Tracing the Beat: The Evolution of Electronic Music in the USA
Electronic dance music evolved in the USA over a few decades with U.S.-born artists, international influences and a growing fan base.
To learn more about EDM subgenres, and the artists to watch today, a look at EDM’s inception, progression, styles and DJs of the U.S. Listen to a favorite tune or two as you peruse the highlights and decide where you’ll go to watch your favorites entertainers.
EDM History – Where, When and Who
Today’s EDM incorporates the latest in equipment and sound software, but those state-of-the-art sounds have their roots in 1970s synthpop and disco mixed by DJs in tucked-away nightclubs.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the sounds of synthesizers and electronically enhanced tunes began popping up around the world, but it was in Detroit, Michigan, that techno was born. Three Detroit-based musicians, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May – known as “The Belleville Three” and named after the Detroit area neighborhood – engineered sounds that could be replicated, remixed and incorporated with popular music in new ways.
Around the same time, DJs in Chicago, Illinois, showed a similar trend by mixing disco, soul and emerging synthesizer sounds with a particular emphasis on heavy, electronic drum beats. A now-legendary DJ named Frankie Knuckles opened The Warehouse nightclub in 1977. His unique musical mixes combined with the club name coined the term “house” and earned Knuckles the title of “Godfather of House” and an honorary street name, Frankie Knuckles Way, at the corner of Jefferson and Adams in downtown Chicago. Phuture, Mr. Fingers and Kym Mazelle, who was known as the “First Lady of House Music,” were also part of the early house scene.
Electronic music became popular internationally in the ’80s with a massive range of songs, from a-ha’s “Take on Me” to Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” becoming further refined in the ’90s as it morphed into its own musical genre. Definitive EDM artists during the ‘90s from throughout the world and popular in the USA included Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, Kraftwerk, David Guetta and Tiësto. Moby was a standout U.S. artist, and even Detroit’s Madonna got in the act by adding EDM sounds to her “Bedtime Stories” and “Ray of Light” albums.
Modern EDM has many different styles, countless DJs, massive music festivals, outstanding venues and international appeal. Today, even mainstream singers, including Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, incorporate electronic dance music into their work.
Daft Punk, among the definitive EDM artists in the 1990s, still performing today
EDM Today – Subgenres and U.S. DJs to Know
Today, EDM’s many subgenres are heard in all corners of the world, from nightclubs to DJ contests to mega music festivals. Continually evolving technology contributes to new, creative takes year after year.
It’s helpful to know EDM subgenres for discovering new artists and musical events. For house, these include deep house, progressive house, electro house, tech house and tribal house. For trance, there’s progressive trance, tech trance, vocal trance and psytrance. Dubstep encompasses the subgenres of brostep, glitchstep, trap, afro-dub and wonky. Drum and Bass music has darkstep, drumfunk, drumstep, hardstep, and drill and bass.
In the USA, these 10 DJs are at the forefront of electronic music:
- 12th Planet – Dubstep, trap, jungle drum and bass; earned DJMag’s Best Producer in North America award for 2017.
- Bassnectar – Dubstep, drum and bass, breakbeat, downtempo; festival headliner regularly sells out solo shows.
- Carl Craig – House, Detroit techno; his 2008 “Sessions” was ranked No. 4 on Rolling Stones’ 30 Greatest EDM Albums of All Time.
- Dillon Francis – Moombahcore, electro house, trap, progressive house; co-featured on Vice Channel’s comedy series, “What Would Diplo Do?”
- Diplo – Moombahton, trap; a TV commercial for former U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders featured his 2013 track “Revolution.”
- Kaskade – House, progressive house, electro house; voted America’s Best DJ by DJ Times and Pioneer DJ in 2011 and 2013.
- Mija – Dubstep, post-hardcore, trap; started as a rave promoter at 18 and now plays major festivals like Burning Man and Bonnaroo.
- Porter Robinson – House, electro house, synth-pop; at 25 years old, he’s considered one of EDM’s young prodigies.
- Skrillex – Dubstep, electro house, trap, post-hardcore; has received more Grammy awards than any other electronic music artist.
- Steve Aoki – Dubstep, electro house; long-standing name in music who has a Netflix documentary, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”
Beyond the Music: EDM in Art and Culture
Music is the main component of EDM, but it’s not the only ingredient. Notably, electronic music has evolved into its own culture of clothing and fashion, visual art and flow arts, the hypnotic performance art of human movement in conjunction with visual aids like glow sticks, colorful accessories and other handheld luminous entertainment.
In the style world, fashion shows throughout the USA are featuring EDM at their showcases – not only in runway music, but in clothing styles and accessories. In 2015, Miley Cyrus famously collaborated with designer Jeremy Scott on a line of rave-inspired clothing. At 2017 New York Fashion Week, Uniiqu3 performed her collaborative single “Werk Ya Bawdy” on the runway before models strutted out new fashions to the mix.
Art, makeup, light and fashion – inspired by Electronic Dance Music
Where to Hear EDM
EDM is mixed by DJs in nearly every nightclub, but some venues are so elaborate, famous and cutting edge that they warrant special mention.
- XS at the Wynn, Las Vegas, Nevada: One of the most popular and highest-grossing nightclubs in the USA.
- Beta, Denver, Colorado: Open since 2007, it’s been lauded by Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines.
- Liv, Miami, Florida: Find it in the swanky Fontainebleau Hotel in glamorous South Beach.
- Cielo, Manhattan, New York: An intimate space created by a former Ibiza DJ.
Music festivals are popular to see a lineups packed with EDM musicians. There are several major events in the USA to add to your wish list.
- Movement, Detroit, Michigan: Experience the granddaddy of EDM festivals, in the birthplace of techno.
- Electric Daisy Carnival, Las Vegas, Nevada: An over-the-top, carnival-like production featuring EDM’s biggest names.
- Beyond Wonderland, San Bernardino, California: Themed after “Alice in Wonderland” with whimsical costumes, art and light shows.
- Holy Ship! Port Canaveral, Florida: Cruise to the Bahamas with nonstop music and private beach parties.
- Electric Zoo, Randall’s Island Park, New York City: Major EDM show set on an island between Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens.