In retrospect, the innocuous story of how Rotterdam resident Jochem Paap came to be known as Speedy J is fascinating. Because, more than two decades later, you'd be hard-pressed to find a producer in the techno scene that has made fewer compromises in his career. For a man so self-assured to end up with a name so strange... Well, as Paap himself laughs, "The reason I did that first official release as Speedy J was because I didn't think it was going anywhere."
Techno fans, of course, know the punchline: It did go somewhere. Somewhere pretty big. Jochem Paap became one of the most important names in the genre in the early '90s, a visionary producer that found himself crafting dance floor bombs and futuristic art in equal measure. Before even that, however, Paap was caught by the sound of hip-hop and electro, making music in his bedroom with tape recorders and a turntable. Luckily for him, just as he was getting into the music, "everyone was dumping their drum machines and synths. They were going out of fashion, [so] we all bought them for really cheap prices." Soon, though, those same record shops where he was buying hip-hop began to stock records from Chicago and Detroit that "was completely alien."
Paap was so fascinated by the music that he heard that he knew he had to get in touch with the people making it: "I had a couple of friends who ran a radio station just outside of Rotterdam, and they were calling labels all over the world. Someone else was paying for the call..." he laughs, remembering. "They were speaking to people from Transmat, KMS and Underground Resistance to get promos. The reactions they got were always like, 'Hey man, people from Holland actually listen to our records!' They were really freaked out by it. One day they called John Acquaviva after the first States of Mind release came out, and he had the same reaction. He said that he was interested in finding out what we were doing. So I sent him two cassette tapes with forty tracks or something. When it arrived, he called me two days later: 'There are at least three singles in here that we want to release.'"
As a result, Paap became the unlikely Dutch arm of techno's second wave, his work just as curious and alien to his friends in Detroit and Chicago as theirs was to him. When Acquaviva saw him play live in Berlin for the first time in 1991, Detroit producers such as Blake Baxter were "blown away" according to an account in Simon Reynolds' electronic music history Energy Flash. "It spurred his track 'Pullover' into the huge success that it was....Speedy is as much Detroit and Chicago as anyone, and he set the tone in Europe," recalls the Plus 8 boss. Says Paap , "I had some pretty good contacts with publishing in Holland, and they didn't know anything about it. So I was sort of like their European connection for a while." He pauses. Then laughs. "In hindsight, I hooked them up with some really bad publishing deals!"
Nonetheless, the connection was strong, with Acquaviva and fellow Plus 8 owner Richie Hawtin coming over to Europe and Paap playing "weird places in Canada." On one trip, the aforementioned hit "Pullover" was presented as a candidate for inclusion on an upcoming compilation for the label. They loved it. Paap wasn't so sure. "I told them, 'If we're going to do this track, then I need to record it again because it sounds really shit.' So I re-recorded it in Richie's basement in his parent's house, but by the time I had to leave it was still five minutes too long, so he said 'I'll do an edit on my reel-to-reel.' He basically just cut off the first or last five minutes, but he made a mistake. It was recorded without Dolby but he played it back with Dolby, and it sounded really bad. By the time that record came out, I thought it was horrible. And before I knew it everyone was playing it, saying how good it was.
"I was listening to things like Armando and Mike Dunn and Steve Pointdexter at the time, and I just wanted to do a tool basically, something that you could mix into another record and have going for like two minutes and then go on—something like a break or an interlude. But people took it as a song and apparently it was really catchy. People could sing along with it, and it blew up beyond proportion…Looking back, it opened a lot of doors for me, but if I had had the choice of which track would become the big track that everybody loved, 'Pullover' would not have been that one because it just didn't represent what I was doing at the time."
Paap had numerous names under which he was releasing at the time, forgotten aliases like The Second Wave, Public Energy, Aq and DCC. But he was lucky enough to be snapped up by Warp Records for their initial Artificial Intelligence compilation under his own name, which led to an eventual album deal with the UK imprint. Both Richie Hawtin and Paap felt a kinship with Warp's interest in finding a way to push techno via the album format. Both Hawtin's effort (as FUSE) and Paap's Ginger were released through Plus 8 and licensed for Warp's Artificial Intelligence series of albums, which also included classics such as Autechre's Incunabula and Polygon Window's Surfing on Sine Waves.
Despite his dedication to the dance floor, Paap simply lets things happen in the studio. And figures out what to do with it later. "Some people make records where they have these fixed rules like, 'it has to have a thirty two bar intro or else you can't even mix it.' That's the stuff I don't care about. With the music that I really love to make, it just had to have a certain sound. There isn't any criterion explainable in words, it's just a feeling I have. It needs to have something that I really, really like. Every other criterion—being able to play it or tempo or even levels of how instruments relate to each other—I don't really care about as long as it makes me happy."
Listen to some of his work from the '90s, and you'll hear exactly what he means. By the time that Paap hooked up with Novamute for his 1997 album, Public Energy #1, he felt "pretty disconnected from the dance floor." After a number of years making music to jack to, 12-inches were getting rare. "I was more into sound design and sonic weirdness and stuff like that. I had so many modular synths and things that you could get really deep into. [I wanted to do] the weirdest sounds and fuck things up really bad," he laughs. "I was really fascinated by using computers in the most extreme ways that they could be used for music… It was just a sound design ego trip I guess."
This one-man-in-the-studio-with-his-machines vibe has never been an all-consuming presence in Paap's working methods. But it no doubt had something to do with why he embraced the idea of collaboration so wholeheartedly around the turn of the century. Novamute allowed him the platform to get together in an official capacity with a number of artists: Adam Beyer, Literon, Chris Liebing, George Issakidis. Each pairing has made for radically different results. Issakidis, Paap says, "always finds the most amazing music I've never come across. When we get together we basically bring out the wild sides out of each other, we have like our fucked up ideas, the ideas are already there, but for some reason we do crazier things then we would do by ourselves. That's just the chemistry."
When working with Liebing, however, Paap finds himself "try[ing] to piss him off a little bit. Chris is very effective and structured…so the end result usually works. It's very playable and club functional, but there's always a little twist in there that makes it more interesting." The collaboration with Liebing extends further than simply the studio: In the mid-'00s they began to play together. Paap was still solely playing live at the time and Liebing was still using vinyl, but they quickly jettisoned their set-ups when Ableton and Traktor became stable enough to use in a performance context. From there, things took off.
"It gave us an opportunity to experiment with our styles, because we could always blame the other one if something went wrong," Paap laughs. "I was starting to get bored of playing all my material. I had a track selection of 40 tracks, and that was it, you know? But I think approaching it from my live background has helped. I never play one record straight out, it's always mangling and looping stuff and using it as an instrument…. People adopted it as a digital version of whatever they were used to, but I always try to see what else it can do—to forget what it's about and see the possibilities. I could never DJ as a traditional DJ…I don't think I could make a different doing it that way… We've been able to mix house, deep house and all kinds of weird things that didn't really belong to the genre."
Paap has never delved into house too far past marrying it to techno's relentless chug, but he has nonetheless been instrumental in slowing the genre down to a place where the two are more often compatible. When everything became hard and fast in the '90s, he was thinking things might "groove a bit better when things were pitched down eight percent." You can hear that influence in the music that has been released on Paap's post-Nova Mute project, Electric Deluxe, where things rarely reach above 128 BPM. "I hate talking about music in terms of BPM," he says, "but it's kind of like another groove that people are looking for now."
The label has been an interesting study in contrasts. On one hand, there is the functional side. On each release, there are DJ tools that even Paap describes as "musically not that interesting" but that can be used in sets to "make other stuff more interesting." And then there are the tracks that don't bother to take the dance floor into consideration at all. With sales continuing to decline in the techno world, it certainly makes more sense than standing still—hoping that record buyers will magically return to shops.
The label's freewheeling approach is illustrated through its varied podcast series, which features DJs playing the tracks that have influenced them through the years. It's a series which can accommodate ambient legend Pete Namlook as easily as Singapore's new techno star Xhin playing things like old school hip-hop, modern classical and indie. "For me, as a musician, I don't see much difference in the process of creation of any kind of music," says Paap .
When asked about where he thinks techno is at the moment, he further proves the point by comparing it to an unlikely referent, "I think right now techno is completely back to its essence. It would be just like a singer/songwriter, a guitar and an amazing voice. It's very simple, very effective and true to its form. Stripped down to its essence. It's accepted to be faceless again."