Entertain Us: The State of Electronica

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It’s 2008, and Moby's made up his mind. He's done with touring. Not DJing or public appearances in general, but performing the kind of Sweating to the Anthems shows he did during his post-Play period–the ones that opened with a thrash-techno version of "Machete" and closed with a Christ-like pose and the sputtering bpm stunt of "Thousand," the “World's Fastest Song.” In other words, Moby's done staging festivals with David Bowie, New Order, and OutKast, done pretending he's a rock star that sprints across amphitheater stages and plays six instruments within one song, and done sticking his iconic dome out into the wild like an egg that must be cracked.

"At some point during the Hotel or 18 tours, I came to the realization that I was miserable," says Moby. "Which is weird, as it seems like every musician's dream is to do big venues and long tours, but the bigger the venues got, the less I enjoyed touring. Performing itself was fun. I just didn't enjoy waking up in a parking lot on a bus every day and being away from home for six months."

To restore some semblance of order to his life, Moby did the unthinkable. He returned to his late-’80s roots by DJing at small New York City clubs such the postage-stamp-sized Alphabet City haunt known as Nublu.

"I quickly realized that I had more fun DJing records for 75 people at Nublu than going on tour and performing for 10,000 people a night," explains Moby. "I can imagine if I have children at some point, they're gonna say, 'Okay, college is $200,000 for four years and you need to pay for it.' And I'll say, 'Maybe I could… if I'd toured more instead of DJing at Nublu.' From a financial perspective, I'm an idiot."

Moby's newfound credo is simple: Spinning records for an intimate crowd is more fulfilling than entertaining a faceless, seething mass of thousands. But let's be honest; it's also troubling/telling in terms of what it says about electronic music's place in American popular culture these days. After all, if Moby, a one-time activist/tea peddler/concert promoter/restaurateur/producer/DJ won't do the music industry's monkey dance anymore, who will?

That's what we set out to examine on the eve of XLR8R's 15th Anniversary: whether the Top 40 takeover "electronica" promised in the mid-to-late '90s ever amounted to anything. As it turns out, some of dance music’s biggest icons are more ambivalent about their fame–and the hype surrounding electronic music–than you might think.

Winding Up
More than a decade has passed since July 1, 1997, the day The Prodigy topped Billboard's album chart with The Fat of the Land's unprecedented–in terms of electronic music at least–first-week sales of more than 200,000 copies. The group's third LP would eventually go double-platinum in the U.S., largely thanks to the four-alarm beats of Liam Howlett and the sneering and shouting of a Johnny Rotten-ized Keith Flint on such crossover singles as "Firestarter" and "Breathe." It would also help herald the “New British Invasion” to some, and define the ether-borne “electronica” scene to others.

“Now I understand why [the electronica trend] had to happen, but we were disgusted about it at the time," explains Howlett, speaking from the studio as he finishes up The Prodigy's fifth full-length. "Like, 'What the fuck man? Let it be! The worst thing you can do right now is pigeonhole us.' None of us cared if electronica broke through or not, we cared about whether we broke through or not."

This is understandable. The Prodigy had been trying to invade the States since the early ’90s, when they split headlining duties with Moby on a tour that was "terrible" but entertaining for a tour bus full of 19-year-olds, who were already being called "kiddie rave" leaders in their native England thanks to such seminal hardcore techno singles as "Charly" and "Everybody in the Place."

"Some people totally got it and others were more like, 'What the fuck?'" says Howlett of the group's first U.S. trek. "We kinda liked being misunderstood, though."

Born Slipping
Underworld had a hard time appealing to American audiences in the late ’80s for another reason. “We were crap,” says vocalist Karl Hyde matter-of-factly, referring to what fans call "Underworld Mk1," the electro-pop phase that predated the one-two punch of 1993's Dubnobasswithmyheadman and 1996's Second Toughest In the Infants. Back then, Underworld produced two records they'll never perform again, all in hopes of becoming pop stars, right down to a tour with the Eurythmics. It didn't work at all, so the duo of Hyde and multi-instrumentalist Rick Smith disbanded briefly before recruiting DJ Darren Emerson and reforming as "Underworld Mk2."

"Our experience in the ’80s was of catering to the music industry, and in the ’90s we dismissed that [idea]," explains Hyde. "We said, 'You know, that's not for us. We're an independent act on an independent label. We want to make music for ourselves–music we're excited by, not the kind of music we thought might get us on the charts."

That relaxed, committed-to-quality attitude earned Underworld one of the U.K.'s first success stories with club kids and indie rockers–an LCD Soundsystem for 1993, if you will. However, they didn't truly break into the U.S. market until the sudden success of "Born Slippy [NUXX]," a b-side that took on a second life when it was featured in the era-defining heroin-chic drama Trainspotting. Arriving in 1996–nearly a year before The Prodigy's breakthrough disc–the film's soundtrack positioned such classic rock 'n' roll icons as Iggy Pop and Lou Reed alongside such important electronic acts as Leftfield, New Order, and Underworld. Oozing hipness, Trainspotting–a sort of Quadrophenia for the burgeoning Ecstasy generation–made club culture seem like the logical “next big thing” to follow the alt-rock takeover of the early-to-mid-’90s. (Especially since Kurt Cobain had died nearly two years before the film's release, robbing alt-rock of its leader and leaving listeners stunned by a procession of sub-par grunge bands like Sponge and Candlebox.)

Spaced Invaders
"The media was suddenly left writing about Jewel," remembers Moby, whose Everything Is Wrong LP was named the best album of 1995 by Spin, right in front of Tricky's Maxinquaye. "They needed something that had a degree of legitimacy to it, so writers suddenly got excited about electronic music–about acts like Underworld and The Chemical Brothers–at least, until Limp Bizkit started making records."

"I remember hearing the term 'the new British invasion' [in 1997] and thinking, 'We don't want a part in any invasion, let alone this one,'" adds Hyde. "Something about that era in the ’90s seemed like the kiss of death in a way because British electronica was held up to be the next big thing to replace grunge. It was really, really odd that people chose something that was so not guitar music to follow something that was straight-ahead guitar music."

In many ways, this is where the media broke the ground for electronica's early grave–the second some know-it-all critic gave a stack of dance music niches one homogenous name. As it turns out, the American public was mostly interested in dance tracks that played like rock or hip-hop songs, rather than the intricacies of jungle, house, techno, and trip-hop. Remember the "Buzz Clip" status of songs like "Block Rocking Beats," "Setting Sun," and "Firestarter"? How about MTV's Amp show and its accompanying compilations? The trajectory of electronica's rise and fall somewhat mirrors Amp’s greenlight in 1996 and eventual cancellation in 2001, as KoRn and Limp Bizkit captured the interest of frat boys and future Tiësto fans. It's also telling that while the heavy metal-centric show Headbanger's Ball was killed in 1995–just before electronica's supposed takeover–and resuscitated in 2003, Amp has never seen a resurgence in any way, shape, or form.

We Are the Night
"We wanted machines to sound like they were sweaty and deranged and wild—things people associate with rock music," explains Tom Rowlands, one-half of The Chemical Brothers (alongside Ed Simons). "[Our first official single] 'Leave Home' wasn't named after a Ramones record for nothing!”

"We didn't do this in a misguided hope of attracting people who didn't like dance music,” Rowlands continues. “It was just how we wanted to make records. We love acid house, techno, hip-hop, My Bloody Valentine, Skinny Puppy, New Order, psychedelia–all these things feed into our approach when we are in the studio."

The brash eclecticism of 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole–Schooly D samples! Fractured folk from Beth Orton! Jonathan Donahue, oh my!–couldn't keep the Chems from enjoying their sole gold record in the U.S., but their continual evasion of easy categorization has gone over most people's heads in the years since. So much so that Rowlands told me he was pretty much over doing the American leg of the press/tour dance in 2005, around the release of their Push the Button full-length.

"The hard facts of it is that there's a whole world out there which is more switched on to electronic music at the moment," says Rowlands. "As from the start of our band, we go and play where people want to see us–our gig is complicated and expensive to put on so if we can play to 15,000 people in Milan on a Tuesday night as opposed to 1,500 in St. Louis, then I think the decision really becomes obvious. That's not to say it won't change. Maybe the success of Daft Punk at Lollapalooza will persuade promoters that two guys with some synths, computers, and a light show can entertain a big crowd just as well as a traditional rock band."

Drop the Beat
Karl Hyde isn't so sure. "A bunch of kids showing up with machines doesn't look like real music to some people,” he says. “It's not that blood, sweat, and tears. [It] didn't help our cause that we chose machines over guitars, drums, and rocking out. Plus we were white kids making dance music, which is a pretty confusing picture. It's hard to get excited about two guys behind banks of machinery, unless those two guys are The Chemical Brothers."

"Music in the United States has always been artist driven, driven by faces and personalities," adds Moby. "Apart from maybe The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, electronic dance music has been made by faceless producers in bedroom studios. That's part of the beauty of the scene, but music being so anonymous makes it hard for corporations to get behind it."

Of course, this isn’t always true–one could argue that its precisely electronic music’s anonymity (and frequent lack of lyrics) that makes it so suited to sell things like cars and films. But even if an electronica act like Dirty Vegas made top dollar off Mitsubishi–who used the duo’s “Days Go By” in their 2003 “girl-pop-locking-in-an-Eclipse” spot–that doesn’t necessarily translate to big commercial success. In fact, many pioneers seem to feel the music industry didn't push the genre hard enough–perhaps it’s just that they didn’t know what they were pushing. Certainly, it's easy to understand why major labels might have been hesitant to recruit a revolving door of pasty beat conductors, many of whom wanted nothing to do with anything but the dancefloor.

But, XLR8R reader, did you ever want this music to go totally mainstream?

"I don't," says Howlett, when I ask him that same question. "It's meant to be underground and in the clubs, where people are taking drugs and escaping."

"Rick and I used to say dance music in the late ’80s and early ’90s was ‘more punk than punk,'" explains Hyde. "Because kids were making music in their bedrooms on their computers and filling warehouses with 10,000 people, not just a squat with a couple hundred. The cool thing about the scene is it was no big deal. It was one foot in front of the other–sell more 12s, tour, get on with it. For goodness sake, MTV didn't matter to us. In fact, the problems came when they started to play our music."