Underground EDM Culture and Locality: Defining Location – Authored by Kristian Hatton

Table of Contents

  1. Dissecting EDM culture

  2. The Conflict between Mainstream and Underground EDM cultures.

  3. What Underground EDM culture is, and how Mainstream EDM borrows from it.

  4. Discussing the ethics in mainsteam EDM music’s borrowing from the underground.

  5. Diving Deeper into the Underground – Examples of the Culture.

  6. Underground EDM as a form of Mediatised Ritual.

  7. Finding Location in Regional Australian Underground EDM – Sun in Aquarius.

  8. Urban Underground EDM – How the City Affects the Music.

  9. Hermeneutics and How the Subject Relates to Underground EDM.

  10. Moving Back to the Centre – The Hermeneutics of Faith.


1. Dissecting EDM culture.

Electronic Dance Music (EDM) culture expert, Ed Montano, identifies two distinct manifestations of EDM culture, the mainstream and the underground, and views the two movements as being respectively commercial and radical in aspect. He suggests both of these movements are one in that EDM (both mainstream and underground) is “(t)he development of contemporary, post-disco dance music and its associated culture” (Montano 2009), and that both are environments where participants can share special social experiences through the medium of EDM. The two movements have distinctly different social rituals, central philosophies, cultural codes, and dress senses, etc.

The mainstream movement manifests nationally at festivals and city nightclubs, and is publicised by conventional advertising, such as billboards, magazines, as well as online media. Mainstream EDM artists attempt to broadcast their music to the largest audience possible in order to generate a profit and a living, by utilising popular genres such as tech-house, electro, pop, RnB/rap, and more recently dubstep. Artists such as David Guetta, Skrillex, and Swedish House Mafia are examples of mainstream artists, who play at Australian festivals like Summafieldayze and Future Music Festival.

2. The Conflict between Mainstream and Underground EDM cultures.

Montano says tension between international and local DJs exists in how “[international] performances impact upon the scene as a local entity” (Montano 2009). Foreign EDM culture is given preference over local EDM culture in Australia, due to a higher level of promotion, popularity and available resources (better equipment, larger talent pools), which makes locals resentful of the foreigner’s wealth and intrusion on their territory. This problem can also be pervasive nationally in Australian underground EDM music when mass-market record labels attempt to commercialise local music.

Popular labels attempt to make underground music more accessible to a larger audience, sometimes at the cost of what makes underground EDM dynamic and exciting to original fans. Few mainstream artists are highly regarded by underground fans, because mainstream EDM attempts to gain younger fans through use of “bubble-gum” synth and basslines, and use ”cheesy” lyrics to hook listeners. However, artists like Aphex Twin and the Prodigy are respected by the underground EDM community through use of gritty industrial and punk-related aesthetics, which reflect the “feel” of underground EDM culture in how they rebel against the mainstream and mediocrity.

3. What Underground EDM culture is, and how Mainstream EDM borrows from it.

Usage of the term “underground” can be problematic. Main purveyors of “underground” genres (like Rusko and Infected Mushroom) like psytrance and dubstep also focus on generating a large mainstream crowd by making their music more accessible to the masses, which could define them as mainstream by definition. Participants of local underground cultures utilise EDM for their local audience, and regard their immediate community as their primary audience.

Sounds originating from underground EDM culture have been utilised consciously for the mainstream, recently by American artist Skrillex, who secured several 2012 Grammies by using dubstep, was originated as a hybrid of 2-step, grime and garage in the United Kingdom. This usage angered many underground EDM listeners, as the genre was changed from underground to mainstream, by way of turning it into a bombastic high-sugar version of dubstep’s original focus on pressure, atmosphere and subtle application of low frequencies (exampled by artists Kode9 and similar artists on independent record labels like Hyperdub).

Skrillex appeals to high energy dancefloors and to consumers on an immediate level because of its simplicity and energy. However, this sort of music can lack any long term appeal because there may be no hidden treasures to excavate from the product, thus meaning within the music can be considered fairly disposable in nature.

4. Discussing Ethics in Mainsteam EDM Music’s borrowing from the Underground.

This type of cultural borrowing and reactive anger from underground listeners has been seen before in the conflict between mainstream and underground music. Blues/RnB aesthetics were borrowed by Elvis Presley from artists like BB King, and hip-hop sounds were taken from the originators like Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC by mainstream artists like Aerosmith, Eminem and the Beastie Boys.

Dubstep has its origins in fusion between reggae/dub from Jamaica, and drum and bass (D&B)/garage/2-step produced by black communities in the UK. I use this racial identification of music genre to relate to the idea of original music being “colonised” by western culture, much like many third world communities were plundered for resource and culture by the British Empire.

This behaviour can be regarded as imperialist, or at worse, culturally disrespectful and racist in western culture imitating the original cultures involved. While originators of music genres (like dubstep originators Rusko and Benga in recent times) can gain finance and recognition on a global level from a mainstream industry and audience, the original premise of cultural and communal identification becomes of less value to original audience, and potentially less creative and less authentic.

The crux of the matter is that you’ll find that mainstream and underground definitions of dubstep are two different genres that could need separate names to avoid confusion. Whether or not this means society’s taste in music is getting better due to this borrowing of genre is a matter of personal aesthetics.

5. Diving Deeper into the Underground – Examples of the Culture.

“True” underground and localised movements of EDM culture can be experimental in nature, and appeal to specific or local niches of listeners. This can be relevant to a collective community’s taste in sounds (as perceived by performers), rather then focusing on appealing to the broader market.

Some producers of underground EDM music create beats live at performances, such as with Bloody Fist’s record label parties in Newcastle, at which the artists create 8-bit sound and industrial noise from various musical instruments and synthesisers (including computer game consoles, commonly utilised in the chiptune genre). More often than not, most producers hone their chosen niche (dubstep, glitch, D&B) into new directions that local crowds can identify with.

Uncomfortable Beats, based in Melbourne, operates via a shared taste of beats loved by locals in the northern suburbs (Brunswick, Northcote, etc) community (who commonly listen to genres like hip-hop and dubstep), and typically have a couple of degrees of separation from each other in their personal relationship circles. Uncomfortable Beats has attracted participants through fusing experimental music forms and having a sense of community through asking locals to play for them.

6. Underground EDM as a Form of Mediatised Ritual.

Underground local EDM culture at large can be seen as an ongoing conversation where locals network and re-adapt pre-existing forms of music into a local aural language, like how (on a broader scale) the Australian-English language has adapted stylistically and grammatically through message and receiver, in use of slang that varies from community to community, and sub-culture to sub-culture. Underground EDM culture is, in this sense, a form of local mediatised ritual.

Mediatised rituals is a term usually adopted with how popular media (Fairfax, Murdoch) regulate and sustain frequent symbology to communicate messages to their audience. As underground EDM also is a form of media that occurs on a regular basis at clubs and other places, it too can be considered a form of mediatized ritual, as it also contains certain semiotics and ritual in content (such as build-ups, drops and different genres) that the regular listener will recognize and decode from their own aesthetic and cultural stance.

Mediatised ritual “assumes diverse forms and (serves) different political ends”, as recognized by media expert, Simon Cottle (2006). Cottle explains that language used in semiotic excess (that is to frequently use language of symbolic nature) at underground EDM gatherings can “serve to revitalize collective sentiments and a sense of higher (scared) purpose”. I posture that language doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken to be language in the case of EDM, as EDM beats are the dominant sound of any gathering of this nature. This is an example of how a musical language comes to its own by translating cultural experience and communicating messages from the sender (DJ/producer) to the receiver (audience).

7. Finding Location in Regional Australian Underground EDM – Sun in Aquarius.

A more subjective example of how aural language is localised for underground aesthetics in Australia is Byron Bay artist Sun in Aquarius (SIA), who has become recognised by the global underground EDM culture for his interpolation of glitch and dubstep in his ambient soundscapes. Much glitch and dubstep from cities are related to their environment on an aesthetic level through bombastic use of bass-heavy frequencies and hip-hop aesthetics, whilst SIA’s deep, sparse use of glitch and dub aesthetics would be appropriate in a natural environment of ocean and rainforest.

Music of SIA’s variety would make sense on an aesthetic level to locals of Byron Bay and far northern NSW, and one might say that this local environment in turn affects SIA’s music on a subliminal level. These qualities may be pervasive in similar physical environs, or identified with by those who are seeking to visit such carefully constructed aural planes as a form of mental escapism.

Either way, these are sensations that are not about all engaging a collective dancefloor mind, but also for conveying particular sensations or aesthetics as a journey that is more internalised for the listener if they can translate the language that the producer/DJ is “speaking” to them. Artists like SIA create soundscapes that can be considered of national cultural value, as he creates music that relates to a particular location in Australia.

If “true” underground music contains some form of local cultural signature within its narrative, this may not be as easily accessible by outsiders who haven’t been to similar places. In this way, location-focused EDM remains exclusive to underground listeners who understand it through their cultural relationship and identification to the music, as was touched on at the beginning of the article and now discussed in more depth.

8. Urban Underground EDM – How the City affects the Music.

Urban environments should also be considered in the equation when discussing how aural language can theoretically translate location, as I will discuss now in relation to UK Drum and Bass (D&B). Music academic, Dale Chapman, discusses how hip-hop breakbeats in the South Bronx, and D&B in the UK relate to the urban climate in how the genres “resonate deeply with this experience of the world, as they put across a conception of time that foregrounds contingency and the element of surprise (in form of crime, evictions, police brutality or other such eventualities)” (Chapman 2003).

Chapman then discusses times when D&B has reflected UK society in its use of atmosphere. D&B had an air of “intense gloom” that paralleled the British recession during the mid 90’s, before better economic times inspired producers to create EDM “with a sunnier disposition” and “smoother, more slick production style” with 2-step and UK Garage. Chapman also makes a finer point about the message urban underground EDM sends as far as location is concerned.

Chapman’s overall point in his paper is how D&B in the mid 90’s reflected underground EDM’s paranoia towards the city’s fast pace as a “celebration of technology’s seeing alienation from the humans that create it”, as shown by producers like Ed Rush and Optical “dissect(ing) and fragment(ing) breakbeats into their smallest components” to create “a groove in (D&B) that can only be described as treacherous”. He discusses this aesthetic as a paranoia toward technology in relation to the hermeneutics of suspicion, which I will discuss briefly before reverting back to the subject of underground EDM and how it uses music as language.

9. Hermeneutics and how the subject relates to Underground EDM.

Academic, Alexis Deodato S. Itao, is informative on the subject of hermeneutics and its chief theorist, Paul Ricoeur. Itao relates how “(it is) through language that man expresses himself and manifests his being; in other words, it is by means of language that man relates with other beings and with the world” (2010). This is the study of hermeneutics, which questions how people interpret language and symbols.

Hermeneutics can be split into polar points of questioning and interpretation, regarded as the hermeneutics of faith and suspicion. Itao respectively defines these as “the hermeneutics that demystifies and reduces any form of illusions that cloud over the real meanings of symbols; on the other, there is the hermeneutics that seeks to recover and restore the real meanings of symbols.”

We can use this framework on hermeneutics of suspicion in relation to the message of dystopian mid-90’s D&B. Another authority on hermeneutics, Josselson, quotes that “the researcher must decode (experience in society) using some hypothesized codebook – or create one.” (2004). In this way, producers of underground EDM utilise hermeneutics within their “codebook” of musical language as “all hermeneutics (are) an effort to interpret to a deeper apprehension of the world of the people under study”, in which case the producer/DJ’s audience are the subject of study here.

Professor Ruthellin Josselson also relates how “Taking people at their word through the hermeneutics of faith(restoration) produces a rich field for potential interpretive work, both in terms of personal and social meanings.” If the audience utilises the hermeneutics of faith in regards to the DJ/producer’s message or symbology, we can see how underground EDM can give its listeners a sense of identity in how it attempts to interpret location through sound.

10. Moving Back to the Centre – The Hermeneutics of Faith.

Hermeneutics of faith in underground EDM are utilised to bring the listener back to the centre, or the collective, after hermeneutics of suspicion expose the listener to their unspoken fears. EDM journalist Chris Christodoulou’s discussion on ‘uncanny bass’ (2011) relates how “A derelict and dehumanised cityscape is suggested by the use of abstracted, un-naturalistic sounds, sinister chords and indecipherable distress calls; humans and other forms of natural life no longer seem to inhabit this space or are menacingly hidden from view.”

This interpretation is on the pole of hermeneutical suspicion, but the majority of Christodoulou’s paper suggests that this process is one that is used to restore bass music as a form of maternal symbol. He theorises that “the unstable conditions and frenetic pace of change of urban life seem to facilitate an intensified desire for bass-heavy music that stimulates primal memories of the rhythm of the mother’s womb and the sound of her heartbeat.” This is the hermeneutics of faith, which seeks to restore symbolic value to language.

This movement back to the centre, or to the collective, is the ultimate destination in regards to location in underground EDM. Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1929) beautifully describes a poignant moment where the central protagonist, Harry Haller, comes back to the centre, and location is one that is transcribed as being a part of a single organism at an “underground” (I say underground here in that it was a non-commercial event run by artists) ball dance.

All of the other (people) who were dancing in the same room and the same dance

and to the same music, and whose radiant faces floated past me like fantastic

flowers, belonged to me, and I to them. (Hesse 1929, p.198)

This is an experience many others have encountered with not just underground EDM, but all forms of dance music. Hopefully, this paper has conveyed the culture of underground EDM as potentially being a system of languages and interpretation based on common ground, for the higher purpose of unifying local communities in symbiosis with their environment.


Chapman, D 2003, ‘Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Paranoia and the Technological Sublime in Drum and Bass Music’, ECHO: a music-centered journal, vol.5, no.2, pp 2-18, viewed 21 April 2012, from <www.echo.ucla.edu/voume5-issue2/chapman/chapman.pdf>

Christodoulou, C 2011, ‘Rumble in the Jungle: City, Place and Uncanny Bass’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, vol.3, no.1, pp 44-63, viewed 20 April 2012, from <http://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/84/128>

Cottle, S 2006, ‘Mediatized Rituals: Beyond Manufacturing Consent’, Media Culture and Society, vol.28, no.3, pp 411-432.

Hesse, H 1963, Steppenwolf, Penguin, Random House, London.

Itao, A.D 2010, ‘Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of Symbols: A Critical Dialectic of Suspicion and Faith’, Kritite: An Online Journal of Philosophy, vol.4, no.2, viewed 24 April 2012, from http://www.kritike.org/journal/issue_8/itao_december2010.pdf

Josselson, R 2004, ‘The Hermeneutics of Faith and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’, Narrative Inquiry, vol.14, no.1, pp 1-28.

Montano, E 2009, ‘DJ Culture in the Commercial Sydney Dance Music Scene.’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, vol. no.1, pp 81-93, viewed 25 March 2012, from <http://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/3/6&gt;


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