The A-Z of dance music in 2021
Need to catch up on what happened this year? Our helpful A-to-Z guide will give you the rundown
Look, 2021 has been a bit of a mad one. We went from complete lockdown in many regions to the long-awaited reopening of nightclubs. We saw the continuing rapid rise of drill and amapiano, while ushering in the resurgence of old favourites such as jungle and bassline. As we spend more and more time online, we've been given an even greater connection with our global raving partners in countries such as China, Brazil, Estonia, Ukraine, New Zealand and many more. We were faced with a multitude of age-old issues that impact our scene such as overburdening police presence, safety issues with drugs and the struggle to ensure artists are compensated properly for their work — while facing new challenges such as shortages in DJ equipment, the need to test before heading on a night out and a battle to get home from the club safely. So, here at Mixmag, we decided to make this year as digestible as possible and how better to do that than a handy A-Z of 2021 in dance music. Get yourself caught up in time for the New Year!
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The emerging South African dance music style we reported on in 2020 accelerated into a booming global movement this year, becoming the definitive genre of 2021. Dancers around the world couldn’t get enough of the hypnotic, stirring and suspenseful sound that builds on the ‘90s foundations of Kwaito. Amapiano-specific festivals launched in multiple countries, DJs playing the style sold out huge clubs across the world, and streams of amapiano tracks and sets hit the stratosphere.
Traditionally beloved by the North and shunned by the south, bassline came back in a big way in 2021 - and this time it's broached the M25. Though many in Yorkshire would insist bassline never went away, the genre had lost a lot of its underground shine following the release of the chart-topping T2 'Heartbroken' and the closure of many of the nightspots where it had found its audience. Though there was a brief resurgence of the 4x4 variety in 2016-17 courtesy of selectors such as DJ Q, Flava D and Holy Goof — the pandemic saw us dusting off those old Niche records and getting back to the energetic bounce and piercing bass of the genre's origins. Think Jamie Duggan, Big Ang, TS7 and Shaun Banger Scott.
Much of the celebration comes from a new crop of Northern/North-based DJ's focused on bringing the sounds of home down South: India Jordan included a number of bassline classics in their Northern NRG mix on Radio 1, Anz treated crowds at her Boiler Room set to a delicious blend of cheeky old skool bassline, Bradford MC outfit Bad Boy Chiller Crew highlighted their favourite bassline bangers in Mixmag, while NTS paid tribute to bassline with a number of shows this year.
While the past decade has seen a growing amount of collectives who have been forming due to a lack of representation and space for marginalised people in the music industry, 2021 has seen these collectives bound together and support each other through what has been a tough time for everyone and ease back into clubbing and performing. From Daytimers and No Nazar organising a fundraiser for farmers to Stand Together uniting drum ‘n’ bass labels to tackle racism in music, collectives have been banding together for change.
In the year where everyone became a DIY expert - think home built bars and handmade pottery - so did clubs, events and festivals, taking to building online spaces as they adopted the new normal. Producers had to make do with DIY setups too as they struggled to get to the studio, compromising in the form of homebuilt studio spaces and heading into the world of Ableton and FL Studio.
As we entered back into normality, we saw a resurgence of exhibitions. From multimedia takes on the dance scene in Coventry, a look at Milton Keyne's Sanctuary and its impact on early rave to a museum opening in Frankfurt celebrating iconic moments in the history of electronic music. This year we’ve been educated and admired the art behind all areas of the music industry.
F Freedom Day
Though we didn't all celebrate 'Freedom Day' at the same time, what we did share was an emotionally marked return to our favourite pastime. In England 'Freedom Day' had originally been planned to go ahead on June 21 - earning excited gasps from the music industry including a musical tribute from The Street's in 'Who's Got The Bag (21st June)'. A delay of four weeks was proposed as we crept closer to the date, with nightclubs officially reopening at midnight on Monday, July 19. Scotland reopened nightlife venues on August 9, with countdowns going off in the queues for clubs - while Wales were permitted to reopen nightlife spaces on August 7. The last country in the UK to open nightlife was Northern Ireland following nearly 20 months of closures on October 31. On all "Freedom Days" queues were long as eager clubbers waited to enter their favourite venues. Despite many areas of the UK having now closed nightclubs due to the spread of the Omicron variant until the New Year, we're hoping for a speedy return to clubbing for the entire country in 2022.
There’s been a lot of mourning and heartache to contend with in the pandemic, and 2021 has sadly been another tough year for losing dance music greats. The legacy they leave is monumental and we hope the scene honours their bold pioneering spirit long into the future.
Detroit’s First Lady of Techno K-Hand and Chicago house great Paul Johnson are etched into the DNA of those genres enjoyed by so many. Other late greats from those cities who achieved so much in their lives include Tim Baker and Rodney Bakerr, while New York City’s ballroom icon Vjuan Allure, DJs Tony Smith, Carlos Sanchez and Jasen Loveland, and house music lover Michael K. Williams all made a remarkable impact. Dance music will never be the same thanks to the creativity of SOPHIE. Nothing is more telling of Virgil Abloh’s impact than the collective mourning and sharing stories of his generosity that greeted news of his passing. Hip hop also suffered losses including New York favourites DMX and Biz Markie.
The UK lost many underground heroes, including Phil Asher, Andrew Barker, Pete Zorba, Steve Bronski, DJ Scholar, Peter Rehberg and Richard H. Kirk. We mourned the European masters whose music we’ll cherish, such as Lady Aïda, Soulphiction and Claudio Coccoluto, and the Japanese sound design expert Yoshi Wada. Reggae greats Bunny Wailer and U-Roy and dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry are tied into the legacy of soundsystem culture, which has been absolutely crucial to the evolution of dance music. Rest in peace to all who lost their lives this year.
Hallucinogens have made a comeback - and perhaps we have the lockdowns to thank for that. Due to the hiatus in clubbing caused by the pandemic, people have seemed to have turned away from traditional upper "party drugs" such as MDMA, cocaine and amphetamines - and instead begun to explore psychedelic drugs. Mixmag reported earlier this year that in lockdown many students were using psychedelics to get through lockdown, while Madlib admitted that much of his production work has been inspired by taking magic mushrooms - as did Lil Nas X, who claimed psilocybin helped him in writing 'Montero'. A number of studies were published on the importance of psychedelics in use for therapy - to treat everything from social disorders, alcoholism, PTSD and even intimacy issues in couples. The closing months of this year even saw Boris Johnson consider the legalisation of magic mushrooms in the UK, after Conservative MP Crispin Blunt described their "exciting potential" in use for medicinal purposes.
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I Illegal raves
Unquestionably, illegal raves were a staple of 2021. In the first half of this year, as much of the world continued to exist under varying restrictions, many revellers broke the law and turned to illegal raving as an outlet. Here in the UK, there were a series of massive woodland raves (and a number of arrests) throughout Kent, The Brecon Beacons, the Forest of Dean and Sussex. Massive parties happened worldwide, Ibiza had so many illegal villa parties that authorities were considering hiring "party detectives" to sniff out banned gatherings, while Kentucky's "redneck rave" saw 48 people facing criminal charges. A huge six-day, 10,000-strong rave in Italy made headlines this summer after reports that one person had died and another had given birth during the chaotic party on the shores of lake Mazzano. However, it wasn't all unbridled chaos, Mixmag exposed Priti Patel in August for using incorrect data on the prevalence illegal raves in Britain in order to request more police powers.
J Justice vs Justin
One of the most entertaining happenings of the year came in March when French duo Justice took legal action against Justin Bieber over their trademark cross logo. When Bieber attempted to use his own unauthorised version of the band’s familiar emblem, called ‘the Mark’ by their team, the duo hit back with a cease-and-desist. Although it seemingly didn’t really amount to anything, Justice threatened with legal action over the whole situation and penned a letter to Bieber’s management stating: “your use of the Mark is illegal”. One half of the duo Gaspard Augé spoke to The Guardian about the matter in June, twisting the knife further by commenting: “To me, it's a very conscious rip-off. And that's where the problem is. Though Bieber is from Canada, his actions fit this mindset of American hegemony: 'Oh well, it's just a small band from France, I'm sure we can take their name, nobody will care'.” Ouch.
K Kurupt Fm
It's a kuruption ting this year as not only did the pirate radio crew release the album ‘The Greatest Hits (Part 1)’ featuring the legendary Craig David but also Kurupt FM: Big In Japan finally hit our cinema screens. The single ‘Summertime’ was the soundtrack to our year bringing a classic garage sound. Combined with their hysterical film, they dominated the media and proved that the rest really are irrelevant.
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Our world-famous office party returned with a roaring bang this year. We kicked off 2021 without our audiences - some funkin’ Chicago house from London’s Menendez Brothers, then followed by Nabihah Iqbal, NAINA, Cody Currie, Ben Sims and more before a turbulent first live performance post-lockdown from prog house legend Sasha. When the live shows returned, so did some of our biggest guests: Rudimental, Major League DJz, TSHA, Timmy Regisford and Chippy Nonstop all got behind the decks, while in celebration of our South Asia series we saw a special Lab curated by Nabihah Iqbal featuring DJ Priya, Manara, Darama and Ahadadream. Further afield, we launched the Lab Goa in December this year with Anyasa, Sickflip and Dualist Inquiry already treating crowds at the beach to their dreamy sundown selections.
No matter what went down in 2021 we'll always have the mixes... and god, there were some incredible offerings this year. Alongside selecting our favourite mixes of each month, featuring the crème de la crème of DJ talent - both established and up-and-coming, we've also hosted some heavy mixes on our own channel. We were treated to exclusive heat from Cover Stars such as Bicep, Channel Tres, LSDXOXO, TSHA, VTSS, Nightmares On Wax, Fred again.. and DJ Seinfeld for their exclusive Cover Mixes. Our Impact series saw the likes of DJ Priya, Stay-C, Dar Disku, Jossy Mitsu, Nikki Nair (above) and more create a buzz with their hour-long offerings. While we saw 22 In Session mixes this year, from a who's who of the electronic music world: Parris, Jamz Supernova, Jeremy Sylvester, Chrissy, DJ Sotofett, Juls, Laksa, Prayer, Chloé Robinson and many, many more. Wanna stay tuned in the New Year? Keep your eye on our SoundCloud.
This has been the year of the NFT - and they’ve made their way into the music industry. Whether in the form of unreleased photos, unreleased music or video game characters, NFT's have become a new way for artists and creators to earn money in the age of cryptocurrency. We’ve seen an NFT platform designed for electronic music fans, photographs from Studio 54’s heyday being sold as NFTs, an NFT band of apes, and a never heard before Whitney song being sold as an NFT, fetching $1 million.
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Due to our nightlife spaces being closed for much of this year, it meant that much of our music listening was once again confined to the virtual sphere. The dance music community continued to provide ways to connect people from São Paulo to Shanghai, with virtual raves, virtual clubs, Discords, forums, radio show phone-ins and chat rooms allowing people to enjoy tunes alone together.
Politics is intertwined with dance music, and this 2021 saw many people in the community carry the torch for its revolutionary spirit. Fighting against the tide of far-right politics in Eastern Europe, DJs in Poland have become activists fighting for LGBTQ+ and women's rights with music that “scares Nazis away”. This has also happened in Ukraine, with impromptu rave protestors demonstrating in Kyiv in support of LGBTQ+ rights, as well as partygoers staging protests against police violence and illegal detention of musicians. Spain was also the site of major protests in solidarity with a rapper arrested for anti-police lyrics.
Artists hailing from the Global South use music as a tool to fight back against oppressive social, political and economic forces. Palestinian artist Muqata’a is one example, turning the noise of warfare into protest music, while calls for support for human rights from Palestine saw solidarity DJ broadcasts and music fundraisers.
In a year of lockdowns and lack of support for the nightlife sector, there were also soundsystem-powered protests staged across countries such as the UK, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Georgia, although some did not always seem well-judged. While a recent event in Saudi Arabia ought to have called for more protest from the dance music community according to Human Rights Watch, who called for artists to "speak up" on alleged human rights abuses.
We spent many months of 2021 in quarantine and in various states of lockdown. In this time we’ve seen livestreams, virtual raves, clubs such as Heaven getting turned into vaccination centres, and travel bans. Quarantine has disrupted life as we know it, but has opened up a variety of new possibilities that may not have existed without it.
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A resurgence of noughties nostalgia was what pulled us through this year. TikToking Gen-Z’s were throwing it back to acid face smileys and the jungle aesthetic. Many finally took their first steps into a rave which saw a boom in the Y2K trend taking over the music and fashion industry. The music from our social media stormed into the club scene as the almighty TikTok legend PinkPantheress made her way to the top as well as the new raver kids discovered and remixed old skool electro. The year ended with a perfect example of this as Prada hosted a night with the seminal '90s techno DJ Richie Hawtin which was attended by young gun stars like Romeo Beckham with girlfriend Mia Regan and influencer Olivia Neill. All in all the return of '90/'00s sound was welcomed back with open arms which overall was 'good soup'.
2021 saw many things we use all the time in the UK in short supply: Fizzy drinks, Nando’s, microchips, even DJ equipment… but the real shortage being whispered about in clubland this year was the shortage of MDMA. Thought to have been caused by a combination of Brexit, HGV driver shortages, wider nightlife restrictions throughout Europe and even a scarcity of the chemicals used to produce the drug - the shortage led to a dangerous rise in the number of MDMA alternatives being used in powder/pills.
The Loop reported back in August that the majority of drugs they tested that had been sold as MDMA contained less than 50% of the drug - and pills with unknown substances within them hospitalised over 20 people upon clubs reopening in July. Though it seems the drought is over, last month Vice News reported that the strongest pill has been found in Manchester, containing 477mg of MDMA.
Even though this year saw us return to nightclubs and gigs, we still had to make sure we were safe. With COVID still amongst us, testing became an important task. As we investigated in February, lateral flow testing meant we could provide a rapid result before entering a club. Since then, rules with testing across the world have been constantly changing. In recent news, clubs in England can only let you enter if you have a COVID pass - either a negative lateral flow test or proof of vaccination. But as we end 2021, we insist you keep testing yourself as the virus is far from gone.
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U UK Drill
2021 was a monumental year for UK drill - for the first time, the genre was recognised at the MOBO Awards which took place this month, pushing forward some of the most deserving artists coining the genre: Central Cee won a slew of awards, Digga D and AJ Tracey teamed up on one of the best tracks of the year, M1llionz became a Mixmag cover star, and Headie One smashed out hit after hit all in the space of 12 months.
V Vinyl delays
Vinyl record sales this year have been at their highest for three decades, with more than 5 million sold in the UK — with many thanking releases from ABBA, Adele and Sam Fender for the huge increase. Yep, wax is big business, but you won't be hearing cheers from those actually having to press it and sell it. While delays in vinyl production aren't a new thing, varied factors such as Brexit, the pandemic, increase in interest from major labels, global PVC shortages and the Apollo Master's fire in 2020 (a factory in which 70-85% of the world's lacquer discs are produced) have caused huge problems for anyone trying to meet soaring demand. For some, this has meant abandoning the form altogether and searching for alternative ways to release music physically - whether that be on cassette, USB, limited edition merch - even graphic novels. With the trajectory of vinyl sales only set to rise next year, and a continuing reduction in the capacity at pressing plants - these delays look to only continue in 2022.
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Maybe it's that fact we have been removed from raving for too long, maybe we're just in the mood for engulfing drops and tropical rhythm — but we've really found ourselves unable to resist the urge to have a good waft on dancefloors this year. For the uninitiated, "wafting" involves a slight flick of your wrist (as shown by Patty T above) usually to some cheeky, floaty tech house. However, it seems many more underground DJs have had their imaginations captured by "the waft" in 2021 (maybe having watched Hot Since 82 on the pirate ship too many times methinks?) with those naughty rollers making their way into even the most seminal of techno and breakbeat sets — with the likes of Craigie Knowes Records, Peach, Saoirse, Rudolf C, Real Deal and more releasing tech-house inspired tunes, perfect for sun-drenched beaches and glittering vistas. Here's to many more sunsets, drops of 'Benediction' and waft-related RSIs in 2022.
Look.. we spent a long time in lockdown, ok? When dancefloors finally re-opened this summer there was a distinct air of horniness throughout clubland. Sex-positive club nights and festivals such as Big Dyke Energy, Adonis, Klub Verboten and Body Movements have been leading the - while Crossbreed took its usually London-based kink party up to Manchester in October. Sexually-charged anthems such as Shygirl's 'BDE' and LSDXOXO's 'Sick Bitch' have been heard ringing out much to the delight of the lustful masses.
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The First Dances taking place in Liverpool across late April/early May this spring were emotional. The UK’s clubbing scene had been closed off with restrictions for a long 13 months, then suddenly 6,000 ravers were allowed out to dance freely in a massive warehouse with a fat soundsystem to sets by Jayda G, Fatboy Slim, Hot Since 82, and more — all in the name of science. The mood at the event was ecstatic, and it spread through the country, bringing tears to the eyes of pining ravers watching footage
Yousef was the man at the helm of the parties, organsing them in cooperation with the government as part of the Events Research Programme (ERP) pilot test events. He worked tirelessly to pull the events together, and earned his place in 2021 dance music history. His set from the night, which you can listen to here, is packed full of feels, including the iconic opening drop of Ultra Naté’s ‘Free’.
Z Gen Z
Gen Z is the generation that does not know of a life without the internet. Gen Z has become a buzzword in the media and they’ve started to take over the music scene. Gen Zers have been reviving retro rave music and have been pushing their own style of bedroom-produced music by stars such as Nia Archives. This generation has also been largely responsible for taking DJing to TikTok and they’ll continue to change the way we understand music making in years to come.