2007 marked my true introduction to the dance music world. Sure I had heard Kaskade songs in high school, and put Benny Benassi's 'Satisfaction' on repeat at house parties, and hell — I even knew a Bob Sinclair song or two, but my first year in college ushered in an entirely new chapter in my musical journey. I was first exposed to the likes of Thomas Gold, Dabruck & Klein, Spencer & Hill, Steve Angello, Laidback Luke and many others through roommates, mutual friends and at every bar at school. From the frat parties, to the dimly lit house keggers, my college campus was littered with the entrance of this seemingly new genre.
As I grew an attachment to the sounds, naturally the next step was to attend a live performance with my buddies so we could finally witness the scene for ourselves. Attending Pacha for random gigs helped spark my interest, but it wasn't until seeing Laidback Luke that I truly achieved an appreciation for a new authentic sound that was totally different from the strictly progressive and electro tunes I'd been exposed to. Throughout the show, Luke played a few songs that absolutely blew my mind. He later referenced these as the production from a new artist: “Afrojack.”
Starting with a somewhat underground career in 2007, Nick van De wall set the pace for an entirely new sound with his Dutch “Afrojack music”. Never had America heard the bouncy sounds, cut up samples, and organic energy that were clearly displayed in his early releases like “Esther,” “Claudia,” and the Lil' Wayne sampled “Zeggie.” And when I first heard his remix of Spencer & Hill's “Cool,” I was enamored and focused on how such an authentic sound could come from someone so close my very own age. Blending the genres of Dutch house, electro, and a third, (at the time) indescribable element, Afrojack restored my faith in the upward progression of quality dance music.
Now I had my task set: to scour the Internet for every possible track I could find from the mysterious Dutchman. With my homework set, I was immediately put onto his string of releases on Spinnin' records and subsequently, his own label label imprint, Wall Recordings. Captivated by what I was hearing, I quickly spread the words to my fellow classmates, dance music fans, and bloggers. Never had we heard something so original, so vivacious, so-fun filled that it made you want to ditch whatever you're doing at the moment and purely rage.
Still fairly new to the house circuit, Afrojack hadn't made a trip to the U.S. yet. I patiently waited, and when he finally announced a date in NYC at Santos Party House, there was no chance I was missing this show. A crew of about 12 people attended with me.
Now this might be difficult to wrap your head around, but I need you to visualize this: an Afrojack show, with no neon clad attendees, glow sticks, or Kandi f*ckin bracelets. These were true fans. As the place slowly packed, discussion of his set list began to rise. “I hope he plays Cool,” “I can't believe he's FINALLY in the U.S.,” and “He better throw on his Hide and Seek’ remix”. When the hushes turned to resilient chants for the 6-foot-9 Dutchman, the night began with an energy level through the roof. But for some reason—I wasn't THAT impressed. Was I spoiled from the illustrious sets I had downloaded from Amsterdam, London, and the rest of Europe? Or was I straight up being a “hater” or “EDM Snob” because he didn't play a couple of my tracks? Who knows? Regardless, I left the show with an appreciation for seeing my favorite DJ live, but I also with a bad taste as I sensed his slow but sure transition into mainstream dance music.
As he continued to churn out hits, his close work with David Guetta seemed to signal the end for his underground career. Their team of singles seeped into the mainstream pool of music, and fans quickly latched on to what was now being called “Afrojack Music.” Still a fan, I was a bit hesitant where this was heading, but I gained faith in him as he built his label with friends like Apster, Quintino, R3hab, and Shermanology, who all showcased and highlighted a different side of Dutch house.
But, recently, as I've changed my stance from diehard fan boy to severe critic, the progression of Nick's music hasn't really changed. The same organic sounds that helped him rise to popularity are both strangely and simultaneously holding him back creatively as an artist. Every release contains those same “blips and bleeps” that we're all so tired of. How many times can we hear those same “rifts” and consider it new Afrojack music? What happened to the times when Dutch house was an inspiring new genre with the strong potential to grow—especially with someone like Nick at the helm? What happened to the days of diverse releases from the Wall Recordings label head? It seems that Afrojack has developed a “formula,” if you will, of how to make consistently chart topping songs.
The key to the formula? THE SAME DAMN SOUND. His early remixes and collaborations with longtime friend Bobby Burns helped defined what I personally deemed to be AJ music, this similar consistent poppy sound that the Neon nation adores. Where's the same grungy sound that overhauled Sidney Samson's ‘Riverside’ and transformed it into a dancehall Dutch house anthem? Where's the same producer that consistently pushed the boundaries with his remixes for Laidback Luke, Chuckie and Example?! I feel that all we're left with are productions that are destined for mainstream America and eventually, the dreaded FM radio such as his recent work from ‘London’ to ‘Rock The House’ and the ever-repetitive ‘Annie’s Theme’.
But, on the other hand, who am I to dictate where his musical allegiance should lay? Perhaps this was his plan all along—to gain fame and become a pop dance DJ sensation. And who am I to knock someone for following their dream or wanting to pay their bills or, hell, drive an Audi R8? But as a fan and critic I have to put my foot down when an artist’s need to make money begins to attack the creative integrity of their music. Looking at young dance music artists like Mat Zo, Pierce Fulton and Michael Brun, it’s clear that monetary success isn't directly correlated with selling out. In other words, you can still make original, gripping music without going the mainstream path.
All in all, Afrojack is a guy not much older than myself, so time will tell where his career and musical styling will take him. But I write this as a true fan hoping that Afrojack returns to the sound that made him my #1 pick for DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJ’s 2 years in a row. And as house music takes a firm grasp upon American pop culture, his music fits directly into the declination of 'underground house music'.
But for everyone reading this that had a fond appreciation for Afrojack's earlier work, can you chime in and help me truly answer: Has the Afrojack sound gotten old?