Don't call it IDM
'Intelligent Dance Music'
What a load of old bollocks.
In the 70s & 80s the predominant forms of dance music went from Disco > Electro > Techno/House > Acid House/early rave. The pioneers and the overwhelming majority of musicians involved in these genres were black.
In addition to that, each of these genres relied heavily & were focused heavily on social gathering, communal dancing and in many ways - either through music, drugs, dancing, sex or a combination thereof - offered an escape from the everyday shakedown of cis-het, white male dominated, 9-to-5, western, capitalist, productive, conservative, conformism in a way that was inclusive & offered a safe space for all. That isn't to say that every nightclub, dancefloor & rave was a mini utopia but certainly for many, even if only for a few hours, it was as near to utopian ideals as could be found in their industrial or rural communities.
In the early 90s a wave of computer & digital music technology (a wave that we're still very much surfing on today) brought the possibilities of the studio within the reach of the lone, bedroom producer. The consequence of that wave was a slew of material produced predominantly by single (or duos of), white, males that was often characterised as being 'experimental'. It was certainly more downtempo and in many cases more melodically & structurally dense than club music or else much more ephemeral and ambient. It was certainly much harder to dance to and therefore found its place in the chill-out room or the after-rave 'back to mine' and more often than not its frequencies were heavily filtered through a thick cloud of whatever it was you were smoking. In any case it was much more focused at the individual rather than the communal experience.
This music received the genre tag IDM, so-called 'Intelligent Dance Music'
Let's take the 'dance music' part first; The vast majority of 'IDM' is impossible to dance to. Actually, I take that back - nothing is impossible to dance to, you can dance to silence if you want (and sometimes I do). What I mean is, if it doesn't work very well to dance to why call it dance music at all? The most obvious answer is that it steals sounds, structures, motifs, techniques and some of the philosophy & aesthetics of the rave/warehouse party. Ok fine.
What about the 'Intelligent' part ? Well, it's apparently aimed at the head more than the feet...but does that make it intelligent? I guess that partly depends on whether you believe in the white, western philosophical concept of Cartesian mind/body duality or not - personally, I believe in embodied cognition. In any case, it's a pretty hard sell to convince yourself that some totally fried dude staring at the blue veins and ultra-violet sparkle of his hand at 4am while The Orb's Occidental rings in his ears & through his body is having a more intelligent experience than he was having at 1am in the room next door at the peak of his rush dancing his arse off with 600 beautiful sweaty people to Punisher
So, intelligent then? Could it be that this term arises from the fact that nerds with computers were at the controls? Or more generously put...that it took a level of technical skill, an investment of time and a certain degree of risk-taking/letting go of norms to produce this music ?
There is clearly a 'lab' aesthetic in much of what is generally gathered under the term IDM, a visual code that this music is actual quasi-scientific experimentation, often in combination with a pharmaceutical journey into the inner-self down to molecular level and in a practical sense a producer having their own bedroom studio offers almost limitless time in which to concoct their potions and push their envelope in all directions and try all manner of experiments that previously in recorded music history would have incurred the wrath of a&r, studio hands, band mates etc. and cost a fortune (here's a good example)
So it's not the music that's intelligent per se..it's the producer-as-scientist?
Well here's an odd thing, there already existed an entire genre of music based on the producer/studio owner having limitless time in which to concoct their potions and push their envelope in all directions and try all manner of things never previously heard...and guess what, it is a black music genre - dub. The producer-as-scientist, the producer-as-pharmacist, the producer-as-shaman are all taken directly from dub. The musical, cerebral & technical/technological experimentation of King Tubby was already 20 years old when Aphex Twin's 'Selected Ambient Works' hove into view to give but one obvious direct parallel.
This is in no way a criticism of Aphex Twin - in fact he himself, along with many of his contemporaries rejects the IDM tag as 'laughable' and a whole swathe of white artists freely & gladly give praise & support to modern dance music's roots in black & gay culture. Neither is this a blanket criticism of white electronica - some of my best friends...etc.
...but let's be honest; IDM is the white child of two black parents - dub & techno.* It's not too loud & it's not too raucous & it's not too in your face (well, sometimes it is) and I think this is the crux of why it's labelled 'intelligent' - a cultural bias that imbues white (often safer or sanitised) cultural forms with more perceived wisdom & intellect than their black predecessors. It's also a reinforcement of white values as to what intelligence actually means;
People in Western cultures tend to view intelligence as a means for individuals to devise categories and to engage in rational debate, while people in Eastern cultures see it as a way for members of a community to recognize contradiction and complexity and to play their social roles successfully - Richard Nisbett PhD, "The Geography of Thought" (referenced here)
And even outside of these cultural socialisations white mainstream media still often fails to recognise highly conceptual and visionary black influence on modern debate & cultural progress
Many journalists reject the term IDM and yet still it persists as an identifier and is making something of a comeback but please, I implore you, DO NOT USE THE TERM to describe the music I make. Do not use it at all. Reject it....unless of course you WANT to continue the whitewashing of culture ....in which case go right ahead - we see you.
*There are of course other family members. Grandparents & great grandparents, uncles & aunts etc. The influence of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneers Daphne Oram & Delia Derbyshire as well as the ambient, aleatory & contemporary classical work of Brian Eno, John Cage, Stockhausen & others is clear. The German rhythms and techniques of Can, Cluster, Neu! & Kraftwerk are present. Found sound, concrete poetry, the minimalism of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Phillip Glass. Avant-garde jazz and the ground-breaking work of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman & particularly Sun-Ra and his use of synthesizers all have clear influences too. What's important here is to note that all of these influences & techniques are either implicitly or explicity found in techno - folded into techno's DNA. Despite its island location, many of the techniques of these experimental forms evolved in parallel in dub & in turn dub's DNA is a black, gold, red & green stripe through hip hop, electro & sound-system culture and therefore also present in techno. The physical (club & post-club) space and context that birthed contemporary electronica in the early 90's brought all of these influences - including the drugs - together in new social settings that made this rich history audible and palpable to new demographics