So there was the memory of the 1999 Chemical Brothers show burned into my memory that I described in the first part of my love letter to electronic music. That night is ingrained in my musical DNA like an aggressive gene therapy created by the beats and sights of glowsticks and dancing. That’s about as deep as the scar on my left knee from the two surgeries needed to reconstruct it. That’ll never go away.
My sister took me other shows afterwards of course and I was very lucky for some of those experiences. One in particular was seeing the sweat come off Tiësto’s brow in an incredibly small rave tent in 2002 as he waved his hand at these two blonde girls that had the even smaller waists. This was years before the dudebros and guidos in the Tri-State Area found him and Tiësto started filling up US arenas like he did the ones back home in the Netherlands.
High school shifted the taste dramatically. It was a change made from the angst-ridden years where my mind and body wanted songs from men like Andre 3000, Christopher Wallace, Maynard James Keenan, Chino Moreno, and Jimmy Page. That big rock and hip-hop kick for most of high school, filled with all the introspection and manufactured anguish an introverted nerdy guy is generally known to have, washed out a lot of drum and bass and trance music from my MP3 players and CD mixtapes.
It wasn’t that something switched in me overnight and I just hated EDM. What occurred was just that there was a mental disconnect, at least to me at the time, of being a fan of high tempo dance music while being a moody little shit, you know? And it was a bit hard to keep your headphones on playing Orbital while your friends blasted screamo and the pop-punk du jour. I stopped going to electronic shows, started going to rock concerts. I loved them as well, but looking back they’ve yet to burn into me like the raves tents and dance clubs.
What kept my body sing electronic, even though I sat in my room alone with my headphones on, came in the gust of one particular song – it keeps happening that way with me, as you’ll see in the next part of this series. That song kept coming to me in small parts placed in scenes of episodes on TV or movies. The bass line crept up slowly until the snare drum came in, then the languid sample loops and fuzzy guitar riff in the background. Then the lyrics came on.
“You…are my angel…”
The song is menacing as all hell while maintaining a seductive cool from the juxtaposition of Horace Andy’s voice. And from there I delved into Massive Attack and by that path I found trip-hop, downtempo, ambient, and all the slower undercurrents of electronic music. Here’s sampler of what I was listening to.
There’s a reason why I bring all this up. It comes because of my writing. As far as I can think of, most of my earliest writing came from the sounds of songs like the ones from the playlist above that came from Bristol or many other parts of the aural umbra. There are times when I hear the rhythmic drums in “Inertia Creeps” that take me to places to stories that are far and away from the song’s lyrics about sex. DJ Shadow’s “Midnight In A Perfect World” served as the theme for a lot of my old poems, if that makes any sense.
Even if all of the stuff I made from that time was garbage – and it was, of course – the music helped start it all, and it was this particular type of music that was the hymn. That was my soundtrack when I was sixteen and an insomniac with too many things that needed to be poured out of my head and onto the screen.
I did eventually get to hear “Angel” live, in 2010 at the Warfield in San Francisco – luckily someone put up a YouTube vid of it. The entire show helped me feel young since I remembered the album came out in 1998 and the crowd must have at least been 35-plus in age. I’m soon to be 27 and I’m listening to “(Exchange)” the final song from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. Seems like a pretty good way to cap off the post.
It’s safe to assume that if you know me you know that my beloved genre of music is of the electronic variety in all its tastes, perversions, and styles. What brought me back to thinking about it to the point of writing about it was finding this small booklet – a guide to electronic music I grabbed from a Tower Records down in the Village back when I was thirteen. The booklet’s introduction started with the description of an imaginary slide reel that starts with Morse and continues onto Marconi, and then to Theremin before ending with the sound of the Windows operating system. There’s a fun fact about that last part: ambient music virtuoso Brian Eno composed the Windows 95 opening chime – you can hear it slowed down 23 times here.
That booklet intro failed to sink into me back then, seeing as I had no idea who Theremin was. I just flipped through the pages until I reached the section on big beat. That style was the one I first listened to when my sister would play New York radio station K-Rock’s Solid State electronic show on Saturday nights. It was crazy for hear the station switch from Nirvana and grunge ad nauseam as well as a metric crap-ton of U2 to repetitive but mesmerizing sounds with vocals and rock chords that tethered me to the songs.
The first song I heard that had that combination was “Block Rockin’ Beats” by The Chemical Brothers. Big sister had a CD single of the song that she played on repeat some nights. The introductory bass line pounded into my head again and again. She eventually purchased the entire album it was from– Dig Your Own Hole – and I could not stop listening to it. She started switching it up to other big band acts like The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but I loved that album to death. Anytime I would hear snippets of their songs in promos and commercials I freaked out – quietly, if I was around my hood schoolmates. The eventual over-saturation of big beat songs did not bother either me or my sister, but we did start going through other paths of electronic music. Still, I cannot help but feel some child-like happiness every time I hear Dig Your Own Hole, and “Block Rockin’ Beats” is a staple on any playlist, mp3 player, and now smartphone that I have ever owned. That song sealed my fate as a disciple to electronic music.
Well, I was not completely sealed. I had not danced to it yet.
My sister started going to concerts a few years later. Somehow, through the grace of God or from my parent’s obliviousness to her taste in music, she took me and my brother to one in September of 1999. It was a school night and she got us tickets to a Chemical Brothers show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. I was twelve at the time, wearing my “best” street clothes and sneakers. The first thing I saw was this tall Brazilian woman waiting on line that had half her hair dyed white. My sister sparked up a conversation with an even-taller Irishman by the name of Damien that was cut short by the doors opening.
We found our way to a close spot to the left of the general admissions floor. Until that point I had not danced in any other way than to slow jams with girls I had crushes on at birthday parties, so when the opening act’s rapid BPM commenced I had no idea what to do. I learned many years later that the opener was trance DJ Paul Oakenfold. You may have heard of his work from that crappy song “Starry Eyed Surprise”, but I assure you his other work is superior. I tapped my feet to the beat while my sister danced with Damien the Irishman. Here I was, this short little Peruvian kid surrounded by a bunch of weird-looking white people dancing in ridiculous ways I had never seen before. So I did as the most likely drugged out New Yorkers in the crowd did and danced equally as silly. Of course I was very ashamed at first, especially since my brother was not dancing and he could use this as blackmail bait back at school. But when The Chemical Brothers showed up on stage, I stopped caring.
Their set began with this hypnotic male Indian voice repeating the word “surrender”, the name of the album they were on tour for. The opening song was “Hey Boy Hey Girl”, and I upped my crazy-dancing the very second it started. This was back when Tom Rowland, one of the Brothers, had long hair so I concentrated on him as he whipped it around while he fiddled with who-knows-what part of the equipment on stage. My head felt fuzzy from the contact high of the crowd’s weed. I do remember dancing in the middle of a circle with some other girls who pushed my dancing to weirder levels. It was a very real and amazing madness.
We got home around three in the morning, my ears ringing and dizzy, and woke up the next day at noon. Thanks to Hurricane Floyd closing school my brother and I had a safe recovery. The malaise stuck with me most of the next two days, but that show was an important revelation to me – I could sort-of dance and that the music I had listened to on the radio and my sister’s boom-box was infinitely cooler than I thought.