The late-1980s created the very foundations of dance music. In the UK, the Second Summer of Love inspired hundreds of thousands of ravers to descend on fields and dance until they physically couldn’t anymore (usually around 11am the next day). Acts like 808 State, DJ Pierre and A Guy Called Gerald introduced people to acid-house, which collided with an innovative method of self-inebriation that came in tablet form.
But by the early/mid-1990s dancers wanted something new to move to. In 1992, Aphex Twin released Selected Ambient Works 85-92, a record that discarded 4/4 kick drums and “proved that techno could be more than druggy dance music,” said Rolling Stone in 2002. Around the same time, jungle was brewing in the inner-cities as labels like Metalheads and Moving Shadow began tearing up clubs with 180BPM Amen breaks.
By the mid-90s, jungle had officially broken into the mainstream as everyone from Bowie to Björk found inspiration in its energy, and thanks to labels like R&S and Warp, people were losing their minds to Aphex Twin, LFO and Autechre. Then came Squarepusher, who has constantly redefined what ‘rave’ can be.
For over three decades, Squarepusher, the musical alias of Tom Jenkinson, has effortlessly forged elements of acid, jazz, trance, jungle and ambient into everlasting dance music epics. This is perhaps why he enjoys one of the most unique fandoms in dance music – at any given show you’re likely to see an audience smorgasboard of classical music aficionados, jazz dads and drum’n’bass fanatics who should have gone to bed long ago.
Squarepusher’s breakthrough came with 1996’s Feed Me Weird Things, his debut album and his first with Warp Records. Almost immediately, everyone who heard Feed Me Weird Things tried to describe it in evermore creative ways. Everything from spunk jazz to drum’n’bone popped up in reviews, while alongside Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert, Squarepusher became associated with drill ‘n’ bass, the name given to whatever maddening brand of dance-not-dance music the trio were making at the time.
Drill ‘n’ bass eventually mutated into breakcore, a genre created by those who decided 180BPM jungle records simply weren’t fast enough. One tagline that stuck, however, was Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), a much maligned (and undeniably pretentious) term that few people wanted to be associated with.
Whether intentionally swerving the IDM brand, Squarepusher’s second album, Hard Normal Daddy from 1997, was a curveball that took cues from funk, Herbie Hancock jazz and cop show theme tunes. It was also when listeners first heard the true extent of Squarepusher’s superhuman bass guitar ability, something he began learning in the summer of 1986 as a skint 11 year old working with a busted instrument. Still, he found inspiration in Jaco Pastorius, The Jam and American hair metal bands. “I imagined Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton had a similar outlook to me,” he told The Guardian off his metal obsession in 2015. “More into the noise and weirdness of heavy metal than the stupid macho crap about death and bombs.”
The success of Hard Normal Daddy brought with it famous fans. “Squarepusher, that’s madness. It’s musical madness. It’s like busting a computer open and making music out of it,” Andre 3000 once mused, while Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers once described him as his favourite bassist of all time. But Squarepusher, ever the reinventor, didn’t dwell on celebrity kudos.
On 1997’s Big Loada EP Squarepusher reverted back to experimenting with 8-bit sound and alien time signatures. Big Loada brought with it one of Squarepusher’s biggest hits with ‘Come On My Selector’ and a video directed by Chris Cunningham.
Success followed with his fifth album, 2001’s Go Plastic. Singles like ‘My Red Hot Car’ and ‘Go! Spastic’ were quintessential Squarepusher staples, frenetic tracks that payed at 1000MPH and sounded like losing your mind in a video game arcade. But Go Plastic came with more solemn moments, including the track ‘Tommib’, ‘Tommib’ grabbed the attention of film director Sofia Coppola, who featured the glistening melody in her 2003 Oscar-winning film Lost In Translation.
Following ‘Tommib’, in the late-2000s Squarepusher began producing what could be considered his most ‘human’ work. ‘Tommib Help Buss’, ‘Andrei’ and ‘I Fulcrum’, both taken from 2004 album Ultravisitor, are less suited for darkened rave spaces, more moments of ambient bliss to be enjoyed on a countryside drive. 2007’s Solo Electric Bass 1, meanwhile, is exactly how it sounds: a stripped-back 30+ minute performance where the only instruments are a 6-string electric extended-range bass guitar and an amplifier.
A few years later, though, Squarepusher was done with all that and found influence in robots. 2010’s ‘Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator’ was an odyssey into space R&B, cosmic funk and jazz played at hyperspeed by a masked Squarepusher and his band of anonymous players. Live, Shobaleader One are somewhere between Sun O))) and Daft Punk.
He took this concept one step further in 2014, swapping his human band made of skin and muscles for rhythmic robots built from nuts and bolts for the Music for Robots. On Music for Robots, Squarepusher composed new material that could be programmed and played by a band of robots collectively called the Z-Machines. The resulting EP is a frenetic masterpiece of fully-automated melodies, and is probably what we’ll be listening to in 100 years time when Skynet have inevitably achieved global domination.
More impressive than collaborating with robots, though, is being the only bonafide junglist to have made a foray into children’s light entertainment. But, in a move few could have predicted, that’s exactly what Squarepusher in 2018 with his hour-long ambient score for Daydreams, a CBeebies series comprising of gentle sounds and imagery designed for moments of relaxation. Proof, if ever you needed it, thank dance music is truly for the children.