For Charlotte's electronica community, success has been a mixed blessing. In the late 90s, Charlotte's electronic music scene underwent a surge in popularity that, as it had elsewhere throughout the US a few years earlier, brought in thousands of new followers, made rock stars of a select few DJs and producers, and became the hottest ticket in youth culture.
All the ingredients for its aesthetic doom, in other words. But like virtually every other popular music that's gone through the corporate grinder in the last 50 years, sifting through the ashes after the slash-and-burn commercialization reveals the essence of what the music was all about in the first place: innovation and artistic freedom. Scarred, perhaps, but alive and well, and definitely a little wiser for its troubles.
In the case of homegrown electronic music, the back-story goes like this: as mainstream media is wont to do, it sought a sound bite-sized label to tag on over the whole of this latest trend and, casting aside the multitude of vastly different styles within electronic music, dubbed it "Rave" music. It was a simplistic but easy-to-carry handle about as specific as rock & roll, which, we hasten to remind, is the rubric under which both Billy Joel and the Sex Pistols allegedly co-exist. But it was probably at that precise moment that the "tipping point" was reached, and breached. The same Rave culture that had adopted electronic music and helped make it a household name just as quickly threatened to be its undoing.
"It was around "97 or "98 when Rave got a shirt and collar on it," says Scott Modie, the owner of Vibe Tribe, a music retailer on East Independence Blvd. devoted to electronic music. "It got commercialized and a dollar sign was put on it and then it got milked for everything it could possibly be milked for."
It happened across the country, and Charlotte was by no means immune. After invigorating an initial core of talented and entrepreneurial listeners in the early 90s, electronica moved from late-night, after-hours informal warehouse parties and hole-in-the-wall venues to massive, up-scale "legitimate" clubs, places where the music was an afterthought to many, aural wallpaper for the "scene." In the process of commercialization it drew younger (and younger) people from the suburbs and beyond seeking initiation into the latest subculture market.
Beneath a steady barrage of major-label promotion, electronic music began seeping into the mainstream, the attendant culture -- the "look," in other words -- in tow. "Techno" sections began aggressively elbowing for room in music retail outlets; popular tunes from the dance floor became the soundtracks to "hip" car/beer/clothing ads; stores catering to baggy or shiny "Rave" clothing popped up in malls across America; and Ecstasy became the drug of choice for a new generation of kids rebelling against whatever was handy.
But when overdosing, underage suburban kids began filling up local emergency rooms -- well, it wasn't long before suburban parents began exerting pressure on suburban politicians to have several clubs shut down. Next came a late-night curfew effectively sending some shows back underground or off the map altogether.
Cash-hungry promoters, record companies and club owners took note -- the techno bubble was about to burst, market saturation achieved -- and many bailed out with swag in hand. By 2000, the trend had seemingly run its course.
The inevitable contraction, however, may have been the best thing to happen to Charlotte's electronica scene.
"We went from being a novelty to being a major part of pop culture, and now we're back where we started -- smaller venues, more intimate settings, and a slower pace," said Kris Krause, 32, a veteran of the electronic music scene in Charlotte for over a decade. "Now we have some room to breathe and grow at a pace that's healthy."
And while unwholesome elements of the techno bubble remain, a closer look at some key players in Charlotte electronica reveals an underground of innovative musicians stretching the barriers of what technology can do with sound.
The Technicians"We're just trying to make machines sound as human as possible," Kris Krause says above the thunderous beats at Tonic, the Charlotte club where his mates and co-founders of Outside Records -- performing as nKtar this Friday night -- are putting on a 90-minute lesson in improvisational dance music. "We don't get respect as musicians because we are using computers and electronic instruments. But at the end of the day, a guitar is just a piece of wood until someone picks it up and plays it. It's a mere lack of understanding and interest."
Krause, who performs as Mr. Atomic, says the most common misconception among non-practitioners is that the DJ is simply spinning and scratching records. But watching nKtar will disabuse you of that notion in a hurry. For starters, Jeff Nagel, 31, and Brian Darden, 24, never touch the custom-made vinyl or CD turntables in Tonic's booth. Instead, operating from two laptops running through two MIDI controllers, a digital mixer and the club's PA system, Nagel and Darden take their own pre-recorded basic tracks and alter them on the spot. It's somewhere between a conductor directing a computerized chamber orchestra and the way a jazz saxophonist might improvise off of a standard or one of his own compositions.
"We'll never abandon DJing, we're just using different tools," says Nagel, who's played all over Europe and has two releases on Pyramid Transmission out of London and another on Remote Audio (Sony Europe). "Now we're using computers for everything. You can make a track or song with one program and play it for audiences live with another (program) in the same day."
On this night, Nagel and Darden operate in an electronica subset -- one of dozens -- known as darkelectro. They're taking a bass-heavy loop and adding or removing layer upon layer of percussion and synth sounds at various junctures through a computer program called Ableton Live. Their music ebbs and surges with a grace and logic that escapes most run-of-the-mill electronica, creating a rich, fluid soundscape.
At different junctures, Darden, his tall frame hunched over the laptop's screen, seems to take the pulse of the composition, and combined with a practiced yet innate sense of timing, suddenly drops everything from the mix except an instrument or two, leaving the shell of the tune echoing from the club's massive speakers. The tension builds to a near-breaking point before Darden slides most of the components back into the fray, rewarding the crowd's anticipation with a perfectly timed, thumping wall of sound.
The dancers step it up into another gear -- mission accomplished. And they never used the turntables.
Old School RootsAnd that brings up another common misconception about electronic music. Krause, for instance, grew up listening to soul, metal, punk and industrial before evolving into electronica. That you can shake your ass to his music doesn't make it disco, he says.
And you can look even further back than that to find the roots of this electronic music. A good place to start is the 10,000 records that make up Paul D. O'Boyle's collection. What you will find amid all those slabs of vinyl are reams of recordings from Miles Davis' fusion era, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jan Hammer and Weather Report.
"I was never into techno," says O'Boyle, 42, who's known now for his techno and house mixes. "I knew about fusion."
And it was those jazz fusion acts that influenced 70s electronic music pioneers like Can, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, who first brought the hybrid music into rock and paved the way, years later, for industrial acts like NIN, Front 242, and Einsturzende Neubauten. These, more so than the Bee Gees or Donna Summer, form the backbone of electronica's experimen-tation these days. But the comparisons extend even further, O'Boyle suggests.
"In a lot of ways it's like the Grateful Dead would do on their tours," says O'Boyle, who began Activ-Analog Records in '95 with partners Max Armah and Keith Cochran, and has put out records by Ja'Maul Redmond, Oliver Long and TrackHeadz, among others. "They had 100 songs and they never sounded the same way twice. It's similar in structure but it all changes. The only things that are constant sometimes are drum patterns and drum sounds."
O'Boyle doesn't play out much, partly due to the fact his old school roots extend to his live methods -- he even uses reel-to-reel for warming sounds. His music may have a retro feel, but it's thoroughly modern in scope and conception, and he's proud of the fact that he and other producers still find "real machines the way to go." And though his live presence in town is minimal, his name in electronica circles is not; in addition to the label's CD releases, O'Boyle goes out of pocket periodically to press 500 7-inch singles made by local artists. It's part of a series of eight he'll eventually compile for release on CD. For now, he's spreading the word that way -- O'Boyle distributes local music, via Internet contacts, all over the globe.
"It's just trying to nurture the scene," he says.
Next GenerationThat scene is again picking up steam. Eric Erwin is a 25-year-old local drum'n'bass wizard (he performs as eRIC E). Along with several other Carolina products, Erwin has helped put Charlotte's drum'n'bass community on the international map. And judging by the level of friendly trash talking between the drum'n'bass community in Britain (where it began in the early 90s) and the US practitioners, the healthy rivalry is resulting in a growing US presence.
Erwin attributes some local drum'n'bass success to the increasing presence of name acts coming through Charlotte's clubs. The visitors would suggest he's right about that.
"Early on (Charlotte) didn't have much of a reputation but always had a great crowd," says Lee Burridge, one of the best-known UK DJs and producers. "Now it's gaining quite a reputation with DJs and clubbers in other cities and overseas. All in all Charlotte is moving forward at high speed in the clubbing consciousness."
Part of that "high-speed" movement is due to an increasing reliance on the Internet. Erwin not only uses the Internet to network with other musicians (check www.ncdnb.com for a peek at the action), he actually records over it.
"We'll send files back and forth," Erwin says, "and then put them out there for people to exchange and listen to. Since we've started doing that, we've got a lot of attention from people, like labels and DJs. A lot of labels actually prefer that method so they don't have a stack of CDs sitting around waiting to be listened to."
So far, so good for Erwin. He's been playing throughout the Carolinas and Virginia, recently venturing out West to Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. He's also landed an opening spot on the upcoming Planet of the Drums stop at Mythos (April 30), a Lollapalooza-style drum'n'bass tour making its way across the US.
The big names regularly rolling through town certainly suggest that the local electronica community is thriving -- though they often overshadow the local acts that form its foundation. There are plenty of other pitfalls remaining and some new ones as well. The tension between financial and artistic success will always exist, just as there are plenty of club-goers who could care less about the artistic merit of the electronic music they happen to be dancing to.
But there is no denying the longevity or impact of electronic music, whether it floats your boat or not. The "organic" music community has in recent years made use of the newest developments in electronic music technology and incorporated it into their sound. The influence is far-reaching: from folktronica acts -- folk being the original dance music -- like Momus, Bjork and Beth Orton, to the cut-and-paste collages of Four Tet, Fridge, and Manitoba, and the post-rock of acts like Tortoise, Wilco, Cornershop and Beck.
But back at the local level, the formula remains the same.
"Our philosophy has always been to play, perform, and put out fresh sounds that no one has heard that still fills the dance floor," says Krause, adding that now that electronic music is no longer the flavor of the day for the marketers, "the scene has come full circle."