Scene Spotlight: Electro

Y’all know I have a soft spot for electro.

What IS electro? Well, let’s just sample wikipedia and find out:

Classic (1980s) electro drum patterns tend to be electronic emulations of breakbeats, with a syncopated kick drum, and usually a snare or clap accenting the backbeat. The difference between electro drumbeats and breakbeats (or breaks) is that electro tends to be more mechanical, while breakbeats tend to have more of a human-like feel, like that of a live drummer.

The Roland TR-808 drum machine hit the market in 1980, defining early electro with its immediately recognizable sound. Staccato, percussive drumbeats tended to dominate electro, almost exclusively provided by the TR-808. As an inexpensive way of producing a drum sound, the TR-808 caught on quickly with the producers of early electro because of the ability of its bass drum to generate extreme low-frequencies. This aspect of the Roland TR-808 was especially appealing to producers who would test drive their tracks in nightclubs (like NYC’s Funhouse), where the bass drum sound was essential for a record’s success. Its unique percussion sounds like handclaps, open and closed high-hat, clave and cowbell became integral to the electro sound. The Roland TR-808 has attained iconic status, eventually being used on more hits than any other drum machine. Through the use of samples, the Roland TR-808 remains popular in electro and other genres to the present day.

Another way to think of it is this:

electro : rap :: new wave : punk

Maybe that analogy isn’t QUITE perfect, with regards to timelines and such; but what I mean is that these used to be sibling styles that were simultaneously symbiotic and somewhat antagonistic.

On the new wave/electro side of the equation, you have a fascination with technology, futurism, surface and artifice; on the punk/rap side, a looking backward, an obsession with authenticity and deprecation of artifice.

(“Nunk” = “New Wave Funk”)
Warp 9 – Nunk

A little old-school Egyptian Lover:

Egyptian Lover – Egypt, Egypt

Nobody REALLY forgot about Dre; but they may well have forgotten about The Arabian Prince, a contemporary of the Egyptian Lover, and founding member of N.W.A.

I wonder if Dre would like to forget about this little number?:

Arabian Prince and The Sheiks- Innovative Life (ft. Dr Dre)

In a weird way, Arabian Prince’s departure from N.W.A. – and the harder gangster style that N.W.A. was instrumental in popularizing – provides a neat little microcosm of the way electro, an integral part of hip-hop culture in the 1980’s, got largely pushed out of hip-hop by the end of the decade.

Arabian Prince – Take You Home Girl

Electro was maybe viewed as too pop-friendly.

Laid Back – White Horse

Perhaps not coincidentally, electro also featured far more female vocalists than would be common in where rap would go for a long, long time.

Arabian Prince produced this hit:

JJ Fad – Supersonic

And there’s this classic:

Roxanne Shanté – “Roxanne’s Revenge”

I KNOW you know this one:

Newcleus – Jam On It

Another oldie but goodie:

Mantronix – Bassline

You might remember this one from a cameo in Shaun of the Dead (“It’s not hip-hop, it’s electro. Prick.”):

Man Parrish – Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)

Or the bomb that started it all:

Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force- Planet Rock

Except wait, here’s what REALLY started it all (well, this one, and “Numbers” which “Rock” also nicks):

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express

From its Dusseldorf-via-NYC origins, electro spread in all directions. L.A., as noted above with the Lover and the Prince, went with a decadent Lothario angle.

Miami bumped up the bass:

MC ADE – Bass Rock Express

And when the train rolled into Detroit, it would become a building block of techno:

Model 500 – Night Drive (Thru Babylon)

Cybotron – Clear

But enough semi-obscure crate-digging. Electro was also the backbone of an astounding amount of radio pop/club dance hits, all throughout the 1980s.

Chaka Khan – I Feel For You

Why, even the jazzbos wanted in:

Herbie Hancock – Rockit

And the film composers:

Harold Faltermeyer – Axel F

This was a huge hit in 1983:

Shannon – Let the Music Play

Its production was extremely influential. So much so that 4 years later, people were still scoring hits with variants on it:

Taylor Dayne – Tell It To My Heart

Robots were reporting to the dance floor when Daft Punk were still in metal baby bonnets:

Midnight Star – Freak-A-Zoid

There may be no parking on the dance floor, but there WILL be a confab in the women’s restroom:

Klymaxx – Meeting in the Ladies’ Room

Speaking of “Klymaxx”:

Expose – Point Of No Return

Yes, as we know from Donna Summer in 1975, multiple times:

Nu Shooz – Point Of No Return

In England, electro would be one component in the rhythmic stew that would eventually produce futuristic paranoiac Bristol soul, the so-called “trip-hop” of Tricky and Massive Attack (Cherry and Massive Attack collaborated on each others’ early records).

Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance

And every so often, there’s a revival of the style. Here’s a few examples (Dopplereffekt is also worth checking out, though NSFW):

Elecktroids – Future Tone

Drexciya – Hydro Theory

Here’s delightful throwback to classic 80’s electro sounds, and features The Lover himself:
DyE ft. Egyptian Lover – She’s Bad [Video NSFW]

If y’all need me, I’ll be over here, doin’ The Robot.