In the decades that have passed since the birth of electronic music, geography has consistently played a pivotal role in the formation and development of new musical moods and sounds. You only need look as far as techno’s founding “Belleville Three” of Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May for proof that a handful of producers from a suburb of Detroit can reformulate our entire outlook on music’s style and form. But what are the conditions that allow these regional movements to form and what gives them such unique momentum?
If we look to Croydon in the late 90s, a handful of (then small) music producers, including Zed Bias and Steve Gurley, had their music picked up by a local club night in Soho. Its signature incorporated elements of reggae, garage and D&B, forming the basis for a new sound, which ultimately developed into what we now call ‘dubstep’. The story of its explosive growth is well known; ultimately dubstep broke onto the commercial music scene, with certain aspects of its sound now commonplace in UK chart hits. Clearly, the catalytic formula must include access to public platforms and the social infrastructure through which to reach a wider audience. Rinse FM and other nascent pirate radio stations played pivotal roles in dubstep’s inexorable expansion. An abundant supply of cheap housing, which can afford artists the financial flexibility to focus on being creative, is also crucial to this. Croydon possessed both of these qualities and more.
In the last few years, Hessle Audio has been rejuvenating bass-heavy music in Leeds. Artists such as Ben UFO and Pangaea led the way in formulating a cross-over style incorporating elements of dubstep, house and techno, which grew prominent within the city’s music scene. This amalgamation has been able to reach the newest generation of club-goers, spreading quickly from the basements of Leeds’ Hyde Park to the floors of Fabric. This is in no small part due to Leeds’ young and technologically active population. The city’s huge student community provides no shortage of young and experimental individuals, with its reputation for underground music making this something of a self-fulfilling cycle. As well as being particularly well positioned for a party-orientated lifestyle, a young student population tends to mean there will be an excess of start-up online outlets promoting, discussing and sharing music. All this means musical osmosis and the dispersion of new styles is accelerated.
Of course, what is certain is that labels are more effective than individuals in driving the prominence, coherence and identifiability of a particular sound. Innervisions has instant connotations of emotionally textured house, Dystopian is synonymous with eery and hypnotic techno. Perhaps, therefore, a social environment conducive to the founding of a successful label is one that is most able to spawn an innovative musical movement. 8Bit Records, the home of a notoriously percussive brand of house called the “Mannheim Sound” was set up by Nick Curly and Gorge as part of a group of guys who are friends as well as associated producers. This base relationship ensures the sort of mutual trust and understanding that can facilitate a business venture. Like-minded people can, of course, find each other in any number of towns and cities. However, inevitably some cities attract creative types more than others. There is an element of cyclicality, therefore, to the places in which labels tend to emerge. Once a label is formed, it provides a collective basis for constant creative collaboration. In the case of successful labels, this formula ultimately means that their combined output is of greater value than just the sum of its parts. There is also often an element of internal competition in this structure – label mates bounce off each other but are simultaneously looking to push the boundaries within their group as far as they can individually. This is the reason that certain labels are often able to push forward the development of a sound with such a relentless drive.
Of course, it is overly simplistic to break down musical genres and production styles solely along the lines of particular cities. Often, individual clubs become associated with particular musical undercurrents, providing significant musical diversity within the same city. The soundsystem at Berghain is so uniquely tuned and directed at such a definitive party setting that its residents produce music with that specific system in mind. The Ostgut sound has become internationally identifiable even to those who have never travelled anywhere near Berlin. Similarly, Tresor’s status as the primary conduit for Detroit techno as it became popularised in Europe lends it specific sonic connotations, even within a musically diverse district of Berlin. The club’s sound, which became the eponymous label’s sound, remains an identifiable strand of techno’s tapestry.
So where do we look to for the next musical explosion? Rather than seeing any one production trend dominate the musical landscape, the last couple of years have seen a fracturing of the electronic scene. EDM has gone in one direction, techno in another. Bland and superficial pop-house masquerading as ‘deep’ has thrived in the UK, but so has a revival of traditional disco. A music scene with multifarious points of focal interest is a healthy one and on balance this is probably the most mature way for the modern electronic scene to operate. But there is unfortunately something inherent about the British love of hopping on board a bandwagon. Only too often through history have we found something new and gorged ourselves upon it until it is almost unrecognisable from what we fell in love with. Where the next major regional musical movement will stem from, only time will tell.