This is what UK dance music magazines used to ask every few months at the beginning of the century. There'd be a little feature with various behemoths like Digweed and Cox cited as evidence of a genuine dearth of new blood behind the decks, as a sign that nobody young was coming through. The tone of these pieces was inquisitive: they asked you why this was the case but they never dared to have a guess. It was a question nobody in dance music wanted to answer, lest they might talk themselves out of a job.
But deep down everyone must have known the truth: that these aging DJs were still the biggest names because there was nobody doing anything interesting enough to replace them. It was also clear that if nobody came along to do this, then very soon there'd be nobody to replace their aging fans either.
It all seems like an eternity ago now doesn't it? Today, the biggest names in techno are almost all new ones, apart from a few stalwart "legends". Ricardo Villalobos, Michael Mayer, Damian Lazarus, Luciano, all newly huge and all united by their association with the most controversial M-word in dance. Minimal. It's a tag that's always been more about vague consensus than precise description, which certainly hasn't hurt its popularity. But this is also probably the reason why there has been so much frenzied debate about the genre: what it actually is is so subjective. Hence we've all had an earful of "what is minimal", "what isn't minimal", "what was minimal", or "what will become of minimal". You know, those maddening and barely answerable questions of semantics which clog up discussions of dance music.
But despite such a contentious mainstream arrival in the UK and Europe, the story behind what was going on in Germany in the time leading up to their mass export of minimal is largely untold. Ralf Kollmann, who runs the hugely successful Berlin label Mobilee, explains that while dance was dying in the UK, the German underground was becoming more galvanised.
"In Germany we didn't have the discussion in the last four or five years about dance music being dead, because the so called 'dance music scene' in Germany has always been totally separate to what is going on underground in the club scene. There was that kind of movement here around ‘94 or ‘95 when techno music became very popular, because of Mayday and the Love Parade and so on. A lot of people who joined the techno scene in the beginning, in the early 90s, they were disappointed, and they tried to find something new, to reinvent the underground and the club scene. That happened in ‘96, ‘97, ‘98, and maybe even later in ‘99 and 2000. Then, in the last three or four years, especially in Berlin, that underground scene has become bigger and bigger. It has been like the new birth of something, and I think this movement all happened around minimal or so called 'minimal music'."
1. Âme - Balandine [Innervisions]
Âme's tribute to Wild Pitch and their most unhinged track to date.
2. Brendon Moeller - Jazz Space EP [3rd Ear]
Four amazing tracks of deep cosmic techno.
3. Polder - Strange Ways [Intacto]
Choppy jaunty house music from Holland.
4. Plasmik - Mindpattern [Connaisseur]
If there's a bad release on Connaisseur I haven't heard it.
5. Kiki - Gute Nacht [Bpitch Control]
Easily Kiki's best production to date.
6. Pan-Pot - Lancelot Von Camelot (Barem Mix) [Einmaleins]
Barem's productions always seem to administer a vital injection of fun(k) to the clickier end of minimal.
7. Tom Clark/Daniel Dreier/Sven Brede - Various Artists Volume III [Highgrade]
When I can't think of what to eat for breakfast, bananas are always there. Highgrade is my musical banana.
8. Sascha Dive - Down Edit (Argy Remix) [Raum...Musik]
Argy's mix here is really twisted acid house with his usual raw Chicago feel.
9. Ink and Needle - Seven/Eight [Tattoo Recordings]
“Seven" is a monstrous piece of techno which deserves to be huge this summer.
10. Black Strobe - I'm A Man (Audion's Donation Mix) [Playlouder]
The massively hyped anthem that doesn't sound quite as you imagined it would.
Of course, people are always wary of this kind of buzz. In fact, I've heard more than one big name DJ talk about "this minimal hype" like it's a well established meme in the scene. But one of the ironies of an age where people control and partake in so much of their own music media, is that despite the temptation to act cynically about a genre being hyped, we can no longer claim that some unseen media hand is fuelling the process. These days we the fans generate most of the hype, or the "inevitable subsequent backlash" (TM). Of course, we still have the right to complain about what other people are hyping, we just can't blame that shadowy cabal called "the media". In the face of the Internet, media gatekeepers like magazines or newspapers can no longer keep up with the accelerated culture they were once blamed for perpetuating. If anything, today's world of user generated hype is even more ruthless, the lifecycle of acts and genres even shorter.
For minimal, the strongest dislike came early rather than late, with the ultra dry stuttering funk end of the genre bearing the brunt of the criticism from the non-believers. But despite no recent backlash, the sounds are still changing. In the last year or so, there has been a definite move away from the most difficult M in dance music (no, not monged). It's just short of a truism at this stage to point out that, even at the beginning, minimal was never really a useful name for a genre, and more like a handy tag attached to a resurgent underground dance scene that was borrowing sporadically from a multitude of points in the history of techno and beyond. But then, it's no less descriptive a word than "house" or "techno".
This idea of minimal as a feeling, coupled with the fact that as a style it has grown old enough for people to want to react against it, seems to have inspired a significant share of major producers and labels to drift a away from the trademark clicks and pops. Some have gone towards house (Sebo K/Jamie Jones/Efdemin to name just the most famous few) while others have moved towards more traditional techno sounds, such as Redshape, Kompakt's recent Speicher releases and arguably even Audion's latest works.
Kollmann reckons that these changes are just a sign that the genre is returning to its roots: "I think that the minimal movement comes more from the deep house side of techno than from any other style. For example if you listen to old Doctor Rockit or Herbert, it really sounds similar. So maybe as a consequence of that minimal is going back to towards that style now. Now maybe there'll be more clubs concentrating on the more housey side of minimal, and other clubs might concentrate more on the techno side of it."
Is this where things are going? Few of the artists and labels involved, the likes of Villalobos, Luciano, Perlon, or even Kompakt or Mobilee could have predicted that that push from within the German techno underground would culminate in their sound engulfing the house and techno scene all over the world. In fact, what this cluster of independent labels, DJs, and producers have achieved is pretty staggering. Nonetheless, the sad truth is that most movements are killed more quickly by success than by failure. It's no wonder that now you'll often read a major league German producer who is loathe to even use the M word in interviews. Nor is it any surprise that so many artists are taking pronounced steps away from some of the dominant sounds of the past few years.
However, regardless of these changes in emphasis, one trend seems rock solid. Germany still leads the way, and it shows little sign of relinquishing its tight stranglehold over house and techno. With its dominance, the strict purist aesthetic of German techno is probably more popular and even cooler than ever, and this will continue to exert a heavy influence across the board.
Dance music can sometimes make the world seem small enough that people mythologise about far away places, places they might never have been to. In the past, dance fans looked to Detroit and Chicago. Today, the world really is smaller, and the myths are less far fetched. But it still happens. Berlin, the Panorama Bar, Hardwax, Watergate. The stories of these places are the heart and soul of techno right now. Music might be fleeting, but mythologies are a little less easily dismantled.
Top photo credit: Merlijn Hoek