By Sean Cooper
Reprinted From: All Music Guide to Hip Hop (2003)
Although a mere historical blip on the evolutionary map of urban dance-based music, electro sits at the apex of many of man y of its most widespread and significant forms, including rap, techno, jungle, freestyle, and bass music. A curious fusion of ‘70s funk and disco, German and Japanese techno-pop, and everything from the futurism of Alvin Toffler to fung-fu movies, video games, and the Smurfs, electro has proven to be one of the most important and influential components of the ongoing development of dance-based experimental electronic music. As the first style of American breakbeat to utilize the drum machine as its central rhythmic component, electro has worked its influence into a staggering range of styles–from Run-D.M.C., Egyptian Lover, and Ice Cube to Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, the Black Dog, and Bochum Welt.
Electro’s proper heyday was the period 1982-1988, following the explosion of early hip-hop culture in a number of American inner cities. Initially designed as break dance music, with distinctive drum patterns modeled, in part, on the style of DJing developed by early hip-hop DJ’s such as Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash (which involved the manual looping, using two turntables and a mixer, of drum breaks from funk, soul, jazz, and rock records), electro’s immediate forebearers included Kraftwerk, Gary Neman, and Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra. Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” was the blueprint for Soul Sonic Force’s legendary first-blast “Planet Rock”, and early cuts by Man Parrish, the Jonzun Crew, Grandmaster Flash in New York, and Juan Atkins and Rick Davis in Detroit (among others) set the tone for many of the records that would follow: a strong backbeat, often with sparse rapping (particularly through a vocoder or talk box), scratching, odd electronics, and frequent rhythm breaks.
Although electro began almost immediately to evolve into various other styles–rap (through RUN-D.M.C., LL CoolJ, Schoolly D, and Ice-T, among many others), techno (Atkins’ Cybotron and Model 500 projects), Miami bass and freestyle (Maggotron, Freeestyle, DynamixII, and Trinere), industrial (Front 242, Ministry)– the mid- to late ‘80s was probably the music’s height of popularity. And while the increasing availability of samplers and MIDI-encoded devices (both of which offered a wider palette of sound and creative possibility) meant many grew bored with the relatively static musicality of electro’s machine aesthetic, the style continued to grow and evolve, particularly in Florida and California, where artists such as “Pretty” Tony Butler, Omar Santana, and Dynamix II in Miami and Ice-T, the Unknown DJ, and the Egyptian Lover in L.A. were taking the style in new directions. With Butler, Dynamix, and Santana, that involved an increasing emphasis to the low-end (Miami bass) and the marriage of electro with Latin Rhythms, female vocals, and simple melodies (freestyle). L.A. artists such as Ice-T and the Egyptian Lover were exploring the lyrical potential of rap while remaining true to the beatbox (a devotion that continues to inform the ‘90s G-funk styles of Dr. Dr, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Spice 1).
As rap took center stage in the latter ‘80s as the musical form of choice among inner-city (and suburban) youth, electro began dying out, carrying on in the bass and freestyle of Miami, New York, and L.A., but for the large part only of interest to historian and the odd collector. That’s begun to change, however, as the innovations of U.K. and German experimental electronic artists have made their electro roots clear. Artists as divers as the Jedi Knights (Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard of Global Communication/Link), Aphex Twin, Phil Klein, Autechre, Atom Heart, and Biochip C. have built on electro’s legacy in their own contexts, taking the hitting machine breaks of the music’s early years and combining it with a digital aesthetic and increasing musicality that have refired its relevance. American musician, too–from Tupac to the Bass Kittens, “Mad” Mike, and Drexciya– are rediscovering the roots of techno and hip-hop in the elecrtronic breakbeat, and have updated the sound for a ‘90s sensibility.
Although the history’s still being written, a number of good introductions to electro’s past and present exist. Rhino Records’ Street Jams: Electric Funk is a four-CD box set covering many of the bases of the early electro sound; from New York and Miami to Detroit, L.A., and beyond. The U.K.-based Beechwood label (instrumental I bring the American electro sound to British audiences as it was happening, through their Streetsounds compilations) released a best-of from their earlier compilations in 1995, titled Street-sounds: The Best of Electro, Vol. 1,which reaches even deeper into electo’s early underground to unarth some truly hard-to-find material. In 1998, Tommy Boy released The Perfect Beats, an excellent four volume set of electro/dance classics that rescued many many worthy obscurities from the vaults. On the new-style tip, Submerge’s Origins of a Sound is a good introduction to the new-style Detroit electro promulgated by artist such as AUX 88, Drexciya, “Mad” Mike, and Will Web. Finally, the It label brought U.K. electro DJ Marco Arnaldi in to compile It:Electro, a DC and double LP combining early tracks with more up-to-the-minute material.
The history of New York electro is intimately tied up with that city’s role in the birth and evolution of hip-hop. Consequently, tracks by early Big Aple innovgtors such as the Jonzun Cfrew, Man Parrish, the Soul Sonic Force and Marley Marl are dominated by a vocal presence and a more party-oriented vibe. Still, the musicianship (many of these groups employed traditional instruments side by side with electronics, even playing live) is top notch and tracks such as “Hip-Hop Be-Bop (Don’t’t Stop)” and “Boogie Down Bronx” by Man Parrish, “Space Is the Place” and “We Are The Jonzun Crew” by the Jonzun Cre, and “The Party Scen” by the Russell Brothers remain watermarks of the style.
Like the Detroit techno into which it almost immediately evolved, early Detroit electro emphasized melody along with rhythm, with tight beats and bass lines and melancholic, minor key sweeps the dominant features on still-classic cuts such as “Clear,” “Cosmic Cars,” “Technicolor,” and “R9”. Although most of these tracks were the product of one person–Juan Atkins–the influence of peers and collaborators such as Derrick May, Rick Davis, and Kevin “Reese” Saunderson should not be underestimated.
Like New York, the L.A. electro scene was party oriented, with cuts by Egyptian Lover, the Unknown DJ, the Wreckin’ Crew, and Uncle Jamm’s Army emphasizing skills on the cut, the mike, or the dancefloor in sparse, often electronic raps. B-boy boasting aside, however, L.A. sound (neatly expressed in label names such as Freak Beat, Techno Hop, and Techno Kut) was most concerned with adapting new technology to the emerging hip-hop sound, and beat-jacking tracks such as “Jam the Box,” “What’s Your Sign” by UJA, “808 Beats” and “Tibetan Jam” by the Unknown DJ, and “Egypt, Egypt” and “Dance” by the Egyptian Lover are hard to match for rhythmic innovation.
Freestyle and Miami Bass are two related styles with common roots in the mid-‘80s tracks of Omar Santana, DynamixII, and Tony Butler, the latter of whose Music Specialist label was the organizational center of Miami electro. Bass music, for its part, is as its name suggests: deep, resonant bass (the type of music heard booming from mini-trucks and tricked out low riders), backed by tight machine bass and not much else. Freestyle is Miami Electro’s dance music descendent, with Latin percussion, simple four-part melodies, and bubblegum vocals adding a pop dimension to the music’s funky edge.
Although electro never died out in Detroit’s underground (Motor City black parties still rock “Technicolor” and “Get Some” to this day), by and large the musicians the city produced were primarily involved in the four-on-the-floor aesthetic of house and techno. Partly ideological, partly descriptive, techno bass wan an attempt by a core of Detroit dance music artists to realign techno with its breakbeat roots, and was mostly the vision of the Direct Beat/430 West labels, whose artists included purveyors of the style such as AUX 88, Will Web, Postronix,l and DJ Dijital, although other prominent artists such as Drexciya and Underground Resistance have been just as active in reinvigorating electronic breaks.
Largely a product of the U.K. dance music media’s more colonialist tendencies, neo-electro was coined in 1994 to signify the collective output of artists such as the Jedi Knights, Elecktroid, and Drexciya, and labels such as Clear, Evolution, and (aspects of) Warp. The tenuous connection of much of the music’s actual stylistic attributes to electro notwithstanding, many of these artists were clearly inspired by the music’s original machine aesthetic, with most of them having grown up listening to it. The real electro revival however, largely took place through smaller, more obscure labels such as Dodge, Panic Trax, Immortal, Overexposed, Direct Beat, Transparent Sound, and the odd B side or 12-inch release on experimental techno staples such as Force Inc., Eidesche, Sahko, and Underground Resistance.