Every so often I have a little panic about the direction contemporary house music is going in. I don’t mean I worry about the commercial big room stuff that is the purview of glow stick wielding gonks who wouldn’t recognise an acid house record if it bit them on the tit. I mean the stuff we listen to. The Good Stuff. The sleazy, dirty, nasty, warped, cruel and dark house music that changed our lives and showed us that music made with machines could be more alive and human than anything made with a guitar.
As we march towards the end of 2014 one thing is becoming very clear, there has slowly been a redefinition of house music in terms of its history, how it is created and how it is perceived. At one time the movement towards rougher productions (meaning sonically rather than talent, skill or vision) could be discounted as a fad, or as a reaction to the ubiquity of slick, over engineered and ultimately soulless music that the Minimal movement fostered on electronica.
Techno retaliated to this by upping the darkness and the grind. Your mileage with ‘industrial techno’ may vary – mine certainly does – but as a reaction to what was well under way to becoming the new normal it was fairly successful. The number of artists who broke the grip the floppy-fringed brigade had on the media and the scene up until three or four years ago has blossomed, and the influence their music has had on other strands of techno is now beginning to really be seen.
House music, though, seemed to struggle. There was less revolution in the path it took. minimal slowly warped into the ultimately banal deep house genre – taking its name (but little else) from a crop of records and producers who forged a very different and much more authentic style in the nineties but taking its raison d’etre not from the underground but from EDM and the commercial overground. In some ways contemporary deep house – the Beatport version – is the logical next step for those EDM kids to move into. It is easy to play and listen to. It can be repackaged and sold over and over again with the help of a billion colour-by-numbers remixes, and best of all it won’t ever be difficult, it won’t ever challenge. Only a few people would not agree that deep house is the defining sound of modern house music.
There is a growing sense that a real change is underway. Once you get out from underneath the endless rehashing of genres and sounds that were at their peak twenty years ago there is a rich crop beginning to come through. That a large part of it remains, resolutely, underground is part of the magic. I’m not against everyone and their dog doing DJ Pierre impressions, nor am I against tunes that do little more than co-opt the same disco samples over and over again. but the music that excites me has only a toe in the past. Everything else is aimed at the future.
I came into this again with the finely frayed sounds of what the media were calling ‘outsider’ house ringing in my head. It was then and will always be a nonsense term which ignores the most basic truth about house music – that it was an outsider thing in the first place (actually, come to think of it…given the amount of nerdy white kids who are getting into house and techno who, less than a decade ago, would have been doggedly hunting out old Sonic Youth bootlegs, maybe the term has more purchase than I first though) – but as handy way to sum up a sense that some of these artist were actually trying something different it was invaluable. What excited me about it wasn’t any reliance on ancient, crumbling gear (real or imagined) or even particularly the overt griminess of some of the records which can probably be seen as a direct V Sign to the flood of over produced dreck that had been drowning the scene. What excited me was the desire to try something that functioned in a slightly different way, whether it was Austin Ceasar’s heavily worked over samples and keen sense of otherness, or somebody like Vereker eschewing techno normality to create something that had more in common with a punk ethos than is genuinely found in current electronic music.
But one of the things that excited me most were these acts influences, and the fact that so many of them seemed to come at things from fresh directions, directions that were not necessarily normal for house. I grew up with other techno fans for whom hardcore and punk was far more important that Krautrock or early 80s Eurosynth experimentalism, so to see a new breed who were coming from the same direction was an eye opener.
Of course, there were complaints. The best one, and the one that transformed a whole bunch of people into the Alf Garnetts of house was the classic ‘But you can’t dance to it.’ It was true, I suppose. In many ways a lot of this music wasn’t designed to be entirely functional as club tools. But I would argue that it doesn’t always have to be. Rock music, after all, and Jazz, started off as dance music. Are there many people out there still moaning that the bulk of it has moved on? Perhaps it’s time house and techno did begin to redefine itself. To demand that all house music conform to one standard is wrong and very much counter to a long-standing tradition of looking forward. How much of these complaints are based in a fear of new people coming in, perhaps with less respect for the Old Ways, those who haven’t paid their mysterious and ill-defined dues? I wonder?
Even as I write this that scene is already well into its fragmentation process. There can be very few musical forms that evolve at the same rate as electronic music, I think. It has always had a habit of self destructing rather than seeking out permanency. Hopefully the current pillaging of the past will come to some sort of logical conclusion in the near future, although it has been fun to see genres like breakbeat and rave making a belated comeback and furnishing us with new and increasingly weird music. It is always worth trying to remember, though, that the most important lessons that can be taken from the past aren’t sounds but ideas. It is in that alone, as ever, that we fully inform the future.