Electronic Dance Music: EDM is the Global LGBT Soundtrack

Written by | Entertainment, Music

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What is “PLUR”? That acronym has adorned beaded bracelets  and neon colored tank tops for decades, although it’s not the brand of a high-end clothing line. Some readers will instantly recognize this symbol from their dancing days. Seasoned ravers have mastered its insider handshake too – a gesture that commonly transforms strangers into new friends on crowded dancefloors. PLUR is simple shorthand for “peace, love, unity and respect.” That’s something we can all get behind. And although this overture of fellowship has been around for some time, it still surfaces on today’s Top 40 playlists. Even as dance music has become a highly lucrative commercial commodity, almost miraculously,  those same values of PLUR live on.

PLUR is why an all-too-often misunderstood segment has called dance music home since its inception. It’s similar to how the discotheque — even as it fed pop culture fanatics — provided a place of solace for members of marginalized communities, including young African Americans navigating life in a post-Civil Rights Movement world and queer people burdened by the judgements of a society still reluctant to embrace them completely. These groups were drawn to a safe place found amid flashing lights where the characteristics that made them different quickly fell to the wayside. Their genders, races and orientations were replaced by indistinguishable silhouettes moving throughout glimmering nightclubs where freedom and positivity reign supreme.

A fervent new energy rolled in with the ‘90s. Illegal raves descended upon forgotten warehouses, hidden basements and abandoned buildings, bringing with them new subsets of trance and electro — all synth-driven sounds that eventually ruled the airwaves. Those celebrations were often known only by the most diligent partygoers,  those devotees who tracked carefully monitored phone trees and discreetly distributed passwords. This exchange of “top secret” information reinforced an overarching sense of community. Entry to the event served as a binding agreement that only love and respect would be tolerated from every participant.

amsterdam dance event

Amsterdam Dance Event — Photo by Lieke van den Oor

Joining the Amsterdance

Electronic music was then, and still is, for everyone. That dictum is immediately apparent as we embarked on an enlightening overseas romp. It may be 3am, but during Amsterdam Dance Event — or ADE as the industry calls it — the party’s just getting started. A downtown square teems with music lovers who have traversed the globe to experience the best of what electronic music has to offer. Over the course of five days, some 400,000 people will participate in panels, film screenings, label showcases, live demonstrations, yoga classes and more in what has become the world’s largest music and technology conference — and one of the most collectively inclusive gatherings on the planet.

Approaching the venue in the wee hours of Thursday morning, there’s a diverse crowd to wade through. Persons of every race, gender and age are here for a good time. A tall elegantly dressed drag queen works the front door of Sugar Factory, a mid-sized nightspot that touts itself as being a “dynamic, open-minded and creative club where live music and theater meet”. That description checks out. We offer our names, and the queen flips long luminous red hair over her shoulder as she scans her worn notepad. “You’re all set! Now you just go in there and have fun, honey,” she says with a beaming smile.

Inside, it’s bumping. The main room boasts modest decorations — a simple lighting rig, a slow-turning disco ball and spiral staircases that ascend into an underdressed balcony. But any over-the-top fanfare the decor lacks is offset by the colorful crowd, many of whom are loudly and proudly bedecked in boas, face paint, high heels and glitter. A trip to the bar brings more happy surprises when a stranger in line picks up our refreshments “just because.” All she asks is that we return the favor sometime later this weekend. Can do, madam.

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The vibe is beyond friendly, and with a soundtrack so splendid, how could it not be? The United Kingdom’s Horse Meat Disco are keeping the spirit of the ‘70s alive with an upbeat mix of classics and nu selections. Lovingly referred to by their fanbase as the “Disco Daddies,” this charming foursome host their own queer parties in London, Brooklyn and beyond. While The Classic Music Company’s Wednesday night showcase hasn’t been marketed specifically as an LGBTQ gathering, both the lineup and the audience make it so. Also sharing the roster tonight are Honey Dijon, a Chicago born, New York-based house and techno artist who happens to be transgender; Eli Escobar, a Brooklyn native who has become a familiar face at inclusive venues and NYC Pride Parties; and CMC label head Luke Solomun, a UK-based artist and businessman who has provided a happy home for the work of artists from all walks of life.

We catch up with Escobar just before his closing B2B set with Solomun. The soft spoken scene veteran and ally has been called “the quintessential New York DJ.” With more than two decades of production and performance under his belt, Escobar has watched electronic music in the States transform from an underground cult pastime into a multi-billion dollar global phenomenon. He’s navigated the transformation deftly and maintained a fanbase by pushing the boundaries of any genre he touches – hip-hop, classic New York house and sparkling disco productions only scratch the surface of his rich and often introspective oeuvre. Although the landscape has shifted, he believes that for many, there is still one thing that precipitates that first calling to the dancefloor: a desire to belong.

“Growing up, there were times I felt alienated,” Escobar says, taking time to choose his words. “I didn’t relate to the kids who were good at sports or who were all latching on to popular trends, and I think that’s why I found clubbing so early. The people I met while clubbing were warm and accepting. They all loved music and dancing, and immediately I knew that was where I wanted to be all the time.”

Escobar’s story is more the rule than the exception among EDM’s most fervent acolytes. Throughout history, music has been known as a primal form of escapism, and dancing, as a promoter of positive release. Escobar points to liberated souls as the heart of any great party. “I started getting booked for queer parties all the time, and I love it! I personally feel like when you have a group of people who feel the need to dance and who really need the music you’re playing, it’s way better,” he’s quick to add. “To be able to play for a community of people who deeply respect this outlet and who really treasure it means so much to me. It’s much different than playing for a gathering of 20-somethings who are out to prove that they have few wild nights left in them before it’s time to settle down. Plus queer audiences give me an invitation to take a lot more chances musically. I can play more emotional music.” It’s a compliment, but one that also provides a telling glimpse into his perpetually questing creative prowess.

Sugar Factory isn’t the only hall sizzling with queer energy during ADE. It’s as though the spirit is infused in the event’s very fabric. Odd Fantastic and Dance With Pride host a Wednesday night fundraiser featuring queer talent — whose proceeds will go to support the new Buddy Project of Stichting Prisma Groep, an organization dedicated to creating friendly support groups for those who need them most. Conference passholders attend a panel titled “Artists Empowering Their Community to Create Change” in which a wide range of performers (from eco-aware techno duo BLOND:ISH to Dave Clarke, a British producer who has boycotted playing on U.S. soil until the reign of Trump is over) discuss steps they’ve taken personally to make the world a better and more loving place. Boiler Room teams up with IsBurning, an infamous gay party thrown by Charles Valdes which draws from throwback LGBTQ culture from the disco era. The nearly six-hour Friday night event spotlights queer artists and allies like Octo Octa, Titia and many more whose names have become synonymous with legendary “gay” club nights worldwide (you can relive the magic of ADE: Boiler Room x IsBurning in its entirety at isburning.com).

To call ADE “a breath of fresh air” is an understatement – there’s a unique electricity stemming from its outrageously welcoming, peaceful spirit. It’s readily apparent that the forces behind it are promoting inclusivity in a way that extends far beyond the musical subculture it originally intended to serve.

Meanwhile, Back in the States…

An international affair like ADE is a prime example of how electronic music advances global positivity, but there’s reason to rejoice near homebase too. While making new friends on the continent, an American scene hero was hard at work brewing up new beats with community in mind. Grant Kwiecinski aka GRiZ, is both a Renaissance man and titan of popular dance culture. Already a distinguished producer, DJ, saxophonist, songwriter, singer and Camp Kulabunga Counselor, GRiZ added a new moniker to his list when he came out as gay in a sweet and very candid letter to The Huffington Post in the summer of 2016 (he now considers the disclosure “just a dope side-note”). The underlying theme of his intentional outreach was a phrase that many have embraced as a beacon of hope: “It gets better.” Those three words also happen to be the title of his bouncy new single, a track shot through with uplifting hooks, feel-good lyrics and his own unique panache. It’s a radio-ready anthem that  laughs confidently in the face of adversity.

Wharehouse Elementenstr

Photo credit Piet van Strijp

“The message stems originally from my own personal struggles with being a queer person in the world — struggles I’ve endured in relationships as well as my frustrations with the way our culture is represented in the media,” Kwiecinski explains. “This was a way to express a healing notion in a musical way.”

The bouncy track, which highlights a soulful vocal from hip-hop icon DRAM, has served as way for GRiZ to break what his followers had guessed was a creative hiatus. Although GRiZ’s tour schedule has hardly slowed, “It Gets Better” and its bookend track “Can’t Get Enough” were the first releases seen from the multi-talented musician in almost a year.

“I said my piece with what I was going through, and after a while, I got this urge to share my work with other people again. After all, the music isn’t just for me,” says GRiZ. “I wanted people to hear these two tracks specifically because it felt like [they contained the words] I was telling myself — a lot. And then things just seemed to line up perfectly: With everything happening in the world, these songs were not only something people wanted to hear, but needed to hear.”

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The lyrics of ‘It Gets Better’ (which include the original chorus by GRiZ and verses by DRAM) remind listeners to keep their focus on what will create a lasting impact at every level of society: Believe in yourself. Keep your head up and make the world a better place by spreading positivity. It’s the perfect accessory to the #ShowLoveSpreadLove tag which appears in his inspirational social media posts, on pieces from his self-designed clothing line and throughout the live shout-outs of those marathon DJ sets. GRiZ’s secret for sustaining his own positive outlook on life? “If I’m feeling grumpy while grabbing my morning coffee, I can stand there and not talk or I can give a stranger a big smile,” GRiZ  says with a laugh. “When I get one back, that instant affirmation, it’s like magic. It instantly turns my day around and works every time. Give it a try.”

No doubt GRiZ feels rewarded by the career he’s carved out and the environment it engenders. “I don’t think dance music has ever been a space where people weren’t trying to spread a positive message,” GRiZ concludes. “Whether it was through the hip-hop, dubstep, house or heady scenes, beneath it all were people who were genuinely excited to link up and connect with one another. I’m so happy to have found that place that feels safe and relatable. And I’m here to perpetuate that very thing that’s so special and sacred to so many of us.” Between the new tunes and his charitable “12 Days of GRiZMAS” events which rocked his hometown of Detroit over the holidays, GRiZ puts time and energy into to keeping EDM’s positivity an ongoing effort. Next, he’s headlining Envision Costa Rica, a sustainable, health and wellness-focused festival taking place in Latin America later this month (envisionfestival.com).

edm party

Photo credit Dick Rennings

Times will change. People will too. It’s hard to know how the festival circuit will evolve — at home or abroad — in  10 years. It’s perhaps even more difficult to forecast the trends that electronic diehards will latch on to from one season to the next. However, one thing is for certain: as long as the musical pioneers keep pushing their message of peace, love, unity and respect, Electronic Dance Music will remain secure in its place as a safe haven for all, regardless of their fans’ geographical or sexual orientations. And isn’t that desire for communal celebration what put them on the dance floor in the first place?

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Last modified: January 21, 2019