On Electric Zoo, Rap, and When “Turning Up” Goes Wrong

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I’m straight edge because I sincerely feel that doing drugs and drinking alcohol doesn’t particularly lead anywhere constructive for me anymore. Similarly, as a 35-year-old African-American male, there’s something really off to me about the potentially toxic relationship between dance and rap in EDM these days feeling like “nothing progressive ventured, nothing progressive gained.” In my view, dance music and drugs always created the intellectual and creative spaces where the water was troubled, where the unusual was welcomed. It was a space where nothing was deconstructed, but rather everything that was new, exciting and worthwhile came to be. The story of Electric Zoo 2013 was just how pervasive RAP – and no, not trap-as-EDM, hip-house, freestyle or whatever – but RAP, in the persona of everything from Biggie samples and sadly enough, poppin’ a molly and sweatin’ (until death, unfortunately) were. In somehow finding a way to make both drugs and music safe in being spectacular yet again, hopefully we can find solutions to what could very well be a troubling era for the future of dance music.

As probably the one “resident black guy” of the Electric Zoo press corps of the past five years, rap’s transition from the 800-pound gorilla in the corner to the belle of the ball has been troubling. From the curious booking of, yet good-time vibes delivered by Snoop Dogg as “DJ Snoopadelic” in 2011 to Saturday’s Fool’s Gold Records day at the Riverside tent involving mixtape DJ Green Lantern and rap production legends Just Blaze and araabMUZIK literally playing straight-up rap music, things have changed. There’s something in the very real notion of rap influencing the very vapid, temporal and surreal notions of dance that’s already concerning. As well, the idea that rap is primarily the art form of poor blacks, and events like Zoo being the domain of (if you look at the exorbitant ticket prices) privileged whites and other non-black races, it’s the last domain of the kind of latent racism that is troubling as hell.

When rap hit mainstream dance at the same time MDMA use hit mainstream rap, I had an intense feeling that this trade was insidious and ultimately opening Pandora’s Box. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that I was initially so supportive of moombahton. The idea that Latin sounds had always been so complementary to dance definitely gave me a far warmer sensation as an intelligent and aware black person than, say, the idea that Waka Flocka and Steve Aoki could be friends. While their partnership on a musical level could spell Billboard chart stardom, on a human and emotional level, the first second Waka yells “turn up,” the molly’s getting popped or copious amounts of the libation of your choice are being consumed in excess. Yes, this sounds like terrible stereotyping, but, in seeing where dance’s new imperative have taken us with two dead revelers at Electric Zoo, there may be something to this idea.

Yes, dance music’s superstars are still dance music’s superstars. Rap being in the room can reinforce lessons about turning up and popping molly, but we’re still at a place where, on top of the industry, rap’s influence is not yet pervasive – for now. Sebastian Ingrosso was still headlining Sunday’s event, and would’ve played his Tommy Trash-collaboration “Reload” for the likely hundredth time over the weekend. However, during his closing set on Friday night, in the midst of dropping his good-time jug band electro grooves, the snares began to roll and the tell-tale 808s began to snap and rumble forth from the massive speakers. The crowd stopped, and the energy briefly dissipated. The crowd didn’t want to head to Tim Berling‘s traps of Stockholm, yet, amazingly they cheered soon thereafter when he dropped his “I’m a fucking alcoholic” vocal sample, an allusion to yes, his recent bout with alcoholism – still the widely accepted notion of being too “turnt up” for your own good.

Again, I’m straight edge because I feel that doing drugs and abusing alcohol doesn’t lead anywhere constructive for myself, and I have my doubts about it’s benefits for most everyone else as well. However, just because two kids died at Electric Zoo, dance music will not die in the United States. America is a society driven on pure capitalistic greed. That being said, maybe it will take the cataclysmic effect of death from Pandora’s Box being opened and the evil spirits of dance and rap commingling for dance and rap to interact in a – necessary for dance – safe, yet spectacular, manner. Turn up must turn down in order for progression to happen and for EDM to live into the future.

  • John Disgraceland Stanhope

    I think that you raise a lot of interesting points here – I’d not considered the difference in the ‘rap’ approach to the approach of artists in the early days of house / rave.

    Sure we had Ebezeener Good, Kinky with ‘Everything starts with an E’, etc but I think it was a little cheekier, a little less in your face then.

    Drugs and art have always / will always be linked – I think that somewhere in the core of creativity lies a gene that says, “Do this. It’s naughty. It might be fun.” For a bystander / customer / user of art, there is always something about belonging – being part of that vibe.

    Coming from the UK, where the last 20 years have seen binge drinking / drug taking becoming a normal way of life, I don’t think that the awful events of the weekend will damage EDM as much as is thought at the moment – however who’s to say? You are at a point with a scene that has become commercialised with such speed that it looks like it is on steroids, that maybe the reaction will be equal in it’s ferocity. The ripples from this may gather momentum in a way that could only happen in America.

    • Marcus K. Dowling

      John. You nailed it. It’s all perspective with the rap thing. Rap in the UK (especially in the early house/rave era) had such a feel of being done in response to what was coming out of America. When Americans do rap and rave, all of the socio-political issues that get pulled into the fray get exposed, and when you boil that down to its core (as dance and rap co-mingling has done) it opens up quite the nasty and difficult-to-navigate territory. Scared, yet hopeful about what’s to come of this.

  • hmm

    have you seen the ticket prices for Rock the Bells? or how much it costs to kick it and how much money is thrown at Stadium on a weekend night? are these sources of entertainment not generally aimed at blacks? your premise that the high ticket cost means discriminatory to blacks is inaccurate. ticket prices keep going up based on market demand and I’m sure that there is no intent to discriminate on the part of the promoters. I think the reality is that the large majority of blacks just aren’t that into EDM. there were plenty of blacks at the Jay-Z show and countless other events. One observation that I gleaned from the recent Trillectro event is that young African Americans were mostly there for the hip-hop and the EDM side was largely just filler – that was most certainly evident during at the Howard Theatre after party where – without an MC or celebrity appearance (all that was at Lotus to my understanding) – people were mostly just standing around.

    • Marcus K. Dowling

      I see your points, and I’ll raise each and every single one of them by arguing that EDM has yet to be marketed to black people in a way that is wholly palatable. This will absolutely happen. Until then, we are wading and flailing about in the horrible gestation era of developing a sustainable culture where synergy can exist between them.

      Insofar as race as an issue, proper EDM shows (read as “not like Trillectro”) have this terrific underbelly of discovering everything right (and largely wrong) with how post-racialism has removed all pretense of context from the conversation, when it’s absolutely still there. When we lose our heads in that, terrible things like this happen.

      • hmmm

        I think there are a few things on the table and they raise some serious questions about the scene. From my perspective, the minority of minorities who do attend EDM events (hate the term, but lets use it for efficiency) are there because they genuinely are into the music. of course a lot of the scene is there because its cool and it has been marketed – not because of the love for the music. I don’t attend too many hip-hop events because I generally find them boring and a lot of hype for a little show, but many people are big into going to a club and hearing two songs by the hottest rapper and then “partying with them” (i.e. watching the rapper party in VIP). the hip-hop scene is really quite different than the dance music scene. of cause for concern, part of the magic and mystery of the dance scene is the drugs – let’s just be honest. the frenzy, the sweat, the all-in caught up in the moment nature of it. the kids at the Trillectro after (crowd was prolly 90% black) were noticeably not loaded on drugs and alcohol and that may be part of the reason why it was flat. drugs and dance music will never be divorced. is the overhype leading to overdose? no doubt people can better learn their limits.