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Minimal Is Poised for a Return. But It Isn’t Very Minimal Anymore.

Second Floor

After more than a decade in the wilderness, the much-maligned genre is reinventing itself once again, offering a potential antidote to the maniacal excess of post-pandemic dancefloors.

By Shawn Reynaldo

2024/01/08

Shawn Reynaldo is a Barcelona-based writer and editor who specializes in electronic music. His First Floor newsletter often zeroes in on developments in the genre’s corresponding industry and culture, but the Second Floor column is designed to spotlight the music itself, examining trends, recommending releases, and keeping tabs on what’s happening both on and off the dancefloor.

“I’ve had conversations with everybody about this: how fast things go from fidget house, to deep house, to hard electro, to now, everyone is playing ‘Barbie Girl’ remixes at 150 bpm. Next year, those same DJs are going to be playing minimal.”

Danny Daze said those words to me just a couple of months ago, and while they were ultimately just one tiny piece of an expansive conversation I had with the veteran Miami artist, his seemingly off-the-cuff prediction solidified something I’d already noticed throughout 2023: People in dance music were talking about minimal again. Moreover, many of them were doing it in a positive way. 

That may not seem like a big deal, especially for a genre that dates back to the early 90s and was pioneered by techno legends like Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. But considering that minimal has spent the past decade-plus routinely being spurned (or flat-out ignored) by the tastemaker set—a 2020 Beatportal feature by Henry Ivry literally opened with the line, “Minimal has become a dirty word in dance music”—even a slight warming to its stripped-down rhythms feels like a substantial shift in the discourse.

But is a full-blown revival underway? Resident Advisor’s 2023 round-up did list “the return of 00s minimal” as one of 2023’s defining dance music narratives, but it’s telling that the accompanying text from DJ/writer Joe Delon spent far more time focused on the renewed popularity of a track from 2006 (Audion’s “Mouth to Mouth”) among DJs than it did highlighting any new music. Considering that last year’s most ballyhooed minimal release was probably the reissue of Ricardo Villalobos’ 2003 debut-full-length, Alcachofa, talk of minimal’s return might be better classified as wishful thinking than a concrete cultural phenomenon, especially when the enthusiasm for the genre is largely coming from older heads, i.e., millennials and Gen Xers who are likely aggravated and/or exhausted by the current state of dance music. With gregarious bangers, breakneck tempos, and nostalgia-riddled pop edits dominating the post-pandemic club scene, there’s no question that a certain percentage of the audience is simply longing for something a bit less intense. Minimal, at least in theory, would seem to fit the bill. And perhaps more importantly, the word itself has a bit of mystery to it, making it just the sort of shorthand that trendspotters like to use whenever they declare something to be the “next big thing,” irrespective of its accuracy.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the definition of minimal has never been fixed, even among dance music obsessives. For the sake of clarity, it’s worth noting that the genre was not a direct outgrowth of the minimal music of the 60s and 70s that was propagated by artists—like Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and many, many others—who emerged out of the modern classical world. Instead, when people like Mills, Hood, and fellow Detroiter Daniel Bell first started making minimal techno in the early 90s, they were responding to how the explosion of techno in the UK, Europe, and beyond had taken the sound in an increasingly ravey, over-the-top direction. Their “back to basics” approach, best encapsulated by Hood’s seminal 1994 album, Minimal Nation, tossed out the wailing divas and vamping pianos, stripping the genre down to the studs and using only a handful of elements to create what was nonetheless a distinctly Motor City groove.

That groove, however, did not define minimal for long. Acts like Basic Channel, the duo of Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, quickly took the music in a more ethereal, ambient-adjacent direction, and as the 90s wore on, artists like Pole, Thomas Brinkmann, and Vladislav Delay nearly removed techno from the equation altogether. Taking influence from the concurrently blossoming glitch music and microhouse scenes, they became known for swapping out the usual drum machine and synth sounds for digital microsamples of, well, just about anything. (The Mille Plateaux label’s aptly named Clicks & Cuts series was entirely dedicated to this aesthetic.)

Minimal continued to grow through the 2000s, reaching a peak in popularity and influence at a time when Berlin was effectively becoming the center of the techno universe. Artists from all over the world, including standouts like Villalobos, Richie Hawtin, and Luciano, relocated to the city and leveled up their craft, and with German labels like Perlon, Kompakt, Minus, and Playhouse leading the way, the music continued to mutate, often in ways that were anything but minimal in nature. 

With clubs like Berghain and Bar 25 hosting parties that lasted for days on end, many producers took the opportunity to stretch things out, embracing an increasingly hypnotic, repetition-heavy mode of long-form composition. (Villalobos eventually took this to an extreme with his 2006 single “Fizheuer Zieheuer,” which clocked in at more than 37 minutes.) While those extended psychedelic journeys did become something of a blueprint for the minimal music of the era, the boundaries of the sound continued to expand. In a 2006 column for Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne noted that punters and pundits alike had begun lumping sounds as varied as “Motor's flywheeling EBM,” “Mobilee's focused rave tools,” “the Wighnomy Brothers' entropic bubble and spark,” and “BPitch Control's overdriven electro” under the same minimal umbrella. The term had essentially lost all meaning, becoming a stand-in for whatever fashionable Berlin clubbers were dancing to at the time. 

That hype eventually faded, of course. And while minimal heroes like Hawtin, Villalobos, and Luciano maintained their status as superstar DJs, by the early 2010s, the genre itself became something of a punchline, evoking associations of funkless monotony and excessive drug use. (At some point, clubbers even began describing the music as “ketamine house.”) Minimal was largely supplanted by the industrial stomp of Ostgut Ton (Berghain’s in-house label, which shuttered in 2021) and the rising tide of bass music, particularly from the UK. 

The genre never disappeared entirely, especially in Berlin. Up until the pandemic, Perlon co-founder Zip continued throwing his monthly Get Perlonized parties at Panorama Bar (the events have since continued elsewhere), and smaller venues like Club Der Visionaere provided a platform from which artists like Binh could break into the international DJ circuit. New minimal hotspots continued to emerge in places like Romania, where Raresh, Rhadoo, and Petre Inspirescu’s [a:rpia:r] label birthed the massive “rominimal” scene, and Uruguay, where artists like Nicolas Lutz and Z@p put their own spin on the genre. Yet these developments rarely garnered much attention from the dance music press. And by the end of the 2010s, minimal was more likely to be heard in places like Ibiza and Tulum than it was at vanguard nightclubs like Amsterdam’s De School and NYC’s Nowadays.

So where does that leave minimal in 2024? To whatever degree a contemporary scene exists—and, to be clear, the term is still radioactive enough in some circles that few artists would willingly describe themselves as “minimal”—it’s musically even less coherent than what was happening during the 2000s. There is certainly a handful of artists (Setaoc Mass, Holden Federico, Cratan, Klint) and labels (SK_eleven, Fixed Rhythms), most of them working in relative isolation, whose precision-crafted machine funk strongly recalls the genre’s Detroit origins, but they rarely factor into discussions of a potential minimal revival. No, it’s a loose network of geographically disparate producers (Snad, Cosmic JD, B.Ai, Kamyar Keramati, Oshana, and N-GYNN, among others) whose approach seems to follow most directly in the footsteps of Zip, Binh, Nicolas Lutz, Margaret Dygas, and other influential standouts from the 2010s. Connecting online and often showing up on the same small handful of labels, including System Error, Partisan, Pleasure Club, and Long Vehicle, they’ve formed the nascent beginnings of a scene. 

Still, the music that this new crop makes, plays, and releases—ranging from bloopy techno and laid-back tech-house, to fuzzy electro and beyond—is so incredibly varied that it’s not really accurate to describe what they’re doing as a proper genre. And things become even more confusing when you consider their significant overlap with slightly more house-oriented outposts like Slow Life, Butter Side Up, and Limousine Dream.

In many ways, the main thing that ties all this music together is what it is not. The tunes aren’t boisterous bangers. They’re not pop, and they’re not built around the proverbial “drop,” either. This isn’t music for Instagram; the tempos are moderate, the grooves are relatively nuanced, and nods to trance, hardstyle, drum & bass, and, frankly, the whole hardcore continuum are usually nowhere to be found. It’s heavily rooted in European interpretations of house and techno from the 90s and especially the 2000s, and listening to this stuff, dance music fans who’ve been around the block a few times might even find themselves saying, “This just sounds like old tech-house.” 

They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, either. Sonic innovation doesn’t appear to be these artists’ top priority. Many of them are trainspotters and record diggers, as likely to fill their sets with random Discogs finds as the latest slice of blippy minimalism from one of their peers. Not surprisingly, many of the labels they run and associate with also continue to heavily prioritize vinyl, dropping small-batch records that consistently sell out, despite the fact that most of them have no accompanying PR push and receive little or no press coverage.

That self-sufficiency might be contemporary minimal’s most compelling feature. At a time when DJs are actively selling themselves as social media personalities and even dance music’s supposedly “underground” corners can be steeped in corporate branding, these artists and labels have effectively opted out of the game, developing their own ecosystem in which getting as famous as possible isn’t the primary objective. (And despite minimal’s debaucherous reputation, this latest iteration of the music does appear to be far less dependent on drug-fueled escapism and endless partying, although everyone still loves a wasted Ricardo meme.) 

Will that change if the press and the wider industry begin to pay more attention? Possibly. And given the pendulum-like nature of dance music’s stylistic trends, it’s not hard to imagine a wave of clout-chasing DJs suddenly abandoning their gabber remixes of the Venagboys, “discovering” minimal, and taking the genre in heinous new directions. For the time being, though, there is something refreshing about this scene’s understated approach, regardless of whether or not the music it’s creating is particularly groundbreaking—or even whether it technically qualifies as minimal.

It’ll be interesting to see how minimal develops in the months ahead, and though the dance music press hasn’t been much help so far, following the work of Henry Ivry—who provided me with some invaluable tips for this column—would be a good place to start. During the past few years, he’s been one of the genre’s biggest champions, at least among music journalists, and though Resident Advisor’s reviews section has tagged only 13 singles and four albums as minimal since the start of 2020, he penned 10 of the former and two of the latter. In the meantime, I’ve put together a small selection of recent minimal (and minimal-adjacent) releases to get you started.

Snad - “Hot Chocolate”

[One]

The closest thing to a breakout star in this realm, Snad (who also makes music as Spandrel) has released a flurry of records in recent years, many of which put a fresh (and somewhat bloopy) spin on classic Chicago house swagger. Last year’s Bootlickerz EP was an especially jackin’ (and fun) affair, but “Hot Chocolate,” which appeared on the ONE051 compilation EP in 2022, draws a more direct line to the loopy glee of 2000s-era minimal.

Duowe & Picasso - “Pink Dust”

[Pillz]

Though their own Fraise Records imprint has become a reliable home for what they impishly describe as “fruity” club tools, London artists Duowe & Picasso turned to Pillz—a sublabel of UK outpost Partisan—for last year’s perfectly titled Twisted Traxxx EP. “Pink Dust” opens the record on a satisfyingly freaky note, its tweaky synths and hiccuping vocals borrowing from electro as the rest of the track mines vintage tech-house for inspiration.

B.Ai - “Ysp”

[Fresh Tunez]

Hailing from Chengdu, B.Ai is the member of this cohort whose tunes are most likely to get old heads shouting “That’s not minimal!” to no one in particular. “Ysp,” which dropped last year on Fresh Tunez, one of the many labels under the System Error umbrella, is one of her more subdued productions. And while its busted drum patterns and bright melodies are signatures of B.Ai’s work, her other releases (there are only a handful so far) have also included forays into sci-fi electro, twinkly prog, breaky house, and more.

Subb-an & Luther Vine - “Expression”

[Fragments of Reality]

A longtime affiliate of London’s Phonica Records (the shop and label), Luther Vine is perhaps most influential as a curator, as he oversees both the Phonica AM imprint, which is focused on “after hours” sounds, and Fragments of Reality, an offshoot of the 20/20 Vision label. Both have become reliable outposts for trippy variants of house and techno, including “Expression,” a collaboration with fellow UK artist Subb-an that combines a steppy undercarriage with an array of woozy psychedelics.

Ela Minus & DJ Python - “Abril Lluvias Mil (Ricardo Villalobos Remix)”

[Domino]

Neither Ela Minus nor DJ Python comes from minimal, although the latter’s self-described “deep reggaeton” stylings do have a similarly skeletal sensibility. Still, the fact that they enlisted Ricardo Villobos to remix a couple of tracks from their EP is a testament to the Chilean producer’s cult hero status. His take on “Abril Lluvias Mil” is Villalobos at his most gloriously excessive, stretching his slinky, bare-bones rhythm across more than 40 tripped-out minutes.

Rhyw - “Wolf Town”

[Fever AM]

Speaking of Ricardo, Rhyw, a Berlin-based Greek/Welsh artist best known for his inventive approach to bass-techno hybrids, hides his love of the minimal legend in plain sight on “Wolf Town.” (Translated—very roughly—into Spanish, the song’s title would be “Villa Lobo.”) A standout from his recent Mister Melt EP, the track’s assorted zips, zaps, and clipped synth fragments will sound familiar to minimal nostalgists. But rather than taking a mellow trip down memory lane, Rhyw playfully bushwacks his way across the dancefloor, offering up an infectiously lively new take on the genre.

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