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Can't Tell the Difference Between Witch House and Nu Disco? Welcome to Electronic Dance Music 101

Have you been misunderstanding house music since 1997? It's never too late to learn.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Maxim Blinkov

Eddie Amador’s 1997 dancefloor classic “House Music” proudly and repeatedly declares, “Not everyone understands house music: it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.”  

And with that, the beat chugs on, relentless as a locomotive. 

But are you on board? Have you been misunderstanding house music since 1997? Since even before that? Maybe you’re like my roommate who, when asked about Dubstep, replies, “Dubstep? Oh I love them!” 

Them?!? 

If this is you, it may be time to clear the air of misunderstandings and gain some perspective on the ever-changing landscape of electronic dance music. 

I, too, was once a novice thumbing through crates of vinyl, trying to make heads or tails of it all. Fortunately for me, there were record stores in those days—the kind that occupy physical space and not just cyberspace—and invariably those stores had the sort of knowledgeable staff who knew exactly which records to pull off the shelf when you came in asking for “something that sounds like the color green.” 

These days, thanks to the convenience of mp3s, there’s a lot more music coming out…which means more music to sort through, and not all of it up to the standards of the tracks that previously had to earn the right to be pressed to vinyl. And of course, actual record stores have long since closed up shop and moved online. Beatport (the major hub of dance music shopping on the Internet) tries to make up for this with countless DJ top pick lists, artist profiles and genre countdowns, but it all ends up being a major research project nonetheless. 

Which is why I’m here: to share a little of my EDM knowledge, gained from years spinning behind those DJ decks, both internationally and at the local warehouse. What follows is a travel guide to exploration in 11 EDM genres—some of which didn’t even exist when I was first camping out at the legendary Satellite Records store in New York, holding the latest St. Germain in one hand and Chris Liberator in the other. EDM wasn’t even an acronym back then! But house music was house music, and techno was techno, just as it is today. It could be that Eddie Amador is correct in stating that not everyone understands house music, but by the end of this article, I think you’ll at least be able to understand it just a little bit better. 

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House: Born and raised in Chicago, house music features a kick-snare-kick-snare or kick-clap-kick-clap pattern that accents the off beats—beats 2 and 4 of the “four-on-the-floor”—as opposed to techno, which tends to pound away straight across. House music tempos usually fall somewhere between 120 and 130 bpm (beats per minute) and the rhythm has a feel-good bounce to it. 

There are countless unique subdivisions of house, ranging from Latin to deep house to tribal. Some tracks are thick with live instrumentation, giving a nod to funk or disco. Other tracks are minimal and electronic, closer to techno, though even the records that have been heavily influenced by disco have a synth bassline and programmed drums—attributes that put house music in the category of EDM, unlike traditional disco. Vocal house lends itself to powerful anthems, showing the disco ancestry, though there are also plenty of purely instrumental house tracks. Overall, house is about rhythm, body and soul. 

Artists: Frankie Knuckles, Lil Louis, Todd Terry, Roger Sanchez, Miguel Migs, Masters at Work, Junior Vasquez, Francois K, Felix da Housecat, Erick Morillo, Duck Sauce/Armand Van Helden, Derrick Carter, DJ Sneak, Danny Tenaglia, Dimitri from Paris, Deep Dish, Bob Sinclar.

Techno: Welcome to the land of 808s and 909s (these refer to classic Roland drum machine models). Techno: it’s repetitive. That’s why a good DJ in this genre does a lot of layering. Techno is a true DJ’s genre in that you really do create a third track out of mixing two (or more) records against each other. 

Techno tends to be faster in tempo, 125-150bpm, with today’s techno on the slower end of it. You can usually expect to find a thumping kick drum on every count of techno’s 4/4 timing. Where house bounces, techno drives…just the sort of thing you’d expect from a genre invented in the Motor City. 

Techno is mainly instrumental and rarely features vocals. It’s about the throbbing beats, less about a sweeping melody. Born in Detroit and the robo-child of DJs who all attended the same high school (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Eddie Fowlkes et al.), techno is the result of a generation that was tired of Motown and wanted the future. Today’s techno includes a broad range of styles, from minimal to moderately melodic, but always with sharp taste. 

Artists: Jeff Mills, John Aquaviva, Richie Hawtin/Plastikman, Sven Väth, Joris Voorn, Robert Hood, Carl Craig, Ken Ishii, Adam Beyer, Gesaffelstein, Adam X, Frankie Bones, Josh Wink, Gregor Tresher, Marc Romboy.

Breakbeat: Breakbeat is easy to identify because the drum beat pattern is…uh…broken. While the kicks and snares in 4/4 house music are evenly spaced (kick-snare-kick-snare), in breakbeat this even timing becomes irregular (generally, the second kick is late).   This type of broken beat is also featured in hip-hop, drum & bass, trip-hop, dubstep, and many other genres. 

Breakbeat tends to keep a bpm in the 130s, much slower than drum & bass and much faster than trip-hop. Funky breaks are those that show nostalgia for the early hip-hop days of Afrika Bambataa’s “Planet Rock.” Nu-skool/UK breaks feature a hard-driving futuristic sound.  

Artists: DJ Icey, Stanton Warriors, Deekline, Lee Coombs, Meat Katie, Baby Anne, Hyper, Colombo, Wavewhore.

Dubstep: Noted for its farty-metallic-ketchup sounding bassline, dubstep is the lovechild of genres like drum & bass, speed garage (accent on the first syllable to sound more UK), breakbeat, and 2-step. The technical term for the farty-ketchup bass is wub, short for wobble bass. Sometimes it sounds like a chainsaw, too. You’ll know dubstep by its distinguishing bass drop: the point in the song when the wub gets all intense after a moment of near silence…the sort of thing the ladies might want to sit on top of the speakers for. Not that I would know anything about that. 

The rhythm of dubstep is wildly syncopated and the tempo can be counted as a slow beat around 70 or a fast beat around 140 bpm. This highly versatile genre lends itself to all sorts of melodic material flying and sputtering over top of all that wub—could be anything from classical violin to samples of “Please Mr. Postman.”

Originating in the UK, dubstep has since penetrated American radio waves and clubland alike, even gaining radio prominence in the pop world, with Dr. Luke’s use of a dubstep breakdown in Britney Spears’ “Hold it Against Me” as a notable early example. Some call it alien music, but it’s likely that this newly developed genre will be among the earthlings for a while. 

Artists: Doctor P, Skream, Skrillex, Krewella, Nero, DJ Fresh, Mt Eden, 16bit, Flux Pavillion, Plastician, Kode9, Benga, Gramatik (who does chill-out music, too).

Nu Disco/Indie Dance: Nu disco is the 21st-century take on the hammered satin Halston dress. Probably the genre I play most, nu disco seduces the ears with the chic and clever ways it revisits '70s disco, Italo disco, Euro and new wave sounds—giving the classics a more electronic, streamlined, house/techno sensibility. Most aficionados agree that EDM either started with Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” or with Italo disco, namely Giorgio Moroder’s production of the Donna Summer classic “I Feel Love.” Both influences are distinctly heard and reinvented in tracks of this genre. 

Indie dance, along with the genre formerly known as French house, both take refuge under nu disco’s sparkling umbrella, making this genre the cocktail party where indie rock and EDM come to mingle. It’s the sound of all the disco, new wave, punk, electroclash and indie that you love, but with EDM precision. 

Artists: Tensnake, Moullinex, Oliver, Todd Terje, Perseus, Holy Ghost!, the Golden Filter, Chromeo, Flight Facilities, Black Van, Maxxi Soundsystem, Jacques Renault, the XX, WhoMadeWho, Gigamesh, Peter & the Magician, Finnebassen, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, Morgan Geist (who does great techno too).

Electro House: This is a heavier, harder kind of house music that uses thick layers of synths and has ancestry in electro and synthpop. Vocals totally happen here, and melodies abound. Ridiculously big builds, distorted basslines and synthetic madness: expect it all. Though there is high danger of cheesiness in this territory, the artists who are able to achieve a juicier analog synth sound tend to come out on top. 

Artists: Deadmau5, David Guetta, Wolfgang Gartner, Madeon, Martin Solveig, Swedish House Mafia, Klaas, Calvin Harris.

Progressive House: Progressive: the genre that has become a dirty word in dance music. This highly melodic style features prominent synth layering and a beat that’s always moving forward, around 128-140 bpm. Progressive is the magic that happened when house music went Euro, but these days, it sounds like an excessively epic version of electro house. Today’s progressive matches electro’s meatier synths with trance’s airy-fairy land, combining the shamelessly epic of both worlds. Artists like Eric Prydz remain a beacon of hope in a genre that has changed significantly since true tastemakers like Sasha & Digweed evacuated at the end of the '90s. But prog house has captured the ears and hearts of many nonetheless, and admittedly, I will still search through the entire top 100 of this genre to find the one playable track. That’s love. 

Artists: Eric Prydz/Pryda, Moguai, Dinka, Avicii, Hernán Cattáneo, Kaskade, Leventina, Alesso, Way Out West (Jody Wisternoff & Nick Warren), 16 Bit Lolitas, Dousk, Adam K & Soha, Matt Lange, Jerome Isma-Ae, Jaytech, Eelke Kleijn.

Trance: Welcome to fairyland. In trance, the beats tend to move straight across with little variation while the melody does the dancing. Sometimes, though, there will be trance breaks—breakbeat trance—mixed in. Expect to find a dramatic breakdown: this is where the beat drops out and you hear airy synth pads outlining ethereal chords. Usually, an epic melodic theme runs through the body of the music as a kind of anthem. Each trance track has a journey: a build up and a breakdown, which is generally followed by a return to the climax. Gone are the fine days of Platipus Records, or classic Breeder tracks like “Tyrantanic,” and trance has suffered as a genre in a manner similar to progressive house. Still, there is a silver lining about these puffy cotton clouds, and trance may reclaim the capacity to hypnotize once again. 

Artists: Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, Paul Van Dyk, Marcus Schulz, Ferry Corsten/System F, BT, ATB, Delerium, Art of Trance, Three Drives, Moshic, Darude, Juno Reactor, early Robert Miles, Binary Finary, Energy 52, Cygnus X, Jam & Spoon.

Tech House: Tech house sounds like steel. Its basslines are more driving, like those in techno, but still maintain a house grooviness overall. Tech house tends to be minimal and gets its flavor from the smattering of melodic material that is woven sparsely through the beat, sometimes going jazzy or even Middle Eastern. But where tech house never goes is overboard. It is one of the most tasteful genres out there—always a safe haven from the fromage that happens elsewhere—yet tech house is never so mechanized that it’s completely devoid of humanity. The vocals will never be nauseating, and the synth lines and builds rarely overwhelm or make you feel like you should be doing meth. Tech house is stylish, streamlined and has etiquette. A little more laid-back and mature, it’s about the groove, not banging away. 

Artists: Tube & Berger, Gui Boratto, Maceo Plex, Kollektiv Turmstrasse, Guy J, H.O.S.H., Trentemøller, Terry Lee Brown Junior, Kaiserdisco, Tiger Stripes, Soul Clap, Tiga.

Trip-Hop: Trip-hop is slow and loungy…like hip-hop on ludes. But unlike hip-hop, there’s not much rapping in trip-hop, though vocals can certainly be found here—particularly female ones of a Debbie Downer variety. 

Trip-hop is a downtempo genre, like chill out and ambient, and is distinguished by its broken beat (see breakbeat for details). There’s plenty of room to be experimental in this atmospheric genre that originated in Bristol, UK. 

Artists: Massive Attack/the Wild Bunch, Portishead, Tricky, DJ Shadow, Thievery Corporation, DJ Krush, Coldcut, Kruder & Dorfmeister.

Witch House: Witch house has nothing to do with house music. It’s not house at all and it’s still way underground. For a genre that started as a joke and Internet meme, witch house has shown some real mojo and become a new genre to watch. 

Witch house artists are secretive like some Wiccan Illuminati, and will stop at nothing to evade your Google searching ways by using strange symbols in their artist and song names, like ϟ†Nϟ (SINS) and ~▲†▲~ (an album by Veins). 

This is secret stuff here, people! They don’t want you to know about it! 

But don’t worry: I’m here to shed light on witch house’s DaVinci Code and leak the secret handshake. Imagine slowed-down hip-hop with a goth makeover and you’re pretty close. But witch house can also sound like the darker side of ambient, slow industrial, or even Balearic. There’s plenty of rewardingly moody stuff to be found for those willing to scour the bowels of the Internet for the alchemical gold of this genre. Most importantly, name-dropping witch house in an EDM conversation will make you sound über knowledgeable and totally ϟM▲R†. 

Artists: oOoOO (pronounced “oh”), Creep, Clams Casino, CRIM3S, ϟ†Nϟ.

Looks like we’ve reached the end of the line for now. But artists and genres constantly change and cross over in the world of EDM. The beat goes on, looping endlessly, and the end, of course, is ever the beginning.