Many music fans think of the rise of EDM as a purely American phenomenon, but as any well-informed DJ knows, musical movements in the UK, Europe, and Jamaica had as much to do with today’s EDM sounds as the American scene did. That’s not to say, however, that the American electronic music scene of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s wasn’t important in shaping the sound of EDM; in fact, many of the EDM subgenres we hear on the radio and in clubs today came out of Detroit, Chicago, and other major American cities. But before all of that happened, there was one movement that would change American dance music forever: disco.
The Rise and Fall of Disco
In the 1960s, electronic music production was already taking off places like Europe and Jamaica, but American music fans would have to wait until the 1970s before they got a true taste of electronic dance music, thanks to a dance hall known as the discotheque.
During the 1960s, the world of disco was dominated by R&B acts like the Jackson 5 and Sly and the Family stone that relied on more traditional live instrumentation, but by 1970, DJs began to arise as the new dispensers of the disco sound.
By the mid 1970s, DJs at disco clubs weren’t just spinning records, they were also creating their own remixes and adding effects and other sonic manipulations to their sets, much like dub DJs were doing at the same time in Jamaica. Then, in 1977, Donna Summer recorded the hit song “I Feel Love” with the help of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and British producer Pete Bellotte.
With its synthesizer and drum machine based sound, this became the first electro disco song to take off in the U.S. By the end of the 1970s, producers were playing just as much of a role as DJs in shaping the sound of American electronic dance music.
By this time, however, American popular opinion had started to shift against disco and audiences were looking for new sounds to get them moving on the dancefloor.
Chicago EDM Subgenres
In the aftermath of the disco era, Chicago DJs, most notably one Frankie Knuckles, starting blending electro-disco and funk with hip-hop and European electronic sounds to create what would later become known as the house music scene. This soon led to derivative EDM subgenres like acid house, electro house, progressive house, tech house, and others.
Detroit EDM Subgenres
At the same time, DJs in Detroit like Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May were developing their own brand of post-disco EDM. Although these Detroit artists cited many of the same influences as early Chicago house DJs, the sound that emerged from Detroit was heavier, more hypnotic, and more futuristic sounding than any electronic music that had been produced before. This became the sound of Detroit techno, which was the precursor to the techno sound we know today, as well as other EDM subgenres like ghettotech and minimal techno.
This history only begins to scratch the surface of the rise of EDM in America, and of course there are other important movements like hip-hop that haven’t been taken into account, but that’s a whole other history lesson in itself.
These American EDM subgenres were mainly based around a steady four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern, so if you want to try your hand at exploring some of this music for yourself, it might be a good idea to brush up on your beatmatching skills. As a member of Spin Academy, you get access to our video tutorial series on beatmatching, as well as tons of other videos from pro DJs that will tell you everything you need to know about how to become a great DJ of American, European, Jamaican, or any other type of music that interests you.
If you’ve been DJing for a while, you’ve probably noticed that most songs within any given EDM genre will be fairly similar in tempo. So if you’re playing a Jamaican dub set, for example, you’ll probably find yourself setting your tempo clock somewhere between 60-90bpm (beats per minute) most of the night, while a DJ at the club next door playing drum and bass might be spinning tracks with tempos around 165-185bpm. Why is it that EDM tempos vary so widely, yet remain so consistent within subgenres? Here’s a quick rundown of how tempos affect us as music listeners, and what that means for DJs.
How EDM Tempos Affect Us
In the same way that major or minor keys can make us feel happy or sad, slower and faster tempos can also affect our emotions. In fact, a 2003 study from the University of Montreal found that when it came to creating sad feelings, a slow tempo was actually more important than a minor key.
At the same time, while a slow tempo paired with a minor key can evoke sadness, a slow tempo paired with a major key can be relaxing or even uplifting. This was discovered during an experiment in the 1970s called “Suggestopedia” which studied the links between music and learning in the classroom. The study’s authors found that baroque music with a tempo of around 60bpm (close to that of the average human heart rate) was the best background music for memory retention because it helped students relax their minds and their bodies. This would explain the similar feeling of relaxation you can get from listening to dub and reggae music.
On the other hand, if you’re going for a run, you’ll probably choose faster paced music. That’s because our hearts usually beat at a pace of 120 – 140bpm during strenuous exercise.
So as it turns out, the link between musical tempos and emotions has a lot to do with heart rates – a slow tempo (and thus a slow heart rate) allows space for reflection and somber feelings, while a fast tempo encourages your heart rate to rise, which can lead to feelings of aggression or excitement, especially when linked with the release of endorphins that your body receives during exercise.
EDM Tempos Within Subgenres
Musicologists have argued about what the ideal musical tempo should be, but most agree that it should be somewhere around 120bpm. In the EDM world, you’ll find that 120bpm exists as a sort of “sweet spot” when it comes to the various subgenres of house music, but when it comes to different genres like dubstep and techno, the tempos can quickly climb above that sweet spot.
Most house tracks, whether they’re categorized as progressive house, tech house, electro house, or some other type of house subgenre, will use a tempo of around 120 – 140bpm. Techno and dubstep tracks, however, tend to have tempos around 130 – 150bpm, while genres like jungle, drum and bass, and hardcore can easily climb up to the 150 – 200bpm range.
Using EDM Tempos to Your Advantage
Because tempos within subgenres tend to stay fairly consistent, DJs will have an easier time beatmatching tracks when staying within a specific subgenre. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should play a whole set of songs with similar tempos.
Any good DJ set will have a natural ebb and flow to it, and you can use tempo changes to keep that flow going. For example, an audience might love hearing one or two house tracks in a row in the 140bpm range, but after five or ten minutes of dancing at this pace, people will naturally want a break. That’s why it’s a good idea to include tracks with a healthy mix of tempos in your set in order to avoid exhausting your audience. It’s also a good idea to save the bulk of your faster paced tracks for later in the set. There’s nothing wrong with starting out strong, but if you play too many fast songs too early in your set, you could risk wearing everyone’s ears out. A useful analogy is to think of your set as a bunch of rolling hills that gradually lead up to a peak which hits about 15 minutes before the end of the set before winding back down again. That way, you’ll avoid burning people out and get everyone to come along on the ride with you.
If you’re a beginner or even somewhat advanced DJ, playing around with tempos can be a great way to work on your beatmatching skills. And if you haven’t already, you can join Spin Academy’s online DJ school for only $19.95 per month, where you’ll get access to our video lesson series on beatmatching, as well as tons of other tutorials from professional DJs that will help you master the art of DJing.