The Rise of the Retro DJ

Toro Y Moi, one of the few "Chillwave" pioneers along with Alan Palomo's Neon Indian, Washed Out, Com Truise, Ducktails, Memory Tapes and Memory Cassette, and a growing number of others.
Toro Y Moi, one of the few "Chillwave" pioneers along with Alan Palomo's Neon Indian, Washed Out, Com Truise, Ducktails, Memory Tapes and Memory Cassette, and a growing number of others.

I think it's safe to assume an entirely fresh new genre of music is no longer a possibility. Instead, genres are colliding. With the invention of the synthesizer and the enhancements it's been able to sustain throughout the decades since the seventies, just about any sound is possible to recreate through a keyboard. Anyone with a program like Propellerhead's Reason, Ableton or FL Studio can be a producer. As young musicians, most in my generation don't know where to go but backward, as music has seemed to branch out into as many different realms as it possibly could: Most lyrics have already been written a thousand times, most beats and melodies have been copies or variations of others as time moves forward, and DJs are constantly flooding in with a slough of remixes of everything from seventies Funk and House to rap beats produced only a year ago.

Names are beginning to rise in the DJ world, but it's not Trance or traditional House music I'm hearing. And none of them are rock stars, but many releasing more the vibes of Lady Gaga (many House bands) or chill, hooded DJs. It's a fusion of things in a single track these days, like a cool blended sound smoothie spiked with Benzedrine, or in the case of Chillwave, narcotics. I first opened up to the world of DJing in the Trance genre in high school, listening profusely to three-hour-long podcast mixes from various artists while letting my thoughts and fantasies wander, but trance seems to be dwindling in popularity, with the exception of already-established artists like Paul Van Dyk. It's the French House artists who are pervading my audio, DJs like Lifelike, Alan Braxe and Fred Falke, and who could forget the kings, Daft Punk. These are all guys whose sounds emanate from another time, but with a modern freshness, sampling from the seventies and eighties while sometimes producing original sound. But they're part of the previous generation in electronic music, all of them in their thirties. And most are from France.

The names I'm hearing about today employ the same principles of nostalgia, the ones performing in concert halls and clubs on the city streets carrying with them shreds of better times. It's almost as if there is no modern sound, with everything from the wavering of worn out cassettes to euphoric synth rhythms borrowing from decades we didn't know, but wish we did. And the biggest subgenre I'm hearing about (really more of a mythical subgenre of a subgenre of electronic music) is Chillwave. This is almost entirely a uniquely American phenomenon, beginning on the east coast in the summer of 2009 with a then twenty-six-year-old Ernest Greene (Washed Out) and a twenty-two-year-old Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi) in Columbia, South Carolina. They may have not been close friends exactly, but they knew each other from the same town, and simultaneously went solo musically in very similar directions. Another artist also associated with the Chillwave movement is Seth Haley, aka Com Truise (an obvious anagram of Tom Cruise), who's also from the east coast himself (It's as if the east coast is where the edge of nostalgia lies). His sound blends both futurism with retro nostalgia, and it's easy to see his fondness for sci-fi and wonder glisten with a taste for the past beneath the heavy beats.

Com Truise performing.
Com Truise performing.

There's something that appeals to us about old sound, the way it soothes us and reminds us more of our childhood than the early nineties could provide for us, the only thing really sticking out in my mind about the nineties being bad bowl cuts, mom jeans, with the only pleasurable aspects being video games and Nickelodeon. There's a fondness for the decades left mysterious for us, as with the quality of media those times provide we associate a mindset. The mindsets of the sixties up to the eighties seemed like for the most part good times to me, with less distractions provided by an unlimited Internet, instant messaging, ever-reminding recession and in-your-face everyday production values influencing most of us to carry the personalities of amphetamine addicts. It's as if we need to look back pervasively in order to keep ourselves from having our first stroke at thirty.

Hudson Mohawke
Hudson Mohawke

It isn't just the Chillwave that's coming into the world of music as a mode for bringing us back to our minus years in existence, but also a twenty-five year old by the name of Hudson Mohawke. Part of a group of Glaswegians from the streets of Scotland, and beginning as a DMC finalist at the age of fifteen in the world of competitive DJing, Ross Birchard has produced five EPs within the last three years alone, providing backing beats for popular artists like Chris Brown. He's mostly embedded in the world of hip-hop, garnering influence from R&B of the seventies to the rap beats of the eighties and nineties while still managing to produce original sound that's beautiful without derivative lyrics to bombard them; I could go my whole life in bliss without listening to a rapper discuss everything materialistic and unoriginal over something like “Rising 5” or “Gluetooth”. And yet there's something uniquely nineties in Hudson's sound, the way he has fast-paced and yet dreamlike beats which remind me of, yes, my old Sega and Playstation games. Hudson Mohawke has even mentioned in interviews that he's always been integrated in the old video game systems, even starting out some of his mixing and music production as a kid using an MTV game on his Playstation. It's as if these systems were the only real things worth remembering about that decade, especially for artistic influence, with the only thing I can even recall in the real world being the Lewinsky scandal...

The world of music is always going to evolve, even if I can't see how many more directions it can go outside of fusing genre after genre until every aspect of music has slept with one another and produced a ton of beautifully (or not so beautifully) mixed children. I personally believe nostalgia can never be overrated as long as it gives you faith in today, and that seems to be the philosophy for so many of these rising musicians.

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jonnycomelately 3 years ago from Tasmania

Ben, this is another of your hubs which should have gone further.

The first record I bought back in 1977 was Oxygene, by Jean Michel Jarre. I think that was the case for most other people.

Have you seen the work of Mike Tomkins? His work, using his own voice, lips and mouth sounds is superb. I always admire someone who puts a lot of work into his/her passion and does it well.

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