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The Young, Wired, and Restless: Cleveland's Electronic Music Scene Gets a Makeover

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Late one recent Sunday night, DJs ESO and Corey Grand fill the subterranean expanse of the B-Side Liquor Lounge and Arcade with a barrage of eclectic tracks. Deep bass lines roar beneath colorful synths and chopped-up vocals while kick drums and snappy, old school snares tap along. Tracks blend in and out of one another, seamlessly creating a collage of what was and is utterly hip.

"This is the most versatile night of music in Cleveland," Grand hollers, and he's not wrong. The mix of club, trap, electronic and hip-hop doesn't discriminate much, if at all.

By 1 a.m., the crowd of about 40 is in full swing — grabbing drinks, mingling about and hitting the dance floor. Burgertime, Galaga and assorted retro arcade screens blink on the outskirts of the room alongside party lights.

The evening's lineup also features a special DJ set by Freeze-Tag, a 24-year-old local electronic performer. His tracks, like "You Do" and "Hours (Ours)," groove alongside those of national and international artists. Freeze-Tag is amongst the handful of Cleveland electronic musicians attempting to develop a presence in the city, which hasn't always been easy.

Electronic Dance Music ("EDM" in the scene's colloquy) has found its way to Top-40 status. What was underground was mainstreamed and now emanates from your favorite local FM stations and takes center stage at the Grammys. The local underground, meanwhile, never went away and remains the same tight-knit, supportive group that helped birth Girl Talk over a decade ago.

Girl Talk, who moved to Cleveland from Pittsburgh in 2000 to study biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, isn't the typical Northeast Ohio electronic artist story. While Girl Talk counts some 400,000 listeners and over 23 million plays on lastfm.com, not to mention untold downloads of his last solo EP, All Day (which was free, and is probably on your iTunes playlist), he would have been lucky to draw 100 people at his early shows.

That was the era, in the late '90s and early '00s, when Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers landed in heavy, regular rotation on MTV. The electronic underground was a fringe sect in Cleveland, which had its pluses and minuses. It was a small group, to be sure, and it lacked a scope and reach, which is something it still deals with to this day. But it did give artists the chance to support each other, open for national acts like Kid606, ADULT. and Cex, and experiment wildly.

"There was a time around 2000 when you could go to Speak in Tongues, or a venue like that, and see some raw shit," says Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. "You'd see some crazy stuff that was only in the context of 'right now.' Meaning: It's not going to be on the Internet and people aren't doing this to get a viral video. It was a bit more of a free-for-all vibe. Again, I don't think it's the way it should be, but it was cool while it lasted."

Since then, the scene has changed along with the landscape of electronic music at large — from the success of ubiquitous chart-toppers like Skrillex and Krewella to the avenues by which artists distribute their creations — and Cleveland is reinventing itself and birthing talent like never before. The problem, as always, is attracting an audience.

"I think we've got the momentum, for sure, but I think it needs to be a holistic change," says Marcus Alan Ward, aka Freeze-Tag. "We have the talent and the artistry portion of it, but..."

Better Living Through Circuitry

In the late '90s, Cleveland was caught up in the rave trend like everyone else in the world. Glow sticks, whistles, flashing lights and a straight four-on-the-floor bass-drum-thumping were the norm. The common perception that the scene was intimately associated with drugs and other illegal activities wasn't out of place and those ties created a whole ancillary level of cops and secrecy that distracted from the music.

"This period, maybe between '96 and '00 or so, I'd have gigs up in Cleveland," says Columbus-bred musician RJ Krohn, more commonly known as RJD2. "So, I would drive up there fairly often. It seemed to me that there was this pseudo-rave type of world that was happening and I would kind of be an odd man out. I would wind up driving up to Cleveland for a weekend and having gigs in warehouses or large, banquet-hall type of events. There was a window in time that this was happening in that part of Ohio and it seemed to go away around 2000."

As the rave world waned, other genres like drum 'n' bass, techno and more experimental forms had room to come to the forefront. Venues like Speak in Tongues, the Grog Shop and smaller pop-up venues aided in the birth of the new era that drew national acts to Cleveland and gave local artists the chance to open for them.

"We dabbled at [bringing in national acts] in the beginning and by 2004 really started doing it," says B-Side's Brad Petty, aka MisterBradleyP, about Cleveland-area shows. "It was 90 percent national acts, mostly DJs. In terms of live acts, the live acts were always up here [at the Grog Shop], like Daedalus, Prefuse 73, and Gaslamp Killer — the whole L.A. scene."

With such a small and intimately connected cluster of local artists, everyone benefited. Exposure and good old friendly encouragement went a long way.

"If you can have that particular interest, especially in the early 2000s, if you're into weird electronic music, there was only a small group of people involved in that," Gillis says. "So it was easy to be a part of the scene and get on shows and actually open up for national acts. When you take that step, it's kind of exciting because there are only so many people involved in bringing those national electronic acts in town. So, it was not that difficult to get on bills with some of my favorite musicians, people I really looked up to. So, I think that was the most immediate advantage. I think in a city the size of Cleveland, people are down to help each other out."

EDM vs. Electronica

Last year's top-selling records included electronic albums like Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, Avicii's True and Calvin Harris' 18 Months. Electronic is not only an element of pop music but on equal footing with rock 'n' roll and hip-hop in terms of sales and concert attendance. To wit: Daft Punk took home five Grammys last year, including Album of the Year.

But there still exists a barrier between the music and its audience thanks to certain (technical and supremely frustrating at times) definitions within the genre. The staggering difference between EDM and other electronic music often presents itself as the first hurdle. EDM might be one of the most well known subcategories, but it represents only a fraction of the scene.

For the beginners: Created primary for clubs, EDM in its purest sense is dance music. Whether it takes on the moniker of "electro house," "dubstep" or even "big beat," these dance tracks were created with the clear intent of getting people to dance.

Then there's the other side of electronic music — a nearly genre-less island of artists combining thousands of influences to make "electronica." In this light, the Grammys title of "Dance/Electronica" becomes strangely concise. There is EDM, and then there's everything else. Those making the "everything else" music live in the perpetual shadow of EDM but relish their niche.

"When this whole EDM craze hit, it sort of divided things between the underground. And now EDM is Top 40," says MisterBradleyP. "It's on 96.5 FM. Sorority girls were going to see Passion Pit; now they're going to festivals and dancing to DJs. So, the underground scene didn't necessarily blow up because of the EDM thing. It's still organic and growing. And I think that people who have grown up with electronic music are now looking for that underground stuff again because that other scene got so big and mainstream. They don't want Top 40; they want the underground stuff. Things like disco and the whole glitch-hop stuff are coming back because of it."

Relatively well-known artists like Flying Lotus, Boards of Canada and Autechre are gaining in popularity and the non-dance-oriented movement has accelerated with the masses over the past decade. While it's wreaking havoc on those wishing to succinctly describe the music they create, the anti-genre electronica genre has wormed its way into the local audioscape and influenced a host of Cleveland musicians like Freeze-Tag and Urbindex.

But they are still looking for help in creating a foothold — the fans, the stations, the listeners, the bookers.

"There was abstract expressionism and Jackson Pollock was the biggest artist of it, and Andy Warhol came along and did pop art," says Freeze-Tag. "First of all, it needs to be a group of artists to change something. Then it has to be the publications that get it out in an accurate and positive way and back then the art dealers had to change. It had to be the whole industry, not just those two. It was a whole industry revamp. And as far as artists, we've got some great ones."

Internet Killed the Performing Star

While social media has changed the landscape of how people interact, it has also changed the way in which artists create. Bandcamp, SoundCloud and Mixcloud offer musicians the opportunity to share their music with a larger audience regardless of geography. And as the music becomes less regionally specific — Detroit Techno, Chicago House, New York House, etc. — the virtual stage is enabling young composers in new ways.

"Everyone grows up with a kind of romantic notion of music when they were young," says Gillis. "That's just common. What I went through, I loved and I thought it was real and unique and wouldn't trade it for anything. I know the world's different now. I have a hard time saying it's better or worse; it's just different, it's complicated. That is something I've noticed that now people still go out and tour, and there's still money in touring, but a lot of stuff just happens exclusively on the Internet: projects, ideas, things getting popular. Which is exciting and cool, but I just think back in the late '90s to early 2000s when I was just getting going, you really had to exist in the real world in order to get your music out there."

And the inherent solitary nature of creating electronic music means that it draws an introverted crowd. More so than with other genres, electronic is usually a solo project, humming along with a computer and intense streaks of programming and tweaking. And now you don't need to leave your house to distribute the final product.

"Now, I think a lot of people involved in music can be shy people," Gillis says. "Especially electronic music when you're used to sitting there, staring at a computer screen for 10 hours creating your music. It's probably a lot easier to just concentrate getting your stuff out there on the Internet, as opposed to getting out in the real world and risking it and booking a show and maybe embarrassing yourself and having to meet older people or people you might be intimidated by who are booking these shows. It took some risk back then to do that and I'm really happy I did. But I know if I were 16 years old now making electronic music and I knew there was a better chance getting exposure just spending all of my time on the Internet, that's probably what I'd be doing."

Internet sensations like Florida-based XXYYXX, who first gained popularity online in 2009 at age 14, are good examples, though certainly typical examples, of how the older generation can be squeezed out.

"I feel like the newer you are to the game, the more it probably helps you," RJ Krohn says. "The longer you've been in this game, the more you've seen record sales decline. Whether or not there's a causal link between virtually everything online and that, I don't know, it's yet to be seen. "

The Status of the Status Quo

Apart from the B-Side and Grog Shop, electronic-centric event organizers have aided the efforts of local artists. Organizers like (216)BASS, Tru Events and Cumulus Entertainment regularly bring together local and national acts. (Cumulus and Tru Events are responsible for bringing big names like Skrillex, Krewella and ATB, to Cleveland.)

Venues like Duck Island, which hosts (216)BASS's live events, and Touch Supper Club, offer smaller-scale gigs, perfect for getting to know your local DJs.

The radio waves that pulse with electronica over the city are largely confined to college radio programs. Several shows on 91.1 WRUW, like Beat Matrix and Jammin' Jammz, feature a variety of all things electronic.

On 89.3 WCSB, current WCSB music director Stephanie Kilian hosts Parts Per Million. The show generally features minimal house, deep techno and glitch — genres not necessarily native to Cleveland, therefore giving the program a more international vibe.

"[Electronic music] seems to be going in a lot of directions depending on where the music is coming from," Kilian says. "If you look at many German-based artists, for example, you continue to get a more pop-inspired minimal techno. On the other hand, if you look at music coming out of Detroit or L.A., I think there is more of a hip-hop, drum 'n' bass and dub inspired sound. When it comes to Cleveland electronic artists, I know very few who play minimal house. I think that Cleveland is saturated with experimental electronic-noise and dubstep artists, which is absolutely okay. I just hope to see more minimal or deep techno-inspired sound in Cleveland too."

The Future is Now

If you're looking for the "Cleveland" electronic sound, if there is such a thing, Tommy Sheridan (aka Broken Keys) would be a good example. He's part of local hip-hop groups Smoke Screen and Smoke Noises and takes his cues from hip-hop DJs, blending the worlds of rap and electronic. On his latest record, Cantina EP, the genre-mashing is readily apparent. The title track, "Cantina," is driven by a danceable drum track but vocal tracks reciting "I started this gangsta shit and this the motherfuckin' thanks I get?" echo the merger.

Nationally, the same trend is common, and the Cleveland scene sounds a lot like that in L.A., where hip-hop inspired electronic production is supplanting the once dominant DJ scene. Artists like Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73, and RJD2 all have done their fair share of hip-hop production — Flying Lotus on Blu's N O Y O R K; RJD2's hip-hop collaboration Soul Position — and the boundary between electronic artist and hip-hop producer is disappearing.

Broken Keys appreciates the versatility that those arrangements provide. He has an electronic solo project but gets to play around with straightforward hip-hop with Smoke Noises.

"Opening for Anamanaguchi, I did a lot of 8-bit stuff that would fit with Anamanaguchi, but I also played a lot of stuff with vocals," he says. "So as far as the Broken Keys stuff that I produce, a lot of that stuff is my vocals that you'll hear on that and I'll just chop them and splice them and I'll do a lot more of the vocals on my own. There are less samples in the Broken Keys stuff than in Smoke Noises."

This hip-hop-electronic style works its way into other local artists like Corey Grand and Freeze-Tag, co-founders of the imprint [think halfway between a label and an artist collective] Long Division Recordings.

Grand released two records last year: Cold Wax EP and underneath. The records carry a similar vibe: subtle, hip-hop influenced beats meshed with a host of synthesized sounds creating a chilled-out yet intricate atmosphere.

"I think the straight DJ scene has decreased a little bit," says Grog Shop owner Kathy Blackman. "It used be, you could book the girls from Ladytron and you'd pack the house no matter what. There were a lot of things like that, people wanting to do after-parties and whatnot. I don't know that those things are as attractive anymore to everybody. Now, the electronic scene grew out of the hip-hop scene and I think that stuff has gotten more popular."

Not all artists come from a hip-hop background, however. The super-excitable and disco-infused tracks of Adam Rich, aka Rollergirl!, offer another side of the electronic spectrum and show Cleveland's diversity. Channeling '90s French house music mixed with modernized production and straight-up disco, Rich's music is dancefloor-ready. His self-titled debut record shows a friendlier side to electronica, where tracks are intelligently produced but simultaneously upbeat and easily accessible.

On the slower, ethereal side of electronica, former Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt released S/H last year, a stunning compilation of rare and previously unreleased tracks. A powerful insight into his process, the album glows with ambient warmth on tracks like "Dimmer" and "Liberty II."

At one point, electronic genres were fairly easy to keep track of — jungle, house, techno and a handful of subgenres like breakbeat and acid house. Try to make a list now, incorporating all subgenres, and the list would be in the hundreds. And it continues to grow, but the scene is circling back, in a sense, not to more basic designations but to the realization that endless classifications create an unnecessary obstacle for audiences, not to mention a distraction from the creation of the art itself, drawing from any and all influences.

"I think sometimes the classifications do muddy the waters," says Adam Wilson, head of (216)BASS. "It really should just be about what people enjoy, right? I think sometimes people get too caught up in the genres. I think we're starting to see a lot of that sub-genre stuff start to go away and people are going to be more understanding of just 'music,' more appreciative of things rather than worrying about having a sub-genre that has five different acronyms for it."

The Cleveland electronic scene is trending that way already, and it will continue to embrace the future while it waits for the world to embrace it.

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