"We made so many mistakes, it's crazy," he said, smiling in the glow of his laptop screen. "The sampler is not synched, so whenever I'm a little bit late, the whole loop is fucked. This one drop is the biggest fail ever." A shaker and a woozy synth loop spiraled around each other. It seemed like things were going well, until the drums came back in, queasily out of time with the samples. When it happened Graef covered his face and cracked up. "Oh shit..."
As funny as he found all this, Graef actually took the live set very seriously. 2014 would be his biggest year yet in terms of gigs, thanks to his debut album, Rivers Of The Red Planet, which came out this week on Tartelet. Graef had given himself a big challenge with his choice of hardware, and now he was working every day to pull it together. At first he wasn't even sure how to use all the gear. "Now I'm starting to understand the synth, but it took me at least two years to get one sound that I liked out of it."
Graef just recently turned 21, which might explain some of his lackadaisical swagger. Sipping Augustiners in his bedroom that night, he mentioned offhandedly that he was "bored of DJ sets," hence the live act. He also shrugged off his achievements as a DJ and producer. "I don't get why people book me, to be honest," he said. "I'm starting to get fans, I guess, and it's like, 'Man, it's fucking techno, you can do it too, it's not a big deal,' you know? They tell me, 'You have sick drums!' and I tell them, 'Man, I use a lot of Native Instruments samples, and samples from disco tracks... I'm not a hero!' Why would someone want a picture with me? I don't get it, I really don't."
Which isn't to say he doesn't appreciate it. "People actually coming to a club to see you—that's something I didn't see as possible. It's really weird, people asking you, 'When do you start? I came to see you.' I mean, it's a huge compliment, of course it's really nice, but as I said I don't really get it, because it doesn't feel like a huge musical accomplishment. There's different stuff that's so much more work—if you listen to a jazz record, that's a guy who I would say, 'Oh man, you really did something there.' Whereas to me, I would probably say, 'Cool, you helped us party, nice one. Let's have a beer."
You can hear this attitude in Graef's music. Many producers are married to house and techno—with him, it's an open relationship. "I spend most of my money on old records I can't play in clubs, so then when I'm DJing I'm always playing the same records," he says. "I recently got really into some of the German beatmakers. It's insane. Like Madlib stuff, but you always have in your head that it's actually a German guy from some small village." Peering over Graef's disheveled room is a record by the jazz pianist Bill Evans. "It's so sick," Graef says. "One track sounds exactly like Zelda."
Most of Graef's productions have been low-slung house grooves, but as time goes on, his other influences shape his sound more and more. Take Box Aus Holz 08, the latest release on his record label of the same name. The EP has two house tracks, three downtempo hip-hop instrumentals, and "Pinkelpause Mit Den Peanuts," a basically unclassifiable track that gets to the heart of Graef's style more than anything else he's ever done. Produced with his friend Ludwig Labuzinski (under the name Luds & Reverend G), the song is a high-tempo sample collage that veers off into a long breakdown centered on a clip from the Peanuts soundtrack. This is Graef in a nutshell: fresh in a way that's genuinely unconcerned with convention, rather than deliberately set on breaking it.
As a DJ, too, Graef is honest and unfussy. I first saw him play at Farbfernseher, a tiny and always packed club in Kreuzberg. Outside it was wet and frigid; inside it was hot, cramped and very smoky. Graef's set suited the room's thick atmosphere. His 4/4 selections were smudged and baggy, most of them from his label or his own catalog. The rest were mostly curveballs—hip-hop, R&B, two-step, Latin jazz and so on. The transitions were often cheeky (he liked leading into his more eclectic selections by turning off the active deck, letting the previous track grind to a halt) but he always made the right call: people kept dancing through all his left turns, a reminder of how off-piste DJs can go without killing the vibe.
Looking around the room, you could spot a few people who have been instrumental to Graef's success. Bobbing around in front were Joschka Seibt, his live wingman, and Labuzisnky. Both looked too young to be there—sure enough, it was Seibt's first time. Also in the room was Tinko, the tall and deep-voiced co-manager of OYE Records, a Berlin vinyl shop where Graef and Labuzinsky both work (Graef does one day a week in exchange for free records). Absent from this cast of characters was OYE's other manager, Markus Lindner, AKA Delfonic, who was at home in bed with the flu. Lindner has long been a mentor to Graef, helping him hone his sound ("I remember he told me to try putting the claps a little off the beat") and taking care of the administrative work for his label. A few Box Aus Holz sweaters could be seen in the crowd; in the booth, Graef was repping with an OYE shirt.
OYE aren't the only ones who have taken Graef under their wing. Tartelet, the Danish label that's home to artists like Wareika and Brandt Brauer Frick, also noticed something in him early on. Graef met the whole crew when Brandt Brauer Frick played an in-store gig at OYE in 2013. Eventually, they offered Graef a record deal, signing him on for a slew of releases, including his debut album.
As with everything else, Graef's approach to his first LP was impressively laissez faire. Rivers Of The Red Planet was an instrumental hip-hop album in its earlier drafts, back when it was called Reclined Female Nude With Supported Legs (other scrapped titles were Boorish Chunk and The Adventures Of Big M). In a recent interview with AIAIAI, Graef said: "I wanted to make an album that you can dance to, but I didn't want to make a house album because I've never heard one house album that I actually would listen to the whole way through, you know?" After a while, though, "it sort of drifted and became something in between the two."
Talking about himself and his music, Graef is invariably self-effacing, but notably less so with Rivers Of The Red Planet. "It's really nice for me," he says. "I did so much stuff on my own, recorded so much original stuff, which was really hard for me because I'm kind of a musician in a way, but not like a really good musician, so it was a very difficult task for me. And now if someone will say, 'Hey I really like that track from the album,' I feel I can say, 'Thank you, I worked on it hard.' I feel a little more willing to take credit for it."
Graef and Saebt got set up on the shop's front counter, between the decks and the cash register. Copies of the new album covered the wall behind them. For the next 45 minutes, the two friends dished out a funky, dynamic and perfectly loose medley of disco-flavored house and hip-hop. Throughout the whole thing, they rocked their shoulders around and exchanged quick glances that seemed to say—"Hey, this is actually going kind of well!" Occasionally Saebt would tap out live beats on the MPC, earning a peal of whistles every time. When they finished, Saebt slunk off and everyone cheered for an encore. Graef stood there laughing for a minute, then shrugged and decided to go for it. He threw something together on the fly using just the SP-404. It did the trick.
A few minutes later, Graef stood by the bar and endured a deluge of praise, his squinty grin hitting new levels the whole time. Someone handed him a copy of his LP and asked him to sign it. He blushed, received some expected abuse from his friends, and took the pen with a slightly pained look on his face. Still, he was a good sport, signing his name in grand, sprawling strokes. It was a convincing autograph.