Beyonce, Drake up their beat – is this the return of 90s dance music?
Chris Reed has been DJing in the UK and New Zealand for over 30 years. He is a writer and executive producer of audio for Stuff.co.nz
OPINION: I grow old incompetent. I’m a few months past my 50s and still DJ regularly, mostly playing underground house music to people often from a younger generation.
That’s not so bad: there’s an argument that the more you know about music, the better you can put it together. And when DJing done right, it’s about curating a selection of tracks for the people you’re playing with at that exact moment – not just kicking off with a curated playlist of bangers.
Being old (rather) also allows you to recognize the cycles of music: there are only 12 notes, and most things have already been done.
I’ve been fascinated recently by how some of the biggest pop stars on the planet have embraced the house sound after years of mainstream music being dominated by hip hop and R&B beats.
* Beyonce releases new disco single, Break My Soul
* Beyonce’s Renaissance: everything you need to know about the album
* Drake’s new album is coming way sooner than you ever imagined
Hits by Dua Lipa, Beyonce and others are underpinned by a beat driven by a “four on the floor” bass drum pattern. You know, the one who saw house music dubbed “oonst, oonst, oonst” back then.
Of course, house hit the 4-4 beat from elsewhere – pioneering DJs like Frankie Knuckles in Chicago used drum machines to augment disco and “boogie” tracks in the mid-1980s, inadvertently creating a phenomenon of conquest of the world.
This is one of the stories told in this excellent BBC article that helped crystallize some of my thoughts. It also deals with the heavy debt that Beyonce’s monster, Break my Soul, owes to the “house diva” of the early 90s, in particular the Robin S classic, Show Me Love.
I’m not convinced by the latter — although Beyonce obviously disagrees, giving its writers writing credits. But it’s definitely reminiscent of the sound and scene that Robin S was a part of.
I’m also not convinced that Beyond is the only figurehead of the pop house revival – Dua Lipa collaborated with Calvin Harris on One Kiss in 2018, before releasing a remixed version of her album Future Nostalgia in 2021.
But where they lead, others will inevitably follow.
At this point, it’s worth explaining more about what is called diva house – and the musical form itself.
As noted above, Chicago is the spiritual home of house music, with Detroit and New York not far behind.
Most of the original releases were raw instrumentals, made with a limited range of equipment. There were a few big tracks with vocals and pianos (Marshall Jefferson did some of the more enduring ones), but not many.
House might have died out in these big American cities had it not been for the British tastemakers, who pushed it into record labels and style magazines in the late 80s.
Around the same time, a group of DJs, including Paul Oakenfold, were hosting influential parties in London after an eye-opening trip to the clubs of Ibiza.
There are many origin stories for the ascendancy of house music in the UK, but most seem to agree that it gained momentum there before being exported to its country of birth.
It wasn’t long before other countries were hooked, perhaps the most important for this coin, Italy.
I was born in England and in my clubbing prime (as a punter) in the very early 90’s, “diva house” was the dominant sound. It was initially powered by a conveyor belt of records imported from Italy. Most featured screaming vocals, syncopated piano chords, and upbeat melodic hooks. Some called them howlers, others cheesy stuff.
Either way, the “diva house” sound likely stems from producers fusing the less hysterical components of Italian house with the deeper, soulful sounds coming from the US east coast. It was feel-good, uplifting and joyful music with a bit of swing in the rhythms.
In the UK, the charts were full of these records, including Show Me Love. They moved tons of copies as the DJ phenomenon started and clubbing became mainstream.
But not in the United States. I’ve read a lot over the years about why it might have been. One argument is that the size of the country means it takes centuries for anywhere but big cities to catch on to new sounds.
I’m not sure about that, especially given how the internet has leveled access. And more rock electronic groups – The Prodigy, Depeche Mode – are very successful there.
Another is that many parts of the country weren’t ready for a genre that basically grew out of gay clubs.
There was certainly a widespread antipathy for disco: Radio shock Steve Dahl blew up a case of disco records on the field at a 1979 baseball game in Chicago to sell more tickets for the game. Unfortunately, there may be some truth to this.
Whatever the reason, while house has been present in underground American clubs for 30 years, the mainstream has been largely resistant. And given that the United States remains the cultural engine of the (Western) world, this has had a ripple effect.
I wrote above that most things have already been done. The sounds of the underground clubs of the early 90s – house on the piano, rave to the rhythm of breakbeat – are definitely making a comeback on the underground dancefloors.
Maybe we go in cycles. I could mark the Ed Sheehan revival at my 80th birthday (I certainly won’t).
But just as the underground seeped into the mainstream in the UK three decades ago, it’s happening again. Just everywhere this time.
Its supporters like to say that house music will never die. It’s sometimes caught on, shaken by the wind of trends and tastes. But Beyonce and the like could see a whole new generation investigating the roots of a genre that has captivated idiots like me for decades.
I may have a few gigs left after all.