The evolution of vocals in electronic dance music
Lyrics by Stefan Wyeth
Throughout history, the role of vocals in electronic dance music has been constantly evolving.
The freedom to deviate from the traditional structure of songwriting gave new impetus to vocal performers and became a catalyst for constant innovation.
When we dig deeper, the fundamental focus of all dance music is the rhythm section. Thus, by removing vocals from the spotlight they fall under in pop music, new creative avenues have opened up in all aspects. From the delivery and melodic style to the scope of the lyrical content explored, everything was influenced by the idea of writing for the dance floor.
The disco era
It’s only fitting to begin this journey with an epiphany in music history. That moment was the release of Donna Summer’s iconic single, ‘I feel love’ in 1977 from his concept album I remember yesterday. Produced by Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder, the album chronicles different musical styles from each decade and, ironically, the hit single was an attempt at futurism. What’s interesting is that Donna Summer broke into the US market as a Munich-based artist, bringing a new sound to the charts.
Moroder created the entire instrumental using the Moog Modular Synthesizer and this simple yet relentless underscore provided the perfect canvas. Although still rooted in traditional melody and harmony, the use of repetition in vocal phrasing is incredibly distinctive. It is therefore not surprising that this method of recording over electronically generated backing tracks will become the format for dance music in the years to come.
An explosion of hip hop
The street movement called hip hop has changed everything since the second rapper’s joy hit the mainstream in 1979. The way Sylvia Robinson turned Chic’s Good Times and formed the Sugarhill Gang had a major influence on modern record production. While the concept of sampling was still in its infancy, the introduction of the spoken voice influenced countless musical styles. From drum machine-driven electro-funk to Detroit techno rap, rhythmic speaking vocals became increasingly important throughout the 1980s.
As electronic music grew in diversity throughout the 90s, we saw more and more extremely successful dance-style records with spoken vocals. This included anthems like “Born Slippy” from Underworld and “Insomnia” from Faithless. The style of vocal delivery allowed performers to work with a wide range of tempos and greatly expand the lyrical content they were writing. From the sinuously kitschy dance bangers of Brooklyn Bounce to artists who really pushed the medium like Azealia Banks, the use of the spoken voice remains a highly effective form of expression in electronic music.
Out of stock
When it comes to singing, few can match the soul, R&B and gospel-influenced artists who appeared on house records between the late 80s and mid-90s. Artists like Robin S , Inaya day, and Sandy B used their incredible vocal range and dynamics to create some of the most performed dance tracks of all time. These sultry, soulful vocals accompany the best releases of funky house, techno and Miami bass for years to come, and continues to influence both underground and pop music.
The accessibility of the lyrics came through the underlying themes of love, positivity and sexuality that brought unity to the global warehouse movement in cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, Toronto, Manchester and Berlin. There was, of course, a commercial aspect to these records too. We started to see the marketing of the record reverse when 12″ versions were edited and released for radio and music video platforms like MTV. It was the complete opposite of how singles were released in the 80s.
Chopped and triggered
As music production moved from the large-format consoles of the 80s into the digital age, we’ve seen the techniques change. Equipment became cheaper and more accessible, giving artists the power to create records at home or in more affordable independent studios. The rise of sampling in music has also given producers the tools to manipulate vocals in new ways. Here, the innovative work of Liam Howlett propelled The Prodigy from a warehouse act to becoming a global phenomenon.
The rules could be bent and broken and the songs you’d have I never waited to chart achieved international success in the form of remixes. Vocal hooks were performed on sample trigger pads rather than in the booth and the cross-pollination of sounds from the rave scene began to spread to a much wider audience. Some examples like the infamous chipmunk vocal sample shots are still used today.
As electronic music reached the height of commercial success in the 90s, we saw the rise of the superstar DJ/producer. Solo electronic artists with billboard hits could sell out shows and tours on their own. Greater industry demand and a wider market allowed artists to freely collaborate with high profile voice artists as features became increasingly important in electronic music. At this time, the music became centered on euphoria and fantasy, with lyrical themes of escapism.
Gone were the days of dirty warehouses, replaced by super clean high end event production with advanced lighting and expensive bottled water. Almost as if to accommodate this aesthetic, the music became faster, cleaner, and focused on melodic drops, breaks, and buildups. This is where the voice took center stage, casting a spell on the dance floor before 909’s next attack returned. Artists like Paul Oakenfold, Mauro Picotto, Mark and ClaudiusPaul Van Dyk and many others have used this formula to full effect.
What we call EDM today has become so pop-centric that it has become harder to determine originality. albums like Fame by Lady Gaga and Rihanna without apologizing brought EDM style sound to the masses and created a monster in the process. This new non-specific genre was exploited by major festivals and corporate brand sponsorship and marketed to a much younger audience than before.
However, many artists still use this platform to go beyond just creating electronic music. Nice lights, Porter Robinson and Ground are quintessential EDM acts that have formed utterly unique musical identities capable of surviving outside of a single genre or scene. In doing so, the scope of what is possible with EDM vocals becomes vast. Producers can borrow styles not normally associated with electronic music, creating new hybrids with alternative, punk and R&B style vocals.
Head here to learn more about EDM and vocals.