It’s been said that the musical style now referred to as “electro” wriggled to life in the early ’80s, when the heavy thump of funk collided with burgeoning synthesizer technology. Jittery, bass-heavy and bombastic, electro lurked on the half-courts and back-alley clubs of New York City, embraced mostly by the city’s first break-dancers.
Tweaked by bellicose boasts and calls to the dance floor, electro became the template for both hip-hop and techno, a fact lost on most top-40 listeners who have already forgotten Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” As the tools used to create it — like the 808 drum machine and the Oberheim DMX Synth — showed up in the studios of more mainstream artists like Madonna, Prince, New Order and Run DMC, electro and its mutations faded from radio play and took root in the fertile club scenes of Miami, Detroit and the U.K.
Londoner Ed Upton was a teenager when the music migrated across the Atlantic. Now known as DMX Krew, he has spent the last 10 years expanding the medium’s vocabulary while maintaining its DIY vintage-equipment ethos. However, in an e-mail interview, Upton says that he now distances himself from the label.
“I don’t think any creative person wants to be pigeonholed,” he says. “When my first album came out, it was electro, in the old sense of mid-’80s-style break-dancing and body-popping tunes. Nowadays, the term is more often used to describe music I would characterize as synth-pop or commercial house and a fashion-led scene which I am not into.”
Upton adds that he’s made music in a lot of different styles since then as well.
Terms like electro, IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) and “braindance” often accompany descriptions of Upton’s music. As a DJ and one-man band, Upton pays homage to old-school artists such as Mantronix and Grandmaster Flash, but he has also created forward-looking sounds, the kind just as likely to be heard blasting out of low-riders as from Manhattan lofts. Like his friend and kindred spirit, Richard D. James (better known as techno-prankster Aphex Twin), Upton makes beat-driven music that challenges rhythmic preconceptions as well as aerobic endurance.
Upton’s adventures in electro began with a Kraftwerk single bought in 1983.
“I was making music from when I was a kid on Casio keyboards,” he says. “Right now I am at my mum’s house and I have been listening to tapes I made in 1991 or so.”
Upton prefers vintage equipment that harkens back to both pre- and post-Casio days, using mostly old keyboards and a Roland sequencer. “I do it the old way, not using computers much, but I have started to use computer-based recording because it’s a lot cheaper than tape and much easier to edit.”
At live shows, though, like his upcoming gig at Maniac Love in Minami-Aoyama, he keeps it minimal. “It’s hard to transport a lot of equipment and I don’t want to damage my old synths. So I have done a lot of shows with laptops or samplers.”
Still, the latest advancements in sound technology rarely interest Upton. “New synths sound rubbish to me,” he says. The first piece of equipment he bought with his own money was a Yamaha DSR2000, a home keyboard and sequencer. And the last? “Probably a little Korg drum machine I picked up in Tokyo a few years ago. I don’t buy much equipment. Just old stuff, vintage keyboards, etc. But I haven’t got room for them in my little flat.”
Upton’s percussive predilections first appeared in the early ’90s on James’ label, Rephlex. He then started his own label, Breakin’ Records, in 1997 to serve as a conduit for his discoveries, as well as his other musical personalities, such as the vocoder-heavy Computor Rockers and the ghetto beats of EDMX. He continues to issue work on Rephlex, though.
“I just make tracks as the inspiration hits,” he says, “I don’t work towards a ‘product’ or anything, I just do them all the time. [Then] I give all the tracks to Rephlex so they can pick what they want.”
His latest album will be released Aug. 31.
Like many small labels carrying independent artists, Upton considers the Internet both a blessing and a curse.
“It helps because people can find out about it, they can buy records online even if they don’t live near a good record shop. Nowadays, it is very hard for small labels to get records into the shops, so Internet sales are vital,” he said. “But downloading of pirate MP3s has really hurt. With Breakin’ Records, the difference between selling 800 records or 400 records is the difference between making enough money to pay the rent for a month or losing the same amount. So things are getting very tight these days.”
Like James, Upton will do remix work for cash. Artists like Japan’s Denki Groove and Hot Sun in the Funny Face have come under his scrutiny. He’s worked in synthesizer shops as well. It was here where he once spoke to Thomas Oberheim, creator of the DMX drum machine and the inspiration for Upton’s stage name.
“I was surprised when he answered the phone himself,” Upton says. “Guess he was building synths on his kitchen table. I didn’t tell him that I named myself after his drum machine in case he sued me.”
When he’s not busy making beats, Upton performs live at clubs around the world, but his touring schedule is erratic.
“I don’t really arrange tours; I just do gigs at weekends and go home. From London you can fly to anywhere in Europe pretty quickly. I will stay in hotels after each show and then have a few days’ holiday staying with friends. I have managed to go to Japan and the U.S. once a year for the last few years as well.”
Japanese audiences are usually quite enthusiastic, he says, especially in Tokyo and Osaka. But one particular gig in Utsunomiya was quite different.
“[The show] was empty! Even though I was playing with [world famous DJ] Ken Ishii. There is just no point in doing a show in such a small place.”
So does he prefer touring or recording?
“Do you prefer eating or drinking?” comes the cheeky reply. So bass junkies and beat-heads should be licking their lips.
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