Let it go, it’s over. Nobody listens to techno.
After eviscerating everyone from ‘N Sync boy bander Chris Kirkpatrick to Limp Bizkit, rapper Eminem directed this lyrical barb at Moby, a vegan DJ, in his 2002 chart-topping hit, “Without Me.”
Slim Shady had a point.
Fueled by acts like Eminem, Nelly, and Ja Rule, rap music commingled with American mainstream pop in the early 2000s by mirroring pop orchestrations. MCs were even granted teen-idol status, making regular appearances on the zeitgeisty MTV music program Total Request Live. Meanwhile, following a surge in the late '90s, dance music had been relegated to the discount bin stateside. For instance, while Italian DJ Benny Benassi’s 2002 club anthem “Satisfaction” climbed to No. 2 on the U.K. charts, it didn’t even make the Billboard 200 in the U.S.
But dance music is finally getting its moment in the sun. From March 20-25, more than 300,000 electronic dance music aficionados invaded Florida for Miami Music Week (formerly known as the Winter Music Conference), a weeklong celebration held every March. The main attraction during WMC is Ultra Music Festival, a three-day outdoor electronic music fest boasting the world’s most acclaimed DJs. This year, the lineup included dubstep maestro Skrillex, house legend David Guetta, trance DJ Tiësto, euro-house DJ Avicii, French electronic duo Justice, Dutch superstar Afrojack, turntable godfather Fatboy Slim, and many more. The event attracted an estimated 200,000 people from 72 countries (up from 100,000 just two years prior), making it the second-highest-attended music festival in North America (and one of the most profitable).
“It started off as a one-day event in March 1999 in South Beach with 8,000 to 10,000 people, and each year it’s grown considerably,” said UMF cofounder Russell Faibisch. “The second year, [the crowd] doubled, then it kept getting bigger and bigger, so we moved it to Bayfront Park and expanded it to two days. Last year, we went three days.”
Enter Ultra, and you’re down the rabbit hole. Packs of bikini-clad sprites rub shoulders with shirtless bros rocking armbands. There’s an abundance of neon and a handful of enterprising ravers hawking glow sticks for two dollars a pop out of backpacks. A drag queen in a silver latex bodysuit on stilts lumbers through the crowd, while a lithe, attractive brunette grinds on the lap of her buff, wheelchair-bound boyfriend. Celebrities like Paris Hilton and an incognito Selena Gomez mingle in the elevated VIP area by the main stage. Between the campground setting and the creative rave attire, it’s like Coachella on ecstasy.
Electronic dance music’s rise to the top of the music food chain was a gradual one. By most accounts, EDM originated with the genre of house music in early 1980s Chicago. Characterized by drum machines, high-hat cymbals, and repetitive 4/4 beats, house music is said to have originated at The Warehouse—a Chicago nightclub primarily frequented by black and Latino gay men. It soon spread to other clubs around the Chicago area, and then moved to other U.S. cities.
But it was in the U.K. that dance music really found its groove. “The music was brand new and really fresh,” Kaskade, an acclaimed 41-year-old DJ who grew up in Chicago, told The Daily Beast. “Much like jazz, Americans started dance music, but Europeans took the reins early on and really gravitated towards it and ran with it.”
In the late 1980s, British DJs like Paul Oakenfold lorded over acid house clubs like the Hacienda in Manchester or London’s Heaven nightclub. Still, with a few notable exceptions, like Yazz’s single “The Only Way Is Up,” which was produced by the electronic dance duo Coldcut and became the second biggest single of 1988, dance music remained on the fringes, relegated to underground clubs and pirate radio. Rave culture, with its reliance on recreational drugs like acid and ecstasy, was also demonized by the British authorities. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 targeted dance-rave events, and even went as far as defining acceptable music as, “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
“To the novice, they look at club culture and think it’s over the top and drug filled,” said Kaskade. “I think club music goes a lot deeper than that. I always relate it to when rock and roll came around and people were calling it ‘Satan’s music.’ It’s fringe culture that’s slowly seeped into the mainstream.”
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that electronic dance music found mainstream success in the States. The Prodigy’s 1997 album The Fat of the Land debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart in the U.S. (to date, the only EDM record to do so), and was followed shortly after by hit records from other U.K. dance acts like The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, and a Brighton-based DJ named Fatboy Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook). Fatboy Slim rose to prominence in part through his creative, Spike Jonze-directed music videos for songs like “Praise You,” as well as “The Rockafeller Skank,” which was featured in a memorable scene in the MTV-produced teen comedy film She’s All That.
“When I first started coming to the States 12 years ago, we thought there was a wave,” Fatboy Slim told The Daily Beast. “In those days, it was a lot harder work to get your music across to other countries. MTV and music videos was your main way of communicating across the other side of the world. You can’t explain what it was like to kids to try and make a name for yourself back then in a foreign country. You had to go there and do a lot of sh-tty gigs!”
The Internet made dance music cheaper—and more democratic. And in the 2000s, American pop stars like Madonna and Britney Spears began fusing pop and dance music. Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg made up the Swedish music production and songwriting team Bloodyshy & Avant, responsible for such dance-pop hits like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and several tracks off Madonna’s 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor. Currently, they’re two thirds—along with singer Andrew Wyatt—of the electropop band Miike Snow, whose highly anticipated sophomore album Happy To You was released on March 13.
“We worked with Britney Spears for 10 years and she was cool and always let us do whatever we wanted,” Karlsson told The Daily Beast. “But we originally wrote ‘Toxic’ for Kylie Minogue.” He adds, “We were always in bands, and producing tracks was just our day job. We finally decided to quit our day job and go out on our own.”
Another DJ who struck out on his own is A-Trak. For three years, he served as the touring DJ for rapper Kanye West, and is now one of the most well regarded DJs in electronic music. Currently, he makes up one half (along with Armand Van Helden) of the New York-based DJ duo Duck Sauce, responsible for the megahit dance anthem “Barbra Streisand.”
“It starts with the fans,” A-Trak told The Daily Beast. “There’s just a generation now that’s all about electronic music, and the infrastructure adapted to it. For the last couple of years, DJs became more and more influential in music, and began producing big pop records that sound like dance music. Now, there’s an entire generation that’s been bred on those sounds.”
“This thing is nothing new on the rest of the planet,” adds Van Helden. “America was the last frontier for this youth festival raving thing. This is the last place to be broken on a pop level.”
In 2006, the acclaimed French DJ duo Daft Punk embarked on a tour of the U.S. that saw them perform from a massive, monolithic DJ pyramid. Dubstep sensation Skrillex told The Daily Beast that witnessing this performance made him want to start making EDM. Another group that was heavily influenced by Daft Punk, as well as The Prodigy, is Justice—a French DJ team comprised of former graphic designers Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, who rose to prominence with their 2006 hit “We Are Your Friends.” Their well-received sophomore album, Audio, Video, Disco, was released on Oct. 24, 2011.
“DJs younger or the same age as us are becoming really big so we’re witnessing people from our generation getting mainstream exposure,” de Rosnay told The Daily Beast. “It feels like there’s something big happening.”
A big watershed moment for dance music came courtesy of French euro-house DJ David Guetta, who produced the 2009 hit “I Got a Feeling” for the pop/R&B group The Black-Eyed Peas. The EDM-inspired number became the most downloaded song of all time in the U.S., with over 7.5 million downloads and garnered a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
“In the way that the Prodigy and me and the Chemical Brothers opened doors 10 years ago,” Fatboy Slim says, “I think Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta really opened dance music up to a much wider audience by reaching out to the pop and R&B community.”
Swedish House Mafia are the holy trinity of DJs. Comprised of Axwell and childhood friends Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso, the Swedish troika are full-fledged superstars. They created their own two-day event at Grand Central Park in downtown Miami called Masquerade Motel to compete with Ultra Music Festival during Miami Music Week. This other fest was inspired by an Eyes Wide Shut-themed DJ residency the trio put on at the nightclub Pacha in Ibiza.
“Yesterday, we heard of some guys and girls with fingers going up the, uh, naughty places … so to speak,” Axwell told The Daily Beast. “There’s a peep show room with naked girls there, so it got everyone a little excited.”
On Dec. 16, Swedish House Mafia became the first electronic dance act to headline the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City. The show sold out in just nine minutes. The group credits the rise of EDM to iPod culture, where users can now curate their own playlists and listen to a diverse array of music.
“I had a really good discussion with a hotel owner in France who said, ‘You know why I love DJs? Because I can find one DJ who plays all the music I want to hear,” said Steve Angello. “It’s like if you had Coldplay play the best Radiohead track. It’s a mixture of everybody playing the best music there is out there.”
Meanwhile, DJs have also risen to become celebrities in their own right, including Afrojack—a 24-year-old Dutch DJ who blew up with his 2010 hit “Take Over Control,” and will release his debut LP sometime this year. He credits dance music’s recent popularity spike to people “getting tired of the same old chord progressions and a,b,b,a s--t,” adding, “I even think dubstep is going to be the new replacement of rock guitars, and EDM was the catalyst.”
The chrome-domed musician is rumored to be dating heiress Paris Hilton.
“Since I’ve been hanging with Paris [Hilton], paparazzi has been following me around,” Afrojack told The Daily Beast. “I was eating at SushiSamba the other day, and there was a guy hidden behind trash cans taking pictures of me eating chicken. I was like, ‘I’m a music producer … everybody eats chicken!’”
His recent chart-topping smash, the Afrojack-produced track “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull, even got the collaborators sued by actress Lindsay Lohan, who claimed the line in the song “I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan” was defamatory.
“I thought it was pretty funny,” chuckles Afrojack. “I’m just some small-town boy from Holland and I’m getting sued by Lindsay Lohan. It’s dope. I’m pretty sure my grandmother put that newspaper clip on the wall with the headline, ‘Afrojack gets sued by Lindsay Lohan.’”
But you know dance music has reached the big leagues when the world’s greatest living—and most shamelessly opportunistic—pop star makes a cameo at your festival. On Saturday night, Madonna showed up to introduce rising Swedish DJ Avicii’s headlining set (and promote her new EDM-y album, MDNA). It went like this (casual drug reference included):
How many people in this crowd have seen Molly? [Loud cheers]Are you ready to dance? [More cheers]Are you ready to sweat? [More cheers]Are you ready to make some noise? [Loud cheers]Are you ready for the next DJ MUTHAF--KA?!? [Loudest cheers]
The reference to “Molly”—the rave term for the drug MDMA, or ecstasy—enraged acclaimed DJ Deadmau5, who took Madonna to task for promoting drug use and giving EDM a bad name, calling her a “f--king IDIOT” via his Facebook page.
I wonder what Eminem would say.