The New Rise of Minimal

Minimal has become a dirty word in dance music. But the sound has greatly evolved from its legendary yet much-derided Bar25 days. Here, Henry Ivry traces the sound’s mutation from its Detroit roots to its drugged-out Berlin peak to its ultimate return as something altogether different.

30 min
Beatportal Feature Minimal
Jul 29, 2020
Henry Ivry

From Rio to Paris to Rome, to the warm afternoons on Berlin’s river Spree, there is a growing scene on the periphery of dance music’s underground. Trying to describe what it is, however, is not easy. Popular tracks fuse electro and garage rhythms with Detroit melancholy and IDM. Breaks fold into the loops of minimal and tech house funk. Quirky, sci-fi synth lines duet with anxious basslines. And while this may seem disjointed, the mixes, parties, and records that define this scene are remarkably consistent, taking inspiration from ’90s dance music and a deep love of crate-digging. The result is tracks that are both timeless and of the moment.

While there is a lack of consensus around what to call this scene, the term minimal often gets bandied about, often with a modifier like “new,” “post,” or “neo.” But ask anyone to describe this music, and you’ll get as many different answers. Liam Wachs, whose releases as Desert Sound Colony move between the density of UK bass and the bounce of Wiggle-era tech house, provides me with an appropriately broad description: “Everyone is playing a bit of everything.” A similar sentiment is voiced by Montevideo producer, Michelle Vagi. Although Vagi’s music — sinister, low-slung electro and acid — epitomizes this sound, she tells me, “I don’t think that I make minimal, I don’t even know how to make it. I love to make melodies and millions of sounds together telling something. Sometimes I do too much; I have to admit.”

While that may not be revelatory in a world increasingly less concerned with genre boundaries, “millions of sounds together” does feel like an unlikely description for minimal. As I dig into what defines this scene, the names of individual DJs continually pop up. References to the old guard of Ricardo Villalobos, Zip, and Craig Richards abound, as do their heir apparents, Vera, Nicolas Lutz, Margaret Dygas, Francesco Del Garda, and Binh. Certain labels, from Playhouse and Perlon to contemporary trendsetters Cabaret Recordings and Slow Life, and clubs like Berlin’s Hoppetosse and Club Der Visionaere, Kyiv’s Closer, Offenbach’s Robert Johnson, and Montevideo’s Phonoteque, are equally important. To understand what defines this scene, I followed a crisscrossing itinerary of producers, promoters, labels, and DJs dedicated to seemingly endless parties, ’90s house and techno, and, above all, a love for vinyl. Throughout my conversations, it dawns on me that minimal, as a genre, a historical concept, and a scene is almost always a misnomer — somehow both too specific and too vague to really describe what’s happening now.

Dana Ruh correct

Part of the issue with describing this new sound as “minimal” is that minimal has become a bit of a punchline. Dana Ruh, a house disciple committed to groove, explains this pointedly: “Today, if you use the word minimal, some people roll their eyes.” Minimal’s fall from favor with the dance floor intelligentsia can be traced back to the mid-2000s when minimal became associated with a very specific time and place. Hernan Gonzalez, who releases records as Two Phase U, pulls no punches in deriding this version of minimal: “That very Berlin, very 2000s minimal sound, was the worst era of electronic music.” Although Gonzales may be oversimplifying things, this sentiment has become dogmatic in many circles over the past decade.

Even though Simon Reynolds was using “minimal” as early as 1992 to describe Derrick May, minimal as a genre didn’t really come along until the mid-’90s. As Michaelangelo Matos writes in his book The Underground is Massive, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood had a conversation about how “rave was shifting into minimal.” The steely rhythms and sparse orchestration of tracks by Detroit’s Daniel Bell and Hood’s Minimal Nation offered an antidote to the glow stick and JNCO Jeans “candy rave” aesthetic with something “stripped-down, polished, and rubbery.”

Titonton Duvante, a Midwest lifer, explains that minimal was a specifically American and specifically Black sound, “Minimal as far electronic dance is concerned… is mainly black kids with little cash getting discarded gear (Roland TB303, Casio RZ-1, Yamaha DX100, Boss DR 660) and seeing how much they push it. It is putting a beat track under a disco record for holding groove better and making your one unique jam.” And while this is certainly the start of minimal techno, this isn’t the minimal we tend to think of today. As Matias Nario, a Montevideo producer working under the moniker Muten, explains, “When you say ‘minimal’ now, you don’t think of Robert Hood.”

What usually comes to mind when we hear the words “minimal” aren’t minimal’s roots as a Black and American form, but minimal’s gentrification across the Atlantic in its second wave. Similar to the mid-’90s rebuttal of rave in Detroit, a focus on groove and elongated loops was a natural reaction to the hollowed emotional peaks and troughs of late ’90s trance and techno. “After techno became a global phenomenon with its big raves [like] Loveparade, everything went back to clubbing,” Vera tells me. “I feel like the music was also becoming more intimate as well.”

Vera image

Nowhere was this shift more pronounced than Berlin in the early 2000s as Richie Hawtin, Ricardo Villalobos, Luciano, and Mike Shannon moved to the German capital, pushing off-kilter samples and druggy rhythms. This new minimal was bespoke for the venues that opened in the early and mid-2000s, including Bar25 and Berghain. While they were ostensibly universes apart, at least aesthetically, these clubs needed music suited to the open-ended party times that stretched across not hours, but days. Oskar Offermann, who moved to Berlin in 2001 and is now at the heart of Offenbach’s latest minimal scene, describes this second wave as “this big Plus 8/Minus hype when the Germans started calling it ‘minimal’ in the English way.” But even with this English pronunciation, this second wave of minimal remained hard to define. As music journalist Philip Sherburne wrote in 2006: “The irony, of course, is that most of this music really isn’t minimalist at all, neither in terms of sound selection, rhythmic construction, or – and often, especially – arrangement.”

Some people I talk to take minimal’s diffuseness as a genre further, suggesting that all dance music is minimal. TC80, a Barcelona-via-Metz DJ and producer, tells me, “It’s not about sounding like Romanian techno or like the German minimal from the old days. You don’t need to stack layers and layers of sound, and that keeps a minimal aspect to the music.” Ruh makes a similar point, describing how “less elements” in a track means “all the frequencies have space to breathe and shine. You can do this with any genre.”

Duvante goes further, tracing a genealogy all the way back to the start of the 20th-century. “My personal take on minimal is that the adage of less is more… From the works of Erik Satie, Philip Glass, Steve Reich on through to Daniel Bell, Robert Hood, Chicago acid tracks, Dance Mania and Relief Records. All of these — I find both inspiration and admiration in the hypnotic nature of stripping to the bare essentials.” Thinking beyond production, Offerman suggests that the economy of minimal is what dance music has always aspired to. “The core of [dance music] has always been very minimal. So I would say the word goes along with the history of techno, they just belong together in a way.”

The rubberiness that Matos identified in Hood and Bell is not only a description of the timbre of bass, but of the genre itself. Giammarco Orsini, an Italian DJ-producer, articulates this paradox in describing his own music: “My influences came from big artists that represent the [minimal] scene like Baby Ford, Daniel Bell, Ricardo Villalobos, Zip, Richie Hawtin, Thomas Melchior, and so on. But in the end, [when] you make music you start to experiment, and the final result probably is way different from what you can consider a ‘minimal’ track, despite the fact that there are just a few elements playing together.”

Oskar Off

Whatever minimal was or wasn’t during the mid-2000s, by the start of the 2010s, minimal was out of vogue, as the drugs and parties started taking priority over the music (not surprisingly, Sherburne’s alternate name for this music was “ketamine house“). Dan Curtin, who moved from Cleveland to Berlin in 2003, suggests that no one actually cared about the music, instead “partying was their passion.” Curtin explains that this led to a “superficiality in the scene” where the “futurism, groove, soul, and emotion” of the music had atrophied. Like Curtin, Slow Life collective members Laurine and Cecilio reminisce (not unfondly) on Bar25 as a place to party, but Laurine tells me it was a “cheap sound” that quickly became a parody of itself.

But outside of Berlin, a different sound was also emerging. In Romania, producers like Rhadoo, Petre Inspeciu, and Raresh were pushing a loopy, drawn-out style of minimal techno. Offerman explains that “this was never a big thing in Berlin,” but thanks to an infamous b2b between Raresh and Villalobos in 2006, that sound began to find a larger audience. What the Romanians offered was an even more introspective and stripped-down style of dance music that could sustain itself past any regular human metric of endurance. Even the younger players in the new minimal scene cite the Romanians as influential. Nemo Vachez, part of Parisian crew Forest ill, confesses to having gone to Sunwaves, the festival at ground zero of the so-called Rominimal, three times. But “When I was going to see Raresh or Rhadoo, the standout moments of their sets were the moments when they were playing ’90s records,” he points out. “They seemed much more interesting and powerful to my ears, contrasting with the rest of their set.”

Laurine and Cecllio see a similar indebtedness to the Romanian sound (even as I accidentally start a minor domestic dispute as they debate over who owns more [a:riap:r] records). Like Vachez, what they found interesting was the way that Raresh, in particular, was “always being groovy,” edging towards housier selections that made his sound a bit more open than the neverending loops. While the current scene is a far cry from Bucharest, it’s important not to downplay the influence. Claire, a founder of the female collective RA+RE, for example, moved from Paris to New York in the early 2010s and was exposed to the Romanian sound via parties like ReSolute and Blk|market as well as Sunwaves, where she saw “[a:riap:r] play for 8 hours,” and returned to France’s capital eager to keep promoting the looped hedonism of Romania. But as RA+RE started throwing parties, the collective realized that the sounds they gravitated towards were shifting towards older, more party-ready tracks — or songs that “explode.” “That sound was a bit flat and not as crazy or unique as the tracks we are playing,” RA+RE DJ Ethel, explains. “I actually think that even if this music scene is called minimal, we now play everything but minimal.”

Dan Curtain

Ivan Iacobucci, an Italian producer and DJ whose first release came out in 1990, but who has recently had a second wind through labels like LowMoneyMusicLove and YaY, doesn’t describe the move away from the Romanian sound so much as a break as an evolution. “I think minimal has been waning for some years now, but I don’t think it’s disappearing. Rather, I think it’s evolving, replacing its typical subtle sounds with the most current electronics (electro, acid, etc.)” The co-founders of Rakya, another Parisian outfit, tell a similar story. “As an artist, you want to make a lot of music, from UK Garage to electro to techno to minimal. I think we’re inspired by the Berlin minimal and Romanian techno, of course, but I think that the artists in our crew just want something more.” Rakya and RA+RE are both case studies for the latest generation pushing new minimal. Early releases on both labels focus on patiently undulating tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place at DC-10, but their latest releases paint with much wider palettes, packed with stumbling breakbeats and flecks of acid.

This idea of “something more” is a generational mantra. Eric Denise, who DJs and produces as CMYK (and has achieved something close to infamy through his algorithm-hacking YouTube channel), sees this as a shift from an obsession with the “technical aspects of DJing” to prioritizing tracks that “you play from start to finish” (Matt Unicomb has written about how lots of new minimal takes inspiration from Zip’s “unfussy mixing style and emphasis on deep cuts”). This isn’t to say that these aren’t incredibly skilled DJs (they are), but it does speak to a nascent digger’s ethos.

The 2010s coincided with a resurgence in digging through the lost ephemera of house and techno that was missing in the K-Hole of the Berlin minimal years, where the tracks are always more than the sum of their component parts. “It is all tied to the diggers movement, in my opinion,” Vera elaborates. “Musically speaking, it is tied to the ’90s.” Digging, during the mid-2010s, opened up a whole new world to DJs who had come upon the paint-by-numbers minimal tracks of the Bar25 scene. As Duvante explains, “The thing is that there is so much amazing music that was released on vinyl in the ’90s through to the vinyl crash of say 2006-2008. Literally hundreds of quality releases every week and no true method to keep track of them all as this was really before the proliferation of Discogs, YouTube, Google, and the modern tools of digging.” Of particular interest was a rediscovery of original Detroit sounds, particularly a penchant for melody and electro rhythms. Felix Reifenberg, part of Offenbach’s most recent wave of insurgent party starters HardWorkSoftDrink, puts this to me directly: “The scene at that time was quite entrenched in a certain kind of sound, and for us, it was important to bring in a fresh breeze through our youthful recklessness.”

Minimal party 2

“Youthful recklessness” is a cheeky way to describe the current scene. From Vachez’s love of “cheesy ’90s dance music” to Wachs playing “breakbeat, garage, and 2-step,” there is a sense that the latest strain of minimal is expanding. Taimur, the DJ, producer, and promoter behind BLKMarket music (one of the foremost importers of minimal into North America in the early 2000s), explains that this has always been a part of minimal. “For me, what kind of changed my perception of the music from being mainly four-on-the-floor, was when I heard Craig Richards and Lee Burridge in the early 2000s mixing West Coast house with breaks and tech house.” And it was Richards’s propensity for “the weird stuff,” Agha explains, that kept the music exciting.

Isis Salvaterra, who runs Toi Toi, a UK-based party, label, and booking agency, writes to me that it wasn’t just Richards who introduced a signatory weirdness, but also another central (if enigmatic) figure — Uruguay’s Nicolas Lutz. Toi Toi resident Lutz brought, Salvaterra writes, “the electro, breaky thing” that eventually “disconnected [the new minimal] from its source.” Almost everyone I talk to references Lutz as an inspiration, and instrumental in unleashing an added darkness to the dancefloor. As Vera tells the story, “Lutz went really deep down the rabbit hole with a very open mindset, curious and thirsty for something different from the usual and started pushing the boundaries/ limits of what people would play in our scene.” Gonzales, who came up in the Montevideo scene alongside Lutz, describes how this sonic menace is tied to Uruguay’s identity. “I still feel that our music has a bit more to say in terms of the feeling that it combines, it conveys a mixed feeling of happiness and well being and struggling… It’s a huge difference to live in Barcelona or in Berlin than to live in Montevideo.”

If Uruguay represents the darker axis of new minimal, there is another, equally prevalent side of the current sound. UK DJ-producer Harry Wills, whose own releases split the difference between cloud-spotting broken beat and slamming, gunfinger UKG, elaborates. “At the moment a lot of the music I hear falls into two camps: stuff that is a little lighter on its feet and on the more housey end of the spectrum, and the darker and heavy more techno sound that Lutz, Binh, etc. play.”

This “lighter on its feet” sound — the yin to Lutz’s yang — is associated with, among others, Francesca Del Garda and Vera and their labels Time Passages and Melliflow. Equally cerebral, the music is less horror film and more art house: bright soundscapes glinting in the summer sun with flickers of everything from breaks to progressive to IDM. It’s what Laurine describes as the “light and love” that she and the rest of Slow Life bring to their DJ sets and curate through their releases. I push Laurine and Cecilio to try and define what “light and love” sounds like, but we find ourselves doing verbal gymnastics. Eventually, they tell me, “every style can be Slow Life,” it is just a matter of how you go about playing it. This isn’t only true of Slow Life, but of new minimal more generally. The owners behind Kimchi Records, a fledgling Berlin hub whose staff includes selectors like Bruno Schmidt, push everything from salsa to trance. “There is not one single genre” that defines this scene, they say. Rather, the focus is on a digging experience where “the idea is to be surprised.”

Titione Du

As utopian as this all might sound, Gonzales worries that an overemphasis on breadth might end up diluting the already tenuous strings that hold this scene together. He is worried that it may be reaching a breaking point. “Every cultural phenomenon has stages. And now it’s beginning to to that point in which it is starting to get boring. This is an overflow of people copying without meaning.” Like the Berlin minimal scene in the mid-2000s, Gonzales is nervous that innovation has given way to replication. Domenico Rosa, an Italian DJ-producer behind labels like Imprints and Propersound, makes a similar point. “Probably the need expression and aggregation gave birth to this kind of music. The web, social networks, and the rhythms that [the] world forces us [into] every day are also changing the way we listen, and we make music. I hope this historical period will slow us down. We really need to look back at the simple things as a new starting point for the future.”

If anything, Rosa and Gonzales are pointing to the type of cyclical story we’ve seen before. In certain ways, the shift into more diverse sonic territory reflects a transition away from more traditional minimal music structures. But in other ways, the scene is becoming more elastic, able to incorporate different ideas while avoiding “copying without meaning.” This is true not only in the Euro-centric picture I’ve detailed above, but across the globe. From parties in Canada like Hypnotic Mindscapes to Vietnam’s Epizode, from US labels like Parang Recordings to Morocco’s Casa Voyager, there is a worldwide focus on identifying a never-ending groove, the techno equivalent of an endless summer. Like the hunt for the perfect point break, this scene is also, as Offerman explains, in search of “a deep, ongoing flow; never-ending, just to bring people a certain vibe, which is a continuous thing, with no beginning or real end to it. It’s just a certain state.” It is the continual hunt for what Duvante calls “that moment when the mélange of elements fit together just right.”

But a focus on the party over the music is worrisome, reminding me of Curtin’s description of Bar25 at its peak. Denise calms my nerves, arguing that it is always the music that keeps this scene together. “It’s a strange scene. It’s hard to string together,” he offers. “I think it is the love for all things music, the love for old shit. This is the main thing.” His bluntness feels fitting: “old shit” is certainly the most constant throughline I can trace through this ecosystem. Denise, however, does try to elaborate on what that old shit actually sounds like. “I say to my friends who know nothing about this music that I play elevator music very loud… If you put a huge subwoofer in your face and you play it, it then becomes dance music.” And part of me likes this. Much of the music is heady, requiring patience from listeners. I flirt with going into Discogs and adding “Elevator Funk” tags to records. But while that may work for releases on labels like Seekers or Rue de Plaisance, it doesn’t account for the full-throttled assault of labels like Libertine and OPIA or DJs like Quest and Evan Baggs.

To try and put a label on the sounds of the new minimal continuum ultimately starts to feel like doing this scene a disservice. “Not even the sound matters,” Curtin contends. What matters, he continues, “is in the sound, what the sound conveys.” Cecilio feels the same way, arguing that this particular niche of dance music is trying “to dig deeper into the meaning of things.” This idea of something being buried deep within sound feels poetic and prescient, a way to describe a scene that isn’t tied to any particular sound but rather a feel and a mood. Still, I can’t help but feel disappointed that after all these conversations, I can’t pinpoint what makes this scene unique. Vachez jokes about this. “I think it’s important to make a semantic break for the different scene. It will be easier for the diggers to dig in 10 years.” Although he says this in jest, this is something important for a scene that puts so much emphasis on vinyl and digging culture. As Vera points out, after all, these are DJs who “press dubplates, so they can play their digital music on vinyl too.” How will people in 10 years unearth the records that are being released right now?

Just as I am about to give up hope on finding a definition, Lutz’s off-hand description from Laurine sticks with me. She describes his music as being “alien deep.” This term works perfectly: at once sci-fi and earthy, distant yet familiar, from outer space directly into the body. It can describe the technoid menace of Uruguay and the UKG shuffle of London, the breaky grooves of Berlin and the analog warmth of the Midwest. While I certainly don’t see it gaining traction as a Discogs tag, “alien deep” speaks in a familiar lexicon to the DJs and producers working at this nebulous nexus. These are artists focused on finding lost pieces of dance music history and beaming them back into our galaxy.

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