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Getting Boston's Groove On

Dance music, long a European taste, is coming to America

By Daniel M. Raper, Contributing Writer

Boston plays host to some of the world’s best DJs fairly regularly: Paul van Dyk, Timo Maas, Carl Cox and Sasha & Digweed have all played venues on Lansdowne street in the past year or so. But while each of these world-class DJs has caused plenty of interest amongst Boston clubbers, most Harvard students couldn’t be more indifferent. Harvard seems to exemplify the stereotype of American attitudes towards clubbing, that clubs mainly serve as a vehicle for getting some action and to this end, hip hop is much more effective than techno.

If you’d seen Carl Cox at Avalon on March 9 of this year, you would be forgiven for agreeing with this assessment. Not that he was a poor DJ—in fact, his driving fusion of techno, deep house and jazz influences was both sophisticated and enticing. But the crowd, for the most part, wasn’t with him and seeing people grinding to that type of music is just not right.

Last Friday’s Sasha and Digweed extravaganza at Avalon, though, was something else entirely and indicates the direction dance music must go if it’s to truly catch on in this country. The whole club had been transformed, with tribal figures, aliens and patterns around the front and back of the main stage. Carl Cox spun his magic from the balcony, where the DJ is usually located in Avalon. Sasha and Digweed, however, entrenched themselves on the main stage, surrounded by two huge screens which showed psychedelic images of hands clenching and unclenching, flowers blooming and Space Invaders images. The lights were also overwhelming, with three different rigs of colours, strobes and lasers. It was very cool even if you weren’t on ecstasy. Best of all, the dance floor was so packed with people that the only thing to do was face up to the DJs and dance.

This wasn’t grinding. There was no room for that. This was rave-like stand-on-the-spot-waving-your-arms dancing coupled with the kind of DJ worship that you find in the big clubs of Europe, and not usually found in our own Boston. When the music takes over and every single person in the club is only there to escape from everything else except the music, you begin to understand why so many people love clubbing so much. There is something extremely cathartic and uplifting about letting yourself get lost in dance music and that’s what gives it its great appeal.

So can you only enjoy dance music when you’re on drugs? The simple answer is, “No, of course not.” Drugs can alter your brain chemistry so that you experience dance music differently, but apart from a few specific forms of dance music (like acid house and hardcore), dance music is not designed to be only enjoyed by the chemically enhanced.

Dance Recordings

One of the symptoms of the increasing presence of dance music on the commercial music scene is the sudden proliferation of dance albums. Not just mix albums, though these remain the most popular, but also individual DJ’s releases have blossomed in the past few years. Paul van Dyk, ATB and Timo Maas began the trend, cashing in on the explosion of trance music a few years ago, and now the dance music section in any large record store is unavoidable.

Last year’s big trend, as far as dance music goes, was the sudden popularity of chillout. What used to be a small subset of Ibiza compilation albums has blossomed into a legitimate genre. It’s the coming down, at home after a night at the club till 6am, lighting up a spliff and chilling music, but even if you don’t fit that specific description, this music is still enjoyable. It’s really Easy Listening for our generation, with slow, mellow beats and flowing melodies. Groove Armada perfected the sound on their 1999 album, Vertigo. Now, European outfits like Kinobe, St. Germain and even Gorillaz are being included on these albums.

Some, like the Global Underground series, rely on a DJ’s name to introduce the listener to newer, underground sounds of clubs. These are pretty much for only the hardcore dance enthusiasts and although there are often many hidden gems in these type of albums, they aren’t really all that enjoyable to listen to at home. A better place to start getting to know dance music, from commercial dance to hardcore deep funky house, is with the compilations by the big dance labels like Ministry of Sound. The Annuals each year compiles the best commercial dance has to offer and The Clubber’s Guide series introduces listeners to just about all the different types of dance music out there.

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