What We Started’s filmmakers on exploring EDM’s rich history

What We Started - Martin Garrix and Carl Cox

Electronic dance music (EDM) is one of the biggest genres in music today. It’s so big that it’s beginning to cross over into many other musical genres as well. Yet as big as the genre is, the only EDM documentaries out there are those promoting a particular DJ. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been a documentary about the history of EDM… Until now. Premiering at this year’s LA Film Festival, What We Started gave us our first full-fledged documentary covering EDM’s history. We got to speak to filmmakers Bert Marcus, Cassandra Hamar, and Cyrus Saidi about their EDM documentary.

Nerd Reactor: EDM has been around for such a long time. So why did it take so long to make a documentary about this genre?

Cyrus Saidi: For me, I think the issue and concern were that a lot of people who have tried to make [the] film from within the culture tried to do it with a specific agenda in mind. For example, promoting a specific artist, festival, or some sort of brand. There never really been an “outside” filmmaker [that has] come in with an objective point-of-view [and] enlist people from within the industry to try and make the film.

Also, like every industry, especially the music industry, there’s a huge amount of politics. Being in electronic music, there are a lot of areas where people do not actually work together. Although I was from the scene, it was still challenging because everyone is seen as outsiders.

Secondly, the second biggest music festival in the world, Ultra Music Festival, has never in their 18-year history allowed any film crew to be at their festival. Even the biggest superstars in the world wanted to film their performances but are only allotted around 10-minutes. For us, it took about a year to be cleared and [have] the ability to go into Ultra Music Festival carte blanche and film with a crew of 15 people. It took a lot of political work to be able to get everyone within the scene rallying behind the project.

Bert Marcus: I think a lot of that also derived from [a] trust. When people realized that we didn’t have an agenda, I think then they realized that we’re not trying to capitalize off a moving market like a lot of other films in this genre have done. The goal was to get it right and branch it out so that it’s understood and appreciated by everybody. Most importantly, we wanted to do justice to the industry. The icons and pioneers that have paved the way for this huge rise we’ve seen in EDM over the last few years.

I think [all of] that appealed to a lot of people within the industry. Once they understood that that’s where we coming from then we were able to assemble a phenomenal team of people. This is also how we got such a strong soundtrack and some of the iconic pieces in the last 30 years. Each person had to trust us and understand what it is that we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it. Luckily, we were able to do that.

NR: There are a handful of influential DJs out there in the industry, so what made Carl Cox and Martin Garrix stand out above the rest?

Cyrus: The first meeting that I had with Bert, he asked me “how do we tell the truth about this story?” The first name that popped up was Carl Cox. If you’re within the industry, there’s no denying that Carl is the most loved character in the entire industry. He’s also one of the forefathers of this scene and still a superstar. He still has stages that are at capacity with 30,000 people. No one else from his generation has done that. So he’s still relevant today as a 54-year-old. The fact that he has that much popularity is just undeniable.

Bert: I think once we locked in and familiarized ourselves with Carl’s story, we felt like the best way to tell a riveting story would be to find somebody who’s the complete antithesis of that. For us, it was kind of a no-brainer once we met Martin early on. Martin wasn’t a Top 100 DJ at that time and we’re talking years ago. Once we heard his stuff and his story, we thought “oh my gosh, this is the complete opposite of Carl”. Everything about them is opposite [with] their family, upbringing, their father’s roles in their lives, their music, and how they rose to stardom. For us, we felt like “this could be something really special to document and follow”.

Cassandra “Cassie” Hamar: Also, I believe Carl and Martin are both characters that are extremely captivating on-screen. They have a likeability that will capture audiences outside of the electronic dance music community. That was something really important. We wanted What We Started to reach a wide demographic. Target those that love this genre and those that don’t necessarily know about the rich history of the music. Finding two characters that have this innate likeability on-screen is really important. Both of them checked off all of those boxes.

What We Started - Martin Garrix

NR: Was there anything new that you guys learned about the history of EDM that surprised you or made you appreciate this industry even more?

Bert: For me, as a filmmaker, one of the things I found so fascinating was the rich history, how the industry works, and its effects on music and cultures around the world. Once I started to learn more about each person and about the industry, I realized that this is a rich history that I never expected. Where the music came from like Chicago, Detroit, and New York was a big one.

I always thought a lot of the music I was hearing was coming from Europe. There are so many phenomenal European artists out there today. Then I learned that “no, the U.S. is where most of this was coming from originally”. Also, how the rave culture led into these huge festivals. It’s really the reason why we have these booming festivals that are making billions of dollars around the world now. That was something else I was extremely fascinated by.

Cassie: I think for me, one of the things that were most surprising was just the passion of the artists and their artistry, both past and present. This gave people the freedom of expression. It wasn’t done for the money; it was done for the art and for the freedom of expression. That’s a theme that we’re all struggling with in this country right now, especially. It seems incredibly relevant and poignant whether it was [an] expression through music or otherwise.

NR: One of the biggest criticisms of EDM DJs is that they don’t really DJ on-stage. Instead, they’re just hitting play. Why did you feel the need to add this subject to What We Started?
Cyrus: Yeah, I mean it is one of the biggest arguments in the scene—that DJs, some of them, aren’t doing much up there. They’re not rock stars playing guitar or banging on the drums and what not. But I think some of it is a technology question because we have vinyl… I mean there’s still vinyl around and it’s making a comeback in a hipster cool way now. Yet technology is progressing and electronic music is intricately tied to the evolution of computer technology. Essentially the performance aspect of it is going to be affected by [progressing technology].

We are in an era where I think people are a little bit weary of people just putting MP3s on USBs and going up there and mixing. Technically, it’s the same as vinyl. However, a lot of people from the old-school kind of hate that idea of people not playing vinyl actually mixing live. I don’t think it’s that important to a conversation in terms of USB or vinyl. Yet it is an important conversation [for] many people in the industry. If it is important, we should cover it.

I think we did a decent job showcasing that a lot of the respected DJs like Carl Cox don’t shun upon the Martin Garrixes in the world just because they’re playing songs from a USB. That’s because Carl does it himself now. He may be doing a bit more mixing live but at the end of the day, I think we’re in an industry where the DJs today are primarily producers.

Producers have hit records and map out their world tours just like the rock stars do. There are now old-school DJs that are learning from that. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two that’s growing. From a technology perspective, we thought it was important to tell that story.

NR: Cyrus you’ve been in the industry for 17 years now. While Bert and Cassie have worked on many documentaries like Champs. What was the collaboration like between you three?

Cyrus: It was incredible for me because this is my second film. Obviously, Bert and Cassie have a lot more experience in the film field than I do. I think the first idea that popped [into] my head was when I was watching How to Make Money Selling Drugs and I just fell in love with that doc. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite documentaries in the past 5 years.

Later on, all of us were together at an Avicii concert and somehow this conversation started. From there on, Bert messaged me 6 months later and within a week or two we were already steamrolling. I couldn’t believe how fast and how aggressive the two just jumped into it. They just dedicated themselves.

Cassie, I think, now knows more about dance music than I do. She’s so incredible at finding facts and just getting in there. I’ve never seen anyone like her before.

Cassie: [laughs] Thank you, Cyrus. But I think one of the things that made us a good team is that we came into this with very diverse skill sets and interests. We had an amazing balance. We each brought different things to the table and worked together in unison on a daily basis. Even though there were other things going on in our lives, we made What We Started a huge priority. I think that was one of the reasons why it was so successful. We just banded together and said, “we’re passionate about this, [and] we’re going to make this happen”. Then we used our diverse skill sets to do it.

NR: Now that you’ve learned all this stuff about electronic dance music, where do you see EDM going 15 years from now?

Cassie: Even though I’m probably the most “outsider” that there is, I think EDM will just become a blend of all other music genres. Especially, as Cyrus said, with technology progressing so rapidly. You’re hearing it today with EDM artists collaborating with hip-hop artists, pop artists, and even classical music. I actually think it’s not going to be necessarily its own genre because I think all music is moving in the direction of having a lot of technological influence in it. So, I personally think that it’s going to have a hand in many, many other genres and not necessarily standing on its own.

What We Started - Carl Cox

NR: For non-EDM listeners, what artists would you recommend to them to kind of ease them into this crazy, PLUR, rave lifestyle?

Cyrus: I think a response to that is multi-factorial because it really depends on age and the demographic that the person may be in. The thing with electronic music is that there are so many genres that it’s exponentially growing. There are hundreds of genres that I can’t even keep up. It’s really tough to answer that question if you don’t know if the person is 22-years-old or like myself, 38-years-old.

But I think one of the best things that I remember from this is that it’s really an experiential thing. You kind of have to go to an event and experience it. Then you’ll find that I like this music and I like the energy that this creates. The dance music scene, per se, is about the unity of people being there. Primarily listening to music without language because that’s what dance music was. It was instrumental to begin with. I think experiencing an event is the most important way to gauge whether or not it’s for you.

Bert: Yeah, I echo what Cyrus said. As somebody who hasn’t been to as many shows, I was able to immerse myself a lot more. It really captivates you and you are able to figure out what kind of music really appeals to you. I think there is something for everyone, to be honest. You just kind of have to go and experience it. It’s really a big part of it.

Cyrus: I may sound like I’m trying to be a snob here. But even if people say they don’t like EDM music, ask them if they like Mad Max, Drake’s new album, or The Weeknd’s new album. Of course, Mad Max was produced by Junkie XL, who is an electronic DJ. Particularly, electronic dance music is a heavy influence on Drake and The Weeknd’s new album. There’s so much influence peeking into the culture today in film, television, and all genres of pop music.

NR: Cyrus, since you’ve been around the industry for a while, what got you into EDM?

Cyrus: For me, it was in the 90s. I remember that two girlfriends of mine dragged me to something called a “rave”. I had no idea what this was. Immediately within 5 minutes, I was like “this is impossible”. People were hugging each other and everyone is happy and smiling. It was crazy. I can’t believe this wasn’t a dream. I think that’s what sucked me into the culture at first.

Obviously, I’m really attracted to all kinds of music. The music sounded intelligent, it was very well produced, and everything was so new to me. It wasn’t a specific genre but it was the culture that sucked me into this world. It changed my life, really.

NR: Bert and Cassie, while you were doing this documentary what particular artist did you gravitate towards when you were starting to listen to EDM music?

Cassie: For me, I find that I’m more into those artists that have more of like a pop flair. [Music] that’s more crossover if you will. Like when you asked, “who would you tell people to listen to if they don’t like EDM”. I have to say Martin Garrix, especially his new music, is incredibly easy to listen to and a lot of fun. [There’s] Major Lazer and even David Guetta who kind of started it all. He continued making incredible hits with a lot of different artists and I love his new song with Justin Bieber. I can’t lie. [laughs]

Bert: I’ve been able to appreciate it all, to be honest. I tried to come in with the non-judgmental point-of-view and appreciate the different artists for what they can bring to the table. As a matter of fact, and I’m not just trying to say this, I’m such a fan of everyone that’s in our film. Since I was able to familiarize myself with their background as people and musicians. Additionally, the artistry that it takes to do what they do as producers and writers and performers. I was able to appreciate the underground scene in a way that I ever could’ve imagined. Not to mention, appreciate what it’s led to today.

NR: What is the one thing that you want audiences to take away the most after watching What We Started?

Cassie: I think I would want them to take away an appreciation of the struggle of what this music has been through in its history. Because I think that this is something that a lot of people don’t really know about.

Bert: Ultimately, What We Started is meant to be entertaining and fun. I mean yes, it’s informative but we go about it in a nonlinear fashion. The reason we do that ultimately is to entertain. We are filmmakers. But at the end of the day, we just want to entertain [and] keep true to the story. We want people to leave thinking that they just saw a timeless piece that added a lot of value to them. At the same time, thoroughly entertain them and hopefully want to watch it again.

What We Started will be a cultural retelling of the history of electronic music, leading with the legacy of Carl Cox and following with newcomer Martin Garrix. The film will explore the parallels between Cox’s undeniable influence and hand in the evolution of dance music and Garrix’s formation of mainstream genres and global fame.

Be sure to check out our review of What We Started.

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Mark Pacis
Mark Pacis 1150 posts

Self-proclaimed "Human IMDb" and comic book geek. Biggest Iron Man fan you'll probably ever meet.