Future Music

Retrospect­ive: Tech House

This hybrid genre, falling somewhere between techno and house, is not without its controvers­ies. We explore its roots


As much as we might want to pigeonhole it, music can be a wonderfull­y imprecise art. The lines between styles, sounds and genres are often blurred and poorly defined. Nowhere is that more apparent in electronic music than in the case of the nebulous grey area of tech house.

Emerging as a distinct style in the mid-to-late ’90s, tech house falls – as the name suggests – somewhere between techno and house. Exactly how that works in practice has changed since the genre first evolved, but as a rule of thumb it could be defined as the structure and rhythms of house with the sounds and production values of techno.

Of course, there are also caveats – not least in the fact that the two genres were very closely related in the first place. Given that not all house tracks have the same structure and that not all techno uses the same sounds, it’s also almost certainly something of an oversimpli­fication, but as far as generalisa­tions go, it’s not too bad.

To understand the sound a bit better, think back to the dance music scene of the mid ’90s. House was already a splintered genre, with the wonderfull­y camp sound of handbag house splinterin­g off in one direction while other producers explored the crowd-pleasing simplicity of filter house, to name just two sub-genres. Meanwhile, the techno scene was largely heading in one direction: harder, faster, heavier. As average tempos in techno shot up to well over 140bpm, it’s not hard to see how a new middle ground opened up. Tech house filled the gap, offering an alternativ­e for those who still enjoyed the rough-edged sound of techno but craved something just a little more laid-back and funky, closer to house.

The tech house sound initially broke out in London, with its roots possibly traceable as far back as 1993, when Richard ‘Mr C’ West of rave heroes The Shamen started running illegal parties in Farringdon under the name The Drop. He would eventually team up with producer and DJ Layo Paskin (of Layo & Bushwacka!) to open The End nightclub, a hotbed of tech house through to its closure in 2009. Elsewhere, Terry Francis and Nathan Coles were launching their Wiggle parties in 1994, with resident DJ Evil Eddie Richards also being a champion of the sound.

The genre would go on to find a level of commercial success to match its undergroun­d credential­s. Francis became one of the first residents at London’s new superclub, Fabric, bringing the tech house sound to a bigger audience. Layo & Bushwacka! scored a huge undergroun­d hit with Love Story (2002) and went on to have one of the first big crossover hits from the tech house scene, reaching the UK top ten the following year when the track was mashed up with the vocal from Finally by The Kings of Tomorrow.

But, as tech house became more establishe­d in the early 2000s, the genre started to receive minor criticism for being formulaic and samey. It’s a strange criticism in a lot of ways. Genres are formulaic by definition; break with the tropes and convention­s of a particular sound too much and you no longer fall under that banner. But even a cursory glance across the genre’s history shows the range of sounds that can loosely be described as tech house, from the feverish machine funk of Green Velvet’s Preacher Man (2000) to the high-tech sheen of Dave Spoon’s At Night (2007), through to the big-room slickness of Patrick Topping’s Forget (2014).

A quarter of a century on from its undergroun­d beginnings, tech house is now almost a default sound for festivals, clubs and Ibiza, proving there’s still plenty of life in the hybrid sound. Maybe it’s not even just a sound. As Mr C once put it, tech house is an attitude.

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