The Wire

In Writing

A-Z Of Electro

March 2011

In its original incarnation, Electro was black science fiction teleported to the dancefloors of New York, Miami and LA; a super-stoopid fusion of video games, techno-pop, graffiti art, silver space suits and cyborg funk. Now that Electro is back, David Toop provides a thumbnail guide to the music that posed the eternal question: "Watupski, bug byte?" This article originally appeared in The Wire 145 (March 1996).

"Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)" stands as prime contender for the weird-titles-in-pop award. Released on Aldo and Amado Marin's Cutting Records label, Hashim's glacial, squelching track become a breaker's anthem in the UK. Also "Arkade Funk" by Tilt, Trouble Funk's Washington DC hybrid of arcade games, Electronics, live go-go percussion, and Vocoded, pitchshifted lyrics: "I am an arkade funk machine... search and destroy".

Urban spaceman Afrika Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker, plus musician John Robie, were the trio behind a musical revolution called "Planet Rock", Bambaataa's 1982 single with Soul Sonic Force. Following the impact of "Planet Rock", UK groups made Electro-boogie pilgrimages to Baker's studio in Manhattan: Freeze's "IOU" rocketed jazz funk into the infosphere but more significantly, New Order's "Blue Monday" launched indie dancing and sold massively on 12". Also breaking and robot dancing, the acrobatic and simulated machine dances that drew many adolescents into the alien zone of black science fiction. Bleep music was one consequence of this. Hardly adequate to describe and encompass the protozoic chaos of New York Nu Groove, Detroit Techno, Chicago House, Sheffield post-industrial (Sweet Exorcist and Xon), Leeds Techno (LFO) and Bradford HipHop (Unique 3) propagated by Network Records in Birmingham and Warp in Sheffield, bleep's Electro connections were indisputable. Next came Techno.

Cybotron, the Detroit brainchild of Juan Atkins and Rick Davies, alias 3070, creators of "Clear", "Techno City" and "Cosmic Cars". Cold Crush Brothers were old-school South Bronx pioneers but they joined the beat wave with "Punk Rock Rap" and "Fresh, Wild, Fly And Bold". Captain Rock, Captain Rapp and Captain Sky did their space cadet thang, but nobody could go further out into the phunkosphere than George Clinton. Role model for young American blacks who wanted to dress up in tinfoil and join Outer Spaceways Incorporated, George proved there was life in the old bionic dog by releasing the analogue squelching Computer Games in 1992.

Davy DMX, Queens DJ, multi-instrumentalist and creator of "The DMX Will Rock", named himself after the Oberheim DMX, drum machine of choice in mid-80s HipHop.

Electro-pop, British style: Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Human League, Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby et al. The one-finger keyboard techniques of Depeche Mode were an inspiration to a generation of scratch DJs across the Atlantic. 808 (as in Roland), the beatbox whose artificiality liberated Electroids from drum cliches.

Futura, Fab Five Freddy, Face 2000 and Phase II, all graffiti artists who recorded Electro-rap tracks on Celluloid. The Funhouse, Manhattan's temple of futurist Electro. Freestyle, late 80s New York dance music, very post-Electro/pre-Garage, Latin flavoured, frequently softcore ("Talk Dirty To Me", "Vanessa Del Rio") as recorded by Corporation Of One, Bad Boy Orchestra and Tommy Musto.

After Grandmaster Flash and "Scorpio" came Grandmaster Melle Mel with Electro hits - "White Lines" and "Survival" - followed by Grandmixer D.ST's "Grand Mixer Cuts It Up", a storm of stereo-panned arcade bleeps. D.ST went on to perform live on turntables with Herbie Hancock's Rockit group. Forming the golden triangle of Electro in the late 80s were Miami Bass, New York Latin freestyle and in LA - pre-gangsta - Dr Dre and DJ Yella cutting production teeth on "Planet Rock" clones such as World Class Wrecking Cru and the fast, juvenile sub-bass of JJ Fad's "Supersonic".

With 70s albums such as Sextant, Thrust and Headhunters, Herbie Hancock anticipated many tropes and tricks of Electro. His Electro tracks with Bill Laswell - particularly the smash hit "Rockit" - were not such a future shock, and his earlier music has aged better. In Hollywood, the cinematic possibilities of robot beats and moves in the doomed megalopolis were ill-served by such films as Beat Street, Breakin' and Flashdance. As (almost) always, the best ideas were the cheapest, a principle suggested by one scene in Breakin' (renamed Breakdance 1 in the UK): a dance routine with a broom and Kraftwerk's "Tour De France". Post-Electro, the human beatbox, exemplified by Dougie Fresh and The Fat Boys, was a biological response to the drum machine.

For glorious one-offs it's hard to beat "We Come To Rock" by the Imperial Brothers, "Running" by Information Society (a Latin freestyle prototype followed up by relentlessly dull quasi-'British' Electro-pop albums) or "Inspector Gadget" by The Kartoon Krew.

Boston's Jonzun Crew, led by Michael Jonzun, were literally the most wigged-out Electro act of all, basing their stage appearance on Beethoven. For mutant cyberian phunk, their Lost In Space album, particularly the menacing "Pack Jam", remains chilly the most. Regrettably, Jonzun and his brother, Maurice Starr, went on to produce lukewarm mainstream R&B. Jonzun Crew, along with virtually everybody who was anybody, were mixed or remixed by Jellybean. DJ at The Funhouse, John 'Jellybean' Benitez met Madonna in the DJ booth one night, stepped out with her for two years and mixed her records, thus drawing a strong link between Electro and the biggest female star in music.

Kraftwerk, the showroom dummies who caused Bambaataa to scratch his head and say, "'Scuse the expression, this is some weird shit". For "Planet Rock", Bam used the melody from "Trans Europe Express". Over the distinctive 808 beat, the effect was spectral. The idea of making music from pocket calculators appealed to kids accustomed to scratching vinyl. Meanwhile, in the UK, Morgan Khan made a developing genre of music financially accessible to an entire generation with his Streetsounds Electro series of compilation albums.

Since young Hispanics - male and female - formed the US core audience of instrumental Electro, the cyber-salsa teen romance of Latin HipHop was an inevitable evolution. Notable for thunderous dub mixes, slushy chords and sentiments, melodrama and bad clothes, this mid-80s phenomenon was represented in New York by Shannon, Amoretto, Cover Girls, TKA et al; in Miami, Expose were brand leaders. Central to the scene due to their Electro edits, Latin HipHop production and remixing were the Latin Rascals - Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran - who made the endearingly trashy Back To The Future album (titles include "A Little Night Noise" and "Yo, Elise!").

Miami Bass took up Electro after NYC had finished with it, turned up the sub-bass on the kick drum, filled cars and jeeps with woofers and tweeters, and drive around the hot streets of their Fourth World, postmodern city in a nomadic ecstasy of boom. Tracks by Bose and Gucci Crew II fetishised loudspeaker power, perpetual movement, Robocop and similar urban dislocations; DJ Extraordinaire And The Bassadelic Boom Patrol's "Drop The Bass (Lower The Boom)" went over the edge with its info-bites; The Beat Club's "Security" merged Planet Patrol and Human League into a heaving epic of sci-fi emotions; Maggatron, who combined awesome bass drum boom with rampant George Clinton influences, manic scratch 'n' sniff production, screaming Metal guitar solos and a selfless dedication to Electro cliches. Their Bass Planet Paranoia (1990) boasts titles such as "Pygmies In Devilles", "Temple Of Boom" (the original) and a cover of Clinton's "Maggot Brain" that the late, great Eddie Hazel would have been proud of. Mantronix (Man + Electronix) came just after Electro. The musical combination of raps, vocoded choruses, sequenced basslines, clap delays and crashing beatbox snares suggests they were influential on 90s drum 'n' bass. Also hail Man Parrish for the all-time Electro classic "Hip Hop De Bop (Don't Stop)".

Gary Numan, the eyelinered squadron leader of British Techno-pop, whose "Cars" struck an unlikely chord in the hearts of Electro-HipHoppers. Buried in the archives but never to be forgotten: Nitro DeLuxe, who briefly fused Electro, experimental House and Techno, apparently without knowing it; Newtrament, whose "London Bridge Is Falling Down" was the first (and one of the few) credible UK Electro records; Newcleus, whose "Jam On It" can still bring nostalgic tears to the eyes of the chilliest Brit-based technocrat or hardass rapper.

Bobby O, New York (Mostly hi-energy) producer who released the awesome, surreal Beat Box Boys Electro-minimalist 12"s "Give Me My Money", "Einstein" and "Yum Yum - Eat 'Em Up". Bobby Orlando also signed and produced The Pet Shop Boys in the same year.

"Planet Rock" for the party people convening on fonky Pluto, and Planet Patrol, a Boston vocal quartet shamelessly transformed into an extra-terrestrial mutation of The Stylistics by Arthur Baker and John Robie in order to sing Electro versions of Gary Glitter's "I Didn't Know I Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock And Roll)" and Todd Rundgren's "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference". Their "Play At Your Own Risk" was one of the great Electro singles. RIP Pumpkin, "King Of The Beat", who played all the Electro-tech on Enjoy singles by The Fearless Four and others. Post-Electro, which has to include, for greater or lesser reasons, LFO, Black Dog, Shut Up & Dance, Metalheadz, Bandulu, Moody Boyz, Plaid, As One, A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State, Carl Craig, Bally Sagoo, Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, Depth Charge, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, The Shamen, Talvin Singh's Future Sound Of India, Future Sound of London, Jedi Knights, the Clear and Mo'Wax labels, and even, at a pinch, M People.

"Queen Of Rox", otherwise known as Roxanne Shante, who bridged the gap between the Electro era and those crashing Brooklyn beats of the mid-80s.

"Rockin' It" by The Fearless Four was one of Electro's greatest moments. Iconoclasts who borrowed riffs from Gary Numan, Cat Stevens, Gamble & Huff and Herbie Hancock, they took Kraftwerk's "The Man Machine" for "Rockin' It", added a phrase from Poltergeist and created future R&B. John Robie was one of the musical architects of Electro, playing keyboards on "Planet Rock", "Looking For The Perfect Beat" and "Renegades Of Funk", Planet patrol's "Cheap Thrills", "Body Mechanic" by Quadrant Six, C-Bank's "Get Wet" and "Walking On Sunshine" by Rocker's Revenge. Run-DMC may have sounded like stripped down, hard Electro when they started, but by turning the emphasis back on words and beats they blew Electro into the outer darkness.

Smurfs were diminutive Hanna-Barbera cartoon people for whom smurf served as a verb: ie "My potion is wearing off. We'd better smurf out of here." In 1982, Tyrone Brunson, a DC born bass player, made a dance craze record called "The Smurf". More jazz fusion than Electro, "The Smurf" was answered in an orgy of copyright-busting spelling variations by "The Smirf", "Pappa Smerf" and, with far more class, "Salsa Smurph" by Special Request, "Smerphie's Dance" by Spyder-D and "(I Can Do It... You Can Do It) Letzmurph Acrossdasurf" by The Micronawts (an alias for journalist and eventually New Jack City scriptwriter Barry Michael Cooper). Also Shango, the Afro-cybernetic fusion of Bambaataa and Material; Sir Mix-A-Lot, an Electro pioneer who went ballistic with "Baby's Got Back"; Sly Stone, exploiting the machine feel of rhythm boxes on There's A Riot Goin' On back in 1971; all things spacey, such as Star Wars, Close Encounters, space suits knocked up from leather and tinfoil, and Sun Ra, credited on The Jonzun Crew's Lost In Space album. Not forgetting the itch to scratch and not excluding "Was Dog A Doughnut", a rare fling at Techno-pop-fusion by Cat Stevens, transmuted into Electro by Jellybean and The Fearless Four.

Techno Techno Techno, the man/woman-machine interface, the inevitable spread of music inspired and haunted by technology. For an example of the Techno diaspora, listen to Off's "Electric Salsa" - pure Electro, recorded in Germany in 1986 and featuring vocals by a young blond named Sven Vath. Tommy Boy Records was the New York company run by Tom Silverman and Monica Lynch that released a string of Electro classics, beginning with "Planet Rock". Down in the sunbelt, Luke Skywalker's 2 Live Crew traded in tits 'n' ass, took Miami Bass to the masses, got sued by George Lucas, were taken to court for obscenity, pioneered rumpshaker videos, and generally gave Electro a filthy reputation.

UTFO, robot dancers for Whodini who progressed to a career as rappers by launching the Roxanne saga of the mid-80s. Also, UK House, whose roots, as early tracks by the likes of Hotline, Zuzan and Krush show, were as much in NYC Electro as they were in Chicago House.

Video Games from Space Invaders to PacMan, Defender to Galaxian. "We live in a time of extraterrestrial hopes and anxieties," wrote Martin Amis, looking for answers to questions raised by the so-called blank-screen generation in his Invasion Of The Space Invaders. Some vid-kids took inspiration from the alien voices, blips, squirts and mantric melodies of arcade games and made music from it. "Waaku-waaku" went The Packman on "I'm The Packman (Eat Everything I Can)". Amis wrote about Defender as having the best noises: "The fizz of a Baiter, the humming purr of a Pod, the insect whine of the loathed mutants as they storm and sting." Part Gorf command, part Kraftwerk effect, the Vocoder was Techno's primary instrument. A studio device that combines voice sounds and synthesizer, thus symbolising the human-machine interface.

"Woof woof", a barking noise made by B-Boys in lieu of applause when the Electro shuttle lifted off. Often preceded by "Hey buddy buddy", "Wicki wicki wicki" or similar. Warp 9, whose spacey productions by Richard Scher, Lotti Golden and Jellybean reached warpspeed on the "Light Years Away" dub mix. West Street Mob, Whodini and Whiz Kid all saw their moment and grabbed it. Wildstyle: the film, the record, the mode of behaviour. Back on the beach, "Whoomp! There It Is" by Tag Team was a 90s "Planet Rock" soundalike that revived old-school Electro with a vengeance, selling more than four million copies to go quadruple platinum.

Xena's "On The Upside", along with Shannon's "Let The Music Play", were quintessential examples of the Mark Liggett/Chris Barbosa sound, the booming, jerky diva-Electro that launched Latin HipHop. Xploitation as in Jheri curl and Zapata-tashed soul bands such as Midnight Starr going for Electro hits. Also xploitation as in Spaghetti Westerns, kung fu, porno and science fiction, all of which provided Electro with its mise en scene. Down in Miami, R&B and disco veteran (soon to be Miami Bass entrepreneur) Henry Stone jumped on the ET boom of 1982 with the Extra Ts and their weird "ET Boogie". "It hurts", said the Extra Ts; King Sporty's EX Tras answered with the stun gun Electro-bass of "Haven't Been Funked Enough".

Yellow Magic Orchestra, who inspired Afrika Bambaataa back in the days. YMO's cover version of Martin Denny's "Firecracker" can be heard on the Bambaataa turntables on the notorious "Death Mix" 12". In fact, Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Riot In Lagos" had anticipated Electro's beats and sounds in 1980, while Haruomi Hosono's 1983 Video Game Music took the musical use of game noise to a further, maddening conclusion: "Digital sound with body and spontaneity had game-character, no, is music as a game" (album notes).

Zulu Nation, Afrika Bambaataa's vision of a global brotherhood linked by a passion for the cyber-street arts of HipHop culture. Inspired by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and George Clinton's "One Nation Under A Groove", it was the predecessor to today's invisible engloballed info-community of New Headz.

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