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11 essential new books about electronic music

 From the histories of global scenes, sounds and labels, to explorations of music’s power to alter the fabric of society and forge communities, here are 11 books published in the last two years that will educate and entertain electronic music fans in equal measure

Ten Cities: Clubbing in Nairobi, Cairo, Kyiv,​ Johannesburg, Berlin, Naples, ​Luanda, Lagos, Bristol, Lisbon​ 1960 – March 2020​

Edited by Johannes Hossfeld Etyang, Joyce Nyairo and Florian Sievers
[Spector Books]

It doesn't take long to find a striking passage in the preface of Ten Cities: “Club cultures create free spaces that can be laboratories for future societies, laboratories for experimentation with attitudes and ways of life, which slowly permeate into wider society and may even, at some point, determine the mainstream.” Spanning eight decades, Ten Cities is a collection of 21 essays exploring the history of numerous global cities' club cultures, with authors, journalists, historians, music collectors, and activists offering fascinating insights and forensic context. 

Set against backdrops of war, political unrest, and rapidly changing societies, this collection puts the power of music and community into perspective. While admittedly a hefty undertaking due to its level of detail, the pay-off is immense; the essays and photography remind us that looking to the past can help us navigate the present. If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of club culture that focuses on rarely-highlighted scenes, Ten Cities is an inspiring read. 

Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave & The Rise of XL Recordings

By Richard Russell [White Rabbit]

In Liberation Through Hearing, XL Recordings owner Richard Russell details the label's unorthodox journey through the music industry, and its subsequent success. It’s a poignant read, sprinkled with honest reflections on his struggles with the debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome, his later embrace of Buddhism, and his tender relationships with figures such as the late Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack. 

The book explores how a scruffy imprint with roots in rave culture kickstarted conversations around pop music, bolstered experimental scenes and gave a platform to grime when few took notice, as well as releasing the chart-topping juggernaut that was The Prodigy's 'Music For The Jilted Generation'.

Considering his mind-boggling list of collaborators, celebrity encounters, and famous friends, the name-drops come thick and fast, but it’s not a boastful read. From the rise of label-affiliated talents like Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A, The Prodigy, Giggs, and Adele, to surreal encounters with Lee Scratch Perry and Jay-Z, Liberation Through Hearing emphasises the breadth of XL’s roster, as well as its legacy within the music industry. While Russell must take great, personal credit for the success of XL, Liberation Through Hearing doesn’t read like a solo victory lap; he’s got plenty more to achieve

Bass, Mids & Tops: An Oral History Of Soundsystem Culture

By Joe Muggs & Brian David Stevens [Strange Attractor Press]

Bass, Mids & Tops begins its exploration of the history of UK soundsystem culture by examining the definition of bass itself, and expanding on that definition through a series of in-depth conversations with artists from across the soundsystem spectrum; genres such as reggae, dub, rave, jungle, trip-hop, dubstep, and grime are explored. Key to this is mapping the arrival of the Windrush generation, and how their influence enriched myriad elements of UK culture, such as fashion, politics, and music.

With contributions from artists such as Dennis Bovell, Mala, Shy One, Cooly G, Terror Danjah and DJ Storm, among others, the book captures the sacrifices that these musical figures have made to further their craft. With no fixed narrative, author Joe Muggs meanders through some relaxed interviews, and the overall effect is warm and immersive. Alongside each chapter, artist Brian David Stevens’ understated portraits of the core interviewees make for charming illustrations. 

Rave Art: Flyers, Invitations and Membership Cards from the Birth of Acid House Clubs And Raves

By Chelsea-Louise Berlin [Welbeck Publishing]

Primed for your coffee table with a fitting day-glo cover, Rave Art presents the vibrant images and designs that lit up the early days of acid house. Author Chelsea-Louise Berlin was there from the beginning of the acid house scene: Rave Art is her nostalgic love letter to the artform and, on a wider scale, the global rave movement she still loves today; a prospect that should excite the aficionado and newcomer alike.

Divided into four main chapters — 1986/7, 1988, 1989, and 1990 — the book also includes copy by Chelsea-Louise Berlin, a foreword by Mark Moore, and a tailored playlist, featuring Frankie Knuckles, Inner City, Mr. Fingers and more. Even if you weren’t wearing smiley faced-tees on the dancefloor way back when, Rave Art’s thoughtful curation and striking design does a great job of setting the scene — all that’s missing is the ringing ears.  

This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A And The Beginning Of The 21st Century

By Steven Hyden [Hachette Books]

If you talk about Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ in 2021, few would deny its significance for alternative rock music. But when it was released in 1999, ‘Kid A’ was panned by critics, and many fans felt slighted, expecting a stylistic follow-up to the group's 1997 breakthrough debut, ‘OK Computer’. That collective outrage has become the stuff of legend, and is looked back on with surprise by author and Radiohead superfan Steven Hyden in This Isn’t Happening.

Hyden captures the grim mood of the era, with it’s Y2K-adjacent paranoia, and unpicks the mythologies around Radiohead. It helps, too, that the book was published to coincide with the album’s 20th anniversary. Hyden’s infectious enthusiasm for ‘Kid A’ frames the album, and this period of Radiohead’s career, as a symbolic shift in the relationship between indie rock and electronic music, and posits that many contemporary iterations of the latter in popular culture would be weaker without their influence.

Make Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre

By Emma Warren [Sweet Machine Publishing]

Although Emma Warren set out to tell the story of the now-closed London venue Total Refreshment Centre through its key players, Make Some Space goes further; telling a story of how these DIY spaces play vital community roles in wider society. The ingenuity and resourcefulness needed to run Total Refreshment Centre is deftly captured by Warren, with a playful sincerity that almost leaps off the page. Contributors discuss how lifelong bonds were formed to the backdrop of whatever music the venue championed that day. 

It’s also a book about the power of music in the face of adversity. As more people are considering new methods of community ownership and collaboration in the music industry, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, much of Make Some Space has taken on greater significance. The final chapter outlines how Warren self-published the book, and encourages others to do the same; to tell authentic stories of their local music communities.

Who Say Reload: The Stories Behind the Classic Drum & Bass Records of the 90s

By Paul Terzulli and Eddie Otchere [Velocity Press]

Just like the breakneck rave genres it explores, Who Say Reload rips through a staggering amount of ground. Focusing on ’90s jungle and drum & bass anthems, with contributions from LTJ Bukem, DJ Flight, DJ Krust, Nookie, Foul Play and more, the book’s comprehensive interviews are littered with hazy memories and iconic images. Some stories focus on one-off production techniques and creative inspirations, while others detail memories of now-classic tracks being dropped in the dance for the first time, and the frenzied reactions they got. Even though decades have passed since these records and raves changed peoples lives, the storytelling in Who Say Reload is pure and infectious. 

Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke The Binary

By Sasha Geffen [University of Texas Press]

The blurb of Sasha Geffen’s book poses intriguing questions: “Why has music so often served as an accomplice to transcendent expressions of gender? Why did the query ‘is he musical?’ become code, in the twentieth century, for ‘is he gay?’ Why is music so inherently queer?” Over the 220 pages of Glitter Up The Dark, the answers to these questions are proposed in remarkable detail; highlighting trailblazers who, perhaps unknowingly, kickstarted today’s dialogue around trans rights, and wider acknowledgement of non-binary and third-gender identities. 

It’s an exploration that veers from lesser-known blues visionaries to icons such as Prince and Missy Elliot, as well as contemporary pop figures like the late SOPHIE and Arca. Geffen presents stories of artists who have broken down norms of gender and genre, and reflects on how race, class, and the music industry relates to it all. 

Noting Voices: Contemplating London’s Culture

By Haseeb Iqbal [Rough Trade Books]

While technically a pamphlet, Noting Voices packs in the insight of a book twice its size. Inspired by five of the conversations author Haseeb Iqbal hosted on his Mare Street Records podcast, he explores the origins, spaces, ethos, and stories of the London jazz scene. Contributors include Marina Blake, the founder and Creative Director of Brainchild festival, Slam the Poet, the former Creative Director of STEEZ, and Errol Anderson, founder of Touching Bass; all of  whom, in Haseeb Iqbal’s own words, “...have facilitated the space for culture to be birthed and developed”. 

While the conversations with contributors are thought-provoking, it’s the author’s own musings that make Noting Voices: Contemplating London’s Culture an intimate read. Haseeb Iqbal is clearly a jazz lover, and he never loses that wide-eyed excitement, even when grappling with weighty critical analysis. It’s also very much grounded in the present day, as Iqbal and his interviewees consider the post-pandemic landscape for music, and how this cultural movement can return stronger than ever. 

Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski: The Sonic Ecologies of Black Music in the Early 21st Century

By Dhanveer Singh Brar [Goldsmiths Press]

This book will be unlike anything you’ve ever read before: challenging and revealing, it refuses to pander to some of the more predictable observations of mainstream music coverage. In Teklife, Ghettville, Eski, author Dhanveer Singh Brar dives into the footwork scene in South and West Chicago, the grime scene in East London, the back catalogue of London artist Actress and more to find out, as is outlined in the blurb, “how Black electronic dance makes it possible to reorganise life within the contemporary city”.

In meticulously examining how these younger genres are shaped by space, race, and class, and how legacy Black electronic genres such as house, techno, and jungle emerged, Singh Brar looks at dance music through a unique lens. For every self-respecting electronic music fan, Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski is a must-buy; a beautiful read, and an education tool.

Bedroom Beats & B-sides: Instrumental Hip Hop & Electronic Music At The Turn Of The Century

By Laurent Fintoni [Velocity Press]

Bedroom Beats & B-sides is structured like the beat tapes it pays tribute to, intended to reflect their sketch-like arrangements and explore wide-ranging stories without being weighed down by overwhelming detail. Author Laurent Fintoni weaves through narrative lines in a breezy, informative style — and with interviews from artists like El-P, Waajeed, and Questlove — that makes the book hard to put down.

Opening in the thick of the ’90s and catching up to the present day, over these 380 pages Fintoni outlines the technological advancements that accelerated inspiration and visibility for once-unknown bedroom producers. Detailing a wide range of hip-hop and electronic music — from jungle and IDM, to glitch and trip-hop — the book shows how these runs of underground experimentation staggered contemporary listeners, and then influenced popular electronic music culture. 

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Lee Wakefield is a freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter @leewakefield_