Dance Music Is Bringing The Diva Back

Singer Adeline Michèle, center, fronts the disco band Escort. Cofounders Eugene Cho and Dan Balis stand to her left and right, respectively. i i

Singer Adeline Michèle, center, fronts the disco band Escort. Cofounders Eugene Cho and Dan Balis stand to her left and right, respectively. Courtesy of the artists hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artists
Singer Adeline Michèle, center, fronts the disco band Escort. Cofounders Eugene Cho and Dan Balis stand to her left and right, respectively.

Singer Adeline Michèle, center, fronts the disco band Escort. Cofounders Eugene Cho and Dan Balis stand to her left and right, respectively.

Courtesy of the artists

"It's a real diva moment, a real renaissance, it seems," Praveen Sharma said to me a few months ago. We were talking about Sepalcure, the self-titled album by his duo with Travis Stewart, which utilizes R&B vocal snippets as part of a psychedelically layered sound nestled in the artier end of dubstep.

Electronic dance music's spotlight swings back and forth between vocal-heavy and vocal-less tracks like a pendulum, so in that sense it isn't much of a surprise that the industry's most-played lists have been inundated with sung hooks over the past year or so. But the trend appears to have real legs this time, and the depth of female voices on the tracks and behind the scenes is striking.

Last year, under the name Braille, Sharma issued a couple of singles that also rely on R&B grabs, only with straighter house beats: "A Meaning," a single on Hotflush, cycles through a number of almost-recognizable vocal snippets ("Everybody's doing their own thing," "Yeah, you") as they (and soft-padded music) turn to ether. He wasn't the only one.

Female vocals taken from the last couple decades of R&B were practically their own dance-music category in 2011. British producer Blawan swiped a verse from Brandy's "I Wanna Be Down," chopped it up and pieced it out over almost seven minutes of groaning bass and doorknocker snare. He called the result, one of the biggest DJ tracks of the year, "Getting Me Down." It's on a jumpy four-four rhythm rather than the sensual slow funk of Brandy's original; he tweaks the vocal so it's all tics and hiccups, a la Beyonce, rather than a more traditional style of R&B singing.

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Hackman's "Close" smeared a sampled Alicia Keys over sweet-natured bass groan; Jacques Greene's "Another Girl" stretched a Ciara lyric like taffy; Genius of Time's "Houston We Have a Problem" looped Whitney Houston over snappy hi-hats, congas and claps.

That's not to leave out all the current singers helping to run the show. Two New York disco big bands made noise this year: Escort, with full-time diva Adeline Michèle (as well as Joy Dragland, who co-wrote a handful of songs on their superb debut), and Midnight Magic, fronted by the versatile Tiffany Roth. Dance music has seen a noticeable bump of female producer-DJs, a heartening development, and many of them sing — among them, newcomers Maya Jane Coles (last year's big breakout house DJ-producer), Cooly G (a London dubstepper whose Hyperdub debut is due soon) and Nina Kraviz (self-titled album out on Rekids in March), as well as vets like Dinky and Ellen Allien.

The way vocals are being used right now in electronic dance music is reminiscent of the late 1990s, when house was surging (thanks to Armand Van Helden, Basement Jaxx, Masters at Work and others) and so was 2-step garage, the poppy, heavily syncopated, London-centric house variant that also took in some of the rhythmic exuberance of jungle — indeed, many early jungle producers became 2-step artists. The latter style featured a lot of bright-popping vocal syllables scattered on and around the beat — a style inspired largely by New Jersey producer Todd Edwards and, before him, Detroit's MK, who treated singers like paint to be dropped on canvas at precise moments.

Right now, that sort of "vocal science" (to use Simon Reynolds' term) is applied more frequently in dubstep — a slower, heavier rhythm than the percolating feel of 2-step — and in slow-mo disco-inflected tracks, which gives them a more mournful cast that seems appropriate to an uncertain time, just as the joy-bursts of 2-step aligned with runaway prosperity.

Another possible reason vocals are gaining favor in dance circles again might have to do with sheer volume. Dance producers need to stand out from the pack more than ever, because even in a market where overproduction has been the rule for decades, that pack has never been bigger.

How big? Dance-music website Resident Advisor has kept a faithful computation of the most popular tracks selected by DJs (who submit Top 10s) since 2007 — including a running tally of the All-Time Top 100, which notes: "The above is based on the charting of 971,412 tracks." Think about that — nearly one million recordings over a mere five years. Note too that those numbers have gone way up since RA began its tally. Its DJ Top 100 of 2007 came from a pool of 11,506 tracks. The 2011 tally, by contrast, was distilled from a long list of 375,933 — more than 33 times as many, in just four years.

Here's the most crucial fact of all: The majority of those tracks are (a) between seven and 12 minutes long and (b) instrumental. A strong sung hook cuts through that morass — lovely as the morass can be — by default. Hot Creations, a London label run by DJ-producers Lee Foss and Jamie Jones, specializes in such hooks and released four of the 2011 DJ list's Top 20 tracks. Crosstown Rebels, run by London native Damian Lazarus from his new home in L.A., also proffers sung hooks. It placed seven tracks in the Top 100.

Predictably, this has led to backlash among fans of the harder stuff. "I know there are guys who are still into techno and think vocals are a cheap way to make a track sound interesting," says Deniz Kurtel, a Turkish-born house producer in Brooklyn who records for Crosstown Rebels. "They would appreciate a track more if it achieved that without vocals."

Nevertheless, they've been appreciating it more and more, as disco and deep house have risen in popularity among techno aficionados. In the '90s, the bleeping futurism of techno and the gospel-style exhortations of deep house were generally seen as very different things, even by many who loved both. But late in the decade, laptop computers began growing in memory and capability, and there was a corresponding rise in electronic music being made on them, particularly in the cozy, heady subcategory of glitch techno, codified by the 2000 compilation on the Mille Plateaux label, Clicks + Cuts.

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That minimizing of elements matched dance music's shrinking in popularity following the rave crackdowns of the early '00s; by mid-decade, all that refinement (and the audience for the music) began reaching a dead end.

Call what followed a backlash, or just the social energy of Berlin — where a great many dance DJs and musicians had moved by that point — beginning to re-manifest itself in the music. But starting around 2006, that city's techno DJs began salting their sets with soul-and-gospel-rooted deep house — a shift you can hear on German DJ Dixon's 2007 podcast for Resident Advisor. The current disco wave came about then, too: Escort's first single, "Starlight," was issued in 2006, followed later by tracks such as Baby Oliver's "Primetime (Uptown Express)" in 2007 and the Hercules And Love Affair's "Blind," featuring vocals from Antony Hegarty, in 2008. Another important release was the self-titled debut album of British dubstep producer Burial, whose use of vocals on his desolate, bass-heavy tracks was soulful without being—that techno-purist watchword deluxe — "cheesy."

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Kurtel spun at Brooklyn DJ-promoter-label Wolf + Lamb's fabled late '00s parties. "I had the chance to observe the effect on our Marcy Hotel parties in Brooklyn pretty clearly when we were first shifting from minimal techno to house," she says. "I definitely feel a lighter, more pleasant vibe came in. Our crowd almost completely changed — a lot more girls on the dance floor, which brought in a nice gentle vibe that was missing. That's the way I feel about the music as well."

In club culture, a good local party can radiate outward, which is what happened last year with both Wolf + Lamb (who co-DJed a volume of the DJ-Kicks series) and Kurtel, whose second album is due this spring. Like her 2011 debut, Music Watching Over Me, the new one is distinguished by Kurtel's traditionalist interest in vocals.

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"I love the warmth that vocals bring into my tracks, which I often find hard to replace," she says. Kurtel will be singing some herself on the next album. But usually she goes to the sample bank, even if it isn't always obvious. For example, I'd presumed Jada's vocal on "The L Word" had been sung special for Kurtel's track. Nope — it's a sample.

"A lot of people had the same impression, though, which in a way shows that there isn't that much of a difference," says Kurtel. "It all really depends on how well the vocals were incorporated into the track and how well they fit. I used some live vocals in my new album and it did change the way I feel about them since it was a much more intimate process. But for the audience, I think it depends on how well the vocals fit with the song. They like the human touch, I suppose."

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