We love electronic music just as much as, if not more than, the next guy. (Check out our playlists if you don’t believe us.) Despite that, we get that our fave genre isn’t perfect, and can admit when there’s a problem. With it being Black History Month, we felt like now was the right time to have this conversation: electronic music is extremely whitewashed, despite its origins and background in the Black community.
Let’s start with a little history lesson. The electronic dance music (or “EDM”) scene started in the Black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in Chicago and Detroit in the late 70s to early 80s. What we know today as House music wasn’t born in Amsterdam, London, or Ibiza. Rather, think Chicago, and give thanks to the legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles. A pivotal figure in the Chicago club scene during a time when the concept of making music electronically was a brand new idea, Knuckles played marathon, hours-long sets at a variety of venues in the city using tech that’s a far cry from what we use today. Among them, was a members-only, primarily Black, gay club called The Warehouse. It was at his residency there where Knuckles played extended versions and created remixes of popular songs from a variety of music genres: from disco to R&B to punk, and beyond. Initially dubbed “warehouse music,” do we really need to explain what happened next? You guessed it, people shortened it to “ware music.” Wait…no. “House music.” That’s the one. It wasn’t long before the entire city of Chicago was going nuts for “house music,” from gay black men voguing on catwalks to, frankly, everyone else just doing their thing and enjoying the music.
Around the same time but further north, in Detroit, the “motor city” was coming alive with the advent of techno music. DJs Juan Atkins and Rik Davis (performing as “Cybotron”) led the herd of artists to come with their 1981 track “Alleys of Your Mind.” Cybotron’s rapid rise to fame inspired then-newcomers to the scene like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Saunderson, May, and Atkins’ tracks took over the dance floor in the states and in Europe, and the rest was history.
Now, do a quick Google of those names. What’d you notice? Weird, right? They’re all…people of color. Now Google “top House DJs in 2021.” Yep, still mostly just Black dudes…wait…no…that’s not quite it. So when did EDM become mostly just white people?
To answer this question, we at DRL turned to an artist who’s seen the industry change from its roots in the Black community to what it’s become today. Ann Saunderson is one of the original songwriters for Inner City, an OG soul-influenced techno collective from Detroit. The group also counts among its members Ann’s husband, Kevin (you might remember him from a few paragraphs ago…). True to her mystique, the lady Saunderson let us in on her view that the story of the evolution of electronic music has less to do with overt racism and more to do with, as she put it, “capitalism at work.”
This was an interesting, unexpected take, and honestly took us a little while to process. For us, the industry today is almost all white, so how is that not racist? But before we kneejerk, let’s think this through. What does capitalism mean in this context, and on whose part?