Can a documentary finally tell the story of the electronic music scene? Primus Luta has become a scholar of electronic sounds himself, and joins us in a guest post to examine a film that, like the music itself, is a work in progress. Electro Wars premieres in its current form in New York Friday, but you can get a first glimpse at the movie and the state of music in the Internet – whether wishful thinking might imagine the Web’s age is over or not. -Ed.
Electronic music has always had a love hate relationship with popularity. Back in the old days of the ‘big five’ setting the music trends for the masses with million dollar marketing budgets, it was an unwritten rule that there could only be one popular electronic act per five years, and they could only be publicly referred to as dance artists. Those days are of course long over. The big five aren’t five any more, and by comparison don’t seem that big either. As for setting trends, they are still a factor, but hardly the necessity they once were. When you look at the Billboard charts you still see their artists, but now they share space with a wide assortment of niche artists who achieved just as much on shoestring budgets.
The internet has had no small role to play in this. With album sales down across the board and music industry ‘sales events’ being fewer and further between, popularity has become more about buzz than sales. Today that buzz is measured in realtime with all of the fancy social networking analytic algorithms, but a mere three years ago blogs were all the rage. During that time a meme started by internet celebrity Carles of The Hipster Runoff started a buzz that provided inspiration for the latest documentary film on electronic music and its flirtations with popularity.
“[Carles] kept bringing up these different indie bands and these electro bands,” says Stephen Vasquez, the filmmaker behind The Electro Wars as we sit in a Queens Dunkin Donuts, a few blocks from where he was born. “He’s talking about how they are fighting this war to stay relevant. That’s when I got the idea. There is a transitional period going on, right now.” The transition he speaks of is the one which made it viable for small artists with no major label support to break out of their niche. Through the internet smaller scenes had the means of vying for media attention. Among those given voice was the tongue in cheek electronic sub-genre which attracted Vasquez – bloghouse. The niche sound of electro styled house made its way from bedrooms to local clubs, but came alive as the sound traveled via the internet.
“I go to these clubs,” Vasquez says. ”Nobody is really taking this music seriously.” It’s been the fate for club music since the end of disco, the club aspect overshadowing the music. Even with, bloghouse, its embrace of the internet never denied its place in the club where it is generally understood that the music helps set the scene, not necessarily that the scene is the music. Still, the music is often the introductory point for many club goers to search for deeper musical appreciation, as was the case with Vasquez.
“I always listened to house music but I never understood that house, techno, drum and bass, grime, all these things are different sub-genres of electronic music. They are not all the same thing. It was ignorance on my part that I wanted to clarify for myself, so I started researching. Jeff Mills, Juan Atkins, Bambatta, Kraftwerk and I’m like ‘damn, this thing’s been going on for years.’”
Yet what has happened with it over the past few years has transformed the scope of the music. The internet has allowed it to break out of the club, or alternately sprout up new club scenes where there were none previously. ”It’s really going all over the world,” Vasquez explains. “It’s not just in Europe anymore. It’s affecting small countries. Kids around here are listening to that music now,” he says of his immigrant Queens community, “which was unheard of ten years ago. You had the hip-hop heads, the sneaker heads, then the kids listening to spanish music. Now even the off the boat kids are like, ‘yeah man I’m going to see Tiesto!’”
All of these things led Vasquez to take on the task of documenting what he was seeing. ”I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. I DJ as a hobby but film is my passion. I was just going to do the documentary for myself. If it went somewhere fine, but at least I’d have it as the memories of the scene and what it was, because this scene may not be here in five years.
“The first pinnacle moment for the whole thing was when Steve Aoki agreed to do the interview. Once he did, that launched a series of other interviews. At the same time though, I was reaching out to even bigger people. Gaga and Kanye.” Gaga was well on her way to the top of the pops, but at the time was still just an up and coming artists. For Vasquez, her rise to stardom and Kanye giving up rapping for autotune over sonic textures pulled from the scene he was most familiar with, was an indication of the heights that sound could achieve. ”Of course they denied the interviews. At least Kanye responded to me though. He said, I’m really busy and don’t have time right now. But it’s a dope concept and I want to see it when you finish.’”
It is still a work in progress and a lot has changed since he first began work over two years ago. ”Bloghouse came in really quickly then all of a sudden started dying off just as quickly. A lot of the artists now are breaking into the mainstream.” It’s the trend that took Gaga to the top of the pop charts, while earning her Grammy’s in Electronic/Dance categories. It’s also the trend that took Vasquez to Costa Rica to screen the film for the growing scene down there. ”The kids over there (Costa Rica) they mimic our scene, the LA scene. I find it interesting because it’s that international.”
He credits the LA club scene with a lot. ”LA was pivotal,” he explains. ”It kind of started the whole thing. I say ‘kind of’ because it’s not fair to say it started it. It came from different parts of the world. If Justice never came or the canadians with MSTRKRFT, Boys Noize in Germany, if they never came there would have been no scene. It kind of revived the whole rave culture. Cobra Snake started the whole photographer frenzy. Glamorizing it, making you feel like you are the most important person at the party. It’s always been around but it took off for this scene in LA.”
Despite the modern focus of the film, Vasquez is well aware of the notion that there is nothing new under the sun. ”I would go as far back as the seventies,” he says. ”Seventies disco, that whole scene is where I feel it’s going now. Especially with A-Trak, Armand van Helden, they are doing the new wave disco style. That sound is big right now because it has a very friendly atmosphere. People go to a small club, again its a small scene. They go and they chill and they have a good time. It’s not about going and looking at a DJ with visuals because a lot of the artists can’t afford all of that. It’s about listening and dancing to the music.” Despite the global impact, the relative smallness of the local scenes themselves play into maintaining the feel good aesthetic. ”In the seventies you had parties in a loft. You’re seeing that these days. Especially in Brooklyn. It’s like I’m living in an era I wished that I had lived in.”
Bridging the history of the new scenes with the broader history of electronic dance music is a motivator for Vasquez. It isn’t the focal point of the film, but he makes a concerted effort to acknowledge the past. ”I want to educate people that were in my position a few years back. A lot of the kids that listen to the music, they have no idea where it came from. If I can present that history in a nice little timeline and keep it quick for the MTV generation, my generation and the new kids who have even a shorter attention span. Keep it real quick, and hopefully they’ll take something with them.” Presented in between interviews from artists ranging from Moby, Aoki and DJ Premier, Vasquez leaves all the context clues needed to broaden perspectives.
As for the electro war itself, perhaps a truce has been reached. ”Now the indie bands are getting remixed and getting exposed to this sub culture. Indie and electro really compliment each other but I can see it working for a lot of hip-hop too. Drake and Kudi. Spank Rock is like the hipster Nas.
“The scene keeps changing so quickly. I heard Tiesto made a song with Diplo and David Guetta is working with LMFAO and Fergie on a track. Now Aoki and all the guys of the electro house scene, are working with big house dj’s like Tiesto and Apple Jack.” And then there is dubstep. ”I just got off the phone with Rusko. He was excited to be in the movie. I hung up and I’m like how am I going to take this documentary on electro house music into dubstep? But it needs to be mentioned.”
Indeed Vasquez is still shooting and editing. Since beginning work on the film, buzz has spread about it and support for it keeps coming in. While he won’t provide any details, there’s a confidence in his smile that the future for The Electro Wars is bright.
As a way to bring it all back home, Vasquez will be screening the film in its current state with the community that raised him. On Friday July 9th there will be a special screening at the Jackson Triplex in Queens, NY, 7pm, with music, dance and a one-off opportunity to see The Electro Wars before its next incarnation.