Earlier this month, Forbes clocked superstar DJ Calvin Harris’s yearly salary at sixty-three million dollars, which breaks down to a cool four hundred thousand per gig. While those aren’t quite U2 numbers, they’re easy proof that electronic dance music has solidified its spot near the center of mainstream American music fans. Lineups for huge festivals like Ultra Music Festival in Miami and The Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas make fistfuls on dance music alone. So far, Hopscotch hasn’t been heavy on big-name EDM DJs and their crowd-hypnotizing light shows. But this year’s lineup brings plenty of evidence to suggest a varied dance music underground, far from those big-money beats.
The most significant subgenre standard bearer is DJ Spinn, representing Teklife, the record label at the hub of Chicago’s influential footwork scene. Footwork is a hyper-regional style gone global through a couple decades of slow, organic growth, followed by sudden Internet amplification. Though the key components of a footwork track are easily identifiable—extreme uptempos, excited vocal samples that take on an almost serene mantra quality with every repetition—the style is unusually elastic. There’s room for elements of hip-hop and jungle, even smooth horn melodies swiped from jazz. It now reaches out likeminded artists in the UK or Japan, who add their own novel touches that boomerang back to turntables on the South Side. While the beats are insistent enough to set a newbie moving, dancing to footwork properly is not a casual pursuit. The highly evolved foot movements in question are fast and athletic, brought to an innovative brink by a culture of competitive dance battles. To an unskilled observer the moves look crazy difficult. Footwork tracks often seem to be moving at two or three speeds simultaneously, their frenetic rhythms persisting almost subliminally in the margins even during bits calibrated for cool down. It’s no coincidence that Spinn appears with the Era Footwork Crew, a bunch of super-skilled ringers, in tow.
With a harrowing, even violent sound, Rabit’s recorded work is not so much dance music as flinch music. The Houston producer’s debut LP, Communion, sets off nauseous metallic melodies with jarring gunshot percussion and broken glass samples that turn your headphones into a warzone. His label, Tri Angle, has been building a shadowy vision of modern music for years, cultivating a roster that finds surprising overlap between gauzy rap instrumentalists, witch house sketchballs, cracked pop vocalists, and terrifying drone artists. In DJ sets, Rabit (aka Eric Burton) grapples in real time with his own subset of unsettling disconnects, slotting harsh industrial noise right next to emotive R&B. These elements don’t blend together in sets so much as rub shoulders resentfully. Eventually, the smooth soul vocals and the vicious noise blasts begin to bleed subliminally into each other. These sets can’t quite match his original compositions for sculptured discomfort, but it’s admirable how close Burton comes to their disorienting effect, while still presenting something that (kind of) makes sense in a club.
The repetitions of Container might slot most closely to techno, if Providence producer Ren Schofield’s records didn’t feel more like basement punk seven-inches than some pristine vision of a gleaming, technological future. His tracks hurtle forward, rattling, as if his equipment is always on the brink of losing a bolt. They often burst into industrial noise, and consistently carry room tone and speaker hiss. Schofield’s straight lines bring a visceral thrill, never hiding the real sweat and physicality of their creation. At the moment, underground dance music seems to be taking more from punk than punk is taking back.
In the early to mid-aughts, post-punk was all over hip clubs. Young acts regularly channeled the bass worship of seminal acts like ESG and Bush Tetras. Lately, rock bands with a solid claim to funkiness have gotten far fewer. This year’s Hopscotch brings at least a couple notable exceptions. Downtown Boys, also from Rhode Island, have a sax-based neo-no-wave sound that recalls James Chance deconstructing disco, accompanying strident leftist politics that shoot for your head instead of your ass. Sneaks, the one-woman band by Washington, D.C.’s Eva Moolchan, just signed to Merge Records on the strength of her 2015 debut, Gymnastics. The longest of the record’s ten songs is barely over two minutes, barely time to establish a groove, intone some scattershot lyrics and get the fuck out. It is long enough for Moolchan to establish her own playful, peculiar wavelength.
One brisk, delightfully Dadaist record may be slim evidence of danceability in DIY on the rise? And a few insular pockets of challenging dance music may not add up to a coherent commercial alternative to big EDM DJs in any significant way. But being part of a unified movement isn’t the bar for worth here: making audience move is always enough.