In the electronic dance music community, there’s a popular party tour hosted by SFX Entertainment called Life in Color, where patrons come dressed in white with the hopes of dancing the night away while getting drenched by a rainbow of paint. Scores of white faces get splattered with color as the sounds of genres that all trace back to black origins wash over them. It was the legendary African-American DJ Frankie Knuckles who crafted the sounds that we know as house in The Warehouse nightclub in Chicago, while Detroit’s “Belleville Three” of Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins (again, three black men) were responsible for taking their Italo-disco/Kraftwerk/Yellow Magic Orchestra influences and creating what we now know as techno.
Take a look at DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list or the headliners of the world’s largest EDM festivals, and you’ll see that the majority of today’s “top DJs” share a couple of common characteristics: white and male. Although diverse innovators paved the way, and modern dance music increasingly appropriates the hip-hop attitude and sound (another black genre), it’s plain to see that the producers and DJs at the forefront of EDM’s mainstream rise do not resemble their influences. Instead, they’re mirrors of the crowd they cater to: young white kids.
Coinciding with the rise of the term “EDM” are regular debates about the bastardization of “pure” electronic music. The funny thing is, many of the same people who champion pure electronic music aren’t familiar with the veterans. How many of these EDM media outlets had to rush to Google Grammy Award-winning producer Frankie Knuckles when he passed last March? Ignorance of the scene’s history is obviously a problem, but the question remains: Who’s to blame?
It’s easiest to point the finger at the checkwriters (the label heads, festival promoters, and entertainment companies bankrolling the EDM scene). They’re the ones who picked up on these genres of black origin, cleaned them up, packaged them neatly for mass consumption, and sold them back to the people through DJs like Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, and other white males. They’re the same people who make decisions at radio stations like BBC’s Radio 1, a station that, over the last few years, has replaced black DJs like Fabio & Grooverider (two of the forefathers of the jungle/drum & bass scene) and DJ Bailey with white DJs like Friction and Crissy Criss. The white males in these roles are unquestionably capable, but with EDM being such a worldwide phenomenon, the makeup of the “top DJs” in the world fails utterly to represent the rainbow of producers and DJs under EDM’s vast banner.
It does reflect the crowds that actually attend large EDM festivals in 2014, though. During the 1980s, the Chicago house scene was largely made up of gay black and brown men, and it thrived. The makeup was similar at the legendary Paradise Garage in New York, where the majority of the partygoers looking for that New York house sound were people of color in the LGBT community. Watching the Ultra Music Festival’s annual livestream, it’s hard not to notice the bouncing sea of white faces sparsely dotted with pops of color. One could assume that it’s the lack of soul in the house, techno, and even drum & bass of today that doesn’t appeal to those outside of the Caucasian persuasion. But if a product is constantly presented as a white sausage party, it’s no surprise that non-white male fans won’t identify.
Cash rules everything around EDM’s push into the mainstream. If white fans are the ones paying top dollar to see their favorite DJs spin, perhaps they’d rather go see a white DJ spinning their euphoria-inducing EDM. Maybe that’s the appeal of someone like Diplo, a conventionally handsome white guy in a suit who is seen as a musical genius by some and a culture vulture by others. Is it that he’s just a passionate music connoisseur who’s drawn to the regional sounds of, say, New Orleans bounce or baile funk, or do the corporations footing the bill for his excursions know that it’d be harder to sell a “legitimate” act from those regions, thus making a Diplo necessary to turn a profit? Whatever the case may be, you end up with sounds that, while enjoyable on the surface, end up being homogenized, commercialized takes on the source material.
So, where does that leave us? It’s hard enough wrapping your head around the fact that many people don’t realize that the origins of house and techno are as American as apple pie. The fear, then, is that, while America’s racial landscape is increasingly mixed, the EDM scene won’t reflect it. It’d be nice to see EDM, which is growing into a bigger force among young people (and a cash cow for the suits) than ever before, be representative of the true makeup of the country, placing the originators and the innovators of all races, colors, and genders on a level playing field.
This article is taken from the August/September 2014 issue of Complex Magazine.