Production Lines - Steve Hillage
Guest Producer Steve Hillage argues for the breaking down of arbitrary barriers between musical styles.
Veteran musician and producer Steve Hillage writes in defence of dance, and argues for the breaking down of arbitrary barriers between musical styles.
As a producer, I pride myself on my diverse musical tastes. I regularly work with live bands, and also in the world music sphere, but I've always had an interest in dance music, dating back to my love of Parliament/Funkadelic and other 70s funk giants. Recently I've been involved in some really interesting dance-based projects — The Orb, System 7, and also Blue Pearl and The Shamen.
I've found recent developments in the dance music sphere refreshing and rejuvenating, rediscovering many things that excited me as a teenager and made me want to work in music. The fact is that this is the area where people with radical ideas and original approaches have gravitated. While it is true that there is a lot of rubbishy, formularised dance stuff around (some of it in the Top 40), you will find that people who make good dance music are the harshest critics of the poor stuff.
The difference between good and bad is very large — and it worries me that some people who grew up with rock music tend to blanket all dance styles together and dismiss them. To me, this is a terrible mistake because, by doing so, they dismiss a massive area of creativity. They are also in danger of aligning themselves with conservative forces that run counter to the rock music ideal.
I have been particularly lucky to have been involved for almost three years now with Alex Paterson's project The Orb. Alex, who has been DJ'ing for 10 years, more or less invented the style that has been dubbed 'Ambient House'. He was, for a while, an A&R man at EG Records, and had access to a lot of 'Ambient' music, such as Eno and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which he started mixing in with house beats, discovering a whole new groove which is now very successful.
Watching a creative DJ at work is fascinating — like watching a musician. They can mix five or six records in 10 minutes, and you don't notice when they change from record to record (unless you know the original record intimately). Often they will run two different records together with the same tempo, virtually phase locked (all done by ear), but you won't necessarily realise this. You will just think "What a great tune!". It is these DJ practices, which have been around since the disco boom of the 70s, that are the creative basis of sampling — taking two different musical items and skilfully mixing them together to make a new item.
There is not a huge philosophical difference between sampling and, for example, copying the guitar licks of black American blues stars, which virtually every band did in the '60s (I know — I'm a guitarist). In each case, it is the human brain which creates the end result — not just a finger on the guitar fretboard or data wheels on an S1000. In some respects, it's a form of homage, and in the end, if you're any good, you create something that has your own individuality stamped on it.
Obviously, outrageous theft from someone else's intellectual copyright is no good — we're all agreed about that. These days, you have to register and clear the samples you use. PM Dawn's use of Spandau Ballet was obviously pretty near the limit, but I note that the BPI nominated them for a best newcomer award, and that Spandau Ballet gained some benefits from this.
A good example is the tune 'Sueno Latino' — a landmark Ambient dance hit from 1989. This was based on a sample of 'E2-E4' by Manuel Gottsching. The rhythm track, keyboards and vocal added by the Italian crew turned Manuel's track into a club classic, for which he got a share of the proceeds. Everyone is happy.
I don't think that the 'sampling theft' controversy is the bottom line when it comes to dance music. A lot of good stuff is written from scratch, and more and more producers are making their own loops. If you get a rhythm going on a number of different instruments, it will have a certain feel. If you then sample that rhythm and use it as a loop, it will have a different quality. If you then combine that quality with the other rhythms and loops, you will generate yet another feel. It's like mixing different bands together; the permutations are endless.
What I like about all this is the spirit of jamming and improvisation — just like rock music, once. Sadly, rock, which started a rebellion, has become formularised. At most rock concerts, the event and the audience reaction are a social ritual which I feel is fossilised and sterile. At decent dance events or parties, you will find a Show. From an avant-garde, theatrical point of view I find this far better than a pathetic, football-like crowd 'worshipping' the 'stars' on stage at a tedious stadium.
It was this lack of emphasis on the star and the stage that worried the record companies, although they like the fact that some great dance records have been made cheaply in peoples' bedrooms (to the alarm of the studios!). Don't get me wrong — I'm not saying that all rock is rubbish and all dance is great. Far from it. I think popular music is best when different styles merge together — a merging of styles dubbed 'Balearic' a few years ago, and something I find very stimulating.
The rigid segmentation of music in the post-punk early '80s was a bad memory for me. I think tribalism is totally negative. There has always been an unfortunate element of this 'purism' in the dance scene, but the dance scene is going through a period of reassessment at the moment. Some aspects of dance are jaded, but others are merging together in exciting ways. I've been involved in trying to work guitar sounds into dance — something that the strict squad won't accept at all, but I feel that nothing should be taboo.
I find the sense of rebellion associated with dance is generally a good thing, although there is a negative aspect - reports of heavy raves busted by police and where people take too many drugs. That's not where I'm orientated at all.
For the past few years, I've been developing my skills in the dance area, for my own records, and, as a producer, helping others create exciting, original music.
I believe that people — especially those in the music business — who feel threatened by the dance scene should open up, and stop erecting barriers between different styles of music and creativity.
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