With overtly politicised or socially conscious dance music seemingly no longer in vogue, Kristan Caryl investigates whether house has lost its meaning.
“Records like ‘Promised Land’ were more than just enjoyable sounds,” says Chicago house icon Roy Davis Jr when asked if dance music has lost its meaning. “They told you stories about worlds you didn’t know, which is not something you could say about many new house releases.”
Dance music doesn’t need to do anything more than make people dance. That’s fine. But to its detractors, house music – dance music in general – is brainless and bombastic body music that means literally nothing. It’s background noise to a night of getting drunk and high, dancing badly, then aggressively trying to score with the opposite sex before lights up at 2am.
Records like ‘Promised Land’ were more than just enjoyable sounds. They told you stories about worlds you didn’t know
Sure, everyone likes a senseless banger at the right moment, but how many more times can we get excited by a track that asks us to put our hands up, spread the love or get funky? Where have all the proper vocalists gone? Where are the protest lyrics or even the faintest whiffs of social awareness? Do people even care about that any more? Like pop music, house music now seems more concerned with the self than the social.
Of course, times have changed. The musical and political landscape in 2014 is very different to that from which house music emerged in the early 1980s. Back then house music brought together people of all races, genders and sexualities under one roof. Life for minority groups – the creators and early adapters of house – was a harder hustle than it is now; there was less acceptance, diversity and tolerance. But it’s those circumstances that brought people together, that gave us tracks like Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’ or Ce Ce Rogers’ ‘Someday’ and attempted to engender a more positive outlook on life.
Sure, they may sound a little cheesy now, but the messages in the music actually meant something and today, listening back, they still give us an insight into the state of the world at that time. When we look back at 2014’s top 100 deep house tunes 25 or 50 years from now, what the fuck will it tell us about life in the early 21st century? You’d be forgiven for thinking all the world’s ills had been put right, that everyone got on with everyone else and that life was something akin to a rose-tinted, Carlsberg-sponsored utopia. Obviously, that’s not the case. Take one glance down your Facebook feed and it’ll be littered with politically charged arguments, social campaigns and loudmouth disapprovals of this or that new government scheme. Dissent isn’t dead in 2014, activism hasn’t disappeared, but you won’t find them in house music. Why not?
“If you lived in the USA in the 80s as a black gay man, you may well have had a tough time from both your family and the outside world,” says Secretsundaze founder and revered house DJ Giles Smith. “If you look at interviews with regulars at the Paradise Garage they talk very passionately and with a lot of conviction about how important it was for them to go to a place where they could be themselves, be free and celebrate who they were. I’m sure this feeling informed some of the vocals back then. There is no doubt that these people are less marginalised now and that the world is quite a different place in 2014.”
Chicago DJ and producer Amir Alexander offers another view, suggesting that the globalisation of dance music has played a part. “The house and techno art forms have grown and left their place of origin. As more and more people who were not part of the original demographic – myself included – gained access to it, the original template began to mutate in order to be more a part of the new environments it found itself in. Perfect examples would be Jersey garage and gospel house, polished NYC styles like Masters At Work, raw Chicago sounds and Detroit techno. They’re all regional variants on a universal theme.”
people are less marginalised now... the world is quite a different place in 2014
So why, then, in these über-connected, hyper-aware times in which we live, are social messages not permeating house music? You could argue that modern day house music has been appropriated by the middle classes – perhaps even the European middle classes – who don’t face the same kind of social inequalities. Or you could argue that dance music is now only an outlet for weekend escapism. The obvious counter-arguement is that once everyone heads back from the club, chat inevitably turns to quasi-philosophical and religious debate, so it’s not like dance music fans are wholly averse to real world issues. Maybe it’s down to the drugs? Take an E and you’ll have a new and deep-found love for your fellow human. Do a line of ketamine and you’ll retreat so far into your own psyche that the rest of the world could quite happily go fuck itself without you even noticing.
Part of the reason, you have to suspect, that electronic music today is more about form and the functional than meaning and message is the modern mindset: we’re all a lot more self-conscious than we were. We have to be, with every facet of our lives on show on social media and forever recorded in the digital libraries of Google HQ. What’s more, no one wants to be told what to think, everyone is their own free spirit and who are you to be telling me shit?
Should dance music be more politicised, more socially aware? “I think there’s a fine line,” says James Teej, a modern-day dance music singer-songwriter and part of the Canadian My Favorite Robot crew. “Some music definitely has a strong social and political component, but I prefer to keep that a little bit below the lines and not be so upfront, as it can alienate people and take away from some people’s enjoyment of the music if it’s too overtly filled with messages.”
Roy Davis Jr, another Windy City native who has been involved in countless vocal house tracks that are much more aware than your average, reckons authenticity is also key. “Well, I always say, if you’re writing from the heart, then it really was meant to be said or spoken. I have written some songs that were about what certain friends or family members have gone through, so at the end of the day I can say that it was a situation that affected me and therefore made me write about it. In the end, even if it’s one person that you may have reached with your art, that’s ok. You have touched someone hopefully in a good way, so your job is done.”
it can alienate people and take away from some people's enjoyment of the music if it's too overtly filled with messages
Teej also argues that artists can and should draw on more than their personal experiences to inform their art: “If you’re writing music with an experiential focus, then yes, to have authenticity you probably should sing about stuff that affects you. But let’s not forget that music is about storytelling as well, and if you feel as connected to something fictional as you do to something that you’ve lived and experienced, who is to say you can’t reinterpret that in the music?”