In the days of ever-changing playlists and unlimited Soundcloud mixes it might seem strange that something as simple as a compilation album could change the course of music. And yet that was what happened 25 years ago this month, in July 1992, with the release of Warp Records’ first Artificial Intelligence compilation. It was a record that helped to launch the careers of Autechre, Aphex Twin and Richie Hawtin, birthed the genre that would later become known as intelligent dance music (or IDM), and changed the idea of electronic music as merely a tool for dancing.
Artificial Intelligence wore its heart on its sleeve: the front cover features an android slumped in an armchair in front of a stereo, with albums from Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd scattered around. Below this, the tagline “electronic listening music from Warp” spelled out the compilation’s modus operandi: this was electronic music for the home, not the rave – a notion that was largely foreign 25 years ago.
In retrospect, the compilation’s tracklisting was equally historic. Aphex Twin, whose classic Selected Ambient Works 85-92 album had been released just five months previously, contributed the eerie Polygon Window under the pseudonym The Dice Man; Autechre appeared twice, with the joyous electro of Crystel and the Egg; Richie Hawtin (as UP!) was responsible for Spiritual High, a pulsating acid track that feels a little out of place in its out-and-out embrace of the dancefloor; Warp stalwarts Black Dog Productions (as IAO) contributed the warm electronic embrace of The Clan; B12 (as Musicology) served up breakbeat techno on Telefone 529 and the bleep-inspired Preminition; and Dutch producer Speedy J gave us elegant breakbeat number De-Orbit (and Fill 3 on the CD release). Even the Orb contributed, under the guise of leader Dr Alex Paterson, closing the record with a gorgeous live take on A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld, known as Loving You Live.
The focus on electronic listening music that Artificial Intelligence encouraged may have been unusual but it was not entirely without precedent, even in 1992. The classic Detroit techno productions of the late 80s – notably those of Derrick May – had brought an increased melodic sophistication to dance music, while in the UK artists like the Orb and the KLF had helped to pioneer the armchair-friendly sound of ambient house. Meanwhile, Belgium’s R&S Records – probably Warp’s only real rival in terms of 1990s intelligent techno – had already put out pioneering, thoughtful releases from the likes of Rising High Collective, Nexus 21 and Sun Electric.
You can hear these influences running through Artificial Intelligence. But Warp managed to codify this new strain of electronic music, signalling their intentions via the compilation’s name, strap line and cover art, as Warp co-founder Steve Beckett explained in Simon Reynolds’ Generation Ecstasy: “You could sit down and listen to it like you would a Kraftwerk or Pink Floyd album. That’s why we put those sleeves on the cover of Artificial Intelligence – to get it into people’s minds that you weren’t supposed to dance to it.”
Warped visionaries … Autechre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Warp would go on to release a groundbreaking series of electronic music albums under the Artificial Intelligence name (featuring all of the artists who appeared on the first AI comp apart from the Orb) leading to the release in May 1994 of the second, slightly disappointing compilation. By this time, though, the genre Warp had earmarked as “electronic listening music” and which had variously been known as “art techno”, “intelligent techno” and “electronica” had found itself another name, one that would prove hugely controversial over the years: IDM.
The new name had its origins in the electronic mailing list, then the bleeding edge of communication technology. In August 1993 the Hyperreal organisation set up the “Intelligent Dance Music list” to discuss “music relating to Aphex Twin and Warp’s early Artificial Intelligence compilations” (Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label also featured heavily). It was a name that proved controversial from the off, with its rather snobbish focus on “intelligence” being at odds with the “all in it together” ethos of rave (although, you could argue that such apparent snootiness was a precursor to the trainspotting Discogs nerdery that exists today). One of the very first posts to the new list asked “can dumb people enjoy IDM, too?” and few, if any, of the artists associated with the term have ever embraced it. And yet the name endured, particularly in the US where rave made less of an impact and electronic music was, for many years, an underground phenomenon that spread largely online.
The term IDM survives into 2017, although it remains as stubbornly hard to tie down as ever. If it was once defined by the Artificial Intelligence series, then the further we get from that series’ release, the harder it is to say who exactly is IDM among the fractured, ever-expanding array of electronic music sounds. Is Jlin, an artist who picked up comparison to the likes of Squarepusher thanks to her intricate post-footwork rhythmical mazes, IDM? How about Flying Lotus, who featured in Pitchfork’s recent 50 Best IDM Albums of All Time? Or Nina Kraviz and her трип label?
Well, until someone thinks of something better – and “stuff that sounds a bit like Aphex Twin” just isn’t going to cut it – we might just be stuck with it. Either way, these kinds of taxonomic discussions are thankfully reserved for the most arid corners of the web, allowing Artificial Intelligence’s true legacy to shine: the album that announced techno as music for the mind as well as the feet.