In the second part of my conversation with "The Underground is Massive" author Michaelangelo Matos, we talk about what happened when rave culture met the mainstream.
Last weekend, the Electric Daisy Carnival 2015 took place in Las Vegas. Actor Bryan Cranston showed up to introduce the group Above and Beyond and their Breaking Bad-themed song, “Walter White.” Other than that, the headlines for this year’s electronic dance music festival were statistics—approximately 135,000 people for each of its three nights, hotter than 110 degree heat, more than 1,400 medical calls, and the death of a 24-year-old San Francisco man. Those numbers seem to tell a confusing story and speak to the popularity of EDM, that people in numbers the size of small cities will flock to the Las Vegas desert in punishing heat for it.
One of the stories that music critic and journalist Michaelangelo Matos tells in The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America is how it got that way, how the audience that supported it grew from an underground community of adventurous true believers to one so large that brands as mainstream as 7 Up, Bud Light Platinum, and Motorola were among 2014’s sponsors.
In part one of this conversation, Matos talked about how EDM flew—and to a degree still flies—under the mainstream radar. Techno and house music crossed America in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s one funky local scene at a time. British music magazines paid attention to the music and the growing rave phenomenon before the American press, so the common misperception was that the music was an English phenomenon and not something with its roots in Detroit and Chicago. Much electronic dance was dismissed as “too foreign for a lot of Americans,” Matos says.
He came to the music as a guy who liked to dance. “I like dance music,” he says. “I like the music that is made for people to dance to and always have. It was nice to have something that was different, that was a total jackknife. It represented a significant change from the late ‘80s overly collagened, overmonied idea.”
The story Matos tells is in The Underground is Massive is a familiar one. What happens when something organic and independent becomes so large that corporate entities can’t ignore it? What happens when the underground bumps into the mainstream, even if only brushing its shoulder in passing? It’s a story that plays out daily in many contexts; in this case, a scene that was not hierarchical suddenly developed stars in Moby, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin and Fatboy Slim. Record labels and producers that had been largely absent from the scene started signing DJs and producers and marketing them in the same way they had all other acts--building them as celebrities and album-oriented acts. The results were mixed. Moby’s Play, The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole and Fatboy Slim’s Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars may have helped bring some new listeners to EDM, but the focus represented a fundamental friction.
“This isn’t a music where albums matter,” Matos says. “No one is talking about them. No one is living their lives according the albums because that’s not what the culture is about. The culture is about the event.”
One of the more controversial part of the event for much of EDM’s history has been drugs, particularly ecstasy. Drugs and alcohol have been central to many musical experiences—a fact often overlooked by those fearful of the whole scene. The Electric Daisy Carnival problems are a byproduct of the way ecstasy raises body temperature, and the steps taken to deal with drugs led Matos include a chapter on New Orleans in The Underground is Massive. He tells the story of the State Palace Theater bust in 2000 and the efforts to prosecute Disco Donnie Estopinal and brothers Robert and Brian Brunet brothers—who owned the State Palace. The feds used the “Crack House Law” and argued, in effect, that the parties existed specifically for the purpose of selling and using drugs. Matos wrote:
The agents freely described it to Donnie as a “test case” for a larger rave crackdown that would reverberate nationwide. That’s why they took the glow sticks and bottled water—they were “drug paraphernalia.
Though the case against Disco Donnie was dropped in 2011, the bust made a lot of promoters reluctant and chilled the climate for raves in America. Estopinal bounced back and now promotes EDM festivals around the country, but the word “rave” has now dropped out of the scene’s vocabulary.
The through-line in the second half of The Underground is Massive is Daft Punk, who went from underground icons who plugged into techno’s post-Kraftwerk aesthetic to Grammy winners for “Get Lucky,” an homage to disco pioneers Nile Rodgers (who played on the track) and Chic. The Grammy win represents mainstream success for EDM as clearly as the attendance at Electric Daisy Carnival, and Matos contends that their appearance at Coachella in 2006 was transitional. The duo’s robotic detachment from the audience as it performed in a neon pyramid helped a broad audience understand that the traditional passive audience response missed the point.
“At Daft Punk at Coachella, people understood that they didn’t have to watch the stage,” he says. It was like, Oh, instant dance reaction. That’s what translated it for America. It took a long time for Nevermind to come out and suddenly everybody understood what punk was.”
Unfortunately, Matos was unable to talk to Daft Punk for the book. Their publicists didn’t respond to requests for interviews, and a number of publicists, labels and managers seemed uninterested in or unaware of the potential value of a history of their music. “I don’t know if that would be true in rock,” he says. “That was alarming. It tells you that the dance music industry is flying by the seat of its pants, so it doesn’t have the structure of professionalism in many cases that rock does.”
The figures absent from The Underground is Massive aren’t weaknesses in the book. They’re reminders that the industry around the music is still maturing, and that includes the press. Spin and Rolling Stone largely treated EDM as a novelty when they covered it at all, and many of the alt-weeklies were late to the party as well. By 2011, Matos says, “clubs were doing better with DJ nights on a Tuesday than with a rock concert on a Saturday,” but coverage still lagged behind. In EDM, a genre had developed that few critics could write about knowledgeably. They were doing what they could to keep up with hip-hop and rock and were largely unable to write about the music or scene with any authority or insight.
“The press didn’t want to know, and that includes me,” Matos says. “I didn’t want to know about Bassnectar. I thought Bassnectar sucked, but I didn’t think he sucked because I was a rock guy. I thought he sucked because he wasn’t on Kompakt or a cool label that I wrote about for Resident Advisor. That was my blind spot, and that’s the stuff that blew up.”