|Playing favourites: Till von Sein
Dub techno you can bring home to your mother, how the Ultramagnetic MCs are like the Rolling Stones and Snoop Dogg going deep house: RA's Finn Johannsen plays Berlin-based DJ/producer Till von Sein some records.
It was only three short years ago that Till von Sein made his debut bow as an electronic music producer. Before that, he'd grown up listening to a good deal of hip-hop, something that you can easily hear in his deep house on labels like Morris/Audio, Moodmusic and Trenton. Utilizing a sample-based approach, his instinctive compositions have resulted in a trademark sound both original and fresh.
As a DJ, von Sein has been rocking crowds since the mid-'90s in both his native northern Germany and his current homebase of Berlin. But ever since he relocated to the capital for his job at Cliquebookings agency, his busy schedule nowadays rarely leaves him with enough time to just listen to some tunes. With that in mind, RA's Finn Johannsen brought the tunes to him to tease out some of the varied influences that have guided his production and DJ career. The resulting conversation touched on dub techno you can bring home to your mother, how the Ultramagnetic MCs are like the Rolling Stones and Snoop Dogg going deep house.
"Definition of a Track"
Back to Basics, 1988
A rare tune from 1987. Indeed nothing but a track.
I know this from the vinyl edition of the DJ-Kicks by Terranova. At that time it fit right in with what they were trying to represent with that compilation. I used to play this track regularly back then, it was very good for warming up.
This has a hip-hop vibe to it. But it doesn't sound like 1988.
No, and I didn't know that. [laughs]
Would you still play it?
Definitely. I don't know when and for what occasion, but it is a class track.
It somehow reminds me of the bonus beats they used to have on the flipside of old house records.
Yeah, but bonus beats have gone out of fashion a bit, apart from hip-hop. Argy had some for that Sydenham track "Ebian" on Ibadan last year. But don't think it's really relevant for the current generation of house producers.
The percussive elements really distinguish the sound of that era from today's productions. Lots of handclaps. Here, it's rimshots.
My problem is that I don't really like all these percussion sounds from drum machines. I prefer sampled real instruments. This is probably some classic Roland drum machine, like a 606. I would take the bass drum and hi-hats from somewhere else. The toms of these old machines are always cool, but the bongo sounds for example are not for me. I wouldn't use that for my productions. I couldn't do these 100% authentic references. I think it's super cool to listen to in a Prosumer record for example, but I couldn't do that.
You've got qualms about doing something like that?
No! [laughs] I'm just working on a new track for which I sampled an old amen break. I don't care. If I like it, I use it. This kind of break is in 90% of all drum & bass tracks and nobody cares, so I don't care either.
Jack Trax - The Sixth CD, 1988
This is an old track by DJ Pierre, from his acid house days. But it is different to most tracks he produced back then. It is pretty deep.
It's great. Awesome vibe for 1988, I could listen to this all day. It doesn't tranquilize my feet, it's not boring, it's perfectly right. And I would grin from ear to ear if I would hear this in a club.
Some of its sounds have aged really well.
I really like this. I think it's a pity that there are not so many tracks with great basslines at the moment. There are a lot of simple, functional basslines without much of a melody. Of course it's effective and some current tracks need some of these dominating, functional elements, but a track like this for example needs a bit more, and I miss that. It's also simple, but it has more and different harmonies. I like that, it gets me hooked. I would love to buy this on Beatport! [laughs]
Yes, that could be difficult.
Eric B & Rakim
"Follow the Leader"
Follow the Leader, 1988
My problem with Rakim was that he always had this special position. He was almost like the Beatles. For people like me in their early 30's raised on hip-hop, he was always untouchable. Also MCs like Guru, they had these particular songs that were unbelievable, but for me they never meant the same thing as for most other people into hip-hop. I always had other MCs that I found untouchable.
Did you consider this to be too mainstream?
No, not all! I would never talk bad about Rakim, there's no way of doing that.
I remember hearing this track the first time during a night drive, on the car stereo in an acid house radio show.
That must have been an instantly scary vibe.
Yes, I was really surprised. It has these sinister soundtrack elements but it kicks. It sounded different to the hip-hop I knew. Very dynamic.
Yeah, but a lot of current hip-hop also has a faster pace. The stoned '90s are over. Hm, this is difficult for me. I love a lot of late 80's hip-hop. Ultramagnetic MCs for example. It's not my office soundtrack by any means, but I love cycling to that. I really discovered Rakim when I was 15, around the time of their album, Don't Sweat the Technique, which I really liked. I knew their older stuff from parties, it always got played, but it never touched me the way Ultramagnetic MCs or KRS-One did.
Maybe sometimes it's the same with hip-hop as in rock music where you support a camp and not the other. Either Beatles or Stones. Kiss or AC/DC.
Blur or Oasis. [laughs] Yeah, KRS-One or Rakim.
"Planet E" (Acid Drop Mix)
Planet E, 1989
I know this track, it's cool.
Yeah, this is really exceptional in many ways. First of all it samples The Talking Heads, unlike most other hip-house tracks. David Byrne is even dancing in the official video. Rapping from the perspective of an extraterrestrial inspecting urban districts from the ghetto to the suburbs is not the usual hip-house stuff.
Yeah, indeed. [laughs] Did Carl Craig name his label after this track?
Good question! I don't know.
That was the first thing that came to my mind. Was KC Flightt really big back then?
He had quite a few club hits that you can still hear in sets.
"Let's Get Jazzy" for instance. But this one is brilliant, I played this in the office a few times and my colleague Mateo had to write down notes right away. These Talking Heads samples are really funny. Killer bassline! I never got into hip-house, because most of it was just too cheesy.
But you originally come from a hip-hop background, are you not tempted to use its culture with the things you do now?
I actually kept looking out desperately for older hip-hop stuff in this tempo to play in my sets. But each time I thought I had found something right for the purpose, I realized I would totally make a fool of myself with that in the club. I was also thinking about producing something like that myself, but it would never ever have this classic flavour. I couldn't live with those bland party lyrics either. It's thin ice.
Well, smart music with smart lyrics is tough to achieve. This is probably why this one remained an exception.
Push Push / Rockers To Rockers (Come Again), 1991
One of my favourite tracks ever! I had some my best moments with it, and some of my worst, due to those awful remixes.
On Great Stuff Recordings! Tomcraft's label. There are two crucial tracks that influenced me the most when I got into House music. This one and "From Disco To Disco" by Whirlpool Productions. And Great Stuff really had the nerve to re-release both these tracks within half a year. [laughs] It was nearly time to use this typically German trait of writing letters of complaint.
Why was this track so crucial to you?
It has so many connotations for me. I really love these cheesy, ravey chord sounds. The beat, this dirty bassline, the breaks, all of it. I didn't hear it played out by other DJs in clubs so often, I had to play it myself and then head for the floor.
They did some other interesting house productions, too. But this is the best example for their combination of dub/reggae influences and a house groove.
It is divine. I discovered other dub influenced house and techno like Basic Channel probably much too late. And it is like with Rakim: There are some tracks I hear at home or in a club, and I think they're phenomenal. But then other tracks just don't get me. You might tell me it depends on the context or the right moment, but it doesn't move me. And then I hear something like Round Two, and the sun rises, and I think "What a masterpiece!" I like Dub in electronic music, but more in house than in techno. This current dub techno renaissance passes me by more or less. I like this clash with "Push Push," especially with the vocals. It's actually pretty commercial. I could play this to my mother and she would love it.
Ezio / Les Ondes, 1996
I'm really sad that I couldn't get this album in a digital format so far, because I never convert vinyl. I have tried it before, but I was never satisfied with the results. I regularly would love to play tracks from this album. This is from the phase where house really got interesting for me.
This was indeed introducing the first wave of French house with something essential.
I only knew them from their hip-hop productions. La Funk Mob, Mo' Wax, MC Solaar and such. And suddenly they came up with something completely different. I think I wouldn't have gotten into Motorbass, Super Discount or Alex Gopher right away without having heard their hip-hop stuff first, but as I became aware that they were also doing these sounds it interested me. Great stuff.
These hip-hop origins are quite obvious with "Pansoul."
Yeah. The beats and samples are so twisted, you always think something is stuck. They have their very own groove. They had a strange approach to loops. It often happens to me that I build beats and they sound straight to me, being a former hip-hop kid and all, but others think they are kind of rugged. And you tweak around a bit more with it, and the others are right.
Is that your attitude in general, to keep it spontaneous, rough, maybe even a bit unformed?
Definitely. I would like to do tracks that are perfectly finalized in production and arrangement. I appreciate such tracks a lot. But I think I just can't do that. I have to admit that. A track like Âme's "Rej" is perfectly produced, very well balanced and requires more skills than I have.
But as you develop, these skills might develop too. Maybe in three years time you'll be on a level where you are totally meticulous while producing.
Yeah, of course. But I may be not the person for that. I also have a full-time job, I do a lot of working on tracks while travelling around, with earplugs on trains and planes. [laughs] I produce tracks by kind of going back to that approach hip-hop producers have, not spending more than a few hours on an individual track. I kind of like to keep it raw.
Well, the history of house and techno is built on tracks which were made with such an approach.
Yes, I often hear tracks where I ask myself how long it took to make them, some of the Rhein/Main scene for example. And then you hear guys like Âme or Stimming, who clearly put a lot of effort in it. But it's not my thing, right now at least. But I was different last year, and next year that might change again.
So you're in your improvisation phase?
Exactly. I'm just not a knob twiddling techno kid. When I see equipment with all the functions and possibilities I have my eyes wide open and my jaw is dropping, but I can't work that way. I feel more attracted to the MPC productions of the Baile Funk scene for instance, that keep it raw and efficient.
Soylent Green 2, 1998
Roman Flügel produced this just a few years later, under his Soylent Green moniker.
Well, this is incredible. I'm always surprised how multi-faceted Roman Flügel is. It could have been released just now, like the reissues that just came out, it is totally timeless. It has a lot of different elements that work perfectly well together. Some of them might not work as well if you would hear them on their own. It's the interaction that makes it's fascinating. Is this a rare track?
No, I don't think so. Maybe the original 12-inch, but Playhouse released an album retrospective of Soylent Green a few years ago and included this track.
Hard to believe that the classic Alter Ego stuff just came out before that, and whatever else he was involved with at the same time, like Sensorama. This has a super sound, everything fits. I once heard him play as a DJ, that was very fascinating, too. Unfortunately Playhouse had a creative slump at some point. It's a label that I always check out in digital stores and I noticed that I always end up browsing their back pages, and not the new stuff. Of course I like My My or Prosumer, but some of their output was almost heading for electroclash territory.
I guess they reissue older releases for a reason.
Yes, there are a lot of people who now try to sound like what Flügel did with "Altes Testament" back then. I don't oppose referencing or sampling certain elements of older tracks, but I would never aim for a hundred percent copy of something which has been done before.
You used to play broken beats for some time.
Yeah, and this is a bit like this West London style, with warm and organic sounds. Cool.
I think despite these bouncy off beat drums, the track has a certain Detroit feeling.
Yeah, there were also several people off that West London into Detroit, like Dego. Again, I like this because it's lively. I'm the type that loves to dance in a club, or to jump around even. And this track would be something to get me going.
Have these kind of beats gone out of fashion?
No, not at all. Listen to Argy play, or Dennis Ferrer. "Bells of Yoruba" by Gel Abril. It's still pretty much around. I like it when the beats are lively, and then there are such warm and dreamy sounds on top. There could be more of that. It sets your feet in motion, but your head is above the clouds.
It's something I want to achieve with my productions, too. A while ago I wanted my beats to be mellow, but at the moment I'd like them to be kicking, with contrasting sounds arranged around them. Nowadays people would put a hard pumping bassline under this track, and some heavy chords, and people would go crazy. But this way it's much better. I have a real soft spot for a lot of stuff that came out of France after the '90s.
I don't really care about what developed with Black Strobe recently though, or Ed Banger, or Kitsuné. There is a strange vibe right now in France. There are not many good clubs right now, it's all about these snotty brats, and everybody else has to struggle. It's a shame really. This track however has these end of '90s nu-jazz-style beats.
Yes, it is kind of connected to that scene, but I think on the other hand it is also very different. I heard it in a Derrick May set once, and I was surprised at first. But, on second thought, it totally made sense.
Yeah, totally. These nu-jazz people just lost me when they went all noodley. People like Mark de Clive-Lowe or Daz-I-Kue, who tried to prove something to themselves with ambitious music that was Stevie Wonder meets Miles Davis meets Herbie Hancock. And you just thought, OK, but we already had that before.
"Sensual Seduction" (Instrumental)
Sensual Seduction, 2008
I'm really jealous of this instrumental version. Where did you get that from?
It's on the 12-inch release actually. So only on vinyl maybe?
Fuck! [laughs] I played this all summer. The chords are just brilliant.
I asked myself how someone like Snoop Dogg decided to use pads that sound like they were lifted from an old flutey deep house track.
Hm, that's a good question. I really had not thought of it this way, but yeah! The whole album was pretty surprising. You notice that a lot of these hip-hop guys are totally open up for such things at the moment. I don't mean sampling O-Zone, but for example I was told that Timbaland bought a lot of records at the Freebase record store in Frankfurt during his last German tour.
I think if you have a status like him, you should do that.
I think it's great. It is so frustrating when people could do whatever they want, and they do nothing with it.
But hip-hop was like that for years. It was very much isolated from dance influences and there were a lot of prejudices. It probably needed people with some status and self-confidence to change that.
Yeah, sure. But Snoop Dogg is often a parody of himself by now and people even expect him to do such things. Just think of the country track on that album!
But this track doesn't sound like a gimmick.
But I think it was also a flop. It wasn't a big hit. I remember playing this at the Fusion Festival last year, and there were old friends of mine who are still much more into hip-hop than I am, and they came up to me and were asking why I would play such things. It totally failed with them. The video was not in rotation that much and it kind of went under here.
It's funny, though. There wasn't a moment where I associated the track with deep house but now that you are pointing it out, it is totally obvious. I think the reason is that I only knew the original version, and I didn't notice the harmonies so much as with this instrumental version. You really hear the music on its own and you think "What the fuck is that?" I've also played Kanye West's "Love Lockdown" and completely failed with it, people in the club were really complaining. I never had that with this, it always worked.
Still it would interest me why someone is using something that sounds like deep house in a hip-hop context, and another producer is using Euro trance like O-Zone.
Maybe the American kids just love the hip-hop version with "Dragostea Din Tei" for its trash appeal, like the European kids do with the original version. It certainly is catchy. There always have been guilty pleasures in pop music that were still good songs, but what is happening in hip-hop at the moment in those terms is really sad. What was a really good pop song in the 2008 charts? "I Kissed A Girl"? Definitely not. I also can't think of any pop album that was really good as a whole. It must be very frustrating for the kids growing up right now.
Published / Wednesday, 11 February 2009