Every so often you’ll hear talk of an “electro revival”. But really the machine funk and sci-fi signifiers of electro are always all around us, and have been for more than four decades. Nowadays, it’s a staple in leftfield clubs – either in purist forms or merging into techno, bass music and other styles – but beyond that, it’s also omnipresent almost every sphere of modern music, from grime and drill to post-Radiohead indie, and from the most mainstream of pop to ambient and experimental sounds.
Already some of 2022’s best releases have been unabashed electro. Take Omura by the Bristol-based team-up of Fracture and Sam Binga – a strong contender for dance music album of the year. Each of these two have a long history of music making (specifically in drum ’n’ bass), but on this album they’ve gone for pure electro rhythms, with a rich palette built around them inspired by the most out there and mystical of UK ‘90s rave. There’s dozens more new records that expand on electro’s groove, as you can see from our mammoth new playlist which goes from the most ethereal and relaxing to full force dancefloor sweat generation, from industrial grind to pure pop melody.
It shouldn’t all work together, but – as you’ll hopefully agree – it absolutely does. And there’s one very good reason for that. Electro, unlike most other genres, can really be traced back to a single source. It began with Kraftwerk, and even more specifically, with Autobahn in 1974. It wasn’t yet a genre at that point, but all the key elements were there: a revelling in entirely synthetic sound, a sense of never-ending groove, a fixation on machines and their movement, and untold zaps and swooshes.
As Kraftwerk refined their sound through the 1970s, their influence spread: to the European artists like The Human League, Telex, OMD, Gary Numan, to Japanese innovators YMO, and – as the decade closed – into Black American music. Naturally connecting their electronic sounds to the use of synthesisers and electronic processing in funk by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Bernie Worrell and Norman Whitfield – and perhaps intuiting that Kraftwerk had been inspired in their rhythmic rigidity by James Brown – Black musicians fell hard for the possibilities of newly available drum machines. As such, electro was born.
It was the era of Star Wars and Space Invaders, as well as the explosion of the radical art, dance and musical styles of hip-hop, and the sounds of Soulsonic Force, Newcleus, Jonzun Crew, Cybotron and the like were building the future. All of modern dance music owes something to electro – most obviously techno, which in its early years in Detroit was inseparable from it. Techno began with Juan Atkins’s overtly Gary Numan-influenced Cybotron project, and throughout its existence the likes of Underground Resistance and Drexciya put its rhythms at the heart of Detroit and its influence.
Hip-hop too has electro deep in its DNA. Even though rap tended to lean towards sampled soul, jazz and funk beats in the 1990s, the influence of electro still ran deep in sounds like Miami bass, Bay Area hyphy and Atlanta crunk, eventually exploding globally as they mutated into the instantly recognisable rhythms of trap – which in turn infused into almost the entirety of modern pop. Electro was always barely hidden and could easily resurface at any time – just witness Missy Elliot flipping Cybotron’s “Clear” on her 2005 single, “Lose Control”. In between dance and hip-hop came innumerable styles – juke, jit, ghettotech, bounce, Baltimore club, and New Jersey club; all with repetitive rap loops, distinctive dance styles and unmistakeable electro roots.
Electro was etched into 1980s-era soul via the production techniques of people like Jam & Lewis, and found its way into UK street soul too – particularly via the influence of the melodic basslines of Mantronix. From there it snuck into rave, UK garage and all that has followed; while on the experimental side, plenty of breakdancing sneakers and Star Wars fanatics brought electro’s influence to bear. The “braindance” sound created by Aphex Twin and his friends, which remains a foundation for experimental club music to today, is rooted in electro just as much as it is jungle, acid house and other styles.
Around the turn of the millennium, the electroclash movement brought electro pop back to the dancefloor and has resulted in a “long eighties” that has lasted ever since. And way further afield from the usual capitals of clubbing, styles like Angolan kuduro and Brazilian funk carioca sprung up around the world, becoming essential in the divesting of global underground club culture from Anglo-European dominance.
All of that, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. As with all matters of influence, things never work just one way: feedback loops between clubs, pop and art, and between Black, white, Latin and other scenes all kept affecting the music. But there was never more than a degree or two of separation between the different places that electro found itself in – which is why a playlist like this can function. Tracks from grassroots Black scenes like the footworking dance battles of Chicago can sit alongside the kinky, aggro punk influence of a band like ADULT. Louie Elser’s Californian Latinx queer electropop can also sit alongside Fracture & Binga’s English rave mysticism quite comfortably, because they all contain the same elements. Every one of these tracks transmits some of the future visions of the electro explosion at the start of the 1980s, and every one of them has a little (or a lot) of Kraftwerk somewhere in them.
Cover Credit: Michael Paredes/Unsplash
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.