In America there is a disconnect between older generations of original disco dons, house heads, rebellious ravers, and their younger, more distilled counterparts. There are popular narratives to explain this: the “Disco sucks” movement and resulting Disco Demolition Night of 1979 that sent that sound packing back to its underground roots, the ‘80s AIDs epidemic which killed off an entire creative class of the house music community, and the onslaught of reactionary, draconian laws like the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act that rattled the receding sphere of ravers (whereas in the UK, its equivalent in Thatcherism is thought to have inspired the youth in rebellion). Whatever the real reason for such a cross-generational divide, it exists and the US is much more cleanly broken off and drifted apart than our European cousins, who enjoy the kind of community wide sense of legacy, history, and understanding that only comes from continuity. Many probably don’t mind — most likely don’t even notice — enjoying a social circle that is heavily made up of people they could hold a mirror up to, but this is a problem.
If we put the development of music in terms of the natural world, then it is a living, evolving thing that traverses its lineage through a distinct timeline; where there’s a gap means the species fell off, weakening its relation to a previous existence. We know disco expanded into house music smoothly with techno and acid house following suit to form rave culture, but something or another happened and caused America to lose touch with its roots. Today, entire incarnations of dance music are at risk of being genetically disassembled and put back together in a bastard form that can’t remember where it came from or who its masters are. Executives and media channels are trying to force everything under an umbrella term that’s packaged to sell, targeting an impressionable, young demographic and writing over a serious sociopolitical backstory in favor of the image-lead chase for money and fame being dangled right in front of their faces. As Amir Alexander put it in his candid and exhaustive exchange with Sound of Thought, “Now, everything is monochrome. The youth see all of the fluff and flash that is constantly crammed down their throats, and they want it for themselves.” It’s a model where only a few will win, separating themselves from the pack exponentially, and at the expense of any sort of real community or the overall health of the industry.
How do we collectively fill in the gap, what are the benefits, and why does it matter? Well, there’s the biblical wisdom of “old men for counsel, young men for war” which we’d argue stands true for dance music. It’s been over thirty years for the culture as we know it today and a certain wisdom has developed for those that have stuck it out. Veterans have an uncanny ability to survey what’s happening for signs of true vitality, after seeing so much move in and out with the tides. This form of prospecting is mentioned by outspoken techno pioneer Derrick May in his Slices feature, “I’ve been in this business too long, I’ve survived way too long, I’ve seen too many people come and go to not know what the fuck I’m talking about.”
Listening to the elder statesmen within the industry gives access to knowledge beyond the limitations of youthful means and breaks down barriers of understanding. Events comprised only of greenhorns can fall victim to musical trend chasing, which many will try to erase and distance themselves from only a year or two later – the initial hype not withstanding the test of time. Especially rampant now, much of the younger generation find themselves looking back into the past through a window tinted in false nostalgia for sounds that weren’t even considered relevant in their own time, traits that were, for good reason, shed and left behind. Only the ones who were actually there can provide the sort of context necessary to avoid these belated trips down the very same memory lane that most are trying to forget. Ron Trent, now a lion to the throne himself, summarizes these understated dynamics best:
We can only recreate our experiences, that’s the bottom line. If you’re a part of something, you can only recreate that experience. And my experiences were hearing some of the best guys do it and listening to some of the best sound systems. And I made myself available, I wasn’t afraid to go check out different things and look and see what’s going on… and because of that it upped my intelligence about doing things.
[source: CDR Berlin]
In reverse, the old-school only events tend to leave a lot to be desired as well. It is no longer cutting edge to persist on wearing out the blade on tracks that were once sharp, tightly gripping something much more rusted and dull in its place — and without the same effect. Always naturally and fittingly playing his part as the Godfather of house music, Frankie Knuckles used his paternal positioning to stress the pitfalls of these revisionists in a 2012 interview with The Independent, “It’s like when people play these so-called ‘classic’ parties, especially in New York, and they all play the same shit, it’s like come on there were so many other great records that came out back then and you guys aren’t even scratching the surface and that’s why I refuse to play those parties now.” He touched on this again a year later while speaking with Resident Advisor and explaining, “I have to remind people—listen, I played those records when they were new and nobody knew what they were. They’re just old records now.”
Despite the criticism of a very specific, listless camp, most, Frankie included, would agree that there’s a proper way to revisit old sounds. To quote Amir Alexander again, the shared sentiment is that, “There is nothing wrong with advancing the classic sounds. The problem comes when musical content and ideas take a back seat to sounding old.” The distinction between (and blurring of) being forward-thinking versus looking back is a topic worthy of its own piece, but in summary, it remains impossible to relive the past with any sort of sincerity. The best DJs provide context to different threads of it, weaving in and out of time periods in a way that’s current and relevant for today while maintaining the original rush and excitement of it all — likewise, the best parties capture these efforts. A dialogue with the youth can be reciprocal in helping clear their elders’ visions from cataract-like romanticism and sometimes even fetishism for timeworn and dated sounds. Time waits for no man and freezing oneself in the hope of preservation can be looked at as neanderthal.
Perhaps most importantly, and going back to using young men for war, a limited and antiquated scope to programming events is leading to gatherings guaranteed to go the way of the dinosaurs. The collective history, tradition, and culture need the energy of new blood in order to fight the battles of today, instead of wiping out what so many have worked so hard to achieve. American dance music’s legacy members must reach out to the generation severed from its own head, splice it back together at the neck, and close the gap for good.