November 30, 2018
When I was first getting involved in dance music, the piano-heavy rave tunes of the early 1990s were a huge influence on me. I was too young to be raving when a lot of these records came out, but my older sister was into dance music, so tracks like this would sometimes float around the house on dubbed cassette tapes from her friends.
The moment I first heard these songs they were a revelation — futuristic and groundbreaking, but still incredibly catchy, hum-able and emotionally resonant. The big piano breakdowns and diva vocals activated the same pleasure centres that a really good pop tune would, while the breakbeats and bass and forward-thinking production techniques still allowed my adolescent self to pretend I was some sort of smart, artsy, avant-garde cool kid.
My new album, Resilience, draws heavily on those early years and the sounds I loved then, so it felt like a good time to talk about some of my favourite piano-driven UK rave anthems from 1990-1994.
‘Just Another Dream’
This is a poppy British piano house cut to start things off — not really a rave record per se, but a good snapshot of dance music in 1990. At this point the UK was still importing many of its big rave tunes from the US and Belgium, and just beginning to invent the uniquely British dance sounds that would develop through the ’90s. Cathy Dennis isn’t breaking any new ground here, but she absolutely nails the late ’80s New York house sound. She would go on to write tonnes of hits for other artists, including Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’, and Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’.
Rhythm On The Loose
‘Break of Dawn’
(The One After D / Network Records, 1991)
This cut, released on Birmingham’s massively influential Detroit-techno-turned-rave label Network Records, takes influences from Detroit techno and bleep, and layers a chunky breakbeat, uplifting piano, and classic disco vocal sample on top. ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ is hands down the most oversampled a cappella in the history of dance music, but this was before it was played out, so it gets a pass.
’40 Miles (Instrumental)’
(Inner Rhythm, 1991)
A proper rave anthem despite (or maybe because of) its simplicity – a couple of melodies sampled from US house tracks (the piano is from ‘Jimi Polo’ and the other melody is from ‘Full Moon’), laid on top of breakbeat and a big bass line. It came out as a white label in 1991, and once it started to blow up they made a bad, cash-grab re-recording with a goofy vocal on top. Definitely worth avoiding the vocal mix, but in this original instrumental you can hear jungle not too far down the road…
‘Feel The Rhythm’
(Hamster Records, 1992)
By 1992, the UK had really built its own homegrown sound, and there were many independent rave labels putting out total bangers, occasionally stumbling into the pop charts as a result. ‘Feel The Rhythm’ typifies the more mainstream end of that spectrum: big piano breakdown with a vocal on top, alternating with buzzy, almost hoover-like synth leads, all laid over a breakbeat and a big four-on-the-floor kick. It’s goofy, but it bangs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’
(Production House, 1992)
One of the all-time classics, from another influential UK label – Production House. Similar formula to the last one: big piano, vocal, breakbeats, and dark bass-y buzzy noises for contrast. I like how this track (and ‘Feel The Rhythm’, come to think of it) later sampled crowd noises and airhorns in the background, just in case you’re playing to an empty room but still want it to sound like a megarave. Also these lyrics are trying real hard to pretend like they’re about love so this can get on the radio, but they are 1000% about MDMA.
M&M feat. Rachel Wallace
‘Tell Me Why’
(Suburban Base Records, 1992)
A track from Suburban Base – the seminal UK rave label that introduced DJ Hype, DJ Rap, Danny Breaks, Remarc, and loads of other big drum & bass artists to the world. In terms of songwriting, ‘Tell Me Why’ is not too different from the Cathy Dennis track at the start of this list, only faster and more bass-heavy, with that breakbeat propelling the whole thing forward. I still play this one a LOT.
Urban Shakedown feat. Mickey Finn
(Urban Shakedown, 1992)
An early production from drum & bass DJ Aphrodite, showing the triumvirate of pianos, breakbeats, and big bass that anchored so many tracks in 1992. There are lots of change-ups in this one to keep things interesting; I love how the four-on-the-floor kick drum comes in halfway through the track.
‘Shining In Da Darkness’
(Reinforced Records, 1993)
A gorgeous track from jungle legend Nookie (aka Cloud 9) on 4Hero’s label, Reinforced Records. ‘Shining In Da Darkness’ really showcases the transition toward jungle that was underway in 1993 — amen breaks, ragga MC samples, and heavy sub bass are all big components of this tune, but the steady kick drum and euphoric pianos of 1992 are still present. A great set-closer.
(Jumpin’ & Pumpin’, 1994)
‘Fantasy Wonderland’ is an album-only cut by hardcore rave duo Jack N Phil that never made much of a dent…not many people seem to know the track, so it’s handy as a secret weapon to shock the old school heads who think they know everything 🙂 Somewhere between hardcore rave and speed garage, it can work in loads of different sets.
(Just Another Label, 1994)
This last track shows the trajectory of the hardcore rave scene in 1994. Most of the producers migrated over to jungle, while the kids who wanted to keep the euphoric pianos in their tracks ended up making happy hardcore. The divorce wasn’t really finalised until 1995, so there were loads of tunes in ’93/’94 that tip-toed the line between these two genres – to great effect.
Chrissy’s new album, Resilience, which calls on the classic rave sounds of his Midwestern youth to explore themes of love, positivity, perseverance, acceptance and the fight against cynicism, is out 5th December on Chiwax.