vaporwave
This growing style of music sounds so distinct, you might just have to give it a second listen. (Illustration by Eunhye Cho, Laguna College of Art and Design)
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vaporwave

Time to meet Chuck Person, Blank Banshee, Saint Pepsi and George Clanton.

Nearly a decade ago, a strange album cover circulated through some regions of the internet. It featured a Greco-Roman bust sitting beside an orange tinted picture of the New York skyline, all set in front of a bubblegum pink backdrop. Mint lettering spelled MAC, followed by Japanese characters. It was eye-catching, in a way that was both jarringly ugly and oddly pleasing.

The album itself was just as baffling. Samples of songs by Diana Ross and Sade were slowed to a woozy slur and looped to sound like a badly scratched CD skipping in the player. Listening to it was like walking through a mall in a narcotic haze. That album was “Floral Shoppe” by Macintosh Plus, which is now widely recognized as the origin point of an eccentric form of electronic music: vaporwave.

In its origins, vaporwave was intended to be ironic social critique. The distorted versions of ‘80s and ‘90s pop songs, created by artists like Macintosh Plus, were meant as a soundtrack for the fallen dreams of a utopia founded on capitalism and materialism.

The visual aesthetics of many early vaporwave artists were similarly inspired, with producers appropriating the names and advertisements of companies like Microsoft and McDonalds. The result was a kind of warped nostalgia that presented listeners with the products and trends of their past through a weird purple tint.

It didn’t take long for the sounds and aesthetics of vaporwave to be adopted by artists less interested in social commentary. The pointed critique recognized in “Floral Shoppe” morphed into a general sensibility, while the genre also began to mingle with a number of other electronic styles, quickly linking with things like chillwave and synthwave.

Before long, any of a number of touchstones could lead to a producer being labeled as vaporwave, and today searching the word on YouTube or Bandcamp will pull up dozens of names. But for someone new to the genre, exploring a small sampling of artists is the best way to start. So, here’s a quick rundown of four producers to check out after Macintosh Plus, each of whom helped found vaporwave or push it in a new direction.

1. Chuck Person – “Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1”

Before there was “Floral Shoppe,” there was “Eccojams.” Released in 2010, the album is widely recognized as the blueprint for vaporwave. Chuck Person was the one-time alter ego of New York based musician Daniel Lopatin, whose better known for his experimental electronic work as Oneohtrix Point Never.

In creating “Eccojams,” Lopatin brought together many of vaporwave’s essential features for the first time, chopping and screwing samples from the likes of Phil Collins and Michael Jackson, and creating album art from the packaging of a ‘90s video game starring Ecco the Dolphin.

But where later vaporwave would be soothing and sedate, Lopatin’s music was often abrasive and discordant. The opening track turns Toto’s “Africa” into a twitching mess, an almost perfect impression of a badly scratched CD. Later, on the song “B2,” he pummels samples from Fleetwood Mac and Teddy Pendergrass with layers of noise until they’re unrecognizable.

The following year, Macintosh Plus would smooth out these rough edges with “Floral Shoppe” and bring vaporwave into its own. But the template created through “Eccojams” is undeniable, and it’s likely vaporwave wouldn’t exist without Lopatin’s pioneering.

2. Blank Banshee – “0”

Created by Canadian artist Patrick Driscoll, Blank Banshee helped found a subgenre of vaporwave commonly called vaportrap. As the name suggests, vaportrap blends the skittering hi-hats and thudding 808s of trap music with the sampling techniques used in vaporwave, for a cleaner sound with more substantial low end.

A standout of this formula on Driscoll’s “0” is the track “Purity Boys,” which makes the Beach Boys “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” sound like a depressed robot approaching meltdown. Later, on “WORLD VISION,” a snippet of Bjork’s “Cosmogony,” is turned into a haunting loop that echoes over a sparse beat.

While Driscoll’s music clearly draws influence from vaporwave, his inclusion in the genre has as much to do with his visual style as any music he’s released. The album cover of “0” — a crude 3D rendering of a woman’s face, likely based on Laura Croft of the “Tomb Raider” video games — connects with vaporwave’s fixation on outdated computer culture.

Driscoll’s Tumblr is similarly inspired, featuring pictures of early 2000s Nokia cellphones and digital faces slowly deteriorating into jagged messes. The producer’s reputation as a vaporwave artist points to the flexibility of the genre, which extends beyond music into a range of aesthetics and attitudes.

3. Saint Pepsi – “Empire Building”

The project of New York based musician Ryan DeRobertis, Saint Pepsi presents a more euphoric, pop-oriented side of vaporwave. DeRobertis, who now performs under the stage name Skylar Spence, released eight albums and EP’s as Saint Pepsi between December 2012 and February 2014, carving out a distinctive sound during this prolific period.

Relying heavily on disco samples, DeRobertis slows the music to a snail’s pace and drenches it in reverb, turning upbeat dance numbers into luxurious crawls. While still clipping and looping samples like his predecessors, DeRobertis folds these techniques into the rhythm of his music rather than using them as disruptions, leading to catchier arrangements than can be found on “Eccojams” or “Floral Shoppe.”

A song like the album closer “Revue” wouldn’t sound out of place in a chillhop mix, with its tightly looping pattern and hushed groove. Meanwhile, a track like “Resort,” with its sampling of an advertisement for “the ultimate Walt Disney World vacation,” helps keep DeRobertis’ music grounded in the world of vaporwave.

4. George Clanton – “Slide”

By 2018, the novelty of vaporwave had begun to fade. There was limited creative potential in a genre so dependent on borrowing from other’s music, and after seven years many new vapor releases were sounding redundant.

However, while the original genre waned, elements of its sound and sensibility began appearing elsewhere. The most exciting example of this crossover is the music of George Clanton, a producer who has merged vaporwave with a range of indie and electronic styles to create a fresh brand of pop music.

Originally working under the names ESPRIT 空想 and Mirror Kisses, Clanton developed a following as an innovative vaporwave producer, known for his minimal use of samples and the integration of his own vocals. This formula is perfected on “Slide,” in which Clanton slips the grasp of any particular genre and shows how vaporwave can fit into the broader context of electronic music.

From the album’s opening, “Livin Loose,” there’s a distinct vaporwave flavor: a wobbly synth pounds out a simple progression beneath brassy, echoing saxophone, both cloaked in the grainy texture of an old tape deck. Later, on the album’s title track, the sound of someone bowling a strike is played and rewound over airy synthesizer, creating a surprisingly melancholy effect.

But this influence is balanced by Clanton’s abilities as a hitmaker. When he soars into the epic hook of “Make it Forever,” it’s difficult not to headbang, an impulse you’ll rarely feel when listening to typical vaporwave. Most of the album’s songs are driven by Clanton’s lyrics about loves longed for and lost, delivered in a raw style reminiscent of groups like The Cure and My Bloody Valentine.

The result is a sound that inverts some of vaporwave’s essential attitudes. Where the genre is sardonic and sedated, Clanton is earnest and enthusiastic. Yet, he manages to preserve the sense of mysterious longing and irrevocable loss that’s always appealed to fans of the genre.

Although it’s passing out of fashion, vaporwave has clearly left its mark on electronic music. A genre that’s existed almost entirely online, it’s easy for artists like Macintosh Plus and Saint Pepsi to slip back into obscurity. Hopefully, there will always be an audience for them, of those who are looking for something old made new.

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