One of the fastest growing sub-genres in the ever expansive EDM spectrum is that of bass house, a style characterized by phase modulated wobble basses, driving house rhythms and a penchant for reviving a distinct dance vibe. It’s a sound that’s been picking up steam with genre frontrunner Jauz, who helped break the style to a larger audience with 'Feel The Volume', frequently cited as one of the fastest rising producers in the game. Sound design company Cymatics even recently released a preset pack for Serum dubbed ‘Jawz’ that lets bedroom producers play around with the heavy low end tones common to bass house.
So when I knew I had a lengthy car trip coming up recently, I naturally decided it would be a good idea to make a quick bass house mix for the road. With over an hour of music dedicated solely to the bass heavy style, I was set for my trip. But as I travelled further down the road, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been listening to one long song on repeat as every track seemed to blur into the next. How could a style that felt so fresh and new and exciting suddenly seem so dull and repetitive?
As I listened closely, I noticed that in addition to utilizing similar sonic palettes and general patterns, many producers working in the genre were recycling the same pitch sliding basslines into their drops. It was more than just an issue of a homogenous set of genre rules, but rather the repeated use of the same musical phrase across many different songs by a handful of producers. I decided to take it a little further and selected ten different bass house tracks for comparison, hoping to shed light on the issue of the derivative musical structures.
Ephwurd and Jauz’s 'Rock The Party', Major Lazer and Autroerotique’s 'The Sound', Dekova’s 'Gotta Move', Jauz’s 'Feel The Volume', Eduardo Garcia’s 'Baddest Motherfucker', Uplink’s 'Virus', Campo’s 'Raptor', Duko’s 'The Ripper', JVST SAY YES’s 'Push It” and DISKORD’s 'Out There' were all selected for comparison. To create the analysis, I loaded the ten songs into a digital audio workstation and selected a two bar section from each track's drop, then I finally edited them together to form a continuous mix. Listen below…
The first thing you probably notice about the short mix is that it totally throws down. The beats are hard hitting, the bass sounds carve out an irresistible rhythm as they intersect the steady pounding of the kicks, and each tune has been well produced. But you don’t have to listen too long to realize the immediately apparent sameness of each of the cuts featured in the analysis. The results are a bit startling, as ten songs run from one to the next sounding as if they were stitched from the same musical fabric. The subtle changes within each sample, in terms of the beats and the sound design, clue the listener to the fact that this is not a single piece of music.
'Feel The Volume' and 'Rock The Party' both feature production work from Jauz, so the similarities there can be largely forgiven. But the other eight tracks? Can we really write off the uniform nature of the rest of the compositions to mere coincidence? Let’s break things down a bit more from a musical perspective to get a clearer picture of what’s going on in the comparison.
Upon further analysis of the musical structures within each selection, we can see that the producers are utilizing the same specific melodic phrase; a descending bassline that spans four semitones, from the minor third down to the root note. This bassline is generally set against a four on the floor house beat or the occasional garage style 2-step beat. The bass patches themselves draw upon classic dubstep wobbles infused with more contemporary sound design that utilizes heavy distortion and phase modulation to give the synths a grungey feel.
This sort of descending chromatic pattern isn’t unique to bass house, of course and it should be noted that movements from the minor third to the root note are common building blocks found in all types of composition. Similar riffs are featured in heavy metal all the time, while rock and the blues are generally based around the pentatonic scale, with the minor third serving as one of the most important scale degrees. It would be ridiculous for one artist to try and lay claim to such a common musical pattern, and to accuse everyone who uses a similar motif of plagiarism would be entirely unfair. But listening through the audio analysis, it’s hard to forgive some of the overwhelming similarities, and it becomes clear that musical laziness and blatant copying are afoot.
Are producers just being Lazy?
It would be unfair to place the blame for rampant copycating solely on bass house, as it’s merely indicative of a larger pattern that we’ve seen countless other genres under the dance music umbrella succumb to. Remember what happened to Dubstep? Big Room? Tropical house? With the rise of EDM over the last several years, we’ve also seen the rise of shameless imitation, as mainstream producers scour the underground for fresh new sounds to exploit, only to be followed by every wannabe bedroom DJ with a laptop and a pirated copy of Ableton Live.
READ: How EDM Eats Itself
So what is it about electronic music that seems predisposed to spawning countless followers? First, I think we have to understand the overcrowded environment behind the industry. As the tools of production were pried from the hands of the recording studios and major labels and distributed to the masses, it suddenly became a reality for musicians to record and produce their own music to industry standards while foregoing the costly budgets of the old music business. And while this paradigm shift opened up enormous possibilities for musicians and producers, it also opened the floodgates to anyone with a dream to make music.
That last part isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that there are more people with the desire to pursue a music career than those who are willing to hone their craft and put years of study and practice behind their aspirations. The widespread presence of free music production tutorials on the internet has made it easier than ever to learn how to create your own synth patches and produce your own songs, but as a consequence we are seeing a lot of producers putting all their energy into studying production techniques without balancing that new found knowledge with an understanding of music theory or the creative process. It just feels like there are far too many up and comers unloading their production prowess into a track without setting a sturdy musical foundation. Their technical proficiency outweighs their creative abilities.
Since the explosion of dubstep, EDM subgenres seem to follow a similar pattern. A collective of aspiring underground musicians develop a unique sound that catches on with a small audience, quickly gaining traction and becoming a full fledged movement. Mainstream producers catch on to the buzz surrounding the emerging genre, and begin to exploit it to be sold to a larger audience. After the big guys start pushing the new genre, a sea of hopeful producers latch on with the idea of riding the new sound to success, effectively ruining the genre as endless generic clones saturate the market. It’s the reason why so much electronic music ages so quickly, and why so many producers will be forgotten in a few short years.
More Pioneers, Less Followers
To me, electronic music was always synonymous with an experimental edge, a desire to push the boundaries of what can be considered music and a willingness to take chances and innovate. But when I listen to this style of music today, it’s painfully obvious that the drive to innovate and experiment is missing in this new breed of producer. It’s hard to imagine where electronic music would be today without artists like Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, and Aphex Twin, who showed a tenacity for pushing the envelope and in doing so helped shape the musical landscape of the future. How many of today’s producers are going to be remembered for their contributions to the history of music?
Are genres really going to be defined by specific musical structures? Have the thresholds of quality really been lowered to the point that a flashy production can carry a bad composition? Too many producers working under the dance music label seem content to rely on their immediate peers for direct influence, and this becomes painfully clear whenever new sounds begin to emerge and gain popularity. There’s nothing wrong with producers picking up on trends and using them to their advantage, but it is their artistic responsibility to justify their borrowing by expanding on those ideas and pushing them further.
Of course there are plenty of talented producers coming up with original music in bass house, and artists like Jauz, Ghastly, Valentino Khan, Skin Deep, Joyryde, and AC Slater elevate the genre above its generic underbelly. Ultimately, it’s up to dance music fans to decide if we are willing to continue to buy into disposable bangers with a six month expiration date, or if we are going to support the artists who bring originality and a pioneering sense of creativity to the table. But without artists who are willing to establish their own unique identity in the EDM landscape, the music won’t be able to sustain the interest of listeners for very long.