Music History

How the 303's Musical Legacy Is Defined by an Instrument That Shares Its Name

EDM is popular in the 303, thanks to the TB-303.
EDM is popular in the 303, thanks to the TB-303. Wikimedia Commons
Even if you’re a Clapton-loving Boomer, you know electronic music is popular in Colorado, as you have certainly complained about bass and transplants in the same sentence at one point or another. EDM is so popular, in fact, that in 2022, the Denver area had more Google searches for electronic dance music than anywhere else in the United States.

Now, I don’t believe in numerology, like some Naropa student who spends their parents' money on “vegan” cocaine. But if I did, I would think the popularity of electronic music in the 303 was pre-ordained by the Fates, considering that we share that numerical distinction with one of the most iconic instruments in electronic music: the Roland TB-303 Bass Line, or 303 for short.

You may have never heard of the Roland TB-303, but if you like electronic music, you have certainly heard the TB-303 and its squelching, fidgety arpeggios and funk-infused, thumping bass lines (for example, in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”). The entire phenomenon of acid house, which went on to define dance music during the ’90s, was born out of this sound. Additionally, genres such as IDM, heralded by stalwarts like Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert, embraced the 303, whose asymmetrical compositions would directly influence popular genres in Colorado, including dubstep and glitch (though it's seldom heard in the actual genres).

Despite the TB-303 being associated with the mainstream acid-house craze of ’90s Europe, Colorado certainly was no slouch when it came to raves that showcased its signature timbre. Since writing for Westword, I’ve been on a mission to uncover the rave scene that existed before there was dubstep and wook bass.

Dirtybird Records' Freqish described growing up in the Denver suburbs, going to multi-thousand-person illegal raves. Legends such as Carl Cox would play, laying the soundtrack to the police helicopters and SWAT teams corralling revelers like cattle — ironically, in cow pastures. These stories were corroborated by house-music phenom Hercules & Love Affair's Andy Butler, who would attend these raves before he moved to New York City to become the icon that he is today.

It was out of these ’90s parties that a young Eric Galaviz would cut his chops, eventually becoming a resident at the celebrated London nightclub Fabric in his duo with Brian Varga, H-Foundation. At Fabric, they became early adopters of tech-house, a genre that is ever-present in the canon of recent mainstream Colorado dance music. Additionally, these parties were also formative for the founders of Beatport, which became one of the most influential companies in electronic music and whose headquarters are still based in Denver.

For many years, though, it was less common to hear a 303 in the 303. House and techno were pushed even further underground as the ear-fucking of accused predators Datsik and Bassnectar took over the Colorado mainstream. However, despite house and techno not being as commercially viable, there were still places that regularly gave the 303 sound chances. The obvious one was the original Beta, opened by the same people who manifested Beatport. In addition to Beta, spots such as Beauty Bar and NORAD regularly threw nights, and festivals including the Great American Techno Festival and Communikey were widely respected for presenting cutting-edge electronic music.

The underground was also flourishing, with promoters like Afterhours Anonymous bringing in acts such as Bob Moses to play for only a couple hundred people in Cluster Studios, and The Hundred Presents throwing monthlies. Beta, Beauty Bar, NORAD and Cluster Studios would all eventually shutter, but a revitalized scene emerged that would see exponential growth over the next few years.

It was in 2018 that I would start seeing the underground go mainstream. I had recently released my first track as FCKDSKO and was figuring out how to go deeper into the house and techno scene without having to go clubbing on a Tuesday (because hell no). Therefore, I decided to found COscillator, which included a concert calendar. It was here that I got an empirical view of its rapid growth. The first calendar I made was on June 25, 2018. It showcased seven events that week. Only a year later, the calendar included twenty shows, nearly three times what I had listed a year before.

However, this newfound ability to market-research the scene made me cynical, as I believe it’s ridiculous that you can have this many shows and not have one artist in the local repertoire that you can point to and say, “That artist is making it because of Colorado.” Sure, there are a lot of successful producers here, but they don’t play here that frequently, opting for other markets. Examples of that include Ben A, Jaceo, Lane 8, Vedic, and Hipp-e (Galaviz).

The reason for this lack of artist development is that it seemed like the powers-that-be didn’t prioritize the local art as much as the local party. For example, at the time, TheHundred Presents was the predominant promoter of these genres, throwing around fourteen parties in July 2019 — a year after COscillator posted its first calendar. Even though the promotion company more recently became instrumental in championing locals, back then it listed locals in its marketing materials for only three out of the fourteen parties that I could find of theirs that month, despite having locals booked for nearly every event.

However, this lack of care for local art seems to be changing post-pandemic. TheHundred Presents now lists its locals on all of its events and throws STEAM every Thursday, when the entirety of Bar Standard and Milk Bar turn into a rotating showcase of Colorado underground DJs and producers alike — with all sixteen of them being credited in the marketing materials. Better yet, all of these artists are paid, something that happens far too infrequently for musicians.

Once the pandemic eased, it took a second for things to hit the same apex that it did in 2019. However, a couple of years later, something happened to this sound that was similar to what happened with bass music back in 2010: It exploded. In other words, the term “underground” is now more branding than it is factual truth.

With this combination of popularity and local support, there are local acts that have the potential to make a legacy for the city. Artists such as Lorely Mur have started to emerge, flying out to Mexico to play events like EDC Mexico, or to Los Angeles to support some of the biggest names in the genre. There's also progressive producer Discogntion, who is on Nora En Pure’s record label and recently supported her at the Mission Ballroom, and Black Wands, who recently played the Ogden and released music on Lane 8’s This Never Happened label. More underground examples include Mr. Frick, who won Westword’s Best DJ of 2022, and Taylor Bratches, who has mixes on NTS and The Lot Radio.

All that said, I have a proposal: With dozens of weekly events having the potential to showcase the TB-303, the sound of the 303 should be officially embraced by the 303. We already have a 303 Day, so why not tie it to a musical legacy that has shaped the fabric of our culture and economy? That might sound ridiculous...but so does celebrating a phone number.
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