Nobody listens to techno, Eminem blurted on his wildly broad 2002 diss track "Without Me." Globally speaking, he was dead wrong; electronic music had been huge in Europe and Asia for decades. But from Slim Shady's perch in middle America, he had a decent point: At the time, the number of people in the United States interested in hearing Eminem rap far exceeded those dancing to the thriving rhythms of Moby, the reigning king of dance music in the States at the time.
A lot has changed in a decade. Rap record sales have plummeted (though, to be fair, The Eminem Show was certified diamond in the United States last year). And people in the States are creating, performing and listening to electronic dance music (EDM) at an unprecedented rate. Pop music has gone electronic — or the other way around, depending on where you're sitting. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga now wail over house beats; Steve Aoki, a West Coast EDM star, produces remixes for LMFAO and Kid Cudi.
Locally, the 2,000-capacity Midland has been hosting a series of massive EDM parties, known as the Global Dance Festival, about once every three months dating back to 2010. Smaller venues in Westport, Martini Corner, the Legends and even the Power & Light District regularly book DJs who spin uptempo dance music. Pulsing beats are the new Saturday-night soundtrack.
DJ Josh C, head honcho of the Kansas City Techno crew, started spinning techno music around the turn of the millennium. He remembers fondly his green, starry-eyed phase with electronic dance music, before Britney did a dubstep song and before staff, security and overpriced bottled water became part of the landscape.
"The overall experience of this music is best served in a dark, dirty warehouse, where the bass kicks up a cloud of concrete dust and who knows what other kinds of filth," Josh C says.
(For old-school EDM revelers, that "filth" sometimes took the form of a mysterious black goo that you had to blow out of your nose upon waking the day after a good party. The amount of black goo tended to be an accurate indication of how much fun you had the night before.)
Kansas City Techno is a tightknit group of local DJs and producers that includes Josh C, Mr. Nuro, Todd Howard, Andrew Boie, Amjanda, PK, Z-Sonic and Freeking. They've taken techno and house music very seriously for years individually and, since 2009, as a crew. Their blog, kansascitytechno.com, is an ongoing archive of music, events and information concerning all things Kansas City techno. In a city that can't seem to let go of loud guitars, they strike a defiant pose. Given the rise of EDM, they're becoming more and more formidable. And their primary objective is to try to preserve some of the old scene's purity.
"Kansas City [EDM] parties started out underground," Todd Howard says. "Then in 2002, several parties were shut down. Soon after that, in 2003, the RAVE Act was passed." That legislation (which stands for Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) dealt a near deathblow to the large, uncontrolled gatherings that defined Howard's scene. Since then, techno, house music and other styles of EDM, like dubstep, have been pushed into the clubs.
Some of the romance of the old scene has been lost in the transition, but a larger audience has opened up.
"Dance music moving back into Westport within the past few years has helped a lot," says Mr. Nuro, who spins at the Union, the Gusto Lounge and the Riot Room, in addition to more secretive, underground, one-off locations.
But there has always been a stronger-than-average whiff of snobbery among EDM enthusiasts, and the Kansas City Techno crew is no exception. Josh C asserts that he does not have much interest in trying to convert anyone to techno. "In my opinion, good techno is like a fine wine; it's an acquired taste," he says. "The finest wines don't normally sell well. They are more of a niche product."
Hence the preservation of those underground parties, where savvier crowds enable DJs to experiment without having to worry as much about losing the crowd. Here, the emphasis is on a more sophisticated sound propelled by skillful mixing abilities, rather than the big breakdowns and haymaker "drops" associated with a lot of current dubstep and trance tracks that are kicking up dust under dance tents at Wakarusa, Kanrocksas and Dancefestopia. It's a response to the hotshot promoters cashing in on teenagers willing to fork over $30 to dance with a couple of thousand people in a theater or arena. (The phrase, or perhaps motto, "No Cover, All Vibe" has been slapped across more than a couple of these underground party fliers.) Call it the black-goo effect.
"The music that is played at the Global Dance events is the pop music of EDM," Mr. Nuro insists. "Once this EDM bubble has popped, the money will move on to the next hot genre to promote. But the underground will still be here pressing on."
Chris Milbourn writes about local music online at demencha.com.