Scene Spotlight: ’90s Electronic

Anybody remember MTV’s Amp? It was a mid-nineties late-night program with no VJ’s, focused on electronic music. They would “mix” or blend the videos in a fashion similar to a DJ mixing tracks. It was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, there appear to be no good-quality examples of it on YouTube, so you are stuck with DJ Glyph, selecting some favorite tracks from the era. With the benefit of hindsight, we can go all-killer, no-filler. Reminisce with me if you remember these; and if you have never heard them, I encourage you to give them a try. This is some of the best there was.

So let’s stroll down memory lane – hey, where did all these p(l)otholes come from? – and let the Spice flow, as it must.


The Dune-sampling “Spice”, by Eon, was a 1990 club hit. The clubs I was dancing at didn’t look much like this (well…maybe the guy in the cape):

…but we heard it all the same, which goes to show the broad appeal the track had. It sounded completely new, different from what we were used to – both stripped-down and amped-up; a strictly utilitarian piece of dance music, a relentless, purely synthetic rhythm machine.

There were of course precursors. Some I already knew, like Kraftwerk and their progeny in New Order and Depeche Mode and Gary Numan; some electro (“Planet Rock”, “Rockit”, etc.). Others I was unaware of at the time but filled in later, like Detroit techno (Juan Atkins et al, Eon’s clearest antecedents) and Chicago/acid house.

But in 1990 “Spice” sounded, to these Southern-boy ears, like the start of a sea change in electronic music. A pivot point.

For the next decade I was largely an outsider looking in at a seemingly-new (to the US, anyway) scene, variously known as “rave”, “electronica”, and various other names or sub-descriptors (labels and categories so dizzyingly numerous that we will largely treat them as irrelevant here). I still loved rock and roll, and I never traded my Levi’s for JNCO’s; though I had close friends who were deeply involved, either producing music, or just consuming (music/other).

For some of them, before the marketing and media frenzy that would soon descend, there was a sense in the air, as there probably had been in the psychedelic sixties and again with disco and again with punk rock, that *this* was going to change everything; that with the right people, and the right technologies, and the right perspectives, and the right music, and the right drugs, this time things would be different; a better, more peaceful, more tolerant world was just around the corner. Rituals and shamans and sacraments and transcendence, without all the pesky gods.

And like all prior utopian dreams, this was overly optimistic, if not downright naïve; a lot of people were partying just to, you know, party, and people who are overly-trusting due to temperament or choice or artificially-induced serotonin excess are open to abuse from predators and grifters. People who were already mentally or emotionally unbalanced often weren’t helped by random self-administered chemical experimentation. It’s always only a matter of time before the paranoia, backstabbing and recriminations start up in earnest; or less dramatically, people just grow up and apart, and move on.

It’s not at all a good book, but Douglas Rushkoff’s novel Ecstasy Club gives some sense of the “technotopia” thing.


If all that sounds condescending or patronizing, it’s not meant to be; there was, and maybe still is, a certain beauty to the whole idea. I have a not-so-secret admiration for batty doomed utopian schemes. After all, I’m American.

Plus, some very good records got made. If I wasn’t really a full-fledged member of the scene, I still dug a lot of the songs. And good records, like good books, endure long after the scene that spawned them is gone.

“Spice” was maybe the first instance I heard of that “rave riff” – the techno equivalent of an endlessly-recycled Chuck Berry guitar lick as played by an air-raid siren, for a while there it seemed that every song was using a similar 5-note keyboard run (musical notes varied, but the general rhythm pattern stayed the same) starting with a note, then that note repeated, then with an inflection point/emphasis at the 3rd note.

In this case, it’s “whomp whomp WHAAMP whomp whomp”.

Or like the lead keyboard riff in 808 State’s “Cubik”:

(Boy, I hated “Cubik”. We used to mock that keyboard riff. Go on, sing it, it’s fun to mock. But it is an archetypal example of what I am talking about; there were seemingly a zillion clones.)

Having heard my share of gothic and industrial dance music over the years, there were other antecedents – if you subtract the vocals, the rhythm tracks of some EBM, like this Nitzer Ebb tune, would have fit right in:

Or this – you can hear seeds of The Chemical Brothers (and, unfortunately, maybe EMF – believe it) in the mixing of hip-hop, rock/industrial sounds, and dub in this 1989 track:

I think that one actually holds up nicely.

The Chemical Brothers themselves were very open about their love of hip-hop productions, as their original (and graciously-relinquished) “tribute” moniker the Dust Brothers made plain.

But this particular Chemical Brothers song always reminded me more of a beefed-up answer to Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator”:

The Chemical Brothers – Music: Response (matched to Close Encounters footage)

(Man, remember in the nineties, how aliens were EVERYWHERE? Like smiley faces. And alien smiley faces).

When “We Have Explosive” by Future Sound of London came out, I didn’t really care for it too much; it seemed like FSOL was trying to go “hard” or “big”, closer to the Chemical Brothers, which wasn’t what I wanted from them at the time.

Of course, the more ethereal ambient stuff that I had gotten used to from them (circa Lifeforms) was not what they had started with on their dance-oriented debut, Accelerator; so in that sense, it was just a return to their roots:

Now, “Explosive” sounds like a damn masterpiece; visceral, insistent, abrasively funky (must be the Run-DMC samples):

FSOL – We Have Explosive

That gets our bodies dancing; now, let’s do the same for our brains.

(Are we getting that backwards?):

Ah well, so long as we get there one way or another. But to make it to the Mothership, we’ve got to go through Detroit.

So here’s Derrick May, one of the three musicians commonly credited with inventing Detroit techno, along with Carl Craig, a second-gen Detroit techno musician.

I think this is a beautiful piece of music (and the “flowers/fireworks” imagery – starting around 4:00 – is stunning):

Rhythim Is Rhythim – Kaotic Harmony

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, listening to Richie Hawtin’s music as Plastikman is like witnessing architecture itself dance. A minimalist master of second-wave Detroit techno, Plastikman is all clean lines and deeply-subtle sound design – this is music that focuses my mind like no other. Resist the urge to skip ahead if you feel nothing is happening, his are tunes that reward patience – so breathe deep, and let your heartbeat and brainwaves fall into zen sync with this:

Plastikman – Lasttrak

Speaking of braindancing, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Mr. Richard D. James, so let’s head back across the pond again.

This is another contemplative composition; but instead of the crisp construction of Plastikman, each sonic element here is softly rounded – this is the sound of thoughts flowing like cool water over worn stones:

Aphex Twin – Tha

Autechre started from a somewhat similar place as Aphex Twin, but over time moved off into their own knotty realms. This track is sort of at the midpoint; it still has the ghostly melodies over it, but the machine rhythms are getting harsher (if still parseable by human minds, unlike some later work):

Autechre – Clipper

“Born Slippy (Nuxx)” (AKA “that song in Trainspotting“, AKA “LAGER LAGER LAGER”) is the Underworld track everyone knows, and I like it a lot. But sometimes I feel it goes on a bit too long.

This, however, is the correct length. It also shows the way in which dance music, which is so often geared towards ecstatic/hedonistic or extroverted/aggressive modes (or trips to outer space), can also be turned deep inwards, to reflect the sensation of being on a crowded dance floor full of heaving, sweaty bodies, yet still feeling utterly alone:

Underworld – Dirty Epic

I don’t know why I always forget about Orbital (maybe because I heard the similarly-named The Orb first?) when I actually like them quite a bit.

Yes, that’s Tilda Swinton, looking like a doll from a Jan Švankmajer or Brothers Quay film. I think that’s a harpsichord you hear, which helps give the piece a baroque/orchestral feel. Neat:

Orbital – The Box

It’s also impossible to overstate the importance of Massive Attack; they are responsible for some of the deepest, heaviest productions out there. I chose this one over equally-massive (heh) selections like “Group 4” or “”Inertia Creeps”, because the footage is the perfect accompaniment to this beautiful nightmare of a song.

Reggae legend Horace Andy’s eldritch voice floats heavenward; while you are thus distracted, a gargantuan subterranean machine horror rises, hissing and clanking.

You can run, but you already know there will be no escape; all you can do is watch in paralyzed fascination as it lurches toward you in slow-motion:

Massive Attack – Angel (matched to Caligari/Nosferatu footage)


If you have never heard this next track (or if it has been a while), I urge you to get some headphones and listen. If the “house-diva” vocals sound dated, well, they did then too; but they are nevertheless an important part of the overall composition, by giving listeners a simple and familiar hook to hang onto in what otherwise could be a disorienting space.

Goldie reputedly pioneered (or at least popularized) a production technique (on 1992’s
“Terminator”) called “time-stretching” – in this context, it means changing the duration or speed of the sampled “Amen” drum breaks, while keeping their pitch intact (or conversely, changing their pitch and then restoring the original tempo). This makes it much easier to stitch together dizzyingly-complex – and fast – drum patterns.

The name of the song below, “Timeless”, is thus a sort of pun.

On the epic 3-part 21-minute track, sampled strings keep bending and inverting into new moods, while depth-charges of bass detonate far beneath your feet. Snares skitter out to the edge of the solar system, circle a planet or two, then return to earth. It’s a drum corps sliced and diced and rearranged into a symphony orchestra.

One of the things that first struck me after hearing this style of music, then known as “jungle”, after first reading about it: I expected it to sound dense, claustrophobic, what with all those gazillions of drum hits presumably crowding your aural field.

But paradoxically, all that busyness can also be used to evoke infinite space (outer, and inner); each percussive strike a single star on a map of the Milky Way, or an individual dot on a pointillist canvas stretched in all directions as far as the eye can see:

Goldie – Timeless

As you might have guessed from the interjections of “Jah!”, jungle arose in part from reggae/dub (more specifically, from its progeny dancehall and ragga – a reggae-derived dance music, faster, using electronic instrumentation and samples – think of it as a sort of midpoint between reggae and hip-hop).

As jungle grew in popularity, some felt that using the term “jungle” for a drum-heavy form of music made primarily by black artists had certain unpleasant racist connotations (despite the fact that the artists who created it also named it).

That was one impetus towards jungle’s re-branding as “drum and bass”; another was that as it gained in popularity and more-accessible variants and hybrids appeared, some in the scene wanted to reserve the label “jungle” for the stuff that was darker, rougher, heavier, more underground, less-accessible, more “pure”.

One of the outside “corrupting” influences that turned out to be a natural candidate for cross-pollination due to its own tendencies towards rhythmic complexity was jazz. LTJ Bukem was one of the originators of this hybrid style.

Tom Jenkinson is a fretless bass madman who fell hard for drum and bass, and made his own jazz-hybrid variant as Squarepusher (though this track is much smoother/saner than some of his stuff, and doesn’t have his bass playing on it AFAICT):

Squarepusher – Beep Street


We’ll end back in the US with this bonus track.

D.C.’s Thievery Corporation got boring pretty fast IMO; money and better gear will do that oftentimes. But on their debut Sounds From The Thievery Hi-Fi, before they became world-class background music, they were sonic aficionados stitching together bits of dub, hip-hop, lounge/exotica and world music into satisfyingly tactile head-nodding creations like this soundsystem monster (no video available; audio quality is so-so).

Dig that bass bomb:
Thievery Corporation – .38.45 (A Thievery Number)


Hope you enjoyed the tour. This wasn’t the first era to attempt to summon ghosts from the machines, nor will it be the last; nothing ever really ends; but it did feel like a unique moment in time.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

Well, that’s it, folks; the lights are coming up (and maybe the sun, too). You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Chill out downstairs in the Comment Room for a while, if you like.