The Origins of Electronic Dance Music (a journey through the decades)

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To locate the origins of electronic dance music, we’d need to go as far back as the 1960s, considered one of the great decades of rock music. The sixties gave birth to iconic bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but it was The Beatles who occupied the musical throne and would have such a huge influence on the way music was produced.

The Beatles introduced the use of electronic instruments to their productions – most notably the ‘Moog’ synthesizer that was used on their Abby Road album in 1969, pictured here below…  

Picture of The Beatles playing with the ‘Moog’ synthesizer

They were known for their experimentation with songs, music genres, and different instruments which allowed them to stay interesting for so many years. Think ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’, which incorporated looping and vocal echoes, or ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, complemented by unconventional Indian instruments such as the Sitar and the Tanpura.

These tracks were part of a psychedelic rock genre that became inspirational for the rock bands that followed, with early synthesizer sounds structured around the tempo of rock.

‘New wave music’ would emerge in the early seventies, an umbrella term for various pop & rock styles including genres like synthpop, progressive rock, and the broad experimental rock genre, ‘Krautrock’.

A few years before its emergence, in 1968, two young men from Germany joined forces, performing with three others as part of a krautrock band called ‘Organisation’, where the keyboard and flute were the main instruments. These two men would quickly develop an obsession with synthesizers and emerge as (who we now know as) electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk.

In addition to drum machines and other sequencers, Kraftwerk’s 1974 album ‘Autobahn utilized the Minimoog’ synth, with the album being their first to fully embrace the repetitive electronic sound they became known for, which was pivotal in popularizing electronic music as a standalone genre.

As well as Synthpop, Kraftwerk would end up influencing modern-day music genres such as Hip Hop, Post-punk, Techno, Ambient, and just club music in general.

Hip Hop

Hip Hop has to be credited as having a heavy influence on electronic music from the 1970s. The genre rose up from an economic crisis in New York, at a time when the manufacturing industry was in freefall and opportunities in the music industry were in short supply. The discotheques and clubs began to close as the funds for entertainment evaporated, creating an environment for the youth to bring their music and sound systems out onto the streets.

At these Hip Hop block parties (or street parties), DJs would be accompanied by MCs to inject enthusiasm into the crowd – rhyming and supplying the vocal to the music, with a lot of the tracks formed on the current disco basslines of the time.

In 1973, an early Hip Hop DJ, DJ Kool Herc, was known for a technique where the percussion section (or break) of tracks would be alternated on two turntables. Two copies of the same record would also be played for the purpose of extending the break, a style of DJing that would lay the foundations of turntablism, a definition that wouldn’t be coined until the mid-1990s.

In the late seventies, Sugar Hill Records saw an opportunity to make money from these trends, with live disco bands and MCs coming together to record some of the first rap music.

In 1979, The Sugarhill Gang released ‘Rapper’s Delight’, using Chic’s popular disco track, ‘Good Times’, which subsequently introduced hip hop music to a much wider audience.

Electronic music now formed the backbone for many a track, covering genres such as funk, dub, rhythm & blues, and Motown. But this was only the beginning of things to come.

Here’s the full-length original of Rapper’s Delight from The Suger Hill Gang in 79

Disco

Disco was a huge genre emerging in the early seventies on the US east coast, where artists took advantage of the new electronic music technology being brought to the market. American group Sly and the Family Stone perhaps predicted the disco sound in 1971 with their hit ‘Family Affair’, which incorporated one of the early drum machines on the market, the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2, giving inspiration for later disco artists to follow suit.

In 1972, Japanese-based electronics manufacturer Roland launched into the market, bringing new technology that music producers were quick to experiment with. The 1974 disco hit ‘Rock Your Baby’ by George McCrae was one of the first to utilize a drum machine, with the drummer being completely replaced by Roland’s TR 77 Synthesizer.

Three years on in 1977, American artist Donna Summer released the timeless disco classic ‘I feel love’, offering a commanding synthesized backing track. The track was produced by Italian singer-songwriter, Giorgio Moroder, who described Summer’s work with him on the song as, ”Really the start of electronic dance”.

The rise of disco through the seventies was in company with developments in the role of the DJ, where multiple turntables were used along with DJ mixers. This would shape a change in the makeup of dance music, as songs in the disco genre predominantly featured ‘mix-friendly’ four-on-the-floor rhythm patterns allowing for smooth transitions between tracks.

In 1978, new turntable technology would continue to promote this kind of beat-matching as a turntablist skill, with Panasonic releasing their latest Technics turntable, the SL-1200 MK2, further developing DJ culture in the process.

The disco-era peaked in 78-79, at which point flourishing disco club scenes were common in most major US cities. New York was perhaps the most notable, playing host to the famous Paradise Garage, which would later be credited as a major influence on modern-day dance clubs.

In July 1979, the popularity of disco was rocked in the US following a public demonstration and large-scale riot in a Chicago baseball ground – a night famously dubbed ‘‘Disco Demolition Night.’’ American radio host and rock ‘n’ roll diehard Steve Dahl arranged the burning of a box of disco records, opposing the over-commercialization of disco music.

Following the event, record labels become scared, staying clear of signing new disco artists, which would ultimately welcome-in the post-disco era.

Taking advantage of its steep decline, in 1980, was Paradise Garage resident, DJ Larry Levan, who helped take the genre underground with his experimentation of drum machines and synthesizers. Levan’s productions welcomed in an electronic, post-disco sound that blended popular disco classics with different elements of rock, pop, soul, funk, and rap – later becoming known as Garage House.

The 1980s

The 1980s are considered by some as the decade which saw the most significant rise of electronic dance music – and the evolution of its sound. Genres that are still thriving today such as house and techno are a product of the eighties club scene.

Thanks to manufacturers like Roland, new electronic instruments helped mould the direction of electronic music in the early part of the decade. The music industry was revived with the musical instrument digital interface (or MIDI), which brought computers, instruments and other hardware together to communicate for the very first time. 

Hip Hop would continue its vast influence on club culture – with famous hip hop artists using turntables more like a musical instrument. Grandmaster Flash is considered a pioneer in this regard, with one great example showcased in the 1981 hit ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’.

His 7-minute solo of turntable wizardry included chopping up tracks such as Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, and Chic’s ‘Good Times’…

One subgenre which started to reach mainstream heights in the early eighties was Electro. Greatly inspired by hip hop and German synthpop, electro replaced more traditional instruments such as the bass guitar and the drums with synthesizers & drum machines – like the Roland TR-808.

In 1982, US hip hop and electro artist Afrika Bambaataa (AKA The Godfather) released ‘Planet Rock’, which brought the TR-808’s unique sounds’ to the dancefloor. Not only did this help develop the electro style, but it also added to the work of Kraftwerk from the previous decade.

The track became synonymous with hip hop and electronic music culture, and Bambaataa would continue to produce numerous genre-defining electro tracks throughout the eighties.

It was around this time, the US was a breeding ground for dance-loving DJs, with Chicago clubs promoting numerous styles of dance music. DJs such as the legendary Frankie Knuckles were bringing older disco, electro-funk, and electronic pop to the dancefloors, with some DJs creating and playing their own edits while mixing in effects with drum machines and synthesizers.

The early forms of house music would be introduced, with Chicago DJ Jesse Saunders producing the track ‘On and On’ in 1984, which boasted a mesmerizing electronic sound. Saunders took inspiration from R&B, funk, early hip hop, and the European electro movement, with Kraftwerk again having an influence on how the electronic music scene would develop.

The track benefited from the TR-808 drum machine, the Roland TB-303, and other Korg synthesizers, with these the essential ingredients of the early house sound. Many suggested it was the first house record ever to be released on vinyl, although this accolade is subjective, with some presenting it to Frankie Knuckles.

Frankie, much like his childhood friend and fellow DJ, Larry Levan, had a huge impact in the development of house music, with Frankie’s unique style portrayed to audiences from his early DJing days at The Warehouse, where he was resident DJ from 1977-1982.

House music continued to gain momentum as its popularity spread across Europe, with the small Balearic island of Ibiza playing host to a thriving music culture in the mid-80s.

It revolved around the world-famous Amnesia nightclub, which attracted people from all over Europe, allowing Ibiza to become the first hub for rave culture.

This also became a trend across the UK, at a time when MDMA (or Ecstasy) had taken status as the party drug of choice, with other significant clubs establishing themselves: most notably Manchester’s famous Hacienda nightclub that opened in 82…

Whilst the club was initially designed to be a live music venue for new bands to showcase their talent; by 1986 the Hacienda’s popularity had exploded due to its association with the rise of acid house and rave culture.

Roland was once again at the center of this latest electronic evolution thanks to their iconic TB-303 bassline synthesizer, which produced a never-heard-before squelching ‘acid’ sound.

Check out this acid house classic, ‘Voodoo Ray’ by A Guy Called Gerald. The Original Mix from 89

At a similar time when the whole acid house movement was gaining traction across Europe, Techno had started to emerge in the clubs of Detroit, widely known as Detroit Techno in its infancy.

Deriving from the word ‘Technology’, Techno was a melting pot of African-American styles, such as Chicago house, electro, funk, and synthpop, with its name made official thanks to the 1988 compilation album: ‘’Techno! The Dance Sound of Detroit.’’

In collaboration with high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, electronic musician & music producer Derrick May is widely credited as the pioneer of techno, with May most famously releasing the classic dance anthem ‘Strings of Life’ in 1987. The track helped raise the profile of techno in Europe in a big way, with Germany and the UK taking a specific liking to this new genre originating in the US.

Also exacerbated by the fashionable party drug, MDMA, all-night warehouse parties were attended by clubbers in their thousands. Along with house and acid house, techno now dominated the club scene on an international scale!

There was no turning back

As we jump into the early 1990s, the rave scene in the UK and Germany shaped the emergence of Trance music.

Originating in Germany, trance quickly flooded dancefloors throughout the rest of Europe in places like Belgium and the Netherlands, and even collected a serious following on the West Indian coastline of Goa. Numerous subgenres like Progressive Trance, Goa Trance, and Uplifting Trance all broke away to form the collective trance genre.

Given its mostly instrumental nature, and characterized by its repeating melodic phrases, the genre was considered a more melodic variance of house and techno, with ‘uplifting trance’ lending much of its influence from classical music.

Big-hitting DJs like Paul Van Dyk, Sasha, John Digweed and Paul Oakenfold would all help perpetuate its popularity amongst electronic music fans through the late 90s, and indeed late into the 2000s.

Remember this 9-minute, top-shelf classic from Sasha & Darren Emerson back in 2000?!

It wasn’t just Trance music though: a number of electronic genres were also developing on the European rave scene in the early 90s, at a time when rave music was becoming faster and more experimental. The UK (London in particular), was influencing new genres that had a leaning towards bass sounds and faster tempos. The most notable were Jungle and UK Garage, which would form the basis of spin-off genres, Drum & Bass and Dubstep in the mid-to-late 90s.  

Across the channel, in France, electronic dance producers continued to experiment, combining samples from 70s & 80s disco tracks with filter and phaser effects. This retro style would become known as french house in the late 90s, responsible for iconic electronic music duo Daft Punk.

In 1997, Daft Punk released the mammoth track, ‘Around The World‘, which saw electronic dance music reign supreme in the global music charts, with the record reaching No.1 in Canada, UK, US, Italy, and Iceland.

Electronic dance music was really gaining momentum in Europe as the new millennium drew near and was fast becoming a huge genre that was reaching a much wider community. Well-defined genres of electronic music would take hold such as hard house and experimental. Germany and the UK were witnessing techno really come of age as it grew from the depths of the underground and out into the mainstream.

But an extremely different situation unfolded in the US, where governments earlier thwarted rave culture due to its association with recreational drugs like ecstasy. The 2001 RAVE Act (Reducing American’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act) was the final nail in the coffin on raves nationwide, forcing house and techno further underground, despite its Chicago and Detroit origins. This year also witnessed the end of Sasha & Digweed’s residency at popular New York nightclub, Twilo.

Despite the problems in the US, the evolution of electronic dance music continued in Europe through the early 2000s, with electro house exploding into the mainstream.

Taking a resemblance to tech house, its heavy basslines and melodic elements saw top DJs produce electro tracks that would enjoy chart success across the globe.

In 1997, ‘‘Raw Shit’’ by Basement Jaxx would be considered as an early example of electro house, although it wasn’t until 2002 when the genre was brought to the mainstream by Italian DJ/producer Benny Benassi with his track ‘Satisfaction’, which reached No. 2 in the UK charts.

The success continued for electro house when Eric Prydz released Call On Me in 2004, reaching No. 1 in multiple music charts around the globe, including France, Germany, the UK and Australia. However, the genre’s peak may be considered as 2006, when two electro house tracks occupied the number one and two spots in the UK Top 40 Singles Chart, those being ‘Put Your Hands Up For Detroit’ by Fedde Le Grand, and Yeah Yeah’ by Bodyrox.

EDM

The US started to take a greater interest in electronic music culture again in the late 2000s, as French electronic music duo Justice released their album ‘Cross in 2007. With the help of synthesizers, the band produced music influenced by rock and indie, which began to resonate with the US crowd due to its familiar format of a rock performance. ‘Electronicore’ (a fusion of Metalcore and electronic elements) then became a trend in the US, Australian and European markets, alongside the dubstep and minimal era towards the end of the decade.

The early 2010s saw an increase in popularity of dubstep, with American DJ/producer, Skrillex, taking full advantage of the genre’s success in the UK, feeding it to US audiences. Skrillex produced two EPs in quick succession in 2010/2011, later becoming an eight-time Grammy Award winner and holding the world record for most Grammys won by an electronic dance music artist.

It was at this time when the term EDM was being promoted by the American music industry and press, attempting to rebrand rave culture in the US.

This coincided with subgenres breaking from electro house, with ‘Dirty Dutch’ in Europe, and ‘Fidget’ in the US providing inspiration for those considered as the first wave of EDM producers to crack the American market, such as Hardwell and Martin Garrix.

Three Swedish DJs: Axwell, Steve Angelo, and Sebastian Ingrosso came together to form the supergroup ‘Swedish House Mafia’ in late 2008, becoming the first group to take advantage of the market opportunity, and were considered pioneers of this revolutionized genre by the turn of the decade.

During their high points they collaborated with well-established international artists such as Tinie Tempah and Pharrell Williams, with their final track ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ being the most commercially successful in 2012 – reaching No.1 in the UK, Sweden, and Australia.

The door swung open for the genre to build into a commercial juggernaut, with dance music suddenly performed as extravagant shows, as more and more DJs collaborated with artists outside of the electronic dance community.

In 2011, Calvin Harris also did his part in elevating EDM to new heights, producing the track ‘We Found Love’ with Rihanna. The track spent 8 consecutive weeks at No.1 of the Billboard Hot 100, with the song acting as a catalyst for Harris to continue working with other huge music stars.

The truth about “EDM”

Between 2010 and the present day, the term EDM has monopolized the dance music market, although it shouldn’t be used as a term to describe ALL electronic dance music genres — as it often is!

EDM is technically a genre of its own under the broader electronic music umbrella, rather than being an umbrella term itself.

In a Q&A with musicweek.com in 2019, Beatport CEO Robb McDaniels explained it like this:

Some people mistake dance and electronic music with EDM. For us, EDM is just a genre that’s commercial. It’s pop-dance stuff, the big room, festival music that in the last five years has been the gateway drug to electronic music.

Robb McDaniels, Beatport CEO

Despite causing disagreement when defining it within the electronic dance community, EDM is a term that only surfaced post-2010, at a time when dance music became a global commodity and saw electronic dance music festivals transform from more intimate gatherings into stadium spectaculars.

The wave of electronic dance culture has flowed from LA, to Berlin, to Sydney – sweeping all continents. People of all ethnicities and cultures are coming together more than ever to experience electronic music in all its glory.

However, despite its significant rise, there remains a niche underground market away from the glitz and glamour of the mainstream. The very best artists continue to produce music specifically for an underground audience, with intimate events regularly hosted by top DJs in major cities around the globe.

These grass-root events remain integral to electronic music culture, dispensing raw sounds for specific subgenres, ensuring the audience remembers the electronic origins away from the commercial world.


If you enjoyed reading this, please give it a share — it really helps us! Much love.

Header photo by Sarthak Navjivan on Unplash. Picture of the Beatles taken from TheBeatles.com

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    Freelance writer for everything dance music culture, Carl is originally from Manchester in the UK. In addition to being a passionate Man Utd supporter, he’s always been an advocate of the dance music scene at home and abroad. Get in touch via email.

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