No Limit: How Eurodance shaped modern dance music
Melodic synths, pianos and empowering, life-affirming lyrics: these aren’t qualities you’d typically associate with techno, but increasingly tracks fitting this description are going side-by-side into sets from some of the underground’s most relentless stalwarts, from Steffi to Herrensauna’s Cem. It’s all thanks to the return of Eurodance.
It would be easy to shrug Eurodance off as a cheesy collection of one-hit wonders confined to our school disco memories and grainy images on MTV, but the genre was instrumental in popularising dance music with mainstream audiences. That connection may be one that techno purists are loathe to acknowledge, but it’s increasingly hard to ignore. If you’ve been on a dancefloor in the past twelve months it’s clear that Eurodance – and its close sibling, old school trance – has made a comeback. As we tumble into a new decade more confused than ever, crowds of all ages are welcoming the return of simple and uplifting Eurodance songs with open arms.
This week marks 20 years since Eiffel 65’s Blue (Da Ba Dee) hit its peak in the charts, signalling one of the last successes of Eurodance, the familiar sound that permeated nightclubs and radio stations throughout the 80s and 90s.
“We received so many deal requests through the fax machine that we used to change the paper roll every day,” says Eiffel 65’s Maurizio ‘Maury’ Lobina. “In America, nobody knew what they called Eurodance and so it was curious and fun to see in the big music stores where they placed our album: from hip-hop to disco.”
Around seven years earlier, the touchpaper was already being lit for Eurodance’s global success story. Ray Slijngaard, the rapper in Eurodance group 2 Unlimited, recorded their biggest hit No Limit while on a temporary break from his job as a chef; little did he know that he’d still be touring 25-plus years later and performing that song to an enthusiastic crowd of nostalgic ravers. It took 2 Unlimited just one hour to write the song, but it would soon be solidified in music history as a Eurodance anthem alongside the likes of Blue, Freed from Desire, Scatman and Be My Lover.
These tracks came to typify the Eurodance sound, which was defined by beats, bass and melody – a classic 4/4 house beat with 80s-style lyrics and melancholic synths that gently tugged at your heartstrings and sent your arms to the sky.
“Suddenly we were sharing the stage with The Prodigy and 808 State, with an audience of over 10,000 people going wild” – Ray Slijngaard, 2 Unlimited
“Our song was so popular in the rave scene that when we did our first tour – which was in Scotland – people knew our song but not us,” Slijngaard recalls. “Suddenly we were sharing the stage with The Prodigy and 808 State, with an audience of over 10,000 people going wild.”
Working during the Eurodance boom was like a “hurricane of musical energy”, Eiffel 65’s Jeffrey Jey says. Without social media and widespread use of the internet, people heard new music through the radio, record stores and at discos. Against the backdrop of some of the 80s’ and 90s’ greatest songwriters, like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears, singing was often a more popular activity than dancing in a nightclub, Jey added.
“For older people to get into faster music then was a big thing,” says Sunil Sharpe, a DJ who witnessed the rise and fall of Eurodance first-hand. “Robert Miles, for example, was quite melodic and Carl Cox would play Children in a set next to some crazy heavy Detroit techno track or a European hardcore techno track. But at the same time Children was popular with people’s parents and it was the same with Baby D’s Let Me Be Your Fantasy” he explains. “Pianos talk to all ages, I guess.”
Pop music played a monumental role in influencing Eurodance’s melody-heavy direction and Eurodance song structures also echo that of pop music, with a simple chorus and a strong beat to effortlessly carry listeners through until the end.
“There was some quite good engineering in a lot of those tracks that gave certain acts a life of their own when in a lot of cases they were using samples and famous vocals from the past,” Sharpe says. “If you didn’t know the original, you’d think the vocalist was Cappella’s own in Take Me Away, but it wasn’t, it was Loleatta Holloway sampled.”
But popularity only took Eurodance so far. Mass commercialisation of the genre came coupled with its death and by the early 2000s, Eurodance was considered a naff embarrassment in the electronic underground. As club culture advanced, tastes shifted and producers moved on to Eurodance’s sister genres: hard house, gabber and happy hardcore.
In recent years though, modern producers have been putting a new stamp on Eurodance and trance. Evian Christ’s Trance Party has been going strong since 2013, folding all manner of late 90s and early 00s ephemera into its aesthetic and last year, Julian Muller’s Hustling edit of La Bouche’s Be My Lover stormed European dancefloors; its weighty bassline turning an old classic into something fit-for-purpose for modern techno DJs.
“Eurodance is a genre I feel comfortable remixing, since I’m really inspired by that trancey-feeling, [and] groovy elements and vocals that inject fun into a party and make you shake your booty on the dancefloor,” Muller explained. “It’s just a perfect way to break from doing only techno and more underground electronic music, while still keeping my own touch.”
For Euromantic, a young Copenhagen-based label that has had a huge impact in driving today’s pivot towards trance-inspired techno, nostalgia played a key role in how the label’s sound developed. “I remember going to a dance in sixth grade and I really had to work myself up to ask this girl to dance,” Adam Askov, one of the label’s co-founders, recalled. “We danced to Corona’s Rhythm of the Night. She gave me her number afterwards, but I was too shy to call her.”
There’s a playful serving of irony and melancholy that accompanies listening to Eurodance for many ravers, but has the novelty of playing cheesy Eurodance turned more serious? Increasingly DJs have been drawn to the ying-yang approach of integrating it with tough and moody techno. The minor chord melodies of Eurodance, as opposed to major chord melodies which pop music typically employs, fit well with techno and given their similar BPMs, they’re easy genres to mix together, despite their differing emotional characteristics.
What’s more, many ravers in their early 20s or younger are drawn to more than Eurodance’s novelty factor, Sharpe notes. Since they lack the nostalgic references from when the tracks first came out, they just like Eurodance for what it is. Messages of peace, love, unity, respect and power are transmittable across generations and still define modern rave culture to this day.
“I really liked the minor chord melodies, so I think it’s been in the back of my head, but we try really hard not to make pastiche music,” Askov says. “We want to take our inspirations and make something new and personal.”
While Eurodance is in many ways the perfect emblem of today’s meme-driven culture – catchy tracks which can be easily shared and provoke a reaction online – the simplicity of the messages that Eurodance and trance tracks can communicate may also be more relevant than ever during an era of geopolitical turmoil and information overload.
“One of the really important characteristics about trance is that it’s hopeful music, it’s uplifting,” says Sharpe. “I think in the current times we live in, it’s no coincidence that old school trance is coming back to the forefront.”
"I think in the current times we live in, it’s no coincidence that old school trance is coming back to the forefront” – Sunil Sharpe
The question now is how much of a role can Eurodance and trance play in driving the underground forward? After a tumultuous decade, the return to Eurodance and trance could be little more than a symptom of our quest for comfort – feel-good songs that require little investment to connect with, but which do equally little in terms of bringing innovation to the dancefloor.
“I think there will be someone who comes along with a bit of an odd, weird groove and we are just waiting for that. We have yet to see that new development where someone really flips it again, and it takes a person or label or two to do that,” Sharpe says. “I’m not sure I see trance or Eurodance being the next development of note, though they’re certainly not dirty words anymore.”
Maybe Eurodance and trance’s impact on the future of techno will depend on how cleverly producers can breathe new life into the old genres. Last week saw the launch of a new label in Berlin, Speedmaster Records, which states its commitment to upholding Eurodance and trance as focal points for inspiration, while still positioning itself as a techno label. For others though, the novelty of the genre may not be a suitable reference point for really disrupting dance music and forging new musical paths.
The trancey feeling which has been a clear running thread throughout Euromantic’s releases so far is not something the label is anxious to protect or maintain necessarily, but one which evolved unintentionally. Upcoming Euromantic releases this year are set to be more psychedelic in sound.
“I think it all comes in circles. A couple of years ago people were obsessed with 80s EBM, and now it’s Nirvana and Eurodance,” Askov says. “The new trance wave is obviously part of that and a lot of people are playing in this style, so we’ll strive to do something a bit different.”
Still, Eurodance and trance are showing no signs of going anywhere fast. For ravers seeking emotional comfort, there will likely always be a place for these genres, whether that’s as a guilty pleasure in the confines of your own bedroom or blasted loud and proud in the middle of an industrial techno mix.
“Maybe some writing patterns of the Eurodance era are being a spark for new music,” muses Jey from Eiffiel 65. “I believe that every decade gives birth to a style somehow based on the memory of others.”