How The Major Labels Sold 'Electronica' To America
How do you sell an enigma? In the 1990s, American rave was a big but scattered subculture. Packaging its fleeting tunes and site-specific good times for mainstream consumption would take some doing. When rock and hip-hop began show signs of weakness mid-decade, a handful of true believers, funded by major-label money, would make their move.
In America, raves — British-style warehouse and outdoor parties featuring DJs playing house, techno and their variants — first washed ashore in 1989, when groups of largely British ex-pats began throwing U.K.-style warehouse parties in L.A., San Francisco and Brooklyn, independently but in basic sync with one another. By 1993, rave was an established fact in the heartland.
Few U.S. labels paid attention at first — rave was largely a European phenomenon, with few "name" artists that the majors could sell to radio. House and techno were singles-oriented, their first albums compilations. Most of those were only available in England, though — American fans either bought 12-inches, mixtapes from local or regional DJs, or imported compilations.
That began to change in 1991, when New York's Profile Records, which made its money on hip-hop (Run-D.M.C., Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, DJ Quik), hired London transplant DB Burkeman — DJ DB — to be its new dance-music A&R man.
"We started doing the Best of Techno series, which no one was doing yet," says DB, who compiled the series' first four volumes. "We were just throwing our favorite tracks on these albums. The first one [sold] 100,000 copies because no one could buy techno yet in mainstream shops. It was crazy."
Soon more compilations arrived, from major and independent labels alike. "It [was] a way for some of those labels to test the market relatively risk-free — either signed for really cheap, or [licensed] through one of their major label subsidiaries," says former Astralwerks A&R Peter Wohelski. "It didn't cost them anything."
Though a few majors had electronic artists on their rosters, the first big U.S. record man to seriously gamble on techno was Rick Rubin. Having put hip-hop in America's living rooms by producing L.L. Cool J, Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C., Rubin tried, starting at the end of 1992, to do the same with rave.
"He started to make noise that this was the next hip-hop," says Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, who did hip-hop A&R for Rubin's American Recordings in the mid-'90s. "He liked the fact that techno was extremely edgy and used very angular sounds, and [that] he could play it super-loud. The chaos of it really hooked him."
Rubin started a new imprint within American called WHTE LBLS and began signing European acts. "Suddenly Rick is throwing all these resources at techno," says Charnas. "He believed in Messiah."
Messiah, a U.K. rave duo, joined Awesome 3, Digital Orgasm and Lords of Acid on the WHTE LBLS roster, but in the U.S. they didn't translate. Like punk or hip-hop in its early days, electronic dance music was evolving at lightning speed. Rave's cutting edge of 1991 was largely passé by 1993, and WHTE LBLS' acts were more or less stuck in 1991: Messiah's swarming synths and breakbeats had been superceded by more sophisticated sounds by '93, while Lords of Acid found their real audience among fans of Nine Inch Nails-style industrial.
"None of them between 'em had a damn song," says Charnas. "How could Rick forget that? How could he forget that? Even hip-hop at its hardest hardcore was producing three, four-minute pop songs. It didn't matter if the group was N.W.A. or Fresh Prince. The song structures were there. And I wondered how you could claim [it was the new hip-hop] if rave wasn't producing that."
Ironically, Rubin passed on the one act that would end up producing those songs . Rubin signed on to distribute the leading U.K. dance label XL, issuing a 1993 compilation, XL Recordings: The American Chapter, that featured "Charly," a number-three British pop hit by a group called the Prodigy, led by producer Liam Howlett. The Prodigy had put its debut out in the U.S. on Elektra. When The American Chapter came out, they were working on their second album.
"I didn't like being on Elektra Records because they were always trying to get s--- remixes done by people we didn't like," says Howlett. "Rick came to our L.A. gig. We were like, 'S---, man, Rick Rubin is here!' I wanted his autograph. I grew up on the records he produced."
Rubin decided to pass on signing the Prodigy. "Rick let it go," says Charnas. "At some point he either lost interest in it, or he just was losing so much money on it and nothing was happening." But the Prodigy were far from finished.
It wasn't just major labels that weren't sure how to handle the new music. TVT, a New York indie that made its fortune on Nine Inch Nails' three-million-selling Pretty Hate Machine in 1989, inked a deal with Chicago industrial label Wax Trax! Records in 1993. Then Wax Trax! founder Jim Nash died.
"TVT thought they were buying a vibrant industrial label that they could leverage all their Nine Inch Nails off of," says ex-TVT publicist Adam Shore. "What they wound up getting was a label that was pretty much done."
Through the Wax Trax! deal, TVT inherited distribution of Warp Records, the most critically acclaimed of the British post-rave labels, which emphasized full albums by artists with small but loyal followings, like Aphex Twin and Autechre, whose music was codified by the phrase "intelligent dance music," or IDM. This would be catnip to a hipper indie: by the end of the '90s, Warp would be handled in America by Matador, the home of Liz Phair and Pavement.
But TVT was lukewarm about electronic music. When their own big dance act, Underworld, had a 1996 hit with "Born Slippy," it was thanks only to its use in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting rather than through any push on TVT's part. (The track had stiffed upon its initial 1995 release.) "By '97, Underworld had already gone to V2," says Shore. "Our Warp deal was done. We let those records go out of print right away, even the ones that were selling, like Autechre. TVT had Lil Jon, and we were out of electronic music."
Caroline Records, on the other hand, was in. Bankrolled by Virgin Records , Caroline had an unfortunate record of signing up-and-coming rockers like Hole and Monster Magnet, bands with a lot of potential, and losing them to bigger labels after a single album. In 1993, Caroline exec Brian Long began Astralwerks, an electronic-dance subdivision. In November 1994, he hired Peter Wohelski to do A&R.
Wohelski had raved in England during its 1991-92 height, and spent two years publishing a rave zine in Tampa. Wohelski had seen the U.S. debut of a pair of pasty record geeks from Manchester named Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who called themselves the Dust Brothers. They'd headlined Fourth of July rave at the Edge in Orlando.
"Tom and Ed thought it was the whim of some promoter," Wohelski says. "They were like, 'We'll go to Disney World. It'll be a good laugh.' They show up, and they're playing to 5,000 kids going absolutely bonkers to 'Chemical Beats.' They were blown away."
Not long into Wohelski's tenure at Astralwerks, he put on the group's demo. "I listened to a couple songs, handed it back to Brian Long, and said, 'If we don't pick this record up, we're stupid. 5,000 kids in Orlando on Fourth of July weekend can't be wrong. We'll [sell] 20,000 without blinking. If we get a few breaks, we'll do 50,000.'"
Rowlands and Simons changed their name to the Chemical Brothers, after a call from the lawyers of the Beastie Boys and Beck producers who'd originated the Dust Brothers name. As a bridge between the old and new names, they called their album Exit Planet Dust.
The American music business in 1995 was looking for the next move forward. Things had turned stagnant. "The gangsta-rap nonsense just alienated a lot of fans," says Spin editorial director Charles Aaron of the period. "Rock was getting boring — really boring. It was the fake grunge era. Rock really just got completely bled dry with this watered-down bullshit. It was becoming less alternative rock, more alternative music."
Profits, of course, were soaring. A big reason: major labels began phasing out CD singles, forcing fans of radio hits to buy an entire album (up to $20 retail), widening their margins. (Most dance music, which ran on 12-inches, was released on independent labels, usually tiny ones.)
Nevertheless, there was a void opening in American pop. The furious sound of Seattle bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden was being hosed down by major labels looking to cash in, with acts like Bush and Sponge and Collective Soul acting as their era's version of Styx and Kansas — certainly, it had about as much in common with punk as those '70s dinosaurs had.
Not that the whiny, collegiate underground rock of the '90s was offering that much in return. "I was really tired of going to see willfully dissociated people looking at the ground plucking out the same four chords: 'Enough with this already,'" recalls Errol Kolosine, who worked for Astralwerks from its inception and ran the label in the late '90s.
Like Wohelski, Kolosine had found salvation in seeing the Chemical Brothers live. "Black people, white people, gay people, straight people, frat boys, you name it," he recalls. "Everybody in here is equal, and the music is what is bringing everybody in here together. It occurred to me: 'If I get enough people to experience this, we can't lose.'"
"Needless to say, we got a few breaks," Wohelski says now. "To date in the U.S., Exit Planet Dust has SoundScanned 750,000 copies."
The Chemical Brothers' style would come to be called "big beat." "The name came from our club, the Big Beat Boutique, which I'm tremendously proud of," says Norman Cook, better known as Fatboy Slim, who ran the club in Brighton. "I always thought the formula of big beat was the breakbeats of hip-hop, the energy of acid house, and the pop sensibilities of the Beatles, with a little bit of punk sensibility, all rolled into one. People like the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers — we saw it as very similar to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who grew up listening to soul records and blues records and then sold an English version of it back to America."
A new umbrella term for rave's increasingly scattered bunch of subgenres also came into vogue: "electronica" would be what American labels marketed the music as. "Obviously the tag meant European dance music," says Cook. Nevertheless, he says, "It surprised me. 'Electronica' in England means something more serious. Also, what I did was made by samples rather than synthesizers." Liam Howlett of the Prodigy was more dismissive: "We soon disowned that silly 'electronica' tag."
Astralwerks marketed Exit Planet Dust aggressively. "Modern rock radio was changing," says Wohelski. British rockers like Oasis and Blur were making modest headway. Everyone was tired of fake grunge. There was an opening for something new. Still, radio was reluctant toward electronica, however much it might putatively rock. House music, after all, appealed largely to urban gay audiences, and wasn't this just another version of that?
"The reactions ran everything from 'We don't play gay stuff' to 'If I play that, I'm going to lose all my white males 15 to 21 because they want to hear Korn or Limp Bizkit' or whatever the f---," says Kolosine. "If your station plays industrial stuff, you [said], 'Listen to the beats. It's heavy as fuck.' Then you talk to a rock station: 'It's a song: it has a chorus, it has a verse — play it at night, see what happens.'"
"The next step was getting these big programmers down to come see the Chemical Brothers," says Kolosine. "I wouldn't sit at the back or at the bar with them. Me or my staff would bring them down onto the dance floor, or down the front. They looked around like, 'These are all of my listeners.'"
Exit Planet Dust was a turning point in a few ways. For one thing, it redefined how an electronic-dance album looked — specifically, nothing about the album's packaging suggested "rave." There were no floating gobs of color, no videogame-reject graphics, no winky-winky references to MDMA (except, of course, the Chemical Brothers' name).
"That's one of the things that drove me crazy," says Wohelski. "You had labels who really tried to exploit that. I felt like that put a barrier in front of the music: 'Here's a kid in phat pants and a pacifier in his mouth and glowsticks.' Yes, that's part of our culture — but it shouldn't be a barrier for you to enjoy the music."
Wohelski refers to the Chemicals' packaging — and subsequently, that of Astralwerks' cannier groups — as "scene-neutral." "The cover [is] these two hippies seemingly hitchhiking down the road with a car driving by," he says. "It doesn't necessarily tell you what the music is. But you take notice: 'What's this all about? Is it hippies? Is this a rock record? They're wearing bellbottoms and suede. Is this a folk record? What is this?'"
Astralwerks was also in the position of having a big British act at a time when British acts were making headway in the U.S., thanks to bands like Blur and Oasis. "You had that anglophile kind of rock kid who follows NME religiously," says Wohelski. "It might not necessarily be his thing, but he's curious because Oasis is talking about the Chemical Brothers, and the Chemical Brothers were talking about Oasis."
Soon enough, it was more than just talk. By fall 1996, Oasis guitarist-songwriter Noel Gallagher was singing the Chemical Brothers' new single, "Setting Sun." Its careening drums and woozy backdrop sounded a lot like "Tomorrow Never Knows"; the following year, when the Chemical Brothers closed their second album with "The Private Psychedelic Reel," Apple Corps inspected the tapes to see whether or not Rowlands and Simons had sampled the Beatles. (They hadn't.)
"It didn't hurt timing-wise," Kolosine says. "Imagine that on the radio today. I mean, it's an air-horn strung together with these pummeling beats and this psychedelic stuff going on. It still amazes me how well that did."
"Setting Sun" was just one of the 1996 electronica singles to make waves outside of U.S. clubs. Underworld's "Born Slippy" blew up in American clubs (and on college radio) two years after the fact and despite being ten minutes long.
The big one was "Firestarter." Two years on from their second album, the Prodigy now sounded hungry for blood. The song's video hocked a loogie at many electronic videos' "the art is the star" approach. Prodigy put dancer Keith Flint, his head shaved to give him a weirdly menacing crown of hair, accentuated with Kohl-black eyes, antic mien and a harder-than-thou lyric, right up front. And just in case anyone missed the point, Flint wore an outfit that looked an awful lot like the U.S. flag. America was next.
In truth, America wasn't that foreign to the Prodigy. "We were coming to the U.S.A. from early on," says Liam Howlett. "We played the Limelight club in NYC in '92, and did an 'electronic' tour with Moby and Cybersonik in early '93. There was no master plan of trying to crack America ever. We were just happy to be there."
Howlett was a songwriter as much as a producer. "The Prodigy proved that you actually can do pop records in techno," says Dan Charnas, who loved the "Firestarter" video: "I thought it was dope. All hell broke loose. The crazy-ass white dude was like Flavor Flav, only for techno. They were stars. Of course, Rick [Rubin] never mentioned it again."
Thanks to a new clutch of similarly hard songs, the Prodigy soon became the subject of a bidding war. "Most of the big labels [expressed interest]," says Howlett. "Madonna made a point of coming to a few gigs, and was keen. The fact that she actively went out to get us always had my respect. I also liked the fact that she didn't try and schmooze us. She was just like, 'We want to do this. I love the band and believe in you. We are here, ready to go, if you want.' So we went with [Madonna's label] Maverick. [Those] guys did a great job. I mean we had done most of the hard work, to be honest. They weren't breaking a new band."
The path to the Prodigy's unlikely success had been smoothed — both musically and on the charts — in April 1997, when the second Chemical Brothers album, Dig Your Own Hole, debuted at number 14 on the Billboard album charts, with 48,000 sold in the U.S.
"The only people who can [make good albums] are the people who are the best at the music," says Charles Aaron. "You would listen to eight to ten Chemical Brothers songs, whereas you would not listen to eight to ten Crystal Method songs. The Chemical Brothers were the smartest and the most talented. They were the most important rock band of that era."
In an era when you had to sell a lot of copies to make the Top 200 — never mind the Top 15 — the chart triumph of Dig Your Own Hole sent a signal. "I knew all this airplay we had, and it seemed like we connected the dots," says Kolosine. "But it was pretty magical. People believed that it was an album that they needed to own, because it rightly got unbelievable reviews, in a time when reviews mattered."
America believed it needed to own some Prodigy as well. The week their third album, The Fat of the Land, came out in September 1997, Howlett received a call from XL's Richard Russell, who'd negotiated the band's U.S. deal. "Richard was like, 'I think we will do well with the album. It's going Top 20,'" recalls Howlett. "We were happy with that. The next call was [that] we were number one. The record was number one in 26 countries, I think. But the U.S. made everybody sit up and say, 'What's going on here? We have to open our eyes to this.' It was mad."
Astralwerks' fortunes continued to grow as well. "We were really enjoying ourselves," says Kolosine. "It was like we had slipped the plot on the business: 'Who are these f---ing people? Why do they have all this airplay? Why do they have all these videos on MTV? Somebody go out and sign some of these types of bands immediately before I have to kill someone.'"
One of Astralwerks' biggest finds was a friend of the Chemical Brothers. Norman Cook had DJ'ed with them at London's Heavenly Social. As Fatboy Slim, Cook tried to, as he says, "merge breakbeats with the energy of acid house." Astralwerks released his debut, Better Living Through Chemistry, in 1997.
Cook was surprised to find the U.S. was receptive him. "I'd seen too many bands try to break America and had it broken them, like the Fine Young Cannibals. I just kind of thought America liked rock and country & western."
There was plenty of twang in Cook's biggest hit. "It's funny," says Cook of 1998's "The Rockafeller Skank." "The first time it ever got played was at the Boutique in Brighton. I put it on and everybody just looked up, mouthing, 'This is you, isn't it?'"
Indeed it was. Hooked by a clattering breakbeat, bouncy surf guitar and a much-repeated sample of rapper Lord Finesse insisting, "Right about now, the funk soul brother/Check it out now, the funk soul brother," "The Rockafeller Skank" was the ultimate big beat track, a record impossible to get out of your head that was nearly as difficult not to move to.
You've Come a Long Way, Baby, Fatboy Slim's second album, made him a pop star, and "The Rockafeller Skank" began making its way into TV and movies: Hackers, She's All That, Office Space, Friends. It was everywhere. What had once been the cutting edge of dance music had become the least edgy thing imaginable.
"I never had a problem with it," says Cook of the track's ubiquity. "I thought it was fairly democratic. You could hear the music without having to shell out and buy the record. You could hear a record and get bored of it without having to buy it." Still, he turned a blind eye when it would appear in "frat-party films" in other countries: "I was a lot more careful about what happened in England, because I had to listen to it, too."
But as big beat blasted on, its easy thrills and heavy whiff of testosterone began to make it seem a little too obvious. "There was lots of jokes about 'Frat-Boy Slim,'" says Cook. "I suppose 'Rockafeller Skank' became an anthem for that sort of beer-boyish mentality."
That mentality reached a kind of climax at Woodstock '99. The 1969 Woodstock had been a coming-to-Damascus moment for a generation. The 1999 edition was more like a get-the-hell-away-from-Damascus one. Plagued by rioting, looting, and rape, Woodstock '99 resulted in five reported injuries, seven arrests and the destruction of trailers, concession stands and ATMs.
"It pretty much kicked off during my set, from what I can gather," says Cook, who played on Saturday night, following Metallica's main stage set. "There were definitely a lot of shenanigans. It was kind of half-indoors, half-outdoors, in an aircraft hangar. We had to stop my set a couple times. Somebody drove a van right into the middle of the crowd."
Typically, a post-show Cook was a garrulous Cook. Not at Woodstock. "When I got off the stage, they put me straight into the car, straight to the airport: 'Don't talk to anyone.' I figured they were telling me to get out of there because they just figured I'd stay there about another 36 hours and get lost in some field. I flew straight back to England. By the time I got home, I saw footage on the news of my dressing room on fire."
For the followers of '90s electronica, Adam Shore says, "It seemed like every year, there was a new genre and something more exciting happening [than before]. And then it stopped, pretty much at the end of the '90s."
The major-label budgets began to dry up. DJ DB, who ran Warner Bros.' electronica imprint F-111, saw the curtains coming soon after he began. "Nobody else in the company understood electronic music or cared about it, so we were doomed. We lasted a few months and realized it was not going to work."
"Part of it is that we probably reached the end of a trend anyway," says Kolosine. "If you take a look at the records that Astralwerks was putting out at that point, we had heavily diversified by then, and were doing a lot more catalog, chasing the Kraftwerk records, that kind of stuff."
The artists seemed tired as well. Liam Howlett took the Prodigy on the road for three years after The Fat of the Land, staying quiet until the 2002 single, "Baby's Got a Temper." "I needed a break," says Howlett. "I've always said that single was a sonic representation of the band's mood at the time — kind of down, uninspired." Another two years passed before the next Prodigy album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, was released.
Though it was buoyed by Spike Jonze's video for "Weapon of Choice," featuring Christopher Walken dancing on air, Fatboy Slim's next album, 2000's Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars had a subdued American impact. "I was trying to get a bit more serious and more reflective," says Cook. "In terms of sales, it probably was a bad move."
Even if electronica's frontline had been as creatively robust as before, the big economic bubble of late '90s America was about to give way to something far darker. "To me, everything ended with 9/11," says DJ DB. "Dance music ended, economically the world just stopped and everything changed. Everything just stopped. It was a horrific, horrific year."
"A lot of companies took the opportunity to shrink staff," says Kolosine of the early-'00s economic downturn. "Several overseas brands that came over opened up very flash offices and during dot-comedy era and start handing out wheelbarrows full of money thinking that the party is on. A lot of those people had to go back to the U.K."
"I wasn't coming to America quite so often," says Norman Cook of the big electronica cool-off. "It was like a party where everyone's going, 'That was really great, but I'm a bit knackered now. Maybe it's kind of not fun anymore. Maybe it's time to go home.' I think there was a collective kind of [feeling], both with the artists and the audience: 'That was great, but parties can't go on forever.'"