The Danger Of Being Retro: Revivalism In Dance Music

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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.

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Bicep: “A lot more people in their early 20s understand who Kerri Chandler is now than they did 3 years ago.”

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.”

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Brendon Moeller: “In order to come up with something new, you need to first master what others have mastered.”

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.”

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Paul Woolford: “Only do what brings pleasure.”

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.”

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  • Words: Kristan Caryl
  • Date: 17th June 2013
  • Jon Wrote:

    Really good read. Thanks for this.

    We seem to be in the middle of a really bad trend for retro music right now. It can’t be a good sign when “it sounds just like it could have come out on Trax in 87/Strictly Rhythm in 92/Dance Mania in 95″ is the highest compliment reviewers can pay a new release.

    Sadly I think it’ll get worse before it gets better. The success of Disclosure is going to spawn a whole load more copycats. Wake me up when it’s all over.

  • Kenny/APT Wrote:

    Excellent article and I think it address the whole situation well.

    I think I’m too far gone to get completely annoyed by the trend of retroism, maybe that’s because I’m comfortable in loving old music as much as new stuff and some shamelessly retro stylings in new music is not always a bad thing either. When i was younger, sure, I was a lot more obsessed with seeking out stuff that was original (and more easily fooled by the concept that original automatically = good) but it’s all about striking a balance. Some in this article are doing it, some aren’t. As a label owner I’m interested in music that builds on what is already there, sometimes being more retro, sometimes less so, again, its a balance. And if it is retro, well stuff that maybe isn’t being oversatured by others.

  • Liam Wrote:

    Great article.

  • Jon Wrote:

    Good point, Kenny. I think the problem is a lot of these records are totally boring apart from the fact they use a few retro sounds. Change the M1 organ and the 909 samples for different sounds and you’re left with nothing interesting.

    If you’re 21 and it reminds you of hearing records blaring from your older brother or sister’s room when you were a kid that’s great, but when you’re older and you’ve heard it all before it’s not about the sounds so much as the substance.

    In a weird way the retro 80s Chicago stuff kind of makes more sense to me than the 90s revival. So much of that style was always about the aesthetic and the sounds rather than any attempt to create original ideas. Like Larry Heard says here, it was always basically just an attempt to copy disco using synths and drum machines. For some reason that approach still sounds good, even though you don’t expect anything new from it.

    I suppose retro jack trax in 2013 are kind of like the house equivalent of rockabilly revival or something like that – fun for the old blokes to reminisce over but nobody really takes it very seriously as far as being progressive, forward-thinking music.

  • Maddox Wrote:

    Interesting one this – I know that as a producer, it can be very tempting when you get excited about an old record to head to the studio and end up making something that’s the wrong side of that homage/pastiche line. Obviously the important skill to learn is being able to spot that and take something of the idea and do something fresh with it.

    That said, I don’t think all of the stuff that *does* cross that line is necessarily doing it in a cynical way. Probably a lot is just young producers getting fired up by the old stuff and getting carried away with emulating it.

  • ross_two Wrote:

    How long before we see Swedish House Mafia tribute bands ;-) ?

  • Rissa Garcia Wrote:

    “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.” Yessss , Great read, thanks!

  • ChuckyFunk Wrote:

    “You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
    My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
    I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
    The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael”
    -Q-Tip

  • Dance Music Nerd Wrote:

    How is it possible to make something totally new and fresh in 2013?everything has been done already. The more innovative attempts usually sound like some unlistenable/undanceble track that just some frustrated nerd can force himself to appreciate. Dance Music is about having fun, dancing in clubs, without overthinking. Its not made for nerd talk in forums, magazines and blogs.

  • Pete XS Wrote:

    @ Dance Music Nerd…

    stop contributing to blogs then ! ;-)

  • harry leard Wrote:

    i guess the point if not that everything from the past is bad… the point is to make a good track sounding old is less easy than use a drum from a records, a stab from an other, piano from the 3rd and put some vocals samples from the 4th…

  • Ralph Lawson Wrote:

    Interesting well written article Kristan with good interviews.

    However we have a focus here on individual types of electronic music looking backwards.

    I think the most exciting current trend is for DJs to open up and play many different styles. This is in fact also ‘retro’ as it was originally much more like that before we got into these ever decreasing and restrictive sub genres. A welcome return to ‘retro’ values rather than concentrating on particular sub genres looking backwards musically.

  • Teddy Duvall Wrote:

    Very well written article, Kristan. You weave the pros/cons of dance music’s cyclical nature effortlessly, and the placement of artist quotes is perfect. This is a tough issue to tackle because the benefits and detriments tend to overlap one another. Excellent work!!

  • Aurimas Stonkus Wrote:

    Amazing article ! I think this site is already nr.1 for electronic music : )

  • Lazrjet Wrote:

    Great piece ! Art will always inspire this kind of debate and is anything ever truly ‘new’ ? :)

  • tekal Wrote:

    Great article, and so relevant and important to the state of the producing scene today.

    I agree that dance music should be about evoking a good feeling and it should make you want to dance. With that being said, I don’ t mind hearing some so-called new music that sounds like a retro house song. But it will get boring fast. So make it your own. Learn from the classics, practice, and with patience, you’ll get the sound that you actually like. I haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I have been studying past artists myself. I believe you should just have fun making music, whether it is on a laptop (but try to appreciate a real instrument) and respect the past but look to make something new.

  • Andy Wrote:

    Is it just me, or do the ‘music media’ say this every year? I remember when I first really started buying house/techno on vinyl back in 2008. Back then I remember reading loads of articles saying, ‘oh the old 90’s sound is back’.

    They said it again every year since.

    My view is, people will always sample old classics and stuff that brings back good memories for them. I don’t think there is a real ‘movement’, if you can call it that, going towards a 90’s sound again as it has never really gone away except for maybe the minimal phase in the eary 2000’s.

  • Andy Wrote:

    btw.. my post wasn’t a dig at attack mag for publishing this. It’s a great article. just would be interesting to hear what others think.

    :)

  • Jord Wrote:

    Great article as always and a very interesting debate

  • Ben Wrote:

    Really good article. Got to say I agree in some way at least. Feel the scene is being taken over by too much which just sounds too similar, too recycled. I’m finding much of the tracks which are bigged up in this scene just get boring quite quick, which i guess is a product of something not standing out to me enough because it’s using the same techniques and not enough differences for me to really dig it.

  • Cinthie Wrote:

    Great article.

    But the best thing about retroism is, in my humble optionen, that people seem to more care about music and especially in Berlin there is this new young scene who are really into music and especially records. people seem to be more into the mood to spend some money on cool records rather then on just spending mp3s… they seem to care about skills and stuff and that makes me really happy since people have been laughing about me 3 years ago cause i was still playing records … jaja poor me i know :p

  • estevan Wrote:

    Dance music itself is “tiresome pastiche”.

  • Kitt Wrote:

    Excellent work, what a brilliant article.

  • Olly Wrote:

    “The reality scares me because you have generations of young listeners who think mediocrity is actually brilliance. ”

    This has been going on for years…. think of all the people that LOVE watching Eastenders, Corrie, etc but put them in front of a ballet, play or opera and they wouldn’t appreciate it.

  • Gio Wrote:

    i bet that 99 percent of those people whining dont know how to write a proper song, innit?

  • Gio Wrote:

    yeah,,,I bet all the money in my wallet

  • my name is saleem Wrote:

    love is danger . my life is so empty with out u

  • Attack Wrote:

    Thanks Saleem. Love you too.

  • sistasinistra Wrote:

    Very well-written article and, for me, as someone starting out, an excellent exploration of the issues around learning to create effective/enjoyable electronic music with such an overwhelming amount of resources at our disposal.