The great electronic music debate: An EDM primer

“You wanna go check out DJ so-and-so on Friday?”

“What kinda music do they spin?”

“Uh… electronic music?”

“Duh, but what? House? Trance? Breaks?”

“Well, house… kinda. But some tracks are trance-y. Occasionally there’s some cool blends or ‘mash-ups.’ Crap. I don’t know. Just go with me, okay?”

Genres. Friggin’ genres. Classifications are one of the biggest pains in my ass when it comes to electronic music. Unless you’re a super fan or very particular producer/DJ, the specifics often don’t matter as long as you like the track. But it can be nice to know what you’re getting yourself into before heading to the party.

Names aside, there’s the music you dance your ass off to, chill lounge-y stuff, larger-than-life ethereal festival vibes, commercial cheese and, of course, total crap. But that’s just the starter kit of what’s coming from the DJ booth. While there are countless subcategories and sub-subcategories, for the most part, the major genres are distinct enough to label and define. For the newbies, I’m going to attempt to cover the basics of electronic dance music, including a very brief history and local listening spots (with some fear of super-fan backlash in our comments section).

For your studying pleasure, my electronic music genre primer:

House: Credited as starting in Chicago, it’s got soul, a warm feeling and a mid-tempo 4/4 (or four-on-the-floor) beat. Sometimes there are vocals, sometimes not. Big producers/DJs that come through Las Vegas that househeads have checked out recently include Miguel Migs, JoJo Flores and Ben Watt. Those with a Vegas connection include Jesse Saunders (who lives here now and is often credited as producing the first house record, On & On, in 1984) and the House Society crew, who throws the monthly Soundbar party at Ghostbar.

Trance: Get ready for a journey; trance can be pretty epic. It can make you shout in joy or completely tug at your heartstrings. It’s transcending, engaging and you can get lost in the melody. Typically, it’s at a higher BMP (beats per minute) than house, though there are exceptions. Trance can also be cheesy with, as Paul van Dyk has described it, “la-la vocals.” Some of those producers who brought trance to the forefront of electronic music now shy away from the specific label, including Paul van Dyk, Tiësto and Paul Oakenfold, preferring to call their music “electronic dance music” or EDM. Hey, that makes it easier for me.

Breakbeats or breaks: Where house and trance have the continuous underlying 4/4 beat, breaks, well, break that up. This style deviates from the standard measure and has an irregular drum pattern with one to three beats in a bar instead of four. When I say “bar” I mean the musical variety. Let me put it this way: When I hear breaks, I start dancing along, pause, go “Whoa!” then take it in a different direction.

Drum and Bass (also drum n bass, DnB, etc, sometimes referred to as “jungle,” but don’t say that around a junglist): Speed up those breakbeats and add some whomping bass that you can feel, the kind of deep sounds that make you fear the brown noise on South Park. Add a bit of reggae and hip-hop influence and sometimes an MC, as well. Interestingly, many in DnB cite Miles Davis and jazz as an influence. Check out Evol Intent, Pendulum and Dieselboy (who’s coming to Vegas for Planet of the Drums next Thursday) for examples.

Electro: A little bit disco, a little bit like the synth pop of the ’80s, electro is often staccato and vocals are mechanical thanks to the prevalence of vocoders used on the tracks. Electro makes me want to roller-skate. Others, like Noel Sanger, think the basslines are too “farty.”

Ambient: Super-mellow, ambient usually makes me sleepy. This isn’t what you’ll hear in a club, but it might be the soundtrack for a chill out room at an underground party. It’s basically beatless. See A Midsummer Night’s Rave and the scene where the girl won’t shut up for more reference. Actually, that’s more downtempo or trip-hop…

Downtempo and trip-hop: It’s laidback. It’s chill. It’s groovy. And often, it’s pretty sexy. If I were a stripper, I might use a trip-hop track to seduce a tourist in a dark corner. Trip-hop works really well to wind down the end of a party. Newbies to electronic music will probably recognize some of the prominent artists in this category: Portishead, Massive Attack, Gorillaz and Thievery Corporation. Feel like delving deeper? Be sure to check out the legendary DJ Shadow.

“But isn’t it all really just techno or electronica?”

As far as techno, fans and music journalists tend to avoid the term (guilty as charged). It’s too broad of a classification, and if you thought people argued about the sub-genres, don’t get them started on techno. Same thing goes for electronica. Let’s just stick to EDM when we don’t know what to call something.

Beyond simple ignorance of the lingo, labeling is often difficult because distinctive lines have blurred between genres. These days, electronic music can be broken down to the most niche classifications, if one really wants to get nasty with it. Here are a few of my “WTF is that?” favorites:

Nintendocore: Sounds like an 8-bit Nintendo soundtrack from the ’80s with some screaming metal vocals thrown in.

Space Synth: I have no idea what this is, but it sounds like fun. Maybe it’s synthesizer music created by people from space. I bet Afrika Bambaataa knows who’s behind this.

Nitzhonot: Israeli goa trance.

Suomisaundi: Finnish psychedelic trance. Perhaps the music is as interesting as the name.

Japanoise: Industrial noise from Japan.

Happy Hardcore: How you would feel partying at a Disneyland rave: Superfast beat and very chipper lovey-dovey lyrics. This will either annoy the hell out of you or make you smile and bounce around. Check out local underground DJ SuPeR K! for a good example.

This is only the tip of the electronic iceberg. The aforementioned descriptions are just my impressions, and as LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow would say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

Actually, don’t take my word for it. For EDM history and an interactive chart of the evolution of genres with humorous descriptions—plus handy-dandy audio samples!—check out presents Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music. Have fun reorganizing your mp3s and arguing with fellow clubbers!

Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly and Las Vegas Sun

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