I was lucky enough to be producing dance music during the late 1990’s. There was a real energy and sense of doing something different, of breaking new ground. The rave and acid house scenes of the late 80’s had of course been the original breakthrough but during the early 90’s the dance music scene slowed a little. But as illegal raves and warehouse parties were eradicated, dance music lost its way, grappling with moving from its nomadic origins to throwing down routes in club venues. During this period though the seeds were being sown that would flower into the next big chapter of dance music: the Super Club era.
From the mid-90’s onwards club brands such as the Ministry of Sound, Gatecrasher, the Gallery, Slinky, the Arches, Renaissance rode and drove the wave of success that dance music enjoyed in this period. It was the birth of the age of the superstar DJ. DJs such as Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox and Paul van Dyk found themselves with all the trappings of popstars, with magazine front covers, screaming fans at their gigs, headline billings and even paparazzi. Dance songs were routinely topping the charts, national radio stations were hiring dance DJs for peak time shows and big brands were starting to use dance music on TV ads.
Acid house, rave and (though to a lesser degree) mid-nineties dance had the energy and freshness of punk. They gave the music industry a much needed kick up the proverbial posterior but sooner or later pop always eats itself and with the success the rot set in. Cynical opportunists jumped on the bandwagon, the music became clichéd and tired. Vast improvements in affordable technology made production more accessible to more people which unfortunately also meant greater numbers of poor quality producers. Dance music lost its edge. Music instrument shops that had started stocking record decks in place of guitars started stocking guitars again as kids rediscovered rock. Dance music became polarized between vapid chart-seeking dance-music-by-numbers on one side and puritanical reactionaries on the other making music so counter-commercial, so uber-sophisticated and clever that it alienated all but the most beard stroking of train spotters.
The Wilderness Years
I’d begun to lose faith in dance music. There were still some gems, and even a few interesting sub-genre scenes, but on the whole it had lost its sense of identity, originality and purpose. But now, with hindsight it is possible to see that this was a necessary state for dance music to go through, the trough it had to travel through to reach new heights. Since the late noughties dance music has gone through something of a Renaissance. A new generation of young producers is making dance music their own with a new attitude and a new approach. For them the days of Acid House and rave are as distant as the 60’s were to the New Wave generation, the 70’s to the Brit Pop generation. They claim dance music as their own in a way the early noughties generation couldn’t. For the early noughties producers and DJs they were following the footsteps of the still dominant big names like Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Todd Terry, Richie Hawtin. For the new generation of producers in their teens and early twenties dance music has always been part of pop culture which means they can claim it as their own. Just as the Beatles claimed blues based guitar pop as their own, the Sex Pistols rock based music as their own and so on.
The New Wave
A fresh new wave of producers is appearing across all genre. From the likes of Tim Berg and Sebastien Drums in mainstream house, through Barem and Gaiser in minimal techno, to Arty and Ashley Wallbridge in progressive trance. And what makes this new generation all the more exciting is that for many of them the carefully constructed sub-genre walls of the nineties and noughties are there for jumping over. Many productions from the likes of Norman Dooray and Arno Cost defy being defined as either house or trance or progressive. The truth is they are bit all of them.
But despite all this freshness, one thing remains the same: the older generations still dominate in a way that doesn’t happen in other music genres. It is the DJ’s who built their careers in the mid to late nineties heyday that are the big names of dance music today: Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren, Paul van Dyk, David Guetta, Adam Beyer. In pop music or rock music they’d still be big but it would be the new generation which would be headlining the events and topping the charts. Even the last old generation of Oakenfold et al still a force to be reckoned with.
Perhaps we’ll know when dance music has really reinvented itself when the new generation rebel against and reject the DJs and producers old enough to be their dads and truly claim dance music as their own…