Fred P, Ed DMX, and Kenny Hanlon of Apartment Records impart their knowledge as Richard Brophy covers the lack of identity in much of the electronic music currently being released.
“How can you listen to that rubbish, it all sounds the bloody same!”
That’s the familiar sound of successive older generations not understanding new musical movements; a recurring phenomenon since the birth of popular music in the post-war years. Just over twenty years ago, the UK authorities, displaying their ignorance of dance music and its attendant culture, legislated against music with ‘repetitive beats’ as part of the Public Order Act.
To blow holes in this attempt to clamp down on electronic music, Autechre responded by releasing Anti, which didn’t follow repetitive arrangements, thereby circumventing the legislation’s restrictions. Fast forward two decades and such bloody-mindedness seems to be in pitifully short supply.
As someone who is part of the DJ/reviewer promo hamster wheel can attest, there has never been more music so devoid of identity, so bereft of character and so stripped of any semblance of humanity that the endless stream of releases could be coming from one super-computer, tasked with spewing out variants of endless house and techno xeroxes.
In the last Separate Mind column, this writer made the claim house and techno had increasingly become fragmented – the problem is it has coalesced into sub-genres where the importance of having a unique musical identity appears to be unimportant.
It seems for deep house, there’s the hollowed out beats, break down into washed out chords and, if you’re lucky, maybe some ‘90s piano keys. In the techno sphere, it’s a toss-up between hammering broken beats, howling wind tunnels or those sub-Sandwell linear pulses served up as being ‘Berghain-primed’.
If this is too heavy, then don’t worry, there’s always a Chicago-inspired release available, some neatly controlled 303s bubbling over rigid drums, exactly the way it was not meant to play out first time round. It’s easy to be cynical and much easier to generalize, but nonetheless it has to be said; the majority of electronic music producers and their releases don’t have any kind of identity.
Sure, there are some brilliant mavericks at the fringes: Kassem Mosse, JTC, Terrence Dixon, Stingray, Legowelt, Moodymann and Jamal Moss all spring to mind. These artists and others have unique voices and identities, but they are very much in the minority.
Why is this happening – is it because everyone is using the same production tools or has it something to do with the fact there is simply a far greater volume of music being released? Has the same technology that makes the vast majority of the world’s music available at the click of a mouse also made it easier for producers to copy others while stifling original thinking?
Is the fascination with the golden ages of dance music clouding new producers’ creativity and perspectives? Or maybe electronic music isn’t a form that is compatible with the concept of being an artist? And what role do labels play in all of this: faced with an increasingly limited lifespan do they try to establish themselves prioritising quantity over quality?
Ed Upton (pictured above) has been releasing electronic music for over 20 years mainly as DMX Krew. While he has put out everything from synth pop to esoteric Detroit electro, ‘80s funk, ghetto and Chicago jack tracks, the DMX Krew signature sound is unmistakable. Irresistible melodies, daft vocals and an always welcome self-deprecating sense of humour.
For his latest release, Five Ways to Jack, on Super Rhythm Trax, Upton says he used Chicago house for inspiration, but that’s only part of the story; there’s the bleep techno meets breakbeat of “Bleep-o-logy”, the Nu Groove-inspired “Up-N-Down”, and even a ragga version of Lil Louis’ “Video Clash”, unsurprisingly renamed “Ragga Clash”.
“I just make music to express myself. I don’t care about genres, I don’t care which DJ chart it’s gonna go in or whatever,” Upton says. “I make loads of different stuff all the time and then I try to compile releases that make some kind of sense.” Upton then reveals of his recording process, admitting he doesn’t have a sound in the way some artists do. “They focus on one style and hone it. I’ve never had the attention span for that. But you can recognise my stuff – it comes from my collection of records I have loved and absorbed for many years,” he says, adding the tracks on the new release “are not just completely straight bites from the legacy of acid house. They are heavily influenced, but I try to put my own twist on the influences.”
Upton feels there are other artists who are bringing a new twist to the acid sound and cites JTC and Traxx as well as Bintus, who has “characteristic drum sounds that nobody else has.” In the main however, he ignores Chicago-influenced releases because “I am looking for a different twist on it – otherwise it’s just like ‘why bother?’”
Kenny Hanlon, who runs the Apartment label, feels there are artists whose music stands out immediately and cites Willie Burns and Robert Hood as examples. Equally though, he believes there are also producers who provide a unique signature on established tropes – like the way that DMX Krew puts his own mark on electro and now acid tracks.
“It’s not always a case that being able to recognise an artist instantly is reflective of their identity, but no matter what they are doing there is a little something in there that makes them stand out,” Hanlon says. “DJ Overdose can be like that. He always adds that little something to it, and that’s enough. Objekt has this strong sound design going on. When “The Stitch Up” was first going around people were like ‘who and what is this’, but when they found out it was like ‘Oh yeah, there’s some really obvious trademarks of Objekt in there.’”
However, for a producer like Ed DMX who has been around for two decades, these are exceptions rather the norm. Part of the problem, he feels, is the sheer volume of music makers compared to twenty or even ten years ago.
“There is interesting music out there, but there is so much more boring music now that it’s hard to find the cool stuff,” posits Upton. “There are so many more producers now it’s cheap or free to make electronic music, so obviously most of them won’t be that good. If it had cost them 20 grand to buy a few synths and a mixing desk, they might try a bit harder. In the days when you had to do that and then you had to be good enough to get past A&R at a label, a lot of the less committed people were filtered out long before you got the music to the punters,” he believes.
One of the other reasons why so many contemporary releases lack an identity and end up sounding like pale copies of old records, Upton believes, is because of ease of access. While acquiring music required effort in the past, and usually involved a trip to a record store or a friend’s house, now it is all there at an instant; Shazam-able and Spotify-able.
“All music is available online all the time and everyone is listening to everyone else, so they are all chasing each other to the same spot. In the past you just heard what was very popular, Top 40, what records your mates had, what was on the radio,” Upton says.
“You had a collection of a few hundred records if you were really into music, not 50,000 mp3s. You listened to those records over and over, for years on end, and they influenced you, and your influences were more distilled.”
Hanlon agrees unlimited access to an infinite selection of music doesn’t in turn make for inspired music, and believes, “because we are exposed to more music than ever, we are exposed to more uninteresting, unoriginal music, there is more shit to wade through.”
“It’s not about the gear you make it on, it’s about the lack of imagination, creativity and talent. You can have an amazing studio made up of every shit-hot synth and drum machine on the planet and still toss out generic crap.”
However, is it possible to apply the same rationale to producers who were making music 20 years ago – they were all influenced by the same limited set of music and were all using the same hardware – but was the number of people just that much smaller?
“I don’t think it’s the gear or software that’s limiting people, it’s the personalities involved – people who want to make something ‘right’ rather than to truly express themselves,” Upton believes, and explains this with one of his own early creative experiences.
“I remember people at school doing a painting and asking the art teacher, ’is that right?’ and the teacher just looking so crushed. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. It’s not supposed to be right, it’s supposed to be good. Or true. You have to know from inside and nobody else can ever tell you.”
Budding producers taking to the internet to ask forums what plug-in to use to sound exactly the same as someone else is a more current example of what Upton is talking about. “It’s not the plug-ins, it’s the state of mind that says there’s a right and wrong way to make art, instead of trying to express their own internal reality. The minute you stop looking for approval from others, you’re starting on the right path,” he believes.
Despite running a label that focuses primarily on vinyl, Hanlon agrees the production tools have little to do with the fact that much contemporary house and techno seems to have morphed into monochrome aural sludge.
“It’s not about the gear you make it on, it’s about the lack of imagination, creativity and talent. You can have an amazing studio made up of every shit-hot synth and drum machine on the planet and still toss out generic crap.” Hanlon finds the innate snobbery towards digital technology rather hilarious, adding people speak at length about hardware and analogue equipment without any real knowledge. “I read a review of an artist’s track that was banging on about the analogue drum workout on it. He’d actually made it on an app on an iPad after he’d sampled some pots and pans in his kitchen. Isn’t the 909 snare just as lazy and obvious a sound as a Reason or Logic preset?”
Hanlon also doesn’t believe production tools are to blame and also makes the point copycats have existed for a long time. “Look at what the Purpose Maker series caused, or the work of Donald / Stinson. Producers with a strong voice of their own are always going to be rarer than those without one, but you can’t help but be influenced by what has come before – nothing comes from out of nowhere. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to put your stamp on it, but that little something can make all the difference,” he says.
One artist who has been following his own path is Fred Peterkin. The US producer (pictured above) is about to release a new album, 5, under the FP-Oner guise for Mule Musiq. Working in the deep house form in the broadest sense of that term, the album is a sprawling work that sees him lay down mysterious, musical grooves. Take the chilling piano keys and dub beats of “In the Mist of Sunrise” and the breezy Detroit techno on “Infinite Love”, but also the cinematic sounds of productions like “Sleepless in Shibuya” and “Visions of You”.
Like his music, Peterkin is considered and studied, but also warm and possessed by an inner serenity. He’s remarkably pleasant to talk to and measured in his answers.
“I’m a bit of a specialist,” Peterkin says, “and it all depends on taste, but if you are talking about artists that have their own signature then yes, it is becoming rare and it is certainly very refreshing when you still hear it.” Like Ed DMX, Peterkin believes part of the reason why this was different in the past was to do with access.
“If you go back 10 or 15 years, music-making was still something that was reserved for the professional creative class. Usually you had a mentor who gave you access to equipment and taught you how to use it without breaking it!”
While it could be argued that the modern process allows everyone access and therefore is more democratic, Peterkin points out artistic development is an infinite process. “To each their own,” he says of the choice of production tools, but observes “you can tell the difference no matter what you use, between the entry level and the work in progress”.
Modest to a fault, he includes his own music-making in the ‘work in progress’ category. This, despite the fact that 5 is indeed his fifth album.
“I know that I have a long way to go, but I am self-taught, so it’s what I hold onto,” he says. Upton agrees and feels the really great electronic music producers with a distinct identity and sound are the ones who are not necessarily technically proficient but those who are true to their own inner feelings.
“Real art is judged against an inner standard, not what’s out there,” he says and cites the Belleville Three as examples. “It’s obvious when you hear a Kevin Saunderson record or a Derrick May one, or a Juan Atkins one. All those three originators really had their own sound, and it wasn’t the gear. They all used the same drum machines and most of the same synths but they all sound different.”
“It’s just about people who truly are reaching inside themselves and trying to express what they find, versus people who ‘wannabe’ a producer, who think if it sounds similar to stuff that’s out there then it’s good,” Upton adds.
Nevertheless, is the electronic music form conducive to the notion of being an artist – and do the rigours of the dancefloor mean talented producers are confined to these structures?
“It’s only focused on the dancefloor if you let it be,” Upton says. “There is a universe of other electronic music out there – take the example of Gerald Donald who has already had three different lives in music. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.”
Peterkin says that he describes himself as an artist and says, “it’s what I hold onto more than any other term, I cling onto it,” while refuting suggestion electronic music doesn’t allow for the same freedom of expression as other forms.
“It’s just as valid as any other genre,” he says. “For example, look at jazz. It was the dance music of its day and now it goes from decade to decade. Dance music has a certain format to it sure, but look at house and techno, they can also be deeply musical.” Of his own motivations, Peterkin says he makes music for multiple reasons, “but it is mainly for meditative state, be that on the dance floor, walking the dog or writing a paper.”
Peterkin’s next evolution following the release of 5 is to perform his music live, the next phase in his artistic development, and one he stresses has to offer something unique.
“I have been thinking about this for the past three years how I would do a live presentation – it would have to be unique to my vision and I would have to take it as seriously as my music-making or my DJing,” he says.
Surely labels have a role to play in releasing music that has some identity or depth to it? Part of the problem is there is financial gain to putting out music which is part of a prevailing sound.
“It’s inevitable – how many labels are peddling this dull, reverberated, miserable, gdunkgdunkgdunkgdunk techno at the moment – I can’t keep track, it’s getting so fucking boring,” Hanlon says, but is quick to qualify his remarks. “Can you blame them? They are selling units, but all its doing is throwing up a load of generic, unimaginative and weaker music that’s just going to be filling up bargain bins in a few years’ time.”
This is just the latest cycle in the ever-shifting trends within electronic music. “That’s how it works, it’ll never change. In a few years it’ll be something else getting played out to death with a bunch of pale imitators clogging up the racks. Don’t be put off by it though, there’s brilliant music being put out all the time that will stay around for a long time, passed any hype or buzz.”
Hanlon has followed his own advice; Apartment releases have varied from Lerosa doing electro, VernoN’s acid and new beat adventures, and most recently the balmy house of Steve Legget’s Aquarius. Before he set up the label, Hanlon says he made a conscious decision not to follow a particular sound.
“The one thing I knew was that it would be varied. I would get bored easily if I was just putting out, say, deep house records all the time. It could possibly make far more commercial sense to be more predictable but I love labels where you don’t really know what you are going to get next,” he says.
Another reason to create a label was to feed his desire to run an imprint that didn’t get swept up in fads while putting out music to stand the test of time.
“I’m a bit allergic to hype and trends, and I don’t want to start jumping on a trend or being something that, in years to come, is totally reflective of a time and place. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. In some regards it’s inevitable, and maybe it’s self indulgent and, again, not that commercially smart to be like this, but it’s pretty much just reflective of my own tastes. It’s about being unpredictable. It may mean some people won’t have any interest in the next release just because they liked the last one, but so be it.”
Maybe those in the ‘gdunkgdunkgdunkgdunk’ category should heed his words.