The Electronica Underworld, and the Ventriloquists Behind the Curtains of Today’s EDM

Written By: Hudson Hoffman

When the common person hears the term “EDM” in 2018, they believe it refers to the likes of Illenium and Marshmello. In 2011, the same term would have put images of Deadmau5’s iconic helmet and Skrillex’s 3-clawed symbol into the minds of the commercial audience at the time. These names are all superstar icons which have been recognized for their significant contributions to the industry, and their influence in the shaping and evolution of what is defined as EDM. 

However, there is always a bigger fish, and if these are the big fish of the pond, who do they consider sizable? 

The answer is found in what is known as IDM – Intelligent Dance Music. You may not have heard it, but the press has labeled the scene with such a term because there is simply no other term to refer to it as. Some call it Brainwave, Acid Dance, and Glitchcore, among other buzzwords. The scene consists of artists you have probably never heard of, but those big fish in the pond? These are the artists who were essential in the nurturing of their production career. Some of the names in this realm of electronica include Boards of CanadaAphex TwinU-Ziq, and Squarepusher – all names prominent in the 90s dance scene of the UK and Europe – the breeding ground of dubstep and electronica as a whole. If you ask anyone behind the counter of your local record store, there’s a near-guarantee they have heard of these names, for they are credited with pioneering electronica, despite their lack of presence in the mainstream. Aphex Twin is considered the poster boy for IDM, his 1992 release “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” sending subtle yet influential shock waves through what was considered pop & dance music at the time. 

What followed was a tsunami of releases on the heels of Aphex Twin’s album. U-Ziq made himself known with his debut known as “Tango N’ Vectif” in ’93, the first ever album to incorporate the elements that established what the world now knows as “dubstep”. 1996 saw Squarepusher debut with his jazz/breakcore album “Feed Me Weird Things”, which pioneered the virtually nonexistent drum n’ bass scene and further helped with the establishment of glitch, a prominent genre of the early 00’s.

Despite the lack of mainstream exposure of these artists and their works, many mainstream artists of today label the IDM pioneers as the driving force behind their own creation. Skrillex has been very open about how Aphex Twin inspired his debut EP “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, and goes into detail in an interview about his interest in the Richard D. James’ discography: 

[In regards to how much he has listened to of Aphex twin’s soundcloud releases] “So much of it. I’m always on SoundCloud, in general, but the new stuff? I’ve listened to all of it. I just put it on and clean my house to it. I found my old CD book and I wanna take a photo of it because I have every [Aphex Twin] CD. Some of the actual CDs are missing but I have every release up until 2006. I know he’s released more stuff since then, but I haven’t bought a CD since 2006. But I have every single [one], like Caustic Window, Polygon Window, every Analord you can buy on CD.”  

Joel Zimmerman, better known as Deadmau5, and the pioneering force behind progressive house with his 2008 release “Random Album Title”, has claimed a love for Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, his earlier works paying homage to themselves and the scene with tracks off his 2001-2006 production “Project 56”. One particular track on the assortment is named “Bored of Canada” referencing to Boards of Canada in both its name and style. Most, if not all, of the tracks on Project 56 derive from the IDM/Glitch/Breakcore/Ambient scene produced by Aphex Twin, U-Ziq, Squarepusher, and Boards of Canada. Another less known release of Deadmau5 was his remix of Boards of Canada’s famous “Roygbiv”In his livestream Q&A hosted by asQme, Joel reaffirmed his admiration for Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Tycho, upon being asked about his key inspirations and influences, as well as what he listens to on a daily basis, given his constant exposure to electronica. 

Other massive names both inside and outside of the electronic music scene such as Frank OceanRadiohead,MobyDJ ShadowKraftwerkBjork, and Kanye West, have all claimed Aphex Twin either influenced their productions or is one of the artists in their playlists. In fact, Kanye West was called out by Aphex Twin himself for illegally sampling Aphex Twin’s piano piece “Avril 14th” in his collaboration with John Legend on “Blame Game”. Despite having been called out for it, Kanye continues to claim he wrote the instrumental. 

The musketeers are still making music today, U-Ziq having released “Challenge Me Foolish” earlier in 2018, Aphex Twin releasing his first commercial content since 2014 under the almost-mainstream “Collapse EP”, Squarepusher’s“Damogen Furies” reintroducing him to the scene in 2015, and finally Boards of Canada’s 2013 release “Tomorrow’s Harvest”, their first production since their 2005 album “The Campfire Headphase”. They seem to be thriving within their dimension of music, their fan bases loyal to an almost cult-like point.     

So in the family tree of edm subgenres, now you know where it all originated from, and not to forget where it all began in what is today an oversaturated, low-quality market that thrives off of festivals and live shows rather than the music itself. As Aphex Twin once quoted from Willy Wonka

“We are the music makers, and we, are the dreamers of dreams”