Thursday, 29 April 2010

Motor City Drum Ensemble Interview

On a cold, wet Saturday night in Berlin last January, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Danilo Plessow AKA Motor City Drum Ensemble, and he granted me one of the most interesting and insightful interviews I have ever conducted. Big thanks must go to Danilo for giving me his time, and for his perfect English and impeccable taste in music. PS. He's also a Supreme fan.

What’s Stuttgart like, I’ve never been.

In Germany, the whole jobs situation, all the money is in the south. Stuttgart is a car city, obviously what with having Mercedes Benz and Porsche. The car was invented there so it’s a real, real motor city. In Stuttgart there is a lot of money because of the car industry, not only the firms but also the suppliers. Munich is richer, also from cars, but also from other industry. As soon as there is more money, then attitudes change. Everyone is very conservative, so there isn’t really the biggest party scene.

Did you enjoy growing up there?

I liked it because I was travelling from a really young age. My first gig abroad was at 16, so I never had the feeling that I was caged somewhere. The city is a very romantic thing because in Stuttgart everything is little and small and relaxed. I have my friends there and there is no stress. When I come from a hard weekend I just land there and there are beautiful parks and a lot of green. It’s a very liveable city. It’s nice really because it is home. As far as practical reasons, Berlin is much easier because the industry I’m in is based here and it makes sense to be here you know. My girlfriend lives here and my home for me is my girlfriend.

You started releasing records at 16. How did you get into the whole DJing and producing thing?

Really it was the other way round. I was releasing before I was DJing. At 10 or 11 I started working with software. Back then I was doing hip hop or DJ Shadow-y stuff, and then going more into house, techno and broken beat. I went to a club for the first time when I was about 15 and it was then that I really started to want to start buying records, and then I started getting the vision of how a bass drum can work, the idea that reduction is actually a good thing. I was overwhelmed by the power that a DJ has to move people. I started learning how exactly to move a party as well. Because of the Inverse Cinematics stuff, I started getting DJ gigs so from a young age I was travelling throughout Europe.

What sort of parties were you getting booked at?

Back then, the money was really low. I was often booked in Eastern Europe. I had a residency in Zagreb.

That’s an interesting culture actually because I went to Serbia a few years ago to party, and no one buys records over there.

Yeah they never could. It was impossible to buy records.

It’s all downloads.

Yeah even back then like 2003 or 4. I grew up buying records and that was completely natural for me. I grew up with the internet but it was really slow. You couldn’t just download music. It was the first time that I could actually understand why people don’t want to pay for music because the guys who organized the parties were telling me “If I order a one-sided record of Moodyman or something and it costs 40 Euros with tax and everything, and I’m earning 400 Euros a month, how can I do that, you know?” I’m not for illegal downloads but in this perspective I can understand it.

There were no domestic record shops I guess.

Well there were a few record shops.

Perhaps in Zagreb and other capital cities, but what if you’re not from there?


I read an article on Umek and he was saying how amazing the first Surgeon records he heard in like 95 or something were. But he grew up under communism and had no access to this stuff for a long time. I think it’s more ingrained in the culture.

Yeah that’s definitely true. But I loved playing there. Nowadays it is getting more standard, and a bit more like the rest of Europe, especially Slovenia which is getting richer and richer, but Croatia was so rough back then. It was like going to a completely different world with all the communist architecture. The mentality is not only about buying records, but suddenly you have so much freedom and they were all really celebrating it. You could play whatever you want and people were having a good time. I also made some really good friends there.

At this stage were you playing more hip hop, or what?

No quite a lot of four to the floor stuff, lots of house and techno. Back then I was also playing a lot of the early broken beat, eclectic stuff, disco even.

About the Inverse Cinematics stuff, it seems clear that there are a lot of hip hop and jazz influences. The youth in Germany, contrary to popular belief, are quite hip hop. Was that the gateway drug so to speak for you into house and techno?

I was playing drums in a school big band, from 10 onwards, and I was also playing jazz standards…(at this stage we are interrupted by an Italian waiter who is sure he saw Danilo in Bar 25 the previous weekend. Danilo assures him it wasn’t him as he wasn’t in Berlin but the man seems pretty sure it was. He says he’s pretty sure that Danilo is a friend of Ricardo’s. We shoot each other a glance. Wrong Ricardo we think in unison. Eventually the waiter gets the hint) … For me, the funny thing was, that a lot of the hip hop guys, they were starting with hip hop and then discovered jazz, because of the samples obviously, and then the golden era of 95-98 with Pete Rock, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and all these groups. But for me it was jazz and then at 16, I met this MC who got me into the whole hip hop thing, and I listened to it and I said, “Don’t you hear it, this is essentially jazz!” and that got me really excited to start experimenting with hip hop. That’s actually why I started making beats. I could use all my jazz records, and sample them and put them in new contexts.

And the state of hip hop now?

I love hip hop, but I don’t really like the electronic stuff. I love stuff that is a little bit more ambitious. I really respect people like Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke, but for me, hip hop has always been more about jazz. For me hip hop stopped in 1999.

It all seems like flashes in the pan these days no? Like Soulja Boy and OJ da Juice Man. One hit wonders that seem to lack longevity.

Since Madlib and J Dilla, there’s not been anything that has been groundbreaking for me. The first house records I heard, I don’t know why, but in my small city, there seemed to be a lot of hold house records, like 8 Ball which often used jazz samples, but in a house context. So that was really the introduction to house for me.

I wanted to ask about your love of Broken Beat. Speaking with Fred P recently, he said it was broken beat that inspired him to start making music again, music from 4Hero, Spacetime Continuum, and Bugz in the Attic. What is it about the freeform nature of broken beat that links with house?

For me, it all comes down to harmonies. Harmonies and a certain approach to music. It doesn’t necessarily have to be broken beat, or hip hop, or whatever. It’s just something that I have found, the whole basis of soul and jazz from the 60s and 70s. The kind of harmonies that are now big in deep house, and in my records, are the same kind of harmonies you get in those original records. Broken beat was also a big rehash of that kind of sound and way of making music. Let’s say Roy Ayers, Coltrane, kind of melodies and harmonies.

It strikes me that there is a similar approach in your music, particularly in the Raw Cuts series, that is more freeform. You may go about making the music in a clinical way, but the aesthetics behind it are slightly chaotic, and thus a better form of self-expression.

Yeah I totally agree. For me, the music that really touches me is music that hits me directly in the heart. For example, I could talk for ages about jazz from the 60s and 70s because there are all these harmonies and all these feelings. Also, just the way stuff sounds. You can still play a Rhodes piano in the 90s, but maybe because it was recorded on such and such tape machine and such and such mixing desk, it sounds different from the originals. I have a very very distinct vision about how music should sound on the basis of harmonies, feeling and attitude. I can find this in music from the 60s, 70s, I can find it in jazz, in disco, in 80s house, when it was more about a sound than actually about the track. House died somewhat for me in the 90s when it got too noodly and too jazzy. The rough, Nu Groove sound disappeared. Thus for me, broken beat was like fusion jazz in the 70s. Fred P and DJ Qu and all these people, the harmonies they use, and the harmonies I use, are very near to all of this fusion stuff.

With the new deep house stuff, which is becoming quite commercialized, do you still think it comes from the heart? I mean do you still think there is this freeform approach, or is it not becoming more like painting by numbers?

You can hear it, you can absolutely hear it. Like I just told you, the sound, the harmonies, everything, if one aspect of it is not perfect, it won’t work. Sometimes, even a little drum hit can disturb it, you know what I mean.

Will deep house as the sound of the moment devour itself then? Will it become too ubiquitous?

First of all, deep house may be ubiquitous in a way because it is everywhere, and a lot of the DJs tend to play a lot of the old classics again, but at the same time, a lot of the music that is big at the moment and thought of as deep house has nothing to do with deep house. It’s like minimal meets house, minimal meets those melodic sounds. Minimal died because there were no more emotions left in it at all, and now you find a little vocal, or a Rhodes, but the basis is the same. But people don’t really care, they just want a thumping bass line. I mean I imagine 90% don’t really give a shit, at least from what I have experienced. But at the same time, the DJs are all excited if something new but from the old days comes back, because they were also all sick of playing minimal. I still don’t have a night when I go out and I just hear real deep house because real deep house is not necessarily what is being released as deep house right now. I mean, let’s say, even the guys I respect and think are really doing something soulful instead of just putting a vocal over a minimal beat. I mean Levon Vincent is not doing deep house, even though he’s not doing minimal. I think there is always in the music industry a need for hype, and to give things a name, but its not really rooted within the reality of the club. You still can’t play a Theo Parrish track, you still can’t play one of the more difficult Moodyman tracks.

Unless it’s got a big break in there or bass line?

Yeah, so you still can’t play a KMS record, even though it may be really dancey, because people will be “Where’s the bass line?!”

When you talk about old tracks, do you have anything in mind, because when I think of seminal tracks that really withstand time, it’s things like Wamdue Project, “King of My Castle”, more than any Strictly Rhythm track.

If you listen to Wamdue Project, or any other track that has withstood the test of time, it’s usually tracks that are more than just a bass drum and a chord. Lyrics, or proper sounds. Maybe that’s part of the reason people want something more out of a track. Something to remember, a hook. It’s funny though because now it’s going in the opposite direction in a really credible way. You could expect vocal house to come back but it hasn’t. It’s something that amazes me, because everything is so conscious and knowing now. It could be that one way it could go, that all this mid-90s diva stuff will be big again but you never know.

If we agree on 2009 being the year of deep house, what will 2010 bring?

I think there are quite a few things that are going to be big, or get bigger. Firstly, there is a bit of a dark techno renaissance going on, the whole Berghain, Dettmann, Klock sound. I think it is only going to get bigger. Also everything coming out of New York right now. Dubstep is also exploding into loads of different subgenres, but shares some of that darkness. Let’s just call it darker electronic music. I also think electro is very similar to this, and that could be on its way back. If 2009 was the year for happiness, 2010 will be darker.

It’s interesting that you think 2009 was the year of happiness, in the context of the global economic crisis and everything going to shit.

Yeah but people need a shelter and music is one way to escape daily troubles, that maybe part of a reason I don’t know.

I read that you said dubstep was broken beat 2.0 which I really like.

No, not dubstep in general, but I really didn’t get the hype about the whole Joy Orbison thing with “Hyph Mngo”. For me, that’s not dubstep. If this was released in 2005 on Laws of Motion, it would have been tiny. Not to disrespect the track, I liked it, it’s not super special, it’s nice, but I don’t really get why it was such a hit.

People say dubstep really intersects with house.

And techno.

Yeah exactly, and especially in England, coming out of funky, house has been a real touchstone for a lot of the young producers. What do you think of that, because dubstep is getting hard to ignore now, and how does it interact with your music?

To be honest, for every new record I buy, I buy five or six old ones from the 60s, or 70s, so I can’t really speak with any authority on the issue. I have maybe four or five dubstep records. I know a little bit about the stuff that really interests me, but I can’t see the connection there. With Martyn or with Shackleton, I don’t see a house connection. I see a connection with techno, with Basic Channel, with dark broken beat, like with Martyn I really get a techno broken beat, like Morgan Geist did in 2003, or John Tejada. Somehow Martyn programs beats in the same way. I just saw he did a Fabric mix, and he played Nubian Mindz, the perfect example of this music. He’s been around since the late drum n bass days and does this kind of Detroit techno approach to broken beat. For me, the broken beat that has stood the test of time is these kinds of records. I like dubstep, but I can’t really see a house connection. UK Funky I know zero about. I’ve heard of it, but couldn’t name a record. I know that Gilles Peterson is now pushing funky quite a lot, but haven’t had the time to explore it.

The Martyn mix is an interesting one, seeing as it came out on the Fabric mix series rather than the more bass heavy Fabric Live series..

Yeah, I haven’t heard it yet but I also saw there was a Zed Bias track in there. That’s amazing. Of course UK garage came before broken beat and there is a strong link between the two, and now there is a link between dubstep, broken beat, garage, and techno. You looked at the track list and thought, yeah this guy has been around for a while. There’s a lot of people who claim that dubstep is the newest genre out there, and really different from all that has gone before, but I don’t really see it. In the Martyn mix you could see really where it all comes from.

A lot of people say that although techno and house may not mesh perfectly with dubstep, that techno and house can learn a lot from dubstep, that dubstep will push techno and house to innovate. Is there any credence to that?

I can’t say I know enough to comment on that. There are some tracks that have pushed the envelope. I loved the whole Skull Disco thing, which was new and different and weird, and I thought it was really pushing the envelope.

And Shackleton releases on Perlon now!

Yeah and I loved that record. It’s funny, it’s something new, but also going back to the Maurizio, Basic Channel feel, but at the same time, the beats are very experimental. The whole attitude is quite near to Maurizio, especially the Perlon record.

So you’re planning to move to Berlin in the not too distant future. I was wondering what your thoughts or views on the city are as a German, but an outsider from Stuttgart.

Well I first started coming to Berlin to DJ in 1999-2000, and I know it quite well, but it totally exploded over the last few years. For Germans, the main time when it was like, “Berlin is so hip, let’s move there” was between 2003-4 and 2007. Right now its more people from all over the world who move here. If in Stuttgart you were to say tomorrow "I’m moving to Berlin", you would get bad comments, like “He can’t make it here, so he’s moving to Berlin”. I can see why there is bad feeling towards the city, but if you are settled enough and your income is not dependent on the city, it is a real nice place to live. The cultural diversity, the people you will meet, the possibilities are just amazing. You just have to avoid being dependent on the city, because you will end up in a vicious circle, because there is no fucking money whatsoever here. But if you don’t have to worry too much about money, it’s not only unique to Germany, but to the whole world.

I know your record buying tendencies are more rooted in the past, but anyone who is making great records now?

There’s a few. Levon Vincent, and DJ Qu, I thought “Party People Clap” was amazing. I also really like John Roberts from Laid. Shackleton and Martyn are also great. I get sent a lot of promos but all on mp3 and I’m so old fashioned that I don’t listen to them at all. I like what Running Back are doing. I loved the Novel Sound, Deconstruct sound though, it really hit me, especially his Levon’s Mike Denhert remix for Clone. Dettmann’s stuff has also been really great this year. You might expect me to be pushing the classical deep house stuff. As an artist, I do this music myself, and there have been so many copies, so in a way, this year I went more techno and more dark. But that’s what I play out. Production-wise I’m going to focus though on what I’m already doing.

And what’s coming up over the next few months?

I’m trying to limit myself. I mean, I could do so much stuff for labels who I have always wanted to release on, but I have a fear of releasing too much and I think it is better not to releaser too much so people still appreciate my work. Like “Hey have you got the new Motor City Drum Ensemble record?” Well I want to avoid the answer, “Which?”. So I want to have a record that exists in time and is easily identifiable. It’s not only the quality issue. I’m quite quick at making a track but I want to allow myself time to work on it, and develop it. For every track that is released, there a re 50 promos, so I want it to stand out. But I have a couple of remixes, Archie Bronson Outfit, Tiga and Caribou. There’s going to be a new 12”, but I’m not sure on what label. Probably mine, but I’m not sure when or whatever. I need to move to Berlin, take some time off.

How did you find working with Caribou, Archie Bronson, more rocky, less 4/4 stuff?

I just wanted to do it, because I always want a bit of struggle. I’m really excited to work on this rock thing. I’ve done stuff likes this before though, with Inverse Cinematics. You could have a straight to jazz original or you could have a house original and turn it into broken beat. I was always someone who tried to do remixes the hard way, mixing genres to come up with interesting stuff. The Sprinkles thing is the perfect example. The original is almost ambient, and the remix is incredibly dance floor, but its 90% elements from the original in there. Or for example, I did a remix for 2020 Vision and the original is the typical funky, vocal house jam. Instead of doing a house mix, I though fuck it and I did a straight 90s techno mix. I always try to do something very different from the original. I’m open to do everything, even classical or whatever, I just have to like the material, and to have something to work with.

La Troja

Barranquilla is full of nightclubs of all sorts. From what they call in Germany chici miki places full of the glitterati, to reckless whorehouses, most people's tastes are to a certain extent catered for. One place however, stands out. La Troja is a salsa estadero, essentially a shop front with chairs outside, that plays the best salsa on the Carribbean coast. Here is an article I wrote on it for El Heraldo.

The article can be read in Spanish here.

All the cities in the world have nightclubs, but only Barranquilla has La Troja. Just like the Tiendecita de la 44, also covered in sparkling marimondas and Carnaval bulls, this cradle of salsa on the coast forms an integral part of the city's identity.

Brought up in a salsa home, since I was young the big hits of Willie Colon, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Grupo Niche would accompany me whenever I travelled with my father.

Nonetheless, there is a big difference between listeneing to my father's time-ravaged salsa cassettes through his 1986 Ford Escort speakers, and being surrounded by cold beers, and the inimitable atmosphere of La Troja.

The magic of the place is that in many ways, it functions as a microcosm of the city it has come to symbolise. From the moment one enters, ushered to their table by the waiters, one notes the old couples, waltzing respectfully with each other, the groups of men speaking animatedly amongst themselves, and the young hipster kids, reintegrating themselves with the rich culture of their forefathers.

Having said that, for a salsa beginner, La Troja is an intimidating place. As there is no dance floor per se, people boogie between the tables and chairs, focusing the view of the spectators on the few who are brave enough to ask a girl to dance.

This professional atmosphere is reinfoced by the shows that take place every couple of hours. In the first a dark girl danced so hard and so fast that she lost her shoes. In the second, a rotund women and her slightly more lithe daughter took turns entertaining the public with their sparkly outfits and rustic routine. On top of this though, on the night I attended, La Troja was hosting two special guests, both salsa experts.

With an exclusive set, Jairo Paba (the voice of Barranquilla's most popular breakfast radio show and quite the personality -Ed) arrived to enjoy some cold beers. Later, a Puerto Rican radio presenter, based in New York, dropped by to play some of his favourite records.

By this time, everyone had drunk enough 'frias' (cold beers) and enough aguardiente that most people were on their feet dancing, clapping and sweating smiles.

This therefore meant, that I could no longer hide behind my Club Colombia, and the time had come for me to join the fray. In England, there is little traditional dance culture (aside form perhaps Morris Men -Ed) as there is in Latin America. The idea of asking a girl to dance in front of everyone so that they could see my impressive lack of rhythm, filled me with terror. Thank God I found a teacher who treated me with patience and understanding, proud to show me the basic steps.

With my shame and embarrassment at last overcome (or at least fogged), I started to get confident. One, two, thre; one, two, three, I counted in my head, making mistakes at every stage. Nonetheless, with every error, it seemed to matter less. In La Troja, the important thing is to try, and at the very least, I can surely say I tired.

Peripatetic Sound Systems

So I've gone pretty quiet over the last month or so. Deeply unacceptable, I know, but when Apple Mac's break in the Tropics, and you misguidedly decide to take them across a border to get fixed, and then customs want to charge you 30% of their original value, just to bring them back into the country, it can be difficult to sit down and write posts on a regular basis. My laptop (and all my music!) and I have still not been reunited, but should be ever so shortly, so lots more to look forward to including special interviews which I need to type up.

Although I didn't think they would, my listening patterns have changed since I arrived in Colombia. Recently however, I had the chance to play some tunes at a small party next to the beach, and given the fact they went down relatively well, I've been booked to play a party called Propaganda at the end of May so watch this space for more info on that.

Here is an article I wrote on the growing car audio scene here in Colombia. In a country where the average monthly salary is about 300-400,000 ($150-200 US) Colombian pesos a month, it's rare to see people who can plough 30 million pesos into their car, but it just goes to show how passionate these guys are. The manufacturers are not slow on the scene either, and have been quick to sponsor local firms to compete and take their cars on the road. Another point to make that is not mentioned in the article. Petrol stations (or bombas as they are known here) are the spiritual home of the scene, and where most of the meets take place. Why? Most are priavtely owned, often by car aficionados, and thus they are more than happy to loan the space out to their friends in the evenings. Colombian innner city sound restrictions, espeically on ther coast, are notoriously lenient.

The article can be read in Spanish here.

When John Chalarca turns on the sound system in his red Mazda, there is a brief moment of silence, maybe half a second, before the bass kicks in and his t-shirt ripples as it is punched against his chest. Meanwhile, several surprised pedestrians jump up in shock. Chalarca, the owner of Maxxicars, smiles. It seems he loves the public's reactions.

The car audio scene in Barranquilla is just getting going, but it is growing every day according to Roberto Ferro, the owner of City Car Audio and close friend of Chalarca.

Nonetheless, as far as noise pollution in the public space goes, it is not a practice that receives widespread support throughout the city. As Ferro says, "People don't understand that I'm working. I only try to make noise during working hours outside the workshop but people always complain."

Even so, although Ferro and Chalarca work in the industry so to speak, their passionate clients don't, and it is when they get together that problems arrive.

At his Maxxicars shop, Chalarca managed to get a permit from the Departamento Administrativo del Medio Ambiente, DAMAB, to play loud music for 10 minutes a day, but he assures me that there are always complaints and that normally, the police are an unavoidable presence.

Andrés Hincapir, a 22 year old customer of Maxxicars, is unequivocal in his support. "I started getting into cars and music when I was 18. I started working with my dad and saving, and little by little, I've been investing in my car" he says. He estimates that he has invested 8 million pesos($4000 US)to his Chevrolet Rodeo 1998 in the last four years.

According to Roberto Ferro, there are only three or four big cars, and by that he means cars with big soundsystems, in the city, but that there are more than 200 people involved in the burgeoning scene. Although there are some women, they are few and far between.

Ferro says that it is "easier to sell products to a woman becuase they are not tight like the men" but he also admits that they do not compete alongside the men "becuase they themselves feel inadequate. Also", he adds as an afterthought, "It's a pretty macho hobby."

For both Ferro and Chalarca, the competitions are an integral part of what they do. Chalarca has just got back from Bogotá where he was chosen as national champion 2009-2010.

Ferro on the other hand, used to compete, but now chooses to concentrate on his business. His workshop is full of trophies, and he says he likes to keep abrest of goings on as lots of his clients attend the competitions.

Jorge Ruz is one of those customers. He has already won competitions in Cartagena and Medellin, and he says he takes his eight-year-old hobby very seriously indeed. "Roberto and I are veterans in this" he says.

For his part, Ferro claims "not to like loud music actually", but on seeing his pick up truck, a huge Toyota replete with internal and external speakers, and according to him, eight separate basses, it's hard to believe him. Adorned with images of evil clowns, and carrying a sign that recommends the use of ear protectoers, the sound system makes so much noise you can hear it up to ten blocks away.

And the music? According to Chalarca, it's not that important. He likes to listen to salsa, the younger kids to reggaeton and techno (If you can consider Akon and Guetta techno -Ed). The question, he says, is not what you listen to but how, and in these two corners of the city, the answer is loud as hell.