The genre of electro is as lovable as it is difficult to pin down. The word "electro", sometimes called "electrofunk," describes a wide breadth of electronic music sounds with more or less the same origins. While it took many forms inside the U.S. and eventually internationally, its most steadfast features are groundshaking TR-808 percussion in swift, syncopated patterns and motifs that often invoke technology and ponder the future. By my count, electro first appeared in 1981 and was nothing less than the harbinger of hip-hop and techno, created largely by African-Americans artists and often inspired by European, synth-focused records.
It's had a long and fruitful evolution since, seeing occasional resurgences in popularity among DJs and producers while some staunch supporters hold on throughout peaks and valleys. With its recent return to the spotlight on dancefloors and in new release bins, it seems especially worthwhile to examine the history of this portentous genre. Given its complexity and the wealth of subject matter, this piece will only attempt to summarize the major developments in the genre over time and will unfortunately omit many amazing electro tunes—and much of the social context around them—out of sheer necessity.
We hope this serves as a jumping off point for more deep dives into this fathomless collection of sounds like the one inspiring this feature. If you're already an expert on the origins of electro, check out part two of our series, where we look at the genre's second-wave. For everyone else, let's start at the beginning.
The early 1980s were an absolute tinderbox for the rapid development of electronic music. As the decade began, synthesizers and drum machines were becoming more commonly found in recording studios and on stage with bands. They helped smooth punk rock into new wave and synth pop while also setting the stage for proto-house, boogie, and computerized funk. But it took a few groundbreaking developments to spark the birth of electro.
First, Roland released its first fully programmable drum machine, the TR-808, in 1980. While initially deemed inferior to the vaunted Linn LM-1, it took just a few years before the 808 grew into the backbone of most dance music, eventually becoming the most ubiquitous drum machine sound of all time. Early adopters were drawn to its now-iconic synthesized drum sounds and its step-sequencing function, which allowed users to program drum patterns on the fly like never before. But it wasn't until Roland stopped production in 1983 and 808s started showing up in second-hand shops that it became affordable for many producers to own one.
Meanwhile, a handful of pioneering artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra, George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, Gary Numan, D-Train, and Yello were laying the musical groundwork for what came next. Looming over all of them was Kraftwerk, whose thorough embrace of synthesizers and drum machines had already influenced a generation of electronic musicians. But it was their 1981 album, Computer World, and specifically its single "Numbers," which opened the door for electro. With its queasy melodies and clipped, syncopated percussion that would become a hallmark of the genre, the song's robotic funk made it an instant favorite of many DJs in the United States. It also increased the group's exposure within black and Latino audiences, setting off a musical arms race to react to this revolutionary tune that had become the backing track for many local New York rappers.
It was Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, with production by Arthur Baker and John Robie, whose record "Planet Rock" had the widest impact and came to define the early electro sound. Released in June 1982 on NYC hip-hop label Tommy Boy, the song featured the Soulsonic Force rapping over bouncing, syncopated 808 beats that interpolated distinctive Kraftwerk melodies. In a 1998 interview, Afrika Bambaataa explained, "I always was into Trans Europa Express, and after Kraftwerk put 'Numbers' out, I said, 'I wonder if I can combine the two to make something real funky with a hard bass and beat.' So we combined them." Arthur Baker knew they had musical dynamite on their hands. In a 1999 interview, Baker said, "I went home the night we cut the track and brought the tape home, and I said to my wife at the time, 'We've just made musical history.'"
This proved to be no exaggeration. Not only did the record make its way around the U.S., spreading the word of hip-hop and electronic beats, it inspired legions of followers wherever it was heard. The New York scene lit up first and brightest in 1982, with Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam," Warp 9's "Nunk", Planet Patrol's "Play At Your Own Risk" (also produced by Baker and Robie), and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's "Scorpio" all extrapolating on the territory covered by "Planet Rock" with 808 beats and talkbox vocals.
The momentum behind the sound picked up in 1983 as it diversified, with seminal, mostly instrumental cuts like Man Parrish's "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)" and Hashim's "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)" demonstrating how powerful it could be even without MCs. The immensely talented band Newcleus got their start with "Jam On Revenge" in 1983, and their inventive 1984 singles "Computer Age (Push The Button)" and "Jam On It" would cement their place in electro history. Baker and Robie continued to craft foundational tracks like New Order's "Confusion," Freeez's "I.O.U.," Soulsonic Force's "Looking For the Perfect Beat", and Nairobi's "Funky Soul Makossa," launching the Streetwise label to release them and many other electro records. Even legendary pianist Herbie Hancock got in on the action, releasing the Grammy-winning, scratched up electro tune "Rockit," which lent respectability to the burgeoning genre and added to its already swelling audience.
The arrival of Kraftwerk's "Numbers" and then "Planet Rock" sent aural shockwaves through music scenes around the U.S., which were perhaps felt deepest in Detroit. The music of Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, and many new wave records had already primed the pump for funky electronic sounds, inspiring Juan Atkins and Richard Davis to form Cybotron in 1981 and record the scrappy but powerful single "Alleys Of Your Mind." Although not as widely cited as "Planet Rock," its syncopated rhythms and chilly synth work suggest it was perhaps the original electro tune.
Over Skype, Atkins told me, "The reason I was doing electronic [music] was because I lived in a place where I couldn't get other band members, so I had to put these songs together by myself. That is where technology and electronics helped." Incredibly, he was in New York promoting the second Cybotron single, "Cosmic Cars," at the moment "Planet Rock" landed. "As soon as we pulled into the city, one station had an exclusive of this mystery record, and it just lit up the airwaves," Atkins explains. "And it was already a year behind."
Cybotron's 1983 record "Clear" established the duo as heavyweights in the electro arena. Mixed by Jose "Animal" Diaz, who also worked with Jonzun Crew in New York, its instantly memorable whirling motifs would go on to be hugely influential and widely sampled, most notably for Missy Elliot's 2005 single "Lose Control." Many have cited "Clear" as the original techno track as well, which says a lot about the slippery boundaries between the genres.
Atkins' longer lived solo project, Model 500, launched in 1985 and contributed crucial electro cuts like "Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)," as well as more or less writing the manual for Detroit techno generally. He even made electro records under other names and in various collaborations. "Technicolor," his Channel One release with Doug Craig, even ended up being interpolated into Sir Mix-a-Lot's smash hit, "Baby Got Back." With the rare outlier of Erik Travis' Sound Of Mind releases in 1987 and 1988, few other Detroit electro artists emerged during the '80s. However, they would go on to play a dominant role in the sound of electro in the early '90s as New York's influence waned. More on that later.
As the first wave of electro was reaching its peak around 1984, a new electro scene was blossoming in Los Angeles. Here the biggest electro acts emphasized rapping as much as the hard-edged beats beneath their lyrics, serving as precursors to LA's fertile hip-hop heritage. In fact, familiar names like Dr. Dre and Yella of N.W.A. fame got their start in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, with scratch-heavy cuts "Surgery" and "He's Bionic" helping to define the scene. Mik Lezan, known both as Arabian Prince and Professor X, was also making Prince-influenced electro cuts and harder street beats before he joined N.W.A. Ice-T initially launched his rap career with electro tunes, such as "The Coldest Rap," with musical contributions from members of The Time. Another pillar of the scene was The Unknown DJ, the artist behind classic electro records "Beatronic" and "Basstronic" and the label owner of Techno Hop Records, which released many LA electro records. He also collaborated with DJ Slip as The X-Men, a project whose few sample-heavy singles were well received in LA and Detroit.
But the city's biggest electro export was undoubtedly Egyptian Lover, an intensely charismatic producer and vocalist who is one of the few original electro artists still active today. Originally the producer for Uncle Jamm's Army and the Radio Crew (with Ice-T), the man born Greg Broussard went solo in 1984 with "Egypt, Egypt" and never looked back. "When I first heard that Kraftwerk album with 'Numbers' on it, I lost my mind and said to myself, 'I need to make a rap over that crazy electronic beat," Broussard told Infinitestatemachine in 2009, adding, "… Soulsonic Force beat me to it, and when I heard 'Planet Rock' I was like, 'Ahhhh that is what I was gonna do.' But it only inspired me more to create a style similar to this. Prince and Kraftwerk were my main influences."
On the opposite coast, another branch of the electro tree sprung up in Miami between 1984-85. Like in LA and New York, the electro sound was a springboard for the city's hip-hop scene and its own mutation called Miami Bass. As one might expect, Miami's artists emphasized the bass lines in their 808-clad beats and injected Latin influences as well. The most famous electro tune to come out of Miami was Freestyle's 1985 smash, "Don't Stop The Rock", whose flashy melodies lit up dancefloors and radio stations well beyond the coast of Florida. MC A.D.E. was among the city's first electro artists, releasings the singles "Bass Rock Express" and "Bass Mechanic," which helped lay out the template for Miami Bass. Scene stalwarts Maggotron and Dynamix II started off as devoted "Planet Rock" followers but went on to create a musical bridge between early electro and Miami Bass. And while more associated with Miami Bass, even 2 Live Crew's first musical forays, "The Revelation" and "Throw The D," were electro in style.
In the early '80s, the UK was already suffused in synth-pop courtesy of Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, New Order, and many more when electro first struck a chord with British audiences. Greg Wilson, a Manchester-based DJ who was present at the moment and instrumental to the genre's success in his country, describes the scene in great detail on his tremendous resource, Electrofunkroots.co.uk. By his telling, rap didn't quite catch on or receive critical respect when it first arrived on their side of the Atlantic via records like Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."
It was actually notorious trend-hunter Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols and New York Dolls manager, who broke that seal. For his 1982 single, "Buffalo Gals," he recruited veteran songwriter and producer Trevor Horn, later of Art of Noise fame, to record and produce the sample-heavy track. In addition to McLaren's own stilted vocals, he included scratching and a sample sourced by the World's Famous Supreme Team, two MCs recruited during the visit to the Bronx that introduced McLaren to hip-hop, electro, and the technique of scratching. Paired with a video that featured breakdancing by the Bronx-based Rock Steady Crew, "Buffalo Girls" opened British eyes to the possibilities of hip-hop and these fresh dance moves. The record even made it to number nine in the UK Singles charts.
Suddenly the demand for the novel sounds and distinctly urban aesthetic emanating from the Bronx grew astronomically. English promoter Morgan Khan launched the label StreetSounds to cater to b-boy culture springing up across England. Their "Street Sounds Electro" compilation series not only branded the entire genre, they delivered hit tracks by the biggest American hip-hop and electro artists to audiences who would've never found import copies themselves. Surprisingly, the popularity of the music didn't inspire many Brits to have a go at making their own electro tracks. Greg Wilson, along with members of Magazine and A Certain Ratio, and the rappers Kermit and Fiddz, recorded tracks under a variety of aliases for "Street Sounds UK Electro," another Morgan Khan compilation with respectable chart success. But their efforts proved to be surprisingly singular with the exception of the Baker-produced "I.O.U." from English jazz-funk band Freeez. It wasn't until the early '90s that many British artists offered their own take on electro.
As the '80s wore on, many of the hip-hop oriented scenes opted to keep the 808 beats of electro and leave the futurist themes in favor of party-oriented, street-level observations more commonly found in rap. House music moved from Chicago's underground sensation to a world-beating sound. Techno was growing rapidly in Detroit and starting to spread as well. Acid house took off like wildfire in the UK. And what of electro? It was still being played, although more selectively, by adventurous DJs. Most of the artists moved on to these newer genres, which were still fresh and full of even more possibilities. But electro was still to see a major resurgence in the 1990s. In part two of this feature we examine how successive generations have interpreted the electro sound and the great importance of Detroit throughout it all.