Electronic music’s relationship with personality is problematic. On one hand, it is a medium devoid of the most obvious signifier of human agency: its creator’s voice. Yet each artist has a distinct and often unmistakable style. Behind all the hardware, synth presets and anonymity how does so much eccentricity and – dare I say it – emotion persist? Be it a track, a DJ set or an icy slab of ambient synths, I feel electronic music is capable of conveying character and eccentricity every bit as much as any other kind.
There is a school of thought that sees electronic music as somehow cold, mechanical and lacking in feeling. I feel that the reverse is true, that musicians and DJs are not bound by the limitations of their own voice or instruments to the same extent as in “band” music. There is a boundless amount of records any DJ can choose from, and each one will elicit a different response every time. One key personality-led selector is David Woufang, aka Move D. In many ways the consummate DJ performer; often seen dancing, smoking, and quaffing wine – always with a sparkle in his eye. Over the last 20 years he has amassed one of the most revered discographies of any underground musician. During much of this period he has been largely unheralded and broke – in his own words simply “DJing to survive”. Yet he has now deservedly found popular acclaim.
He brought the house down at an Electric Minds party recently; combining utterly flawless mixing with a genuine exuberance which seeped into the music. Shamelessly dancing like a dad at a wedding, white wine in hand, Moufang literally sweats charisma (1:37:00). Yet his comments on why he got into the scene run contrary to these obvious charms:
I was really attracted to techno and house music in the beginning because it was a totally anonymous thing: you didn’t use your real name or show your real face, and the point was about the music, it’s not about who you are. This in the beginning was what really attracted me most, getting rid of that stage situation, that rock stardom.
Yet with the dawn of the superstar DJ, dance music fell victim to the ego-centric outlook of the rock world. Rather than it being “all about the music”, there is often a tendency towards hype and hero worship. I am thinking of the Bashmores, Scubas and Vaths of this world. Once you reach a certain level of stardom is it ever possible to retain integrity? I would argue not, and this is the reason why many of the most interesting labels and artists very consciously shun the limelight. This is an admirable attempt to make it as much about art and as little about artists as possible. I mean, if you like the tune does it really matter who made it?
It is largely record labels, not individuals, who create the aesthetics. Each label becomes its own ecosystem: the component parts mere pixels in an bigger image. Each label has its own personality. As Creme Organisation’s SoundCloud states: “And yes, there is a specific sound & feeling we’re looking for but its impossible to describe.” The question of personality or identity is an important, yet often undefinable one. The L.I.E.S. stable is an obvious example of a label doing it right. With an arsenal of young talent and a vaguely similar aesthetic, they have been an ever-present force over the past few years. Although it’s easy to knock the scuzzy sound as a gimmick, the sheer diversity of music on offer here is astounding. And that they can knit artists as diverse as Florian Kupfer and Svengalisghost together just shows the strength of their vision. Many of the L.I.E.S. releases are simply live recordings. Nic Dawson (Bookworms) recently complained of how it was impossible for him to alter many of his tracks in the way labels wanted him to, for they are simply hardware jams. Once it’s done, it’s done. Mistakes and all.
Mistakes. Yes, cock-ups are arguably as vital to music as conventional chord structures or mathematical precision. The very human act of fucking up is a means of expression in itself. In the context of electronica it reminds you that there is a human behind the scenes. And this doesn’t simply mean cloaking everything in a self consciously lo-fi analogue hiss, smudging all melodies. A recent example that springs to mind is Jay Daniel’s “Brainz” on Sound Signature.
Here, skittering claps and snares fire all over its stolid, 4/4 kicks – some in, and many out, of time. This is effective because it captures a sense of creative spontaneity. It’s obviously a jam, not something that’s been deliberated over for ages in a studio. One can almost hear the creative sparks flying off Daniel’s track. These (good) mistakes function in a similar way to the sound of Kurt Cobain’s finger squeaking up the fret board in Unplugged In New York: computers can play music on their own, only humans can inject it with feeling. Both artists understand the wisdom of Shakespeare’s adage: “striving for perfection, oft we mar what’s well”.
It’s no coincidence that Daniel hails from Detroit, a city famed for its soulful electronic music. Other motor city luminaries such as Moodymann, Robert Hood and Omar S make music mechanical, yet fluid. Motorik, yet undulating. Moodyman’s output, as indebted to jazz as techno, is a mesh of MPC beats, and crackly old samples. Always inventive, often unpredictable; the man christened Kenny Dixon Jr typifies the city. He expresses its own personality: challenging, uncompromising and black. I’m thinking of track’s which form the house music cannon such as, “Ya Blessing Me”, or even last year’s beautiful, “Why Do I Feel”. Tracks which manage to bottle a particularly strong melancholia in hypnotically layered soul samples.
The Detroit elite, though inherently great as producers, perhaps come into their own as DJs. The nature of a DJ set arguably allows for more self expression than any other performance: as Theo Parrish famously claimed; “a monkey can mix two records together; only a human can tell a story.” The relationship between a man and his records is an acutely personal one. Though ostensibly just pieces of plastic, these crackling circles carry memories like nothing else. They may warp and skip, but technology has thus far failed to find an adequate replacement medium for the truly music obsessed. As cliched as this sounds, records are still the easiest way to translate passion. Theo Parrish’s tracks are, quite literally, made of other records. Take his signature “dusty high hats”, they are probably gleaned from a record released many decades ago. Each song, then, becomes a kind of potted musical history.
It’s this kind of love and curatorial flair which sets the Detroit crew apart. They know history. They have lived a bit: they come from a city immersed in music and hardship. And, from strife often arises great art. What is music if not a form of escape? And house music, with its standard tempo of 120 beats per minute – the same, pulsing rate as that of the human heart – is a particularly effective means of running away.