These are observations I’ve made from 30 plus years of collecting records and listening to probably 10’s of thousands of songs and artists over the last 3 decades, beginning at the early age of 10 or so, all kinds of music. The focus is ultimately on electronic music and how I came to appreciate it. My only aim is to enlighten the younger music lovers out there who seem to have a bit of a skewed perspective on what is what and why and how. Most of this wasn’t explained to me either, I discovered most of these connections on my own, only to later have many of these discoveries confirmed by the sources.
This may seem like a personal life story, and it is to an extent as I’ve lived my life through music, but I feel it’s important to illustrate how I came to appreciate music and how I learned to listen without bias or pre-contextualizing it some way.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND OF HOW I GOT INTO MUSIC
My mom had a few hundred records in our home in Buffalo NY and I was already intrigued at the age of 6 with the ‘spinny thing’ that played music. Not long after, I was actually still 6 years old when bought my first record, this would’ve been 1980. My first record purchase was Elvis’ Golden Hits. I used to watch his cheesy movies with my mom when they were on tv and I was instantly captivated by ‘The Pres’ and his obvious star power and ‘Love Me Tender’ is still probably the ultimate lullabye.
Shortly thereafter I started to explore some of my mom’s collection on my own. I started with the Motown classics and eventually got around to the 60’s stuff, Hendrix, Joplin, Led Zeppelin…I actually wasn’t ready for this ‘heady’ music yet but I was instantly and thoroughly intrigued by one record…’Tyrannosauraus Rex’s A Beard of Stars’, I played that over and over again because it sounded so alien to me but in a more organic way than the electric rock from the 60’s…I must’ve gravitated toward the mystical and mythical world the music seemed to invoke. This must’ve been around 1982-83 because I was also listening to top 40 radio of the day, so my musical pallet also consisted of all the 80’s classics like Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, J.Geils Band, The Police, Steve Miller’s Abracadabra etc. Anything that was on the early days of MTV and before that, ‘Night Flight’, you get the picture. I saw the first mega pop stars emerge with icons like MJ and Madonna and of course Prince. I saw both the Purple Rain and Thriller tours live, in person, with my mom as well.
Simultaneously as the giant Pop music mega machine was getting bigger and more corporate and MJ’s hair caught fire shooting a Pepsi commercial, just as the punks rebelled against Disco and the inflated Concert Circus that rock music became in the late 70’s, there was an underground rebellion happening that was only glimpsed at via college radio which I discovered, again, on my own around 1984…just in time!
I speak a bit about this discovery in another post HERE
Being half black (Puerto Rican) and raised by a white mom, I definitely struggled with identity and moved within different groups of people growing up, Puerto Rican, Black, White, Asian (one of my best friends in 5th grade was Vietnamese and snuck over on a boat with his parents!) poor, upper middle class, etc. I was an only child, so there was a lot of isolation as my mom worked 2 jobs and went to night school, I was the quintessential ‘Latchkey Kid’. This is where music really became a friend to me as I wasn’t fitting in anywhere, too light for the black kids, too dark for the white kids, skinny, androgynous and too smart for my own good to realize these vibrations coming off of people where not for me. I gravitated toward the few ‘skate rats’ in my neighborhood as we liked the same music.
I stayed up late every Thursday evening listening to WBNY college radio out of Buff State. Every Thursday evening they aired the Hardcore show where i heard all of the latest stuff coming out of the NYC and DC hardcore scenes as well as a good dose of LA Punk. Every Sunday night however was a very different sound, the sound of metallic beats and what sounded like primitive chant which they called freestyle or ‘rap’. Off the top of the head stream of conscious poetry in motion! The beats were raw (live dj’s cutting and scratching live on air!), the words were crude and the stories were true! This was music straight from the street and suited the surroundings I grew up in (post industrial, auto industry collapsed economy urban rot) perfectly. I recorded as much of it as possible on cassette (long lost now) as I did the Thursday show so we could play the tapes on a boom box while we street skated whatever launch ramp was set up at the time.
My daily musical consumption consisted of all of what made up early Hip-Hop (I’ll clarify shortly) and a lot of heavy and fast music out of LA, DC and NY mostly. There were really only a few above ground ‘genres’ then ‘Pop’ ‘Rock’ ‘R’n’B’ ‘Blues’ ‘Jazz’ ‘Country’ and ‘Classical’ of course had been around going back the old days of radio when it was divided into ‘Black’ music and ‘White’ music which Elvis initially challenged by blatantly covering Blues and introducing it to a white audience.
This brings me to the early elements of ‘Hip-Hop’ I’m still talking about my experience as it was around the late 80’s. I’m just in High School now, it’s 1988 and Hip-Hop has gone the way of MC Hammer, Ice Ice Baby and Doogie Hauser wearing ‘Yo MTV Raps’ sweaters on the TV, and due to Reagan era FCC censorship and Tipper Gore, we started seeing these on everything:
“Hip-Hop’ DJ’s were being sued for sampling music and went underground, and we got the emergence of ‘Rap’ music. The focus shifted from the dj to rappers! This is pretty much where we stand now in that genre. Hip-Hop proper went back underground and DJ’s had to get even more clever in their choices of material to sample and the artistry of ‘turntabilism’ was born out of this rift. This is when the early elements of old school Hip-Hop get lost. The early mixtapes I had and listened to daily back then consisted of multiple other styles of music. Within these mixes where straight up OG joints by Sugarhill Gang, Curtis Blow, BDP, Run DMC, Fat Boys, Schooly D (outta Philly) UTFO and the Roxanne Roxanne saga. In addition to these straight Hip-Hop pioneers, DJ’s like Kool Herc, Marley Marl and Red Alert spinning live on air also pulled from outside element like Miami Bass, Electro and Freestyle (which was largely Latin vocal pop over electro synths) and this was popular up North in the East Coast and NY Latino communities.
Electro was largely synth based and a few guys specialized in that genre like Egyptian Lover, Dynamix II and Afrika Bambaataa, Newcleus. I still have my old 12’s I picked up back then! Electro was also directly the influence of Kraut Rock Godfathers Kraftwerk. Their use of modular synths and minimal repetitive grooves fed the energy of danceable mixes and added a nice dark futuristic edge to this largely Urban style of music. Electro also branched off into Miami Bass where Dynamix II became proficient.
So, it wasn’t uncommon to hear fringe musical elements in the mix such as Kraftwerk, Paul Hardcastle, or Giorgio Moroder. George Kranz ‘Din Daa-Daa’ was a favorite, and very alien to the form as we know it today (check the link to hear what I mean), and tracks like Manu Dibango’s ‘Soul Makossa’, Nu Shooz’s ‘I Can’t Wait’, Hashim’s ‘It’s Time’, and ESG’s ‘Moody’ were all utilized in cutting edge and progressively creative ways, on the fly, with 2, sometimes 3 turntables and nary a sampler or laptop while staying ‘on beat’. There were early pioneers that used 808 drum machine and samplers not long after, but this was just as much a craft as was the practice of tape splicing back in the days of analog recording studios when edits were hands on and very tedious.
Here’s a good example of a live show on WBLS
Marley Marl 1986
Getting into 1990 my musical interests grew and expanded naturally and as trends came and go, I remained voracious in my appetite for new sounds while most people broke off into factions or just stopped listening to music all together. By this time I had discovered Industrial Music and an offshoot of Punk called ‘Gloom and Doom’ (you youngsters probably know this as Goth music). I still followed the Urban scene closely as well to stay aware of certain artists that kept it progressive like De La and Arrested Development and the few that actually stayed true to the art and were real songwriters to boot! By then Gangster Rap had taken over and we were mere months away from the imagery that is so prevalent today in the Genre…the tired old image of some guy with grips of cash, guns, cars and women, signaled the death knell of Hip-Hop as it was in 1990.
A couple years later around 1992-93, fresh outta High School, I was flagged by a local record store owner Gary Apollo who owned Apollo Records in Buffalo. His store consisted largely of 12 inch dance music singles and tons of underground releases out of NY, Chicago,Detroit, LA, Miami and further! He had a giant catalog of mix tapes by dj’s that I mentioned above! Ha also had more specific mixes for Electro, House music and sub genres like Progressive House, Deep House and New Jack and Acid House (which soon morphed into techno). He also had a back room that boasted Rock and Roll and Punk and all sorts of rare psych and Garage music that I was also really into at the time. I was in the store one day and he noticed that I was eyeballing T-Rex ‘The Slider’ and I made some comment about it. Weeks later I got a call from a friend that had been in the store and Gary had asked about me and apparently he was impressed and a bit surprised that this weird black guy even knew who Marc Bolan was, and did I want a job?
Turns out that not only was Gary the guy that single handedly brought Hip-Hop and dance music to Buffalo but was also a rock writer going back to his days in LA in the late 70’s having written for Creem Magazine as well as BOMP, which is still around today as a distro/label. Gary single-handedly edited and wrote the infamous Power Pop issue when these were all made by hand in copy and paste (I don’t mean left click/highlight/right click)–these were made by hand!
Thus began my true education of music and vinyl collecting and critical listening as Gary was an encyclopedia, a tower of musical knowledge, a beacon of light in a sleepy post industrial town where everyone was into Gangster Rap and Punk had gone mainstream as Nirvana made it acceptable to be weird and a bit ‘dirty’.
This is also where I learned about some of the roots of dj culture and electronic music as a whole and how it fit into the culture of club music.
Not only did he have the most complete and well curated selection of vinyl, he had listened to everything in the store and kept very anal retentive notation of everything, catalog numbers, producer info, what pressing and what region it was from (ie, Japanese pressing vs. UK pressing). He had stacks of giant 3 ring binders with coded pencil notation that only he could decipher. That’s how he would find a rare record if someone asked about it!
Here is where I also finally felt not so alone in my love for all kinds of music where most people were afraid of being made fun of if they didn’t follow the latest trends of what was the newest latest jam. Tracks that were out a month before were considered ‘Old’. Gary always used to say ‘It don’t matter when it came out, if I haven’t heard it, it’s new to me!’ and all of that stuff was just flavor of the minute, the same song released again and again with slightly different packaging and some new fresh face performing it.
One story says it all. We were hanging out in the store one day when KRS 1 came up in conversation and he proceeded to tell me about the time he came into the store back in 1984 or thereabouts and when he walked in the store Gary gave him the layout..’all this stuff up here is 12′ inch stuff going back to the disco era’ etc…KRS stopped him dead there and said ‘I got all that shit’ and went down into the back room. when he emerged later on he had records by Be Bop Delux and Dwight Twilley and a stack of other obscure 70’s rock records! Some of this Gary even picked out samples used in his subsequent releases!
Again my mind was blown that such a respected artist (a hip-hop artist) was infinitely more knowledgeable about classic rock than any rock heads I knew!
The longer I worked there I got to delve into the rich archive of 12″ singles, remixes, dj remixes and the cassette mix tape catalog. This book was called ‘The Bible’ and he would essentially make a dub of a dj mix for $10 bucks. Each mix was exclusive to the catalog with permission from the DJ himself and was full of tracks so obscure they were only to be found on these mixes! Not to mention how these tracks were transformed by the dj could be found nowhere else. Here is where I started to develop a sense of the different styles of dance music out there and where I discovered the origins of some of the stuff I had on those old WBNY tapes but had no idea who did what , a lot of gaps in my education were filled here.
I really grew to like the heavy Electro (Kraftwerk influenced) music and Chicago House or Deep House. In fact the origin of the term ‘House’ music came out of The Warehouse in Chicago and this stuff had very minimal vocals and they were largely gospel singers doing the singing, deep slower grooves, keys and that light jazz influence. It was also another offshoot of where disco ended up after Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 and all that homogenization of a style of music found mostly in underground gay nightclubs became an above ground sensation and Hollywood got involved and the stuff became laden with strings and high end production that sucked the balls right out of it. Nile Rogers of CHIC in an interview speaks of the origins of their smash hit ‘Freak Out’ Here’s a bit from wikipedia about that:
‘This song commemorates Studio 54 for its notoriously long customer waiting lines, exclusive clientele, and discourteous doormen. According to guitarist Nile Rodgers, the song was devised during New Year’s Eve of 1977, as a result of his and bassist Bernard Edwards‘ being refused entrance to Studio 54, where they had been invited by Grace Jones, due to her failure to notify the nightclub’s staff. He said the lyrics of the refrain were originally “Fuck off!” rather than “Freak out!”
Another great article about disco innovator Patrick Adams who was a Moog synth artist and a mix of his work with Peter Brown (P&P Records)
Here’s a great mix from The Warehouse from 1981 by the one and only Frankie Knuckles that perfectly illustrates this transitional period between Disco and what would soon be known as ‘House Music’ it ends with Kraftwerk.
I was also listening to a lot of Larry Heard and his project ‘Fingers Inc.’
Larry Heard (mix from 2006)
Another discovery that blew me completely away was Detroit Techno! Metroplex Records, Juan Atkins (Cybotron, Model 500 etc) Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Carl Craig. These guys were the godfathers of techno and while my friends were all running around at raves on ‘E’ with pacifiers and glow sticks jumping around to Prodigy, I was home with the headphones on lost in sound without the social constraints, or hanging out at the store with Gary and whatever other music heads happened to be around to enjoy the sophisticated grooves of a new mix by Carl Craig or one of the Deep House Mixes with Fingers Inc heavily featured.
For 1993-94 These Detroit 12’s sounded huge and raw and so powerful in their sonic qualities that I was instantly reminded of the industrial music I had also been discovering at the time. Groups like Einstruzende Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire and primarily Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV.
Now we get into the UK and Euro influences beyond Kraftwerk. TG were the first to bring out Industrial music for Industrial People starting out in the late 60’s and the end of the Hippie era with Coum Transmission’s public happenings with a more Fluxus and Situationist influence and later morphing into Throbbing Gristle further applying the theories and techniques of the cut-up, reimagining and re-contextualizing …well…everything! I want to stop here and implore you to watch this recent lecture by Genesis P ‘Orridge given in SF this year, and read ‘Wreckers of Civilisation’ rare and quite pricey but worth it to keep an eye out for an affordable copy should you be lucky enough. I found one for $30 bucks but this was 15 years ago.
Pay particular attention to the 1 hr 26 min point where they speak about touring through Detroit.
This was a very recent lecture but at least ten years ago I remember talking with someone about the similarities in vibe I got from the Detroit Techno stuff and how it reminded me of Industrial music and how that all made sense given the surroundings and the post industrial depression most of the East Coast suffered in the early 80’s onward. The fact that These UK disrupters were on a vibe with the Detroit originators made perfect sense to me. Now getting back to how this music was made and part of the point with this sprawling post is that most of this information and these connections are lost on pretty much anyone under 25. Furthermore I see a lot of musical styles misrepresented by the further division of musical sub-genres like:
Sorry, I had to post that whole list for it’s sheer ridiculousness!
The current musical climate is so oversaturated with people writing and recording the same damn song over and over again and everyone can do it with ease and a few relatively affordable computer programs. The art of song crafting is largely lost in modern dance music, there are mostly the same cliched hooks and techniques utilized to bring people up and down etc. but the real cutting edge stuff gets lost in the sheer amount of releases out there at the click of a button. The craft of creating a piece of art that is also a playable format for sound and sight is scarce and not many are driven enough to make it happen on that level. Yes it’s expensive but look at what these kids from the ghetto accomplished under pretty dire conditions. One last article is a good one from Jesse Saunderson on the trials of the early days of House music and how he stays current and innovative to this day.
I moved to LA in 1996 to further pursue music and I made a few recordings and got to work in some pretty serious studios, I have recorded to 2 Inch analog tape and I have to say there is nothing like it. I also worked in a record store on Melrose for a couple years and during this period, music, especially dance music, was really starting to fragment into many sub genres and I lost interest in a lot of the newer movements because they were just combining old movements and sometimes it worked but it all started to become derivative and lacking in urgency. A few stand out artists from that era were DJ Shadow who’s double lp Endtroducing put the art of turntablism back on the map, and Aphex Twin and Autechre were really progressing on things and also very much contained an element of that early Industrial vibe. Otherwise at the time I was listening to a lot of old psychedelic music from the 60’s which I’d originally gotten into also during my Buffalo years early 90’s via cassettes from a friend, so I missed a lot of what was going on above ground. I still kept up a bit on House music and grabbed a few 12’s here and there.
In the last decade or so there have been a few artists that have moved music forward and that intrigued me enough to further explore their art. The first is Future Sounds of London/Amorphous Androgynous, who incorporate a wide array of elements in their music with a real focus on psychedelia, and even quite effectively utilize 60’s fuzz laden obscurities as samples for their audio collages. They are accomplished musicians to boot!
The other artists I’ve been most recently aware of are the LA producer Gaslamp Killer and artist Gonja Sufi. Both have worked together and bring a real live and tangible vibe to the music and are also top notch sound collage artists that utilize analog sources for a real depth of sound with that unmistakable warmth of the medium, and they draw from wildly divers genres re-presenting them in fresh and innovative ways.
I’m also aware of guys like MADLIB and the brilliantly progressive label Stones Throw label run by Peanut Butter Wolf.
I really hope this is at least inspiring to people who are into music or getting into making music, to really look at what it is all about and how to engage it as an art form and not just wallpaper for the ears, to be switched out with the seasons. I’m reacting to a lot of what I see online in general, as there are a lot of people putting out ‘albums’ on various sites like bandcamp and then complaining that no one listens or buys anything when I believe it lies within you to really create something true to you and that speaks in a unique way and the instant gratification of being able to record and upload an album in a matter of days, or hours even, really is hurting the world of music in general (some folks release 2 or 3 or more ‘albums’ per month, some per week!) You don’t have to release everything you record…edit! People think this level of activity creates more action and brings more attention to their music when in actuality it saturates the listener who will soon get bored and probably never buy anything cause there is no scarcity to it, they know you’re just gonna release another similar ‘album’ in a few day or weeks anyway. Try not to get hung up on how many ‘views’ or ‘likes’ or downloads you’ve had, just keep plugging away at getting better at your thing. Interact, too, go to shows, buy a cd or record or t-shirt from an artist you like and engage in dialog whether it be in person or online, don’t just post your latest release and then sit back waiting for comments, go comment on other posts you like as well. I mostly see musicians trying to sell their stuff to other musicians who are all broke anyway. Get your stuff in front of people who actually buy music.
That being said I do still realize and respect everyone’s right and often times need to make art of some kind, but the best part of it is the research and the engaging with other music nerds and actually making something tangible to hand to someone is a real thing, a real connection. I rarely spend money on a download but up until recently I had at least a $100 a month vinyl budget. If you wanna make good music you have to eat music for three meals a day! All kinds. Stay open minded like KRS. Read a ton of books about music and art, I personally devour biographies and autobiographies of writers and artists as well as musicians of every era. Frequent local indy record stores, usually staffed with knowledgeable folks that like nothing better than to turn people on to music they may not know about. Record stores used to be where people would meet like minded souls and form bands of their own. Listen to everything and read the liner notes and get to know producers and side players and try to discover who influenced them, go find those recordings and so on. It will really inform your craft. And by all means, forget about classifications and labels.
Here’s a Deep House Youtube Playlist I made some years ago. Check it out and notice how stylistically unique and fresh it is even by today’s standards. Much of it is Larry Heard who is still at it today.