Electro (or electro-funk) is a genre of electronic music and early hip hop directly influenced by the use of the Roland TR-808 drum machines, and funk. Records in the genre typically feature drum machines and heavy electronic sounds, usually without vocals, although if vocals are present they are delivered in a deadpan manner, often through electronic distortion such as vocoding and talkboxing. This is the main distinction between electro and previously prominent genres such as disco, in which the electronic sound was only part of the instrumentation. It also palpably deviates from its predecessor boogie for being less vocal-oriented and more focused on electronic beats produced by drum machines.
Following the decline of disco music in the United States, electro emerged as a fusion of funk and New York boogie. Early hip hop and rap combined with German and Japanese electropop influences such as Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) inspired the birth of electro. In 1982, producer Arthur Baker with Afrika Bambaataa released the seminal “Planet Rock”, which was built using samples from Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express (1977) and drum beats supplied by the TR-808. Planet Rock was followed later that year by another breakthrough electro record, Nunk by Warp 9. In 1983, Hashim created an electro funk sound which influenced Herbie Hancock, resulting in his hit single “Rockit”. The early 1980s were electro’s mainstream peak. By the mid 1980s, the genre moved away from its electronic and funk influences, using harder edged beats and rock samples, exemplified by Run DMC. Electro became popular again in the late 1990s with artists such as Anthony Rother and DJs such as Dave Clarke. A third wave of popularity occurred in 2007. Electro has branched out into subgenres, including electrocore and skweee, which developed in Sweden and Finland.
Most electro is instrumental, but a common element is vocals processed through a vocoder. Additionally, speech synthesis may be used to create robotic or mechanical lyrical content, as in the iconic Planet Rock and the automatous chant in the chorus of Nunk by Warp 9. Although primarily instrumental, early electro utilized rap. Male rap dominated the genre, however female rappers are an integral part of the electro tradition, whether featured in a group as in Warp 9 or as solo performers like Roxanne Shante. The lyrical style that emerged along with electro became less popular by the 1990s, as rapping continued to evolve, becoming the domain of hip hop music.
Following the decline of disco music in the late 1970s, various funk artists such as Zapp & Roger began experimenting with talk boxes and the use of heavier, more distinctive beats. Boogie played a role during the formative years of electro, notably “Feels Good” by Electra (Emergency – EMDS-6527), the post-disco production “You’re the One for Me” by D. Train (Prelude – PRL D 621), and the Eric Matthew/Darryl Payne productions “Thanks to You” by Sinnamon (Becket – BKD 508), and “On A Journey (I Sing The Funk Electric)” by Electrik Funk (Prelude – PRL D 541). Electro eventually emerged as a fusion of different styles, including funk, boogie combined with German and Japanese technopop, in addition to influences from the futurism of Alvin Toffler, martial arts films, and video game music. The genre’s immediate forebearers included Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), and Cat Stevens.
In 1980, YMO was the first band to utilize the TR-808 programmable drum machine. That same year, YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto released “Riot in Lagos”, which is regarded as an early example of electro music, and is credited for having anticipated the beats and sounds of electro. The song’s influence can be seen in the work of later pioneering electro artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Mantronix.
1982 was a watershed year for electro. Bronx based producer Afrika Bambaataa released the seminal track “Planet Rock”, which contained elements of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” (from the album of the same name) and “Numbers” (from Kraftwerk’s 1981 Computer World album) combined with the use of distinctive TR-808 beats. “Planet Rock” is widely regarded as a turning point in the electro genre, “like a light being switched on. Another groundbreaking record released that year, Nunk by Warp 9 utilized “imagery drawn from computer games and hip hop slanguage.” Although remaining unreleased, a pre-Def Jam Russell Simmons produced Bruce Haack’s proto hip-hop single “Party Machine” at a studio in Philadelphia. Electro hip hop releases in 1982 include songs by: Planet Patrol, Warp 9, Man Parrish, George Clinton (Computer Games), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Tyrone Brunson, The Jonzun Crew and Whodini.
In 1983, Hashim created the influential electro funk tune “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” which became Cutting Record’s first release in November 1983. At the time Hashim was influenced by Man Parrish’s “Hip Hop, Be Bop”, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”. “Al-Nafyish” was later included in Playgroup’s compilation album Kings of Electro (2007), alongside other electro classics such as Sakamoto’s “Riot in Lagos”. Also in 1983, Herbie Hancock, in collaboration with Grand Mixer D.ST, released the hit single “Rockit”.
Bambaataa and groups like Planet Patrol, Jonzun Crew, Mantronix, Newcleus, Warp 9 and Juan Atkins’ Detroit-based group Cybotron went on to influence the genres of Detroit techno, ghettotech, breakbeat, drum and bass and electroclash. Early producers in the electro genre (notably Arthur Baker, John Robie and Shep Pettibone) later featured prominently in the Latin Freestyle (or simply “Freestyle”) movement, along with Lotti Golden and Richard Scher (the producer/writers of Warp 9) fusing electro, funk, and hip hop with elements of Latin music. Detroit techno DJ Eddie Fowlkes shaped a style called electro-soul, which was characterized by a predominant bass line and a chopped up electro breakbeat contrasted with soulful male vocals. Kurtis Mantronik’s electro-soul productions for Joyce Sims presaged new jack swing’s combination of hip hop and soul elements.
By the late 1980s, the genre evolved into what is known today as new school hip hop. The release of Run DMC’s It’s Like That (1983) marked a stylistic shift, focusing down on the beats in a stark, metal minimalism. Rock samples replaced synthesizers that had figured so prominently in electro, and rap styles and techniques evolved in tandem, anchoring rap to the changing hip hop culture. Baker, Pettibone, Golden and Scher enjoyed robust careers well into the house era, eluding the “genre trap” to successfully produce mainstream artists.