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Electro (music)

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Electro (or electro-funk)[3][4] is a genre of electronic music and early hip hop directly influenced by the use of the Roland TR-808 drum machines[5][6] and funk.[7][8] Records in the genre typically feature heavy electronic sounds, usually without vocals; if vocals are present, they are delivered in a deadpan manner, often through electronic distortion such as vocoding and talkboxing. It palpably deviates from its predecessor boogie by being less vocal-oriented and more focused on electronic beats produced by drum machines.

Following the decline of disco music in the United States, electro emerged as a fusion of funk[9] and early hip-hop with principal influences from New York boogie, German and Japanese electronic pop music. The genre emerged with musicians Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, Warp 9, and Hashim. Seminal electro tracks included "Planet Rock" (1982) and "Nunk" (1982), both featuring its characteristic TR-808 drum beats.

The early 1980s were electro's mainstream peak. By the mid 1980s, the genre moved away from its electronic and funk influences, using harder edged beats and rock samples, exemplified by Run DMC. Electro became popular again in the late 1990s with artists such as Anthony Rother and DJs such as Dave Clarke.[10] A third wave of popularity occurred in 2007. Electro has branched out into subgenres, including electrocore and skweee.

Definition and characteristics[edit]

From its inception, one of the defining characteristics of the electro sound was the use of drum machines, particularly the Roland TR-808, as the rhythmic basis of the track. As the genre evolved, computers and sampling replaced drum machines in electronic music, and are now used by the majority of electro producers. It is important to note, that although the electro of the 1980s and contemporary electro (electronic dance music) both grew out of the dissolution of disco, they are now different genres.

Classic (1980s) electro drum patterns tend to be electronic emulations of breakbeats with a syncopated kick drum, and usually a snare or clap accenting the backbeat. The difference between electro drumbeats and breakbeats (or breaks) is that electro tends to be more mechanical, while breakbeats tend to have more of a human-like feel, like that of a live drummer. The definition however is somewhat ambiguous in nature due to the various uses of the term.[11]

The Roland TR-808 drum machine was released in 1980, defining early electro with its immediately recognizable sound. Staccato, percussive drumbeats tended to dominate electro, almost exclusively provided by the TR-808. As an inexpensive way of producing a drum sound, the TR-808 caught on quickly with the producers of early electro because of the ability of its bass drum to generate extreme low-frequencies.[12] This aspect of the Roland TR-808 was especially appealing to producers who would test drive their tracks in nightclubs (like NYC's Funhouse), where the bass drum sound was essential for a record's success.[13] Its unique percussion sounds like handclaps, open and closed high-hat, clave and cowbell became integral to the electro sound. A number of popular songs in the early 1980s employed the TR-808, including Marvin Gaye's “Sexual Healing,” Cybotron's “Clear,” and Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock.”[14] The Roland TR-808 has attained iconic status, eventually being used on more hits than any other drum machine.[15] Through the use of samples, the Roland TR-808 remains popular in electro and other genres to the present day.

Other electro instrumentation was generally electronic, favoring analog synthesis, programmed bass lines, sequenced or arpeggiated synthetic riffs, and atonal sound effects all created with synthesizers. Heavy use of effects such as reverbs, delays, chorus or phasers along with eerie synthetic ensemble strings or pad sounds emphasized the science fiction or futuristic themes of classic (1980s) electro, represented in the lyrics and/or music. Electro hip hop group Warp 9's 1983 single, Light Years Away, produced and written by Lotti Golden and Richard Scher, exemplifies the Sci-Fi, afrofuturist aspect of electro,[16] reflected in both the lyrics and instrumentation. The imagery of its lyrical refrain space is the place for the human race pays homage to Sun Ra's 1974 film of the same name,[17] while its synth lines and sound effects are informed by sci-fi, computer games, and cartoons,"born of a science-fiction revival.".[16]: 148 

Most electro is instrumental, but a common element is vocals processed through a vocoder. Additionally, speech synthesis may be used to create robotic or mechanical lyrical content, as in the iconic Planet Rock and the automatous chant in the chorus of Nunk by Warp 9.[18] Although primarily instrumental, early electro utilized rap. Male rap dominated the genre, however female rappers are an integral part of the electro tradition, whether featured in a group as in Warp 9 or as solo performers like Roxanne Shante. The lyrical style that emerged along with electro became less popular by the 1990s, as rapping continued to evolve, becoming the domain of hip hop music.

About electro origins:

It was all about stretching the boundaries that had begun to stifle black music, and its influences lay not only with German technopop wizards Kraftwerk, the acknowledged forefathers of pure electro, plus British futurist acts like the Human League and Gary Numan, but also with a number of pioneering black musicians. Major artists like Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, legendary producer Norman Whitfield and, of course, George Clinton and his P Funk brigade, would all play their part in shaping this new sound via their innovative use of electronic instruments during the 70s (and as early as the late 60s in Miles Davis’s case).

Gary Numan. Man he was dope. So important to us. When we heard that single, "Are Friends Electric?" it was like the aliens had landed in the Bronx. We were just throwing shapes to this tune, man. More than Kraftwerk. Numan was the inspiration. He's a hero. Without him, there'd be no electro.

— Afrika Bambaataa[19]


Afrika Bambaataa (left) in 2004

Following the decline of disco music in the late 1970s, various funk artists such as Zapp began experimenting with talk boxes and the use of heavier, more distinctive beats. Boogie played a role during the formative years of electro, notably "Feels Good" by Electra (Emergency – EMDS-6527),[20] the post-disco production "You're the One for Me" by D. Train (Prelude – PRL D 621),[20] and the Eric Matthew/Darryl Payne productions "Thanks to You" by Sinnamon (Becket – BKD 508),[20] and "On A Journey (I Sing The Funk Electric)" by Electrik Funk (Prelude – PRL D 541).[20] Electro eventually emerged as a fusion of different styles, including funk, boogie combined with German and Japanese technopop, in addition to influences from the futurism of Alvin Toffler, martial arts films, and video game music. The genre's immediate forebears included Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).[9]

In 1980, YMO was the first band to utilize the TR-808 programmable drum machine.[21][22] That same year, YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto released "Riot in Lagos", which is regarded as an early example of electro music,[23][24] and is credited for having anticipated the beats and sounds of electro.[1] The song's influence can be seen in the work of later pioneering electro artists such as Afrika Bambaataa[1] and Mantronix.[24]

1982 was a watershed year for electro. Bronx based producer Afrika Bambaataa released the seminal track "Planet Rock", which contained elements of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" (from the album of the same name) and "Numbers" (from Kraftwerk's 1981 Computer World album)[4][1][25] combined with the use of distinctive TR-808 beats.[1] "Planet Rock" is widely regarded as a turning point in the electro genre, "like a light being switched on."[16]: 146 [26] Another groundbreaking record released that year, Nunk by Warp 9 utilized "imagery drawn from computer games and hip hop slanguage."[16] Although remaining unreleased, a pre-Def Jam Russell Simmons produced Bruce Haack's proto hip-hop single "Party Machine" at a studio in Philadelphia. Electro hip hop releases in 1982 include songs by: Planet Patrol, Warp 9, Man Parrish, George Clinton (Computer Games), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Tyrone Brunson, The Jonzun Crew and Whodini.[16]

In 1983, Hashim created the influential electro funk tune "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)" which became Cutting Record's first release in November 1983.[27] At the time Hashim was influenced by Man Parrish's "Hip Hop, Be Bop", Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" and Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock".[28] "Al-Nafyish" was later included in Playgroup's compilation album Kings of Electro (2007), alongside other electro classics such as Sakamoto's "Riot in Lagos".[29] Also in 1983, Herbie Hancock, in collaboration with Grand Mixer D.ST, released the hit single "Rockit".

Bambaataa and groups like Planet Patrol, Jonzun Crew, Mantronix, Newcleus, Warp 9 and Juan Atkins' Detroit-based group Cybotron went on to influence the genres of Detroit techno, ghettotech, breakbeat, drum and bass and electroclash. Early producers in the electro genre (notably Arthur Baker,[30] John Robie and Shep Pettibone) later featured prominently in the Latin Freestyle (or simply "Freestyle") movement, along with Lotti Golden and Richard Scher (the producer/writers of Warp 9) fusing electro, funk, and hip hop with elements of Latin music.[16]

By the late 1980s, the genre evolved into what is known today as new school hip hop. The release of Run DMC's It's Like That (1983) marked a stylistic shift, focusing down on the beats in a stark, metal minimalism.[16]: 151  Rock samples replaced synthesizers that had figured so prominently in electro, and rap styles and techniques evolved in tandem, anchoring rap to the changing hip hop culture.[31] Baker, Pettibone, Golden and Scher enjoyed robust careers well into the house era, eluding the "genre trap" to successfully produce mainstream artists.[32]

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Detroit Techno musicians James Stinson and Gerald Donald released numerous EPs, singles and albums of conceptual electro music under several different aliases. Their main project, Drexciya is known for exploration of science fiction and aquatic themes.


In the early 1980s, Detroit techno DJ Eddie Fowlkes shaped a related style called electro-soul, which was characterized by a predominant bass line and a chopped up electro breakbeat contrasted with soulful male vocals.[33] Kurtis Mantronik's electro-soul productions for Joyce Sims presaged new jack swing's combination of hip hop and soul elements.[34] In a 2016 profile on the genre's rise in Denver's music scene, Dylan Owens of The Denver Post writes, "As with all fledgling genres, little about electro-soul is defined — even what to call it. (Of the eight artists interviewed for this article, none agreed on any one name.) But what does seem sure is its rise, especially locally. If Denver can be known as the musical torchbearer of any genre, it's electro-soul's half-live, half-produced swirl of hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz."[35]

"No Self Control" by Peter Gabriel, taken from his 1980 self-titled album, has been described as electro-soul,[36] fused with art rock.[37]

Contemporary electro[edit]

Although the early 1980s were electro's heyday in the mainstream, it enjoyed renewed popularity in the late 1990s with artists such as Anthony Rother and DJs such as Dave Clarke, and has made yet another comeback for a third wave of popularity in 2007. The continued interest in electro, though influenced to a great degree by Florida, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and New York styles, has primarily taken hold in Florida and Europe with electro club nights becoming commonplace again. The scene still manages to support hundreds of electro labels, from the disco electro of Clone Records, to the old school b-boy styles of Breakin’ Records and Dominance Electricity, to the electrofunk of Citinite, and to harder more modern styles of electro of labels like Bass Frequency Productions and Nu Illusion Music.

New branches of electro have risen over the last couple of years. Florida has pioneered the "Electrocore" sound, started in the late 1990s by artists like Jackal and Hyde and Dynamix II and carried on to this day. Skweee is a genre which developed in Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland, hence its first name "Scandinavian Funk". The outlets and artists of Skweee are still mostly limited to the Nordic countries.

From the late 1990s onward, the term "electro" is also used to refer two other fusion genres of electro, either blended with techno and new wave in electroclash,[38][39] In 2006, Direct Influence, a 6-piece Melbourne based electro/rock/reggae group was formed.[40]

The genre enjoyed a resurgence from 2016 onwards, with DJs like Helena Hauff and DJ Stingray gaining more popularity and festivals like Dekmantel featuring it prominently on their lineups. Labels like Cultivated Electronics, CPU, Mars Frequency Records, Furatena, brokntoys and Mechatronica are currently pushing a new trove of artists [41][42] which has introduced the genre to a new generation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e David Toop (March 1996), "A-Z Of Electro", The Wire, no. 145, retrieved May 29, 2011
  2. ^ Vincent, Rickey (November 4, 2014). Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. St. Martin's Publishing. ISBN 9781466884526.
  3. ^ "Electro-Funk: What did it all mean?". Greg Wilson on electrofunkroots.co.uk. Retrieved December 23, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Rap meets Techno, with a short history of Electro. Globaldarkness.com. Retrieved on July 18, 2011.
  5. ^ Gavin Weale (2001) The Future Sound Of Electro. ElectroEmpire.com
  6. ^ Reynolds, Simon (2013). Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. Soft Skull Press. The dominant style at Hard Summer, provided by artists like Zedd, Erol Alkan and Bloody Beetroots, is what's been tagged 'electro house', although to my ears it has little relationship with either house or electro (in the original eighties 808-bass-bumping sense).
  7. ^ Electro itself is a musical style blending "funk & synthesizers with elements of hip-hop", according to Dent, Susie (2003). The Language Report. Oxford University Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-19-860860-8.
  8. ^ Sean 'P-Ski' P (1995) Electro – What Does It Mean?. ElectroEmpire.com
  9. ^ a b "Electro". Allmusic. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  10. ^ Ishkur (2005). "Ishkur's guide to Electronic Music". Archived from the original on April 7, 2019. Retrieved June 1, 2014.
  11. ^ Electro-Funk : What Did It All Mean?. Electrofunkroots.co.uk. Retrieved on July 18, 2011.
  12. ^ "Anysound". Keyboard. Vol. 14, no. 11. 1988. p. 34.; as cited in Théberge, Paul (1997). Any sound you can imagine: making music/consuming all counts of technology. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press. pp. 197. ISBN 978-0-8195-6309-5.
  13. ^ Harvey, Steven "The Perfect Beat" The Face Magazine, October 1983
  14. ^ Dayal, Geeta (2013). The Grove Dictionary of American Music. Oxford Music Online. pp. Roland TR–808.
  15. ^ Peter Wells (2004), A Beginner's Guide to Digital Video, AVA Books, p. 18, ISBN 978-2-88479-037-6, retrieved May 20, 2011
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Toop, David (2000). Rap Attack 3: African Rap To Global Hip Hop. (Expanded Third Edition) Serpent's Tail, London N4 2BT p.148 ISBN 1-85242-627-6.
  17. ^ "Space Is the Place". IMDb.com.
  18. ^ Moley, Raymond; Phillips, Joseph Becker; Muir, Malcolm; Smith, Rex; Williamson, Samuel Thurston (November 20, 1983). "Newsweek". Newsweek, Incorporated – via Google Books.
  19. ^ Butler, Mark J. "Electronica, Dance and Club Music" (2017). page 456, Routledge. ISBN 9781351568548.
  20. ^ a b c d David Pattie, Sean Albiez (2011). Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop. A&C Black, 2011. p. 728. ISBN 9781441191366.
  21. ^ Mickey Hess (2007), Icons of hip hop: an encyclopedia of the movement, music, and culture, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, p. 75, ISBN 978-0-313-33903-5, retrieved May 29, 2011
  22. ^ Jason Anderson (November 28, 2008). "Slaves to the rhythm: Kanye West is the latest to pay tribute to a classic drum machine". CBC News. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
  23. ^ Broughton, Frank (2007). La historia del DJ / The DJ's Story, Volume 2. Ediciones Robinbook. p. 121. ISBN 978-84-96222-79-3. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  24. ^ a b "Kurtis Mantronik Interview", Hip Hop Storage, July 2002, archived from the original on May 24, 2011, retrieved May 25, 2011
  25. ^ William Eric Perkins (1996), Droppin' science: critical essays on rap music and hip hop culture, Temple University Press, p. 12, ISBN 978-1-56639-362-1, retrieved May 26, 2011
  26. ^ Sicko, D., Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999 (ISBN 978-0823084289), p. 73.
  27. ^ Kellman, A. (2007). Hashim Biography. All Media Guide. Retrieved September 6, 2007, from [1]
  28. ^ Hashim (2000). "Hashim interview". ElectroEmpire.com (Interview). Interviewed by Rascal. Archived from the original on June 5, 2008. Retrieved September 5, 2007.
  29. ^ Kings of Electro at AllMusic
  30. ^ When The Planet Rocked. Electrofunkroots.co.uk. Retrieved on July 18, 2011.
  31. ^ "Electro". AllMusic. Retrieved October 4, 2014. Despite its successes (documented in full on Rhino's four-disc Electric Funk set), the style was quickly eclipsed by the mid-'80s rise of hip-hop music built around samples (often from rock records) rather than musical synthesizers.
  32. ^ Miami Gets Put On the Musical Map. ElectroEmpire.com
  33. ^ King, SB (2003). "The Fader". The Fader. No. 16–17. p. 188.
  34. ^ Shapiro, Peter (2005). The Rough Guide to Hip-Hop (2nd ed.). Rough Guides. p. 2005. ISBN 978-1843532637.
  35. ^ Owens, Dylan (December 29, 2016). "How electro-soul found its home in Denver's 'middle of nowhere' music scene". The Denver Post. Retrieved November 10, 2022.
  36. ^ Thomson, Graeme (October 30, 2015). "Peter Gabriel - the first four solo albums remastered".
  37. ^ "The Quietus | Features | Anniversary | Peter Gabriel 3: Melt 40 Years On By Chris Roberts". The Quietus.
  38. ^ Dorian Lynskey (March 22, 2002). "Out with the old, in with the older". The Guardian.
  39. ^ "The Electroclash Mix by Larry Tee". Ew.com. Archived from the original on September 30, 2012. Retrieved February 25, 2021.
  40. ^ Rhythm & Vines (November 2010). "Direct Influence". Rhythm & Vines. Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-03-01.
  41. ^ "The return of electro". Djmag.com. August 25, 2017. Retrieved February 25, 2021.
  42. ^ "The rise and rise of electro". Mixmag.net. Retrieved February 25, 2021.

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