The Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 compilation has been out for a few days now, and although it's too early to assess its relevance, I am not exaggerating when i say: This is probably the most important release of 2009.
Although electro music has been plundered by many recent pop and hip hop releases, there hasn't been a lot of media attention for the electro scene. This doesn't mean that electro is dead: A growing number of artists are working and producing tunes, but mostly in the underground and scattered across the globe. Being under the mainstream's radar isn't all bad though: It might allow creativity to flourish and develop freely without being seduced to conform to conventions of a popular style. What was missing in the last 10 years was a canonical form that subsumed all these different expressions and variations under a defining umbrella. The Street Sounds compilation might be just that: It showcases an incredibly wide range of styles and individual interpretations, but their peacefully sharing the space of the album reflects the willingness to acknowledge a common form - the label "(nu) electro". Which of course still has to be filled with content, so I can safely say I am already looking forward to future installments of the series.
The first of the two cds starts with a bang: A top choice of artists and tunes all mixed to perfection by Freddy Fresh. Legendary artists The B-Boys, Egyptian Lover and most of all Newcleus surprise us with shockingly modern-sounding tunes – these aren't washed out has-beens playing safe for their fans; they are really willing to experiment, to dare and bravely step into the unknown with no safety net attached. The already classic Aux 88 and newcomers Blastromen are featured with extremely soulful new school tunes that exhibit enough crossover sensibility to be accessible to narrow-minded retro purists like myself. And even bone-hard and technoid new school tracks like Dr. Schmidt's "Engines of God" and Signal Type's "In Abyss" grew on me after a few listens.
The second cd however can't reach the high mark set by the first. Most songs range from uninspired (Exzakt, who treat us with a third rate copy of Dopplereffekt) to crudely amateur (Invisible Rockers, Electronautas). The only standout track is Dynamik Bass System's mighty (pun intended) "Side by Side". I had always written them off as a gimmick band who were just emulating the west coast sound (that I don't even like that much), but boy was I wrong! There is some truth to the claim: If you listen to their great album "The Mighty Machine" you can't help but notice how close they stay to their role models – 808s, breathing vocals, arabian scales and whatever clichés the west coast had. Sometimes you can even name a specific Egyptian Lover / Unknown DJ / World Class Wreckin Cru track that they are copying. But "Side by Side" is a real banger with a crisp and detail-laden production, a BIG groove, great sense of melody and the sweetest vocoders I heard in a long time. Sounds to me like a synthesis of West Coast beats (The Glove anyone?), New York (the funk, the groove) and Miami sound (the vocoders) in a modern outfit. Here's a snippet:
All in all, the prevalent sound on Nu Electro 1 is not the funky, melodic electro of the 80s but rather the dark 90s new school electro. However there has been a mild but decisive reversal. The darkness and minimalism of new school electro was a musical dead end that left no room for further development except for: techno (consequently, an artist like Anthony Rother followed this path). At some point during the evolution of 90s electro, it would reach a border where quantity would transform into quality, where electro would finally be stripped of its very essence and turn into a different genre. In that respect, it was essential to reinject some soul and funk into the rusty machine to get it started again - and I would argue this is what you can witness on Nu Electro 1.
P.S.: A closing remark.
Did anybody else notice how the overwhelming number of artists on this album are white?
This is not a recent development of course, and the situation during the 90s was much worse. There is no single reason for this, but let me make some suggestions:
1) In the 90s, new school electro turned towards the european strain of electronic music, integrated techno but exorcized any remaining hip hop residues. And although I am running the risk of essentialist attributions, I am convinced: There is an audible lack of funk and soul in the whiteness of new electro.
2) But that's not the whole story. Much of the hip hop / electro divide can be attributed to hip hop itself which took sort of a macho turn in the late 80s. Homophobia is omnipresent in today's hip hop scene and it is a telling sign that electro is often ridiculed as music for gay european ravers (not that there would be anything wrong with that ... well, except for the rave part).