Back in November an American fellow called Morgan Day published a blog post about electro-swing on his site www.ickeroo.blogspot.com. The piece was called Why Swing Dancers Love and Hate Electro Swing. Morgan is a keen swing dancer in the traditional ‘Lindy Hop’ sense , and while he does have some good things to say about electro-swing, he also displays a lack of understanding about the nature of modern dance music, the purpose of electro-swing and a certain ignorance (not his fault) of the different sub-genres. As something of an evangelist for the genre, I feel it is my duty to write a rebuttal of Mr. Day’s piece.
Mr. Day’s first gripe is that “Most of it is actually kind of boring”. He goes on to write that “so many songs keep the same monotonous house beat throughout the entire song, with just some horn or vocal samples thrown in.” This is one of the most common fallacies levelled at electro-swing. Anyone who says this is mistaken – they are not listening to electro-swing. What they are listening to is called ‘House’.
Electro-swing in its current manifestation originated in continental Europe (France and Austria). In those countries house and techno dominate the dance music scene, so by default these were the first styles to make an impact. However, sub-genres such as swing-hop and swing ‘n’ bass quickly began to emerge, especially once the genre made its way across the English Channel and reached UK ears. Here in the UK the vintage scene has been growing for more than a decade (The Chap magazine, one of the driving forces, celebrated its 10th birthday in 2009, and Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer had been making ‘Chap-Hop’ for several years by the then).
Since then the diversity has increased markedly to include swing-step, ghetto swing and a host of other forms. In actual fact the shared roots of swing and hip-hop (and all subsequent hip-hop spin-offs like breakbeat, drum ‘n’ bass etc.) make them far better bedfellows than swing and house ever will be.
I fear that Mr. Day doesn't know that much about dance music (EDM, as the Yankees call it). If he did know a little more some of his other criticisms of electro-swing would fall by the wayside. He complains about “60-minute non-stop mixes” and asks “You know its OK to have breaks between songs, right?”
Wrong, Morgan, my old mucker. Those mixes are just that – mixes. They are used by DJs to showcase their skills to promoters who might book them, and to give people a chance to see what that DJ’s live sets are like. It is important to understand that a DJ set is an entity in itself – entire and whole and perfect, so to speak - like a film. To ask where the track breaks are is like asking why there is not 5 seconds of black between shots in a movie. A DJ set has a structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. Wikipedia (the fount of all wisdom) tells us “Night club attendees began to enjoy the abilities of DJs in how well they could keep the crowd dancing and the groove going.” It hardly takes a genius-level intellect to see that a few seconds of silence would severely disrupt the groove.
In an article for the dance music website www.littlewhiteearbuds.com Luis-Manuel Garcia has written a fascinating piece on the nature of the relationship between dance music and time. In that article he points out that in actual fact 60 minutes is quite a short set for a dance music DJ, and that “…with only an hour to work with DJs simply couldn't shape their sets into long arcs or undulating sine-waves of affect; instead, they felt pressured to deploy all of their most heavy-hitting, dance floor-filling, “killer” tracks all at once, without a break. Every DJ played as if it were peak-hour and, after a few of these in a row, the crowd was likely to get exhausted.”
An understanding of the way dance music works (and, dare I say it, a realisation that aint just plain ol’ swing any more) would help Mr. Day to avoid these mistakes and to enjoy electro-swing more. I don’t know which DJs he has been listening to, but if they were any good they will have had the build-drop/sine-wave structure that is described above. It is this super-structure (along with the increase in sub-genres) that provides the changes in tempo that he craves.
Another of Morgan’s gripes is that the dancing doesn't look that great. In so saying he is making the mistake of assuming that he is at a swing night. Of course, he is at an electro-swing night. The whole purpose of electro-swing is to transpose elements of swing to a modern dance music setting. NOT to move a swing class or social dance into a night club.
He also says that he finds that the music lacks the “breaks, stops and hits” that dancers (by which he means ‘swing dancers’, ‘Lindy Hoppers’ etc.) like to use to build their dance around. Again, he is approaching this from the wrong direction. To my ear, which is perhaps more attuned to the nuances of dance music, there are lots of little musical phrases that allow for fun dancing. Perhaps they are not in the places that Mr. Day would expect them to be, but they are there, I can assure him. In my opinion there are few who construct sets better than DJ Dodgy-Style, so here is one of his extremely fine mixes to illustrate my point.
The piece that Morgan has written is not deliberately unfair, I am just not quite sure what his point is. If it is ‘electro-swing is not swing, so I don’t like it as much’ then he is, of course, entitled to that view. I would suggest, however, that this is a strange stand to take. Electro-swing is intended to enhance, renew and reinvigorate swing - it is a celebration of the music. It is far more accessible to those for whom partner dancing might be intimidating, and, despite the synths, wobbles and big beats, most electro-swing nights stay true to the original ethos of the music – unpretentious, indiscriminate fun. What electro-swing is not intended for is for swing dancers to build routines around (at least, not often). Some of it may be suitable for Lindy, some may not. When it isn't head to the bar, go for a ciggy, or just lose yourself in the music and dance like no one is looking. Like this guy.
Mr. Day closes his article by acknowledging the role that electro-swing can play in introducing new people to the vintage sound, He expresses the hope that electro-swing continues to grow in popularity, and that the artists “continue to hone their craft with inspiration from jazz”. “Only time will tell,” he writes, “whether this style of music will remain with a niche audience or reach pop status.” My view is that the style is already here to stay, and that there is a wealth of great music that I think he would like – I can even make some recommendations for him, if he fancies.