The Danger Of Being Retro: Revivalism In Dance Music
When does retro dance music cross the line from respectful tribute to tiresome pastiche? Kristan Caryl talks to artists and DJs including Bicep, Todd Edwards, Larry Heard, Brendon Moeller, DJ Pierre and Eats Everything to find out.
You don’t have to be an industry insider to notice that we’re treading water in an endless sea of revivalism. From fiery forum debates to fierce Facebook rants, adoringly received re-issues to reformed retro acts, a casual observer of dance music might understandably argue that our creative reserves have run dry. They probably haven’t (yet) – there’s still plenty of genuinely original new music to be found in every electronic sub-genre – but certainly some of the most popular movements of the last 12 months have been all too familiar for those of a certain age. Even if you weren’t getting sweaty at New Jersey’s Zanzibar club in ’92, there’s a good chance that by now you’ve lived and relived the 90s house experience so many times it feels trite, tired and testing.
“There comes a time when enough is enough, and it seems that time is now.”
And that’s just one style of dance music; similar retro movements have mined everything from Detroit techno to grime for inspiration. We’ve even seen hints of a revivalist ‘old-school’ dubstep scene emerging, looking back less than a decade to the good old days of FWD and DMZ.
Of course, there is a good side to all this revivalism in that it allows a new generation of fans to discover the classics. As Bicep put it, “a lot more people in their early twenties understand who Kerri Chandler is now than they did three years ago”. Genuine innovators like Chandler will always deserve attention from the new generation, but there comes a time when enough is enough, and it seems that time is now.
What was it like when there was little else to copy? Why does revivalism occur? How can we avoid it? And is it necessarily a bad thing? We spoke to a range of early innovators, late adopters and genre pin-ups to find out.
“It’s always been about cycles”
In many cases, revivals are brought about by the newest generation of producers – teenagers giddy with excitement as they discover music they were too young to experience first time round. For Altern8 founder Mark Archer, the reasons why the process keeps repeating itself are obvious: “Kids get into music and look back to stuff their older brothers were into. They’ve often been brought up on the music of their parents, so when they get into production that’s what they turn to. Even when I was into funk and soul in the mid to late 80s, there was a guy called Ben Liebrand who’d remix Hot Chocolate from [only] ten years previous. It’s always been about cycles.”
Chicago house icon Larry Heard certainly seems to agree, readily admitting that the house sound he helped define in the mid 80s was largely an attempt to imitate existing disco sounds using the synths and drum machines which were available to him. “It was easier and harder back then,” he explains. “You were starting with a blank slate. There wasn’t [a concept of] new music in my head, it was more just a stripped-down interpretation of the disco music we were hearing that I was trying to make,” he says before adding the crucial detail. “The reason it sounded so different was because it was made with machines rather than a full orchestra.”
Garage pioneer Todd Edwards agrees that all new producers start making music by imitating the artists that inspire them, and admits to taking big cues from Masters At Work, Todd Terry, MK and Enya, whilst dub techno godfather Brendon Moeller cites The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld as his day dot. ”As a musician who is trying to find a path to go down, you end up trying out everybody else’s tricks,” says Moeller. “In order to come up with something [new], you need to first master what others have mastered, just like Hendrix and The Rolling Stones spent ten years playing the blues then came out the other side so fluid and free to create. For newcomers it becomes a rush when you fucking finally get your bassline to sound like Rhythm & Sound and get nice cavernous reverb and the right texture. You tend not to realise that this is only the first step and you must go on to make it your own rather than leave it where it is.”
In order to be able to do that you need to learn the language, to develop your own voice, and in turn to start your own conversation. As Pittsburgh Track Authority member Thomas Cox puts it: “People with a first grade level of education are going to speak and write like first graders, while those with PhDs will speak and write like PhDs. Why would it be any different in dance music?”
Playing around with instruments and production tools is all part of this process, but Heard believes it starts much earlier, with a musical education. “I started buying 45s when I was nine or ten years old,” he says. “Because you only a have few you play them over and over and over, which means you’re studying the production without knowing it. I’m pretty much home-schooled by listening to the records I bought. I had artists that I would practise a song of theirs for my own personal development. I was appreciating a whole lot of different people; I wasn’t just focussed on one.”
The enduring stylistic chameleon that is Paul Woolford believes that taking pleasure from what you do is key, not only when starting out, but forevermore. Rather than toiling away trying to recreate that exact hi-hat pattern, just jam: “I started in my teenage years with home keyboards, basically trying to replicate house drum patterns using the drum sections. You just do what gives you pleasure at that age, and this is basically all you need to keep in mind forever: only do what brings pleasure.”
If anyone can give out advice on how to be original, how to go from being a slavish ape to a lone ranger, it is surely acid patriarch DJ Pierre. “I don’t think you should set out to create your own sound,” he says. “That way it becomes too ‘heady’; there’s no heart or soul. I think great sounds and styles happen naturally, from within, not from outside in. Once you understand who you are as an artist then you can accomplish so much. We were created to create.”