Electronic music from the 90s made the world turn into a rave. It characterised a time when dance music really hit the mainstream. Flourishing throughout the underground in the 80s, it hit centre stage by the end of the century, with dance acts, clubs and festivals around the world celebrating the latest and freshest sounds. Pure dance tracks could also be found hitting number one in the charts, showing its huge crossover appeal.

Additionally, with a number of micro-genres proliferating, dance music moved into a variety of different niches. As rock critic Robert Christgau points out in his reflection upon the decade: “in the ’90s, musical production stopped expanding and started exploding”. New genres such as trance, trip hop, drum and bass, happy hardcore and intelligent dance can all trace their roots to the decade. In this guide to 90s electronic music, we will be exploring its newest innovations, some of its most exciting genres, its legacy, two of the most crucial albums from the era and the equipment needed to make 90s-sounding music of your own. Read on now for absolutely everything that you need to know about the decade in our essential guide! 

The 90s saw a variety of new innovations in electronic music production that can still be felt keenly today. Even more than in the 80s, the explosion of computers and the reduction in price of high-quality music equipment meant that more and more people could become superstars from the comfort of their own homes.

Drum machines were no longer necessary for creating rhythms, with the rise of beat slicing software allowing producers, especially in the IDM and drum and bass genre, to manipulate and loop beats from their computer. By 1994, Pro Tools on Mac allowed one to mix up to 48 tracks at the same time; while Cubase could record eight tracks to a computer without the need for any hardware whatsoever. Then when Virtual Studio Technology was introduced by Steinberg, DJs could play around with plug-ins from their own computer, with the software even allowing them to create their own. This allowed for more specialisation in music production; while electronic music in the 80s was mainly intended for the dance floor, the 90s saw a variety of music created for home listening.

As previously mentioned, the 90s saw exponential growth in terms of the amount of electronic dance genres out there. These became more specialised and technical as opposed to the 80s, where the music was, in comparison, much simpler. While there are far too many for us to cover in this guide, we have picked seven in particular that are worth knowing more about. These are trance, drum and bass, happy hardcore, big beat, trip-hop, eurodance and electronica. Read on below for in-depth looks at these genres.

Trance came about in three distinct areas: In the UK, out of the genre of new-age music and its relationship to psychedelics; Germany, in clubs such as Tresor and E-Werk in Berlin; and Goa, India, producing its own unique spin on the genre. Characterised by ecstasy-evoking synth lines, the use of drops and a high tempo, trance music is quite literally designed to put you in a trance! Some of its biggest DJs include Paul van Dyk, Armin van Buuren, Paul Oakenfold and Markus Schulz. To learn more about trance, read our unique guide to the genre.

One of the UK’s most characteristic genres, drum and bass grew out of jungle, breakbeat and dub to become the world-beating genre we know it as today. It’s characterised by a steady drum beat, the bass hitting on the first and second notes, as well as the use of highly manipulated, compressed samples from classic funk tracks. Hitting the mainstream in the 00s, some of its most important DJs throughout the decade included Goldie, Andy C and Ed Rush. To learn more about drum and bass, as well as the niche genres it has inspired, head on over to our specifically created post.

Probably some of the most dated-sounding music to come out of the 90s, Happy Hardcore perfectly encapsulated the free-spirited nature of the decade. Coming out of the breakbeat hardcore rave scene, it was characterised by heavy beats, piano rolls and uplifting vocals, often played on pirate radio. To learn more about the genre you should definitely check out the Bonkers series — which collected all the finest hardcore tracks each year from 1996 to 2009.

Trip-hop’s origins can be traced back to Bristol, UK, where acts such as Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead were experimenting with the sounds of hip-hop and dub-influenced production to create something uniquely British. Created more for relaxation than the dance floor, it takes influences from funk, dub, soul and R&B to create a uniquely laid-back sound, perfectly in tune with the bohemian spirit of Bristol. For classic iterations of the genre, we would recommend Dummy by Portishead and Blue Lines by Massive Attack.

Electronica is a broad term, but it largely correlates with music intended for home listening or the chill-out section of a club rather than the dance floor. It incorporates a lot of different styles, including downtempo, ambient, and Intelligent Dance Music. Acts associated with the genre include Autechre, Aphex Twin, Björk and Faithless.

Another great dance genre to come out of the UK, Big Beat achieved huge mainstream success in the 90s. Artists such as Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim took heavily compressed breakbeats as synthesiser-generated loops and patterns, and incorporated dialogue from film and TV, as well as random additional instruments, and mixed them together to create a deeply commercial style — bridging the gap between club music and football rock. Truly a genre of its time, its popularity waned at the start of the 2000s.

Perhaps best popularised by the world-beating, probable contender for the greatest song of all time, “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona, Eurodance is characterised by Hi-NRG beats, melodic vocals, the occasional rapped verse, and a minor key. Popularised in Italy, Sweden and France, popular acts include Haddaway, Whigfield and Scatman John.

The conservative government in the UK during the early 90s, in classic killjoy style, passed a crucial piece of legislation that would drastically reshape the club environment. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, clamped down on the right to rave and increased penalties for doing so massively. Despite being a massive infringement upon human rights, many super-clubs across the UK rose massively in popularity as a result, including Ministry of Sound, G-A-Y, London, Gatecrasher One and Fabric.

Similar trends happened in Berlin, where abandoned warehouse raves, mostly in emptied-out East Berlin, suddenly grew into actual clubs: iconic ones include, Tresor, E-Werk and Kit Kat. Now the club, as opposed to a field in the middle of nowhere, became the main place to party.

While the 80s brought electronic music into the mainstream and into clubs, 90s brought electronic music into homes and cars, the genre being used both as a format for partying and easy listening. Having to adapt due to the new strict laws, rave scenes shifted from the UK to France and Germany, as well as exploding in a variety of cities across the USA.

A huge variety of festivals can trace their roots back into the 90s, including Sònar in Barcelona, Time Warp Festival in Mannheim and Creamfields in the UK. With international iterations of these festivals now taking place across the globe, it’s fair to say that dance music conquered the world throughout the 90s.

With the 90s already predicting today’s move towards computerised equipment, perhaps it would be of interest to you to download the original programs such as the first Cubase and Pro Tools, to see what amateur DJs had to work with during that era. Read on more to see what kind of additional gear you would need.

The 90s saw the birth of the MIDI synthesiser, allowing one to play synths in real time via MIDI. We would recommend either ReBirth by Propellerhead Software and Reality by Seer Systems to create synth sounds without the need for a large machine.

To create a classic 90s drum sound, you need a classic 90s drum machine. Look no further than the Roland R-8 MIDI Human composer. Released in 1989, it has a 32 note polyphony range, 68 instruments and 100 preset patterns. Drum masters Autechre have used this drum machine a lot, pretty remarkable considering the complexity of their sound.

Samples before the 90s meant using hardware to capture a sound. But with computer innovations, samplers in the 90s could also run online. Nonetheless, for a hardware sampler used in the late 80s and 90s, we would recommend the Akai MPC Series, which has proved remarkably endurable.

One of the first albums made almost entirely through the use of samples, Endtroducing… fully showcases the infinite possibilities of electronic music. DJ Shadow, a self-proclaimed crate digger, made the album through finding old vinyl records and stitching their sounds together.

Made using a MPC sampler, it is a landmark record in instrumental hip-hop, the influence of which can be found today in the lo-fi hip hop movement. But more than that it showed what could be achieved through the use of electronic music alone; creating something that cannot easily be put inside a categorisable genre. Just listen to the switches between hip hop, funk and rock in “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” or the strange soul-hip hop fusion of “Midnight in a Perfect World” to marvel at the brilliance of what DJ Shadow created.

Youtube –  “Entroducing…” by DJ Shadow

Madonna is known for taking underground music and styles and bringing it out into the mainstream. Much like “Vogue” brought house music out into the open, her album Ray of Light incorporated a huge amount of dance music styles, a lot of which could be categorised under the larger electronica music banner. From the trance influenced drum beat of “Ray of Light” to the mid-tempo, trip-hop and breakbeat inspired Roland Juno-106 drum beat used in “Frozen” to the mixture of ambient and hard-step beats of “Nothing Really Matters”, the music of Ray of Light acts like a compendium of different 90s styles. Another reinvention by one of pop music’s greatest acts, it is usually considered as one of the albums that really put electronica on the pop music map.

Made using a MPC sampler, it is a landmark record in instrumental hip-hop, the influence of which can be found today in the lo-fi hip hop movement. But more than that it showed what could be achieved through the use of electronic music alone; creating something that cannot easily be put inside a categorisable genre. Just listen to the switches between hip hop, funk and rock in “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” or the strange soul-hip hop fusion of “Midnight in a Perfect World” to marvel at the brilliance of what DJ Shadow created.

Youtube – “Ray Of Light” By Madonna

  • Madonna
  • Autechre
  • DJ Shadow
  • Fatboy Slim
  • The Prodigy
  • Moby
  • Massive Attack
  • Orbital
  • The Future Sound of London
  • Underworld

Conclusion | We hope you have enjoyed our article dedicated to the rave-fest that was the 90s. If you think there were any particularly important genre or contributors that we missed, please feel free to sound off in the comment section below. Additionally, to learn more about what contributed to the 90s sound, we have the complete guide to 80s electronic music available for you to listen to as well!