Electro (short for either electro-funk, or electro-boogie) is a genre of electronic dance music directly influenced by the use of TR-808 drum machines, and funk sampling. Records in the genre typically feature drum machines and heavy electronic sounds, usually without vocals, although if vocals are present they are delivered in a deadpan manner, often through electronic distortion such as vocoding and talkboxing. This is the main distinction between electro and previously prominent genres such as disco, in which the electronic sound was only part of the instrumentation.
Definition and characteristics
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.
The Roland TR-808 drum machine hit the market 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. 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. Its unique percussion sounds like handclaps, open and closed high-hat, clave and cowbell became integral to the electro sound. The Roland TR-808 has attained iconic status, eventually being used on more hits than any other drum machine. 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. The 1983 recording, Light Years Away, by the electro hip hop group Warp 9 exemplifies the sci-fi aspect of electro: an afrofuturist, sci-fi tale of ancient astronaut visitation, 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, while its synth lines and sound effects are informed by computer games, video and cartoons, “born of a science-fiction revival.”
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. 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.
Following the decline of disco music in the late 1970s, various funk artists such as Zapp & Roger began experimenting with talk boxes and the use of heavier, more distinctive beats. Electro eventually emerged as a fusion of different styles, including funk and disco combined with German and Japanese electropop, in addition to influences from the futurism of Alvin Toffler, martial arts films, and video game music. The genre’s immediate forebearers included Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).
In 1980, YMO was the first band to utilize the TR-808 programmable drum machine. That same year, YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto released “Riot in Lagos”, which is regarded as an early example of electro music, and is credited for having anticipated the beats and sounds of electro. The song’s influence can be seen in the work of later pioneering electro artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Mantronix.
In 1982, 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), as well as Yellow Magic Orchestra songs such as “Riot in Lagos” (from Sakamoto’s 1980 album B-2 Unit). “Planet Rock” is widely regarded as a turning point in the electro genre, “like a light being switched on.” Another groundbreaking record, released that year, Nunk by Warp 9 utilized “imagery drawn from computer games, video, cartoons, sci-fi and hip hop slanguage.” That same year, although remaining unreleased, a pre-Def Jam Russell Simmons produced Bruce Haack’s proto hip-hop single “Party Machine” at a studio in Philadelphia. 1982, proved a prolific year in electro with releases by artists including Planet Patrol, Warp 9, Man Parrish, George Clinton (Computer Games), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Tyrone Brunson, The Jonzun Crew and Whodini.
In 1983, Hashim created the influential electro funk tune “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” which became Cutting Record’s first release in November 1983. 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”. “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”. 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, 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. Detroit techno DJ Eddie Fowlkes shaped a style called electro-soul, which was characterized by a predominant bass line and a chopped up electro breakbeat contrasted with soulful male vocals. Kurtis Mantronik’s electro-soul productions for Joyce Sims presaged new jack swing’s combination of hip hop and soul elements.
By the late 1980s, the genre had parted from its initial funk influences. Baker, Pettibone, Golden and Scher enjoyed robust careers well into the house era, eluding the “genre trap” to successfully produce mainstream artists.