Michaelangelo Matos charts the rise of EDM from its roots in America’s dance underground

New day rising

May 20, 2015 at 1:00 am

I don't really want to write an introduction, as I had such a great time talking with music historian Michaelangelo Matos about his compelling, exhaustive, and just-released book, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street Books, 2015).

Metro Times: This book obviously needs to exist, and I'm glad you're the one who wrote it. What's the general aim? I feel like you tried to talk to both the heads and the general interest crowd; is that correct?

Michaelangelo Matos: That's exactly it. I don't go out the way I did when I was 27 (I'm 40), but I listen a ton and definitely went back, and went deep, while writing this thing, so it's going to have a head's sensibility no matter what. But I wanted the stories to be human and active, and I wanted the action to move. I knew I'd have to concatenate a lot in order to get the story as full as I felt it needed to be in the space allotted, but that's not inimical to how I work anyway. And of course I wanted it readable, and I think I accomplished that.

One reason I wanted to write this to a general audience is that this is a story I've always found fascinating unto itself as a story, as opposed to an area of music or species of subculture that I was part of. My story within it isn't especially interesting, though inevitably it's reflected in the book. So it's not first person at all because it doesn't need to be, aside from the introduction. The "Mixography" at the end is the result of a lot of listening to old DJ sets while writing, which I did chronologically; wound up skipping a number of years, but that's OK.

MT: How did you come to decide to structure the book the way you did?

Matos: The chapters culminate in or take off from storied events along a 31-year timeline; there are 18 chapters covering 19 events, festivals, tours, and concerts, from Chicago's Music Institute in early 1983 to the Grammy Awards after-party for Daft Punk in January 2014. The idea is to explain the culture in the culture's terms, which is parties — shows — rather than recordings, per se, though plenty of those make incursions into the narrative as well.

MT: I got a great sense from your description at the start, of the Belleville Three and their own interactions with Chicago and New York DJs — with Frankie Knuckles and David Mancuso — I don't think I realized quite how porous these scenes were, right from the start.

Matos: Maybe the best part of that for me was finding out that DJ Pierre had driven out to the Music Institute, in much the way Derrick had done with the Muzic Box and Power Plant. The music was very common to one another, and in at least Derrick's case there were family ties. There are key people who spent time in both cities, from Theo Parrish to DJ Funk, as well.

And don't forget industrial music's impact on Detroit techno. Carl Craig had tried shopping a demo to Wax Trax, and Jeff Mills met Mike Banks while working on an album for Mills' EBM band Final Cut. Though the British rave paradigm did a lot to make road-tripping a romantic part of the rave scene, it was embedded right at the start because of Chicago and Detroit's interaction.

MT: Reading your book, I realized that I need to interview Derrick May myself as soon as possible, because he's amazing.

Matos: He is. It was easily the most entertaining interview of the book, and in many ways the most gratifying, because he's thought everything over endlessly, and he's very quick. I brought up something Dean Major told me — that the only time he'd seen Derrick on drugs (and Derrick is very anti-drug, as he made clear) was after a visit to the dentist, when he came home on Percocet and began dancing around the living room in his gym shorts. Without a pause, Derrick responded, "Oh, I do that anyway."

MT: Did you visit Detroit while researching this? Was there a book-based road trip?

Matos: I went to Movement in 2013 and had a great time. I spoke for the first of two times with Jason Huvaere, and commiserated and danced with some of the colleagues who've become friends, and made a few more. I wanted to come back this year, but circumstances made it impossible.

MT: Early on, there's this schism between trax and house. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Matos: Trax was the term for stripped-down machine rhythms with little melody or coloring; house is more vocal and soulful and song-based. That's the way dance music's under- and overgrounds have played out in many ways over the years, though not always. I'd call it a dialectic more than a schism. The early 2000s are a good example of this; the dance-music pendulum swung far from the plush late-'90s superclub sound toward dance-punk and miminal techno and electro. But plenty of DJs with bigger sounds used those records too, and vice-versa: See John Digweed bringing some Kompakt into Fabric 20, or Danny Tenaglia's Global Underground 010: Athens premiering Miss Kittin & the Hacker's "Frank Sinatra" to the dance world at large.

MT: I enjoyed how critical you are about modern EDM in the book. Is there a bit of a bait and switch going on here, with EDM in the title but then you're bashing so much of the music?

Matos: I couldn't be dishonest about it. There's a lot of cookie-cutter garbage in those ranks, just as there are in any other, but sometimes the music was so dunderheaded it became kind of wondrous. That said, I don't dislike EDM as much as I might. I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed Sidney Samson's EDC 2011 set because it didn't do that much different than what his peers had been doing. It just did it better. No, you don't have to care that there's a difference, but that's not the same thing as saying there isn't one.

MT: EDM has already changed the sound, the production values, of so much modern pop music. How do you see that evolving?

Matos: I'm bad at prognostications. I'm also kind of amazed at how a lot of EDM DJs are turning to less blaring, more nuanced music — in some cases, playing near-Balearic, only they call it "tropical." That's not something I could have predicted. That's what keeps it interesting.

MT: In another recent interview about the book, you said how you felt that bottle service is the devil. What did you mean by that?

Matos: The ecosystem that rave promulgated was essentially come as you are; it was a DIY version of club culture. Whether it lived up to that ideal, it was a stated goal, and that was powerful. Bottle service made it into a haves/have-nots thing again; it was a $500 velvet rope. I remember going to Tao a couple times for the Village Voice's music blog and being amazed, and aghast, at how deeply it's seeped into the fabric of nightlife. To me it's a horrible facial tic that somehow took over the upper left half of the body.

MT: You hinted to Dave Segal at The Stranger that a major revelation you had while working on this was about how much the book is about race. Please elaborate.

Matos: It wasn't a revelation, it was a stated aim. Dance music's explicitly black roots, as well as its gay roots, as well as its many, many intersections, from American pop to global nightlife, during its formative years in the mid-'80s meant that race was on the table from the beginning — and has been largely ignored. Not by media, which has been pretty steadfast in giving Detroit and Chicago credit, but by dancers, who couldn't care less. I remember around 1999, I was talking to a girl I'd met at a party and asked where she thought techno had come from. She thought Moby had invented it. (Whatever you think of Moby, that's not a claim he'd make in a million years.)