Can dance music and politics really mix?

Claire Hughes talks to Ms Dynamite, Paul Van Dyk and Adam Freeland to find out
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The Independent Culture

Politics and dancing? The two words just don't go together, do they? But music and politics have been linked throughout history. Dance music's first "Summer of Love" took place in the UK in 1988, and with it came one of history's most vehement clashes between politics and music. The dawning of "acid house" prompted a wave of public panic, exacerbated by the British press, which had us believing that anyone listening to this new music was a crazed drug addict.

Acid house promptly hit the charts, and tracks such as "The Trip" by S'Express and "Everything Starts with an E" by E-zee Possee stoked the fire of concern for the authorities. It didn't help matters when the dishevelled Adamski became the first rave superstar with his acid-house classic "NRG".

Government response to the ensuing hysteria, fuelled by press coverage of the raves put on by promoters such as Sunrise, Biology, Fantasia and Spiral Tribe, paved the way for the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill. Never before had legislation been brought in so quickly by any government. The many-claused law banned, among other things, "groups of ten or more people" from having "the right to assemble on private land if the gathering is for the express purpose of listening to music typified by the excessive repetition of a number of beats".

Dance music responded accordingly, and acts such as Orbital, Underworld, The Prodigy and The Shamen sprang up, thundered into the charts and spearheaded the rave movement. Now, countries all over the world enjoy their own dance scenes, and what started out as a youth movement has become a way of life for people of all ages and races. But still authorities kick against it. Czech officials have issued their own legislation aping the Criminal Justice Bill. Laws are in place all over Europe, in the USA and in Asia, all aimed at stifling dance-music culture.

The flipside to this is that savvy corporations the world over have tried to buy into the culture, and sponsorship in dance music is big money. But still, with governments against dance music and corporations trying to milk as much money as they can out of the cultural sweep of dance, it continues to flourish, with a thriving underground scene laying the foundations for the future. And there are certain producers, artists and DJs who are using their platform as musicians and personalities to say what they think about what is going on around them. Just as rock, folk, soul, R&B and hip-hop have had their politically vocal artists, dance music today has its share of rebels. They are just as articulate clued-up as their predecessors, but instead of rabble-rousing, some of them are working with the authorities to get their point across.

One such artist is the Grammy-nominated German trance DJ-producer Paul van Dyk, who is as active politically as he is behind the decks. Not only does he use his globally recognised name to raise awareness for charities including the child-poverty organisations Rukenwind and Akanksha, but he gets directly involved with German government campaigns to inspire people in his country to become more politically active.

Beside his undercover political work, Van Dyk, who started his DJing career 13 years ago, has always been a unique figure in dance music. Not least because of his 2001-launched Politics of Dancing mix-CD series, the second instalment of which is out now through Mute records. "I had the idea for the first Politics of Dancing album before 9/11," Van Dyk says. "Back then, my intention was to make people aware of the fact that electronic music is much more than just the music in clubs. It's much more than the music that the authorities think we take drugs to."

The 33-year-old DJ-producer is, in fact, anti-drugs and, along with DJmag's 2004 Top 100 DJs poll-winner, Tiësto, he's one of many DJ-producers who are vocal about the fact they don't use drugs at all. "Dance music and dancing in clubs and at festivals is a political thing," Van Dyk insists. "I travel the world and see Palestinians dancing with Israelis, Iraqis dancing with Americans, blacks dancing with whites; everyone dancing together without thinking of where the person next to them comes from. This happens only in dance music, and this is what makes it a political thing."

The sassy young UK garage star Ms Dynamite, who is responsible for some of the most politically charged lyrics dance music has ever heard, cites her upbringing as one of the inspirations for her music. "There was always some sort of political debate going on at home between my mum, my dad, my stepdad, my godfather and my aunts," the 24-year-old rapper-cum-singer says. Her new album, Judgement Days, packs more political punch than John Prescott; every song on the soul-and-R&B-infused opus relays some sort of message.

The first single, "Judgement Day", covers issues such as Third World child poverty, domestic violence and the corruption of pharmaceutical corporations. On "You Don't Have to Cry", she sings about the soldiers dying in Iraq, and "Put Your Gun Away", the party track on the album, deals with the escalating gun crime in the UK.

"My brother Akala said to me, 'You need some more party tracks,' when he heard my album," laughs Dynamite. "I said, 'I know, but I don't know how to do that.' 'Put Your Gun Away' is a party tune, but it's still got a message to it.

"It's like I can't not be serious," she says. "I feel it's a waste of words. To be honest, writing songs that don't have a lot, substance-wise, is the most difficult thing on the face of the earth for me to do."

Dynamite made her name on the garage scene with "Boo", the garage track that became a club hit in 2001. She was snapped up by Polydor and, after a debut album that featured more MC-style tracks, she turned her attentions to singing and proper songwriting.

Now her style, which is entirely her own, verges more on R&B; but, she says, it's in the underground UK grime scene that some of the most politically outspoken artists are operating. "Within black music there are honestly lots of artists that have got so much to say," Dynamite says. "The problem is, they do not get the time, the effort or the input that they need to get them to the next level."

Like Van Dyk, Ms Dynamite isn't interested in getting into politics directly; she'd rather make music. Since she burst on to the garage scene five years ago, she has grown from loud-mouthed garage MC to slick R& B/soul songstress. What makes her stand out from artists such as Ashanti, Beyoncé and all the other R&B gals (apart from the fact that she writes her own lyrics) is that Dynamite refuses to use her sexuality as a means to sell records.

"I'm not so sure that if I was getting my tits out and shaking my ass I might be making a bit more money," she says. "Honestly, I wouldn't like to sit here and tell other artists what they should or shouldn't do. But if you ask me, do I think that music's a great tool to change the world, then I'd answer 'yes'. Do I think music is an extremely powerful tool to do that? Yes. Do I think that it's a waste that it isn't being used on a mass scale to touch people in a really positive way? Yes, I do."

Another producer who has got politically active with his lyrics is the breakbeat DJ Adam Freeland. His Marine Parade label is one of the UK's most successful independent nu-skool breaks imprints, and when he launched his live band Free*Land two years ago with its anti-corporate debut single " We Want Your Soul", he finally found a voice to air his opinions. " As a DJ, you can be quite mute," Freeland says. "A lot of dance tracks don't have vocals at all. You're just playing records and generally, in a dance club, DJs don't get on the microphone. Also, you're playing at 4am to 6am in the morning, which isn't a time when people want to have opinions forced down their throats. In the past few years, I've started making records and having a band, and that marked the beginning of my having a platform to say what I think."

'We Want Your Soul' contains a sample from a rant by the late Bill Hicks, an outspoken American comedian who died in 1994 from lung cancer. The "Go back to bed, America; your government is in control" sample in the single made Freeland nervous about playing the record in gigs in the US. "In America, people are very suppressed," he explains. "They can't easily say what they want to say in case they're deemed unpatriotic. It's all part of a fear-based hypnosis, so I was worried about how they'd take the track, but I played it when I was on tour in the US and people loved it."

'We Want Your Soul' didn't chart in the US, but it did get to No 32 in the UK charts and was No 1 in the dance charts in the UK when it was released. The success of the single gave Freeland the confidence to do a whole tour called We Want Your Vote, which tied in with the run-up to the 2004 US presidential election. "It's not like everyone who went to that gig is necessarily going to be motivated to vote, but I think it was worth it," Freeland reasons.

"At the gig I got on the mic and gave a bit of a drunken rant about using your vote but I didn't go any further than that," he recalls. "It's just about using my voice, I suppose. I've got one, so I might as well use it. It's a waste not to say what I think, but there's got to be a balance. You don't want to preach.

"Traditionally, dance music has been an instrumental form of music for a fairly hedonistic crowd. There hasn't been a huge amount of scope for getting views across, because it's not song-based. I think it's a real shame when the greatest lyrics that come out of dance are 'You take me higher' - but I do think that's changing."

This article also appears in 'DJ' magazine; new issue on sale today. Subscriptions: 01225 442244;