Whatever happened to paradise? For a brief time in the mid-90s, it seemed as if rave culture had usurped the music industry's top-down business model, nurturing an environment in which consumers collaborated with artists in sustaining a collective euphoria.
But as the rave era wound down, the movement's utopianism was usurped by an ironically fascistic mindset, one that saw the superstar DJ emerge as a dictatorial figure flaying drugged youth past the point of exhaustion. Achim Szepanski, the owner of Germany's Force Inc. techno label, once referred to rave as freizeithknast, a pleasure-prison in which hedonistic drug use dulled a generation's ability to resist capitalism. Extreme though this conception may be, it helps to account for the feeling that as the 1990s wore on, raving became less an act of individual expression than a submission to the consumerist herd.
Faced with the mainstreaming of their scene, electronic producers followed one of two paths. Some mortgaged their credibility for a shot at pop stardom but no matter how many albums they sold, none of these artists (not even the platinum-selling Moby) could overcome the industry's perception of them as mere novelty interlopers. While commercial aspirants tried to squeeze electronic music into a pop framework, dance music's intelligentsia turned their back on the world, nurturing obscurantist forms (e.g. glitch) that appealed only to hermetic aesthetes.
Then along came electroclash. Love it or loathe it, that most ephemeral of fads perhaps the first such form to crash in the same year (2002) in which it peaked has left an indelible mark on the musical landscape. The rock realm, for one, has been inundated by a legion of synth-wielding haircut bands some good (the Liars) and some bad (Soviet) leading indie kids to adopt an activity they once seemed incapable of understanding: bump'n'grind.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, rock's adoption of electronic music's formal postures has served to stroke the egos of formerly downtrodden dance producers. Emboldened by this affirmation of their relevance, electronicists are now looking farther afield for stimulus, moving on from the movement's nadir of self-referentiality (clicks & cuts) to find inspiration in all forms of music.
Such an estimation was confirmed for me when, in the spring of 2003, I caught an uncommonly brilliant set by Deep Dish, the American duo whose recorded output embodies the tawdry excess of progressive house. Panderers though they may be, the Americans pulled off a compelling mix midway through the night, blending the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" into Danny Howells' "Nobody Listens to Techno," a track that features Eminem's infamous Moby-baiting declaration. Clipped and stitched within the folds of a balls-out rave anthem, Shady's refrain eventually morphed into "listen to techno," a stirring command that sent the assembled into ecstasy. This, I thought, is what revenge sounds like.
This sense of playful vengeance is reinvigorating dance music, nowhere more so than in Germany, where a small group of producers are finding inspiration in the work of Slade, Gary Glitter and T-Rex. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Littering their tunes with jagged guitar riffs and stadium-sized vocals, artists likes Superpitcher, T. Raumschmiere and Wighnomy Bros. are reclaiming glam-rock for the laptop set, setting dance floors alight with tracks that go bumpity-bump in the night. Shunning minimal techno's straight-up drum kick for a teetering offbeat emphasis, these producers have inaugurated the era of schaffel (German for "shuffle"), a style that merges rock and techno to gloriously dishevelled ends.
Over the last 40 years, forms of dance music have flowered and waned with predictable regularity. In the mid-60s, dancehall favourites like the twist were displaced by the hippie generation's flower power. Disco took the 70s by storm, only to be pushed underground by reactionary rockers at the end of the decade. Rave, too, has befallen the same fate, but where its predecessors were virtually extinguished, 90s-era genres retain loyal followers to this day, suggesting that dance music's next revival might be its biggest yet, built upon a stable infrastructure of record labels, specialty stores and underground nightclubs.
Since its inception in the mid-90s, Germany's Kompakt Records has housed all three of those functions (distribution, retail, party promotion) under a single roof. Based in Cologne, the label has developed a reputation akin to that enjoyed by Rough Trade 25 years ago. As that British label was to post-punk in the late 70s, so Kompakt was to techno in the latter half of the 90s, fostering niche musicians whose avant-garde tendencies did not diminish their output's visceral impact.
Dubbed "heroin house" by British journalist Simon Reynolds, first-generation German minimalism honed dance music to essential elements, stripping away the florid melodies and percussive flurries that had sent the country's rave scene overground. As exemplified by the brooding echo-chamber atmospherics of Rhythm & Sound's Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, Teutonic radicalism was defined by its outright denials of kitsch harmonies and explicit emotion.
"At that time, it was super-exciting to put on a techno event where nothing would happen," recalls Michael Mayer, the co-founder (alongside Wolfgang Voigt) of the Kompakt empire. "It was the most exciting and the most subversive thing that could happen, because our music was so different from cheesy trance and popular techno. This was our statement of protest."
While Kompakt was keen to counter the hedonism prevalent in pop techno a battle previously enjoined by England's Rephlex and Germany's Force Inc. it did so without engaging in any of the rhetoric of its so-called "intelligent" contemporaries. Where Rephlex smugly referred to its music as "braindance" and Force Inc. littered its liner notes with references to Michel Foucault, Kompakt shunned this snobbist stance, but to little avail.
"For some strange reason, people have always though that we are nerdy young scientists who only love to listen to this music at home," says Mayer of Kompakt's reputation. "But actually, we have always loved to party. Techno for us is the body. It's sex, dance and sweat not science."
Much to Mayer's chagrin, intelligent dance music eventually became crippled by its own technical precocity. After several years of esoteric glitch music (pantheonised by three volumes of the Clicks & Cuts series released on Szepanski's Mille Plateaux imprint), minimalism and randomness had become dogmatic, leading to music every bit as formulaic as the most facile trance offerings.
"I think this laptop prison killed a lot," says Mayer of the computer music scene. "It made for a style where the lust was missing. It was interesting groundwork these people did and in ten years we'll look back and see why it was important, but for now, we need a change."
Mayer speaks for a legion of technoists who have decried the normalisation of the click aesthetic. Since the release of Luomo's lustrous Vocalcity in 2001, laptop producers have been bucking their image as strict esoterists, incorporating pop hooks into their work, once a verboten tactic in the minimal community. Nowhere are these populist leanings more apparent than on the first two instalments of Digital Disco, a summation of the minimal scene's fascination with 70s-era dance culture. Released on Szepanski's Force Tracks imprint, these compilations have been marked by overtly romantic themes (embodied by tracks like Data 80's "Baby, I Can Forgive" and Astrobal's "Magic Lady") and the conspicuous absence of theoretical writings within the liner notes. Almost hedonistic in its conceptual outlook, Szepanski's Digital Disco heals the body/mind division that he'd once delighted in exacerbating.
Welcome though it may be, Digital Disco is little more than an elitist retort to Daft Punk, offering no significant formal innovations. This, however, is not the case with Schaffelfieber, Kompakt's recurring series of compilations devoted to shuffle-beat techno. With sharp accents on the first and third beat, schaffel tracks have a jerky, snapped-off quality, thus providing a quirky mid-tempo antidote to minimal techno's straightforward kick.
"Schaffel is still four to the floor," explains Mayer. "Formally, it's not a waltz, a tango, or drum & bass it's still techno that you can play within a minimal set. But the accent on the beats is totally different, which makes you dance in a different way than you do with [traditional] techno."
Herein lies a significant shift in techno's compositional emphasis away from the textural obsessions of the glitch era toward the discovery of new rhythms. Strictly speaking, the shuffle beat is not new. In popular music, it dates back at least as far as Gary Glitter's infamous sports anthem, "Rock'n'Roll, Part Two," coursing through such ensuing hits as Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Outkast's "The Whole World." Schaffel first appeared in orthodox techno circles in 1991, featuring on a handful of releases by Mayer's Kompakt cohort, Wolfgang Voigt. At that time, schaffel was an anomaly, a rhythm revisited only sporadically over the next decade.
Best among the new breed of schaffel revisionists is Germany's Aksel Schaufler (aka Superpitcher). Raised in a strict household in which mainstream culture was strictly verboten, Schaufler became a voracious consumer of pop music in his teenage years. "When I started listening to music, I had this feeling of having to know everything," he says. "Since I started late, I was like this maniac needing to get all this input to catch up."
Schaufler's strict upbringing makes him the ideal poster boy for schaffel, a movement that has released minimal techno from its repressed physicality. In Superpitcher's music we find the swing between stasis and motion made audibly manifest, unleashing a flood of pent-up muscle memories in rave's scarred survivors.
Indeed, where glitch producers could be compared to hobbyists who derive just as much enjoyment from fixing a car as from driving it, schafflists seem like guys who'd rather forgo the repair job and make out in the back seat. Whether or not they care to admit it, these technoists owe their newfound sensuality to the electroclash phenomenon.
"Personally, I was disgusted to stand in a club listening to 80s music," offers Mayer. "But I think minimal learned something from electroclash in terms of discovering song structures, melodies and lyrics just getting more colourful in general. For us, we want to stay true to what we love, which is minimal techno, but to enrich it with emotional content."
Mayer does just that on his remix of Paul Nazca's aptly-titled "Emotion" (featured on Schaffelfieber 2), a lustrous concatenation of celestial chords, clipped exhalations and that tipsy dunk-a-dunk beat. Similarly emotive is the producer's shuffle-sized version of Sade's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" (included on the Mayer-mixed Speicher CD1 compilation), a cover mercifully devoid of the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm present in electroclash anthems like Tiga's "Sunglasses at Night."
Still, while the Kompakt crew insists that its love of pop music is wholly non-ironic, there's something of a Brooklyn-style insouciance in some of its recent DJ outings, which have found Mayer and Schaufler playing tunes by Kiss and Gary Glitter, respectively. How do these selections go down in the clubs?
"When you play a schaffel track no matter what era it's from there's definitely more jumping and head-banging," explains Mayer, who plays alongside Schaufler every week at Kompakt's Total Konfusion party in Cologne. "The dancers aren't just stepping from one foot to the other anymore. Now, it's like they're playing air-guitar."
Among the dozens of press releases that have clogged up my mailbox this year, one stands out as particularly fascinating. Presumably designed as a Northwest retort to Dirty South crunk, a Seattle-based hip-hop label named Zero BPM recently issued a memorandum declaring the birth of "gothic hip-hop," a new strain reflective of the city's rainy climate.
While nowhere near as crass as inaugurating a genre via email, Kompakt's handling of schaffel is more a testament to shrewd marketing than a representation of a creative groundswell. Still, the label's compilation series has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; since the launch of the first genre-devoted comp in 2002, Mayer reports that he's been inundated with schaffel-style demos from aspiring producers.
Such is the ever-shortening shelf life of musical trends that some of the form's progenitors are just about ready to denounce their role in its evolution. Two such producers are Wighnomy Bros., comprised of Sören Bodner and Gabor Schablitzki, a German duo whose pop-locking "Bodyrock" (the lead track on Schaffelfieber 2) coaxes oodles of funk out of a crippled-sounding synthetic bass riff. Prominent though they may be in Kompakt's marketing campaign, the beatmakers vigorously contest their renown as schaffel specialists.
"We love this style but this is not the only thing we are producing," they write via email, going on to cite a long list of non-schaffel releases on their self-run labels (Freude am Tanzen and Musik Krause).
Similarly unwilling to be pigeonholed is France's Fred Bigot (aka Electronicat), whose "Shuffle Time" (featured on 2002's Schaffelfieber) has shaped the ensuing years of glam/techno fusion.
"I don't even feel like a techno producer," says Bigot of his unsteady place in dance circles. "I'm more like a songwriter working with this energy you find in rock music and rhythm & blues, which goes back to rockabilly in the 50s."
On last year's 21st Century Toy, Electronicat laid psychobilly riffs over techno's clean rhythmic lines, referencing the Cramps and Kraftwerk in alternating breaths. Given Bigot's background in such Parisian rock outfits as Boot Power and Gonzo Voice, it's hardly surprising to hear him admit that he was never much into raves, though he spotted in the form's sophisticated technology a unique opportunity for individual expression.
Such sentiments are shared by Berlin's Marco Haas (aka T. Raumschmiere), the trucker-capped producer responsible for schaffel's highest-profile track, "Monstertruckdriver." "I only started making electronic music because I was sick of band politics," explains Haas, who still bangs the kit for the punk-minded Crack Whore Society. "I just bought my own computer and started doing my own shit with no compromises."
With his propensity for brash quotes and equipment-shredding stage antics, Raumschmiere has developed an iconic persona, one squarely at odds with techno's humble archetype. Indeed, the German seems to revel in his role as one of electronic music's few true punks.
"Face it: I'm an entertainer," he boldly declares. "During the whole rave thing, those DJs were hiding behind their music. In the 90s, everyone was saying, Kill your idols. Electronic music isn't about faces or rock'n'roll glamour it's just about the music.' But after a while, people wanted their idols back. The fans want someone they could look up to again."
Genre names aside, it is this renewed emphasis on individual expression that lies at the heart of dance music's nascent reinvigoration both in the nurturing of on-stage personalities like Raumschmiere's and in the renewed interest among hipsters in glitzy fashion. Thus can schaffel and digital disco be read as return to the heavily stylised sensibility of two concurrent late 70s genres: disco and glam-rock.
"There's a strong rockistic influence on techno music nowadays," explains Mayer. "Schaffel simply brings the flirt between techno and rock up to the front."
Raumschmiere agrees wholeheartedly, lamenting only that it took so long for electronic producers to adopt rock techniques. "Techno people took way longer to open their ears to rock than it took for rock people to open their ears to electronic music," he says with characteristic brio. "I've always said that techno people weren't really musicians; they were more like programmers playing with their software. But that's starting to change."
In the end, techno's incorporation of competing styles testifies to the form's maturation. Throughout the 1990s, techno, like any infant genre, was necessarily guided by an aesthetic purism, for any deviation from the genre's precepts might have left it vulnerable to extinction. Such is the reason behind underground hip-hop's protectionist mindset, a conservatism that has only recently been eased in light of the form's international success. Just as the survival of indie-rap is no longer in doubt, neither is that of techno, a style whose newfound liberality as embodied in the work of latecomers like Raumschmiere and Electronicat may soon encourage the gleeful pillaging of every style known to man. If Moby's Play was the sound of pop annexing electronic music, schaffel represents the inverse. Just call it the revenge of the nerds.
Still in its infancy, the schaffel movement has already produced a handful of classic tunes, none better than these five.
Wassermann "Ende Der Schonzeit"
Speicher CD1 (Kompakt Extra, 2002)
All roads lead back to Wolfgang Voigt (aka Wassermann), the man whose work in the 90s cleared the way for all minimal technoists to follow. Generally acknowledged as the godfather of schaffel, Voigt's best contribution might just be this corrosive number, notable for containing a rave siren that sounds like it's coming from underneath a heap of rubble.
T. Raumschmiere "Monstertruckdriver"
Radio Blackout (Mute, 2003)
Malevolent as any song to have emerged in 2003, "Monstertruckdriver" is a call-to-arms for jack-booted anarchists. If Wassermann's track is the sound of techno emanating from beneath a collapsed rave, "Monstertruckdriver" approximates the sound of the bulldozer that blew through the warehouse walls. Not recommended for the faint of heart.
Electronicat "Amour Sale"
21st Century Toy (Disko B, 2003)
If the best electroclash songs were covers (e.g., Fischerspooner's Wire-derived "The 15th"), it stands to reason that one of schaffel's standout tunes should be an 80s-era homage. Here, Electronicat renders Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" en français, spouting Marc Almond's translated poetics over dub-wise synth stabs and shoegazer-style guitars. Sinister.
SCSI-9 "All She Wants Is" (Wighnomy Bros. Mix)
Schaffelfieber 2 (Kompakt, 2003)
Where microhouse meets schaffel, you'll find this remix of Russia's SCSI-9. In stripping house down to its trifold essence of rhythm, soul and silence, SCSI-9's Anton Kubikov and Maxim Milyutenko offer an infinitely malleable model for Wighnomy Bros., who tweak the track's time signature, trading boom-click for dunk-a-dunk to winning ends.
Superpitcher "The Long Way"
Here Comes Love (Kompakt, 2004)
The work of an unabashed romantic, Aksel Schaufler's debut album puts paid once and for all to Kompakt's brainiac reputation. "The Long Way" is a six-minute swoon, marked as it is by wavering strings, a click-clock beat and the producer's own whispered longings. This is bliss on wax.