Recently, I stumbled across this album from 1982: „Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat“ by the Indian musician Charanjit Singh. Due to the play of Indian ragas with the acid-synth, the Roland TB-303, and the steady disco beat this record could be considered one of (or even: the) first Acid-House-record – some authors do so. In fact, it pre-dates „Acid Tracks“ by Phuture, which is widely regarded as the first acid-track, by 5 years! That made me think: Do we need to re-write the history of acid house? Short answer: No, we don’t! But I wanna argue that we should think of aesthetic novelties such as acid house as a social process. Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip put it nicely in their song „Thou Shalt Always Kill“ (2007): „Thou shalt not put musicians and recording artists on ridiculous pedestals, no matter how great they are or were“.
My arguments is based on two line of thoughts: first, the distinction between an invention and an innovation, and second the specifics of „Acid Tracks“ compared to other, earlier 303-heavy tracks. Despite of my attempt to deconstruct myths of single persons ‚inventing‘ something new out of thin air, I still want and still am able to give credit where credit is due. And Phuture still deserve their credit 😉
First, it is necessary to distinguish between an invention and an innovation. This distinction is common in theory of innovation– be it technical or economic innovations – and goes back to one of the pioneers of innovation-theory, the Austrian economist Josef Schumpeter (1883–1950) and his book The Theory of Economic Development (1911) (see Tschmuck, Creativity and Innovation in the Music Industry, 2012; pp. 197–202). According to Schumpeter, an invention is a novelty that has not existed before in that particular form. But that does not make it automatically an innovation. It is only an innovation, if it has been put successfully on the market, i.e. it has been acceptet and applied by users, customers, or the society in general.
Becoming an innovator is a social process: only when a novel stylistic invention is used, multiplied, accepted and danced to by musicians, DJs and the audiences, it gains (sub-)cultural stability and eventually becomes a genre in its own right – in short: only then it becomes an innovation. To become an innovator, one needs to have access to clubs, labels and DJs relevant to that emerging scene, or the scene it is building upon. In case one does not have access, one of such gatekeepers must introduce the novelty to that scene. That was the case with Kraftwerk in the early hip hop- and techno-scene: they themselves did not have access to that scene, but DJs like Afrika Bambaataa or musicians such as the Belleville Three used their works in their DJ-sets or as an inspiration for their production. They helped shaping Kraftwerk’s music into an innovation for those scenes and genres.
Singh’s album was rather unsuccesful in India, not to mention that early acid musicians such as Phuture or 808 State had (most probably) not heard of him and his album. As far as I understand, the album was not available outside India, and has only been re-released in 2010 for the international market by Edo Bouman, a record collector who accidentally discovered it on a flea-market in Delhi. And Singh, as portraied in this interview, is far from being an insider of the acid or any other dance music scene. Now, this is not at all meant to discredit Singh or his music! The album is great, and I love the indian vibes that mingle with acid-ish synth-lines and Housebeats.
Singh did not have access to that scene, and was not that lucky that his record found it’s way to dancefloors in the early to mid 80’s. Admittedly, whether this was ‚bad luck‘ or not, is not my call to decide. Maybe he was quite happy this way – he seemed to be a decent, nice and happy man. And he did not express annoyance or resentment over the neglect of his album in the acid scene.
So, if Singh wasn’t the innovator of acid house, was he at least the inventor? Based on the fact, that his album seems to be chronologically the first record worldwide that fuses disco-beats with the distinctive and enchanting sounds of the TB-303, one could argue that way. And I admit, that I’d very much love to proclaim Sing as the ‚real inventor‘ of acid house: the idea, that an unknown musician from the periphery of electronic music scenes is the ‚real acid house pioneer‘, is very intriguing. Unfortunately, it turns out that he is neither the inventor nor the innovator. Why?
Here, the second point comes into play: the specific use of the 303 and the aesthetic of acid house. In reply to my tweet on Singh’s album, @AcidCentral provided an extensive list of tracks that did use the 303 in their arrangement (big thanks for that!). Some of them as early as Singh’s music, from 1982: Heaven 17 – „Let Me Go!“ and The Wibbley Brothers – „Wonderful World of Terry Wibbley“. Among the list, there are artists like Alexander Robotnick or Mantronix – influential artist, that were established in a particular subculture. As such, they could have been the innovators of acid house – could have been…!
But there is something specific to „Acid Tracks“: the sound of the tweaking of the knobs (again, big thanks to @AcidCentral for highlighting this point). The squelchy, bubbly and chirpy sounds, the constant rollercoaster of filters and resonances that produces the specific otherwordly sound of acid house. Music essayist Kodwo Eshun describes it that way: „Acid exaggerates the Roland T303’s dry slipperiness , its glissements, by transforming the sound of the note, the colour of its tone as it plays. Filtering bends < > selects < > suppresses timbres, producing the aural equivalent of a tracer effect, a wavering sense of panic as the ear fails to resolve this slippage of overtones.“ (Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun, 1998; p. ) This is an invention by Phuture: a novel sound, that did not exist before in that specific form (at least as far as we know). They were the ones who introduced this specific use and aesthetic to the world. Audiences and DJs went crazy on that track, and a new genre and subculture was coming into existence.
To sum it up: to mix disco beats with 303-synthpatterns does not make an acid house track. Acid is based on that specific sound of knob-tweaking on the 303. That’s an aesthetic novelty that Phuture introduced to the world with their „Acid Tracks“! That’s why they can and should be called the inventors of acid house – credit where credit is due! But when thinking of the innovators, we shouldn’t forget, that innovation is a social process: there’s no innovator if the music is not played, circulated, adopted, multiplied, danced to, and gone crazy to by hundreds and hundres of people on dancefloors in Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, and yeah, also in Goa and Mumbai.
That being said, I wish, that Singh’s album „Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat“ finds its way in the record shelf and DJ crate of every acid lover.
Singh died in 2015 in Mumbai.