So began Germann Nguyen's relationship with Club Der Visionaere. In the seven years since, the DJ better known as Binh has become the Berlin venue's key resident, fully embracing the canal-side spot's focus on subtle and extended DJ sets. His profile outside Berlin has risen significantly in that time, thanks to sharp skills behind the decks, a handful of releases and, perhaps most importantly, his enduring ability to seek out obscure house and techno. Manchester promoters Dog Eat Dog summed it up nicely when they hosted Nguyen earlier this year, stating: "It's as a collector, above all, that Binh is truly special" and that his "selections speak to the wealth of bombs that remain undiscovered, and inspire us to keep digging deeper."
Digging is a dying art. There are a still a handful of big-time DJs who consistently surprise with their selections, but for the most part, if you go and see someone play these days, you know what you're going to get. We're living in the age of internet, where almost nothing is a secret. Electronic music is an open book, with DJ charts, tracklists accompanying almost every online mix and entire forums dedicated to track IDs. Popping into a store selling used vinyl every once in a while no longer sets you apart from the many thousands of other DJs playing similar music—the internet is a digger's most powerful tool, but it takes time to utilise it properly. There are only so many ways to mix two records together in a club, and selectors now must work harder than ever to have a singular voice.
This all runs parallel to the notion that DJing as an art form isn't as appreciated as it once was. In today's climate, producers make one or two popular tracks and are rewarded with club dates irrespective of how well they can mix. You can hardly blame them: making music is their main passion, and many of these individuals have neither the time nor the inspiration to spend hours each week trawling through online (or physical) stores. Add digital promo services to the equation (most touring DJs will receive hundreds of digital releases via email each week) and you have an increasingly predictable DJ landscape. Selectors that have the ability to truly boggle your mind are rare—any DJ can throw down a few unknown gems, but it takes an extremely dedicated digger to stack their sets with them. When Nguyen is on the decks, each time he brings in a new record, you get a feeling that this is the only time you're ever going to hear it.
Berlin is home to a small group of house DJs for whom digging is key, and many of them are connected to Club Der Visionaere. Nguyen is a core member of this group and is among the German capital's best selectors, known for long sets teeming with impossible-to-find tracks. He's in his early 30s and has been DJing for over a decade. For most of that time, he's been a relatively unknown name, known mainly to fans of the stripped-back house Club Der Visionaere is home to. In the last few years, however, his reputation stretched beyond the heads-y Berlin circuit where he cut his teeth, earning gigs across Europe and the US.
Nguyen's talent behind the decks is central to his rising profile. In many ways, his story resembles that of Rødhåd, another German DJ who earned his stripes playing long sets in Berlin clubs. Sound-wise, the two are worlds away, but both can count this unique long-form DJing experience as vital to their musical education. It's doubtful Nguyen will become as popular as Rødhåd now is, though he probably doesn't want to. Like Raresh and many others in the so-called minimal scene, there's a charming modesty in how Nguyen approaches his career. He's extremely friendly in person but hard to extract certain information from. Chat with him about the next release on his label, Time Passages (this time it's a 12-inch from a little-known artist called Spacetravel) and he'll reply enthusiastically and at length. Ask about his latest gig at fabric, though, and he'll give you a smile and a simple "fun!" and promptly change the topic.
At almost every point during our conversation, Nguyen wore a grin—which is funny, because I don't recall ever seeing him smile behind the decks. He's particularly animated when talking about another passion: cooking. Nguyen grew up working in his family's Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, and is still an avid chef today. He recounts his early years DJing, during which he'd run from restaurant to club and back again. "I would start DJing at 11 PM," he told me in Kreuzberg a few months ago. "But the restaurant I worked in would also close then. So I would leave in a taxi ten minutes early. I would then play for two-and-a-half hours, and then head back to the restaurant to start cleaning up. It was funny—I would smell like fries while I was playing."
Naturally, Club Der Visionaere is another hot topic. "You learn a lot DJing there," Nguyen said. "If you were starting during the day on Sunday a few years ago, people would come down with their kids, drinking apfelschorle or whatever. You had to handle this situation, too. You couldn't just bang it out like crazy—you start slow, and then when the first young people arrive later in the afternoon, you can pick it up."
Nguyen began playing at Club Der Visionaere soon after he moved to Berlin from Düsseldorf. He was involved with numerous events in his former hometown, most notably the now-defunct Heimatmelodie, which hosted artists like Zip, Cassy and Magda over the years. Margaret Dygas, a Club Der Visionaere regular who Nguyen had befriended back in the Heimatmelodie days, invited him to collaborate with her on a new party, Noon. Nguyen and Dygas would play on the first Wednesday and every second Sunday of each month, building their fanbase through classy, extended spells behind the decks as residents.
"It was the best school," he says. "At one point Margaret became too busy and said, 'If you want to do it, you've got to do it by yourself. You can invite people, but I can't always come.' I said, 'OK, thank you!'" In the following years, with Nguyen running the party on his own, Noon became Club Der Visionaere's best-known residency, hosting DJs like Vera, Mayaan Nidam, Onur Özer, Evan Baggs and, most frequently, Nicolas Lutz.
Margaret Dygas looks back fondly on her time working with Nguyen. He earned her respect when he warmed up a Heimatmelodie party she headlined in Frankfurt—she was struck by how he handled the event's early hours. "I instantly liked how he played warm-up sets," Dygas said. "The warm-up, for me, is the most important set at a party—it sets the tone and the atmosphere for the rest of the night. He was sensitive to the person playing next and built up a nice vibe. He loved playing long sets and was not raising the tempo too quickly or wanting to show off."
Dygas continues: "Binh has a great and often surprising taste in music. He has a passion for finding unique records that you maybe wouldn't think of picking out yourself, but once you hear him playing them in the club they totally work."
Nicolas Lutz, another close friend, agrees. "Binh searches for records everywhere he goes," he told me. "He goes deep on digging and you can hear it when he plays. There's no specific genre, just good records."
Like so many of his closest cohorts, Nguyen is a record nerd at heart. So much of his energy goes into searching for new sounds. Speaking to him, it's hard to tell what he finds more satisfying: looking for records or playing them in clubs. It's no longer as simple as visiting a second-hand record store and flicking through the racks—the internet is now the weapon of choice for a new generation of DJs, including Nguyen. Discogs is the gateway to a seemingly infinite source of forgotten labels and artists, found only through crafty and obsessive searching. The eras and genres Nguyen and his friends search through aren't particularly distant—the group have reaffirmed that late '90s tech house, early UK techno and '90s electro were extremely fertile periods, full of great music that remains undiscovered.
Online digging comes with a bit of jargon. Blind buys, ratings, haves and wants: the serious internet digger uses a combination—or perhaps all—of these and more in their hunt for wax. "I'm always digging," Nguyen said. "Always. Packages arrive at my flat every day. It gets really crazy. I buy a lot of blind stuff. Sometimes I'm lucky, sometimes I'm not."
Fellow Berliner Onur Özer is Nguyen's primary collaborator. Along with Nicolas Lutz, a Berlin-based South American and rising favourite in this scene, the pair own two of the deepest and most obscure vinyl collections in house and techno today. The sheer variety of the sets Nguyen is able to play is testament to their depth of his collection. Catch a Saturday afternoon Binh slot at Club Der Visionaere and you'll hear five hours of warm, summer-friendly (and almost completely unrecognisable) house. See him in action in a different club later that night, and you'll get strange, high-octane techno and electro. "Before a gig I need at least 20 new records or something," he says. "OK maybe a bit less, but still a lot."
As with many of minimal's tight-lipped personalities—Ricardo Villalobos, Zip, Baby Ford, Margaret Dygas—Nguyen doesn't engage in overt self-promotion. This approach is very much at odds with the wider electronic music community, which bombards fans with all manner of online marketing. Finding the roots of this hands-off method is tough, but it most likely lies in the long-standing attitudes of the scene's earliest proponents, which include Villalobos and Zip, and is now notoriously carried on by Romanians like Rhadoo, Raresh and Petre Inspirescu. In today's climate, it's a refreshing approach and—in my experience, at least—usually reflects a personality that's both laid back and content. This is precisely the case with Nguyen. The lack of enthusiastic engagement with fans and press online, particularly via social media, occasionally gives off an air of aloofness, but I believe it actually signals just the opposite. We as electronic music consumers are bombarded with things like smiling airport pictures and group dinner photos, so much so that any artist not engaging in these practices is considered uptight or unfriendly.
"Some people think that once they have a lot of Facebook likes they can charge a big fee," Nguyen says. "Come on, are you crazy? I'm only posting when I have a gig or a release, or if something is really necessary. I'm not posting 'I'm in the bathroom now!' or taking pictures in the studio, like, 'Hey, I'm working!' It's too much."
He continues: "I don't even send files out for my records. I don't care if it's going to help the record sell more or something. Playing a track from a file makes it lose its value, you know?"
Nguyen's hands-off approach to promotion is part of a very patient career outlook. He's long known his way around a studio, having completed an internship as an assistant to Tobi Neumann (an engineer as well as a producer) upon moving to Berlin in 2007. It was only in 2013, though, that Nguyen released his first track, appearing on a compilation as part of Concrete Music's Textures series. He's appeared solo on three 12-inches since then, including Basic Trance Induction on Time Passages, and Downtown on Tokyo's Cabaret, both out last June. His most high-profile outing so far has been Visio on Perlon, minimal house's most famous and respected imprint. Releasing on Perlon was an obvious choice for Binh, who, as a Club Der Visionaere resident, has been on the label's fringes for years now. Zip, who runs the label, is also a regular at the venue, and the pair have DJed together many times.
There's also Treatment, a project with Onur Özer that works as an outlet for Nguyen's most uptempo DJing and his most stripped-back and murky productions. The one 12-inch so far, untitled and with no information other than a simple "TREATMENT" stamped on one side, was dubby and extremely loopy. The two tracks were cut from live sessions in the duo's joint studio in Kreuzberg, and they present a darker, previously-unseen side to Nguyen's sound. They also rank among the best of the handful of releases he's been involved with, and precede an album-length release due out later this year. "We made it with new machines," Nguyen says of the nine-tracker. "So it's another sound. I don't like hanging round the computer too much while producing, so I like doing jams. If I have to edit them later, I can. And if I don't, then I just leave it. It's always the same, just jamming."
Nguyen and Özer make a formidable team. The former seems like the younger brother of the two—outgoing, friendly and enthusiastic. Özer has been a high-profile house and techno artist for close to a decade, known to most for his former association with labels like Cocoon and Vakant. He comes across as the pair's elder statesman, more reserved and contemplative. When they're sharing the decks, though, Nguyen and Özer work seamlessly. At a recent Treatment night in Berlin, they ran through blistering, strange techno and electro back-to-back, demonstrating a level of synchronisation rarely seen in joint DJ sets. As pointed out in a review by Philip Kearney, there were never lulls in energy or a meandering flow, two things that almost always pop up in back-to-back sets. Along with Lutz, Nguyen and Özer are also digging buddies. "Of course we don't tell each other about all the tracks we've found," Nguyen said. "We want to surprise each other when we play. It's about having fun."
A simple desire to have fun seems to define Nguyen's entire outlook. This laid-back demeanor should hold him in good stead for the coming years—it's hard to imagine him being fazed or rattled by any career developments, positive or negative. It's impossible to work out what his ambitions are, as he seems perfectly content with his current situation. Even so, it's easy to see why he's steadily climbing Europe's house and techno ranks. Nguyen embodies an approach to DJing that's rapidly fading, and only being kept alive by small pockets of dedicated collectors and selectors dotted around the world. And like the man himself, the best reason for catching a Binh set is pleasantly uncomplicated: go and see him play when you want to hear music you're not going to hear anywhere else.