The Young, Wired, and Restless: Cleveland's Electronic Music Scene Gets a Makeover

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But they are still looking for help in creating a foothold — the fans, the stations, the listeners, the bookers.

"There was abstract expressionism and Jackson Pollock was the biggest artist of it, and Andy Warhol came along and did pop art," says Freeze-Tag. "First of all, it needs to be a group of artists to change something. Then it has to be the publications that get it out in an accurate and positive way and back then the art dealers had to change. It had to be the whole industry, not just those two. It was a whole industry revamp. And as far as artists, we've got some great ones."

Internet Killed the Performing Star

While social media has changed the landscape of how people interact, it has also changed the way in which artists create. Bandcamp, SoundCloud and Mixcloud offer musicians the opportunity to share their music with a larger audience regardless of geography. And as the music becomes less regionally specific — Detroit Techno, Chicago House, New York House, etc. — the virtual stage is enabling young composers in new ways.

"Everyone grows up with a kind of romantic notion of music when they were young," says Gillis. "That's just common. What I went through, I loved and I thought it was real and unique and wouldn't trade it for anything. I know the world's different now. I have a hard time saying it's better or worse; it's just different, it's complicated. That is something I've noticed that now people still go out and tour, and there's still money in touring, but a lot of stuff just happens exclusively on the Internet: projects, ideas, things getting popular. Which is exciting and cool, but I just think back in the late '90s to early 2000s when I was just getting going, you really had to exist in the real world in order to get your music out there."

And the inherent solitary nature of creating electronic music means that it draws an introverted crowd. More so than with other genres, electronic is usually a solo project, humming along with a computer and intense streaks of programming and tweaking. And now you don't need to leave your house to distribute the final product.

"Now, I think a lot of people involved in music can be shy people," Gillis says. "Especially electronic music when you're used to sitting there, staring at a computer screen for 10 hours creating your music. It's probably a lot easier to just concentrate getting your stuff out there on the Internet, as opposed to getting out in the real world and risking it and booking a show and maybe embarrassing yourself and having to meet older people or people you might be intimidated by who are booking these shows. It took some risk back then to do that and I'm really happy I did. But I know if I were 16 years old now making electronic music and I knew there was a better chance getting exposure just spending all of my time on the Internet, that's probably what I'd be doing."

Internet sensations like Florida-based XXYYXX, who first gained popularity online in 2009 at age 14, are good examples, though certainly typical examples, of how the older generation can be squeezed out.

"I feel like the newer you are to the game, the more it probably helps you," RJ Krohn says. "The longer you've been in this game, the more you've seen record sales decline. Whether or not there's a causal link between virtually everything online and that, I don't know, it's yet to be seen. "

The Status of the Status Quo

Apart from the B-Side and Grog Shop, electronic-centric event organizers have aided the efforts of local artists. Organizers like (216)BASS, Tru Events and Cumulus Entertainment regularly bring together local and national acts. (Cumulus and Tru Events are responsible for bringing big names like Skrillex, Krewella and ATB, to Cleveland.)

Venues like Duck Island, which hosts (216)BASS's live events, and Touch Supper Club, offer smaller-scale gigs, perfect for getting to know your local DJs.

The radio waves that pulse with electronica over the city are largely confined to college radio programs. Several shows on 91.1 WRUW, like Beat Matrix and Jammin' Jammz, feature a variety of all things electronic.

On 89.3 WCSB, current WCSB music director Stephanie Kilian hosts Parts Per Million. The show generally features minimal house, deep techno and glitch — genres not necessarily native to Cleveland, therefore giving the program a more international vibe.

"[Electronic music] seems to be going in a lot of directions depending on where the music is coming from," Kilian says. "If you look at many German-based artists, for example, you continue to get a more pop-inspired minimal techno. On the other hand, if you look at music coming out of Detroit or L.A., I think there is more of a hip-hop, drum 'n' bass and dub inspired sound. When it comes to Cleveland electronic artists, I know very few who play minimal house. I think that Cleveland is saturated with experimental electronic-noise and dubstep artists, which is absolutely okay. I just hope to see more minimal or deep techno-inspired sound in Cleveland too."

The Future is Now

If you're looking for the "Cleveland" electronic sound, if there is such a thing, Tommy Sheridan (aka Broken Keys) would be a good example. He's part of local hip-hop groups Smoke Screen and Smoke Noises and takes his cues from hip-hop DJs, blending the worlds of rap and electronic. On his latest record, Cantina EP, the genre-mashing is readily apparent. The title track, "Cantina," is driven by a danceable drum track but vocal tracks reciting "I started this gangsta shit and this the motherfuckin' thanks I get?" echo the merger.

Nationally, the same trend is common, and the Cleveland scene sounds a lot like that in L.A., where hip-hop inspired electronic production is supplanting the once dominant DJ scene. Artists like Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73, and RJD2 all have done their fair share of hip-hop production — Flying Lotus on Blu's N O Y O R K; RJD2's hip-hop collaboration Soul Position — and the boundary between electronic artist and hip-hop producer is disappearing.

Broken Keys appreciates the versatility that those arrangements provide. He has an electronic solo project but gets to play around with straightforward hip-hop with Smoke Noises.

"Opening for Anamanaguchi, I did a lot of 8-bit stuff that would fit with Anamanaguchi, but I also played a lot of stuff with vocals," he says. "So as far as the Broken Keys stuff that I produce, a lot of that stuff is my vocals that you'll hear on that and I'll just chop them and splice them and I'll do a lot more of the vocals on my own. There are less samples in the Broken Keys stuff than in Smoke Noises."

This hip-hop-electronic style works its way into other local artists like Corey Grand and Freeze-Tag, co-founders of the imprint [think halfway between a label and an artist collective] Long Division Recordings.

Grand released two records last year: Cold Wax EP and underneath. The records carry a similar vibe: subtle, hip-hop influenced beats meshed with a host of synthesized sounds creating a chilled-out yet intricate atmosphere.

"I think the straight DJ scene has decreased a little bit," says Grog Shop owner Kathy Blackman. "It used be, you could book the girls from Ladytron and you'd pack the house no matter what. There were a lot of things like that, people wanting to do after-parties and whatnot. I don't know that those things are as attractive anymore to everybody. Now, the electronic scene grew out of the hip-hop scene and I think that stuff has gotten more popular."

Not all artists come from a hip-hop background, however. The super-excitable and disco-infused tracks of Adam Rich, aka Rollergirl!, offer another side of the electronic spectrum and show Cleveland's diversity. Channeling '90s French house music mixed with modernized production and straight-up disco, Rich's music is dancefloor-ready. His self-titled debut record shows a friendlier side to electronica, where tracks are intelligently produced but simultaneously upbeat and easily accessible.

On the slower, ethereal side of electronica, former Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt released S/H last year, a stunning compilation of rare and previously unreleased tracks. A powerful insight into his process, the album glows with ambient warmth on tracks like "Dimmer" and "Liberty II."

At one point, electronic genres were fairly easy to keep track of — jungle, house, techno and a handful of subgenres like breakbeat and acid house. Try to make a list now, incorporating all subgenres, and the list would be in the hundreds. And it continues to grow, but the scene is circling back, in a sense, not to more basic designations but to the realization that endless classifications create an unnecessary obstacle for audiences, not to mention a distraction from the creation of the art itself, drawing from any and all influences.

"I think sometimes the classifications do muddy the waters," says Adam Wilson, head of (216)BASS. "It really should just be about what people enjoy, right? I think sometimes people get too caught up in the genres. I think we're starting to see a lot of that sub-genre stuff start to go away and people are going to be more understanding of just 'music,' more appreciative of things rather than worrying about having a sub-genre that has five different acronyms for it."

The Cleveland electronic scene is trending that way already, and it will continue to embrace the future while it waits for the world to embrace it.

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Patrick Stoops

Patrick Stoops joined Scene as a music intern in October 2013. He recently graduated from Cleveland State University with a B.A. in Music Composition. Patrick is strongly committed to promoting local musicians and artists. Alongside music articles, he also enjoys writing offbeat pop-culture humor pieces. Outside...
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