The world of electronic music is dense and varied with more genres, subgenres and non-genres than most other types of music. To the uninitiated, it can be intimidating. To those who just discovered dance music in the last decade, there is a common pitfall of lumping it all under the corporate-made non-genre of EDM, three letters that have a skin-crawling effect on DJs, producers and dancers.
EDM is not really a genre as much as a catch-all term created by guys in suits who have little investment in the culture. The term markets a homogenized version of dance music genres that have decades of history, while failing to really acknowledge that history. Wilco and Slayer are both rock bands, but generally, most folks don't use a catch-all term to lump them together. This is no different.
There really is not an appropriate all-inclusive term that can really sum up electronic music as a whole and make sense. So how does one navigate a vast landscape of electronic music genres? We're here to help, and put together a list of 10 documentaries that will make you an expert on the subject.
The following documentaries only touch on trance, grime, breakbeat, italo, downtempo or trip-hop (you've never heard of most of those, have you?), but this is a solid list to build a foundation of knowledge on the distinct identities of core electronic music genres — and it's a deep well.
Pump Up the Volume: A History of House Music
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By far the most comprehensive documentary on the history of house music's journey from the underground clubs of Chicago to the United Kingdom's during the 1989 era dubbed the "summer of love" when acid house took over the British music landscape. This film focuses on house music but also connects the dots between house and other dance genres like techno, drum and bass, U.K. garage and acid house.
Pump Up the Volume is the longest documentary on this list, but it truly is a master class for anyone looking to know more about the roots of modern club music and how it progressed through the ages.
I Was There When House Took Over the World
While Pump up the Volume takes the big picture of house and its influence, I Was There When House Music Took Over the World takes a more detailed look at how house music evolved out of disco and planted its roots in Chicago. Standout interviews include DJ Pierre, Marshall Jefferson, Honey Dijon, Nile Rodgers and Jesse Saunders, who produced the first official release belonging to the genre with On and On in 1984.
High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music
It's not uncommon for the average American music consumer to think of techno as something that was imported from Europe. High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno reveals the genre's true origins, which can be traced back to Detroit. The film explains how techno in its original form was the product of urban decay, robots and dreams of Afrofuturism by focusing on the earliest years of techno, the major players and how the sound was ultimately exported to Europe, where it would find its largest audience and dominate the overseas club and party circuit. Techno was born in the streets of Detroit and ushered in by Juan Atkins ("The Originator"), Kevin Saunderson ("The Elevator") and Derrick May ("The Innovator") affectionately known as the Belleville Three after the high school they all attended. The film also goes fairly in-depth with interviews with Detroit artists like Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Keith Tucker of Aux 88, Richie Hawtin and the quintessential techno journalist Dan Sicko, who documented the history of the scene in his book Techno Rebels: Renegades of Funk.
Darkbeat: An Electro Voyage
Darkbeat: An Electro Voyage traces the difficult to follow and often hard to define electro genre. The winding path of the development of electro goes through the initial spark of Kraftwerk, the hip-hop roots of early-'80s Electrofunk, the undeniable foundation of Detroit techno, and the groundbreaking impact of the U.K. and the rest of Europe as genre developed into its modern sound.
Electro is one of the hardest genres to peg down. At its core, it's a bastard child of hip-hop and techno, while still operating on its own distinct turf. This documentary lays out an excellent foundation to make sense of it all.
Why Drexciya Took Detroit Electro Underwater
While Darkbeat covers the general progression of electro, this Resident Advisor short film goes extra deep, sub-aquatic even, into Drexciya, the duo of Gerald Donald and James Stinson, who are irrefutably the most significant act to influence modern electro. Rooted firmly in concepts of Afrofuturism, their music functions as a soundtrack to a mythical kingdom founded by the children of pregnant African slaves, thrown overboard for being disruptive on their trek to America. Those children learned to breathe underwater and forged a mighty underwater kingdom that advanced far beyond their human counterparts. This mythology is a constant theme throughout the band's groundbreaking catalog. James Stinson passed away unexpectedly in 2002, cutting short one of the most amazing runs of releases in modern dance music. Spawning a dizzying amount of side projects and aliases like The Other People Place, Lab Rat XL, Doppler Effekt, Elektroids, Transillusion, Der Zyklus and many, many more, the pair have inspired an almost cult-like following of underground producers on the electro landscape to this very day.
A Summary of Drum and Bass Music: The Origins and Subgenres
This video isn't so much a documentary, but more of a breakdown of the dance music genres, with enough subgenres to make even the staunchest heavy metal scholar blink twice. From its jungle roots to modern mutations like Drumstep, this video lecture breaks down the many subgenres in drum and bass by their specific characteristics and illustrates these differences with audio examples. This video may only scratch the surface, but it's a great starting point if you want to dive into this characteristically high BPM Dance music.
Before disco, house, electro, techno and even disco, dub was driving Jamaican soundsystem culture, laying down the foundation for everything that followed. Even Kool Herc, the original hip-hop DJ, was a Jamaican immigrant who brought his roots into the Bronx's Jamaican soundsystem culture, thus giving birth to hip-hop.
Dub Echoes traces the lineage and impact of dub from its earliest roots in the late '60s with producers King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry, to U.K. dub pioneer Adrian Sherwood, to the modern sounds of U.K. garage and dubstep by way of musician and hyperdub label owner Kode 9. An absolutely fascinating story of a sound whose influence has crept into an amazingly wide variety of modern genres ranging from hip-hop to punk. The entire concept of the remixes used to make people dance starts here and this film does an amazing job of showing that evolution.
Bassweight: A Dubstep Documentary
Dubstep is so widely misunderstood that it's staggering. Evolving out of U.K. garage/two-step sounds of the early 2000s by tapping into the roots of U.K. Dub and expanding in a gazillion groundbreaking directions. In the beginning, its foundations were rigidly underground and rooted in dubplate culture. It was distinctly a South London sound that could only be found for many years at single club nights. It stayed that way and grew in a genuinely underground manner by spreading all over the world. For many years the music was all about bass and space, deep and heady and the legit grandchild of its dub roots, with an adventurous spirit evolving into futuristic territory. Around 2010, dubstep's popularity grew exponentially and seemingly overnight in the U.S. It was co-opted by the EDM industry when that industry was somewhat of a new thing and transformed into a sound that had more in common with nu metal than the experimental and forward-thinking foundations of the genre. Bassweight takes an in-depth look at the initial roots from a street level by way of some of the DJs and producers who were there at the very beginning. This documentary has a distinct timestamp as it was shot in a pre-Skrillex era. Standout interviews with the likes of Kode 9, Plastician, Skream, Benga, BBC DJ Mary Anne Hobbs and more discuss an untainted underground scene on the rise a few years before it would jump the shark into mainstream consciousness, becoming something with very little to do with its origins.
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Modulations came out in 1998 in a pre-internet era of electronica (a non-genre catch-all phrase used to lump a wide variety of genres). The film was one of the first to document the global electronic music scenes of the time, with an archival documentation of electronic music history. The film connects the dots through a diverse roster of interviews connecting the dots: French composer Pierre Henry discussing the roots of '50s tape music musique concrete, Giorgio Moroder on his synth-driven disco sounds, techno forefathers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson on the impact of Detroit techno, industrial music trailblazer Genesis P-Orridge and even some words from Synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog.
Krautrock - The Rebirth of Germany
From the late-'60s to the mid-'70s, Germany's take on radicalized hippies gave birth to an experimental revolution. While American counter culture was rebelling against the Vietnam War and drowning in flower power, German youth were rebelling against the aftereffects of the Nazi occupation of the older generation. In a search for a new identity to separate from their past and an aversion to aping American and U.K. music trends, this new German artistic class looked to space. Krautrock was born and spawned a slew of bands like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Can, Faust, Neu, Cluster and scores of others that would go on to influence in one way or another all forms of electronic music (and even a lot of not so electronic music) that would come after it. This BBC documentary traces those roots and their impact.