The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America

The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America



The Pequod Review:

Michaelangelo Matos's The Underground is Massive is a highly detailed and intelligent review of American electronic dance music, beginning with its origins in 1980s Detroit and Chicago through to the 2010s explosion of EDM into mainstream culture (culminating in the massive popularity of artists like Daft Punk and festivals like Las Vegas's Electric Daisy Carnival). Matos structures his narrative around key parties and events from across the last thirty years, which allows him to go deep into specific artists (Moby, Skrillex, Frankie Knuckles, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, etc.) and venues (Chicago's Power Plant, Detroit's Music Institute, Coachella, and many more). He also pinpoints the importance of the internet in the development of electronic music:

The rise of the US rave scene and the rise of the internet, besides being concurrent, mirrored one another in many ways. Both mixed rhetorical utopianism with insider snobbery. Both were future-forward "free spaces" with special appeal to geeks and wonks. (It can't be a coincidence that dance music's instruments of choice are referred to by their model numbers: 303, 606, 808, 909.) Both took root through the '80s and emerged in fits and starts through the mid-'90s, at which point both became part of the social fabric. Indeed, one of electronic dance music's key genres, IDM, was named after an email list devoted to "intelligent dance music."


As a style whose digital nature was encoded into its very name, techno is the music of early adopters. Rather than the smoothly homogenous World Wide Web of today, cyberspace was fragmented, and whether you were on Compuserve or AOL, the codes differed. "When [I] first signed up for the Internet in the early '90s, [I was] assigned a username, by first and last name," says Richie Hawtin. "Mine was RH199." Whomever next signed on that shared his initials, then, would be RH200. Presuming that numbering system kept its pace, Hawtin says that today, "a number assigned anyone would be in the millions and billions. Having a two- or three-digit number dates you as early."

Many early technology adopters became acquainted with bulletin board services (BBS) and proto-instant-messenger services such as V-Rave (the "V" is for "virtual"). "I got involved with BBS back in 1992," says Stallings. "It wasn't even the Internet. You were calling someone's hard drive, essentially, and typing messages back and forth."

"There was no World Wide Web," says Cleveland-born techno DJ and producer Jeff Samuel, whose experience typifies a lot of the local-leaning early BBS culture. "I was hanging around on music boards with [early dialup service provider] Prodigy. There was this thing called Cleveland Freenet, by Case Western Reserve University, a private college. Cleveland, of all places, was one of the first places [where] you could do real-time chat. You couldn't have Joe Schmoe getting on the Internet at that point. It just didn't happen."

"I was working in a computer lab all through college," says Damian Higgins, a.k.a. Dieselboy, one of America's top drum & bass DJs, who went to school in Pittsburgh from 1990 to 1995. "[In] my spare time, I'd go to the lab. I was addicted to the Internet — like these Korean kids at the 24/7 Internet cafes playing World of Warcraft, that was me talking about music and raves on V-Rave."

The book has its weak points — the later sections covering more recent DJs like Avicii and Deadmau5 are casually dismissive, and Matos seems to have an instinctual distaste for anything that becomes too popular. But this is otherwise an insightful profile of a fascinating musical subculture, and one that also provides countless recommendations for electronic artists and DJs. (Here is a good Spotify playlist featuring several of the key musicians mentioned in the book.)