Electronic dance music might have crossed over into the mainstream, what with the Billboard success of international DJs such as David Guetta, Avicii and Calvin Harris.
But an emerging breed of home-grown electronic acts from the club scene are producing left-of-centre music that is challenging, cutting-edge and stretches the boundary of the genre.
Syndicate, Darker Than Wax and Midnight Shift are record labels-cum-event organisers formed in the last few years. They are not only driving the local scene but are also making global impact with the acts on their roster.
The DJs and producers of audio-visual collective Syndicate have performed in festivals and live shows in France and the United States, while Darker Than Wax and Midnight Shift release music by local artists and also those from the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada.
An EP release by Syndicate artist Octover, a local duo consisting of singer Vanessa Fernandez and producer Jason Tan, was critically acclaimed by tastemaking US-based music website Pitchfork, which praised it for "stylistically heavy production" and sounding "both vintage and contemporary".
On the home front, two of the three Singapore acts playing for the first time at global indie music festival Laneway here next month are from the Syndicate stable - Fernandez and Gema.
Midnight Shift's home-grown act Eddie Niguel has been highlighted by
Grammy-nominated English electronic act Disclosure, who included his track Absolute in their list of essential music for the BBC.
For Darker Than Wax, founded by electronic scene stalwarts Dean Chew and Kevin Guoh, 2013 has been a watershed year, with a tenfold fanbase increase based on its social media presence, streams and downloads.
All three labels organise regular and well-attended shows at local clubs such as Zouk and Home Club and also at venues such as The Substation. Syndicate will stage a show on Saturday at The Substation headlined by Octover and Cherry Chan.
Veteran DJ and producer Godwin Pereira, 39, one of the partners of lifestyle and entertainment group Limited Edition Concepts, says the rise of these labels and collectives is a sign that the home-grown electronic dance community is getting stronger.
He atttributes this to how technology has made it easier for Singapore labels to enter the game.
"The Internet and social media have helped make it easier to get your music out there, be exposed to new music and get in touch with your counterparts from anywhere around the world," he adds.
When audio-visual collective Syndicate did their first show in early 2010, clubbers got a little confused.
"I think punters didn't know what to do so we had a lot of people standing on the spot and nodding their heads because the music wasn't really something to dance to, it was more like experimental beats," recalls 34-year-old co-founder Cherry Chan.
But that has been the mission of the collective from the get-go: to create content and stage shows featuring music that you cannot hear in other clubs.
Chan, her husband Jonathan Nah, 40, better known as Kiat, and Darren Tan, 32, better known as Darren Dubwise, first cooked up the idea of forming the group in late 2009. They roped in other seasoned acts in the music scene, like-minded electronic musicians and artists who create and play more than your standard house and techno club fare.
To date, besides the three, Syndicate count in their ranks more than a dozen of the electronic music scene's most challenging artists, including Safuan Johari aka Max Lane, VanDetta aka Vanessa Fernandez and turntablist Koflow.
Syndicate have certainly grown in the last three years. From monthly shows at Home Club and branching out to venues such as The Substation, their members have also performed under the Syndicate banner at established overseas festivals such as the Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Festival in Sete, France, in 2011 and in esteemed clubs such as Low End Theory in Los Angeles in the same year.
The collective also act as a record label, releasing digital EPs by Octover, which have garnered international acclaim, and fresh acts such as Gema.
More than just music, Syndicate shows place strong emphasis on the visuals, whether it is the video backdrops that accompany live performances or the limited-edition posters that market their releases and gigs.
Banding together as a collective has many benefits, Safuan, 32, points out. "If you're on your own, you're not just focusing on creating the music, but you also have to worry about other things such as the artwork and promotion. By being part of this collective, we tap on one another's strengths and support one another."
Still, Chan points out that Syndicate are very much a loose and non-binding collective and all the acts on their roster are free to create and release music or do shows either on their own or with other labels or organisations.
"It doesn't always have to be these certain groups of acts, we are also very much open to uncovering and nurturing new talents."
A case in point is 22-year-old electronic artist Gema. Chan found his videos on YouTube when he was just starting to dabble with making electronic music and Syndicate took him under their wing, giving him his first live gig at The Substation and releasing his debut EP last year.
Come Jan 25, Gema and another Syndicate act, Fernandez, will be among the first Singaporean acts selected to perform at the Singapore edition of global indie music festival Laneway at Gardens by the Bay.
Looking forward, Nah says that Syndicate will continue to help their acts create original music and give opportunities for fans to enjoy them. "It's better if you're enjoying music that's creative and purely grown."
Midnight Shift started out as event organisers putting on invite-only parties with "mystery" guest DJs in the line-up.
It has since expanded to become a music label with home-grown and foreign acts who are getting recognition on the global electronic music scene.
Co-founder Kavan Spruyt, 33, is a DJ himself. He says that the rest of the people behind the label, namely his fiancee Debbie Chia, 32, also a DJ, and old friend Keith Lim, 33, are dedicated to making sure quality dance music gets heard.
It has since expanded to include Avneesh Bacha, 32, and Lucas Burrows, 31, who handle the artistic and visual aspects of its events.
Spruyt says: "The main reason for starting Midnight Shift back in 2009 was everyone around me saying music is bad, there is no quality house or techno.
"So I said enough of bitching, I don't want to become someone who is jaded and bitchy. I said, 'Let's just do it, let's put on our own shows based on good music'. We just want to make sure the right music gets played out there."
Their early shows included a New Year's Eve party at Sentosa featuring veteran home-grown DJs Marvin Kam and Brendon P, which drew 800 partygoers.
In 2011, the crew took the Midnight Shift brand even further by starting a record label, in a bid to help home-grown talents such as Eddie Niguel have their music exposed here and overseas.
Aside from bringing in overseas acts such as Swiss techno DJ Deetron to perform in Singapore, Spruyt also had them release music under their label.
"It was not just about bringing the acts here to play, rock the crowd and leave. I wanted to establish a long-term relationship with them," he explains.
The label has released music by a total of nine acts, including Ultrademon from the United States and Iron Curtis from Germany.
Last year, Midnight Shift staged one of its most prominent events yet when it set up a showcase at Seattle's annual music and arts festival, Decibel Festival.
Besides home-grown talent Norman Chung, the label also flew in its other acts such as Basic Soul Unit from Canada and American DJ Terrence Parker to the festival.
Spruyt says: "Doing all these showcases helps to bring out the name of the label, so that people can recognise that there is something out there from Singapore."
Niguel has also been getting airplay on the BBC, thanks to his music being selected by English electronic duo Disclosure, while most of the Midnight Shift releases have been featured in influential global electronic music press such as Resident Advisor, XLR8R and Little White Earbuds.
"Internationally, we're getting a reputation, thanks to our artists," says Spruyt. "Right now I'm just going to concentrate on the label doing more events and doing audio-visual collaborations with international acts."
DARKER THAN WAX
Electronic music label-cum-event organiser Darker Than Wax has its roots in Singapore but founding duo Dean Chew and Kevin Guoh have their sights set firmly on the global stage.
Guoh, 34, a producer and musician who performs under the name Kaye, says they started the label to promote themselves internationally.
He explains: "A lot of it was born out of frustration. Being Asian and being involved in the electronic scene, it was very hard to break through overseas."
The duo met numerous DJs and producers from the United States and Europe when they came to Singapore, and played and hung out with them.
"They heard and liked our music, they said they would promote our music but it never happened. We got tired of all the lip service and decided to do things ourselves," says Guoh.
Chew, 38, who goes by the stage name Funk Bast**d, is also a DJ and producer. He and Guoh have been making music together since the mid-2000s and used to run danceandsoul.com, a website that hosts online radio shows.
Together, the pair perform under the name Cosa Nostra and dish out electronic music influenced by hip-hop, funk, soul and dancefloor jazz. Between the two, they have played in places such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris and Switzerland.
Darker Than Wax's inaugural release, after forming in late 2010, was Cosa Nostra's first single, Let It Go.
Today, it counts 24 releases, all on digital format, from global acts such as Wayvee from New Zealand, JayLotus from the United States and Juno Akasawa from France.
Chew, who has a day job as an architectural design consultant, says that he is always on the lookout for new talents online and getting them to release new music under their label.
He says: "Some of the acts that we released, such as Ta-ku from Australia, have gone on to become underground superstars."
Word about Darker Than Wax has been growing so steadily that instead of just looking for acts, electronic musicians from all over the world are also coming to them.
Says Guoh: "Every day, we get five to 10 new acts asking if we want to release their music. That is a very good indication that people are giving us street cred."
The label aims to be a facilitator for the Asian scene. Part of its focus is to act as a regional talent agency and it has released music by acts from neighbouring countries, such as Midnight Runners from Indonesia.
"We want the label to be the anchor point for them to go to and get their music out in the international market," says Chew.
Darker Than Wax also organises shows in Singapore, at venues such as Zouk, that feature not only the label's acts but also other global names.
The label has expanded its ranks. Chew and Guoh are helped by three DJs in their early 20s who pitch in with logistics and perform at their shows.
"We can really see the new wave, the younger generation, getting excited by new sounds," says Chew.
He forsees Darker Than Wax building itself up as a music consultancy for other brands and business.
"It's almost like a think-tank, I want to see us develop into a creative business, using music as the medium."
Eddino Abdul Hadi
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 12, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/