Electro-soul; if you listen to electronic music, even if you don’t listen to what is colloquially dubbed as ‘electro-soul’, chances are that you’ve at least heard of it. It’s a sub-genre that is hard to label, hard to pinpoint the sound. It doesn’t receive a ton of mainstream attention, either. Yet, it carries a legion of dedicated fans, all attracted to this “clash” of sounds, as Griz called it. With influences of classic rock, blues, hip-hop, soul, funk, disco and more, all intricately laced with thudding bass lines and cutting synths, ‘electro-soul’ represents a medium in which the old and new collide. And for many fans, this collision does wonders on the ear drums.
Pretty Lights, at Counterpoint Music Festival last year, defined electro-soul (his own sound) as thus:
“Y’all down with that old-school, new-school, analog, electronic, futuristic, vintage, freshness, keepin’ it classy, f*ckin hip-hop, dubstep, soul, disco sh*tttttt?”
^^Watch the video of him saying it here, it’s priceless.
Before we get into where ‘electro-soul’ came from and where it is now, let’s take a minute to define what exactly ‘electro-soul’ mean. There are a lot of sounds that could be considered as part of this category, and they go by many different names: future funk, electro-funk, electro-hip-hop, future bass, and plenty of others. For the purposes of this piece, ‘electro-soul’ is going to be used as a blanket term for all of these, since it’s a term that has emerged in popular culture. Do be aware, however, that the differences exist. Like how oranges, tangerines, and grapefruits are all very different but defined under the category citrus, so are future funk, electro-hip-hop and so forth.
So in the words of Derek Vincent Smith (who may have been the one responsible for the term being invented), “Let’s Get Busy”:
Inspiration: Blues, Jazz, Soul, Funk and More
The absolute earliest influences back from the current genre we have today can be traced back to the African continent. It was here that the influence of a lot of the genres that comprise electro-soul (blues, soul, and their evolutions) essentially are “from” and thus influenced American music culture whence cultures started melding together. Perhaps the earliest contemporary influence of electro-soul today is the ‘blues’.
“The blues takes many forms… It is variously a feeling, a mood, a nameless threat, a person, a lover, a boss man, a mob, and, of course, the Devil himself. It is often experienced as both cause and effect, action and reaction, and it can be used as both hex and counterhex, poison and antidote, pain and relief. Most importantly, the blues is both the cause of song, and song itself…” – Edward Comentale
The origins of the blues most likely started with “spirituals”, or songs sung by enslaved African-Americans when they were brought to America. The beginning of what would colloquially be known as ‘blues’ is dated to have its roots in the early 1900s, and was most-likely also influenced by “rag-time”, another popular African-American music genre that helped developed the ‘dancing’ aspect of the blues. Sheet music for the blues began to emerge in the early 1900s, with musicians like W.C. Handy popularizing the genre. The blues itself represented a clash of cultures; many performers, such as Robert Johnson, combined elements of urban and rural blues. However, a ‘country blues’ and ‘urban blues’ styles still existed separately. As the years progressed, however, the transition from a rural sound to an urban sound slowly occurred. Popular urban blues singers like Bessie Smith helped lay down the foundation for future genres, namely soul music.
A derivative of the blues that followed was known as jazz. Jazz used blue notes, a pentatonic scale and syncopation, which made it, in form, very similar to the blues and ragtime. Jazz experienced a huge boom during the 1920s and 30s due to prohibition, and soon entered the “Jazz Age”. Speakeasies (bars that still sold alcohol though it was illegal) became hot spots for jazz, due to the liveliness of the music. Innovators such as the famous Louis Armstrong made this genre hugely popular, though it faced much oppression due to the fact that it was perceived as “threatening traditional values”.
The 1930s saw the emergence of “swing” music, otherwise known as big jazz bands. This style of music incorporated a strong rhythm section of double bass and drums as the anchor for a lead section of brass instruments such as trumpets and trombones, woodwinds including saxophones and clarinets, and sometimes stringed instruments such as violin and guitar. This may be an early predecessor to the “big-room sound” which is sometimes used today to describe certain songs.
Starting in the 40s, another huge influence of ‘electro-soul’, was the emergence of what was labeled ‘rhythm and blues’, otherwise known as RnB. RnB was generally characterized with blues records, As opposed to prototypical blues, RnB focuses on a stronger, gospel-esque backbeat, as described by Allmusic. Accordingly, RnB is, “Simple repetitive parts mesh, creating momentum and rhythmic interplay producing mellow, lilting, and often hypnotic textures while calling attention to no individual sound. While singers are emotionally engaged with the lyrics, often intensely so, they remain cool, relaxed, and in control.”
The 1950s began one of the biggest influences on electro-soul, and hence its namesake- soul music. Soul started in the 50s and reached its peak in the 60s, with famous (and often sampled) artists such as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, and more. Soul music was essentially gospel music, blended with blues and sometimes, rock and roll. It contains tense vocal sounds (hence why its so often sampled) and is usually very emotional.
Finally, one of the last biggest influences on electro-soul is the funk. Derived from a clash between rock and roll and soul music in the 60s, funk “de-emphasizes melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground.” (Wiki) Funk was all about energy and groove. The rhythmic beat and dancefloor-esque sound has had a huge impact on electro-soul, as well as all dance music today. Some massive influences from funk are James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, and more.
Of course, electro-soul pulls from many other sources as well. Disco, rock, country, and more all have shown up in songs under this genre. However, it wasn’t until the 70s that one of, if not the biggest, influence of electro-soul was born.
Hip-Hop: The Crux of Electro-Soul
Hip-hop, which emerged in the 70s out of the urban scene in namely New York City, may be the originator of the ‘electro’ in electro-soul. At block parties, DJs would play multiple genres of music, primarily funk and soul. A new technique emerged out of this where they play percussive breaks from the songs- just the instrumentals. Soon, the two turntable set-up we know today emerged to extend breaks, and soon scratching and beat matching emerged, with “rapping” over the instrumentals soon following as well.
In the late 70s, a huge transition took place in hip-hop that would change the face of the genre before. Prior to 1979, hip-hop generally was played over PA systems for parties, with a few hip-hop mixtapes existing. Puerto Rican DJ Disco Wiz is credited as the first hip hop DJ to create a “mixed plate,” or mixed dub recording, when, in 1977, he combined sound bites, special effects and paused beats to technically produce a sound recording. From here on out, hip-hop became mainstream, with scenes forming in Atlanta, Washington D.C., and more. Eventually hip-hop had a big influence on the house music scene in Chicago and techno music in Detroit.
From the 80s onward, the scene changed. Drum machines, such as the Roland 808, became popular, as well as new samplers such as the AKAI S900. This allowed for a more synchronized approach to hip-hop, as well as furthering towards a more “electronic” sound. The early 1980s saw the first time that electro music was mixed with hip-hop, lead by artists such as Cybotron, Hashim, Warp 9, and others. DJ Greg Wilson first introduced electro hip-hop to UK club audiences in the early 1980s. This was a huge predecessor to eventually forming electro-soul.
With hip-hop heading towards a golden era, the 1990s began a movement which heavily influenced electronic music. Out of Bristol, UK, a genre known as “trip-hop” began to take form, when American hip-hop, dance, and house music were popular. Some of the first innovators of the genre that took it to the mainstream were R.P.M., DJ Shadow, and Massive Attack. Massive Attack’s 1991 album “Blue Lines” featured many tracks that featured a UK hip-hop sound, and DJ Shadow’s “In/Flux” was described as “trip-hop” by Mixmag magazine.
“…with its mixed up bpms, spoken word samples, strings, melodies, bizarre noises, prominent bass, and slow beats, it gave the listener the impression they were on a musical trip…” – Andy Pemberton, journalist for Mixmag
Labels such as Ninja Tune would continue the trip-hop tradition, signing artists such as 9 Lazy 9, The Herbaliser, and others. “Post-trip-hop” emerged in the 2000s, with artists such as Esthero, Morcheeba, Mudville, and others created a more up-to-date sound. Post-trip-hop incorporated other genres, such as ambient, soul, IDM (intelligent dance music), dubstep, breakbeat, drum and bass, and much more. Contemporary artists that still use trip-hop much in their work include Emancipator, Gorillaz, How to Destroy Angels, and more.
DJ Shadow was perhaps one of the biggest influences on trip-hop and electro-soul in general. His production, using rare samples mixed with elements of rock, soul, funk, jazz, electronic, and experimental, had a huge impact on electro-soul artists. Pretty Lights even said in an interview once that DJ Shadow was his greatest influence.
Electro-Soul: The Artists Defining The Genre
Today, electro-soul encompasses many artists. Forming out of the current EDM scene, it’s a sub-genre that uses the power and intensity of modern dance music with the emotional vibes and antiquated samples of previous musical genres. The “father” of this new genre is without a doubt, Derek Vincent Smith, better known as Pretty Lights. Pretty Lights’ sound is described as “”glitchy hip-hop beats, buzzing synth lines, and vintage funk and soul samples.” With an extensive discography, his own electro-soul record label Pretty Lights Music (PLM), and a range of musical influences, Pretty Lights epitomizes electro-soul.
Michal Menert, a long-time friend of Pretty Lights, is a second massive name in the electro-soul scene. Menert not only uses influences from different genres, but pulls from different time periods and regions of the world, such as Eastern European and Western vinyl, creating an extremely unique amalgamation of sounds. He helped co-produce Pretty Lights debut album, “Taking Up Your Precious Time”, as well as putting out 2 albums and a number of EPs himself.
Other PLM artists, such as Gramatik, SuperVision, Break Science, Eliot Lipp, and Paul Basic, are also huge names in the electro-soul scene who have thrived under Pretty Lights. Gramatik has a foundation in hip-hop, with his first few releases being trip-hop and hip-hop based. His newer material is a rich, synthesized blend of hip-hop, funk and soul. Break Science is another huge name on PLM, with drummer Adam Deitch coming from the neo-funk band Lettuce and Borahm Lee on the keys and computer. Break Science combines live instrumentation with electronic production for an interesting blend.
Independent artists have been making noise for quite some time, following in a style akin to Pretty Lights. One of these artists is known as Archnemesis, hailing from Charleston, South Carolina. Archnemesis uses heavy bass, piercing synths and intricate and often choppy sampling to establish a hard-hitting sound. These two have been around for quite some time now, releasing three albums, an EP, and a host of singles and remixes, pulling on genres from reggae, to pop, to progressive rock, to rap, and much more.
Another independent artist who has been making a ton of noise lately is Griz. Griz’s style touches on a lot of antiquated sampling, but is less hip-hop and more dancefloor oriented. His sound features boom-bap drum beats with high-frequency synth lines. His use of the saxophone over his tracks adds to the funky, soulful feel of his music as well.
The effect of big-name artists like Pretty Lights have influenced smaller, rising artists who are making their own form of electro-soul. The Denver, Colorado music scene is budding with artists like this. Producers such as Robotic Pirate Monkey, Late Night Radio, Krooked Drivers, Bass Physics, and many more have established their own unique styles, and are the next generation of this growing genre.
And via the powerful medium that is the Internet, more huge names in the genre are popping up everywhere. Marvel Years out of Vermont is making a huge name for himself by using clean hip-hop percussion, perfectly timed sampling and textured synths. Artifakts, out of Wisconsin, creates downtempo, low-fi trip-hop instrumentals that form delicate lullabies. A whole record label has even formed now, called Philos Records, which specializes in electro-soul and future funk. It contains artists from around the country and the world, such as T.Wilde, Ageless, B!unt Force, and many other names.