Pumpin' Ain't Easy: The Story of Pump

The early years of the twenty-first century were hard. Economic crises the world over, war and uncertainty, all together birthed an anxious energy for the people living during the times. Much like during the sixties, when similar circumstances were taking place on the world stage, political activism spiked as it hadn’t for decades, in an effort to change what was occurring. The development and resurgence of subcultures was also a hallmark of the early years of the 2000’s, as an attempt by the adherents to further themselves from the frightening and dissolute parent cultures that had caused the hard times. Music went along with these behaviors, and many people in the western world began to define themselves by their tunes. The digital age begat electronic music, beginning with techno in the mid eighties, and other more uptempo offshoots. But in 2009, the most influential development in electronic music began its social upheaval. This was pump.

It is an oft-recited principle that pump did to house what house did to techno. House music is bassier, heavier, more pounding than its more airy precursor, but pump, named onomatopoeically, practically pumped energy from the DJ booths to the eager ears of nightclubbers at the turn of the millennium. This increase in energy was palpable, even causing physical effects in the late-night dancers. Because of the music’s inherent vigor, dancers themselves felt at ease demonstrating the newly developed pump dances for hours straight without any apparent fatigue during, and more notably after it was all over, despite the force never before observed in previous dances. The anxiety that the new century began with could be overwhelmed, it appeared with the sheer dynamism of pump.

The beginnings of pump are, as with all movements of such historical significance, obfuscated at best. In the late 00’s, there was a move in the house world towards more progressive tracks. An increase in the beats per minute (bpm), more vigorous vocals, and a greater emphasis on songwriting laid the groundwork for ‘post-house,’ a term these new trends were often grouped under. Artists such as DJ Holy Topo of Austin, DJ Bolduc of Quebec, and the enigmatic DJ Pumpington of Philadelphia were the first to engage this new formation, but it was in November 2009 that Pumpington, after whom it is hasty to assume the movement was named, released the 12” single “Forrest Pump,” backed with an extended remix of the B-52’s “Lava.” It was “Forrest Pump” which began not only the pump world’s inclination to pun in the titles of their tracks, but also the concreting of the musical style for countless other artists to come. DJ Pumpington’s single was also the first to cause the previously mentioned mysterious physical energizing of those who danced to it.

Over the next several years, pump moved in the direction of bands, live-performances, tours, and t-shirts. Electronic origins always remained intact, most noticeably with the frequent use of synthesizers and sampling, but it was very clear by 2010 that it was combining with the rock standard of vocals, guitar, bass, and drums (VGBD), especially in Europe. France’s Sur la Langue was one of the first “pump bands.” Based in Lyon and heavily influenced by DJ Bolduc, Sur la Langue threw pump under surgical study by the media, and all those unfamiliar with the movement. After the band’s immense success with their second album “La Mort par la Pompe,” lead singer Jean-Marc ‘La Langoustine’ Desclozeaux said in his July 2012 interview with NME, “We started using the cymbals more than the drums, that became a pump standard. We started doing longer and longer sets, just to see if the audience could keep up. That became pump. We started spiking our hair and dying it black and pink, that was pump though it wasn’t even musical. For God’s sake, pump wasn’t even word used to describe something until Sur La Langue made it so.”

Though he didn’t explicitly say it, it was clear that Desclozeaux, and most people in the underground pump scene, trusted that Sur La Langue defined pump as what we know it to be now.

Originating in cities such as Philadelphia, Winnipeg, and Quebec in North America, Hull and Blackpool in the U.K., as well as in Marseille and Lyon in France, pump was becoming not just a kind of music, but a subcultural identity. Coinciding with the emergence of the Second Great Depression in early 2013, many young people out of jobs, with little money, and a difficulty holding onto hope looked to the underground pump scene for support and solidarity. This effort included the famous ‘pump look,’ tight, brightly colored and/or conflicting black clothing and hair, ostentatious jewelry, which was for the most part created entirely by the wearers or their friends in ‘pump houses.’

Pump houses were just that, houses in cities or towns where members of pump bands or their fans would gather in a sort of commune, very similar to the less successful ‘punk houses’ of the decades before, to make music and clothing, and share resources in the difficult times.

Darcy Cohen, bassist of the Hull pump band ‘The Drastic Measures,’ described the scene in 2014, “We were just about all on the dole, and we all knew that without it the scene would… we wouldn’t have it. Most of us were putting on shows for two, three quid an head, and they lasted just about all night. That was our job, besides making our clothes and sending out someone to buy or steal us food, but there were a lot of people in the pump houses back then, a lot of people who couldn’t find work besides playing their tunes all night.”

By 2018, when the world began to heal from its decade-long bout with Depression, and the flamboyance of pump was beginning to grind at the bones of the normal folks, as with all subcultures, it was dragged into the mainstream. Pop-pump and pumpcore musicians such as It All Dies and As I Fall became wildly popular with those new to the scene, though their sounds had little in common with early, electronic pump, which was obscured and ignored by the music press. Earlier fans became disenfranchised as their music was subverted and their fashion mass-produced. It became even more difficult to define pump than it was even in the beginning. It was so abused and overused as a corporate buzzword that it lost its original onomatopoeic meaning. Almost immediately as the good times rolled back in, the music of the Second Depression no longer pumped.

Pump's Not Dead