As you may have gathered from some of my previous editorials, I, along with much of the US dance music community, have been stuck in some sort of purgatory-like rut for the last 12-24 months. We’ve been trying to pull ourselves out of the EDM mire, but are unsure how to arrive at the musical equilibrium that many European countries enjoy due to decades of dance music’s cultural influence. In reaction to this frustration, I myself had a downtick in the frequency I listened to dance music, unable to shake the connotation of fist-pumping bros that had been hammered into my brain after six EDCs and five Ultras.
I have heard many people in the industry express the desire to relive their original rave experience, myself included. Granted, my first was Electric Zoo 2009, which next to today’s production values looks more like a boisterous barbecue than a rave. It didn’t matter, though–this wide-eyed boy was floored. I had just lost my meager NYC music industry job (again), used the last money I had to buy a ticket, and attended alone. It remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I remember being there thinking, “why isn’t anyone talking about this?”, as at the time EDM hadn’t infiltrated the US media yet. The day after Zoo ended, I started a blog in an attempt to shout from the housetops about what was happening in the United States. After meeting my now-colleagues, said blog became LessThan3.
Since that weekend, I have been in constant pursuit of a moment when it felt as if I was seeing everything for the first time all over again. A moment where Tweets, clicks, pageviews, and press releases weren’t sitting in the back of my mind throughout the experience. A moment when it was just about the music and the company, and nothing else.
I finally revisited that moment at the fabled Berlin club known as Berghain.
I arrived in Berlin following my third year at Amsterdam Dance Event, eager to explore an area of Europe I had not visited before. I filled my week with museums and memorials, biding time until the weekend arrived and I could finally do what I had really come to Berlin to do: indulge in a hearty helping of real, raw techno in the genre’s world capital. As a newcomer in New York, I was more on the trance and electro bandwagons. After moving to San Francisco, I found few options for real techno parties outside the stellar As You Like It and Robot Ears events, so my exposure to good techno in a live setting was quite limited. It was time to experience techno in the setting it was meant to be experienced.
I made the rookie mistake of partying too hard at a house gathering on Friday night, which delayed my planned Sunday morning arrival at Berghain (the best time to show up, according to the vets) to Sunday night. 14 hours of sleep later, I awoke ready to go, anxious but also palpably excited.
The stories you hear about the seemingly arbitrary criteria used to either grant people entrance or turn people away at the door are true, albeit exaggerated, and the guides to getting in scattered around the Internet are of little assistance. One thing is certain, though: it helps to show up with a native Berliner who the door people may recognize. In an era when Claire Danes is talking about Berghain on Ellen, the club has done an excellent job of keeping the fires of dance music commercialism at bay as much as is possible, so it would make sense that they prefer seasoned natives over outsiders.
I was one of the fortunate to have a frequent Berghain attendee with me. Upon our 9 p.m. arrival, my friend whisked eight of us past the majority of the hours-long line, arriving to the front in mere minutes, where we were immediately met by Cerberus himself: Sven Marquardt (pictured below), the notorious Berghain bouncer and photographer who has been guarding the gates of Hell since the club’s opening. He took one look at my friend and motioned for all of us to go in. I would be less impressed by someone arriving at the Olympics via hot air balloon.
The universe exists in its own sphere in Berghain. There are no windows to the outside and no reflective surfaces anywhere in the building, so any sense of time or personal appearance is lost. What’s more, they put stickers over the lenses on all phones upon entering, so you have no way of visually documenting the fact you were even there. One peek into the hedonistic atmosphere made it clear why these policies were in place.
I arrived to the main dancefloor, mouth agape at the spectacle before me. Berghain resident Len Faki was wrapping up a four-hour set, and I was immediately engulfed in the most raw, industrial music I had ever heard in my life. As a long-time fan of hard tech trance acts like Scot Project and pre-big room W&W, it was as if I had crawled into the darkest, most visceral recesses of those sounds and was hearing the primordial soup from which they had been birthed. The crowd was the most diverse I have ever seen at any dance music event by a mile–drag queens, leather daddies, and “regular joes and janes” interacted almost telepathically, with the relentless drive of the kick drum as the psychospiritual conduit.
The more house-oriented upstairs dancefloor known as Panorama Bar played host to Jamie xx and a load of other DJs that weekend, but as I have had plenty of house exposure in the States, my main squeeze for the night was the main room of Berghain. There, I was one with the music and with everyone around me.
A lot of thoughts passed through my mind during the 12 hours of my Berghain experience. The most basic centered around when would be the next time I could be back inside these walls and which friends I would take with me. As I dove a bit deeper into the recesses of my brain, I began to consider the historical and artistic implications of a genre like techno. The vast majority of electronic music genres, and really all genres, arose from two concepts that have been a connective thread between most music throughout history: melody, and a dividing of a song into clear “sections” with names like “stanzas,” “movements,” “verses,” and “choruses.” These pillars of our musical understanding are often nonexistent in techno. Many techno tracks have no key because of the lack of melodic elements, and they build and release at will, with no discernible beginning or end at any part of the track. This is part of the “journey” that dance music veterans speak of when they reference going to a “real DJ set.” You’re not sure where you’re going or how you’re getting there. All you can do is keep dancing. Given this abandonment of most known musical constructs, techno surely stands as one of the most unique outliers in the history of music, perhaps only similar in structure to the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, among others.
I also began to draw comparisons to the “EDM” events I had attended as a 20-something raver in the States, and could find very few. Gone were the juiced up jocks who wouldn’t know Afrojack from Adam Beyer, the bottle service bimbos who couldn’t care less where they are as long as it’s fancy, and the massive stage productions that, while impressive, also put a brightly-colored bandage over the subpar musical offerings.
You know what else was gone? The “DJs” who don’t give a fuck about their art anymore. Somewhere along the gravy train route, since young US EDM-ers were so naive and unaware of the reality of DJ culture, many of the biggies realized they could basically phone in their entire jobs. They could get someone else to produce their tracks, because who would know since nothing is actually performed live as is the case for an instrument or a voice? They could reduce themselves to a traveling jukebox of their hits, playing the same tracks over and over in a different order or maybe with an interesting vocal mashup now and then, and no one in n00b-dom would be any the wiser. No risks taken, very little new music introduced. These DJs know exactly what they are doing, but they turn a blind eye. They choose to not educate and advance the scene, but instead take the easy route, destroying the art that the veterans of the scene took decades to nurture. It’s like if M. Night Shyamalan showed up at an indigenous tribe’s doorstep, convinced them Lady In The Water was the best cinematic work in history, and the bar was subsequently set at that embarrassing level. These DJs have a responsibility to the music, and they have cast it aside in favor of efficiency and quick bucks, and that is reprehensible.
Of course, Berghain was not the first time I had been in an environment with actual DJs, but it was the first time I started having these epiphanies. Must have been something in the water coming out of the bathroom faucets. It was also the first time I felt like I had to orchestrate a major paradigm shift in how I present myself as an editor and how I foster the development of dance music in general. For years, I have struggled to build up LessThan3 to where it is now, and along the way I sometimes (though as rarely as possible) had to make the hard decision of giving more importance to shitty musicians simply because of their fanbase size and the promised promotional support I would receive from them. However, after emerging from Berghain, looking like a raccoon who had grabbed onto a live wire, I was ready to stand on my own two feet with a new mission to uncompromisingly support authenticity and unabashedly call out shitty music out for what it is. Call out shitty marketing schemes out for what they are. And call out shitty companies who wouldn’t know dance music culture if it slapped them in the face.
So let me break down the tenets of this new era of enlightenment. You’ve got a three-city “tour” coming up that you’re touting as your 10th “tour” in two years? Here’s how many fucks I give about that:
You’ve got a new “album” coming out that happens to have a “collaborator” on every track and you’re releasing in 16 parts to get as much publicity as possible? Here’s how many fucks I give about that:
You’ve got a new festival with the same acts as every other festival and you’re releasing the lineup one by one because you know the artists are mostly shit so you have to devise some other tactic to stay in the public eye? Here is a graphical representation of how many fucks I give about that:
Your new artist just released the 18,000th piece of “deep house” crap that probably rolled directly out of the “Vengeance Essential Deep House” sample pack? Here’s how many fucks I give about that:
You’re pissed off at me because I called you out on one of the above, so now you’re going to keep me off your guest lists? Here is exactly how many fucks I give about that:
If you are participating in any of the above methods of thinly veiled hoodwinkery, you are not relying on the music to do its job. You are trying to do music’s job for it. So that probably means it’s shit music.
Now for what I do give a fuck about: good music and authenticity. Pretty simple, right?
Adele needed little extra help in making 25 have the highest first-week album sales in history in an era when people are using CDs as drink coasters. Why? Because she had a reputation of releasing good, authentic music, and she delivered once again. Novel concept, isn’t it?
Against all odds, Berghain and its associated Ostgut Ton label selected a few good, real DJs, made them residents in a time when relying on residents is supposedly the kiss of death for a nightclub, and now Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann, and Len Faki are all well-ranked in the Resident Advisor Top 100, and Berghain has to turn away 50 percent of everyone who shows up at their door, and that’s not just because they’re trying to preserve a specific vibe. It’s because they don’t have room for everyone. How did that happen? They maintained a standard of excellence with their music.
Are you doing that, DJ or industry person reading this article? Are you taking the road less traveled and actually trying to advance the delicate world of dance music culture for the better? If you are, I’d love to hear from you.
If you’re not, the line is busy.