Around The World: Electronic Music Provides the Beats That Bind

Skrillex, Diplo and TOKiMONSTA

In the summer of 2012, Skrillex organized the Full Flex Express tour, which saw him and other artists travel across Canada by train and play shows in multiple cities. Inspired by a similar 1970 train tour featuring rock heavyweights Janis Jopin, the Grateful Dead, and the Band  — which ended up being a complete financial disaster — the stacked lineup included Diplo, Grimes, Pretty Lights, and OWSLA signees TOKiMONSTA and Hundred Waters.

Grimes aka Claire Boucher’s 2012 album, Visions, had made the Canadian avant-pop auteur a critical darling, but she was still a year and a half away from signing a management deal with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. As for Diplo and Skrillex, they had yet to form EDM Voltron Jack Ü, or create one of the decade’s defining anthems, “Where Are Ü Now,” with some help from Justin Bieber.

While the tour was hardly as debauched as its predecessor (a second edition in 2015 was sponsored by Red Bull and provided artists with an on-board studio), they both shared an ethos of wanting to create a more intimate experience for participants and fans alike.

For the first half of the 2010s, the brash, hedonistic, rib cage-rattling songs made by the former screamo-frontman-turned-producer and his contemporaries ruled the Top 40 airwaves, creating a multi-billion dollar global industry. A generation of North American producers inspired by Daft Punk’s pyramid-accompanied Coachella 2006 performance put down their guitars, started watching YouTube tutorials and downloading Ableton production software, offering up their own aggressive interpretations of what was popular in Europe.

Corporate organizers, promoters, and brands quickly capitalized on EDM’s popularity amongst young audiences, much to the age-old collective horror of mainstream media, law enforcement, and parents. From Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival to Miami’s Ultra to Toronto’s VELD, the festival market exploded, and the scene’s biggest stars were predominantly white, straight males, many of whom concealed their identities with masks and elaborate stage setups.

Despite criticism ranging from these performers’ artistic legitimacy and safety at these multi-day events— the disruption of EDM’s reign didn’t arrive until halfway through the decade.

Concurrent to these happenings, more diverse, boundary-pushing underground electronic scenes were thriving worldwide, often outside the traditional European capitals. In Chicago, lead by the late DJ Rashad and Teklife crew, the frenetic, dancer-driven genre known as footwork rose to prominence and many of those artists would release albums on pioneering UK electronic label Hyperdub.

In Glasgow, taste-making labels Numbers and LuckyMe put out the earliest releases from international artists who would become household names and work with the decade’s biggest rappers and pop stars, including Bauuer, Jamie xx, Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, and SOPHIE. Closer to home, a whole crop of producers including A-Trak, Jacques Greene, Kaytranada, Lunice, and Tim Hecker showed there was more to Montreal music than big band indie rock, contrary to what Canadian radio, media, and government funding bodies often suggested.

While the 2010s showed that regionally-focussed labels like Los Angeles’ Flying Lotus-helmed Brainfeeder or Lisbon’s Príncipe can succeed and capture the attention of adventurous listeners and critics, many of the most thought-provoking and thrilling contemporary releases came from collectives looking beyond geographic borders.

One of the best examples of this is NON Worldwide, started by Chino Amobi, Nkisi, and Angel-Ho, with the goal of highlighting black diasporic artists worldwide and bringing attention to “visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power.” Although its founders are based in New York City, collective and DJ booking agency Discwoman represents many international female, female-indentifying and genderqueer acts, and continues to challenges sexism and racism in the music industry.

As for the artists who played the inaugural Full Flex Express tour, they are still putting out records, though interestingly many have moved away from the sounds that first brought them commercial and/or critical success: Hundred Waters launched the “anti-music festival” FORM Arcosanti, which has seen performances from artists like Chance The Rapper and Solange; After surviving multiple brain surgeries, Los Angeles-based producer TOKiMONSTA returned in 2017 with her album Lune Rouge; Skrillex recently picked up his 13th Grammy nomination for his 2019 collaboration “Midnight Hour” with Boys Noize and Ty Dolla $ign. Diplo continues to be everywhere, including headlining this year’s Stagecoach (Coachella’s country sister festival) where he brought out rap star de jour, Lil Nas X.

The most interesting trajectory probably belongs to Grimes, who began this year making headlines for her relationship with Elon Musk and ended it by announcing that her heavily-anticipated fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, would be out in February 2020.

It’s impossible to predict what the next decade holds for electronic and dance music, but hopefully there will continue to be artists who want to bring our fractured world together.