Today, while taking The Train over The Bridge onto The Island where I labor in the Content Creation Mines, a song appeared on my Apple, Inc.-brand portable communication device. Transmitted from an mpeg layer 3 audio file to audio waves via a "DAC" (Digital-to-Analog Converter), I experienced the transcendent power of Lifelike and Kris Menace's 2005 Ibiza anthem "Discopolis," and was transported to an island not unlike the one I was presently approaching in a rail car.
OK, maybe Manhattan isn't that similar.
For those who aren't familiar, Ibiza is a Mediterranean island that serves as a commercial and cultural center for Europe's dance music scene—the place where many of the kids across the continent spend "holiday." (I've never actually, physically, been.) "Discopolis" is EDM (Electronic Dance Music) from before EDM was called "EDM." At the time of "Discopolis"'s release, "EDM" was widely popular across the world, from Europe to Africa to South America—and relatively marginal in the United States.
And the reason America didn't care was hip-hop. Folks often think about hip-hop's commercial success in binary terms. There's the stuff that is huge with hip-hop fans, and the stuff that becomes popular enough (with white America) to cross over. But there's an entire radio format that is really the connective tissue between hip-hop's core fanbase and its crossover success: "Rhythmic."
They often advertised clubs like Excalibur, a castle-like structure in a tourist-heavy neighborhood on the near North Side that, in my ten-year-old mind, seemed hopelessly adult, like cigarettes, women with hoop earrings, and Zima.
"Rhythmic" radio is Top 40, stripped of rock music. It's generally urban-based, diverse, and often club-oriented. In Chicago, where I grew up, it was epitomized by B96. (All descriptions of playlists are memory-based, so, grain of salt.) In the early '90s, when I was a kid, they played a lot of house music, from Crystal Waters to Ace of Base. They often advertised clubs like Excalibur, a castle-like structure in a tourist-heavy neighborhood on the near North Side that, in my ten-year-old mind, seemed hopelessly adult, like cigarettes, women with hoop earrings, and Zima (also heavily advertised at the time).
B96 did play hip-hop back then, usually of the West Coast variety—I definitely remember hearing the Doggystyle singles and Ice Cube's "Bop Gun" in rotation. They were less likely to play some of the deeper cuts and New York-oriented raps you might hear on rap stations like 950AM WJPC. Likewise, they played fewer R&B ballads than, say, 1075.5 WGCI. But club music—non-rap dance music—was huge, in a way it wouldn't be again until will.i.am helped change the game in the mid-2000s.
But then, from the late 1990s 'til around 2005, B96's main playlist was dominated by hip-hop (and hip-hop's various followers, like Gwen Stefani). There were a few differences between the station and hip-hop oriented spots (B96 played considerably more Eminem), but for the most part, rappers big on rap radio (Ludacris!) were big on B96, too. The club music was relegated to after-hours mixshows on the weekends.
This helps explain why acts like Daft Punk faced such an uphill climb to American acceptance when they first emerged during this period. Or why more Americans now remember 1998's "Make 'Em Say Uhh!" (No. 9 on the Hot 100) than Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You," an international smash from the same year that only managed to reach No. 62 on the Hot 100.
When I finally got to college in 2001, Nelly was rap music's biggest star among Americans. But dance music (that is, non-hip-hop dance music) was the dominant party choice for most of the school's international students, whether from India, Egypt, or Muldova. A hundred of us would gather in the "Russian Suite," drink [redacted], and listen to "Sandstorm" at least three times per night. It was an eye-opening experience: music that I'd previously written off as the soundtrack to neon-lit cars from the outer 'burbs was the musical lingua franca of parties across the globe.
It was like being forced to go to bed early the night before school started, while the other kids were still kicking it outside. I had to know what was going on.
This sparked years of frantic research into dance music, to try to understand where this all came from. I'm from Chicago, so it wasn't like house music was new to me. But the house music I knew locally, and the assorted chants that came with it, felt like a world away from the massive Ibiza anthems played at parties I wasn't a part of. It was like being forced to go to bed early the night before school started, while the other kids were still kicking it outside. I had to know what was going on.
So much of the club music that graced foreign and cosmopolitan dancefloors prior to bloghouse, dubstep, "Trap," and what's currently called "EDM," is basically unknown to Americans who weren't completely immersed in house scenes in Chicago or New York. But it is some of my favorite music ever made, from night owl anthem "At Night" to the classier pointillism of "Beau Mot Plage" to the retro piano-house barbecue music of David Morales' "Space Cowboy" remix. This barely scratches the surface. There were the $20 dance import CDs from Tower Records, the Hed Kandi mixes with their ridiculous, cartoonish yuppie-getaway cover art, the obscure German labels and their tasteful minimal house.
There was the homegrown, American stuff, like Paul Johnson's "Get Get Down" (which still found a bigger audience abroad). The work of Chilean producer Ricardo Villalobos, whose work sounded like desiccated dance music that had been nibbled away by insects. There was the lush gospel house, the filtered disco. And of course the entirety of dance music's history had to be exhumed, from Trax compilations all the way back to live recordings of Larry Levan spinning at the Paradise Garage—a recorded document at least as vital and exciting as the collected works of The Beatles, Lil Wayne, or Wu-Tang Clan.
"Discopolis" was released in 2005. Hip-hop still held on to the pop charts; So So Def was throwing hits up Billboard around this time. Snap music was emerging. But the seeds of hip-hop's divorce from pop were sewn with the breakout success of the Black Eyed Peas, who seemed ready to shake off hip-hop radio completely, leading Rhythmic Top 40 on a path toward EDM. Justice was right around the corner, Skrillex was a member of emo band First To Last, and Kanye's "Stronger" was two years away. "Discopolis" was the first big hit for Kris Menace and Lifelike, a single strong enough to launch both artists' careers. Initially released on Alan Braxe's Vulture label, then repackaged by major UK house label Defected, the song became a massive anthem in Ibiza, but made no noise on the American pop charts.
It was also the year I left college. I spent the time living at home, job hunting, freelancing, and—mostly—going out in Chicago, in search of music in its natural habitat: Clubs, parties, concerts. The idea with dance music, of course, was that you danced to it. The internet made it possible to access all this amazing new music. But it also led to experiencing it at a remove, idealizing the emotion and mood but de-emphasizing the other pieces that made dance music what it was. I soon discovered that one had to look at the song holistically: that is, you couldn't undersell the music's functional aspect, its structure, the groove, the way it was crafted to have an effect on the dancer.
"Discopolis" is a perfect example. At more than 9 minutes in length, it made little sense without the space to stretch out. (The 3-4 minute radio edit, as used in its exceptionally pervy music video, does not do the song justice.) It's a song designed to be the centerpiece of a DJ's set, the kind of track that acts as its own center of gravity, every other song either a lead-in or a come-down from that moment.
"Discopolis" is mainly focused on the interplay between a muscular bassline and a searing melodic siren that doesn't even enter until after the three-minute mark.
The twinkling backdrop that opens the track is a sample of '80s italo anthem "Another Life" by Kano (another video well worth watching). But "Discopolis" is mainly focused on the interplay between a muscular bassline and a searing melodic siren that doesn't even enter until after the three-minute mark. It's music designed to fill a massive space.
One of the reasons popular "EDM" was so marginal in the United States in the early 2000s was, no doubt, that one of its most populist formulations was "trance." Trance tended to focus on the euphoric rush of dance music, increasing the tempo and flattening a sense of groove. Melody became the foremost concern. In an interview, Kris Menace described "Discopolis" as something Lifelike—real name, Laurent Heinrich—was wary of initially. "Laurent wasn’t into the track at first, as it had a lot of trance influences in it. But I slowed it down to 115bpm [beats per minute] which changed it. Slowing tracks down was quite crazy in a time where most of the tracks were around 130."
By "trance elements," I would assume Kris Menace means the extended breakdowns and the soaring air-raid-siren melody. But his idea—to slow "trance" down to a disco-like tempo—reoriented the song towards the groove, to the dance between its low and high end, an ocean of space between each element of the song. Slowing down the tempo presaged a move towards disco revivalism that was beginning to take hold in dance. But it retained the "cheesy" populism of trance, its audacious, unapologetic, big-room sound. It's this boldness that makes it such a wholly enveloping, undeniable capital-A Anthem. You could be on a beach in Ibiza, hitting the clubs for the first time, or on your daily commute. Whatever you're doing when "Discopolis" is on instantly becomes the most significant possible thing anyone is doing anywhere. The song's real power is the ability to transmute day-to-day banalities into actions of movie-montage-level importance, to grant the listener—at least, for nine minutes—Godlike powers of agency.
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