By Bob McMahon
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Turn on the radio in any car, candy store or sex-toy emporium, and you'll inevitably hear a song produced by David Guetta, Diplo or Calvin Harris. Once, these were truly underground artists with prototypical cult followings across glitter- and glowstick-strewn dance floors the world over, from Ibiza to the Berghain in Germany. But this year there's been a serious sonic shift of underground dance music bleeding back into pop. Yes, Lady Gaga may have gone Springsteen in 2011, but everyone else went Madonna Rave Re-edit.
In July the old guard of '90s St. Louis ravers came together to celebrate their glory haze at We Are Family, a ten-year reunion at Atomic Cowboy. The timing couldn't have been more serendipitous, because the sweaty hold of dance fever was gripping the city. This seemed to be the year that dance music truly made a comeback in St. Louis.
Event producer and promoter Amin Mohabbat of Brown and White Productions contends that St. Louis is now a must-stop for any EDM (electronic dance music) artist, and he says we're now outselling much larger markets like Dallas and Atlanta. Artists like Borgore, Chromeo, Pretty Lights, the Glitch Mob and Wolfgang Gartner have all drawn huge crowds in St. Louis this year.
There's a reason why they call dubstep new rave, and the rave has been legitimized: Basshead boy wonder Skrillex was just nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy. He sold out the Pageant twice in less than five months, and in March, he announced a show at Sol Lounge (RIP) about four hours before it happened. No fewer than 1,000 people showed up — let's just say that later generations will likely call him the godfather of dubstep. Locally, artists like Jay Fay and Bommer are crafting stellar dance beats for Generation Bass, or Generation Based, as we like to call them. Jay Fay's output is mathematically on-point, and the eighteen-year-old spent 2011 opening for artists like Steve Aoki and Mount Kimbie. We just might be the bellwether once again.
"Just two years ago I would have never thought that I could place three shows in a two-month period at the Pageant and even have the possibility of selling them out. St. Louis is one of the cities that every EDM act wants to play now," says Mohabbat, adding that soon he's going to have to start looking beyond the Pageant to accommodate his crowds. "We've seen dance music finally move into the mainstream, and it's very exciting," he says. "When David Guetta started collaborating with mainstream artists it helped a lot. You have your normal guy listening to will.i.am, then will.i.am makes a track with Guetta, which brings that person into the EDM world."
Kate Estwing is the program director for KDHX (88.1 FM) and hosts a popular all-electronic show called Beep Beep Boop Boop. She says that the United States is finally catching up to Europe, where dance music has long enjoyed widespread popularity and visibility. Estwing says the renewed local interest in the EDM movement — the former underground — is bolstered because of its overlap with another barroom mainstay in St. Louis.
"I think it has to do with the crossover with the jamtronica scene in the area: the slower electronic stuff, slow dancing kind of chill stuff that still has a beat to it. That electronic dubstep, all those kids are like the new hippies, or the kids of the hippies," says Estwing. "What would they have gone to if it weren't for jam or electronic types of music? Into rock music? And they're so into [dance music], that's at least exciting."
The Internet, of course, has changed the popular landscape. Estwing says this year she's seen dance music consistently topping the all-powerful iTunes charts. Crossover act LMFAO is to blame for this year's ubiquitous earworm "Party Rock Anthem," and Estwing says she couldn't have foretold its Top 40 ascent when she started playing the duo on her show a few years ago. "These electronic artists are already on there, they're really good about saying, 'Here's a remix of this track for free,' and that's where the kids are."
She says she often wonders about the physics of popular taste and why what was once relegated to remote warehouses has come back on the grid. In St. Louis, the imprint and influence of rave survives and is not to be underestimated. "[Raves] are probably still happening somewhere, but now it seems like it might just be easier to have these artists at a legit venue. The venues, at least, are trying to be really careful and making sure that people are safe. It could be that the rave has revealed itself."
"Five years ago [EDM] was considered rave music, and they wouldn't allow us into theaters and arenas, but now it doesn't have the stigma around it," says Mohabbat. "However, it's always been the clubs, locally, that have helped grow the scene to where it's at, with every promoter doing their part. We are doing great in St. Louis."— Diana Benanti