When Dotty asked me to write about what the 2000s meant to me musically I knew instantly what I would be writing about. My life essentially became dominated by three divergent forces that intertwined and seemed to feed off each other. Dance music, the iPod and personal fitness crashed into my world and dictated the course of my life musically throughout that decade.
As 1999 passed into 2000 at midnight 31st December and the world was not destroyed by the anticipated millennium bug, I was 31 years old and living in the Polish city of Krakow. I was 4 years into what ultimately became a 6 year sabbatical from my post-school career which had taken me from a university campus in Northampton to a communist built apartment in Eastern Europe via the Midwest of USA and Florence, Italy.
Musically I was in a void which seemed to reflect the sparse apartment I was living in. I had no affinity to any artist or even a genre and it had seemed that way for a very long time. When I look back I wonder if the instability in my personal life in the final years of the 1990s had manifest in my musical world. That maybe bouncing from country to country and from one set of friends to another had prevented any meaningful musical attachment.
I was still technically an indie kid and my staple diet remained guitar bands. However, I had become disillusioned with the post-Britpop scene. This was particularly disappointing as I was a university student between 1996 and 1999 and had always assumed the campus would be fertile ground for the discovery of new musical tastes. However my resounding memories of late 1990’s music seem to take the form of Babybird’s Your Gorgeous and Reef’s Place Your Hands. I could probably still cut the same shapes now to Stretch & Vern’s I’m Alive as I did all those years ago in Ritzy nightclub on a student night, such was the mark it left on the formative years of my life.
Musically I was simply meandering along and really not in a good place. Something had to fill the void and I didn’t have to wait too long into that new decade for a musical epiphany.
Whilst living among the British expats In Krakow I’d become pally with a lad from Durham called David who liked his dance music. This generally took the form of heavy techno whose monotonous driving bass was headache inducing and was played in some of the less salubrious cellar bars of Krakow. David was one of the only expats in our circle to have satellite TV and Sunday afternoons would see us all gathering around his apartment for tinnys and Eastenders omnibus sessions. It was at one of these soirees that the seeds of a new musical direction would take root and pretty much consume me for most of the decade.
As I said, David liked a bit of heavy duty techno and among the reading material at his apartment was a Mixmag magazine, which I felt impelled to flick through one afternoon. Pretty much most of the content was a world far removed from my own as I sat in an apartment block watching Eastenders in a freezing Poland looking at photos of Bermuda short and bikini clad beautiful twenty-somethings partying on the beaches of Ibiza and Miami.
My skimming had taken me as far as the new releases section towards the back and I was just about to put the magazine down as those warm and inviting photos began drying up, when an album review caught my eye. It was for an album simply titled Uruguay and the artist concerned was someone called Darren Emerson. Among all the faceless DJs and Producers whose names had meant nothing to me as I flicked through the magazine, Darren Emerson was one that held much resonance.
Darren had been in the year below me at secondary school and we had trampled the same streets of our shared home town of Elm Park, a suburb that struggled to decide if it was in London or Essex. It would be a stretch to say that Darren and I were friends, although we knew each other well enough to pass the time of day if our paths crossed on the streets or on the underground station platform.
That Darren was an internationally renowned DJ and Producer and gracing the pages of Mixmag was no surprise to me or probably anyone who had grown up in Elm Park in the 1980s. I had certainly followed his career with interest in the early and mid nineties as one third of cross over pioneering electronica group Underworld and had purchased most of their early releases diligently. Although my interest in Underworld had gradually waned by the mid 90s, I was at least aware that Darren left the group in 1999 following the release of the Beaucoup Fish album.
From what I could gather from the review, Uruguay seemed to represent Darren’s reintroduction to the dance music world post-Underworld. It was a very short review, with no visuals and spoke mostly of BPMs and blending loops. I resolved to purchase Uruguay at the first opportunity but with Krakow lacking a credible record shop (at least to me) that opportunity did not arrive until the summer of 2000 whilst back in the UK for one of my periodical trips back home.
As was usually the custom when back in the UK I headed off to London’s West End to check out HMV on Oxford Street and the records shops of Berwick Street in Soho. It was in HMV that I found the Uruguay CD among the Dance section. There staring up at me from the cover was Darren’s partially obscured but unmistakable face and just for a split second I was transported back to the streets of my youth. Where school kids wore deerstalker hats, carried their books in Aquascutum plastic carrier bags and spent their dinner money on 10 Benson & Hedges.
At the time I made assumptions about the CD that ultimately proved to be way off the mark. I had assumed for instance that the CD would be a solo album with tracks written and produced by Darren himself, in the vein of Underworld’s own work from the previous decade. However a glance at the track list told me immediately that this was a compilation album featuring a variety of artists whose bizarre names were unknown to me and none attributable to Darren. What it was in fact was a set that Darren had played one night at a club in the fashionable resort of Puerto Del Este in Uruguay.
I also ascertained that the CD was No 15 in a series released under the label Global Underground with presumably 14 predecessors. I discovered later that this Global Underground series were not live recordings but a facsimile of the sets recreated and engineered later in a studio. Call it curiosity but I vowed to go ahead with the purchase despite the initial disappointment that this was simply a mix tape of tunes that I had never heard and probably would not be to my liking either.
It was a flying visit to the UK so it wasn’t until I had returned to my apartment in Krakow that I got the first opportunity to listen to the CD a few days later. Global Underground’s motto as displayed on the CD was “Travelling the world in the speed of sound” and what a journey of sound it was! Within literally 10 seconds of the CD starting I was exposed to chirping crickets, bongos and Minnie Ripperton’s infamous “Loving You” as the The Orb’s A Huge Ever Growing Brain opened proceedings. From that moment on and right through to the final note on CD2, I was sucked in and then dumped in a delightful world of pulsing beats, driving baselines and layered melodies I’d never really heard before. It truly was a journey through sound.
There was also something smooth about the whole listening experience as well. Despite the high BPMs the music flowed effortlessly with seamless transitions between tracks but at the same time you were able to distinguish each tune clearly. The tracks had their own identity and flavour so that rather than the lengthy monotonousness of dance music that had left me frustrated 10 years previously, these actually felt like songs that had been written and created by artists.
I’d long assumed that clubbers weren’t particularly serious music purchasers, that who was actually making the sounds they were dancing to was unimportant to them as well as the song titles (if they had one). This was drawn from my own experiences of dance music culture of the early 90s which entailed occasional clubbing trips to Shoreditch Town Hall or The Leisure Lounge in Holborn.
The problem was quite simply that I wasn’t a recreational drug user at that time and neither were any of my friends. We were pub-goers and gig-goers and we drank beer. However, we felt compelled to experience club culture because it was happening and we had to at least give it a try. Behind the bars of these clubs were lines of fridges full of bottled water with a solitary token fridge at the end for bottled lager and we always seemed to be the only people in the place drinking the hard stuff. We rarely ever lasted the distance and usually left before the tube stopped running. The lack of mind-expanding drugs in my system ensured no meaningful attachment to the thumping monotony coming from the DJ booth. So in that musical battlefield that raged within me in the early 90s, indie and shoegaze had firmly won the war by this point.
But as I listened repeatedly to Uruguay I realised that this was dance music I could get into. It was reeling me in swiftly with the bonding process beginning in earnest. Music that was being played by underground DJs at exotic playgrounds in the southern hemisphere seemed dark and edgy. I knew that none of my friends would ever like it and that was an added attraction. I could own this sound, create from scratch a musical world around me without any outside influence and on my own terms. Who knows where it would take me? Suddenly the musical vacuum was starting fill.
Throughout the decade I slowly built a library of dance music whether it was CDs purchased in shops or later in the form of digital downloads or through Spotify and other music sharing platforms. I started off by purchasing earlier episodes of this Global Underground series. CDs of sets played in the cities of Buenos Aires, Melbourne & Budapest by DJs such as John Digweed, Nick Warren & Dave Seaman. They weren’t always easy to find and so progress was slow in the early years. Then one day around 2003 whilst surfing the internet I came across a deal to purchase the whole collection in a double box set for about £100. There were around 20 in the series by this stage. I cared not whether I had the money or whether my wife would go ballistic, or that I already owned 25% of the collection by that stage, I simply had to buy it and I did.
This collection became the foundations of my listening pattern for the rest for the decade. It allowed me to filter out which type of sounds I enjoyed and which DJs were likely to provide those sounds. At that stage I hadn’t quite got comfortable with the genre I was dealing with. There seemed to be so many. House, Deep House, Techno, Tech House, Trance. I needed to pin a label on it in case anyone asked what sort of music I was into. I settled on Progressive House as it popped up frequently and it sounded like the sort of dance music mature people would listen to and so provided some sort of justification for this musical venture.
One of the biggest ironies of all this was that I had absolutely no urge at this point to actually go to a club and hear this sort of music in its natural environment. I was quite content to listen at home or on the bus to and from work every day. However, another factor entered the equation around this time that fuelled my new found musical passion and without it may not have endured. That was the iPod.
After returning to the UK from Poland in 2002 I ended up going back to my pre-sabbatical career. In the office I worked in there was a lad who had an iPod and I was instantly fascinated. Although far from being a third world country, Poland was certainly behind in terms of gadgetry and I hadn’t really cottoned on to the emergence of the iPad at that point or had any idea of its capabilities. When this lad showed me how many songs were on this tiny bit of kit I was gobsmacked. Not just songs but whole albums. Loads of them. You could flick between them, play tracks randomly. Randomly! Just that single option was enough to convince me that I must have an iPod.
This was just before Xmas and I was conscious that spending money on gadgets for myself at this time of year was going to raise eyebrows with my soon to be wife. I decided to wait it out until the New Year and purchase one after Xmas on the pretext it was a sale item. Purchasing goods in sales was a concept my wife embraced and would ensure her tacit approval.
But I didn’t have to bother in the end because a remarkable event happened. Incredibly the first present I opened that Xmas morning was an iPod Nano courtesy of my wife. That was and to this day remains the best present my wife has ever given me. It really did change my life almost immediately. The world of iTunes and burning CD’s took hold and consumed me. I gradually transferred every CD I had onto iTunes and crafted playlists for my listening pleasure. Not just my newly discovered dance music albums but the old indie and other CDs of my youth. I’d be sitting on the bus to work listening to Laurent Gainer’s Man with the Red Face merging into Adorable’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling followed by Public Enemy’s Miuzi Weighs a Ton. Sometimes I didn’t want that bus journey to end.
Incredibly I became quickly frustrated by the constraints of the amounts of songs I could have on the iPod. I recall there was capacity for about 150 songs, but my ITunes library had over 5000 songs at one point. The iPod memory couldn’t satisfy my insatiable appetite for tunes. Working within these constraints I’d end up getting stressed trying to compile playlists, especially when iTunes informed me I was over the allowed limit when syncing to the iPod.
Within this environment of the iPod and a new found love of music, particularly dance music, the third dominating feature of that decade manifest. The gym and personal fitness.
It would be fair to say that I had never really looked after my health. I wasn’t necessarily unhealthy and had always enjoyed good health as a rule. However, I had smoked from a young age, although not heavily and alcohol was a regular aspect of my social lifestyle. I wasn’t exactly a slob either but at the same time I didn’t have a hobby that required any sort of physical exertion. What made me suddenly scrutinise my lifestyle in 2003 was my wife falling unexpectedly pregnant with what would be our first and only child.
All of a sudden life became very serious indeed and my customary habit of just taking each day as it comes needed a major reassessment. It was a shock to the system for both of us as our strong emotional bond was built in part by a shared desire not to have kids. Impending parenthood forced many changes to our way of life. We started doing responsible things like eating at home, saving money and taking out life insurance products.
The subject of health was discussed frequently between us in those early weeks of the pregnancy. My wife was a borderline chain smoker but naturally she quit immediately upon falling pregnant and she vowed to stay fit and healthy henceforth. I decided to follow suit but wasn’t sure how to pursue a fitness regime. I had sporadically gone to gyms in my early 20s because it seemed like the right thing to do but ultimately with very little enthusiasm. I recall sitting on the weights bench and not doing anything but watching what was on the television screens until someone moved me on. As for running machines, I couldn’t seem to stay on the things for than 5 minutes without succumbing to extreme boredom.
The iPod provided the solution to this fitness and boredom issue once and for all. The distraction provided by hours of random music on my iPod rendered punishing fitness routines not just manageable but downright enjoyable. From the moment I signed up and handed over my bank details I was in the gym pretty much 3 or 4 times a week. The upshot was that going to the gym and getting fit was simply a means to an end. A way of listening to music uninterrupted and to feed my insatiable appetite for music.
These regular trips to the gym while keeping fit was fuelling my new found love of dance music even more. Keeping a steady rhythm going whilst switching between radical changes in tempo is not easy. Believe me, Funk Function’s Empress Zero followed by The Auteurs Starstruck can really put you off your stride. A consequence of this was that dance music dominated my iPod content for pretty much the rest of the decade as I ditched all other forms of music from my running playlists. Dance music got me through many 10K runs and half-marathons whilst raising money for a number of charities. Music was making be do good deeds and that felt good.
John Digweed, Nick Warren and Sasha were pretty much providing the soundtrack to my decade. I googled their set lists to see what they were dropping in clubs around the world and listened to their podcasts and radio shows. I was introduced to producers such as Guy J & Henry Saiz whose talents combined in the track Lamur and would be my anthem of the decade. Labels like Bedrock and Sudbeat became just as familiar names as 4AD and Creation had been 15 years before.
I hadn’t completely abandoned non-dance music and continued to dabble in other genres. My best friend Paul regularly sent me CDs in the post which he’d burnt with up to date “indie” music. Whilst I enjoyed the quirkier sounds of The Besnard Lakes and Loney Dear over Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian it wasn’t an effortless listen. The conversion rate in terms of likeability was very low compared to dance music where I was constantly being surprised by the diversity of sounds. I still went to gigs regularly but even this seemed to comprise mostly of reunions of my past indie heroes such as Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Bluetones and Shed Seven. Perhaps this was a sign of things to come?
In addition to iTunes, by the end of the decade I had a Spotify Premium account, a Soundcloud account, a Mixcloud account, a Last.fm account. My iPhone was literally overheating with music apps and it didn’t stop there. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I eventually bought a set of DJ Controllers intent on learning how to create my own DJ set from the comfort of home. It was of course a flawed venture. My hectic home and work life was not conducive to learning a new art from scratch. However, I had developed enough of a rudimentary knowledge of how DJ sets were crafted through constant listening and so managed to cobble together a few mixes which I published on Mixcloud under my own DJ moniker.
As the decade closed, there was time for one last musical adventure. It would only be a matter of time before the urge to go to an actual club would be too strong to resist and the opportunity arose when I spotted that John Digweed would be playing at Fabric along with Guy J. That combination was the equivalent of the Stone Roses supporting Happy Mondays back in 1989 and so without thinking of the consequences I purchased two tickets online.
In the absence of finding any friends mad enough to go clubbing with me in their mature years I managed to persuade my wife to come along. Amazingly we both enjoyed the experience in our own special way. I got to hear some of those tunes that I listened to on the bus to work and in the gym in their natural environment. The drops and fades, pulsing beats, lasers and lights combined and gave the tunes even more energy. For my wife she got to let her hair down after years of mothering a toddler and it was the perfect tonic. We continued our little foray to clubs for another couple of years with the odd trip to Ministry Of Sound and KoKo.
So there we have it. What the 2000s meant for me musically. I’d started the decade in a musical vacuum but ended it on the dance floors of London clubs. Along the way I’d discovered a love of dance music, embraced technology and got fit. Each element feeding off each other and unable to survive in isolation.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and the next decade would see my musical world take a new direction.