What is VaporWave? - River Beats Dance

What is VaporWave?

Riddle me this: if a genre of music is constantly evolving, can it ever truly die? The debate over the past and present state of VaporWave has waged on consistently for quite a few years now and still, some might not even know what it is.

First, let’s take a look at what the word “VaporWave” actually means and how it might have come about.

The name of the genre is only one letter off from the term “VaporWare,” which is a term that was coined in the 80’s by a Microsoft engineer. It means a product, usually hardware or software that is announced and advertised to the general public but is never actually manufactured nor officially cancelled.

This root word touches on a feeling of intangibility and fictional existence, which is one of the driving themes of the genre itself–at least when it began.

Many critics and fans of the genre alike have also found a correlation between the genre’s name and Marx’s well-known Communist Manifesto that states, “All that is solid melts into air,” which is describing society’s change in response to being subjected to capitalism.

This is a particularly interesting reference, since so much of the VaporWave genre, especially early releases, draws on the feeling of a “utopian dystopia” and mocks the late 80s and early 90s attitude of big business and often consumerism in general.

Image by Joel Hdz Leon.

It goes even deeper, since many, if not all VaporWave albums have purposely declined from respecting the privatization laws that surround the music used in releases and many of them could be easily sited in a copyright infringement case, should one ever get filed.

However, VaporWave didn’t get its original start as music.

It began as an aesthetic featuring many aspects of 80’s and 90’s subculture including glitch art, roman busts, early digital graphic design, parts of Japanese culture, tropical landscapes and more. When music did begin appearing, it was the first genre to be completely globalized from the start, due to being a child of the Internet.

While there’s no real way to track its origins, many of the roots of the genre revolve around funk, new age, and smooth jazz, as well as the soundtracks you might hear in malls, elevators, and more; the soundtracks of corporate “luxury” America, if you will.

But then, in 2010 and 2011, two albums were produced that would grow to become the cornerstones and catalysts of the genre. Mid 2010 brought us Daniel Lopatin’s (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) 16th studio album, entitled Eccojams Vol. 1 and was released under Lopatin’s one time alias, Chuck Person’s.

The album features an endless array of samples spanning the musical world from Aphrodite’s Child to 2Pac, with generous doses of reverb and echo, looping and pitch alterations. The end result is an ethereal, atmospheric development of sound that has yet to be truly replicated.

The album art is appropriate for the sound and is an obvious nod to the 1992 Sega game Ecco the Dolphin, solidifying the otherworldly nostalgia that is Eccojams Vol 1. 

Next is Far Side Virtual, by James Ferraro. Released towards the end of 2011, the project was originally conceived as a series of ringtones, but Ferraro still wanted them to have the impact of an album.

Ferraro touches on what got him thinking along these lines in an interview with Dazed and Confused Magazine:

“When I made ‘Far Side Virtual’, I was really into grime. I lived in Leeds for a year and I used to hear to kids listening to instrumentals on their phones, rapping over the top. I love the way that sounds: the texture of super compressed digital beats coming out of a cellphone and just a voice over it.”

The album itself has had a profound effect on those who have come to love it. He drew inspiration from sources such as the Brian Eno composed Windows 95 sound, old Ronald McDonalds commercials, and corporate montages, just to name a few.

The album satirizes much of the optimism that was experienced in the 90’s when computers and the like were introduced to Western households, and accentuates the darker side of these technological advances, but in a way that may appear bright and cheerful to begin with.

Even down to the art–which depicts a person with an iPad for a head–a somewhat whimsical, yet disturbing, plug for just how dependent we were and continue to be on technology.

Then, in 2011, an album was released that took these influences and turned them into a fundamental pillar of “VaporWave.”

Floral Shoppe is the seventh studio release by the artist Ramona Andrea Xavier (a.k.a. Vektroid), but was released under the one time alias of Macintosh Plus. The album has often been described as chopped and screwed meets AOR meet contemporary R&B.

The feeling the album invokes can be a bit unsettling at times, with snippets and samples mashed over each other with little regard to time signatures, wordless drawls, and sometimes disruptive tempos. It is a slice of virtual reality, and again, spans quite the audial range from Diana Ross, Sade, Mitch Malloy and more.

Again, the art here is quite appropriate here, displaying many key elements of the genre such as Japanese text, a roman bust and pastel colors.

As with anything else, supply and demand eventually come into play, even with a seemingly anti-capitalistic genre such as VaporWave.

VaporWave releases, especially the originals, have become a huge collectors item once put into the especially nostalgic cassette format. For example, a limited edition of Floral Shoppe released in 2012, containing bonus cassette tracks not available elsewhere or digitally (until someone rips it), is shown on Discogs to have a median price of $305, with the highest price being $850 on Discogs alone.

While limited to a 100 copies, this is still a lot of money to pay for cassette tape. Eccojams Vol. 1 sits at around $278 in median price. While there may be others out there going for more money, Floral Shoppe is known as being one of highest priced cassettes for the genre on that website, which begs the question: why does a seemingly anti-capitalistic genre have one of the most expensive items for the month online?

The reason is this: resellers.

If someone is willing to pay one price, it’s fair to say that someone else will eventually be willing to pay a higher one due to the very influence this body of work holds over its fans and other VW producers, and with only a limited number of tapes in production, the price is driven up even higher.

Price history of Floral Shoppe. Courtesy of Discogs.

While the influence of certain releases rises and the price of heavily sought after cassettes fluctuate, the genre continues to grow.

Now, there are many established VW labels, and one of the most prolific is Dream Catalogue. The label has close to 100 digital releases and about half that on cassette or CD. The owner of the label, artist Hong Kong Express (as well as half of 2 8 1 4), remains anonymous, like many vaporwave artists do.

Despite the aforementioned influencers, many bigger names within the genre are truly unknown despite their music’s popularity. Hong Kong Express has said in a past interview that this retains the ethereality of music, just as magicians do not reveal their tricks.

Another label that has grown up and out of the popularity of VaporWave is Business Casual. They presently have a dozen artists under their label and have essentially become a full-fledged production company, complete with apparel. The label was started in 2013 by christtt. The site publishes new releases ever Friday at noon, and there are always new artists to discover.

VaporWave has even touched New Orleans culture itself.

The Krewe of Vaporwave is New Orleans’ first virtual Mardi Gras Krewe, and they are the makers of the world’s only virtual Carnival parade. They have members across the globe and many have never met face to face.

The theme of their previous 2016 parade was “Long Live VaporWave” which streamed on Twitch with 15 videos (“floats” as this Krewe calls them) and included over 25 artists. It garnered the attention of the local media and the group hopes to continue putting out content outside of the Carnival season.

Recently, they hosted an augmented reality pool party entitled Jazz Cup at the Drifter Hotel and gave attendees access to an actual augmented reality app, as well as some great music by Tickle Torture, Sexy Dex and the Fresh, Plan Z and more.

Some say that VaporWave is as entrenched in the modern musical landscape just as EDM is.

Despite the fact that many have pronounced it “dead”, it is always changing and being expressed in new ways, as well as becoming more integrated into the mainstream–sometimes in subtle waves, sometimes blatantly.

A good example of this would be the 2015 rebranding of both Tumblr and MTV, which occurred almost at the same time. MTV’s included cheesy 90’s graphics and designs that had taken over many parts of Tumblr, and Tumblr itself began Tumblr TV, essentially a web viewer for GIFs executed 90’s MTV style, essentially putting the viewer into an endless and somewhat otherworldly array of GIFs that and be viewed by blog or by tag.

In short it all comes down to aesthetics, which seem like they will continue to prevail.

New VaporWave artists are rising up daily, in their bedrooms or basements, slowing down samples, chopping them up, and doing their best to produce the soundtrack to what they think our dreams may be.

Featured image by Carolina Reyes Petiño.

Related Content: