America has always had a strange relationship with electronic music. Although house and techno were born in the States, the genre has always been far more successful overseas—to the point where it rules the pop charts while remaining an underground phenomenon in the U.S. There have been fits and starts and periods where it seemed like mainstream America was going to embrace electronic music, but it’s only been in the past few years that the tide has turned. EDM, which just stands for Electronic Dance Music, has pulled the music out of the clubs and into the stadiums. But is EDM such a break from the past, and more specifically, how and why did the landscape change so drastically? Luckily for veterans and newbies alike Michelangelo Matos has tackled those questions in his book The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Music Conquered America (Dey Street Books).
The history of electronic music in America is a mighty Hydra, but Matos wisely keeps the focus tight yet loose enough for diversions. The first thing he does right is to declare straight off the bat what the book isn’t. It’s not a definitive examination of the music and players; it doesn’t try to be a history lesson. It does cover the music and the players, but he’s more interested in the how and why. As he states in the introduction, “This is the story of a culture forming, taking over every part of the world except its creators’ own—only to rear up and take center stage after mutating into something its creators barely recognized. It’s also about people who took it to audiences it hadn’t reached.” But he’s also well aware of everything that didn’t or couldn’t make the book. It’s not because the omitted stories aren’t important, but at some point capacity was reached.
Matos frames his book around 18 events, clubs, and parties that anchor the discussion of each chapter. It starts in early 1983 with The Power Plant in Chicago and stretches to Daft Punk’s 2014 Random Access Memories party in LA, with lots of dips in places both great and small. It’s a daunting story when you consider that each scene has multiple players, songs, and circumstances, and that even within a crew there’s going to be multiple takes on the subjects. For all Matos left out, he gets a lot in, not only taking to promoters, producers, and DJs, but also drawing information from the zines, mailing lists, websites, and messages boards from the time. It’s a nice balance of being able to look back clear-eyed and capturing the heat of the moment. He’s fairly deft in juggling all the information, and when it starts to get a bit overwhelming from the sheer amount of information, he makes sure to help reset the context. There’s a bit of necessary jumping around on the timeline even as the chapters focus on one particular period. It helps get across the idea that the path wasn’t exactly linear.
The strength of The Underground Is Massive is that it doesn’t shy away from the failures and less savory aspects of the scene’s movement. But like a math problem, Matos shows the work that went into taking it from dark clubs to arenas. In doing so, he highlights the irony that a future-forward music would still need some of the old-fashioned ethos of rock & roll to break through. While the desire was to have the focus on the music, it would eventually be the personalities that the mainstream would grab on to. Yet, it’s not even that simple, and Matos comes from a number of angles, including how the rise of the internet helped to spread the word. There’s the first attempt of major labels to cash-in and the first independent tours, as well as explanations of the rise of rave and how stars emerged. The book’s scope is fairly expansive.
Matos is generous in bringing many voices in to tell the story, while staying quietly in the background, so it’s a slight bit jarring when he becomes more of an active—and occasionally snarky—narrator in the later half of the book as it hits more current events. Part of the reasoning seems to be that it’s important to give the history a chance to breathe. However, Matmos feels compelled to comment on the recent events, records, and artists with which he’s more familiar. (He writes for Rolling Stone, NPR’s website, and a few other places.) His points of view don’t derail the story, but it’s definitely a notable shift. It makes sense in terms of the narrative, though, as throughout the book you hear from what the fans have to say and then it hits a point where Matos has something to say it’s because he’s a fan himself. Ultimately that’s where the strength of the book lies. It’s academic in focus, but with the love and curiosity of a fan. He even includes a Mixography list of complementary live DJ mixes for each chapter.
Even for a genre that seemingly rejects it’s history out of hand, The Underground Is Massive should be required reading for both new fans and old heads alike. It’s one of the rare books that gets the balance right and also has an excitement and energy to it. Electronic dance music may not have a permanent place in the hearts and stages of mainstream America, but as Matos shows, sometimes it’s only a short step from history repeating. The underground is massive and hard to keep down.