In the ‘Dance Music Producers’ Retirement Home’, before naptime, talk turns to a familiar subject. “It was a lot harder to make music in my day!’ bellows one greying resident, wagging his finger skyward. “Laptops? VSTs? Online sample libraries? Pffft! We had NONE of that. Kids these days don’t know they’re born!”
A fair point, but no need to spit, granddad.
These days, you can whip up a tropical house banger on your laptop, with only Ableton Live and a pair of headphones (sat in your pyjamas). Good for you, future boy.
But, stop for a minute and consider those youthful beatmakers from the midst of the 1990s - they earned their stripes, mate. In fact, let’s fill you in on their struggle. Paltry sample time. Hiring actual studios. Corrupted files in formats that sound 100 years old (ZIP disks!?) Not to mention dealing with costly and cumbersome bits of analogue kit that seemingly had minds of their own. Arrrgh!
Yet, against all odds, they pioneered their sound, invented genres, and perfected the techniques we all take far too much for granted today.
So, with that in mind, let’s look back at some of the best electronic albums to come out of that decade - one from each year of it - and salute those producers who had to do it the hard way, so you don’t have to. Eh, sonny!?
Obviously, we've had to omit some great albums - those by the likes of Leftfield, Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin and Massive Attack - but the LPs on this list all helped to shift the electronic music dial in one way or another...
Black Box – Dreamland, 1990
At the dawn of the ‘90s, three guys from Italy capitalised on a winning production formula that still does great business these days. Take a disco diva acapella and pop a banging beat on it. Done.
Take this album’s breakout global smash single, Ride On Time. The Loleatta Holloway-sampling 12-inch took the lead on an album that would become an Italo-house classic, and make record labels take notice of the commercial potential of this new fangled ‘dance music’.
These days, you can quickly and quietly download scores of bootleg-ready vocals from official sample stores, digital record shops, or illegal blogs and websites. Now, pretty much every disco acapella that came out can, and has been downloaded, or even extracted from a full track with DIY phasing or EQing techniques. But, back then, Black Box could only sample chunks off the vinyl-only source material into their Akai S-900.
The super-limited sample time meant they could only trigger key vocal phrases over the beat, leading to the signature stuttering effect and club-friendly repetition that became their signature sound.
Who knew that by 2020 the ‘bootleg’ style of adding beats to old disco acapellas would go on to account for roughly 98% of all ‘new’ Soundcloud ‘producers’ latest tracks?
The Ragga Twins - Reggae Owes Me Money, 1991
As rave music got hardcore, two sound system veterans joined forces with a legendary production outfit, working lyrics over a sped-up breakbeat style that would later (with further cranks of the tempo) become jungle and drum ‘n’ bass.
This collection of singles and tracks is an overlooked gem, and seen by many in the know as a blueprint that many big electronic genres and UK producers would draw inspiration from.
You can hear the DNA of grime in there, as MCs Flinty Badman and Deman Rockers chat over hard beats about the evils of heroin on tracks like The Killing, and stray bullets on Illegal Gunshot.
All the while, producers PJ & Smiley [aka Shut Up and Dance] take the big breaks from the hip-hop classics they grew up with and mix them with dub and 303 lines on big tunes like Ragga Trip, predating the next wave of club-ready digital dancehall maneuvers by decades.
It was music made for the raves that were taking over youth culture before they took over the headlines, and the soundtrack to a new, rugged, breakbeat era.
When it comes to the history books many overlook this crew. Reggae probably still owes them a few quid, but the entire next generation owes them plenty more respect.
The Shamen - Boss Drum, 1992
This bunch of nutters were “Naughty, naughty, very naughty,” indeed. Not only did they storm up the charts with a thinly-veiled ecstasy anthem [“Es are good! Es are good!], but they also followed it with an LP chock full of other drug references - no prizes for guessing what the initials from the track title Librae Solidi Denari stood for.
It’s a surprise they could come down for five minutes to make any tunes. Maybe they didn’t. But they must have had their wits about them. It’s not like they were tripping balls in their bedrooms, vibing out on a soft synth plugin.
Frontman Mr C and his crew were out the door, often the morning after events like the aptly-named Decadence at the Town & Country in Kentish Town, and straight into actual studios to make their tongue-in-cheek rave masterpieces.
Traditional scuzzy rock rehearsal spaces like Playground in Camden were hired, and filled with racks and racks of analogue gear.
Samplers like the Akai S-900 and S-1000 were booted-up - the far superior S-3000, still some way off - with synths stacked and ready to rock. Also at their fingertips were an Oberheim Four Voice, ARP 2600, Minimoog, Memorymoog, Roland Juno-106, Jupiter-8, Roland JX 8P, and PG800 editor. And let’s not forget the legendary Roland TB-303 Bass Line and an SH-101 synth, all coming through a Mackie desk. Using a big old Macintosh computer.
Now, you’d merrily download a suite of Roland VSTs, mimicking legendary bits of hardware, for a fraction of the original price. But, in 1992, if you wanted a 303 acid line, or an 808 boom, you had to wrangle it from the thing itself. On pills. Lav-ely!
Plastikman - Sheet One, 1993
Under this alias, Richie Hawtin snuck a more elastic, psychedelic and soulful edge into the underground electronic sound, helping spawn a whole new direction for techno.
This wasn’t a piece-meal production, taking shape over the usual six months to a year album-writing cycle, either. The bulk came together through a non-stop two-day recording session, in a studio under the kitchen at his parent's house.
It was meant to be an extension of the late night/early melted mornings of his club sets. Some tracks had an original jam length of 40+ minutes but, understandably, got shortened in the edit.
After five months of prep, Hawtin had created a beautiful patchwork of machines in his studio, with himself fused into the middle. His beloved 303 and Sequential Circuits Pro One were triggered off the 808 and 909, as he created washes of sounds on a rack-mounted E-mu Vintage Keys emulator - all running through a very early Allen & Heath GS2 desk.
These delicate bits of kit, almost sentient to the sleep-deprived producer, would be left on for days or weeks at a time before recording sessions, for fear of losing the ‘magic sounds’ settled inside their humming circuits.
The whole album is a trip, too, the cover art actually resembling a sheet of LSD tabs. And the production is a hands-on, live-mixed state of affairs - very much the Kevin Saunderson or Derrick May way of working. A far cry from the processes of today, but building on the sacred foundations laid down by the pioneers Hawtin worshiped at the feet of.
The Prodigy - Music for the Jilted Generation, 1994
As any of the modern YouTube recreation videos will attest, some of the Prodigy’s best tracks are made up of hundreds of micro-chopped samples. Sometimes one-bar hits or elements of other people’s records, stretched, processed and looped up, until they become another piece of joyous noise in these powerhouse productions.
Watching people copying what Liam Howlett did back then with modern software like Ableton Live, now, is humbling. A quick quantise, EQ, and flawless timestretch of the perfect sample for the job, pre-picked and ready to slot in. It takes minutes. But, circa 1994, it must have taken weeks.
How did he know what would work, before mangling it out of all recognition until it slotted into the arrangement like a puzzle piece? How much material did he audition before that one tiny hooky sample found its place? The detail, overview, musical knowledge, and sheer audio alchemy on display is staggering.
And when he was making the dirty dance rock-hop fusion for Music for the Jilted Generation it was all gear, too. Rumour has it he didn't even get a computer in the mix until Firestarter, preferring to daisy-chain about 20 bits of hardware to a single MIDI line, with the looseness of the timings only adding to the character of these early sample-heavy tracks.
Smith & Mighty - Bass Is Maternal, 1995
When a major record label deal soured, Rob Smith and Ray Mighty regrouped and began work on a new set of tracks that wouldn't be bogged down by interference and compromise.
Resigned to independently making the music they wanted, these Bristol sound boys hit upon a fusion of dub, reggae, rave, hip-hop and chopped-up breakbeats that would be uniquely their own, for now.
From their studio in Ray’s apartment in St. Paul’s, they concentrated on finessing the one element that would be at the core of their new hybrid enterprise - the bass. Their Allen & Heath Sabre 24-track mixing desk, bought when they signed their ill-fated label deal, wasn’t supplying the necessary bottom end, though, so a Neve Prism rack, with an extra three channels of EQ and compression, was added to bring justice to their Roland SH-101 basslines.
By mashing-up their reggae backgrounds with their passion for raving, and the fun to be had with new sampling technology, they created a hybrid sound that would be a foundation that countless others, both locally and international, would build upon.
Underworld - Second Toughest In The Infants, 1996
A lot of dance music producers these days like to stay in one lane. They make their one style, and stick to it. Slaves to the rhythm, and even to the accepted BPM, and agreed-upon track arrangement templates.
Not so Underworld. As the ‘90s tipped over the halfway mark, the trio of Darren Emerson, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith were still ignoring the rulebook’s existence, never mind ripping it up.
By this, their fourth album, they were a dance act, but with a beatpoet/indie frontman. And the Mercury Music Prize-nominated tracks inside took the best parts of electro, reggae, acid, drum ‘n’ bass, gospel, ambient and jazz, and let them do their thing for around three minutes, if they wanted to, or well over 16, if they needed to.
It made for a roller-coaster ride - tempos rose and fell, as Hyde threw out vocals over beats churned out on Atari ST 1040 computer running C-Lab Creator - the great grouchy granddaddy of Apple’s fresh-faced Logic software.
For such an expansive, global, freewheeling album, you’d never have guessed it was all made in a studio more than filling Rick’s wife’s tiny spare bedroom in Romford, either. Tough, indeed.
Photek - Modus Operandi, 1997
By the time work began on this drum ‘n’ bass milestone, Photek had graduated from mere seconds of sample time to little over a full minute, albeit by combing the power of three separate machines.
But, by this point, he was a ninja, and had mastered his craft. He could do more with that paltry window of time than most did in a career.
His E-mu E4 samplers worked for him as he chopped, spliced, and re-programmed drum lines that could, and would, take weeks to put together - for a single track. His attention never faltered, though, as he honed in, refusing to save his work as he went, as that step would take over 40 minutes to complete, killing his creativity in the process.
He would later compare this intensely focused, majestic, precarious, frustrating, painstaking work to “building a cathedral”.
He took sampling to a new level, with few on the scene able to match his concentration or monk-like patience. Tiny chops from records, sourced while touring the world, costing hundreds to buy, would provide the foundation to his breakbeat architecture.
Each of his trademark reversed drum patterns and individual tambourine shakes built up, one by one, in MIDI. Before everything was overdriven on the Mackie 32 desk, as was the style of the time.
It was a fierce and unforgiving time to be making drum ‘n’ bass, too. Each new release had to move your game forward, Photek worrying that a single misstep could push his credibility back, and that it’d take up to a year to regain that respect from his peers. Who else could operate in such conditions?
Unkle - Psyence Fiction, 1998
Making some music just drives you mad. With the world watching, Mo’ Wax label boss and figurehead, James Lavelle, attempted to make an album as big as his gargantuan ambition.
His gameplan was to recruit a cast of rap heroes (Mike D, Kool G Rap, Lyrics Born) and the hottest UK rock stars of the day (Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke, Ian Brown), and marry them to the beats of DJ Shadow (increasingly disgruntled, but at the top of his game).
His scale was epic - the additional string arrangement by Will Malone (of Unfinished Sympathy fame, conducting a 34-piece orchestra) being the icing on top - but, attempting to make sense of it all was that man, Shadow, chained to a modest recording setup.
Working off his trusty Akai MPC3000 sampler, a no-spec mixer and a pair of headphones, he tried to furnish each unique guest vocalist with the right tone of beats, all painstakingly sourced from racks and racks of dusty vinyl. Digging, indeed.
The process was overwhelming - 90% of that album is samples. Plus, Lavelle was criss-crossing the Atlantic, between studios, parties, and meetings, popping his head into sessions with grander and grander visions for the producer to flesh out. All the while, a rotating cast of extras was hanging out, smoking, drinking, and generally getting in the way.
Tempers frayed. Friendships were broken. Souls ached. But a classic album was made.
Fitting, though, that it opens with dialogue of Francis Ford Coppola reflecting on the making of Apocalypse Now - the sprawling opus that nearly broke him, too: “There were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane".
Moby - Play, 1999
This album sold like hot cakes! It would garner more platinum plaques that its chrome-domed producer had space for in his cushy New York loft apartment.
The CD format was doing crazy numbers by then, and this rode the last hurrah, before the mass pilfering of MP3s online caused the shakers in record biz to stop doing blow off their solid gold toilet cisterns and rethink their entire infrastructure. It was the very epitome of a ‘hit’ record. Not that anyone knew it back then, though.
Before the royalty cheques rained down, Moby was adrift in a dank warehouse, basically squatting, and living off meagre lunches from the local health food store.
He was once DJing at the bright-eyed epicenter of the club scene, but after touring his frantic techno, he returned to a post-rave comedown. The cheery club kids zoned out on much harder stuff, his brand of music no longer able to soundtrack what they were going through.
Instead of trying to get on their level, he made music to soothe his soul. Sampling gospel and field songs, he found a mix of heartbreaking and uplifting loops to work with on his primitive studio setup. He dropped the tempos to trip-hop, rather than techno, and Play was born.
He thought it would be his last album. He didn’t think the label would want it. They didn’t have much faith in it, apparently licensing nearly every track out to car brands and the likes for their commercials, to at least make some money back, which explains its near ubiquity in ad breaks back then.
It still sounds beautiful today, too. The work of a man not giving a flying fuck what anyone expected of him - the perfect thing for producers in 2020 to aspire to.