Dave Sumner assumed the Function guise some 20 years ago in New York, where he held an early-'90s residency at Limelight, one of the era's most infamous clubs. But his roots as a DJ go back to his teenage years in suburban New Jersey, where his obsession with sharing great records with others really took hold. You could trace it further still to his childhood in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where disco, electro and freestyle records were blaring from every car that drove down the road. "When I was a kid and started hearing the music, I was fascinated with it," he told me. "It drew me in and took over my life. I really didn't have a choice."
We spent an afternoon discussing his history and craft at his home studio in Berlin, where he made clear that all these years later, this same fascination continues to drive him in the booth.
A lot of people get exposed to dance music at a young age, but not everyone starts DJing. What do you think was different in your situation?
I had this almost magical experience when I was a kid. We lived [in Brooklyn] on East 80th Street—a big, really busy road—across the street from this members-only swim club. On Saturday nights they had these dance parties, but I wasn't old enough to enter. So during the summer, it was like a block party every weekend, and my backyard faced this swimming pool. The music was just radiating from across the street. At that time, hi-NRG, disco, electro, early hip-hop, freestyle—all these things were radio music. I get nostalgic when I listen to Intergalactic FM because it sounds like the soundtrack to my childhood.
Do you remember when you became conscious of the fact that somebody was sequencing this music on the other end?
That's what caught my ear—it was continuous music. Later on, when I finally started DJing, I really didn't know anything about it. The turntables didn't even have pitch control. But I quickly learned.
Tell me about your first setup.
My sister's boyfriend at the time, when I was like 15 years old, he was a DJ—but he was just a bar DJ, and he had turntables at his house. He just didn't use pitch control, he was just going back and forth playing record after record, and I was fascinated by that. At the time I was recording a lot of mixes off Hot 103, which is now Hot 97. They used to do Saturday night dance parties, and I'd record the mixes and then talk about them with my sister's boyfriend. I'd go over to his house, play him stuff and be like, "Do you know what this record is?" I think for my 15th or 16th birthday, I got a mixer, just like a Tandy Radio Shack mixer. Within a few months I discovered Technics 1200s and then got this GLI PMX 9000, which was a really popular mixer at the time.
You know, my mom had a lot to do with me becoming a DJ. At that time we were in Brooklyn there was a really strong sense of community, and my mom was very social. We'd always have parties at the house, so I quickly became familiar with entertaining people. And then later, when we moved to New Jersey, she wouldn't want us to go out and cause trouble. So we had this big unfinished basement, and she let me throw parties. I had a DJ setup, and my friends and I would cover the walls in graffiti and steal lights from construction sites.
I've been reviewing things in my mind, and I've noticed that socially, this is the way that I've communicated with friends. The DJ booth was always a barrier—I was communicating with my friends through music. I had a nice little soundsystem, and during the summers I would play friends' parties. I was constantly loading stuff up in my car and bringing it to their houses, and I would be the DJ at house parties. So when I look back now, that was the way that I communicated a lot of the time. I was friends with everybody, but I wasn't really talking to them because I was just obsessed with playing music.
Do you remember what some of the first records you bought as a DJ were?
My first was Joyce Sims, (You Are My) All And All on Sleeping Bag. I think that was the summer of eighth grade, going into ninth. Growing up in New Jersey, there was a group of like ten of us who were all DJs, and we'd go over to each other's houses and show each other records. We all lived within a couple of miles' vicinity, and we all had DJ setups at our houses. If there was something I wanted, I would write it down and go find it.
Do you remember when you played for the first time outside of your house parties?
I don't actually remember the name of the club, but it was somewhere on the Jersey Shore. My sister's boyfriend at the time, he would play, and he took me along. It's sort of a distant memory, but I remember it not being very good [laughs], and it was, like, a Wednesday night, mid-week. After that, locally in New Jersey I would play in Asbury Park at the Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen started getting his first gigs—that was 20 minutes from my house, so I was playing there often—and then a lot of crappy clubs in Jersey. I started going out to clubs in Manhattan, and then, eventually, started to play at Limelight.
What was the mixing style at that time? How were people putting records together?
I'd say that I would ride mixes for longer back then. From disco into house music, New York was a rotary mixer town, like the Bozak, the Urei—these were staples.
That's what you'd find in the DJ booth, even when you were playing out in New Jersey?
No, no—you would find normal up-and-down faders. But I'll never forget the first time I saw a rotary mixer. It was at Limelight, I was about to go on and I looked at the mixer and was like, "What is that?!" My hands were trembling. But after using it for a while, I came to realise it's really conducive to smooth mixing. So I think that rotary mixers lend themselves to riding mixes for longer.
Stylistically things changed a lot in a very short period of time when I went from freestyle and house and then progressed to techno. In '91 or '92, the music style was changing so often. I remember going to Limelight when gabber started to surface—it was like every week the tempo was increasing, getting faster and faster until it got to 180. So in that the mixing style changed. There was a lot of cutting, and back then I used to use a crossfader—I would never use a crossfader now. And back then, I would cue up a record and throw the crossfader over completely to the other track, just to throw hints of it in very quickly.
Can you remember a gig that felt like your big break?
I had a residency at Limelight, but I was by no means one of the bigger DJs. I was playing on Thursdays, which was sort of the slowest night. The focus was Friday night—Lord Michael's Future Shock—and Wednesday night, which was Michael Alig's Disco 2000. On Thursdays, the promoter was always changing. I had a friend who was a promoter, George Picarello. We met at the club and would hang out. He wanted to hear me as a DJ, so he came out to my parent's house in New Jersey. He liked what I was playing, and I became his resident. I was like 18—it was a great experience to have at such an early age.
There was one night at Limelight on a Thursday that made me realize that I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life. They were constantly moving the DJ booth around in the club, trying it in different spots. One night when I was playing, they'd set it up on the stage—Limelight had this really beautiful stage, a lot of music videos and live concerts were filmed on that stage—and Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite was there. It turned into a show, where she was dancing while I was DJing, just by herself on the stage. I was watching her music videos on TV, and now she's dancing for me. After a while, she came up to the DJ booth and whispered in my ear, "Thank you." We were driving home and all my friends were like, "What just happened?"
Who were some of your favorite DJs during that period?
On the radio, there were DJs like Glenn Friscia, Scott Blackwell and then on WBLS during lunchtime, Kenny Carpenter. I thought Kenny Carpenter was one of the tightest DJs I ever heard. There was Roman Ricardo at The Tunnel, Glenn Friscia at the Palladium. That was in the early days, when I was just finding out about things.
When I really found myself as a DJ, it was Jeff Mills at Limelight and Adam X at Storm Rave. We don't really need to explain Jeff—I feel honored to have had him as a resident pretty much every Friday night for two or three years. That was like basically watching him become Jeff Mills. But Adam, I think in a way he had more of an impact on me, because there was something raw about the way he came across. There was a big illegal rave that I went to one time, and a lot of the DJs were playing music that I wasn't into—kind of early trance. Then this skinny little kid with a hood pulled up on his head walked up, and he opened with Mike Dunn, "The Pressure Cooker." It definitely changed my life. With Adam, it was really about selection. I mean, he owned a record shop and had access to records that nobody else did. He would play sometimes and we'd be like, "What record is that?" You'd go up to the turntable, and it's a white label, and on the record is written, "What are you looking at?"
Can you put your finger on something the Limelight residency did for you as a DJ?
I've had this experience since I'm a kid—I'm pretty shy. At this point now, I can DJ in front of 100,000 people, but you could put a microphone in front of my face and I wouldn't say a word. This was a struggle for me in the early days, to get up there. And it was always a challenge, but it was something that I was so determined to get past. I remember sometimes driving into the city and just having a pit in my stomach. "How am I gonna get past this?"
What was it that made you want to play techno?
I felt like techno was more open than house music. House was very restrictive, especially in New York. And then I later came to realize that some of the records that I thought were house were also techno. I love house music, and I'm also a house DJ. I don't really like to say I'm a techno DJ or a house DJ, I'm just playing records—I like sharing music with people. That's ultimately what I've always wanted to do. I love being so obsessed with a track that I want people to hear it.
What do you feel like you learned in the first decade you were DJing?
I don't know, I guess it just felt honest and natural. Especially now that I look back at it. It was definitely a lot more personal. It was about learning, not only about being a DJ but about producing, sound, equipment and the process of making a record. Once I started DJing at proper nightclubs like Limelight I started getting incredible urges to create. And I didn't trust the educational system when it came to what I wanted to learn. At that time what I was looking to learn was on the outside, they didn't understand it. I went to school for music and production, and found they weren't teaching me what I wanted to learn. So outside of class I had to take it upon myself.
I went to the campus library and took out books about synthesis and sound. Then started to buy and sell gear: modulars, drum machines and synthesizers. I worked at music shops like Sam Ash and Rogue Music. And then later at Europadisk, the famous pressing plant on Varick Street in Manhattan, as a production manager looking after accounts like West End, Salsoul and some of the Strictly Rhythm releases, among many others. I was also organizing a lot of events bringing in talent that wouldn't have been booked in the city otherwise. Artists like Mills (after his initial residency, around '99), Robert Hood, Claude Young, Surgeon, Regis, DJ Hell, etc. This was all between 1991 and 2001.
For a long time, your DJ setup would have been a mixer and turntables. When did you start to branch out?
It wasn't just about DJing—it was also production. There was a point, I guess 2000, 2001, where software started taking over. I was always producing on hardware synced up on a mixing console, just doing live mixes to tape. I was never really computer-savvy, so when things started heading in the direction of software, it took me a while to adjust. I was using things like Cubase and Logic, and it seemed a bit laborious.
Then I discovered Ableton, and I started to realise that you could use Ableton not just for production but also for DJing. You could apply that time you would take away from matching beats to programming and remixing things on the fly. I was impressed with the way you could manipulate and get inside the music more. It sort of hit the refresh button, reinvented it for me. It was like starting over, and it gave me the same sort of excitement as when I first started. I did that for a while, like maybe eight years or so, maybe more.
Your setup at that time would have been a laptop running Ableton Live, and what else?
The Evolution UC33. Later I got the Allen & Heath K2s. Now my setup for live is laptop, controllers, 909, soundcard. And then DJing is three CDJs and a mixer.
Why did you decide on that setup?
It sometimes includes turntables, and when I first switched over I was still carrying vinyl with me. But on the road—unfortunately, at this point a lot of Technics 1200s aren't in the greatest condition, and I don't want to play Traktor or Serato. When I play at Berghain I'll still bring some vinyl with me. I love playing vinyl, but I also feel like CDJs are very, very similar. I'm able to do the same things that I was able to do with vinyl. I'm playing on sticks now, and it took a little adjusting to get to that—from carrying, like, two bags of records to just showing up with a memory stick.
When you went back to CDJs, had the stick thing become ubiquitous yet?
I never played CDJs with CDs. I see some DJs playing with them, and I like that—they'll have a book of CDs, they get to turn their back to the crowd. I'm scrolling through tracks facing the crowd, which can sometimes get in the way. I do miss turning around and making the decision with my back to the crowd. But at this point I could play a ten- or 12-hour set with one memory stick. I don't use rekordbox—I think eventually I will, but I'm still not 100% convinced about it. I actually like having folders all over the place and having to search for things, like I would be searching through a record bag. What do they call that now—old school? [Laughs]
Do you have a method for organizing your USBs?
I make folders and have blocks of—I wouldn't say certain styles. It's sort of all over the place, and I kind of like that. I like scrambling sometimes and—"Ah, what folder did I put that in? Where is that track?"—and then finding it and just throwing it on. There's a cool anticipation about that. My favorite DJs, you're standing there and you're like, "What is he going to do next?" And that's how I want to come across when I'm playing. I like to get people's attention, and then have them so locked in—and that motivates me, that drives me to impress.
How do you prepare for a gig?
It depends on the nature of the gig, whether it's a small club or a big festival. And it's never pre-programmed—I have an idea of what I'm going to play, but I never really know until I'm standing there. You could be there for half an hour, look at the crowd, listen to the other DJ before you and have this pre-conceived notion of what you're going to play, and it can change the second you get behind the decks. I have so much material on the sticks that I can go in any direction.
What about mental preparation?
Being a traveling DJ makes it difficult, because the parameters are always changing. The way I would mentally prepare for a gig at Berghain, where the sets tend to be a minimum of four hours, and nine to 12 hours if it's a closing set—there's a lot more mental preparation going into that than a shorter set. This weekend I'm closing, and I'm feeling like I want to play more hypnotic, out-there stuff at certain points, rather than just a lot of percussive, full-on stuff—which I'll probably start out with. But then after five or six hours… That's what's great about the closing sets at Berghain. You can really take chances and really get a bit cosmic.
Is that your favorite place to play?
I know that sounds a bit cliché, but it is. I like the idea of a residency. In the early days, that's all there was—the traveling DJ didn't really exist. I like the idea of building a connection and an audience. And then having the same monitors, the same soundsystem, the same room—you can really build something. When you're travelling all the time, one gig is for 300 people in a small black room with a great soundsystem, another gig is for 7,000 people at a festival, outdoors. It can get a bit confusing in a way. I tend to feel like what I do is best in nightclubs or indoor dark rooms. You could play for little or no money in a great little club on a great soundsystem and walk away completely inspired.
How are you discovering new music these days?
I buy a lot of stuff online, I get a lot of promos—I think we all get a lot of promos [laughs]. It's sort of easier than it ever has been, you know? A lot of things come to me, which is the complete opposite of when I started out, where I was desperately trying to find certain records. Technology's completely changed that, and nothing is a secret anymore. Things don't seem to be as rare as they used to be. I do still go record shopping—and if I do go record shopping, it's usually at used places looking for classic vinyl. Or replacing scratched copies [laughs].
Let's talk about Berghain 07. Walk me through how it came together.
It's the single most difficult music project I've ever worked on. The way I approached it was as a two-part project—it was curating two 12-inches for Ostgut Ton of exclusive tracks, and then doing the mix itself. And those two processes were months apart. I wasn't really thinking about the mix when I was putting together the two 12-inches; I just wanted to put together two amazing 12-inches for Ostgut. In hindsight, if I were to do it again, I probably wouldn't have as many exclusive tracks. That's one of the things that made it a little bit difficult, because then those tracks had to be on the mix.
When you're doing a mix, you license 70 tracks and 30 make the cut. So then you have this trial and error process. Certain things that I thought were going to work, didn't. And then there was that restriction of having the eight exclusive tracks, where it's like, "No, no—these have to be on it."
Stylistically, I think that what I do has a lot of classic ideals. It's rooted in the fundamentals of techno and house. There's only a few classic, old-school tracks on the mix, but I feel like the mix itself has a very classic techno feel to it, which is something I was super conscious of the whole time. But in the end, of the 30 tracks, 17 of them were exclusive, unreleased or never-to-be-released. I put a lot of emphasis into collecting new music, because I wanted everything to be fresh. I wanted people to hear the mix and not really be familiar with what they were hearing. Aside from the two 12-inches of exclusive tracks on Ostgut, on Infrastructure I was A&Ring a lot of stuff that would be involved in the mix, so it was a really involved project.
What was your setup for recording it?
This is also what made it a bit difficult. At first I was thinking I would do it all on CDJs, and that's the way that I was planning it for a long time. But then I started to realize that it was probably better to do it with Ableton. Some of that has to do with the way that it was being mastered. Ostgut has a mastering engineer who asked me to supply each track on a different channel individually, and the best way to capture that was to do it in Ableton so that he can go inside—not just master the two-track mixdown, but go into each track and compress and limit and EQ things to bring it together more. But initially when I was going into the mix, I heard about Rane coming out with the MP2015. A couple of friends were consulting on the mixer, so I asked if they could put me in touch, and Rane let me use the mixer. In the end I wound up doing the mix with Ableton—but I still used the MP2015.
So you were routing everything out to the mixer and doing EQing, filtering and all of that on there?
Yeah, the mixer—I thought it was more of a classic rotary-style mixer, like the [Rane MP] 2016 or the Urei or the Bozak, but it's actually much, much more. It's also a production mixer, which I'm going to be using in future productions, because it has two soundcards built into it. And yeah, the filters sound incredible. I like the way that you can use it as a soundcard and record back into it, and everything's in time. So you can use the filters on the mixer, and then record that back into Ableton. And it's one of the best-sounding mixers out there, and technologically it's groundbreaking.
What's hard about DJing, and what's easy about it?
I actually don't think there's anything hard about DJing. But I always like hearing people who say that they've tried to DJ and can't, because sometimes it's easy to think that anybody can DJ. What's hard about being the kind of DJ that I am? Traveling [laughs]. I love to see the world, but I see it one night at a time. If I could stay grounded, I'd prefer that—I would accomplish more. When you have the same audience all the time, you have to constantly be bringing new music into it. There's no connection between New York and Tokyo, so you can do similar types of things. Like I said before, I don't pre-program any sets, but you could play similar types of music. If you're grounded, and you have a residency, and that's the only place you're playing, you have to be on your toes and constantly reinvent yourself.
What's easy about DJing? I feel like DJing is easy because—what do they say? If you love your job, then you'll never work a day in your life. So that's how I feel. I feel like it's second nature to me, it's something I've been doing since I was 15 years old. Sometimes it's hard standing in front of a crowd when you're completely exhausted from traveling. But sometimes it's just hard standing in front of a crowd in general. Like I said, inherently I think I'm just a shy dude who wants to play music for people. Sometimes I'd rather be off to the side in a little box, doing the same exact thing.
With all the experience you've accrued, is there any advice you would give to someone who wants to do what you do?
I'd say, don't confuse popularity with respect. When I did Incubation on Ostgut Ton, I had Tobias [Freund] mix it, but I was also speaking to François Kevorkian. I played at Deep Space at Cielo in New York, and the next day he invited me to his studio and said the most important thing I've ever heard. We were just talking about being a DJ, talking about his career—his first records came out in like 1978, he's played at Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, he's played disco to house to techno. But he said that he never aspired to be a DJ. I think that's the most profound thing I've heard, in all my years.
I've been DJing for 27 years or something like that, and because of the mix I've been reflecting a lot. When I first started becoming a DJ, not for one second did I ever think I want to be famous. I'll forever be that 15-year-old kid in my parents' basement. I did it for most of my life for little or no money, and if it dried up tomorrow, I'd still do it for little or no money. There's nothing that's going to change my passion for music. I've looked for other things that I could possibly be more passionate about, and I haven't found it. There's something about sound and music that's stronger than visuals, because it taps into your emotions, and you can really pull people's heartstrings with it. But I think that not aspiring is the right way to do it. From a very early age, I realised that slow and steady wins the race—you just keep on doing it.