Summer is officially over, and as the days get longer, it’s only natural that we take stock of the season’s biggest moments in music.
There are a lot of themes and events that nabbed summer’s attention—from major box office releases to a string of live festivals and fashion shows. But in music, nothing has dominated conversation as much as house and dance music’s triumphant rise to mainstream popularity.
In June, Drake entered the world of dance with his seventh studio album, Honestly, Nevermind. The project, which borrowed sounds from Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago house music, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. A few weeks later, Beyoncé entered the conversation with her highly-anticipated album, Renaissance. The album served as a sort of history lesson in dance and house culture, utilizing classic samples like Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Beyoncé’s record also debuted atop the Billboard 200. Beyoncé and Drake are not the only contemporary artists to dip their toes in the genre. Kanye West, Azealia Banks, Teyana Taylor, and a handful of others have also contributed tunes to the space in the last decade. But the success of Beyoncé and Drake’s respective records makes a case for why dance is the official MVP of summer 2022.
Before delving into dance music’s current success, it’s worth noting that it’s a far from new endeavor. Dance music has been around for over five decades, first gaining traction in the 1970s and early ’80s in Chicago’s underground club scene with artists like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. One of the main influences of house music was disco, but DJs began adding their own spin to the sound by altering the beat to have more electronic and mechanical elements. By the 1980s, DJs began playing a range of house styles at parties, including subgenres such as deep house, acid house, and UK garage.
Hip-hop also started to embrace house music when MCs and beatmakers joined forces to create energized songs with funk samples and gritty vocals in the late ’80s. Since then, modern house music has become more regional with subgenres like Jersey club, Baltimore club, and Philly club music taking center stage.
House music, though it never completely fell off, lost much of its popularity after its peak in the 1990s, as the industry moved towards other genres and sounds. Pop and rock music creeped into dominance during the Y2K era and remained for many years, until 2017, when hip-hop and R&B surpassed rock as the most dominant genre in music and has occupied the space for the last four years. Hip-hop, of course, isn’t going anywhere, but there has been a shift in some consumers’ musical interests.
A need for vibrant and uptempo music comes in large part as a result of a global pandemic that kept most of us indoors for months at a time. Venus X, DJ and host of GHE20GOTH1K (pronounced “ghetto gothic”)—an underground party held in New York’s club scene—tells Complex that she saw a thirst for more upbeat and vibrant records in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We came to a head collectively as a culture, whether people want to accept it or not,” she says. “A lot of people died, and a lot of people got sick, and a lot of people lost jobs, and lost money… and we’re in a recession. All recessions historically create the demand for more dance music. So, if anybody thinks that that dark shit is going to continue to work right now, it’s just not.”
“It’s always interesting to me when people try to call things a revival.”
In conversation with Harper’s Bazaar, Beyoncé also noted that her album came together as a result of the pandemic. “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love, and laugh again,” Beyoncé said in August 2021. “I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.”
The resurgence of house music in popular culture can also be attributed to musicians and music listeners’ changing interests. Venus X says that artists are moving away from certain themes and sounds that might have been popular five years ago. “We are shifting from a dark, secretive culture into a transparent, ‘Me Too’ oriented, and very self-help and wellness oriented culture,” she continues. “We don’t have the same type of songs we had seven years ago from Future where he’s promoting Percocets and lean. It’s changing because people are dying and also because you cannot survive a pandemic and go back to the same lifestyle you had before.” And, according to the charts, that tracks. The shift was documented on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Songs like Burna Boy’s “Last Last” and Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” have been popular summer anthems and held spots on the Hot 100 for several weeks.
Although new cultural events are pushing the reemergence of house music right now, creators and experts within the space wouldn’t call this a comeback or even a revival. “It’s always interesting to me when people try to call things a revival because to me, I think a revival implies some sort of community-oriented cultural focus where the quote-unquote revival is the result of intentional action,” house and garage producer DJ Dirty Bird tells Complex. Instead, “it’s become more marketable and people are paying more attention to it because certain high profile figures are interested in it.”
“You cannot survive a pandemic and go back to the same lifestyle you had before.”
DJ Dirty Bird attributes dance music’s latest marketability to a number of things; the first being the Black community’s “interest in reclaiming genres that have suffered from whitewashing,” he explains. “People are interested in house music because of [its] history but also the later whitewashing of it,” Dirty Bird adds. “The story of it is more accessible and is being covered in more high profiles and articles now, so it’s reentered the zeitgeist again.”
Internet culture has also contributed to the genre’s marketability, says DJ Dirty Bird. TikTok has been a huge source for rediscovering and promoting other genres of music. Thousands of videos are uploaded every day using clips of dance songs that aren’t necessarily getting a lot of spins on the radio. “With all these emerging underground music scenes break core, hyper-pop, and general electronic music—young people [on the internet] have been discovering this music for the first time and started to produce it,” he adds. “Then they’re seeing that these big artists delve into the genre a little bit, so it’s become a little bit more interesting. And with the general cultural interest being reignited in it, all the big million dollar music labels are dumping money into it and are making money off of it.”
Creators on the ground who have been putting in the work for years now might not call it a comeback, because as far as they are concerned, they’ve never stopped playing house records in spaces. But Daze, a Black electronic producer from Brooklyn, New York, says he has noticed a surge in house music requests in social functions since the end of the pandemic. “I am usually asked to play house [music] now,” Daze shares. “Of course, I’ll get some pop [requests] as well, but I usually run it up more and everybody enjoys it.”
“These genres and these styles of music have been kept alive and were pioneered by queer and trans and alternative people.”
While Daze has always specialized in dance and electronic music, he’s aware of the appeal of all DJs playing the genre, saying, “House and dance music is much easier for DJs to loop as well. It’s much smoother to transition two 4x4 dance tracks by big artists that everybody recognizes, rather than a very abstract electronic song, or a very off-the-grid rap song.”
Whenever mainstream artists hop on a trend, there is always some backlash, and understandably so. Creators who pioneered the space are often dismissed and denied credit, and the scene tends to lose the underground feel that appealed to its core audience. This wave of popularity for house and dance music is no different. Venus X says that “people can look at it as a loss of authorship and a loss of representation, which it can absolutely be that, considering both Beyoncé and Drake, though they may be Black, are straight, cis-hetero people. These genres and these styles of music have been kept alive and were pioneered by queer and trans and alternative people, which I would say very clearly they are not.”
There is also a lack of knowledge that comes with underground music moving into the mainstream. DJ Dirty Bird says a lot of requests he’s received in parties are from a short list of contemporary artists because people don’t have knowledge of artists outside of their immediate network. “They’ll be, ‘Oh, I like house music. I love Kaytranada,’” he recalls of fans’ music requests. “I hate to name-drop him because it’s not his fault that people are drawn to his music and base their experience of house around him. But it’s interesting to me that people only seem able to explore the genre around this singular launching point.”
DJ Dirty Bird continues: “I think now that the genre is more popular, people are trying to use what they know as a springboard to learn more about it. But in that process, they don’t really have the critical tools to engage with the music thoroughly. This is where it becomes the DJ’s responsibility. It takes a little bit of cultural facilitation to get people from their starting point to true appreciation of the genre as a whole.”
Despite the inevitable hesitation, everyone who spoke to Complex recognizes the benefits of having two of the world’s biggest artists jump onto the movement, recognizing it as a big commercial push for a genre that hasn’t seen this much attention in several decades.
Plus, any time a major recording artist hops on a trend, there is a new possibility for growth and education. “People don’t speak the language of house or queer culture yet, but they will be able to understand more words as a result of these artists using these similar practices and drum patterns,” Venus X explains. “And it is a great opportunity for people who have been trying to push it forward and do the work.”
The music industry is fickle, and every trend leaves almost as fast as it is introduced. So, although dance music was more popular than ever this summer, DJ Dirty Bird asserts that drill and contemporary are still mainstays in the music scene right now, too.
“House music caused a lot of ripples, but when I think of what’s the most popular music right now, it’s still rap. Let’s not get it twisted,” he says. “It’s still Atlanta rap music… All that is way more popular than house music will probably ever be in the states, at least for next five or 10 years. But I think house music had an interesting peak in its popularity this year.” Still, he says “it’s going to take a little bit more from the house scene to really say that we had a smash hit summer type of thing.”
“It’s only as profitable as long as it’s marketable, and it’s only marketable if the community is supporting it.”
Nevertheless, with Beyoncé, Drake, and possibly other big names joining house’s resurgence, DJ Dirty is hopeful that the trend will continue long past the summer. “I’m just thinking about all the other dance music artists who I know and have been friends over the past two years. I think it would be cool to have a cultural moment that persists, that can support these artists in the same way that we’ve done for Atlanta rap, and Detroit rap, and whatnot, and UK drill,” he adds. “I don’t think people realize that their level of interest and support directly affects the livelihood of underground artists. So, it’s reliant on both the support of the general public and the music industry. It’s only as profitable as long as it’s marketable, and it’s only marketable if the community is supporting it.”
Dance music might have ruled summer 2022 and entered the conversation for a new generation once more, but Venus X, DJ Dirty Bird, and Daze all agree it “will never die.” Why? Well, because “people need stuff to dance to,” Daze insists. In fact, it’s likely that the need to move our bodies will facilitate dance music’s continued success in the mainstream landscape for years to come. Daze predicts that “when a lot of the public gets into dancing to house music, it’s going to become much more intertwined with pop music, and many more rap artists will start experimenting with it.”