Madonna Puts the ‘E’ in EDM
A few favorite examples of dance music that features ambivalent drug messages
Hey, whaddya know? I’m officially part of a controversy! Not only that, for what is probably the first time ever, I find myself on the same side of an issue as Deadmau5 — at least, according to the Village Voice, which highlighted our mutual criticism of Madonna’s antics at Ultra Music Fest, when she asked the crowd, “How many of you have seen Molly?”
“Molly,” of course, is slang (in North America, anyway) for pure MDMA, the active chemical compound in the drug Ecstasy. Judging by the cheers her query elicited, most of the audience knew exactly what she was talking about.
Whether or not the crowd was rolling its collective face off, Madonna’s winking reference felt like the cheapest kind of pandering. (Although it does give new meaning to the acronym “ROFL.”) I don’t mind a sly drug reference every now and then, but at least make it clever, like Chimo Bayo’s campy makina classic “Asi Me Gusta a Mi,” with its double-edged refrain of “Esta sí, esta no.”
What’s disappointing about Madonna’s drug talk is how incredibly artless it feels, like a takeaway from a focus group put together by Madonna, Inc. to find out what the kids are into these days. She sounded like Mitt Romney rhapsodizing over the height of trees in Michigan, only slightly more on-message. More tasteless, still, dropping the codeword “Molly” was a sly way of reminding us that her new album, MDNA, also references the drug; she might as well have been saying, “How many of you are going to do, um, buy my album next week?” Subtle, she ain’t.
Frankly, I like Deadmau5’s confession — I can’t believe I just typed that — that he’s “not pro-, or anti-drug, but… pro-responsibility.” Dance-music culture is steeped in drugs, for better and for worse — as, I might add, are rock’n’roll and hip-hop — and it’s also steeped in drug references, from the Smart E’s 1992 novelty hit “Sesame’s Treet” to Benoit & Sergio’s 2010 track “Walk & Talk” (with its breezy refrain, “My baby does K all day”). But there’s a big difference between cracking in-jokes and aligning your personal brand with everyone’s favorite serotonin releaser — especially when you’re as famous a control freak as Madonna. (The day we see Dita Parlo rolling her face off in public, we’ll know the Apocalypse is nigh.) Talk about mixed messages! If she really wants to prove that she’s down with the kids, she could take some lessons from Diddy. And if she wants to do something positive for drug culture, she could put her money where her Molly is and follow the example of the late Bob Wallace, an early Microsoft employee and subsequent bazillionaire who funded DanceSafe.org and other drug-education and harm-reduction initiatives.
SPIN has chronicled the Madge-versus-Mau5 flap down to the minute. For my final contribution to the fray, I’d thought about running down some of the pivotal drug references in dance music, but to do the subject justice, I’d need to write at least an entire book chapter. (Speaking of books, both Matthew Collin’s Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House and Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture offer extensive background on dance music’s pharmacological roots.)
Instead, I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite examples of dance music that features ambivalent drug messages — if only because listening to them is a lot more interesting than talking about taking drugs to make music to take drugs to (with the exception, of course, of Spaceman 3).
4 Hero “Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare”
One of the quintessential drug-dread anthems, “Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare,” from 1990, goes straight to the dark side of rave culture. It begins with a snippet of dialogue that might come from an ABC Afterschool Special in the 1980s:
“Do you have a son named Robert? Robert Kirk, age 17?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kirk. You’d better come down to the station house. Your son is dead.”
“He died of an overdose. Come down to the station house.”
The final phrase is looped over the atonal chime of a touch-tone phone, and the tune lurches into a funky breakbeat jam. For anyone feeling the edgy effects of a dodgy pill, that introduction must have led to some very dark places indeed. As Simon Reynolds writes in Energy Flash, a whole subgenre of such tracks, called darkside or darkcore, would follow, as rave culture hardened and the chemicals took their toll: “Exuding bad-trippy dread and twitchy, jittery paranoia, darkcore seemed to reflect a sort of collective comedown after the E-fueled high of 1991-92.”
The Horrorist “One Night in NYC”
From 1996, a salacious trip to ecstasy’s dark side that scans like techno’s equivalent of a C.S.I. episode. Over unrelenting drums and a sinister bass line, a narrator named Oliver (Oliver Chesler, a.k.a., the Horrorist) tells a bedtime story about a 15-year-old girl from New Jersey who visits New York’s Limelight club, meets a cute guy, goes back to his dorm room, and takes the pill he proffers. Chesler’s sing-songy tone of voice is priceless, and the punch line, which I won’t give away, is a hilarious parody of scaremongering. Clearly grounded in drug culture (other tracks on the EP include “Mission Extacy” and “Crackers”), it’s a horrorcore send-up of anti-drug PSAs. Beyond the obvious irony, though, it’s still weirdly chilling. Many a raver will identify with the sinking feeling that goes along with the girl’s question, “What did you just give me?”
Mr. V “Mr. Bongo (Hello Children)”
Very much of a piece with the Horrorist’s track, but set to a rollicking Latin percussion jam, this 2006 cut from New York house producer Victor “Mr. V” Font, features not only a storytelling narrator, but a group of youthful listeners who function as a sort of Greek chorus. (Narrator: “Mr. Bongo used to do drugs.” Children, reprovingly: “Oooooh!”) This time, the story goes right to the heart of the dilemma: When Mr. Bongo took drugs, he played incredible music. Unfortunately, when he took drugs, he also hooked up with a beautiful woman named Rebecca, who turned out not to be a woman, but a man — “a manly man” — which apparently was not at all what Mr. Bongo was hoping for. Although, in Mr. Bongo’s defense, at least it wasn’t a tree, as with this hapless Ultra attendee.
Donae’o, “My Philosophy (Bounce)”
The silliest, most infectious U.K. garage tune I know. The rhythm track alone, constructed of booming toms, cartoonish voices, and frog ribbits, ranks it near the top of my all-time pantheon of 2-step tunes (second only to Sticky and Ms. Dynamite’s “Booo!“). But the chorus, sung by Donae’o, is just priceless: “Don’t do drugs / Don’t do guns / Just have sex / Protected!”
Again, the sing-songy delivery has an ironic undercurrent, but, coming at a time when violence was a problem for garage nights and grime raves, I can only assume he was serious. Besides, could anyone spit rhymes like that while gurning?
Soulwax “E Talking”
“It’s not you, it’s the E talking”: Channeling dance-punk via Nirvana, these remix mavens provide a sober reminder that empathogens are not always what they’re cracked up to be. (As the men’s room attendant in the video asks, “What the hell kind of name is ‘Ecstasy’ for a drug? That’s a hooker’s name!”)
CWS commercial “Say No to Dirt”
Rave culture is deeply ingrained in Germany — I’ve seen television presenters trying to encourage young voters by reminding them to head to the polls once they’ve left Berghain on Sunday afternoon. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the German firm CWS (Complete Washroom Solutions) would advertise a self-cleaning toilet with a techno-soundtracked spot in which a classy young blonde (Milla Jovovich!?) is stymied in her attempts to do rails off one of their automated commodes. (Weird fact: CWS is located in Duisburg, the location of 2010’s fatal Love Parade disaster.)