In his substantial new history from Dey Street Books, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, journalist Michaelangelo Matos untangles decades of an oft-misunderstood underground as it lurched towards ubiquity. Turning 18 seminal events into set pieces that explore the evolution of the music and surrounding culture, Matos draws a direct line from the post-disco epiphanies of Chicago house and Detroit techno to the 21st-century robotics of Daft Punk and glittering EDM mega-festivals, party cruises, campouts, and other bacchanals where saucer-eyed dancers should be drinking a lot more water than they probably are. In a book that’s as much detailed ethnography as musical history, Matos — a veteran of the ’90s Midwest scene — builds from email lists, party fliers, archived DJ sets, and fresh interviews to find the first widescreen perspective on one of the United States’ most obscured cultural legacies.
Flavorwire: How did you choose the parties you focus on in the book? Did you start with a much larger list?
Michaelangelo Matos: I had a shifting set of lists. In the proposal, I had 25 parts. I didn’t know how the book was going to end until after the [2014 Daft Punk-dominated] Grammys had happened, so that one came real late. I had a lot of different ideas to cover. When I started working on the book, it was going to end with the RAVE Act, more or less. It wasn’t going to go up to the present. In the very beginning stages, I thought it was going to be a book about the ’90s, and in many ways it is a book about the ’90s. But I thought it was going to end in 2003 with the first wave of rave dying in America.
In some cases, it was a matter of which party was most representative, or which had the most juice to it, the most stories to it. I knew I needed something in the mid-’90s in Chicago. I had three or four ideas about what that party might be. I thought about doing a party in January of 1995 called Relief; it was a Relief Records showcase. There were a few different Chicago parties from ’95 because I knew I wanted to situate that. But this was before I realized that Daft Punk [performing] at Even Furthur ’96 was going to be a draw for a lot of Chicago house people. I hadn’t put that together yet. At that point, I was just thinking about Even Furthur as Daft Punk. I wasn’t necessarily connecting it to that second wave of Chicago house, though in retrospect it’s completely obvious because that’s what inspired Daft Punk, all the analog stuff.
I was working from memory a lot. What needs to be here? How are we going to talk about this or that? Certain parties I knew were legendary. The first two chapters were supposed to be a 5,000-word preface about the Chicago and Detroit scenes. Good luck. I thought, “I’ll just lightly trace the history from house music’s birth to the beginning of the rave scene because what I’m really talking about is the rave scene.” I knew I wasn’t going to get that deep into [Chicago and Detroit], but I realized that almost nobody actually knows this stuff in America. You can’t take this for granted the way you could in England. You can’t say, “Acid house happened,” and everybody knows what you’re talking about.
How would you go about building a specific chapter?
I knew who the central people were. It was really obvious who I’d want to talk to. It’s the people who thread through this whole thing: Derrick May, Tommie Sunshine, David Prince, Moby, and Richie Hawtin. The onus was on me to make this a narrative. I couldn’t have just said, “Here’s a book of party histories with almost no context,” because it wouldn’t have worked. You need through lines. You need chapters to connect to each other. Certain people are important figures for certain amount of times in this narrative. Honoring that was crucial as well. Who were the big DJs? What was the big sound? I would look up party fliers and lineups and it became obvious — this has this many DJs of this many types that can be plugged into the narrative. Once I got going with that, it became easy. The first thing I did when I was researching was download all the American rave zines — I didn’t do the British ones — and I indexed them. I needed that basis. I couldn’t just willy-nilly look through these things. I wanted to have that resource that I could tap. I ended up retyping a lot of things as I encountered them, which proved useful.
In the book’s introduction, you mention attending an “actual rave” in Bed-Stuy in 2013. What makes an actual rave?
It’s unsupervised! An actual rave doesn’t have a fence around it and it doesn’t have police dogs at the entrance. An actual rave, at least in my experience, involves kids laying out on the floor. I remember, Tommie Sunshine spun. I walked over there and [when] I got there, Tommie was spinning hard style. He got off stage and I went and said hi and there was a kid lying on the floor by the speaker, passed out, and I said, “Look at that.” I’d texted him when I got in, though he was already spinning, “This is like 1993!” And when I saw him, he was like, “This is like D-Day ’94!” We both remembered these very specific parties we’d been to in the Midwest. That was the feel. It was like a high school gym. The thing about raves is that they took place in not-real venues. I went to parties in VFW halls all the time, in high school gyms, and barns. These insane places. The Reebok factory was a big place for raves. TV studios in LA. The idea was to have a party in a place where you wouldn’t necessarily expect one.
The appropriation of space.
The appropriation of everything! The appropriation of logos, the appropriation of music. So many of the early tracks were thrown-together samples of pretty well-known stuff. It was a pirate thing. It was very much about reclaiming culture and putting this druggy, sneaky energy to it, this twist to it that was subversive. I don’t mean to say that it was so much better than, but it was markedly different than. [The mid-’90s is] always going to be my golden era, and I can’t escape that, but I don’t want to use it as a cudgel, either. Right now, I might not love what EDM is, but having paid attention to it now over the past few years, the music really is improving. The kind of DJs I love aren’t necessarily doing what Eric Prydz does, but if I say that Eric Prydz sucks because he doesn’t do what I want a DJ to do, well, that’s my small-mindedness. And, in fact, Eric Prydz has taught me to like certain things I didn’t think I liked. That’s a DJ’s job.
You’ve mentioned covering the 2012 IDentity Festival as your real introduction to the modern EDM scene. Were you taking a break from dance music?
I wasn’t taking a break from the dance world at all. I was in a different realm. If you think about the difference between the Creed/Nickelback world of rock and the Merge Records world of rock, that’s the difference, that’s where I was. I wrote for Resident Advisor for several years, and I was writing record reviews for them a lot. I wasn’t going out much because I was poor, broke freelancer. I wasn’t trying to get on guest lists and I didn’t have the money to go out. I wasn’t spending money on a cab ride home because it was four in the morning and I was dancing all night. I went to The Bunker all the time. That was my world. I was interested in that stuff. That era, from 2006 to maybe 2010 — the underground dance music, the “hipster” stuff — is an incredible period. That’s as good as the early or mid-’90s to me, in a different way. Every month, there’d be a bunch of new tracks that would build on the previous month’s tracks. You were just hearing the music shape-shift in real time in a way that hadn’t happened in a long time.
So when I started hearing in 2011, “Oh, this shit is going to blow up,” my first thought was, “All right, the stuff I like is going to blow up.” No, it was the stuff I’d avoided that blew up. It was Bassnectar that blew up. I remember having a conversation with another music writer about, “Who the hell is going to write about Bassnectar? Who listens to this stuff?” And it turned out that everybody listens to this stuff except us. I didn’t think in a hundred years that it was the stuff that was going to blow up, but that was my ignorance. Of course that was what blew up. It’s the populist stuff.
I had very much the same reaction at first as a lot of people did. When I went to the IDentity Festival, I walked out five or ten minutes into Eric Prydz. It would probably do me some good to go back and listen to that set. Not because I think he’s the best DJ on Earth but because I’ve learned that he actually is a good DJ and that maybe I was hasty there.
In Eric Weisbard’s new book [Top 40 Democracy], he makes the point that instead of rock vs. pop, which are two genres, it’s more fruitful to think in terms of genre vs. format. A radio format is not the same thing as a genre. It’s a formula. It’s 40 percent this, 20 percent that. You went to a rave in 1995 and you were going to hear X amount of techno, X of house, X of jungle, X of trance. It changes. Like a radio format, it shifts all the time based on the wind. That’s what rave was. That’s what EDM is.