Everyone knows Pharrell's "Happy" is 2014's all-access pop jam. It's completely inoffensive, and goes down without aftertaste—which means only those who've had to work in retail somewhere while it plays on loop have really earned the right to complain about it. It's tailor-made to become an international smash, to prove the continued omnipresence of the American pop music machine, an aspiring "Hey Ya."
In the UK, though, it was knocked to the No. 2 position a few weeks back by 20-year-old producer Rowan James, who goes by the name Route 94. His song rules. Relying on a repeated, yearning vocal loop and a "deep" production sound driven by emotive pianos, it's a deeply dramatic moment of serene "lost in music" vibes.
It's also a perfect example of the "changing same" qualities that continually refine and redefine the UK's unique dance scene, which in fact derived from Black American music scenes of the early '80s. (In fact, Route 94's name is a reference to the highway that connects Chicago and Detroit—the cities responsible for House music and Techno, respectively. Although he should know that no one in Chicago, at any rate, calls it "Route 94"—it's "I-94," as in "Interstate.") In the late '80s and early '90s, the UK's "rave culture" sliced a ragged generation gap in that country, as ecstasy, American house, and techno were transformed into Britain's own mutated offspring. Tempos sped up; breakbeats became more intricate.
From this point, vibes got brighter and BRIGHTER, then concurrently darker and darker, a come-down from the drug induced high. Since that time, the genre evolved at raves and, ultimately, in clubs. Eventually becoming more tasteful, influenced by U.S. R&B at the end of the late '90s and early 2000s, and warping under continued exposure to Jamaican dancehall and Trinidad's Soca rhythms, et al.
This scene has intermittently been beamed back into the U.S. at various points. Craig David, after all, was a star of the "2 step" scene of the early '00s (real heads know: the Sunship Remix is the only version of "Fill Me In" you really need). At this time, UK dance music had evolved into a kind of bubbly, nervous rhythmic bounce, like an English counterpart to Timbaland. (A must-hear mix CD from this era is Shanks and Bigfoot's mix Ayia Napa: The Album, named for the island that had replaced Ibiza as the primary vacation destination for UK clubgoers.)
Throughout the years, the sound has evolved in ways that make it feel at once "of a piece" with the past, but still contemporary. These days, the UK dance scene seems to have mainly oriented around a "sound" channeling late '80s and early '90s house and R&B, rather than the UK rave music of the time. Think pop producers like Jam & Lewis, or American pop-house songs like Robin S.'s "Show Me Love." (Interestingly, that song was revived in the U.S. recently with Kid Ink and Chris Brown's "Show Me," produced by DJ Mustard; it's no coincidence that Mustard is a DJ as well as a producer, from a scene that operates like a West Coast, American, hip-hop counterpart to the UK scene.)
In addition to the house piano-driven sound of Route 94, you have labels like Black Butter, who recently received a profile in Pitchfork. They've released music by acclaimed group Rudimental, who in turn have worked with artists like MNEK ("em-en-ee-kay"). He has been similarly feted by Buzzfeed. (He's also been recording since he was fourteen.) Another artist who could potentially cross over in the States is Shift K3y, whose vocal style has a distinctly U.S.-friendly pop sound.
Much as it is in the U.S. hip-hop scene, there's a delineation between the stuff that is seen as "serious" music, and the jams that go off in clubs. And a lot of times, the press over here leaves the sure-shot club music behind. it's the former category that gets picked up by the U.S. press, repackaged as a kind of auteur-driven, techno-derived high art with abstracted pop appeal. (Recent examples might include Burial and Disclosure.)
Part of the problem with creating a profile for "this stuff" in the U.S. is that it's not really a "genre" of its own; it's a new variation on a long-running scene, at once distinct and part of the longer current. Unlike, say, reggaeton, a genre built around a particular rhythm, this scene is "you know it when you see it"-style music: a series of different elements that swarm around to create something coherent. The best way to get a sense for this growing scene might be through a DJ mix, rather than reading about it. (Aside from this article, of course.)
And the best DJ to turn to is probably DJ Q, who has created a kind of aesthetic "center" around which these songs begin to make sense. His many mixes, for publications and (especially) radio, show where UK club music has been, where it is now, and where it might be going.
But with this scene, in constrast with your typical UK dance trend, "pop" and "dance" appear more aligned than usual. Could this stuff cross over in the states, in these EDM-friendly times? It remains to be seen. Two weeks after Route 94 debuted on the UK charts, it remains atop Pharrell's "Happy" juggernaut. This week, a new single entered the fray: Duke Dumont's "I Got U," which follows up last year's major Dumont anthem "100%." If not "My Love," perhaps this is the future.