House music has never been on such a high before. The famed genre with the 4/4 beat has certainly evolved into one of the most diverse electronic dance music genres out there. From its early beginnings in Chicago in the mid-80s, house music has matured, expanded and splintered into a variety of subgenres including current popular manifestations such as electro house, tech house and progressive house. JUICE breaks it down for you and reminisces-with the help of some of the country’s pioneering DJs-how the genre with the ubiquitous kick drum beat became big in Malaysia.
Text The Piscean
It’s been a good 15-odd years since the dance music scene made its way to our shores. It reputedly began around 1995, a time when electronic dance music was still very much a niche and underground scene. “I was around to experience the early days of electronic dance music,” recalls Zouk resident DJ Shazz, “when people like Mark (Groovedoctor) played in small venues like Cafe Iguana, and Jungle Jerry and a few others played in what was previously known as Connections and then Silhouette, and the original Morning Class in Velvet [now-defunct club near Blue Boy; not to be confused with Zouk’s Velvet Underground]. I unfortunately missed the uprising of the scene due to being in the UK to continue my studies.”
For internationally exposed university students like Shazz who got a prolonged experience of club life overseas, returning to Malaysia upon graduation was a downer, what with the dance music scene in KL lacking and slow to catch on. While some of the local clubs did show some potential, most of what clubgoers got was a slew of commercial tunes. And they were certainly hungry for more. The mid 90s also saw an increase in the number of expats in the country who were already accustomed to good quality house music widely played in their home countries. This scenario soon prompted the beginnings of the house party, where true fans of EDM congregated at someone’s residence to listen to the DJ play “real” house music that wasn’t available in the clubs.
DJs-turned-event promoters like Callen Tham were considered the pioneers of dance music back in the mid-90s. His outfit, Tempo, began organising parties in 1996 because the scene was pretty much stagnant. He felt that something needed to be done to provide an alternative for dance music enthusiasts to listen to the music that they were not necessarily getting from the clubs. “We were influenced by what the people overseas were doing,” reveals Callen. “We thought that KL should be more like HK where the EDM scene had taken off, so it was just logical that we should’ve been heading in that direction as well. We had to start organising events on a bigger scale rather than just leave it to small club events.”
Tempo was one of the 1st event promoters to get corporate sponsorship for its parties. During that time, Tempo parties moved from a warehouse location to an abandoned club in Subang, where its Vivid parties were held. A lot of these parties happened at unconventional venues that were alien to the regular partygoer. Doing without today’s modern convenience of technology like mobile phones, e-mail and social networking, news on these parties still managed to successfully spread among the party circle through printed flyers and basic word of mouth.
Taking cues from Tempo was Pink and Yellow Promotions, an events company set up by Donovan The Funkie Junkie and Jungle Jerry in 1997-and later joined by Spacebar and DJ Love. Donovan had just returned from studying abroad in the UK and came up with the idea of starting something new for the dance music scene in KL. “We were the 2nd known promoters in KL, bringing in techno DJs after Tempo. Tempo, of course, went big because of all the sponsorship they scored but we focused on underground DJ gigs at that time,” says Donovan. “I always bring up the name Bob Sinclar, even though he has gone really commercial now. When we brought him down in 97/98, he literally arrived in slippers. Back then, no one really knew who he was except for the industry people.”
Corporate sponsorship soon became a big thing, monopolised by cigarette companies like Salem and Kent. During those heady times, you would hear about parties with international DJs happening practically every weekend at various venues across the city. It wasn’t rare to find names like Mauro Picotto, Armand van Helden, Timo Maas and John Digweed visiting on a weekly basis. “It started out really small with just a couple of promoters organising house music parties,” adds Donovan. “We didn’t do it because of the money and it might sound a bit clichÃ©, but we really just wanted to push this thing, which was very exciting at that time. The house music scene was really big in the UK and we wanted the same thing for our local scene.”
A lot of new clubs and bars started opening in the late 90s because of the discerning demand for quality music. Perhaps unbeknownst to some of the younger generation today, the Telawi square in Bangsar was once a bustling area filled with small, intimate venues offering eclectic and explorative playlists that occasionally ventured into the realms of chillout, acid jazz, breakbeat and dnb. Telawi was often the hub for more chilled out outings before clubbers headed to bigger venues like The Backroom and Movement. During that time, influential venues like Echo and The White Room in Bangsar served up some of the best house music in KL.
Blink, who started his DJ career in the late 90s by playing progressive house, remembers a time when every party was celebrated in a big way. “To be honest, when I started partying back then I didn’t really know how to differentiate one sound from another like how a lot of people do now,” he says. “I enjoyed all kinds of music including trance, but I didn’t know it was trance back then. I remember great gigs headlined by John Digweed, Paul Oakenfold and Derrick May, and parties in Subang. A lot of the parties in The Backroom were really good too.”
It is said that house music’s defining moment in Malaysia happened between the late 90s and early 00s. After that, the scene didn’t die or disappear; it simply took a few steps back. As Shazz missed out on what he deems as the heydays of house music due to his studying commitments in the UK, upon his return to Malaysia, he found it hard to get adjusted. Where once he was spoilt by the endless amount of record stores at his fingertips in the UK, chancing upon only a small number of them in KL was definitely frustrating. “There were a few record shops but because dance music was still at a very narrow spectrum of what people liked here, the shops just didn’t carry a lot of music that was easily found when I was in the UK,” he explains.
That conundrum prompted him to source for records from online stores like Juno. “Short of being online 24 hours a day, trying to find out about ‘this’ and ‘that’ producer, you end up just flipping through what these online stores have coming in week by week according to the producer’s name or record label’s releases. In the end, you become narrow yourself cos you don’t have the luxury to feel the tracks properly, like I would’ve usually done in the UK.” Shazz didn’t have a choice but to limit his playlist to soulful and jazzy house during the start of his tenure at Zouk. These days, however, he has the luxury of adding a lot more main room sounds to his sets with the advent of digital downloading. Still, he does occasionally miss the UK because of the diverse selection that’s readily available.
While Shazz once had to compromise on his set lists due to the lack of resources in KL, other DJs like JUICE DJ Quest 2003 winner Victor G and Donovan have found themselves shaping their DJ styles to suit the masses. For them, commercialism and mainstream music preferences among the youth play a role in this decision. “Music exposure to the youth is different from what it was before. The kids now are more into commercial sounds,” expresses Victor. “The Backroom was very much commercial back then, but everyone still went crazy over the music. Right now, we’re moving from a commercial age to playing what we’re mostly comfortable with, but it might not be suitable for the masses either. There are some DJs who still keep their sounds fresh, but we find ourselves trying to cater to the younger clubbers’ preferences just so we can stay relevant in the scene.”
A persistent problem with the general MTV population is that they tend to only take what is given to them and rarely scour for new sounds on their own. “We definitely cannot compare the dance music here with Jakarta, for instance,” adds Victor. “The market in Jakarta is wider, they have the facilities and they appreciate music more than the people here.” Because DJs are mostly catering to the MTV generation, a lot of the music that is coming out from the clubs now is just bastardised versions of rnb and pop hits that are being passed off as dance. “As a resident DJ, you have a role to educate the listeners while entertaining them. But here in KL, residents are entertaining the people rather than educating them,” claims Donovan. “Our scene isn’t as evolved as it is in Ibiza. Clubbers over there listen to the DJs to get an education on what the music is all about. But here, they’re spoilt and even pose song requests. In the end, we can’t do what we really want to.”
The media has a strong role to play in this sticky situation. As the internet becomes a booming source of knowledge for the population, clubbers who are just starting out are getting their information on the latest buzz from music forums and sites. Some media that initially started out being the proponent of all EDM genres have increasingly, over the years, chosen to focus on what’s currently popular. “There was a time when music mags gave love to all kinds of music,” says Victor, “but it seems like a preference is given more to the indie scene now compared to other genres. Most of the writers and editors are fans of this music, and give more coverage to those guys than house heads and the rest of dance music.”
The uprising of trance from the beginning of 2003 was also a contributing factor to the gradual “demise” of house music. When before, the top 3 listed on the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs Poll included house DJs, for the past 8 years artists from the trance genre have been dominating the poll. “People seem to rely on DJ Mag‘s Top 100 list and trance has pretty much been dominating for a while now,” Victor ponders. “My rationale is that trance probably has a friendlier approach to the younger crowd and it has a big room sound that is perfect for outdoor festivals. I myself enjoy trance.”
While trance continues to gain global popularity, a handful of international DJs are breaking away from the mould, and making house cool and current again. David Guetta, for one, has taken house music to its mainstream zenith by teaming up with popstars like the Black Eyed Peas and Kelly Rowland while producers the likes of Laidback Luke and Chuckie have been churning out their own brand of house music through what we know as Dutch house. Also playing a big part in the development of house is the Swedish House Mafia trio aka DJ-producers Steve Angello, Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso. While these guys continue to fashion new sounds, veterans like Derrick Carter, Green Velvet, Dennis Ferrer and John Digweed are still making headlines at outdoor festivals and club gigs all over the world.
Regrettably, house music fans in Malaysia only get a taste of all this greatness at events of a smaller scale, or not at all. “House music is more lovable now than ever but in typical Malaysian fashion, we’re usually 1Â½ years late when it comes to music trends,” figures Blink. “When the rest of the world is moving on to the new sounds of house, Malaysians are still stuck with listening to electro. When I tried playing it years ago, no one liked it. But now people are going crazy over it.” However much house music purists want to deny it, the new age of house music, which includes the harder sounds of Dutch house and the eclecticism of the Swedish House Mafia, are what’s big right now. “I think this is the time for the new house sounds to shine,” Blink continues. “People like Laidback Luke, Afrojack and DJ Chuckie are going to soar high in the charts this year.” He and his LOUD partner-in-crime Goldfish are doing a good job of educating the masses with a mix of amazing house tunes on their Saturday night weekly at Zouk to ensure that clubbers are in tune with this fresh movement. “Our LOUD nights are usually packed and most clubbers tend to leave satisfied, so we hope that our style educates them on the new house sounds.”
Could the new incarnation of house be a passing trend (such as minimal house) or will it be one that’s long-lasting (like progressive house)? Blink believes that house music has never gone out of style and these new sounds just play a part in what the genre has evolved into. He is also confident that one day, local promoters will eventually tire of booking the same old names like Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten and Paul van Dyk, and eventually look beyond the genre to welcome house music’s luminaries.
As for Donovan, he continues to soldier on with the help of his crew of house music advocates at OMP Entertainment. “To be honest, I’m really tired of playing to people who don’t understand my music and aren’t as open-minded,” he admits. “The only thing that keeps me going right now is being surrounded by big talents like Victor, [and his peers like] Azran and Shazan. The reason I joined OMP is because they believe in what they do and continuously push the real house sounds out there. My passion for music will always be there, but it’s people like them who make me feel relevant in the scene.”
“Real” house music might seem like a thing of the past in the new millennium, but all good epochs have witnessed a revival, and we foresee that it’ll only be a matter of time when the forces of the universe conjunct to bring back house music back to its former glory days.