Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin

Harry Levin

6 min read

Let's Talk About IDM

Before EDM was the most divisive acronym in dance music, there was another that stoked even more vitriol. An acronym that has receded into the darkest depths of the culture but still retains a certain undeniable presence: IDM or “intelligent dance music.”

See, while “EDM” (which stands for “electronic dance music”) is relegated to dance tracks with features from pop stars that celebrity DJs play on gigantic stages, its division is not inherent. Instead, it is assigned by the people who don’t want to be associated with that section of the culture.

Much to the dismay of the “EDM” haters, from a technical standpoint, pretty much every genre in club culture is “electronic dance music” because it’s electronically produced music meant for dancing.

IDM, on the other hand, inherently applies a quality of separation via the word “intelligent,” Though the acronym was and remains divisive in nature, from a purely etymological standpoint, “intelligent” is the apt word to create that separation.

“Intelligent” stems from “intelligence,” and the etymology of “intelligence” leads back to the Latin, “intelligere,” which means “understand.”

It is not insulting to say there is more to understand in an IDM track than in an EDM track. Just like it’s not insulting to say there is more to understand in Leo Tolstoy’s epic, War & Peace, than in the latest Spider-man comic. Someone who understands and appreciates both War & Peace and Spider-man can make their own decision about which they enjoy more, but that doesn’t remove the in-depth quality of the former.

IDM is dance music that is layered and deep. It’s music that includes club-driven elements like four-on-the-floor kicks, but those club elements sit against soundscapes that provoke thought. The music is thematic and intuitive, and most importantly, it's equally fit for home listening as it is the live environment.

For those who read the above description and still think the term is snobby and elitist, don’t fret because numerous artists and experts in the genre feel the same way.

IDM innovators like Aphex Twin, Cylob, and μ-Ziq have all expressed their discontent with the term.

In a 1997 interview, Aphex Twin said, “I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's bascially saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is STUPID.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music. (laughs) It makes me laugh, things like that. I don't use names. I just say that I like something or I don't.”

Some might say if one of the inventors of a genre term rejects said term, then the term is obsolete. But in reality, Aphex Twin, real name Richard David James, rejecting the term, defines the ethos of IDM.

This genre is attached to esotericism, obscurity, and complexity. And as such, it is only natural that those who create it (intentionally or not) reject praise and acclaim on all fronts.

Aphex Twin – Warehouse Project, Manchester 20/09/19

IDM isn’t rap. There aren’t any Kanye West-type figures in the leftfield electronic community talking about how they’re gods. When James won the Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album in 2015 for his LP, Syro, he didn’t even show up to accept the award. 

To James and his fellow IDM originators, the idea that anyone would consider their music better, superior, or more “intelligent” than any other music is repulsive. Yet, that is why the term persists and also how the term inherently came to exist in the first place.

By the early ‘90s, club dance music like disco and house had a significant enough presence to where subsections of the culture were forming. When any genre of music starts to grow, people who love the sound but are averse to its popularity start taking the sound in a new direction.

It was in the ‘90s that subgenres like ambient, acid, electro, and breakbeat started to veer off into their own realm, inspiring further experimentation from young producers. These new experimental sounds began to take hold in the UK, and soon European labels started to release them.

Rising High Records, Richard James's Rephlex Records, Kirk Degiorgio's Applied Rhythmic Technology, and Eevo Lute Muzique are some labels that originally shared what would become IDM, but the most avid purveyor of the term was undoubtedly Warp Records.

Originally founded out of a record store in Sheffield, UK, in 1989, Warp has maintained its tastemaker status and, over the last 33 years, ensured its reputation eschews any single genre. In 2022 alone, they’ve released the latest folk LP from Daniel Rossen, You Belong There, and LOGGERHEAD, the debut album from alternative rap artist Wu-Lu.

This attitude of innovation allowed them to cut through the noise and change the trajectory of dance music towards this more “intelligent” destination. Early releases from Aphex Twin, like 1994’s Selected Ambient Works Volume IIwere Warp releases, along with the debut albums of now IDM stalwarts Boards of Canada and Squarepusher in 1995 and 1996, respectively.

Warp was so innovative in their output that when they released the 1992 compilation album, Artificial Intelligence, composed of the IDM sounds the label would soon champion, the word “intelligent” from that compilation morphed into “intelligent dance music,” with the help of Alan Parry, Brian Behlendorf, and their electronic music mailing list, the “IDM List.”

Warp Records Sheffield, UK

Warp Records Sheffield, UK

Parry and Behlendorf started the mailing list in 1993, directly citing Warp’s Artificial Intelligence as a source for the title and placing heavy emphasis on Warp releases. Whether or not anyone liked the term, there was a community forming around it, and the IDM list was a huge reason that community came to be.

As Parry told Vice in a 2018 article on the IDM list, “I wanted to know who the people making these records were. And the way to do that was to connect with other people and talk about it.”

That community continues to exist today, and as electronic music overall has become more widely accepted, there are artists in the IDM sphere who have garnered significant attention around them. These larger artists also serve as a gateway into the more obscure corners of the IDM sound.

Four Tet, Floating Points, and Daphni, three friends and collaborators, all share similar inclinations in making music fit for the club and for home while applying intricate composition.

Jon Hopkins is another artist sustaining IDM through his celebrated albums like Synchronicity and Objekt, whose DJ sets span the entirety of IDM soundscapes. A classic example is the enigmatic Burial, who resurfaced with his 2022 EP, Antidawn.

Jon Hopkins - Singularity (Official Video)

It is required to mention that, like most electronic music scenes, unfortunately, IDM was dominated by white cis men when it first arose, and many of its biggest stars today are the same.

But this music is now beyond the anonymous halls of the old internet, and white cis men are far from the only people bringing their unique identity to IDM.

Kelly Lee Owens is a staple of the international festival circuit who has ventured deep into IDM territory, especially with her newest LP, LP8, out now on Smalltown Supersound. Nene H just released her hard-hitting percussive album, Ali, on Incienso, another top-notch label for IDM. Another non-male IDM artist is Indiana’s JLin, a regular on Planet Mu, one of the premier IDM labels running today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsPWBsti1qs

No matter what anyone may think of the term “intelligent dance music,” the intelligent thing to do is ensure that BIPOC, queer, and non-male identifying artists have a place in the IDM conversation moving forward. Perhaps with more diversity, people won’t hate the term as much.