“The content of a medium is always another medium.”

– Marshall McLuhan

I want to talk about a dance show I was at last night in Seattle featuring breakbeat pioneer Lorin Ashton, also known as “Bassnectar“.

No other music genre perhaps besides hip hop has the level of genrefication as does EDM (electronic dance music). “Glitch melodics”, “big beat”, “omni-tempo”, “maximalism” and “dub” are only some of the phrases that are used to describe Bassnectar’s taste. Why is it that a genre which started with the invention and widespread use of the sampling machine in the late 70s and early 80s now has so many offshoots and subcategories, when it’s only unique trait was that it was able to “sample” other content? Is it because the EDM world has no origination beyond the sampling machine and has to explain what it does in new ways? Or perhaps is it because the EDM scene has expanded its boundaries beyond merely one genre and wants to explain every fact of music that preceded with the overarching theme of transforming un-danceable content into danceable content?

“…Boundary-pushing omni-tempo maximalism”

– Lorin Ashton

Lorin Ashton describes his own music/sampling/mixing style as “boundary-pushing omni-tempo maximalism”. The more I hear these distinctive phrases and attempts at a brand new nomenclature, I feel that electronic dance music is really a reflection of the entire history of percussive music styles and elements that preceded it. It is omni-tempo, and also omni-sound, but also omni-environment. It can match the emotions of anything else. It incorporates percussive styles as well as those which are not. Last night Lorin Ashton, for example,  sampled everything from the history books of music, including political speeches, symphonic rhythms, bluegrass melodies, hip hop, nu break beat, and 80s rock synth.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan discusses what he calls “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media is that which fosters less participation, since the medium is accessible, like listening to a radio. Cool media, on the other hand, encourages participation, like Web2.0 for example. We might think that electronic music, to the degree that it is highly percussive, encourages dancing and participation. Lorin Ashton takes this “cool” aspect of the dub scene to new boundaries and transforms his shows into politically-charged forums for raising social and political awareness.

Last night Lorin Ashton opened with a Martin Luther King Jr. speech from 1961 and then pounded a throbbing mashup of a Trick Daddy beat. Everyone in the building had their hands in the air and knocked up against each other. Throughout the show Ashton discussed third world poverty, racism, and American foreign policy. I’m not sure too many people at this club were prepared to do anything about this. If only the EDM scene had the capability to become a truly underground, revolutionary movement. Hey, at least he tries.

In Jive Magazine, Ashton said that his political style is not meant to be “preachy” or “cliché” but his overall message is that privilege confers responsibility.

“Privilege confers responsibility”

Whereas so many other artists are too ambiguous with phrases like “love” (especially in the trance scene), Ashton says he bemoans “the fact that there is almost zero message in music” and that “hip hop has so lost its roots from resistance and power.” In that sense, his music recalls the culture of the late 60s, where musical culture created “an avalanche” that was full of message. And he avoids being ambiguous by telling his audiences exactly why he makes his music.

We do not have the ability to see how it will be viewed in the future, and at this point it is entirely relational. We know we are pushing the boundaries of experimentation with new sounds and new messages, while realizing at the same time the content is a blend of other mediums. In an era where most messages are reduced to cliché, the medium itself becomes the inventive and expressive force that breaks the boundaries of overuse and converges with the latest serendipities.