Electro covers a lot of ground. Historically, electro is centrally positioned at a point before electronic music and hip-hop split up into disparate fields. The earliest known examples of electro belong equally to the fields of house and hip-hop, in addition to predating the invention of “techno” proper by a good few years. Today, electro exists as less a genre than a sound, to judge from the crossover that exists between the realms of dance, hip-hop, and straight pop.
So, the idea of anthologizing the genre is, on first glance, slightly problematic. At heart, the connecting tissue that bands all the disparate music roughly amassed under the electro rubric is a notion of “The Future” as it was specifically expressed in the urban club music of the early 1980s. Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” in 1982 (along with “Numbers”, also by Kraftwerk, and Ennio Morricone’s “The Mexican”). It sounded like nothing else that had ever been done before, pulling equally from European disco, American funk (especially George Clinton), and, oh yeah, a little thing called hip-hop that had just emerged from the crèche of the Five Boroughs on its way towards eventual world domination. Electro was the flashpoint of light and heat at the center of early ’80s New York, drawing from a variety of disparate scenes to create something entirely different. Hip-hop and house (and freestyle and synth-pop and techno) would all go their separate ways, but the common DNA has remained throughout the years. In much the same way as we share some 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, so too can Kanye West, Richie Hawtin, and Radiohead all trace parts of their diverse sound to the evolutionary crucible of early electro.
The latest edition in Rapster’s Kings of… series nicely sidesteps the problem of a more conventional anthology by presenting two different and very distinctive interpretations of the genre. Playgroup, AKA Trevor Jackson, contributes the first disc, and it is squarely focused on the genre’s storied and diverse history. Alter-Ego Roman, the production duo of Flügel & Jörn Elling Wuttke, present a much more contemporary interpretation of the sound, hewing much closer to the techno sounds inferred on Playgroup’s disc.
I think that Jackson deserves a lot of credit for the way he approaches the first disc’s construction. He avoids the hazard of including a simple laundry-list of the genre’s storied tracks — so, no “Planet Rock” (although Afrika Bambaataa does show up, appropriately, as a sample on Hashim’s “Al Nafyish”, probably the second most famous electro song ever). Whodini are represented with “Magic’s Wand”, not “Freaks Come Out at Night”. No Mantronix, no Newcleus, and no NYC Peech Boys — but then, if you’re reading this you’ve probably already got those by now.
The disc starts off with Chris & Cosey’s “This Is Me”, a nice prologue from two of the members of Throbbing Gristle that nods to the early European origins of synthpop as a post-punk genre. Another British group, Visage, show up with their incredibly catchy “Pleasure Boys”, a circa-1982 classic that stands in for a lot of related music that could easily have fit on here — stuff like the early Human League, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, and Gary Numan. (Numan’s “Cars”, like “Planet Rock”, does sneak in, however, as the prominent sample behind the Fearless 4’s “Just Rock”, betraying Jackson’s very careful eye towards historical breadth.) The important contribution of Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra is represented by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Riot in Lagos” from 1980. Although most of the material on this first disc stays close to the epoch of the genre’s creation, roughly 1980-85, Deee Lite sneak onto the tail end of the disc with the practically progressive Holographic Goatee mix of “What Is Love”. Finally, the disc comes to a graceful end with Junior Walker’s dub cover of Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” — a pretty far-out instrumental version, but also a nice nod to the roots of hip-hop, trailing all the way back to the West Indian influence of musicians such as Bambaataa and Kool Herc.
Alter Ego pick up pretty much at the exact point Jackson leaves off, touching on the techno house of the late ’80s before charting a course through the 90s and early years of the present decade. Although covering more ground temporally, the second disc is much more focused than the first. The influence of electro on contemporary hip-hop and pop, to say very little about the “electroclash” movement, is sidestepped in favor of a mix that stays close to the dancefloor. Appropriately, the influence of Detroit techno (briefly mentioned on Jackson’s disc with the inclusion of Model 500’s “No UFOs”) is front and center here. The Windsor-Detroit-Berlin axis is well-represented with the inclusion of artists such as Daniel Bell, Maurizio, and Richie Hawtin (who appears as Plastikman, with “Kricket”), and even the Detroit Grand Pubahs (an old favorite of mine, who show up with “Big Onion”). I was surprised to hear the original mix of Azzido Da Bass’ “Doom’s Night” included — I hadn’t heard that song in forever and a day.
The inclusion of the latter goes a long way towards illustrating Alter-Ego’s thematic preoccupations: less a survey of everything that could possibly be considered under the electro umbrella, and more an exploration of one specific branch of the electro family tree. It’s hard to complain with the likes of Chicken Lips and Kenny Larkin, but ultimately it leaves something to be desired when contrasted with Playgroup’s excellent mix. There’s nothing wrong with it, but given the nature of the series I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to expect a more catholic historical perspective from the compilers involved.