“Electro” as a genre confuses people. To the uninitiated, it serves as a catch-all term for any music one may hear at a dancefloor featuring synthesizer beeps and drum machine beats. This confusion is made none the clearer when websites such as YouTube or Beatport constantly fail to properly categorise and identify music – user-tagged music on platforms such as Bandcamp helps relieve this; this perhaps keeps electro a relatively underground genre. Talking about music is always not only about the sounds, but also words: beyond the listening experience, the words and labels we use influence our reception of what is in question, particularly if misunderstanding the definition from the outset prevents one from even listening to what is being talked about. Let us now delve into the original meaning of the word and sounds in question.
The genre’s pioneering sounds can be found in Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk or Detroit’s Drexciya, a later-generation underground duo who, with their prolific and often experimental output, outlined much of what electro still stands for. The genre’s most iconic sounds come from old-school drum machines and synths such as the Roland 606, 808, 303, or the Yamaha DX7 to name a few. Many of these were flops when released, particularly in the case of the Roland gear which was originally intended as substitutes for drummers or bassists in a band setting, which however sounded so out of place in a band that people sold them off and they were later snagged cheap by Afro-Americans and other impoverished communities and used to make music. It was precisely this alien character what helped the genre gain its futuristic aesthetic, as these were sounds people had never heard before and which allowed their creators to interact with music-making in a wholly new manner, moving away from live instruments to programming drum beats and synth loops.
This new way of making music, not through virtuosic control of an instrument but by means of recording layers of different small elements which then are more than a sum of their parts is what infused the genre with a stress on human-machine interaction. Many artists were inspired by this approach and developed the cyborg aesthetic of Kraftwerk into a hallmark of the genre, intentionally blurring the lines between man and synthesizer as the author. Juxtaposed with a myth of a classical genius whose muses bring forth melodies and compositions the artist merely puts down, technology here plays an instrumental part in the music’s creation as one may need not have a specific idea in mind before creating, letting the machine provide inspiration instead, leading to an interactive feedback loop between the user and instrument on the path to writing and recording music.
Upon closer inspection, the genre bears specific features and aesthetics which in today’s era suffused with straight-beat techno stand in contrast. Although some electro tracks use four-on-the-floor beats, the emphasis does not lie in a bass drum that overpowers the entire mix, as is often so in more mainstream dance genres. Sure, there is bass, and plenty of it to get the body moving and molecules vibrating, but the rhythms tend to be more intricate and the overall mix much tighter in order to accommodate lead bass lines and additional percussions. It could be argued that in comparison to techno, which has a more static and perhaps hypnotic effect, the many small percussive elements of electro can get the listener moving more and generally provide a more enjoyable listening experience outside the club.
The hallmark of electro are breakbeats. Not necessarily sampled drum breaks (although they do often appear), but a rhythm that does not go “untz-untz”, but more along the lines of typical drum and bass, but generally at slower tempos. This lends the genre a certain unpredictability and overlap with other genres such as funk, synthwave or hip-hop – and indeed, electro beats were some of the first instrumental accompaniments in 80’s rap music. With today’s promulgation of genres, we find many blends of the original electro sound – be it with techno, EBM, drum and bass or trap, among others. On the other hand, we not only find producers true to the original sound, but even those who reinvent the genre while remaining very much true to its roots and aesthetics. Electro seems to be on the rise again, with labels such as Cultivated Electronics, Mechatronica, CPU Records, International Chrome, SolarOne, Body Musick and even Lobster Theremin spearheading the sounds of the future to today’s listeners.
Among one of the most prolific and sovereign creators in the genre are Rotterdam’s Animistic Beliefs, who are a testament that a genre with its roots in the 80s is still relevant today: with their contemporary spin on classic Drexciyan vibes, the extravagant Moluccan-Vietnamese duo push the genre’s futurism into new territories. Having released their first EP mere 4 years ago, they are one of the scene’s rising stars not only through their refined productions, but also searing live performance sets which give them the opportunity to properly tap into the “souls of the instruments” even live, instead of the conventional DJ approach of playing their own tracks.
Hailing from Bogota, Colombia, FILMMAKER creates his own take on the genre with his signature dark, overdriven and edgy sound. Although one can trace many of electro’s conventions in his music, his massive oeuvre shows no fear to step beyond conventions, and this extends to other productions on his label BODY MUSICK – it has recently become a platform of like-minded producers who help extend this exploratory vision in their own right. Listen to his collaborative EP with DJ これからの緊急災害 (Wachita China) that showcases this approach, followed by three experimental-yet-danceable bombs by the latter producer from Barcelona.
Another electro producer not to miss is Cyan85 from Germany, who rose to fame with his edgier DJ sets that often incorporate soulful tracks along with the conventional electro sound, a subgenre dubbed “ghetto electro”, a style stemming from 90’s Miami Bass music which regularly features dirty lyrics along with hard-hitting 808 breakbeats. Check out his 2020 release which nods back to the sounds of the 80’s with a vibe not unlike Cybotron.
To round up the selection, one cannot omit Partiboi69 who, thanks to his lockdown YouTube DJ sets, rose to fame and pushed electro back into the mainstream; his sets accompanied with funky visuals have already garnered millions of views and he has recently taken to producing his own tracks as well. In “Feed Me Data” he refreshes the genre through an ironically sincere reflection of electro’s incessant obsession with computers and technology, all the while producing a certified banger that features his own rapping over a high-tempo beat, a trend that seems to be on the rise as well.
One of the genre’s hallmarks, and perhaps of music altogether, is the infinite permutability it offers to producers and artists. While some opt to throw back to the golden years of the 80s and 90s, others do not fret in actualizing through experiment and new technology while retaining inherent traces of the primordial origins. Given the current oversaturation of clubs with techno, electro is now pushing back with force, its breakbeats and grooves refreshing the stale bass drum beat that Berlin made resonate around the world. Although techno used to be the sound of the future, that present is now past and audiences may well appreciate a breath of fresh air on the dancefloor.
Music article is written by Tomáš Kovařík. You can find the electro sets of the article’s author featuring some of the mentioned artists on his Soundcloud.
Interview with Sofia Palm (author of artworks in the article)
Most of your artwork takes place in your fictional worlds. Where do you find inspiration for them?
Sometimes I pick out screenshots in my head, like shimmering water from a blissful moment. Other times, certain emotions can trigger me to express myself in a creative process as a need for release or manifestation. Popular and underground culture is also a huge inspiration. All these things create an urge in me to combine them and make them emerge with a new purpose. Most of the personal experiences one has stored can be useful in so many ways. And I believe in seizing them as opportunities for creating new stuff. No matter if they come from a state of trauma or blissfulness, all of it holds some kind of value in the end.
How would you describe your process of creating your artworks?
There is something magical about cross-fertilizations as a cocoon for birthing new designs or art that’s magnetic. So I find this to be a forceful method when creating. For instance I like to create rooms where I place macabre flaccid objects and make them appear with elegance. I find it interesting to shine a light on things beyond the norm, to challenge what is regarded to be right/wrong, beautiful/ugly, black/white. The grey areas are where the magic happens. That beauty lies in the eye of the beholder is something I find to be true because it’s all a matter of perspective. My consciousness becomes more fertile when exploring unusual perspectives on things.
How do you see the future of art? Do you think it will take place mostly in an online environment?
I will most likely continue showcasing my art online, primarily. The most accessible platforms are online. That’s also where the wider audience is. But I do rent a studio space at FRANK Gallery & Studios where I have held exhibitions. The future is yet unwritten.
Are you currently preparing any exhibitions or projects we can look forward to?
I am working on some cover art for clients and the release of their EP and I’m very honored I get to do so. Working with people whose music I am a fan of is a dream come true. I also have some want-to-do artworks in mind which will be presented in the near future on my Instagram and other mediums. Maybe as NFT’s, which is a phenomenon I have recently started exploring.
BIO / Sofia Palm is a visual artist from Malmö, Sweden. She creates digital artworks for the use of cover art, social and music media, prints, NFTs and just for the fun of it.
Article about music / Tomáš Kovařík @_tomaskovarik
Artworks / Sofia Palm @rymdrum
Interview with Sofia / Markéta Kosinová @__maarketa__