Friday night at 1:45 a.m., at least a hundred people were on the main door line for Output, a dance club in Brooklyn that opened near the beginning of the year. They wouldn't be getting in for a while: the spot had reached capacity a half-hour before, shortly after the night's headliner, John Digweed, had begun his DJ set, and they were only letting in folks who'd bought tickets specifically for the show. "No wristbands," said the doorman. The wristbands were all-events passes for the sixth annual Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival (BEMF) — the nominal reason for Digweed's appearance.
Business as usual, then, for a weekend on Williamsburg's clubbing strip, as small bunches of young folks either walk or cab up and down Wythe Ave., hopping from one DJ to another. That's been particularly intense in recent months, since Output opened and nearby Cameo Gallery began upping its electronic-dance bookings.
A tired-looking, fortyish man left the club through the side-door entrance, where a smaller line waited to get in. A younger guy in an anxious knot of people shivering in anticipation of Digweed's big-room beats asked the newly departed partier what it was like inside. "Crazy?" he suggested eagerly. "Crazy," the older man replied, "but not that crazy." That, too, was business as usual.
The Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival is one of the electronic-dance calendar's more curious weekends. Though about one-third of the featured talent this year resides in the borough, and several regular Brooklyn parties signed on as part of its program, BEMF doesn't yet have much personality of its own. Distinct sensibilities guide the North American club-based festival scene: MUTEK in Montreal balances an overtly arty sensibility with a serious party atmosphere, booking lots of local talent; Decibel, in Seattle, is earthier, more American and a hair more populist. You might see Moby at Decibel, but not at MUTEK.
Like Seattle and Montreal, Brooklyn is a tech center with rising living costs — only more so — and a subsequent boom in electronic dance music. (Many dance producers and DJs make their real money in software.) Parts of Williamsburg and nearby Bushwick seem more and more like way stations for the young and moneyed, attracted by its DIY patina while still able to pay its not-so-DIY prices. So maybe it's fitting that BEMF's lineup was a hodgepodge — few acts you couldn't have seen any other weekend (the biggest names were Digweed, Pete Tong and Actress, none of whom have much traction for an American non-dance aficionado) and little overriding sense of event. It felt as rootless as those areas are becoming.
There's an increasingly tepid hue to underground dance music that looks like a direct reaction to — or, really, a retreat from — the EDM juggernaut. Though no one disputes the term "electronic dance music," the music its initials signify is something else altogether. EDM is the blaring obnoxious stuff for neon-clad kids on Molly that populates the mega-fests — not the refined, arty music the BEMF (like MUTEK and Decibel) dotes on. Lord knows 95 percent of EDM combines the worst parts of '80s power ballads (gushing over-sincerity, big bland-o hooks, no-personality singing) with the dumbest aspects of dance music's commercial end, a no-win situation all around.
But the dance underground's retreat into mere tastefulness has been just as dispiriting. The latter half of the 2000s were a time when everything from hard, dark techno (from Ben Klock to Peter Van Hoesen) to the giddiest of the L.A. bass experimentalists circling Flying Lotus seemed charged with new possibility. Jack Dunning, a.k.a. U.K. producer Untold, told me about playing the Bass Mutations showcase in February 2010, for an oral history of Brooklyn party The Bunker: "I was able to turn up and drop an hour of unheard tracks. It was great to get such a hyped crowd reaction — a real eagerness to dance hard to the wildest tracks."
Less than four years later, such eagerness was hard to come by at BEMF, and it wasn't only due to how crowded some of the showcases were. Festivals like MUTEK and Decibel picked up in numbers through the late 2000s, but, more decisively, so did electronic-friendly festivals like Camp Bisco in upstate New York, as well as Electric Daisy Carnival, an L.A. fixture throughout the 2000s that moved to Vegas in 2011. When "EDM" came on board as the term of choice in 2011 — see also: "acid house" in 1988, "rave" in 1992, "electronica" in 1997, "electro" in 2006 — there was another generation of kids ready for the newly pop-friendly presentation. You go to an EDM festival and hear the same dozen songs every set. If a "dance underground" exists, it consists of people who want to dance to adventurous music.
At Thursday night's opening party for BEMF, New York's Curses played twinkly tech-house and garage that was, in its way, good. But little about it was adventurous. It was tasteful but lacking anything that might jerk your attention away from your coterie or make you want to show it to people who don't already know it exists. It felt terminal; nothing Curses played could induce actual cursing, in exaltation or disgust. The same applied to Seafloor's garage-heavy set on Saturday in Cameo Gallery's basement. (I heard similar things from acts that I didn't stick around long enough to fairly assess.) At least Teki Latex, Sunday at Output, was actively irritating. He finally got a bouncing groove happening after too many teases and non-starts; it lasted an entire track before he went back to an unyielding grind. In dance music as in life, the line between polite and tedious is perilously thin.
Much more effective long-winding build-ups came courtesy of Detroit's BMG (Friday night, 285 Kent; part of The Bunker's showcase) and Chicagoan-turned-Brooklynite Chrissy Murderbot (Saturday night, Cameo Gallery basement), who cunningly mixed classic house, acid and disco without sounding mired in nostalgia. Digweed — getting into Output at 4 a.m. was no problem — sounded crisp and techy, both big and intimate, though little of it truly grabbed. Nevertheless, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd was a far cry from the few dozen stragglers he played for in the middle of the day at an outdoor corner stage at Ultra this March. It pointed to the differences between the EDM crowd and the one at Output, but also between those in the crowd who'd bought tickets just for Digweed and those wearing BEMF wristbands. The former features a lot more Woo Guys ("Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!" etc.); the latter is a lot more apt to have learned to dance at Pavement shows.
BEMF had plenty of crazy-but-not-that-crazy available in other departments as well — in particular, DJs awkwardly mixing hip-hop and R&B into their sets in ways that felt both random and de rigueur. Trap has been a floor-goosing default for underground dance DJs for about three years now. It's a facet of the larger movement to acknowledge the R&B underpinnings of much of electronic dance, from Soul Clap's controversial R&B Edits EP of 2010 to the smeared Brandy and Ciara vocals behind, respectively, Blawan's "Getting Me Down" and Jacques Greene's "Another Girl" (both 2011). Trap saturated the 2011 edition of Decibel; when Baauer's "Harlem Shake" hit number-one in February, it was a full ten months after it had blown up in the dance world thanks to Scottish DJ Rustie's edition of BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix.
At BEMF, the songs heard most weren't house or techno or even "bass" (the umbrella term underground types use instead of "dubstep" now that the latter belongs to the masses), but Rihanna's "Pour It Up," French Montana's "Ain't Worried About Nothin'" and Jeremih's year-old "F--- U All the Time," crowbarred in among the DJ-centric stuff. It wasn't so different from the way EDM DJs will drop big non-dance hits for a hey-I-know-that-one! charge, but here it seemed fatigued, neither transgressive (one man's mainstream is another man's avant-garde) nor, in many hands, especially wise. (There were exceptions, such as DJ Slow's b-boy-ready set at Glasslands on Friday night.)
At Cameo Gallery Sunday night, Montreal's Blacky II's slow trap selections eventually took on the tempos and rhythms of their surroundings, but the contrasts jarred. (So does the Caucasian DJ's stage name.) Thursday at Output, English Rinse FM regular Oneman started wonderfully rambunctious and kept it up for a half-hour before the half-time rap interludes began to pall. Eventually it grew merely cutesy: Meli'sa Morgan's cover of Prince's "Do Me Baby" was particularly intrusive and ill-considered, even if it bridged into some nice acid. That kind of rug-pulling sounds better on pirate radio.
Or maybe they just sound better blended more fully, as with Nadastrom's set Saturday night at Music Hall of Williamsburg. The D.C.-bred, L.A.-based duo crafted the moombahton style, which blends just about every genre named above as well as Baltimore club and reggaeton. They're also deliberately messy, rather than just occasionally sloppy — in this company, a relief. The hook of Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La" was set to melting low end and booming four-to-the-floor, a maelstrom to lose oneself in. Another familiar vocal rose out of the mix: Alex Clare's "Too Close," a pop-dubstep track most familiar from the Internet Explorer 9 TV ad campaign, in Nadastrom's own slow-mo remix. Maybe it was just the set and setting, as is so often the case with electronic dance music, but it didn't just sound like business as usual.