"You are not invited to believe the hype":
Should the underground stay underground?
by Tom Graham
Back in 1992, ‘rave’ was becoming a dirty word. For many people, it represented all that was non-musical about dance music: a scene saturated with sample-laden, poorly produced tracks whose sole purpose was to induce drug-fuelled instant gratification for the masses in warehouses, fields, and aircraft hangars. A reactionary movement to hardcore quietly emerged, which aimed to retreat from the hedonistically functional aspects of dance music towards the more ‘creative’ use of technology. Spearheaded by UK labels like Warp and Rephlex Records who hosted artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre and B12, this new subgenre of electronic music is often given the loaded name ‘intelligent dance music’, or IDM. If hardcore was music for the body, IDM was for the mind, and for appreciating either at home or in much smaller, under-the-radar venues.
Though Aphex Twin and other supposedly ‘intelligent’ artists have criticised the term IDM and its inherent snobbery, the underlying purpose of its initial development as a movement was to draw a boundary between the discerning few and the undiscriminating masses. Even with genres that don’t fall under the IDM bracket today, the idea that people can be separated into those who ‘get’ the music and those who don’t has played an important part in shaping club environments. Several clubs now operate a door policy whereby if you don’t know who is playing at a night, or you’re in a big group, or you just don’t ‘fit the vibe’, you’re not getting in. Nowhere is this more acute than in the case of Berlin’s Berghain – despite its infamously unwelcoming policy, revellers will queue for hours only to get inexplicably turned away by uber-cool bouncer Sven Marquardt.
Keeping the underground 'underground' is not just a matter of strict door policies. Many individuals (admittedly including myself) hold an instinctive desire to protect the uniqueness of their own music tastes, and even stop listening to a song or artist as soon as they become ‘mainstream’. Another (potentially justifiable) grievance that people have is when a sea of phones can be seen raised in the air recording the DJ. On one level this is just sheer annoyance (who really wants to see the DJ projected onto 100 tiny screens, or be suddenly blinded by someone who has forgotten to turn flash off?). On another level, however, there’s a sense of social media intruding on the underground, and by making the music experience accessible beyond the walls of the club, it robs the setting of its exclusivity. Some clubs have even gone to fairly extreme measures to protect their secrecy, putting stickers over phone cameras when you walk in to maintain the immediacy of the experience and the sanctity of the environment.
Underlying these policies seems to be an implicit sense of defensiveness against those who aren’t in the know, and of wanting to be surrounded by people who are in touch with the ‘underground’. I’ve been a part of several conversations where someone has described a club night as “good music, but the crowd wasn’t great”. What makes a ‘good crowd’? Is there such thing as being able ‘get’ the music? If there is, is keeping the unknowing masses out even justified?
The 1992 drive towards dividing the music heads from the hedonists was problematic in many ways. Music critic Simon Reynolds concisely described the IDM movement using the slogan “no breakbeats, no lycra”. For many, breakbeats had become a symbol of techno’s corruption by hardcore, stemming from the black, hip-hop influence that gave rise to hip-house and breakbeat house. In shunning breakbeats, this purist mentality ultimately resulted in the shedding of an important cultural influence. “No lycra” refers to the clingy clothing that working class raver-girls wore, in sharp contrast to the predominantly male, chin-stroking music connoisseur elite. As Reynolds argues, “no breakbeats, no lycra” carries IDM’s nefarious implications of racism, classism and sexism in just a four-word phrase.
While this kind of prejudice and elitism is only damaging to the atmosphere of a night, not all musical exclusion is negative; some clubs spaces operate similarly strict door policies in order to protect and improve the experience of vulnerable groups. Club spaces can be physically threatening environments for some groups - a 2016 survey by End Violence Against Women found that 85% of women aged 18-24 had reported experiencing unwanted sexual attention and 35% had experienced unwanted sexual touching in public places, including clubs and bars. London-based parties like Pxssy Palace’s ‘Luv Urself’, gal-dem’s ‘Sugar’ and ‘Femmi-Errect’ have aimed to create safe dancefloors open to all, focusing specifically on the experience of women and femmes of colour. Run by a collective of female-identifying promoters and DJs, Pxssy Palace in particular encourages flamboyant expression and energy. It is only through restricting a club’s clientele to a collection of more marginalised groups that these parties can transform the underground into a safe, positive environment into which you can retreat.
Musical exclusion in this context seems valid, stemming from the motivation to protect other people. Preserving the underground’s prestige and status as a musical movement and subpopulation, however, seems to stem from a desire to protect something inherent in the music itself. One interesting case that appears to involve exclusion on the basis of both social and musical factors is that of the legendary Underground Resistance (UR), a Detroit-based collective founded in the late 80s by ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and Jeff Mills. For Banks, UR was a paramilitary unit engaged in war with the mainstream entertainment industry, or ‘the programmers’. Each release of militant Detroit techno bore some political statement, including this one from a sublabel of UR:
“Brothers of the underground, transmit your tones and frequencies from all locations of this world and wreak havoc on the programmers. THIS IS WAR! Long Live The Underground.”
Banks’ call to arms through techno can be seen as an impassioned resistance against the evil music industry empire, and an attempt to shield Detroit’s subcultural capital from the oppressive forces of commercialism. Just as Pxssy Palace creates distinct club spaces to empower marginalised groups, Banks’ vision of the underground is one that seeks to protect the identity of Detroit’s scene and its inhabitants.
Mills, on the other hand, did not share this view of the underground:
“Underground Resistance wasn’t militant, nor was it angry… the music that I make now has nothing to do with colour. It has nothing to do with man/woman, East/West, up/down, but more to do with the mind. The mind has no colour. There’s this perception that if you’re black and you make music, then you must be angry. Or you must be ‘deep’. Or you must be out to get money and women. Or you must be high when you made that record. It’s one of the four”
While we can respect Mills’ refusal to be categorised as a ‘political’ or ‘black artist’, his idea of unpolitical, and more importantly, immaterial music, feeds back into the intellectually elitist narrative of some people being able to transcend the physical trappings of reality and understand music in its abstract, spiritualised form. Inherent in this view is the idea that there is an ‘ideal’ way of appreciating music, and that there is something more legitimate about experiencing music as an intellectual exercise rather than dropping a pill and then recording the DJ on Snapchat. We might smirk at a viewer’s jaw leaving the party before they do, but why should the way in which someone else is listening to the music affect our experience? Feeling that you have some quasi-spiritual access to the deeper meaning of the music leads to a sense of intellectual superiority over those who just ‘don’t get it’. Letting the undiscriminating masses in on this experience threatens this superiority, so we keep these things special in order to validate our interests and improve our self-esteem.
Does this mean that we should effortlessly embrace the fact that our favourite artist has risen from the underground to the top of the charts? Maybe not. After all, boosting self-esteem is a natural and instinctive thing for us to do, so the miffed feeling you get when your tastes aren’t unique anymore might be hard to shake off. There’s also a real sense of enjoyment involved in seeking out obscure artists, so you’re bound to feel irked when the time and effort you’ve invested into finding music is matched by another person’s passive clicking on their ‘recommended’ YouTube videos (hence the speed with which we declare that we "knew about that before it was cool”).
Should music event be exclusive? It depends. Shaping the demographic of your crowd can be a force of good, not just with the safe spaces created by Pxssy Palace, but also with small, close-knit events. Freerotation, a 650-capacity not-for-profit festival in Wales, was started as a “big family gathering” for artists and their friends. As it became more popular, they decided that instead of selling out, they would preserve the community atmosphere by restricting the majority of the ticket sales to previous attendees, and selling the rest to keen new members. This preserves its status as an intimate party, while ensuring that the community grows.
If, on the other hand, you have advertised your night online and to everyone, then excluding someone in order to preserve the integrity of ‘serious’ music carries a history of prejudice and discrimination. It goes without saying that some music is beautifully crafted, innovative, and artistically impressive, but this does not justify labelling mainstream or ‘overground’ music as inferior. It’s ironic that early 90s rave has been regarded as base hedonism for its mindless physical pleasure when ‘dance music’ is literally defined by the body’s response to sound.
Words by Tom Graham.
Select quotations from 'Energy Flash' (1998), by Simon Reynolds