By: Sarah Purkrabek
The first time I heard Kygo, it was like breathing in fresh air after leaving a sauna. The song was a remix of Passenger's "Let Her Go," and I heard it just as I was getting to the peak of my jadedness with big room house, well-known for its predictable build/drop formula and prominent place in mainstream EDM.
Tropical house — sometimes referred to as melodic house — seemed to go with everything. Quickly, it became my go-to driving music, writing music, chillout music, and cheer-up music. It was like the friendlier twin of deep house: light and happy, it incorporated steel drum-like sounds (reminiscent of The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea") and saxophones, usually accompanied by low-key vocals. As Ultra Music's Doug Christman put it to me, "Who doesn't want to listen to music that reminds them of being on the beach?"
Partially for this reason, tropical house has boomed over the past year. In October 2014, Norwegian tropical house pioneer Kygo played to a sold-out Fonda Theatre packed with Hawaiian shirted frat bros, casually dressed college kids, and raver girls in spandex and furries waving plastic flamingos and signs that said things like, "Let's get tropical." The next day — a Saturday — he played an afternoon day party at Lure Nightclub in Hollywood. Then, Sunday night, he was back at the Fonda for another packed show.
Now, tropical house is present at most major festivals, including a new one, CRSSD, which heavily featured tropical and deep house performers at its first iteration at San Diego's Waterfront Park in mid-March. Put on by San Diego-based events company FNGRS CRSSD and heavyweight player Goldenvoice, the fest showcased a variety of deep house and the genres influenced by it, including tropical house (Bakermat, Thomas Jack) and future bass (Odesza, Giraffage). CRSSD headliners weren't any of the usual suspects; instead, the fest opted for prominent underground artists such as Jamie Jones and Maceo Plex, leading to an incredibly mellow, laid-back atmosphere for attendees.
This year's Coachella, as well, featured a special surprise appearance by Thomas Jack at the Do Lab, and a headliner spot on one of the smaller stages for Kygo. Thomas Jack, however, didn't hit the tropical house too hard during his set. Elements of the genre were mixed into a different kind of underground sound — more on the side of future bass — representing either Jack's take on trop house's next phase, or his effort to move past it.
Kygo, for his part, stuck to tropical house entirely, and played a really decent set. But that's Kygo, who will always be "the tropical house guy," the guy whom everyone else sounds like. No one is expecting anything else out of him. He was the first, at least in the L.A. area, to break the genre, and so he gets a pass on most of the criticism.
And there is criticism.
For sure, dance music — and especially the typical dance music/EDM festival — is due for an overhaul. It's no secret that many fans have started hankering for something outside of big room house, and it seems, at this point, like these people are leading the demand for more festivals like CRSSD.
These are also the people showing up to tropical house concerts and stages. But there are also those that are over the hype. Common complaints I've heard all hit the same notes, ranging from "It all sounds the same" to "It's boring" to "I'm just tired of it."
And these complaints have merit. Thinking back, I realized that in all of the situations when I've really loved tropical house — for driving, writing, chilling, etc. — I was listening to music in the background. This realization worries me: Background music doesn't sell concert tickets, and anything that doesn't sell concerts has no chance in the musical Wild West that is Los Angeles.
Clearly that's not the case right now. Right now, venues are having no problem selling out tropical house shows, and festivals use trop house names to draw massive crowds. But what happens when the fad ends?
Tropical house is unusual in that it is a quick-to-mainstream genre, pushed by mainstream music labels (most prominently Ultra). However, aside from FNGRS CRSSD, there don't seem to be any small events companies in Southern California promoting the genre. To be fair, tropical house is still so recent that maybe these groups have yet to form.
But in order for tropical house to out-last its moment in the mainstream, and have time to grow and evolve into a fully fledged genre, it needs to have a healthy and substantial underground to retreat to. Otherwise, it won't be much longer before everyone, not just the critics, is saying, "I'm just tired of it."