Q&A: Michaelangelo Matos discusses how electronic dance music got its wattage

Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

From its humble American beginnings as house music in Chicago, techno in Detroit and rave music in England, the genre now known as electronic dance music has become a billion-dollar business. Superstar DJs earn tens of millions of dollars annually; corporations such as Live Nation have EDM departments run by first-generation ravers gone mainstream. In America, festivals such as the Electric Daisy Carnival, Hard and Coachella, all born in Southern California, draw hundreds of thousands to annual events.

How did this cultural transformation occur? Writer Michaelangelo Matos explores this question in “The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America” (Dey Street: 448., $25.99). A comprehensive history of a movement, rave culture, that sprouted in Southern California after its rise in England, the book traces 40-plus year history of EDM in America. He will discuss the book at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m. on May 8.

Why did rave culture first take hold in Southern California?


Southern California is expat central. That’s where all the Londoners go, and a lot of them started up the scene. I know there were American DJs playing that music, but turning it into rave culture per se is a very different thing. And that’s what the Brits brought, not just to Southern California but Northern California as well.

The Northern California connection, you write, played a part in electronic dance music’s evolution. How did rave culture harness Silicon Valley technology?

The scene got bigger as the Internet grew. They go hand in hand. Both are moving ahead in the United States at the same time. That core group of people that are passionate about it are online. In 1992 when the Hyperreal list-servs [which provided news of upcoming raves] began, that’s obviously a cradle of Southern California thing too, because Brian Behlendorf [who created them] is a Los Angeles native. That’s his work. The Internet is the Internet because of him. The fact that it’s a raver doing it isn’t a coincidence at all.

You write about the importance of French house duo Daft Punk’s appearance at Coachella in 2006 [in terms of making dance music popular again] and note that the event’s reputation was built not on press reviews at the time but through the fledgling site YouTube.

The fact that the Daft Punk surge occurred is huge. It’s the decisive thing. It’s “the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’” of dance music, and the reason is because everybody can watch it. Everybody there had their phones out, and somebody there put a [YouTube] supercut together. That became the thing. Everybody saw that and thought, “I want to go see this.” It made dance music cool again. Daft Punk, that’s a show. You don’t even have to dance if you don’t want. You could look at the DJs, you could dance, you could do anything. They made something that was interactive the way a rave was but that was comprehensible to a mass audience.

Although house and techno were born in the United States, it took the British to harness and commercialize the music. Why?


The Brits saw it as pop music, and Americans couldn’t get their heads around the idea that this might be pop music. It was such a different apparatus, and it sounded so different, and it didn’t have the same characteristics. There was no front person. There was no star....

But in the scene there became shame about it, because they didn’t want this to be pop. They wanted to go back underground. They didn’t want anybody to catch them taking drugs. And they were also like, “This music is expanding, and we want to expand with it.” Not just mind expansion but the way the music was changing all the time and maturing at such a rapid rate. The ‘90s were the ‘60s for dance music, very much.

Over the years, electronic dance music has experienced a number of bubbles of popularity, followed by periods of retreat and reconfiguration. It feels like either we’re near another one of those moments or that the music has so infused itself into pop music that it couldn’t retreat even if it wanted to.

You’re right about that. It’s not just that dance music is becoming mainstream. Most of its juices are absorbed into the mainstream in some way, and most of its methodology has been adapted by the greater pop world, from the way that the recordings are disseminated to the actual sounds on the recordings. Record labels sell singles now. They don’t sell albums. It’s a track at a time — let’s throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks, which is very much what dance music was. That’s always been dance music’s methodology, and that’s pop’s now.