The IDM List Gave Intelligent Dance Music Its Name and Geeky Legacy
Musicians and fans look back on the niche online hub they cultivated 25 years ago, and how it framed dance music that wasn't really for dancefloors.
IDM-affiliated artists Autechre in 1996 and μ-Ziq in 1997 (Photos courtesy of Alan Parry)
In 1993, music obsessives Alan Parry and Brian Behlendorf created the online message board which gave us the earliest recorded use of the term “intelligent dance music.” Their IDM List—designed for people to discuss Aphex Twin, Warp’s 1992 Artificial Intelligence compilation and any somewhat inward-looking electronic music—became an addictive space for both fans and artists (Underworld’s Darren Emerson and Ultraviolet Catastrophe’s Jon Drukman were regulars). Less than a year after the List’s creation, Warp incorporated some of its messages into the artwork for the second Artificial Intelligence compilation.
IDM fans made inventive use of web 1.0, communicating through “vrave,” a virtual rave chat system where /H meant “hug” and /S meant “kisses.” Often they would host vraves at their own real-life parties in the form of a computer connected to other ravers thousands of miles away. And yet IDM has a complicated legacy. Fans are rarely given more than a dismissive mention. The subgenre name stuck, but has been criticised by artists, journalists and List users themselves ever since. Many have argued that the supposed complexity of IDM made it no more “intelligent” than any other form of dance music (though is there anything especially complex about, say, “Xtal”, track 1 of IDM’s defining work?).
Others note that the overwhelming majority of artists discussed on the List were white men. The more you look at it, the more the story of IDM—which owed so much to Detroit artists like Derrick May, Kenny Larkin, and Gerald Donald—begins to sound like that of rock ‘n’ roll: of black music being popularised by white musicians. So how do those early IDM List users reflect back on the forum now? Were they music obsessives whose private joke was taken too seriously? And did Richard D James ever creep among their messages, as the myths would have it? I asked around to find out.
Alan Parry, List cofounder
Who came up with the name “IDM”? I think it was Brian Behlendorf, haha! It’s amazing how 25 years later I can pick up a magazine and read about IDM, which came out of this discussion in Brian’s bedroom. We “met” online, virtually, and I went to San Francisco where we discussed the creation of the IDM List. Even in the beginning of the Aphex Twin story, there was that mystery about who he was and where he was from. I wanted to know who the people making these records were. And the way to do that was to connect with other people and talk about it.
Music was my life. Where I lived in Baltimore, we hosted events with people like Autechre and μ-Ziq. We made an album at one point: List members submitted their own tracks, then people voted and we made a CD. I remember giving it to the Autechre guys and they were a bit dismissive of it [laughs]…
The subject of race or gender never really came up. So much of IDM was faceless, that was kind of the point, right? The record sleeves rarely showed humans of any kind. Maybe they made a conscious decision to not show who they were or where they were from.
Jon Drukman, Artist (Ultraviolet Catastrophe, Bass Kittens) and former List member
I was totally addicted to the IDM List. It was an exclusive club. You didn't have YouTube or Spotify; if you wanted to participate, you had to scour import bins in Tower Records or DJ-specialty shops. I had no idea what the guys on the List looked or sounded like: all we had was words on a screen and a shared love of some pretty esoteric music. Talking about it felt important, valuable.
Obviously a lot of the original house and techno pioneers were black. For whatever reason IDM in the heyday was predominantly white male, listeners and artists alike. Remember, the web didn't even exist yet. Getting on the internet wasn’t easy. There was no Google to help you find the List. It had to be word of mouth for the most part and if you're a nerdy white guy, most of your friends are likely to be nerdy white guys.
The name was always kind of an albatross. A bunch of white computer guys labelling "their" dance music "intelligent" was kind of suspect. People were positive about Riz Maslen, Mira Calix and Andrea Parker from what I remember. And there was a big flame war around Björk and "how dare she" poach LFO, but I don't feel like it was motivated by sexism. As a nerdy white guy I'm probably not equipped to judge that properly, however.
Simon Reynolds, author of Energy Flash and former subscriber to the IDM List
I was subscribed to the IDM List later in its life, more late 90s I think, but not as a participant—really as an observer, monitoring a subculture and its discourse. I don't think it would be unfair to describe it as very male and very white. It's hard to tell when it's online aliases but you can sort of smell it, can't you? Also the IDM fan culture simply reflected the artists: again very male and white.
I liked quite a lot of IDM, and revered Aphex, Luke Vibert, Oval et al, but I felt the fan culture had a misplaced superiority complex based on very little. Artists like Squarepusher were doing nothing with breakbeat science that hadn't already been done by 4hero, Omni Trio, Goldie, and dozens of other jungle and hardcore producers—years earlier!
Autechre made formidable anti-grooves, physically imposing beats that were inventive but undanceable. How crucial this was depended on how much you valued groove and dancing. Fans didn't seem to set much store in the “dance” bit of “intelligent dance music”. Music that was functional—for dancing—was considered somehow lesser than less functional music that was purely experimental or atmospheric. It seemed frankly a nerdy subculture, happier at home with a bunch of weird sounds than out there in the collective social spaces of raves and clubs.
I think it's a problematic term, but the genre of music and its discourse are social facts and a historical reality—I think trying to erase it is a strange impulse. It also produced some great music that transcends any misgivings one might have about how fans and critics framed it.
Mike Brown, Curator of Hyperreal content and List member
Even in ‘93 to 4’ the word “IDM” wasn’t something any of us took seriously. It was just three letters with no particular meaning beyond our little nerdy community's way of referring to whatever music we liked from the fringes of electronic dance music. No one was intending to coin a genre name or to imply the artists and fans were geniuses.
Remember how brash all that ravey, hardcore techno sounded back then? Or the sound of clubby, booty-shakin' house music? Well, just like punk rockers loved punk rock, we loved that "dumb" music; we danced our asses off to it. And at the same time some of us loved this other, “less dumb” music that had a more experimental, less dancey sound.
On the one hand, everywhere I've been, among fans, promoters and DJs, it seemed like diversity was never really a problem—although I am hesitant to say that with certainty now. At least, everyone I know consciously worked and still works to be as inclusive as possible. On the other hand, I'm not blind. The demographics of the IDM records we had access to were lopsided well into the 2000s. I just feel the "why" questions about lack of representation, past and present, should be directed to the people in those communities. People should be more interested in what Carl Craig or Mira Calix have to say about it than what I could ever say.
Mira Calix, Artist and Warp signee
I’d say the people who were on the list were predominantly young white males, but then the music itself represented that. I was the only female artist on Warp. We can and should be critical of it, but at the same time if the record labels weren’t releasing lots of music by women the kids weren’t gonna write lots about music by women.
My label wasn’t a hostile environment at all, it was just a lack of women putting themselves forward and a lack of opportunity. It’s not like it was a macho culture. As I’m aware, the list wasn’t particularly macho; I think it was a bit more geeky. That is a more masculine trait: I hate to say it. That doesn’t mean women don’t collect records—obviously, you’re speaking to a girl who is a geek or I wouldn’t be doing this [laughing], but I think it’s fair to say that trainspotters are mostly men, and birdwatchers…
There were less women releasing and performing – like very small amounts – and there still are. Forget about the genre: that’s anything from bloody drum and bass to a symphony. We see very visible women like Beyoncé and Rihanna so we think things are more balanced, but actually women are still a minority in the industry, 20 years later.
I don’t think anyone at Warp was just sitting there looking at the List; it wasn’t used as some sort of bellwether. What was appreciated was the support, because it created a culture, a scene, a new form of communication: people being online, that was the first social media. I didn’t know about the mini-rave things—that’s so cool! I think that wouldn’t have necessarily happened around a rock band. Because the music was hyper-experimental and had a connection with technology it attracted those kinds of people as well.
I remember some artists at Warp kicking back, going “IDM? It sounds poncey”, but upon reflection, it’s just a name. Like calling stuff garage or house. Did Richard [D James] ever use the List? [laughs] What do you think? Some artists were on the List visibly and some were there invisibly…
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.