It’s easy to be cynical these days, and there are plenty of reasons to be. We’re constantly being informed of our bleak employment prospects, the lifetime of debt we face, and the possibility we’ll still be living with our parents by the time we hit thirty-something. On a cultural level, things are made to seem just as bad: there are no longer subcultures (or counter-culture in general), no movements or scenes to embrace, and, according to some, nothing new to be made – from here on in pop culture will eat itself. We’ve got nothing but overpriced bars selling so-called craft beers and shit burgers, the occasional ironic fad that takes Tumblr and Twitter by storm, and nostalgia for a mostly unremembered past.
If you choose to take this as the Gospel truth, things seem undeniably grim. If the best we can hope for is seapunk, Health Goth or PC Music, we may as well give up hoping, but just scratch beneath the surface – not even too deeply – and a more fertile cultural landscape emerges: new labels, parties, and networks, exciting and strange sounds. In the absence of any one, era-defining subcultural moment – a punk Year Zero, for example – a thousand flowers have bloomed. Underground electronic music and dance culture have benefited greatly from this, if the last five years are anything to go by: the stereotypes of super clubs, jet-setting DJs and boring repetitive beats might still exist (look at EDM), but there has also been a resurgence of innovative and independently-minded individuals and groups pushing boundaries on their own terms.
If there’s no overarching scene or movement, no unifying aesthetic or identity, what joins these disparate individuals and groups, labels and promoters together? More than anything, it’s a matter of approach. Independence, experimentation, an open-minded approach to music and a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to getting out there – from club nights to radio stations and record labels, here are just a few notable examples.
Take Cosmic Slop, a monthly party thrown at the Hope House Gallery in Mabgate, Leeds. Mabgate is a world away from the student ghettoes of Hyde Park and Headingley, an inner-city location otherwise known only for being one of the city’s red light districts. During the week Hope House Gallery is the site of M.A.P., a charity that provides arts and music education for young people outside of mainstream education, and half the money made at each Cosmic Slop party helps fund this project. So far, so unassuming: a charity night held every so often – obviously worth supporting, but not quite a big deal. Yet Cosmic Slop has managed to make a name for itself – quietly – as one of the best parties in the country. Theo Parrish gave it name-drop in an interview with Gilles Peterson (well, kinda, he couldn’t remember the name, or even what city it was in, but the clues were there however cryptic), Floating Points put in an appearance for their fourth birthday, Four Tet has been seen hanging about, Bradley Zero is a big supporter. 2014 saw Cosmic Slop take up a monthly night at Plastic People, and main C.S. selector Tom Smith has appeared on NTS a number of times in recent months.
Still, despite this high profile (and high calibre) attention, Cosmic Slop remains something of a secret – their parties are now incredibly popular in Leeds, true, but a quick search on Google will reveal very little about them. The bare facts (that it is a night for charity, the location, etc.), an old Soundcloud recording, a few reviews, but very little else. Parties are announced over Facebook, you put your name on the event’s wall, and turn up on the night with a fiver. Entry isn’t guaranteed, but those lucky enough (or rather, early enough) to get in are treated to hours of music – house and disco, soul and funk, but anything goes -– played exclusively on vinyl over a high-fidelity system in a low-key setting. Oh, and the bar is cheap too.
Cosmic Slop is just one of a number of notable parties to have emerged in the past decade – you could also look to Mister Saturday Night in New York, Rhythm Section in London, and Kyle Hall and Jay Daniel’s Fundamentals night in Detroit to name just a few. None of these parties are the same, but they are all united by similar principles. The emphasis is on being a party, something at once more inclusive and more intimate than a night at a club or a rave; there is a strong focus on location, both in terms of the venues used and geographical area; there are occasionally rules in place, sometimes even formal, as to how behave, though these mainly boil down to not being a bellend; and getting sound, music and setting right is far more important than any promotional gimmick.
Another key element is eclecticism, possibly the worst word in music writing, usually bringing to mind the soundtrack to a dinner party for young urban professionals: third-rate trip hop and faux-‘African’ beats. Usually eclectic doesn’t really mean eclectic, but for now it’s a useful shorthand for the anything goes approach to music that typifies these parties. In truth, this is nothing new: Larry Levan and Ron Hardy were at home with post-punk, new wave and synth-pop as they were disco and early house, and Detroit Techno shares much of the same DNA. However, as house and techno developed and became trapped in what Peter Shapiro terms the “mausoleum of genre” this initial adventurism began to disappear – even at the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan had to resist the more conservative clubbers who were shocked at his decision to play hip hop, expecting ‘Garage Music’ to be smooth and funky. In the absence of hyper-specific scenes and homogenous subcultures however, genres cease to play such an important function in defining what people listen to, so that even in the previously purist (parochial?) world of UK bass music, where nights might be defined solely on the tempo of the music being played, there has been a shift towards techno, and a newfound openness to music beyond garage and grime, dubstep and drum’n’bass.
This approach to music is replicated by recent internet radio stations, among them London’s NTS, Intergalactic FM in The Netherlands, Berlin Community Radio, and the recently launched KMAH in Leeds. Some might mourn the death of pirate radio (“…yet another sign of our dead subcultural landscape”), and whilst there is a certain romanticism to the idea of airwaves being hijacked by musical outlaws, it’s difficult to imagine any of these pirates providing programming as interesting and varied as, say, NTS – everything from profiles of thrash metal gods Slayer to shows dedicated to field recordings. Even Rinse FM, which begun life as a pirate playing jungle and garage, then later dubstep and grime, has a far more open and inclusive attitude to music than it once did, the ‘Rinse Family’ now including everyone from Hessle Audio to Horse Meat Disco.
This eclecticism is also a question of approach, not simply musical choices made by a DJ. L.I.E.S. is perhaps the most well known example of a modern electronic music label that draws deeply on past underground subcultures, most notably punk – not so much in terms of sound, but in their D.I.Y. attitude and aesthetic, and that old cliché, a refusal to conform. But L.I.E.S aren’t alone in this regard – far from it. Take (L.I.E.S. alumni) Delroy Edwards’ L.A. Club Resource, which puts out cassettes of Latino hardcore punk and long-lost Memphis hip hop alongside Edwards own work; Opal Tapes, a cassette label specialising in experimental house and techno, every cassette completed by label boss Stephen Bishop (and each release helpfully available on Spotify, if you missed one of the limited runs); London’s Berceuse Heroique, which has released everything from subversive disco edits to long lost Loefah dubs, the latter causing an internet shitstorm few independent labels could muster. Three very different examples, allunique in many ways, yet all following a similar path.
If our generation – Generation Y, millennial, whatever you want to call it – has lacked an era-defining subculture, it’s probably for the best. Subcultures may initially seem to provide a refuge from the monotony of mainstream culture and society, but they often end up creating their own culturally conservative code of conduct – just look at how Larry Levan’s fans had a fit about him dropping a bit of rap, or the way punk degenerated into sad middle-age dads hanging around Camden Lock on Sundays. However easy it is to be cynical – and cynicism can be a good corrector to a lot of the crap going around – there’s also a lot to be excited about. Disagree? It’s easier than ever to do your own thing, why don’t you?