A Not-So-Brief History of Electro

Egyptian Lover (2018). Photo by: Gary Go. Red Bull Content Pool.

The genre of electro is as lovable as it is difficult to pin down. The word "electro," sometimes called "electrofunk," describes a wide breadth of electronic music sounds with more or less the same origins. While it took many forms inside the US and eventually internationally, its most steadfast features are ground-shaking TR-808 percussion in swift, syncopated patterns and motifs that often invoke technology and ponder the future. By my count, electro first appeared in 1981 and was nothing less than the harbinger of hip-hop and techno, created largely by African Americans artists and often inspired by European, synth-focused records.

It's had a long and fruitful evolution since, seeing occasional resurgences in popularity among DJs and producers while some staunch supporters hold on throughout peaks and valleys. With its return in more recent years to the spotlight on dancefloors and in new release bins, it seems especially worthwhile to examine the history of this portentous genre. Given its complexity and the wealth of subject matter, this piece will only attempt to summarize the major developments in the genre over time and will unfortunately omit many amazing electro tunes—and much of the social context around them—out of sheer necessity.

We hope this serves as a jumping-off point for more deep dives into this fathomless collection of sounds like the one inspiring this feature. If you're already an expert on the origins of electro, skip to the second section, on Electro's resurgence, below. For everyone else, let's start at the beginning.

The Origins of Electro

In the Beginning, There Was 808

The early 1980s were an absolute tinderbox for the rapid development of electronic music. As the decade began, synthesizers and drum machines were becoming more commonly found in recording studios and on stage with bands. They helped smooth punk rock into new wave and synth pop while also setting the stage for proto-house, boogie, and computerized funk. But it took a few groundbreaking developments to spark the birth of electro.

First, Roland released its first fully programmable drum machine, the TR-808, in 1980. While initially deemed inferior to the vaunted Linn LM-1, it took just a few years before the 808 grew into the backbone of most dance music, eventually becoming the most ubiquitous drum machine sound of all time.

Early adopters were drawn to its now-iconic synthesized drum sounds and its step-sequencing function, which allowed users to program drum patterns on the fly like never before. But it wasn't until Roland stopped production in 1983 and 808s started showing up in secondhand shops that it became affordable for many producers to own one.

Kraftwerk - "Numbers"

Meanwhile, a handful of pioneering artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra, George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, Gary Numan, D-Train, and Yello were laying the musical groundwork for what came next. Looming over all of them was Kraftwerk, whose thorough embrace of synthesizers and drum machines had already influenced a generation of electronic musicians.

But it was their 1981 album, Computer World, and specifically its single "Numbers," which opened the door for electro. With its queasy melodies and clipped, syncopated percussion that would become a hallmark of the genre, the song's robotic funk made it an instant favorite of many DJs in the United States. It also increased the group's exposure within black and Latino audiences, setting off a musical arms race to react to this revolutionary tune that had become the backing track for many local New York rappers.

Planet Rocked

Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - "Planet Rock"

It was Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, with production by Arthur Baker and John Robie, whose record "Planet Rock" had the widest impact and came to define the early electro sound. Released in June 1982 on NYC hip-hop label Tommy Boy, the song featured the Soulsonic Force rapping over bouncing, syncopated 808 beats that interpolated distinctive Kraftwerk melodies. In a 1998 interview, Afrika Bambaataa explained, "I always was into Trans Europa Express, and after Kraftwerk put 'Numbers' out, I said, 'I wonder if I can combine the two to make something real funky with a hard bass and beat.' So we combined them." Arthur Baker knew they had musical dynamite on their hands. In a 1999 interview, Baker said, "I went home the night we cut the track and brought the tape home, and I said to my wife at the time, 'We've just made musical history.'"

Warp 9 - "Nunk"

This proved to be no exaggeration. Not only did the record make its way around the US, spreading the word of hip-hop and electronic beats, it inspired legions of followers wherever it was heard. The New York scene lit up first and brightest in 1982, with Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam," Warp 9's "Nunk", Planet Patrol's "Play At Your Own Risk" (also produced by Baker and Robie), and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's "Scorpio" all extrapolating on the territory covered by "Planet Rock" with 808 beats and talkbox vocals.

Man Parrish - "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)"

The momentum behind the sound picked up in 1983 as it diversified, with seminal, mostly instrumental cuts like Man Parrish's "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)" and Hashim's "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)" demonstrating how powerful it could be even without MCs.

The immensely talented band Newcleus got their start with "Jam On Revenge" in 1983, and their inventive 1984 singles "Computer Age (Push The Button)" and "Jam On It" would cement their place in electro history. Baker and Robie continued to craft foundational tracks like New Order's "Confusion," Freeez's "I.O.U.," Soulsonic Force's "Looking For the Perfect Beat", and Nairobi's "Funky Soul Makossa," launching the Streetwise label to release them and many other electro records.

Even legendary pianist Herbie Hancock got in on the action, releasing the Grammy-winning, scratched up electro tune "Rockit," which lent respectability to the burgeoning genre and added to its already swelling audience.

Man Parrish - "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)"

Enter the Motor City

Cybotron - "Alleys of Your Mind"

The arrival of Kraftwerk's "Numbers" and then "Planet Rock" sent aural shockwaves through music scenes around the US, which were perhaps felt deepest in Detroit. The music of Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, and many new wave records had already primed the pump for funky electronic sounds, inspiring Juan Atkins and Richard Davis to form Cybotron in 1981 and record the scrappy but powerful single "Alleys Of Your Mind." Although not as widely cited as "Planet Rock," its syncopated rhythms and chilly synth work suggest it was perhaps the original electro tune.

Over Skype, Atkins told me, "The reason I was doing electronic [music] was because I lived in a place where I couldn't get other band members, so I had to put these songs together by myself. That is where technology and electronics helped." Incredibly, he was in New York promoting the second Cybotron single, "Cosmic Cars," at the moment "Planet Rock" landed. "As soon as we pulled into the city, one station had an exclusive of this mystery record, and it just lit up the airwaves," Atkins explains. "And it was already a year behind."

Cybotron - "Clear"

Cybotron's 1983 record "Clear" established the duo as heavyweights in the electro arena. Mixed by Jose "Animal" Diaz, who also worked with Jonzun Crew in New York, its instantly memorable whirling motifs would go on to be hugely influential and widely sampled, most notably for Missy Elliot's 2005 single "Lose Control." Many have cited "Clear" as the original techno track as well, which says a lot about the slippery boundaries between the genres.

Model 500 - "Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)"

Atkins' longer lived solo project, Model 500, launched in 1985 and contributed crucial electro cuts like "Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)," as well as more or less writing the manual for Detroit techno generally. He even made electro records under other names and in various collaborations. "Technicolor," his Channel One release with Doug Craig, even ended up being interpolated into Sir Mix-a-Lot's smash hit, "Baby Got Back." With the rare outlier of Erik Travis' Sound Of Mind releases in 1987 and 1988, few other Detroit electro artists emerged during the '80s. However, they would go on to play a dominant role in the sound of electro in the early '90s as New York's influence waned. More on that later.


Unknown & Three D - "Beatronic"

As the first wave of electro was reaching its peak around 1984, a new electro scene was blossoming in Los Angeles. Here the biggest electro acts emphasized rapping as much as the hard-edged beats beneath their lyrics, serving as precursors to LA's fertile hip-hop heritage. In fact, familiar names like Dr. Dre and Yella of N.W.A. fame got their start in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, with scratch-heavy cuts "Surgery" and "He's Bionic" helping to define the scene. Mik Lezan, known both as Arabian Prince and Professor X, was also making Prince-influenced electro cuts and harder street beats before he joined N.W.A. Ice-T initially launched his rap career with electro tunes, such as "The Coldest Rap," with musical contributions from members of The Time. Another pillar of the scene was The Unknown DJ, the artist behind classic electro records "Beatronic" and "Basstronic" and the label owner of Techno Hop Records, which released many LA electro records. He also collaborated with DJ Slip as The X-Men, a project whose few sample-heavy singles were well received in LA and Detroit.

Egyptian Lover - "I Need a Freak"

But the city's biggest electro export was undoubtedly Egyptian Lover, an intensely charismatic producer and vocalist who is one of the few original electro artists still active today. Originally the producer for Uncle Jamm's Army and the Radio Crew (with Ice-T), the man born Greg Broussard went solo in 1984 with "Egypt, Egypt" and never looked back. "When I first heard that Kraftwerk album with 'Numbers' on it, I lost my mind and said to myself, 'I need to make a rap over that crazy electronic beat," Broussard told Infinitestatemachine in 2009, adding, "... Soulsonic Force beat me to it, and when I heard 'Planet Rock' I was like, 'Ahhhh that is what I was gonna do.' But it only inspired me more to create a style similar to this. Prince and Kraftwerk were my main influences."

Planet Bass

Freestyle - "Don't Stop The Rock"

On the opposite coast, another branch of the electro tree sprung up in Miami between 1984-85. Like in LA and New York, the electro sound was a springboard for the city's hip-hop scene and its own mutation called Miami Bass. As one might expect, Miami's artists emphasized the bass lines in their 808-clad beats and injected Latin influences as well.

The most famous electro tune to come out of Miami was Freestyle's 1985 smash, "Don't Stop The Rock", whose flashy melodies lit up dancefloors and radio stations well beyond the coast of Florida. MC A.D.E. was among the city's first electro artists, releasings the singles "Bass Rock Express" and "Bass Mechanic," which helped lay out the template for Miami Bass.

Scene stalwarts Maggotron and Dynamix II started off as devoted "Planet Rock" followers but went on to create a musical bridge between early electro and Miami Bass. And while more associated with Miami Bass, even 2 Live Crew's first musical forays, "The Revelation" and "Throw The D," were electro in style.

Round the Outside

In the early '80s, the UK was already suffused in synth-pop courtesy of Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, New Order, and many more when electro first struck a chord with British audiences. Greg Wilson, a Manchester-based DJ who was present at the moment and instrumental to the genre's success in his country, describes the scene in great detail on his tremendous resource, Electrofunkroots.co.uk. By his telling, rap first arrived on their side of the Atlantic via records like Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."

Malcolm Maclaren and The World's Famous Supreme Team - "Buffalo Gals"

But it was actually notorious trend-hunter Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols and New York Dolls manager, who gave the UK its "first true insight into the street culture that had developed in New York," according to Wilson. For his 1982 single, "Buffalo Gals," he recruited veteran songwriter and producer Trevor Horn, later of Art of Noise fame, to record and produce the sample-heavy track.

In addition to McLaren's own stilted vocals, he included scratching and a sample sourced by the World's Famous Supreme Team, two MCs recruited during the visit to the Bronx that introduced McLaren to hip-hop, electro, and the technique of scratching. Paired with a video that featured breakdancing by the Bronx-based Rock Steady Crew, "Buffalo Girls" opened British eyes to the possibilities of hip-hop and these fresh dance moves. The record even made it to number nine in the UK Singles charts.

Freeez - "I.O.U."

Suddenly the demand for the novel sounds and distinctly urban aesthetic emanating from the Bronx grew astronomically. English promoter Morgan Khan launched the label StreetSounds to cater to b-boy culture springing up across England. Their "Street Sounds Electro" compilation series not only branded the entire genre, they delivered hit tracks by the biggest American hip-hop and electro artists to audiences who would've never found import copies themselves. Surprisingly, the popularity of the music didn't inspire many Brits to have a go at making their own electro tracks. Greg Wilson, along with members of Magazine and A Certain Ratio, and the rappers Kermit and Fiddz, recorded tracks under a variety of aliases for "Street Sounds UK Electro," another Morgan Khan compilation with respectable chart success. But their efforts proved to be surprisingly singular with the exception of the Baker-produced "I.O.U." from English jazz-funk band Freeez. It wasn't until the early '90s that many British artists offered their own take on electro.

Where Next?

As the '80s wore on, many of the hip-hop oriented scenes opted to keep the 808 beats of electro and leave the futurist themes in favor of party-oriented, street-level observations more commonly found in rap. House music moved from Chicago's underground sensation to a world-beating sound. Techno was growing rapidly in Detroit and starting to spread as well. Acid house took off like wildfire in the UK. And what of electro? It was still being played, although more selectively, by adventurous DJs. Most of the artists moved on to these newer genres, which were still fresh and full of even more possibilities. But electro was still to see a major resurgence in the 1990s.

Electro Resurgence

As the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, electro was simply no longer in vogue. Its role as the predecessor of hip-hop and techno didn’t do much for music lovers caught up in those full-fledged genres, or, similarly, for fans of house, acid house, and Miami bass. While electro records stayed in some DJs’ crates, many first-wave electro artists moved along with the crowd and tried their hands at one of the fresher sounds. Though future generations would take up the torch, electro never again achieved the broad popularity of 1982-'85.

This had consequences for its sound, as well. Unencumbered by popular expectations, subsequent waves of electro producers found new touchstones for their own derivations of the genre. Most eschewed the hip-hop element altogether, doubling down on science fiction and tech-driven themes whose nerdiness often matched that of their diehard fans. Although electro remained a niche sound, there was a global resurgence in the number of artists making electro during the ‘90s, the stylistic wave rising highest in 1997. Like waves do, this crashed in the early aughts and has returned again a couple of times since.

Detroit Hustles Harder

Jeff Mills, aka The Wizard, live on WJLB in 1987

The city of Detroit was a rare oasis for both offsprings of the original electro sound. While holding tight to seminal works by Juan Atkins, the Motor City’s embrace of West Coast electro and Miami bass was so complete its audiences didn’t know that some of their favorite songs weren’t created there. All of these sounds and more were swirled together by local DJs on the radio and at parties, many of whom emulated the mercurial blends and crowd-stoking selections of a young Jeff Mills, who spun records as the Wizard on WJLB and WDRQ during the late ‘80s.

"A lot of it was just based off of street music in Detroit," attests Brian Gillespie, aka Detroit’s DJ Starski, a longtime DJ, producer, and label owner. "Detroit radio was god back then. The DJ had the opportunity to do what he wanted, not be controlled by some music director. At night they'd play Miami bass music. It was a huge deal here, especially 2 Live Crew, because the sounds they were using were electro sounds." As this eclectic, booty-shaking style grew in popularity on Detroit radio and the trendsetting New Dance Show, new producers turned up to provide fresh material. Known initially as either "booty" or "ghetto" style at the time, this became a scene unto itself during the ‘90s. More on that a bit later.

Techno Bass

Not everyone in Detroit was eager to participate in "electro." According to Detroit music specialist, Brendan M. Gillen, better known as the Detroit-based DJ, producer, and label owner BMG, electro had become a dirty word for many producers. "It had become top 40 music—Madonna even tries it out," Gillen explains, "Nobody in Detroit wants to be associated with Top 40." What’s more, hip-hop and booty/ghetto music were seen as soundtracking the booming crack cocaine trade that had gripped urban America. "If you were involved in advancing consciousness [as a producer], you'd not be working on that," Gillen added. Detroit producers making what we now consider electro were firmly committed to classifying it as techno.

Aux 88 - "Direct Drive"

Still, such infectious sounds couldn’t help but influence producers who made up the second wave of Detroit electro. At the forefront was Keith Tucker, a prolific producer who recorded under a handful of aliases like Optic Nerve and KT-19941. But he’s best known as half of Aux 88 with Tommy Hamilton, a duo still active today. Making their debut in 1993 on Tucker’s Direct Beat imprint, the duo prioritized booming bass sounds among their technology-focused lyrics. In a 2010 video interview, Hamilton described the Aux 88 sound as "techno bass" rather than electro—"a fusion of Detroit techno and Miami bass sounds." Together, they made some of the most compelling records of that era, like "My A.U.X. Mind," "Direct Drive," "Break It Down," and many more.

Remote - "Protecting My Hive"

Direct Beat itself was a treasure trove of audacious electro records by Will Web, DJ Di’jital, Posatronix, and even Mike Banks under his Electric Soul guise. Banks was already well ensconced in electro through his massively influential label/distro, Submerge as well as mid- and late-’90s Underground Resistance cuts like "Acid Africa" and "Codebreaker," as well as Remote’s "Protecting My Hive." Many other Detroit producers took their turn at making electro as well, such as, Scott Grooves under his Sole Tech guise on his Detrechno label, Aaron-Carl, and James Pennington, aka Suburban Knight. Juan Atkins’ Metroplex label, already the home to many of his releases, was also a hub for Detroit electro and techno acts, including more booty-oriented records by Erotek, Aaron-Carl, and Juan’s own X-Ray alias.

Deep Sea Dwellers

Drexciya - "Bubble Metropolis"

Afrofuturism—an aesthetic that explores the intersection of African-American history and culture with the development of technology—is a near constant within Detroit electro and techno. The duo Drexciya embodied this approach even more than most, with singular works telling the story of an underseas civilization with roots in the American slave trade through futuristic electro music. Debuting in 1992 with "Deep Sea Dweller," this most famous collaboration between Gerald Donald and James Stinson saw them plunge into uncharted, experimental territory in electro and techno throughout the ‘90s into the early 2000s.

The group’s liner notes—sometimes scant, other times extensive—laid out the group’s mystical backstory. Early releases on Shockwave, Submerge, and Underground Resistance led to EPs on Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label, Warp Records, and albums for Tresor and Clone, all which helped spread the group’s influence and the mythology rapidly building around them. They released sporadic dispatches until 2002, when the project came to an end as Stinson passed away in September of that year.

The Other People Place - "It’s Your Love"

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Donald and Stinson began to branch out from the Drexciya name with dozens of solo projects, each exemplary of the many sonic possibilities that fall under the umbrella of electro. They are too numerous to name them all—it’s estimated there are still projects no one knows about—but a few from each member must be highlighted. James Stinson didn’t have as much time as his Drexciyan partner to spread out, but he still left a considerable solo legacy. It’s believed he was the driving force behind Elecktroids, whose 1995 album, "Elektroworld" on Warp Records, sounds like Drexciya as land-dwellers with well-worn copies of every Kraftwerk LP.

Far more influential was The Other People Place, a warm yet melancholic electro project with unexpectedly human themes, which yielded the utterly classic 2001 album, Lifestyles Of The Laptop Café for Warp. Two strange and enjoyable albums under the alias Transllusion showcased Stinson pushing at his own boundaries, while the posthumously released the Lab Rat XL album Mice Or Cyborg bristles with energy and sharp edges.

Dopplereffekt - "Cellular Phone"

Gerald Donald was far more prolific even during the Drexciya days, with Dopplereffekt, debuting in 1995, looming largest over all his many projects. Rebranding himself as the German-sounding Rudolf Klorzeiger, he recruited a small rotating cast of collaborators and, at least initially, drew upon the sick experimentation of Nazi scientists for thematic grist, turning electro’s Kraftwerkian roots on their head while hewing closely to their precise, computerized palette. Dopplereffekt are still active today, although Donald—these days adopting the more problematic name Heinrich Mueller, shared with the head of the Gestapo—still launches new aliases and collaborations regularly. Other fan-favorite Gerald Donald projects include the technology-obsessed Arpanet and Japanese Telecom, as well as collaborative efforts with Der Zyklus, Zwischenwelt, and earlier releases as Ectomorph with BMG.

All The Players Represent

Professor X - "Professor X (Saga)"

Operating more or less in parallel with this sci-fi heavy scene in the mid-’90s was the aforementioned booty or ghetto style, inspired by the harder edges and vulgar lyrics of Miami bass, Professor X and the X-Men from LA, and Chicago’s Dance Mania label. Eventually labeled as "ghettotech" by journalist Hobey Echlin, its sound is incredibly fast, banging, and often lyrically filthy—perfect for keeping parties jumping.

DJ Godfather and DJ Dick, two of the scene’s architects, got their start in 1993 making sample-heavy electro records under the name Bass Association. At the time there was huge demand but very little supply of the Miami bass records that inspired them, spurring them to meet that demand on their own. They’d go on to found Twilight 76 Records with Brian Gillespie to showcase more of this sound. Soon after, they launched the Databass sub-label, whose strictly party cuts "ghetto" sound—and records like DJ Godfather’s "Mr. Big Dick" and DJ Nasty’s "Blaze It Up"—proved quite popular in Detroit.

DJ Assault - "Sex On the Beach"

DJ Assault was among the best-known DJs and producers of ghettotech, as well as the label head for Electrofunk Records. Together with Mr. De, he produced notorious tracks like "Ass-N-Titties," which are well known even outside ghettotech circles. Even producers like Rick Wade and Dan Bell, better known for their deep house and minimal techno records, got in on the action. Several other regional variants of this type of appeared in Baltimore, New Jersey, and elsewhere, although they feel less inspired by electro than their Midwestern relatives.

We Are Back!

The Octagon Man - "Phase IV"

Swept away by the much-hyped arrival of acid house in the UK, electro splintered there much as it did in the U.S. Hip-hop and breakdancing had won a much larger audience, and no one inspired by the heady days of ‘82-’85 made music describable as electro until the early 1990s. At that point it was generally a discarded sound, something to be referenced and built upon. Jonathan Saul Kane was among the first on the scene’s second wave in 1989.

His releases under the name The Octagon Man embraced the genre’s focus on technology and 808 drum programming, putting aside the breakbeat/trip-hop music he was making as Depth Charge. After a five-year break, the Octagon Man alias returned in 1995 with the album, The Exciting World Of…, pushing deeper into electro territory with the influence of Detroit clearly present. He also had a hand in running the labels Vinyl Solution, Electron Industries, and D.C. Recordings, which released his music and much more.

LFO - "Simon From Sydney"

Participating in b-boy culture was a common early entry point into dance music for many UK producers. The esteemed duo of Mark Bell and Gez Varley first met when part of rival breakdance crews in the mid-’80s. Linking up again in college, the pair formed LFO and released their self-titled debut in 1990 for Warp Records. While clearly informed by Chicago house and Detroit techno, the syncopated percussion of "Simon from Sydney" and the talkbox vocals of "We Are Back" are just a couple examples of how electro influenced their early releases.

Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton, most widely known for their mid-’90s ambient techno alias Global Communication, went on to form Jedi Knights in 1996. Here, the duo fondly recalled the funky synth lines of ‘80s electro with buoyant singles on Clear and releases on their own Evolution label. Well respected as a techno producer and DJ, Dave Clarke proved his electro fan credentials with scene-setting mix CDs "X-Mix - Electro Boogie" and "Electro Boogie Vol 2 - The Throwdown." Even Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, toyed with electro rhythms in some of his early ‘90s productions.

We Are DMX

DMX Krew - "The Monsignor"

One of the biggest electro artists to emerge in this era was Ed "DMX" Upton, better known as DMX Krew. A solid Kraftwerk fan by age 9 and early adopter of the UK Street Sounds Electro compilations, Upton embraced everything electro, from Cybotron’s "Clear" to Maggotron, during his formative years. Surprisingly, his first records were more techno in nature, but soon it became clear electro was a better outlet for his creativity.

"I just kinda realized I was never gonna get ahead of Jeff Mills and Robert Hood doing techno," Upton told me over the phone. "I thought, ‘I’ve got to find my own little niche where I can be unique rather than try to chase someone else.’ Maybe I wasn’t enough of a genius to invent my own style, so I looked back to an old style that was wildly out of fashion." His 1996 debut album, Sound Of The Street, for the Rephlex label, cannily worked its way through electro styles, flush with melodically colorful synth sounds throughout.

Mandroid - "Rogue Missile"

Upton further championed electrofunk sounds by founding the labels Breakin’ Records and Fresh Up Records, providing homes for UK electro producers Mandroid, Bass Junkie, and his own productions under a number of names like Computor Rockers and Bass Potato. But this didn’t necessarily translate into popularity at home.

"There weren’t clubs to go to that were playing it—it was kind of a thing for some nerds, at least in London. I would clear a dance floor. I was kinda lucky because I was on Rephlex, which was a pretty experimental, wide-ranging label, so if I’d do gigs with Rephlex the crowd would be pretty open-minded. But not always. There were times when I had bottles thrown at me or god knows what." The DMX Krew sound expanded to include everything from synthpop to drum ‘n bass as the novelty of electro wore off over time. "Yeah, I could sit down and knock out early Breakin’ Records-style electro tracks easily—I could do a couple every day, but I would be bored," Upton admits, "There’d be no artistic merit in it whatsoever."

Love Is for the Hardest People

If electro was something of a niche sound in the UK, it was an even greater rarity in Germany. It seems unthinkable that the fatherland of Kraftwerk wouldn’t be an electro hotbed, with their influence overflowing everywhere else. Yet it seems their daunting stature may have convinced other German artists to avoid the comparison entirely by working their own angles, often expressed through EBM and industrial music instead. Only a few made a real impact during this same fertile time period.

Miss Kittin & The Hacker - "Frank Sinatra"

As a producer, DJ Hell has never been shy of trying on new styles, and electro was one he touched on briefly. But as the labelhead of International Deejay Gigolo Records, Hell was a staunch advocate of electro and electro-derived sounds. Catching its stride in the late ‘90s, the label’s offerings included multiple releases by Gerald Donald, DMX Krew’s most overt Kraftwerk tribute record, "Showroom Dummies," breakout records of future electroclash champions Miss Kittin & The Hacker, Tiga, and Fischerspooner. Only fellow German label Disko B can claim a similarly broad and electro-focused discography, the home of records by Dutch electro heroes Unit Moebius and I-F (more on them later), Austrian producer Patrick Pulsinger, and dozens more.

Anthony Rother - "Sex With The Machines"

Perhaps the most prominent German electro producer is Anthony Rother, who emerged from Offenbach, near Frankfurt, in the late ‘90s. Gritty and melancholic, his 1997 debut album, Sex With The Machines proved there was still more to be said within electro. Tracks like "Human Made" and "Love Is For The Hardest People" bear the influences of Kraftwerk and Detroit electro while offering a decidedly human take on technology driven themes. Rother became something of a one-man cottage industry of electro music beginning in 1998, when he launched the electro-focused Psi49net label and released a bevy of records under his own name and as Little Computer People. As his popularity grew, he founded the Datapunk label in 2003 for even more electro-influenced music, including with Sven Väth.

Like DJ Hell, Rother was not shy of trends, and he made music compatible with the popular forms of electro that saw brief, fitful revivals in the early and mid-aughts—electroclash and electro-house. Whether fairly or not, Rother is seen as a driving force behind the latter—a style which fused humming, distorted "electro" synth lines with house rhythms that became immensely popular around 2005-’06. He’s stayed prolific as ever while continuing to explore music other than electro, adding new monikers to his discography and collaborating regularly along the way.

Electroclash Emerges

I-F - "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass"

Just for clarity’s sake, we need to briefly backtrack to a mini-genre mentioned a couple times above. Coined "electroclash" by New York DJ and promoter Larry Tee, the style saw associated artists jamming together synth pop, new wave, punk, and electro percussion, often leading with disaffected vocals and including more female artists. Although it can track its roots to I-F’s classic 1997 cut "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass," and was greatly nurtured by 1998’s "Frank Sinatra" and "1982" by Miss Kittin & The Hacker, electroclash proliferated globally within a few years, often thanks to International Deejay Gigolo Records.

Fischerspooner - "Emerge"

Around the turn of the millenium this led to synthpop-oriented groups like Ladytron from the UK, the theatrically inclined Fischerspooner from New York and their massive single "Emerge", delightfully vulgar punk sounds from Canadian artist Peaches, and even the cold and Kraftwerkian Detroit duo ADULT. Canadian producer Tiga also found his early footing in electroclash.

The mini-genre’s popular highpoint was perhaps 2001’s Kittenz and Thee Glitz album by Felix Da Housecat, written in collaboration with Miss Kittin, Tommie Sunshine, Junior Sanchez, Dave the Hustler, and more. Its successful singles "Silver Screen Shower Scene" and "Madame Hollywood" both featured Miss Kittin’s signature deadpan vocals and put the sound on the map for many electroclash latecomers (myself included).

Already reaching diminishing returns in 2003 while becoming somewhat commercially successful, electroclash more or less dissolved in the years after, letting loose its artists and fans into other forms of indie dance music, much like electro before it.

Contemporary Electro

No history of electro would be complete without acknowledging all that the Dutch have contributed to the genre—or those dance artists bringing the always forward-looking genre into the future. Below, we're tracing electro in the Netherlands through the expanse of contemporary labels and artists across the world that continue to push the boundaries of electro in the present day.

Attack of the Clones

There cannot be a history of electro without covering the major contributions of Dutch artists and labels. I’ve saved them for last only to be sure they get the proper recognition. According to Serge, founder of Dutch music retailer and scene-defining record label Clone Records, early electro music found a receptive audience in the Netherlands. "Holland was big with US imports in the 80s," Serge told me over email, "Loads of disco and electro found its way to the Netherlands." Electronic music in general stayed popular in the Netherlands, developing a booming club culture for house, techno, electro, and more.

Pametex - "Confectionmen"

In 1992, Serge founded the label Clone as a home for his own productions as Orx and Cospagon. Electro flavors came into play in 1997-’98, with EPs by Pamétex and Cosmic Force. The Men You'll Never See E.P., a compilation featuring Detroit In Effect and ADULT. alongside Dutch artists Electronome and I-F, helped cement the connection between their scenes and with Clone more specifically. The Rotterdam-based label group, which over time grew to many Clone sub-labels for everything from classic Chicago house to cutting-edge house and techno, has been instrumental in preserving the legacy of Detroit electro masters Drexciya, whether through reissues of classic material or the wealth of original solo material released by its members on the Clone Aqualung Series imprint.

The Exaltics - "Never Be Enough"

Clone also played an important role in building up the Dutch electro scene. It started the Djak-Up-Bitch label in 1997 to host electro and experimental electronic music, added Clone West Coast Series in 2009 for newer electro by Legowelt, Versalife, The Exaltics, and others, and it provided a home for Duplex, Alden Tyrell, Funckarma and many more local talents. This is to say nothing of the many branches of Clone that deal with house or techno, of which there are many.

Mixed Up in the Hague

Unit Moebius - "Overload"

Around the same time Serge opened Clone, Dutch dance pioneers Unit Moebius got their start in 1992, issuing no-nonsense, tattered bangers on Guy Tavares’ label, Bunker Records. Consisting of Jan Duivenvoorden, Guy Tavares, Ferenc E. van der Sluijs, and Richard Van Den Bogaert, the group swung wildly between techno, acid, and electro, inspired by and serving as the Dutch counterpart to Detroit’s Underground Resistance. Unit Moebius stayed musically abundant until 2008 when they abruptly cut off communication. Even today, however, the Bunker and its sub-labels remain critical to Dutch dance music and as a home for artists around the world who bring punk energy to their tracks, like Rude 66, Legowelt, Luke Eargoggle, The Exaltics, and Syncom Data, to mention just a few.

I-F - "Rage of Aquarius"

That raw, distorted sounds are a recurring feature in Dutch electro can be attributed at least in part to Ferenc E. van der Sluijs, better known as the DJ and producer Interr-Ference, or I-F for short. Based in the Hague, I-F was not only a member of Unit Moebius, but a prolific producer and label owner who, from the mid-’90s on, blanketed record store shelves with his darker, at times dystopian, vision of techno and electro. Obviously a devoted pupil of the electro sound and a self-proclaimed fetishist for violent 1970s Italian films, his own records combine the geeky scientific subject matter of his Detroit peers with a ribald sense of humor surpassing that of Miami bass and Detroit booty music. Take for example, his 1994 debut record entitled Portrait Of A Dead Girl 1: The Cause, or his breakout hit, "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass," on his breakthrough album, Fucking Consumer. His music similarly smudged together acid, electro, Italo, and techno to form dirty, distorted, mutant tracks best blasted in the squats where he threw scruffy acid parties.

Novamen - "Dreaming Of"

I-F’s DIY approach included releasing the bulk of his music under a clutch of aliases—among them Jungian Archetype, Beverly Hills 808303, and HOTT—on a seemingly endless supply of his own record labels. Between 1994-’96 he birthed four record labels, the short-lived Interr-Ference Communications, followed by Reference Analogue Audio, Viewlexx, and Murder Capital. The latter two remain active, continuing to celebrate the blending of electro with other dance music styles by fellow Dutchmen Electronome, DJ Overdose, Freak Electronique, Alden Tyrell, Ingmar Pauli, and Gesloten Cirkel, to highlight just a handful.

As influential as his records and labels are, I-F’s notoriety is also the result of his eclectic DJing style. Before he was an acid freak and electro devotee, I-F was drawn to dance music through Italo disco. Yet it caught many party promoters off guard when the gruff looking I-F climbed into the DJ booth and forewent the endless sonic assaults one might expect based on his releases, instead threading together techno, Italo, electro, and acid house as if they were all one sound. More importantly, he connected the dots between Italo and electro, two surprisingly compatible genres whose overlapping synth aesthetics inspired several producers to create their own original blends. I-F’s genre-hopping style is captured most faithfully on his 1999 mix CD, Mixed Up In the Hague Vol.1, which both lit the fuse of an Italo disco renaissance and became up one of the most famous mixes of all time. I-F further stoked this Italo renewal with his Cybernetic Broadcasting System internet radio station, built on the back of years of doing pirate radio. After six years of highlighting the best and most obscure Italo records, CBS closed up shop, only to be replaced in 2008 by Intergalactic FM, an even more ambitious internet radio station that shows no signs of slowing down.

And the Beat Goes On

Such are the depths of the Netherlands’ love for electro that, amazingly, we’ve only scratched the surface of the Dutch scene so far. Although I could write a whole feature on their contributions alone, I’ll have to settle for covering a few more key figures and labels without whom any discussion of electro would remain incomplete. Having left off in the Hague, we might as well start with the label Crème Organization from the same electro hub. Founded in 2000 by Jeroen Van Der Star aka DJ TLR, Crème was clearly influenced by its Dutch predecessors in releasing electro with raw edges and the occasional Italo arpeggios. International in scope from the start, the label recruited Finnish producer Sami Liuski to release under a number of aliases, as well as Danny Wolfers under his Legowelt and Polarius monikers, and Orgue Electronique. Though its remit and renown has broadened significantly since the early days to include rough-hewn house and techno, electro remains close to TLR’s heart.

E.R.P. - "Tuga"

Meanwhile in Rotterdam, Wilco Klen van Bennekom, a close associate of Clone best known as the producer Ovatow, launched his label Frustrated Funk in 2002. Like his contemporaries at Crème, Klen looked outside of the Netherlands for many of its releases. Well connected in the US, the label showcased Detroit producers like Der Zyklus and Cybonix, Silicon from North Carolina, Dallas, Texas-based producer E.R.P. (even better known as Convextion), as well as LA’s Santiago Salazar under his electro moniker Seldom Seen, and Seattle’s 214. Along with the rest of the international cast, this makes for a more diverse slate of electro sounds—from swift and scrappy and to softer and spacey—than most electro labels manage. Frustrated Funk is also the proud parent of more techno-influenced sub-labels, Harbour City Sorrow and Frantic Flowers.

Dexter - "Intruder"

For Remy Verheijen, who hails from just outside Amsterdam and produces primarily as Dexter, electro is just one part of his sonic arsenal. Although more house- and techno-oriented these days, Dexter’s earlier records, starting around 2000, lean strongly on richly melodic electrofunk sounds more commonly found in early New York records. Many came out on his Klakson label, which hosted dozens more electro records by friends and peers. He ran the label in partnership with Dutch DJ and producer Steffi, a proud advocate of electro music who founded her own solo outlets for said music: Dolly, Dolly Dubs, and Dolly Deluxe. Her love for the sound comes through in her own productions, especially her albums Power of Anonymity and World of the Waking State, where an electro pulse runs throughout her multifaceted sound.

Alden Tyrell - "Love Explosion"

Last but not definitely least is longtime Dutch scene veteran Alden Tyrell. While he himself professes no great love for electro, favoring the influence of Euro and Italo disco, it’s undeniable that some of his early greats like "Love Explosion" and "Disco Lunar Module" scratch the same itch. Having been involved in the Dutch scene since the early ’90s, Tyrell’s records can be found all over the discographies of Viewlexx, Crème, and Clone and many of its subsidiaries. And as a mastering engineer, Tyrell purports to have put finishing touches on 90 percent of the music released on Clone, several records for Crème and Murder Capital, and many, many more.

The Present Day

The last few years have seen electro enter another one of its periodic upswings in popularity, with electro DJs, labels, and producers all once again in higher demand. This wave comes in the wake of Clone reissuing a large portion of Drexciya’s catalog, which I’ve noticed helped spark more interest in the genre and has led to more producers influenced by the legendary aquatic duo. Yet with the whole history of electro available for anyone to hear online, contemporary electro music ends up both multifaceted and heavily influenced by the past.

In this last section, I hope to highlight just a few of the key artists and labels who stand at the forefront of the scene as we know it now—many of whom have been active within it for years and are just now getting their due. And of course, many of the artists discussed earlier in this article are still active and making electro today, but don’t need to be included again.

Contemporary Electro Labels

Microlith - "Dance With Me"

There are a few UK-based record labels leading the electro pack and Central Processing Unit (CPU) is undoubtedly at the forefront. Founded by Chris Smith, a DJ and producer based in Sheffield, CPU got off to a running start in 2012 and quickly became the hottest hub for electro and electro-adjacent sounds. With a roster that’s included veterans DMX Krew, B12, Paul Blackford, and Neil Landstrumm, as well as provided a crucial outlet for producers on the rise, CPU releases span IDM, ambient, electro, techno, and more, sometimes even within a single release. Since 2016, the label’s output has more than doubled to nearly 20 records per year, yet the quality has remained high overall. My favorites of the more recent crop include Nadia Struiwigh’s dripping-with-detail album Lenticular, Alek Stark’s classic-styled Blueshifted People, and the brooding Subtle Variance EP by the late producer Microlith.

Another leading light is Bass Agenda Recordings, which got its start as an electro-focused radio show back in 2012. One year later, founder Andy Barton added a label component that issued fresh electro music at a rapid clip. Among its numerous releases you’ll find everything from dark, industrial sounds to more esoteric techno tunes. You’d need to be a keen follower of more modern electro to recognize many of the names here, but underground veterans like Franck Kartell, Bass Junkie, and ATIX litter the Bass Agenda discography. My picks of their recent releases include Jostronamer’s Rogue, the aggressive Cerebus EP by RXmode, and Semantic4’s Terminus album.

The London-based Brokntoys label also got its start in 2013, trafficking in both electro and techno with electro-reminiscent percussion. While a bit more focused and sparing in releases when compared with its aforementioned peers, the label has a high hit-to-miss ratio bolstered by records from Versalife, Marco Bernardi, Luke Eargoggle, and Scape One. I’m also partial to the techno/electro hybrid record "Drama in Decay" by Gamma Intel, a more subtle EP by XY0815 called "Exahertz," and the proper club cuts on Vertical67’s "Morphed Reality" EP.

And while dozens more labels could be included here, we’ll wrap up with London’s Cultivated Electronics. Started in 2007 by Philip Bolland, better known as the producer Sync 24, the label has made its name as much with various artist comps as with big named artists. These EP-length comps draw in electro producers from all over the spectrum, highlighting producers who have gone on to be hotly tipped by DJs and in the press, such as DeFeKT, Morphology, Privacy, and Jepsen Interceptor. You’ll also find its back catalog stocked with collaborative records between Sync 24 and in-demand artists like Radioactive Man, The Exaltics, and Carl A. Finlow (more on him below) under his Silicon Scally guise.

Contemporary Electro Artists
Voice Stealer - "Evaluation"

Yes, let’s begin this section with Carl A. Finlow. Carl is one of those enduring producers who pops up all over the history of UK house and electro from the early ‘90s onward. He collaborated often in his early career, most famously making house music with Ralph Lawson under names like 20:20 Vision and Wolf n' Flow. But Finlow was quite prolific in general. Author of many worthy house and techno tracks, it’s his pronounced interest in electro— starting in ‘96—that gets my attention. As Voice Stealer, Finlow innovated what electro could be, bending the fleet-footed percussion of electro around experimental sounds and samples on the 1997 album The All Electric House and 1998’s Electromotive Force EP, both for Subvert. Together with Daz Quayle he formed IL.EK.TRO in 1998, which yielded two boundary pushing and entertaining EPs for Klang Elektronik and a more damaged version of their sound in 2004 for Modern Love. Yet Finlow’s most prolific electro project is Silicon Scally, which has come out with seven albums and two dozen EPs worth of extremely diverse electro music since 1998. And with more recent releases on Cultivated Electronics, CPU, and Electrix Records, he’s just as relevant today as during the ‘90s.

Since Gerald Donald has more or less separated himself from Drexciya, there remains only one Drexciyan family member flying the flag: Sherard Ingram. Already an established producer under the name Urban Tribe, Ingram became the "assault DJ" for a Drexciya tour and earned the moniker DJ Stingray. Since donning his signature black balaclava in 2007, he’s held true to Drexciya’s legacy by restlessly experimenting and pushing boundaries in his solo productions. In a recent interview with Resident Advisor, he pointed out how often in electro, "these guys are trying to recapture the '80s. Stop sticking with the paradigms of the past. Sound like the 21st century. Blow our minds." In addition to releases for WéMè Records, NakedLunch, Unknown To the Unknown, and more, DJ Stingray has become one of electro’s most sought-after advocates on the DJing circuit.

One artist who has made sure to aim outside the margins of the expected is Glaswegian producer Mark Kastner, aka Galaxian to fans of modern electro. While you can hear traces of Detroit’s fast-paced, booty-focused rhythms in his productions, Kastner draws outside those lines to make unique hybrids between electro and other forms of electronic music. The result is cinematic in scope, gripping in its often ominous tones, and unlike any of his peers. Alongside the Blowback EP for Foul-Up, his three EPs for Dutch electro haven Shipwrec—including one appearing opposite of DJ Stingray—find him in his finest form: uncompromisingly diverse, downcast, and innovative.

Galaxian - "Days of Rage"

The Berlin-based DJ and producer Privacy is a more recent arrival to the scene who has caught many ears already. Two EPs for Lobster Theremin sandwiched around one for Klasse Wrecks between 2014-’15 showed Privacy could make house and techno as well, but his electro cuts often had the most energy and detail. A recent collab with Sync 24 for Cultivated Electronics solidified his electro bonafides, but some of his most party-starting material resides on the Zero Value EP on Klakson, in particular "U Can Tell." From the diverse and compelling music he’s made so far one gets the sense we’ll be hearing a lot more from him for years to come.

Umwelt is no newcomer to electro, but suddenly many more people are listening to this veteran French producer. Based in Lyon, Umwelt caught the electro bug in the late ‘90s and set up the Fundata and Shelter labels to release it. In the time since his sound has leapt from classic electro to more experimental sounds, integrating drones, ambience, and IDM rhythms. But beneath it all beats an electro heart, as exhibited on records for Shipwrec, Satamile Records NYC, Minimum Syndicat, and his own New Flesh and Rave Or Die labels. I’m partial to his 2016 Days Of Dissent album, which pairs rougher textures and gloomy, droning melodies that recall Dutch electro with a twist.

The Finnish duo Morphology have built a sound that bonds the burning acid core of some Dutch electro with the cold but melodically rich palette of Detroit electro. Getting their start together in 2009, the pairing of Matti Turunen and Michael Diekmann have observed classic electro tropes while refining and redefining their edges. Their sci-fi rooted records have appeared on a litany of well respected labels like Abstract Forms, AC Records, Cultivated Electronics, CPU, and Semantica Records. They’ve also collaborated with Sync 24 and appeared opposite of Silicon Scally and The Exaltics, so their electro cred is unimpeachable. If I had to place bets on who will still be at the top of electro by the next electro wave, I’d wager the pile on Morphology.

This article was originally published on Reverb LP.

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