Technical English

Your handy guide to electronic music lingo

May 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

Like every major league sport, techno has its own language, all but indecipherable to the outsider — hence the need for the glossary before you. A few definitions are obvious, while others are, well, totally effing effed-up. But that's part of the fun. Remember, this is a music culture meant to be experienced and not necessarily understood. So chill, enjoy and recycle this paper when you're done with it.

Acid: In terms of dance culture, its roots aren't in the 1960s with LSD and Timothy Leary, the Merry Pranksters and boomer hippie tribes, but in the micro club culture of dance-dazed Brits who used the term to define the far-out sounds of Chicago in the Reagan-defined 1980s. Reconfigured once again back stateside, acid became the dominant sound of suburban American rave culture in the early 1990s — thanks in large part, we may add, to such crafty technicians as Windsorite Rich Hawtin and his forward-thinking crew.

Ambient: No beats or minimal beats. Gigantic whooshes of sound or practically no sound at all. Backdrop for thinking, feeling, schtupping, spliffing, reading or doing nothing at all. We like all those options, though the latter sounds best to us right now.

Bass: Back in the mid-'00s, when we thought up the first version of this glossary, we name-checked 2 Live Crew and other Miami-based artists as the sole innovators of bass music. Today we ask ourselves: Huh, what were we thinking? Sure Miami is cool, but Bmore Club deserved a nod. And, once again, so do those effing Brits, who recombined a bunch of sound and rhythm sources, including dancehall reggae and our ol' friend acid, and launched a series of bass-fed subgenres. Hello, garage, 2-step and dubstep. That's some bass in your mutha-effin face.

Booty: Also known as ghetto-tech or ghetto-funk, it's a derriere-centric Detroit invention that combines house, techno, bass, hip hop and electro with glorious strip club inelegance. Pure, politically incorrect joy that hedonist Euro-trash has a better intuition for than most uptight Americans.

Broken beat: Imagine hip-hop beats falling down stairs. The sound of Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood for nearly a decade. What, not anymore? Woodbridge, what happened?

BPM: Beats per minute; Also the speed your heart races when you and your nerdy friends are slamming in the concrete bowl in front of the main stage. Oops, we mean VitaminWater stage .

DEMF: Detroit Electronic Music Festival, 2000-2002; begat Fuse-In, which begat the current Movement. This is No. 12, if you're counting. But who is?

Disco: Not as in the Bee Gees, at least not here. It'll more likely be a track like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" from the late black transvestite vocalist Sylvester, or extended jams by Motown's Ashford and Simpson. Or something by some ace Brit you've never heard of.

DJ: The disc jockey as selector, the person who sets the emotional temperature of the club space. For better and worse, the kings and queens of the scene, more likely than not to be at least partially digitized. Techno original Derrick May recently tweeted that vinyl will not be spun out in two to three years. Is he right? We happen to think it will always be part of the future of future music. The perfection of software-enabled sets has its place, we say democratically, but so does content-based, imperfect DJ sets ignited by stacks of good records. Eff you, if you have a problem with that.

Drum 'n' bass: Like the sound of a roaring freight train, often with what appears to be chaotic snare and bass drum programming and sampled or live vocals.

Dubstep: Misunderstood and maligned, sometimes for good reason, this is a heavy-bass and drums (yup, there is a relationship to drum 'n' bass) style with origins in London and Bristol, England. The most advanced artistry in the genre uses techno and house for maximum hardcore dance effect.

Electro: The itchy, twitchy electrical outlet of dance music, filled with sounds pioneered in the early '80s by such groups as Kraftwerk and Detroit's Cybotron. Take a bow, Juan Atkins.

House: Its syncopated beats and melodic structures are an outgrowth of disco, the sound of Chicago, the heartbeat of New York, and a clear influence on Detroit techno and variations on electronic dance music developed in Europe.

IDM: Intelligent Dance Music. Rarely on the beat and less pop than the sounds your refrigerator makes. Techno's elitist cousin makes for difficult dancing but far easier chin-scratching.

Ital-Disco: An acid house-techno-electro combine developed in Italy 30 years ago, and for years a part of DJ sets by Derrick May, Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen.

Minimal: The club sound that dominated 2004-2007. Cultivated by Cologne's Wolfgang Voigt into a global brand (Kompakt) that brought rockstar ethos into dance environments, it burned out eventually but still refuses to fade away.

Producer: An artist who makes tracks with analog equipment or digitally with computer software. Not all producers of electronic music are DJs, and many DJs are not producers. There appears to be an uptick in live performers at this year's festival, a good thing indeed.

Techno: Beats played in 4/4, otherworldly melodies. Comes in wildly different variations, and can be remixed endlessly. Another sound the world associates with Detroit.

Trance: Reviled and snubbed by purists as too commercial and stylized for swinging technophiles. But it hangs on, by only a thread perhaps, thanks to its obsessively grinning fan base.