The decade of big hair, fine suits, slick cars and unfiltered capitalist excess, the 80s electronic music took the revolutionary spirit of the 70s and paved the way for the rise of club culture in the 90s. As a result, it is really the decade where electronic music hit the mainstream. Additionally, while rock music still dominated the charts — especially the hair and glam metal of bands like Jon Bon Jovi and Van Halen — many of them incorporated electronic elements, such as the use of the synthesiser, in order to achieve a fuller, more characteristically 80s sound. By the 90s, the world of music would see a more fractured, yet more diverse landscape, with new, exciting genres enabled by technological innovations that premiered in the 80s.

In this guide to electronic music of the 80s, we will provide the complete overview to the most influential decade for the genre, including its strongest innovations, best genres and lasting legacy, as well as the equipment needed to make 80s-sounding music by yourself. Read on for absolutely everything that you need to know about the decade that changed music forever.

New Innovations

While they had been around in some form earlier, the 80s saw the mass popularisation of electronic instruments such as drum machines and synthesisers. Previously the province of the rich — hence their popularity in the 70s with overdramatic prog rock — they were now widely available to almost anyone. Particularly influential innovations included the TR-808 rhythm machine, Yamaha DX7, Prophet-5, Moog and ARP Synthesisers.

80s electronic music synth

The Moog synthesizer, an iconic piece of hardware that defined the sound of the decade

Now entire tracks, such as “Blue Monday”, could be created entirely through drum machines and synthesisers, removing the need for live instruments completely. Additionally, digital production techniques led to a more overproduced, heavily compressed sound, something that could be found from arena rock to slick, American pop. Sampling, born in the hip-hop and turntablism era of the 70s, also became more sophisticated, helping to give birth and heart to genres such as techno, house and electro. The pop star also rose in popularity, with solo artists — many of whom had songs written for them — becoming the main event. Many of these innovations still resonant in the current era.

The Best Genres

Electronic music in the 80s saw a proliferation of genres that are still deeply popular today. A large majority of them can be said to coalesce under the larger banner of dance music — music made specifically for dancing in a club as opposed to seeing an act live — giving rise to the club era of the 90s. Aided and abetted by drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, scenes in cities such as London, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Berlin and Paris, proliferated, making them must-attend dance locations well into the present era.

In the next sections we will tackle the rise of genres such as post-disco, synth pop, electro, techno, house, new beat and city pop; exploring how they came about and their wider influence today. Read on to learn more about the genres we picked.

Post-Disco

With traditional disco more or less over by the end of the decade, symbolised by the Disco Demolition Night in July 12, 1979, the disco genre mutated into a variety of different strands; all of them more electronic in nature. The genesis of these genres can be found in the Giorgio Moroder-produced “I Feel Love”. Released in 1977, it used a Moog synthesiser to create a futuristic, arpeggiated sound. Made in Munich, it can be said to inspire Euro-Disco, a slicker, more European, more artificial, form of disco music; one variant of which, Italo-Disco, an intense Italian spin on the genre. Disco also could be found in dance-pop, popularised by artists such as Madonna. Read more about disco here!

Synth-Pop

In the UK, pop was fused with the innovations of the New Wave to create a new, synthesiser heavy genre known as synth pop. Popularised by bands such as The Human League, Depeche Mode, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Erasure, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, they combined operatic vocals with robotic beats and synth-heavy melodies to create catchy hits with a danceable pulse. The genre is still so popular in the UK today that entire radio stations are dedicated to the sounds of the 80s today.

Electro

Electro, also known as electro-funk, was an early hip-hop movement that started when visionary pioneer Afrika Bambaataa sampled the work of Kraftwerk over beats using the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The resultant track, “Planet Rock” was a huge cross-cultural hit. This was followed by tracks from George Clinton, Planet Patrol, Warp 9 and Man Parrish. This gave birth to New School Hip Hop — best exemplified by Run DMC and LL Cool J — using rock samples to hugely successful effect.

Techno

The sound most associated with sweating in a dark basement, techno in the 80s sounded a little different to the sound it makes today. Yet without pioneers such as Detroit’s “The Belleville Three” — comprised of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson — the genre may never have taken off the ground. Early tracks include Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and “The Bells”, which prioritise repetitive beats, heavy rhythm and a pulsating, pure, minimalist sound.

As May himself said, the genre was a “complete mistake … like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company”.Once the Germans heard about it, it became huge, especially in cities like Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt. What’s unique about techno is the essential nature of the rhythm. Melody is secondary to the power of drumbeats and mechanical manipulation. This has proved its enduring legacy, with a few classic tracks feeling utterly fresh, even today. To learn more about techno music, including how it began, you can read our guide here!

House

While Detroit was playing around with techno, the black and latino gay scene in Chicago gave birth to house. Pioneered by artists such as Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers and Chip. E, it came when they remixed disco sounds, focusing on core elements such as rhythm and syncopated piano chords. Like a fair few genres, it hit the mainstream with Madonna’s iconic “Vogue” video, which referenced the importance of ballroom culture to the scene.

The kind of sound one can expect is jazzy piano, four-to-the-floor beats courtesy of a Roland TR-808 or TR-909 drum machine, sustained organ chords, hi-hats, congos and bongos. Born out of the turntablism ethic, traditional house mixes vinyl records together to create a warm, bouncy sound. Being at a house DJ set, is often compared to a church experience, with the music often focused on spiritual themes. You can learn more about all that courtesy of our detailed guide.

New Beat

The roots of industrial dance music can be found in New Beat, a fusion of techno and acid house that flourished throughout the Belgian underground. It started as an accident in Brussels nightclub Ancient Belgique when DJ Dikke Ronny played a 45 rpm record at 33rpm, with the pitch control set to +8. From there it became a huge success, with some of the most popular artists including Cofetti’s and The Lords of Acid. Classic tracks of the genre include “The Drop Deal” by Bazz, “Acid Rock” by Frank Du Wulf, “I Sit on Acid”, “Rock the House” by Nasty house and “Braindamage” by Schicksal.

City Pop

One world variant of 80s pop worth mentioning is City Pop from Japan. Previously rather obscure outside of that nation, it has recently grown in popularity as one of the most vibrant genres from the era. A form of pop music influenced by the west but mostly sung in Japanese, it features bright keyboard sounds, synthesised melodies, and often strong drum sounds. The marvel of YouTube has now guaranteed its legacy in the west, especially its use in the vaporware genre — learn more courtesy of our guide.

80s electronic music

A more significant micro-genre spin-off in terms of sound is Hardvapour, which replaces the chilled, laid-back vibe of vaporwave with harder, faster sounds inspired by gabber and punk music. Additionally, instead of being inspired by Japanese music, it is inspired by Eastern European culture. As a result, many of its artists adopt Russian or Ukrainian monikers and its memes and gifs have a distinctly nihilistic vibe. Created in opposition to its predecessor, Wolfenstein OS X’s End of World Rave (2015) is considered its first proper release.

The UK Second Summer of Love

The UK’s contribution to dance music in the late 80s, including groups such as the KLF, The Orb and Orbital, cannot be understated. Manchester, in particularly the Hacienda nightclub, was a huge hub for innovative sounds. This all came to a head during the Summers of 1988 and 1989, where mass free parties, spurred on by copious amounts of ecstasy, gave birth to the rave culture we know today.

Symbolised by the smiley face that has become synonymous with rave, the music of choice was acid house, characterised by squelching bass lines courtesy of the Roland TB-303 and loud repetitive beats. Popular dance songs at the time were “French Kiss” by Lil Louis, “Mystery of Love” by Fingers Inc. and “Your Only Friend” by Future. This was also complemented by the psychedelic indie rock of bands like The Stone Roses, The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Happy Mondays. If you’re interested in learning more, Michael Winterbottom captured the era perfectly with his classic film 24 Hour Party People.

The Legacy of Electronic Music of the 80s

The innovations found in the 80s are still here today, especially the rise of synthesisers, automated drum beats and slick digital production techniques. The spirit of the 80s lives on best in the concept of the pop star. Pop artists such as Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Doja Cat and Ariane Grande can lay tribute to pioneers of the 80s like Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper for their success.

The music of the 80s came back in a big way throughout the late 00s and the 10s, and can be found in genres such as synthwave and vaporware. A classic example of this nostalgia would be the soundtrack to Drive, which used songs influenced by the 80s instead of songs from the actual decade itself. You can read more about that here!

Essential 80s Equipment

If you want to make music that sounds like it comes from the 80s, you will need to get your hands on the right equipment. Read on below for the best synthesisers, drum machines and samplers in order to hone that perfect sound.

80s electronic music synth

The iconic TR-808 drum machine

Synthesizers

As previously mentioned, the synths that defined the 80s are the Yamaha DX7, Prophet-5, Roland D-50 Synthesizer, PPG Wave 2.2/2.3 Synthesizers and the Fairlight CMI. Getting your hands on them may be tricky, so we would recommend, if you are on a low-budget, finding some plug-ins that emulate something similar. You can check out eight essential ones here!

Drum Machines

The most important drum machine you need in your locker is the TR-808 rhythm machine — influencing everything from house music, to techno, to synth pop, to electro. Other great drum machines you can use are the Oberheim DX/DMX, Linn Electronics Linndrum and the Electron Machinedrum SPS 1 MKII. Be warned though, they can get pricey!

Samplers

The rise of samplers was essential to the rise of electronic music in the 80s, especially PCM Digital samplers. The first one was Toshiba’s LMD-649, used by Yellow Magic Orchestra, followed by the E-mu Emulator and the E-mu SP-1200 percussion sampler, which helped to pioneer hip hop in the late 80s.

Samplers

The rise of samplers was essential to the rise of electronic music in the 80s, especially PCM Digital samplers. The first one was Toshiba’s LMD-649, used by Yellow Magic Orchestra, followed by the E-mu Emulator and the E-mu SP-1200 percussion sampler, which helped to pioneer hip hop in the late 80s.

Deep Dive: New Order’s “Power, Corruption & Lies”

From the ashes of tragedy rose the phoenix of innovation. New Order, formed by former band members of Joy Division after the tragic death of Ian Curtis, bridged the gap between post-punk and synth-based electronic music, between rock and dance, with seamless ease. Their debut album Movement, featuring tracks such as “Ceremony” and “Dreams Never End”, pointed the way to a new sound, but it was with Power, Corruption & Lies that New Order finally came into their own.

Tracks such as “Age of Consent” and “Your Silent Face” bridge the gap between rock and electronic music, creating a hybrid that sent shockwaves through the industry. Using synths, programmers, electronic percussion and mixing them with guitar sounds, it was a slick, cool sound that helped to make electronic rock the newest and most exciting thing. For the American rerelease, including their watershed single “Blue Monday” — composed almost entirely through electronic means, it lit up dance-floors world-wide and has been an inclusion on countless DJ sets since.

Deep Dive: Kraftwerk’s “Computer World”

Kraftwerk’s contribution to the electronic music scene has been incalculable. Whether it’s spearheading the motorik sound that would help inspire techno to “Trans Europe Express” being sampled on Planet Rock, no band has done more to help hone the future of electronic music. Changing to a purely electronic sound early on, they reached their apotheosis in the early 80s with the stark, yet deeply melodic Computer World.

The concept album deals with the rise of computers across the world, predicting the way that music would move from analogue means to a more electronic format. Tracks such as “Computer World” and “Numbers”, with their programmatic beats, repetitive vocals, yet sparse instrumentation, make them perfect for both easy listening and remix on the dance floor. The influence has both arthouse and mainstream range — the riff for “Computer Love” was borrowed by Coldplay for “Talk” while techno track “Logom-IX” by Ricardo Villalobos sampled “Computer World”.

Greatest Electronic Artists/Bands in the 80s

  • Madonna
  • Derrick May
  • New Order
  • The Human League
  • Afrika Bambaata

 

  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Frankie Knuckles
  • Georgio Moroder
  • Pet Shop Boys
  • Yellow Magic Orchestra

Conclusion

Simply put, the 80s were to electronic music what the 60s were to rock music — a time of immense change. The 80s, would have a huge impact on the future of not only electronic and dance music, but simply music in general. We hope that this guide has given you an idea of what made the decade so special, the specific innovations brought in that helped it be such a creative time, and how to create music that sounds like it yourself. To learn more, we have created special guides to House Music and Techno that you can read now. If this kind of music isn’t your jam, skip to one of the 90s most fascinating genres: Drum and Bass.

Redmond Bacon

Redmond Bacon

Contributor

Redmond Bacon is a film obsessive and amateur music producer who can easily spend all day either at the cinema or making fresh beats. Catch his writing over at redmondbacon.co.uk.

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