With overtly politicised or socially conscious dance music seemingly no longer in vogue, Kristan Caryl investigates whether house has lost its meaning.

joe-smooth-promised-land

“Sisters, brothers, we’ll make it to the promised land” – Joe Smooth

“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?”

Author Kristan Caryl
20th June, 2014

Comments

  • Jack let too many people into the house and is surprised that there was a fight and the coffee table got smashed.

    Deep house tried to do it in the late 90s early aughts with a new vocal trend but nude dimensions still pigeon-holed it into disco love songs and little else.

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  • Timely article….I have been writing tracks recently…the technology has finally gotten to a point where I feel like I can express myself, and still sound musical, but I have not yet been able to just magically reproduce that incredible sound and *FEELING* I was brought up on in the mid 90’s with deep house. This article is great food for thought, and I am definitely going to try to inject a message into my tracks…if I can make it work. The message I heard back in the day changed my life, so much for the better….maybe now that I am close to ready, I’ll be lucky enough to change one’s life with something in a track. If it’s just one person, that’s enough….but if we can get that MESSAGE to more, all the better. Thanks for bringing it up!

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  • i love deep house but those afroamericans yelling on the mic… huuuu!!!

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  • “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.”

    So true, nowadays you even have dance music journalists claiming that feminism is “lesbian propaganda” http://quietus_production.s3.amazonaws.com/images/articles/7384/caryl_tweet_1321271292_crop_550x90.jpg

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  • You could equally argue that music with lyrics is exclusionary – of people who don’t agree with the sentiment expressed in teh lyric, with the cultural signifiers it depends on, or with the laguage employed. When I got into underground music like goa & psychedelic trance (and later a wider variety of techno music) back in the mid-90s one of the very appealing factors besides the sheer enjoyment of the music was that it was accessible to anyone who liked the sound regardless of language ability. It was very common to meet people at parties in the US who had limited or no fluency in English, but with whom one could still share deep non-verbal communication through the medium of dance.

    That scene had great ethnic, cultural, and age diversity despite a bare minimum of linguistic/lyrical content. Lyrical music can be awesome but at a social level it is fundamentally introverted. For example, a Chinese song might be enormously powerful and evocative in lyrical terms, but if you’re not conversant in that language then it’s impossible to distinguish it from a lyric that’s bland and superficial. Being in an ethnically mixed marriage but not good at my in-laws’ language, I have no idea what makes them sing along with one tune while being indifferent to the next.

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  • Interesting subject. I love music with a meaning and I love GOOD vocal house but honestly what’s the ratio of good to bad? i’d rather not have any than listen to another fucking awful pseudo-soulful house track using clubbing as a metaphor for love as a metaphor for drugs as a metaphor for a girl as a metaphor for….. ARGH!!!!

    On the other hand, there are very few artists who manage to promote any kind of meaning to their output – and I deliberately say output rather than music – while making instrumental music. An obvious example might be Theo Parrish, who uses his position to talk about things which matter while making (largely) instrumental music. The new generation of pop-dance artists like Disclosure, Skream, Route 94, Breach et al have a unique platform from which they could talk about things which matter to them. But what do we hear? FUCK ALL. Surely one of that lot has something to say?

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  • As Amir says correctly ‘I’m every man. It’s all in me.’” .

    And,

    “As long as I am true to that it will touch others because I possess knowledge of self ”

    this is how real music works!!

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  • I am not so much for vocals.. I come directly from jazz being the dominant music played in my house growing up.. The vocal music that was played was from the greats and legends. Today there are not too many greats or legendary singers coming along. If they can sing it’s on lackluster material and if it is good material the singers are not great singers. As for the comment from the “north” guy. Afroamericans…Not only did afro-americans invent every style of modern music as a whole (except salsa, merengue,reggae,drum n bass and dub step)(which were still created by people of a african background) going back to the 1800’s!!! As the whole world already knows!!! That fact doesn’t mean any of the music created is only for the people that created it “north” Or that it is all good either.. But since the race and nationality comment was mentioned I thought it fitting to remind you where it all comes from regardless of your personal tastes or dislikes.

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  • If you want to make artsy fartsy vocal tunes, it’s your right. You have something to say that’s inspiring, that’s wonderful. If your message is universal, and not so much about ‘yourself’, it will touch many who can relate. If God gave you the gift to make music and you’re satisfied with touching only one person, then your effort and honor is questionable.

    Also worth mentioning, If you’re making instrumental House, you’re not limited by the language barrier. Due to the internet, there is a wider audience than ever before, your tunes can be felt and understood on a worldwide level. Dance music at it’s very essence is rhythmic oriented. So all you really need is a strong beat and groove to make bodies move.

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  • Though I admire the sentiment of this article I think presupposing that explicit lyrical content is required to catalyse a non-abstract sense of moral uprightness in a listener of a dance track is a dangerous supposition.

    Words suck at communicating, as you can see from what I just wrote.

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  • tá calado.

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  • I think there’s plenty of soulful good house music out there that truly adheres to the original meaning that was created in the 80s. I go on Traxsource and find plenty, which is why I tell deep house fans to get off Beatport and shop elsewhere.

    The issue really though is we’re facing a world where average people want quick instant gratification. For years I’ve tried to play deep house in venues to build a nice atmosphere, but time and time again even in the most elegant of lounges (with no dancefloors), the crowd wanted bangers that you mainly hear in fests and big clubs.

    If I had to say anything, it’s that we need to highlight the diversity of music in our mixes, our radio and online shows, blogs, and even in the opening sets at bigger events (or smaller stages/venues). I can’t expect the “EDM” fan to really have the patience for soulful music…so you build balance and see who wants to go down the rabbit’s hole.

    One last note. At the recent memorial for the late Frankie Knuckles, I saw loads of people there that one wouldn’t expect. Many “EDM” folks who wanted to know about Knuckles. After the event I had emails and social media messages asking me where they could hear more of that soulful Chicago deep house.

    There is hope.

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  • Joe Smooth Promised Land IMO is one of the very few good vocal house tunes.
    Instrumental house music has always been outstanding and still is, and it does have a meaning if made well – it is funky ! If you can’t feel the funk, then listen to something else. IMO there is very little funk in vocal soulful house, but that’s just my opinion. I love instrumental house and that’s that!! Always have and always will ! 🙂

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  • I think the modern house production methods also have a major role in this. As a producer you can pretty much replace every instrument ever created with a soft synth or through sampling,,,but its a bit difficult to “play” a vocalist.
    Many producers I know are not very skilled singers but know quite a bit about what sounds funky and what works on a dancefloor. Or know how to get a phatt bass or rocking drum loop. They can do this all themselves but can’t justify getting in a vocalist who wants to be…….paid and also be a major part of the production process. I know it sucks. Also just because you get a vocalist in the studio and you pen the greatest story man could ever hear doesn’t mean you will make “someday” or “promiseland”

    Keep in mind joe smooth promiseland wasn’t the rule at the time it was the exception. It stood out and has also stood the test of time.
    The beauty of a great vocal house song (or any song really) is getting everything right promiseland has some amazing drum programming, a crazy catchy bass line with an epically awesome synth/orchestral line,,,oh and then just sprinkle a completely amazeballs vocal over the top. Which whilst it does have amazing lyrics when I first heard it I didn’t comprehend the meaning but just had my hands up reaching for the lasers looking for my sisters and brothers.

    I do think that modern music is lacking great vocalists (and telling stories) but I also think its missing amazing musicians. In this 90s throwback era as much as we are missing an India we are also missing a Gene perez.
    By the way a song like “backfired” has spoken to me much more deeply than “someday” has and I’ve never been cheated on. That says a lot about maw and India obviously but also it speaks to what great songwriting and performance can do. Even a generic message about plain old cliched “love” can touch you more than spitting about political truths 😉

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  • I think the article brings up and important aspect of meaning and message in music. It doesn’t need to have vocals to have a message or meaning. I think there’s a lack of concepts in music at the moment. Take the likes of Jeff Mills or Underground Resistance, largely if not all instrumental music, but with great concepts, with stories, messages that lift it beyond something that’s just good to dance to. Good art conveys something. What is it you want to convey?

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  • Hey Noob.
    I’ve just realised that, even though I liked your comments a lot,
    art can just be good and have no meaning perhaps.
    maybe only to the person who made it?
    whatever – it’s just music after all and music is just there to evolve the brain and make people happy – nice 🙂

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  • I thought disco was dead?

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  • @jez j. If you think ‘Promised Land’ is one of the few good vocal house tracks you’ve heard very little vocal house. Bring Down the Walls, It’s Alright, Someday, Good Life, Sun Can’t Compare, Mind Games, Move Your Body, No Way Back, Distant Planet, countless Strictly Rhythm releases and so on and so on. Hungry for the Power and Reckless with your love by Azari and iii are two of the best vocal house tracks ever and came out in 2009.

    I don’t think anyone would dispute instrumental music can be equally as emotive but it’s harder for it to be so. Also most great vocal house doesn’t contain a “message” as such it’s based on fairly traditional relationship themes.

    I think this issue is house has been co opted for the most part by middle class white Europeans as an accompaniment to drug experiences. 99% of these producers have nothing to say.

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