Road Trip: Exploring American Subgenres by Region - Part One
Icelandic artist Bjork is described as powerful and visceral, but Bjork herself compares her voice to her country, "Like in Iceland," she says. "You have the lava, almost no trees, almost no animals, and almost no people, so things are very stripped down. It's very naked."
The singer's voice is abstract, spatial, a little grainy, and still quite mysterious, much like the terrain of Iceland. Sonically, even her music is reminiscent of Iceland, with each measure produced to compliment Bjork’s rocky vocal terrain.
Similarly, in the US, there are parts all over the continent where music has blossomed in particular regions. Grunge laid its plaid roots in the Pacific Northwest; Motown built the template for rhythm and blues in the Midwest, and the California coast gave surf culture a soundtrack.
It’s not much different in the underground dance music community. Many genres and subgenres have a sound that can be traced back to one specific region in the US.
Before diving deeper, it’s important to remember the Black migration in the United States from 1910 to 1970. The vast majority of African Americans during this time lived in the South and were at the mercy of former slave owners, violent vigilantes, and their descendants. When the Great Migration began, 90% of all African Americans lived in the South, and when it was over in the 1970s, 47% of all African-Americans were living in the North and West.
This period gave birth to so many modern musical genres. Every Noise charts nearly 3,000 genres, and almost all "American” music has its roots in blues and soul, which spawned jazz and rock and roll; which spawned funk and R&B; which spawned disco and house, and so on.
The way regions across the US influenced electronic genres can be linked back to the disbursement of Black creatives during the Great Migration continues to have lasting effects on contemporary music.
An article from The Telegraph UK states, “If the roots tend to emerge from other regions, it is the Midwest more than anywhere that American music has grown its branches.” The Midwest has developed its own genres and has radically influenced genres from other regions. This is true not only of commercial music but also of dance music culture.
Chicago is the Midwest's largest economic and financial center, and Detroit is the birthplace of the automobile industry. These two cities were also popular destinations during the Great Migration, so naturally, the amount of influence the region had on contemporary music has been exceptional.
We already know the roots of Chicago house and Detroit techno, but the Midwest region has also given us more booty-shaking subgenres that continue to influence the music industry today.
Ghettotech was born out of Detroit as a direct product of DJing, and there are few genres in which that relationship is so inseparable. It all started with a 30-minute mix show that Jeff Mills, aka The Wizard, played on Detroit area radio stations during the 1980s. He would play records pitched up or played at 45 RPM, whatever made it faster. He was also known to mix the next track with a “zig-zag of scratches and beat juggles” before cueing the next track 45 seconds later. This style of mixing was erratic, aggressive, and difficult to master, which was why so many DJs in Detroit wanted to figure out how to emulate Mills’ extraordinary style.
Now, ghettotech is marked by raw, unpolished beats at roughly 145 to 160 BPM and has been described by the Detroit Metro Times as "techno's fast beats with rap's call-and-response.” Its base features four-on-the-floor kicks and has a lot of repetitive, crude, and pornographic vocals, like DJ Assault’s classic “Ass N Titties.”
There is a dance style in ghettotech called the Jit, whose roots date back to the Detroit jitterbugs in the 1970s. Chicago's equivalent to the jit is called Juke, but we’ll come back to that later.
A quick car trip west of Detroit puts us in Chicago, where another raunchy subgenre was taking shape. "It's Time for the Percolator" by Green Velvet’s earlier alias Cajmere is one of the first examples of Chicago house evolving into ghetto house or booty house.
This house subgenre started developing its distinct sound around 1992, the year “Percolator” debuted, by using house music’s basic "4-to-the-floor" kick drum or beat-skipping kick drums (such as those found in the subgenre "juke") as the template, then adding sexual lyrics over top of the beat.
The use of the Roland 808 and 909 was fairly common, and while little to no effects were used in ghetto house, if they were, they’d use Roland’s synthesized tom-tom sounds or analog synths to join the sexually explicit lyrics.
Chicago footwork and juke is a combination of ghettotech and ghetto house which sticks mainly to the BPM range of 150–165. Developed in the late 90s by RP Boo, the genre is now known for its beat-skipping kick drums in syncopation with snares and claps sounds from old drum machines. But perhaps the most captivating part of this regional juke genre is the fancy footwork that you can find on the dance floor of their parties.
Hip hop enthusiasts know the genre began in the boroughs of New York City with live vocalists MCing over instrumentals and breakbeats. So it makes sense, that over time, there continues to be a big breakbeat influence in dance music genres that have emerged from the Northeast.
Created in Baltimore, Maryland, the United States in the early 90s, Baltimore club grew out of the dance battles held at recreation centers and nightclubs throughout the city. The fast-paced music the DJs played during these battles was essential since the dance moves were equally as fast-paced.
Baltimore club music evolved from house and hip hop but instead of the four-on-the-floor like house is based on an eight-on-the-four, if you will beat structure. The tempos Baltimore club float around 130 BPM and have spawned dance moves like the "crazy legs,” an intense shaking of both legs combined with simultaneous foot tapping and shoulder shrugging, or the “what what,” a move where you raise one bent leg over the other, in a fast, hop motion.
The raunchy vocal snippets that Baltimore club is also known for can be traced back to radio jockey and MC Miss Tony, who worked in drag for much of their career. There’s a lot of queer history around Miss Tony’s infamous vocals and is worth exploring.
Jersey and Philly club are both derivatives of Baltimore club but can be identified by how hard the kick drum is or how chopped the breakbeat or vocal samples are chopped. There’s also a distinct bounce to these genres which is usually attributed to a triplet hi-hat pattern.
The Vogue style of dance may have come from Harlem ballroom cultures in the early 1960s but it wasn’t until the late 80s when elements of Ballroom house, as it's known today, began to take shape.
In a PBS Sound Field interview with MikeQ, one of Ballroom’s music pioneers, he explains that Ballroom of the late 80s just incorporated regular house music records. But some releases like “Love is the Message” by MFSB and “The HA Dance” by Masters At Work became vital to the emergence of Ballroom house. Over time, Ballroom house began to develop distinct features like kick drum heavy broken beats, the "Ha" crash, being placed on every fourth of four beats, and repetitive vocals, often provided by Ballroom MCs.
Seeing that MikeQ is from New Jersey, it is easy to see how the regional subgenre of Ballroom house was directly influenced by predecessor genres Baltimore and Jersey club.