation.
Acid house was the beginning of an electronic musical revolution in the UK, and led to the rise of numerous derivative, rave-focused genres.
Breakbeat hardcore was the first spin-off to grace illegal warehouses and countryside gatherings during the rave phenomenon. While ‘House and Techno’, a loose term used to describe a multitude of subgenres of house music, dominated one subdivision of the scene, breakbeat hardcore commanded the other.
The genre, which is also referred to as ‘Oldskool hardcore’, fused 4x4 rhythms with breakbeat, upbeat piano rolls, and classic hoover pads.
The arrival of pitched-up breakbeat sampling onto the rave scene resulted in further fragmentation. Some rejected the direction it was heading, and reverted back to the 4x4 kick that proved pivotal in the rise of the scene, with rave-esque synths, happy piano elements, and euphoric vocal samples forming 'happy hardcore', while others leant focus to breakbeat, basslines, and syncopated percussion loops, dropping the 4x4 beat and forming the sounds of 'Jungle.'
Jungle, the more triumphant of the two, is characterised by tempos ranging from 160-200bpm, dub-reggae basslines, long pitch-shifted snare rolls, and chopped breakbeat samples. The most renowned breakbeat sample incorporated into the genre is the "Amen" break, which first appeared in The Winston's 1969 single "Amen, Brother".
This, along with classic breaks from James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' and Incredible Bongo Band's 'Apache', have served as a template for Jungle's formulaic compostion. Producer's cut-apart the breaks and pitch them up, amalgamating frantic, double-time drums with Jamaican sound-system production methods, such as slow, deep basslines and reggae-esque melodies.
"The windows were all blacked out, you would just have two decks set up, with a mixer and a microphone and that would be it. You'd be in an empty bedroom, you'd have 10-20 man in there all smoking weed, drinking brandy, and just vibing."
Jungle's production coincided with the rise of computer based production which allowed beats to be processed and manipulated with increasing levels of complexity. As mentioned in 1983 documentary 'Discovering Electronic Music', "a composer working with electronic music is more like a painter or a sculptor, who works directly with his medium. You hear the sounds as they are created." This evolving computer technology allowed producers to create their own breakbeat drum patterns with precision, adding chromatic effects through time-stretching and pitch shifting.
"If jungle was a lifestyle, pirate radio stations provided the soundtrack." say Afropop Worldwide in their 'History of UK Dance' podcast.
Pirate radio played a huge role to jungle's development in the early nineties, with unlicensed stations broadcasting from transmitters which were hidden on the roofs of London's tower blocks. MC Navigator, a regular from one of the pioneering stations, Kool FM, said "The windows were all blacked out, you would just have two decks set up, with a mixer and a microphone and that would be it. You'd be in an empty bedroom, you'd have 10-20 man in there all smoking weed, drinking brandy, and just vibing."
Acclaimed original jungle tracks include Conquering Lion's 'Code Red', DJ Hype's 'Roll The Beats', and Metalheadz' 'Terminator', with popular instrumentation including the Roland JD-800, the Roland Juno 106, and the Korg M-1.
Drum & Bass
Because of its underground sound, aggressive samples and themes of violence, Jungle inherited associations with violence and criminal activity and became affiliated with gang culture. As a result of this, some producers began to polish its corners, creating a more tolerable variation of its sound and replacing the role of the MC and ragga samples with more commercially appealing vocal performances or omitting them completely. This became known as Drum & Bass.
Despite initially emerging as more commercial form of Jungle, Drum & Bass split into several subgenres, including Jump-up, which focuses around heavy bass sounds, techstep, which lends itself more to techno influences and science fiction, and numerous other offshoots which focus around darker undertones.
The cornerstone of drum & bass is the emphasis on the powerful, low-frequency bassline and elongated bass drums, sourced from the likes of the Roland TR-808; the 808's Rhythm Composer has also proved pivotal to its style. Similarly to jungle, and depending on the subgenre, breakbeat can also be an important aspect of the genre's compostion, with James Browns' 'Soul Pride', Dennis Coffey's 'Scorpio', and Lyn Collins' 'Think (About It)' breaks utilised by many the d&b producer.
Dillinja's 'Silver Blade', Doc Scott's 'Shadow Boxing, and dBridge's 'Wonder Where' are some early examples of drum and bass' versatility, with Goldie MBE, a pioneer of the genre calling the latter "a sonic soundscape for the mind, heart and soul – not just for the ears."
By the turn of the millennium, Drum & Bass' popularity was in decline with the rise of new urban genre, UK Garage, taking the reigns in blowing up clubs across the country. Originally labelled 'speed garage', due to its fast tempo and incorporation of heavy basslines, garage boasted elements that were common in drum & bass, but focused more on the inclusion of established 'house music' conventions; the likes of soulful vocal samples.
Stylistically, Garage generally adopts the 4x4 rhythmic structure of house, but at a faster tempo of between 135-140bpm, with syncopated hats, cymbals and snares complementing pitch-shifted vocals and broken beats.
In the early nineties, while living in the US, Grammy award-winning Todd "The God" Edwards, recognised as the founder of Garage, began remixing soulful house records, experimenting with time-shifting and a larger range of vocal samples than what house was familiar with. After listening to Edwards' works, Tottenham-born DJ EZ took the remixed tracks into the London club environment, playing them out at faster tempos, resulting in Garage becoming more raver-friendly and taking off in clubs across the UK.
The term "UK Garage" was settled upon by the scene in the late nineties. By this time, the genre had evolved; the pirate radio stations that were so integral to the breakthrough of jungle began playing 'dub' versions of garage tracks, which focused on heavier basslines and omitted vocal samples, leaving space in the music for MCs.
At the same time, the genre's popularity had led to commercial success, with Shanks & Bigfoot's 'Sweet Like Chocolate', and Artful Dodger's 'Re-Rewind', which featured Craig David, an artist who basked in Garage's commercialisation, placing highly in the UK charts in 1999. DJ Luck & MC Neat's 'A Little Bit of Luck' also spent a significant amount of time in the charts in late 1999 into early 2000.
By 2002, the funk and soul-influenced sound of UK garage had taken a darker direction that focused around low sub bass frequencies and 8 bar MC verse patterns; this became known as "Grime". Although the genre has evolved remarkably since its establishment on UK pirate radio stations such as Rinse FM and Freeze 92.7, it was Wiley, formerly Wiley Kat, who fathered its origins, incorporating dance and electro elements to the tempo and rhythms of garage. Initially known as 'Eskibeat', which stemmed from the pioneering MC's nickname 'EskiBoy', Grime entwined manipulated drum & bass-esque drums and altered Dancehall rhythms while adding a half-time factor to the tracks.
Among the earliest Grime installments were 'Pulse X' by Musical Mob, Danny Weed's 'Creeper', and Dizzee Rascal's 'I Luv U', alongside Wiley's 'Eskimo', and 'Igloo', which later served as the instrumental for the famous 'Wot Do U Call It?', where the MC addresses the media confusion of what to call the evolving genre.
Although not technically an offshoot of early electronic music, Grime has become a subgenre that hybridises many different music scenes, from the word-of-mouth rhyming elements of hip-hop, to chopped beats that draw similarities from drum & bass and garage. The genre grew exponentially in the UK, with its mixture of instrumentation and representation of subculture drawing acclaim from artists across the country's musical spectrum.
Despite stagnating throughout the 2000s, a new, polished grime has begun to earn global recognition in recent years, with Skepta's 'Konnichiwa', his fourth studio album, earning commercial US success in 2016; success which led to numerous acclaimed shows and tours, and spearheaded Grime's revival and worldwide appeal.
Around the same time as Grime's initial arrival onto the UK scene, another, darker mutation of UK Garage had begun to surface. Low frequency sub-heavy compositions which drew influence from Jamaican music such as reggae birthed a new underground genre, Dubstep.
In the early 2000s, Terry Leonard, AKA Hatcha, who ran The Big Apple record shop in Croydon, South London with Artwork and John Kennedy, helped pioneer a movement that developed from creating experimental b-sides to garage singles, aiming to incorporate darker undertones and elements of breakbeat.
At the time, Hatcha was a pirate radio regular and resident at club night FWD>>, where a stripped down, bass-laden take on garage was gaining underground attention. A young Oliver Jones, AKA Skream, had begun working at the Big Apple on weekends, listening to dark garage and sparking an interest in production. Jones, alongside Adegbenga Adejumo, AKA Benga, who at the time was making music with a PlayStation gaming console, began to produce 'dubplates' that they would give to Hatcha for him to play in his sets. The pair, alongside other Big Apple regulars, Mala, Coki (Digital Mystikz), and Loefah in particular, proved pivotal to Dubstep's development.
Dubstep originally featured syncopated double-time rhythm's, percussive drum samples, and harsh claps or snares, produced in the range of 135-142bpm. While early releases experimented with tribal drum patterns, the fundamental characteristic of the genre is the 'wub' bass; a low-frequency, often distorted sub bass, generally created using an oscillator to manipulate the filter and volume.
Post-dubstep & Bass Music
Taking influence from Dubstep's experimental tendencies, numerous UK artists began weaving its darker elements with the likes of house, techno, jungle, drum & bass, and garage to create a new, broad sound, coined "post-Dubstep" in 2011.
Labels such as Hessle Audio, Tectonic, and Hyperdub were at the forefront of this evolution, with artists such as Burial, Pearson Sound, Pangaea, Pinch, and Mount Kimbie pushing boundaries and exploring obscure compositions that often defied musical coherence.
Since then, the genre has split off into a selection of subgenres, which draw specific focus on certain aspects of production. The broad term 'Bass Music' has been applied to this movement, which includes subgenres Bassline, with tracks such as Royal T's 'I Know You Want Me', the African-inspired rhythms of UK Funky with the likes of Roska's 'Abrupt', and the eerie sounds of UK Techno with tracks like Paleman's 'Etch'. The Bass music genre commonly ranges from around 123-135bpm.
It's nothing short of genius how far electronic music has come since the first prototypes of an electronic instrument, and its impact on UK underground music especially has been profound. New subgenres emerge every day, and the possibilities that contemporary music software, the likes of Ableton, FL Studio, and Logic boast are endless.
For me, electronic music's development displays mankind's intellect, it allows for creativity not limited by the boundaries of traditional instruments, and displays innovation of the highest order; I, for one look forward to witnessing further hybridisation and evolution in the years to come.