PAT BLASHILL TRACES THE HISTORY OF ELECTRO, THE UNSUNG SOURCE OF RAP, TECHNO, AND TRIP-HOP
POP MUSIC can be like an unexpected houseguest: It arrives out of nowhere, with no explanations and no baggage, and suddenly it’s in your face. But if you listen up, you’ll find that, like a stranger with a story, even the freshest new sound has some history behind it.
Over the last few years, some of the most intriguing and inexplicable hip-hop records have come to America from the pasty environs of England. Pundits were quick to label the cool, innovative sounds of Tricky and the Chemical Brothers “trip-hop.” But why does trip-hop sound like a shotgun wedding between two seemingly antithetical styles of music — hip-hop and techno?
The answer is that, in fact, techno and hip-hop sprang from the same source: electro music. Electro was the fantastic sound of a long moment in the early ’80s — a silly robotic funk of huge beats, video-game bleeps, and synthesizer boogie. It began in 1982, when a Bronx DJ named Afrika Bambaataa used a couple of turntables and a recording studio to stitch the icy melodies of Kraftwerk to the playful grooves of proto-hip-hop. In a fit of funky multiculturalism, Bambaataa called his jam ‘Planet Rock’.
The club hits that followed his example — like Laid Back’s ‘White Horse’, the Jonzun Crew’s ‘Pack Jam’, and Shannon’s ‘Let the Music Play’ — sounded both futuristic and earthy. Electro artists fetishized technologies like computers and fiberoptics, imagining them as freaky new ways to get it on. But underneath the lyrics about androids plugging each other, electro was romantic and Utopian. It was the next step in a tradition of Afro-futurism that stretched back to Parliament’s songs about a UFO called the Mothership — which were themselves revisions of spirituals like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. Electro foretold a future of harmony between blacks and whites, but also between man and his nastiest machines.
At the time, electro music, like break dancing, graffiti art, and Pac-Man, bore all the marks of an amusing fad. But all of these crazes were interrelated — part of a street culture which in the ensuing years never really died. Instead, electro became the blueprint for the most exciting dance music on the planet.
AFTER BAMBAATAA made his move in 1982, all sorts of disparate folks embraced electro — from a young Dr. Dre and his World Class Wreckin’ Cru to the father of the funk himself, George Clinton, who leaped into the fray with ‘Atomic Dog’. On the East Coast, when they weren’t spray-painting subway cars, graffiti artists like Futura and Fab Five Freddy were recording electro-rap tunes for New York’s Celluloid Records. And across the country, new-wave white boys like myself were trotting around awkwardly to Grandmaster & Melle Mel’s 1983 electro anthem ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, two African-American kids named Juan Atkins and Rick Davis — inspired by Bambaataa as well as the bleak synth-rock of Ultravox and Gary Numan — had begun recording under the name Cybotron. Their slightly cooler electro replaced the rapping and the robot themes with minimal, soulful vocals and a dark view of the present. In 1984, Cybotron contributed a song to Streetsounds’ Electro, a popular British compilation. The track was called ‘Techno City’, and its mechanical yet passionate sound was so striking that British musicians began swiping some of its elements — eventually twisting them into a new music called acid house.
Back in the States, electro was evolving in entirely different directions. One of these offshoots was freestyle, or Latin hip-hop, which grafted plaintive diva vocals onto electro grooves in hits like Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s ‘I Wonder if I Take You Home’. Another electro-hip-hop derivative. Miami bass, would later produce bizarre phenomena such as 2 Live Crew and, still later, 95 South’s hit ‘Whoot! There It Is’.
Electro’s most formidable heirs were, of course, the young stars of rap, and early records by Salt-N-Pepa, Run-D.M.C, and LL Cool J all betray electro touches. But hip-hop soon traded electro’s cyberdreams and sci-fi puns for tougher sounds and subjects. In the hands of a rapper like Chuck D, what had been the sound of the stars was transformed into the sound of the streets.
Across the Atlantic, British DJs were using the very things hip-hop DJs didn’t like about electro — synthetic melodies, inhuman percussive textures — to create a sound that might have come from another galaxy, and so techno was born. A few people even recognized the aural connections between techno and hip-hop: In the late ’80s, Afrika Bambaataa’s old label. Tommy Boy, was releasing records by rave pioneers like 808 State and LFO, as well as rap records by De La Soul and Stetsasonic.
Today, electro still burbles beneath dozens of hip-hop records: It’s in Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ‘Who Am I?’ (a nod to ‘Atomic Dog’); it’s in the Miami bass strains of the Quad City DJs’ ‘C’Mon Ride It (The Train)’. But the most electro-fied hip-hop record around is Dr. Octagon, by former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith. On one track the Doctor even announces, “Earth people, I was born on Jupiter!” — thereby claiming a heritage that reaches back past Bambaataa and George Clinton to jazzman Sun Ra, who was, after all, from Saturn.
At the same time, techno has come back down to earth a bit — yet traces of electro’s spacey romanticism remain. England’s Autechre play a starkly beautiful, highly evolved form of electro, devoid of funk as we know it: This isn’t dance music, it’s electronic psychedelia. But Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown didn’t meet at a Pink Floyd show — they met because, like a lot of U.K. techno musicians, they were both into break dancing and graffiti art.
More than a decade after Bambaataa and Cybotron took electro in two very different directions, hip-hop and techno are recombining — in the blunted, soulful meditations of DJ Shadow, in the manic grooves and kung fu movie samples of Depth Charge, and in the adrenaline cyberfunk of the Chemical Brothers. Trip-hop is the kind of electronic frontier Chuck D alluded to when he described rap as the black CNN: It’s about making musical connections between past and present, black and white, man and machine, between the dance floor and the starship Enterprise. Electro, once a music that looked into the twenty-first century, has become the sound of the moment — it just took us a decade or so to get with it.
© Pat Blashill, Details, December 1996