Sonntag, 5. April 2009
Street Sounds - Nu Electro 1
This news already has the underground buzzing with excitement: Morgan Khan is resurrecting his influential Electro series and will soon be releasing the first installment of a new "Nu Electro" series.
The original Electro compilations were crucial (pun intended) in bringing hip hop to Europe in the early 80s. This was a time when hip hop was still an underground phenomenon. Most of the early records were only released in limited quantities in the US and were impossible to find in Europe (if you ever heard of them at all). Instead of importing them, Morgan Khan licensed the tracks and compiled them on megamix-style records. For the first time, electro and hip hop were widely accessible and were able to cross over from underground to the mainstream in Europe – especially in the UK where the first Electro compilation even entered the pop charts at #18.
The series was probably the single most important contribution to Europe's perception of hip hop culture, creating a paradigm of its own which was somewhat different from its US blueprint. For us Europeans, the Electro compilations were the main source of information and therefore considered canonical. We didn't ask why those particular songs were selected – they had to be influential cause they were on the compilation, when it really was their being on the compilation that made them influential in the first place. That's why, among European listeners, there might be lenghty conversations about the merits of tunes like Star Raid, D.E.F. Momentum or Techno City while US hip hop heads don't even know these tunes. An even bigger source of controversy is the term "electro" coined by the series. This wasn't merely a question of taxonomy, of inventing a new name for an existing phenomenon. It meant the creation of a genre that didn't (and as many argue, still doesn't) exist in the US, giving rise to the sort of misunderstandings that two members of different language communities would be facing. Check out a stereotypical US (hip hop) vs. UK (electro) dialogue:
Picking favorites is an impossible task as each one of the compilations featured a number of great tracks. Electro 2 arguably has the best mix, starting out with raw and minimal rap by the B-Boys before exploding into colour with Xena's pre-freestyle "On the upside" and Hashim's mysterious "Al Naafiysh". Crucial Electro 1 probably has the most impressive tracklist. New York vs. LA beats was seminal cause it introduced the West Coast sound of electro to the world.
Later in the 80s, the Street Sounds label went bankrupt, largely due to Morgan Khan's ill-fated endeavors with his own Street Scene magazine. From today's perspective the downfall of the Electro series was only reflecting the downfall of electro music: By that time, hip hop had entered the Golden Age, and sampling had come to replace the 808- and synth-driven electronic tunes of the early 80s.
While electro was pretty much dead or at least hibernating by the end of the 80s, Miami bass and freestyle took over and carried the torch for some time. The rigid formal constraints of the genres prevented further evolution, which allowed freestyle and bass music to survive until today. But it also made them turn into clichés being caught in the respective ruts of car audio music or cheesy synth hooks over the same regurgitated planet rock beat.
The late 90s saw a resurgence of the electro sound. All of a sudden, the classics were being played again in clubs and the media picked up on the hype. At the same time, a wave of new producers invented what became known as New School Electro: a darker, technoid and sinister version of electro funk created by artists like Drexciya, Dopplereffekt, Anthony Rother or Aux 88. However, this was a short-lived phenomenon. By the year 2000 electro had once again faded into obscurity.
In the last couple of years though, it seems as if the table has turned again. Pop cultural references (Missy Elliot, Fergie ...), some pioneers' returns (Newcleus, Debonaire ...) and a number of new artists tapping the old school sound all point towards a renewed interest in electro.
It seems too early for any further judgement. As Hegel remarked, "the owl of minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk." Indeed, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Like any aesthetic phenomenon, musical style is time-bound. Even the most beautiful electro funk tune released in 2009 has close to zero historical relevance compared to the early 80s when the sound and the technical side of it were fresh, bold and exciting. The most it can be is good music. But then again, that is more than nothing. Facing the all-pervasive crisis of today's pop music, maybe we can only move forward by delivering tradition anew from the conformism which is overwhelming it, by setting alight the sparks of hope in the past. Only time will tell.
A review of Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 is going to follow as soon as it's out.