Charting the Universal Evolution of Pop Music With ‘The Underground is Massive’

From rags to riches, the ghetto to the festival grounds, the story of electronic music is the story of modern art in America: vibrant, fruitful and progressive -- until it becomes a commodity.

Electronic dance music, despite its American roots and massive contemporary audience, has never gotten its proper due as an artform in the United States. What began as a small scene of outcast DJs, promoters and artists — black, gay, working class — eventually grew into a mass appeal, industry-controlled phenomenon for the privileged. The popular history of electronic music has done a disservice to its followers by not properly acknowledging these origins.

People outside the electronic music landscape are familiar with artists like Moby, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers, but names like Derrick May, Frankie Knuckles and Kevin Saunderson are more than likely meaningless to them. With The Underground is Massive, author Michaelangelo Matos properly returns the narrative of dance music to the streets of Detroit and Chicago where it began, sprawling outward from there in a globetrotting, ensemble journey, a trek from rave to rave and scene to scene, through drug to drug and DJ to DJ, as it should be.

The story told in The Underground is Massive is knotty and sporadic, tracing the movement from gritty Midwestern ghettos to the drug-fueled parties of Europe and suburban Californian raves and forever outward in a web of microgenres, illegal substances and technological advances as the genre surged in growth and popularity, all the way up to its current, hyper-mainstream form. As the story of the electronic genre progresses, Matos names each chapter after a particularly important or influential event (a structure the author doesn’t hew very closely to, granted) — a party, a rave or a festival that had some meaningful effect on the subculture.

Matos deftly tracks the commercialization of electronic music this way, starting with hidden, underground parties located in broken-into warehouses, casinos, and even water parks to more diluted contemporary mainstream events like Coachella, Woodstock 1999 and, perfectly closing the arc in the final chapter, Daft Punk’s big, swanky, industry-exclusive Grammy Awards after-party celebrating their Album of the Year win for 2013’s Random Access Memories, marking electronic music’s official emergence into the big business of the music industry.

The story of EDM, then, as Matos tells it, mirrors that of rap, punk, new wave, jazz, country, rock ‘n’ roll and blues from humble, artistically vital origins to corporate, commercial diffusion. It’s a timeless tale of evolution and stagnation that gives insight into the culture of art as a whole, not just music; told through the largely undocumented lens of electronic music, it’s made fresh again.

Matos’ sporadic, grab bag approach to sequencing the genre’s history is logical and compelling, but with so many threads to track and names to remember, it can be hard to follow. Tracing influences across the globe, Matos jumps around dozens of times within each chapter, tying the context together as best he can. It can be thrilling to see the evolution in real time — how the promotional tactics of one scene gave way to the more aggressive tactics of another, how one song heard on the radio in New York and San Francisco affected both in different ways, etc. — but the leaps across narrative arcs can feel scattershot and, especially in the early chapters, stimulate a kind of cerebral whiplash.

Part of the reason for this is that The Underground is Massive doesn’t quite follow the same approach as other genre histories like Simon Reynolds erudite post-punk chronicle Rip It Up and Start Again or Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s authoritative oral history on the early punk movement Please Kill Me; instead, with its detailed analysis of important events and releases along with an ensemble of high-profile interviewees and a healthy propensity for gossip and colorful anecdotes, Matos crafts a saga that’s a satisfying combination of both. We hear from the genre’s progenitors their intimate, first-hand details of specific moments in time, small pieces of a rich mosaic that Matos creates in which we can track EDM’s meteoric rise when we step back and view it all at once. It’s in this way that he explores both the objective and the subjective history of the genre, the micro and macroscopic, for a definitive take on the subject.

Though the author never fully explores the European rave scene (a shame, considering the lush, even less understood legacy of that movement), The Underground is Massive nevertheless touts a narrative that expands far beyond what its subtitle, “How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America”, suggests. Those words are clearly a cunning marketing concession set to capitalize on EDM’s unbelievable commercial growth over the last decade, but it’s misleading. What Matos offers here is much more interesting than simple summary or elementary analysis of the electronic music phenomenon. It’s a compelling document of a lost era of underground music just before the digital age destroyed the underground sensibility completely; it’s a dense, textured journey through the creative lives of dozens of artists who waited years (some still waiting) to be recognized as the pioneers they were; it’s a nuanced critique of how, eventually, if there’s money to be made, big business will always buy out art.

Then again, if the worst thing that comes from The Underground is Massive and its deceptive subtitle is that a few white, college-aged, upper-middle-class suburbanites inadvertently discover the varied and rich origins of the genre they so voraciously consume, then Matos has done them, and the history of popular music itself, a colossal service.

RATING 9 / 10