Last Updated on September 6, 2023 by Shanta Roy
To learn about the history of EDM, we need to look at what EDM really means. When people use the term “EDM”, they are often unaware that it is a catch-all term that represents over 250 sub-genres of music.
This music can be traced back to the 1960s. To cover them all would take an entire book, so while I’ll touch on the more impactful elements of percussive dance music techniques, culture and history, I’ll also be omitting several important movements for brevity, such as Trance, Dubstep, and Drum N’ Bass.
Hip-Hop is technically considered a form of EDM (and it has influenced many EDM styles) but its rich culture and history deserves an article of its own.
Let’s start with a brief history of EDM, beginning with Kraftwerk. Considered one of the forefathers of EDM, this German band has been crating music with machines since the late 60s. Kraftwerk built their own instruments and considered themselves scientists over entertainers. They pushed the boundaries of what music could be by experimenting with beams of light, feedback, and tape loops.
Wendy Carlos is a key player (pun intended). She demonstrated that the synthesizer was a bonafide real instrument. Her 1968 surprise-hit album, Switched-On Bach, brought synths from the experimental side to pop culture.
The 70s belonged to disco which borrowed several traits from hippie culture such as psychedelia, free-form dancing, and trippy lights. The sound of Disco came from Motown (such as the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On”) as well as Funk (such as Sly & the Family Stone). Big name producers such as Nile Rodgers and Quincy Jones began to record session musicians and produce hits for artists whose only purpose was to supply vocals.
Disco may have culminated with the highly controversial “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979 but that did not stop EDM from evolving. House music, named for the Warehouse nightclub where Frankie Knuckles spun records, took Disco to a new level. Diva vocals and four-on-the-floor kicks survived the name change but many of the live drum, bass, and horn lines gave way to drum machines, the sampling of disco records, and synth-based tracks. The Roland TR-909 drum machine was possibly the single most important instrument that signified the sound of House.
Rock & pop music of the ‘80s differed from that of the ‘60s and ‘70s in the increased use of keyboards. New Wave bands seemed to have more of an interest in dancers than listeners and many times focused on the irresistible 4/4 Disco rhythm. Depeche Mode and Soft Cell were pioneers of New Wave. Their brand of synth-rock heavily influenced dance music.
Unlike House music’s tight connection to Disco, Techno was strictly electronic music. The first known use of the term occurred in Detroit in 1988 when Juan Atkins created a track called “Techno Music”. Techno can be described as a minimalist, almost mechanical house music. By 1992, techno bore almost no relationship to the funky beats and rhythms of house music. It took on a more hypnotic, tribal sound. Dark pounding rhythms mixed with a soulful feel and a stripped down vibe, which was the result of the limited available technology at the time. The Roland TB-303, TR-909, and TR-808 were the only instruments obtainable to those without a huge budget. Many of the early tracks were written with these alone and then recorded to two-track cassette tapes.