Welcome to an ongoing series I am going to call “Music According to MEA,” where I will be discussing various sub-genres of electronic music (in no particular order) and their relationships to each other. Some genres can be described in a paragraph while others may require pages, although most will fall closer to three or four paragraphs. I will provide various samples (30 seconds or less to respect copyright law) that hopefully illustrate my points and there will be text listings of a given sub-genre’s parents or children as everything evolves from something and evolves into something else. Some of you may have seen Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music and will recognize this format; why fix what isn’t broken?
I will in fact point back to his guide quite a bit in places because the latest complete version covers a great deal of ground up to the time when it was published around the early 2000s. Also – I agree with him in many areas and it’s not worth retreading ground he’s written in a far wittier fashion than I can. He built the guide with research from the scene we both spent years in and unsurprisingly we drew many similar conclusions independently. I will note where I disagree with him, although that’s rare. In most cases I simply believe some of his sub-genres could be better divided or more precisely named.
He’s been working on a third version off and on for years but I don’t know that it’s really an attainable goal, mostly because electronic music follows its own version of Moore’s Law – the list of sub-genres practically doubles in size every few years. My articles will also never cover the entire breadth of electronic music for precisely the same reason, although I will have the sole advantage of simply writing texts, snipping small non-looped samples, and not bothering at all to try and put them on any kind of timeline. I may provide a basic map at some point, but even that is fairly easy to bang together quickly compared to the awesome but more time-consuming interface of Ishkur’s guide.
So why am I doing this? There are several reasons. I’m attempting to impose better order on my unwieldy library and thought it might be interesting to share my thought process. I think classifications are fun to debate, and it’s a very handy thing to hammer out when recommending things to someone unfamiliar with electronic music in general or someone with limited points of reference. I have been asked over and over, “I like artist/song [x], how can I find more like that?” Being able to give someone a specific sub-genre or bucket name saves them some time and also helps them reach their goal without having to wade through things that do NOT fit what they’re looking for. Finally – this is one of the secrets to my success as a DJ. Part of my ability to weave a mood through a set of almost any material is due to my classification system. The overlaps and blended edges lead to a very clear pathway on pushing a mix through desired path, and it makes guiding a set through mood changes that much more straightforward.
Before diving into anything specific I thought it would be prudent to lay down some basic points so that I’m not constantly elaborating on the same underlying ideas:
- Naturally this is all opinion. Root genre and bucket classifications are fairly easy to demonstrate and agree on, but getting down into sub-genres can seem pretty subjective to most people. It doesn’t feel like that to me, but that’s in part because the whole thing is codified in my head. I do feel confident that the samples I provide and the points I make on the various sub-genres will easily demonstrate the difference in any two similar categories I’m presenting, but there can always be (and almost always will be) some debate about the creation of two separate categories in the first place.
- I use some unfamiliar terminology. I’ll define those later below.
- There will always be songs that are very debatable. One of the interesting aspects of electronic music is that it’s effortless to mix any number of sub-genres together, and this leads to some truly fascinating results. A song can meet criteria in two or more sub-genres, and while most of the time the percentages lean in one direction or another there are cases where the blending is mixed enough that it’s splitting hairs to choose which sub-genre to call it. This is how music typically evolves; songs that float in between grow in number and start developing their own commonalities into a distinct sound.
- Very little of this is forever written in stone, and I will update articles from time to time if I have new information or if I’m presented with compelling counterpoints. Also I’m pedantic and obsessive enough that I will immediately fix spelling or grammatical errors.
- I will be ignoring timelines. In my opinion once a sub-genre codifies it can retroactively absorb music written years ago. I’m pedantic, but not that pedantic.
- I will be capitalizing genres and sub-genres when I am referring to them as an entity – but only when they’re an entity. When I say techno I’m referring to the vague concept of techno as a bucket, and when I say Techno I am referring to the classification with rules that contains a finite amount of music that can be named. General conversation will read normally but I wanted to make it clear when I’m talking about a node on the 3D mesh diagram that is electronic music.
So what are some of the personal terms I’ve mentioned? A few have already come up.
- Genre: this refers to the central root. There are seven (and only seven) genres in electronic music: House, Trance, Techno, Breakbeat, Jungle, Hardcore, and Downtempo. Every single sound, song, beat (or lack of a beat) can be classified in one of those seven, no exceptions. Even when a sound or sub-genre has additional roots in a non-electronic genre the electronic component can always be traced back to the seven.
- Texture: this is my musical equivalent of “mouthfeel.” It can feel like a maddeningly vague term that represents feelings that are hard to communicate, but in reality I think it’s easily shareable. Texture refers to some of the primal non-emotional responses to a given sound. (Naturally the term mood covers the emotional side.) Characteristics such as rough, smooth, atmospheric, or energetic can be rolled up under the general category of texture. There’s certainly room for interpretation, but even when someone has a different opinion on texture it’s possible to see their perspective.
- Bucket: I hate the term sub-sub-genre (or worse, daisy-chaining genre terms together into a hyphenated mess. There’s the classic joke of “vegetarian Norwegian black metal” that’s good for a laugh but just requires too much peeling to figure out what someone might mean. More than a few sub-genres share enough sound commonalities that they get regularly gathered up in a more general reference. The term “east coast hip hop” covers a range of sub-genres across different time periods, but it also helps narrow what you’re talking about; there are certain things all east coast hip hop shares, and it’s very different from west coast hip hop. As you can probably guess at this point buckets are not capitalized.
- Rules: this is a verbal shortcut that sacrifices precision for a quick metaphor. When I say a sub-genre has rules I don’t exactly mean that a song must absolutely meet the characteristics of [x], [y], and [z] to be considered one sub-genre or another, rather that there are some baseline conventions and expectations that usually get met in some fashion by a song in a sub-genre. In many ways I think this concept helps communicate the overlap that exists in many places as a song might possess all of the proper rules of two similar sub-genres. Rules can also have exceptions, and at the end of the day they can be broken here and there – but by and large they are elements typically present in a sub-genre.
One final note: I love to debate and I welcome all civil comments and debate; note the word civil. I’ve mellowed as I’ve aged, and these days I find there’s very little I want to argue about in passionate terms with shouting and hand waving. Discussions are stimulating, arguments just make me tired. I am always reluctant to delete or ban but I will do so in a heartbeat if there’s verbal abuse toward me or any other commenters – and trust me, I have heard some serious verbal abuse over sub-genre classifications. Music has a fandom like anything else, and that always brings a percentage of righteous warriors. I’m not sure anyone will even read these things, but hey – better to write these specifications now anyway.
Now that that’s out of the way, on with the show!