The veteran DJ is a leader in an increasingly exciting corner of dance music. Matt Unicomb hears about Onur Özer's journey towards stranger sounds.
Back then Özer was widely known as a big-room DJ aligned with Cocoon, Ibiza and glossy minimal—most people wouldn't expect to find tracks like "A16" or "A17" in his record bag. But Özer has always had a soft spot for the stranger side of house and techno. This desire to seek out less obvious dance floor sounds, coupled with world-class DJ skills, has led to Özer becoming a leader in an increasingly exciting corner of dance music, where deep digging, long DJ sets and playing vinyl are key.
The path Özer has taken to get there has been full of twists and turns. He began DJing as a teenager in the late '90s, playing weekly at Filter and Godet, two now-closed clubs in Istanbul, his home town. At the time, Istanbul had just caught the minimal bug. Pioneering DJs like Ricardo Villalobos and Zip played there regularly. (You can still hear some of those sets online.) Filter and Godet, located within walking distance from one another in central Istanbul, were Özer's favourite venues, and part of a golden era for clubbing in the city. His first DJ sets were at Filter, but Godet seems to have left a particularly lasting impression on him. "It was amazing," Özer says. "It was the first time I saw Zip, and the first time I met this minimal. Godet was a bit more elegant than Filter, but the same people went to both. Filter was a proper, intimate techno club. We were playing UK stuff and a bit of tribal."
Özer's been making a living from dance music since he was a teenager. He's never had another job. He's been a prominent fixture on the European circuit for so long that it's easy to forget there was an earlier chapter in his career. Özer was a key figure in Istanbul's club scene for close to a decade, but it wasn't until the mid-'00s that he started getting regular gigs outside of Turkey. Many of Özer's connections came through Indigo, a club he helped book after Godet closed, in 2005. It's where he met many of the people who would be essential to his success in Germany and, later on, in Europe.
Thanks in part to these connections, he released a string of records on Vakant and landed on Cocoon's booking agency. A steady stream of high-profile gigs followed, including regular back-to-back sets alongside DJs like Ricardo Villalobos and Raresh. A quick scan of his gigs throughout the '00s shows dates at Watergate, Cocoon warehouse parties and Amnesia in Ibiza. Özer played at Love Parade and helmed the first instalment of Watergate's mix CD series, stringing together minimal from Cassy, Jens Zimmermann and Johnny D.
Things have changed since then. Özer now associates with DJs who tend to keep a low profile. He produces electro, and plays stuff like this. He's become central to a hard-to-define, mostly Berlin-based scene driven by DJs like Nicolas Lutz, Slow Life's Laurine, Cecillio and DJ Tree, and his close friend and collaborator Binh. This group's focus isn't on big rooms and big crowds—instead, they seek intimate venues and forgotten techno, electro and house. According to Özer, his changing taste and entrance to this environment came naturally, and had more to do with the people he spent time with than anything else. "It's about where you are and who your friends are," he says. "I was more conservative in the past. I was still searching for strange records, but not like today. I'm a bit more grown-up, I think. The sound is also a bit more grown-up."
Özer's shift away from more straightforward house and techno is representative of a wider trend. His selections are less loopy and more distinctive than they were a few years ago. The sounds are weirder and more machine-like, the beats more broken and hard-hitting. "It's more emotional and powerful for me today," he says. "The way you seek emotions in music will always change over time. Today I feel more emotionally connected to these genres. I can't listen to some of the things I played last year."
This desire to seek out new sounds goes hand-in-hand with a dedication to playing vinyl. In the midst of the medium's well-documented comeback, it could feel unnecessary to point out such a commitment. But despite more and more labels choosing to release physically, this resurgence isn't reflected in the number of top-level DJs playing vinyl. Most big acts now almost exclusively use CDJs, often citing promoters' inability to provide high-quality vinyl setups as a reason. Özer and his friends are one of the few pockets of dance music in which playing vinyl is as popular as ever. "If you are a professional, you should be able to make the turntables work in this moment," he says bluntly. "All you might need to do is find two or three pillows and put them under the decks. I've also used my jacket, making it into a ball and putting it under the turntables. You might need to make an adjustment to the tone arm or fix the skate—if you want to make it work you usually can."
"But," he laughs after a short pause, "if someone puts the turntable on the subwoofer you can't do anything."
Özer is one of the most experienced DJs on the Berlin circuit, and he has the technique to match. He flawlessly mixes his records, which rarely have a straight 4/4 beat, and he clearly takes the technical side of things just as seriously as the music itself. "I had only two records for one month," Özer says about learning to beatmatch. "I was playing them every day until I learnt how to mix them together. I was going crazy. First I learnt how to do it by touching the record, then by only the pitch. I still don't touch the record much. There's more groove if you don't disturb the beat. When you disturb the groove by hand, it makes it sounds flat. If one record is behind, just speed it up and move it back a little. It goes a little bit further than it needs to, then and comes back. This makes the sounds explode."
I've seen Özer play at least a dozen times and I don't recall hearing him mess up a mix. Considering the kind of unpredictable music he plays these days, it's impressive. Most tracks have short intros and outros and build up and down quickly. Timing is crucial. "Counting bars becomes automatic after a certain point," Özer says. "Sometimes when you know a track really well, you remember, 'Now the hi-hat comes, now the clap comes.' But other times it's a feeling—you can just feel it's the seventh bar. It's the same thing in the studio when you jam. You record in just one take, so you also have to count the kick, the synth, whatever. One mistake and you have to start again."
Özer spent years playing at the top level of house and techno, where subpar technique would have quickly been exposed. He's one of just a handful of DJs in the world with the skills to command a space like the Amnesia main room and the tunes to impress record geeks at parties like Undersound in London, YAY in Italy and Sleepers in Berlin. Often within circles that value digging, the obscurity of a person's records masks an inability to put together a cohesive set or properly read a crowd. "It's all about flow," Özer says. "If whether or not people know your records is your measure when playing music, you will likely have problems. Sure, playing tunes too obvious doesn't give a good feeling. But someone who's passionate about challenging themselves won't play those tracks anyway. If I really like a track, I will play it. And if it is really not known, it's a bonus."
The secrecy surrounding the digging style of DJing is a contentious issue. There are usually two main viewpoints: a belief that music should be shared (after all, the DJ probably didn't make the track), and the feeling that if you found it, it's OK to keep it to yourself. Özer's opinion is somewhere in the middle. "I don't believe in competition in any form of art," he says. "I don't feel like I have to race with anyone. Competition is a sign that you're not doing something with honesty, but simply to be better than other people. I don't like that. Yes, music is about sharing. That's what I'm doing when I play. But I don't need to tell every random person what the name of a track is, especially if it's really special for me. This is normal. It's a sign that you are emotionally guarding this special song.
"If I have a special connection to a specific tune and it starts getting really well known and played a lot this affects my connection with it," he adds. "I also can't listen to some of those tracks when I'm having a bad day. I have a feeling that this bad day will override the original feeling I had."
It's understandable that DJs like Özer might be unwilling to tell the world about the tracks they've found. A lot of time—perhaps an unfathomable amount to some people—goes into searching. To unearth tracks the way Özer does takes patience. Many of the tunes he plays are what are referred to as "blind buys"—records purchased online despite not being able to hear them first, based on things like artist, label, style and year. "About one in 20 blind buys is playable," he says. "I use a lot of parameters for searching Discogs. It could, for example, be a genre combination of acid and electro, from the US, and released in '95. But I think going to a real record store—an underground record store—and digging for records is much more exciting than sitting in front of a computer."
Özer's first 12-inch in three years—Frequent Forrest Turn—is coming soon on Time Passages, the label founded by Binh in 2014. In the decade leading up to 2013, Özer put out eight singles, plus an album. With his Treatment project with Binh, he's put out two recent releases on their self-titled label: a 12-inch and a self-titled album. "I have a lot of solo tracks but I never send them around to people to see if something will happen with them," Özer says. "I only give them to friends. I gave Binh some of these tracks for the 12-inch a long time ago, and some of them are new. I'm happy they'll come out on Time Passages. It's like a family label." He's more tight-lipped about Treatment: "We don't plan things. Everything we've done came spontaneously. In the near future some stuff will come out."
Özer and Binh are two of the few "digger DJs" with a quality of productions that matches their talents behind the decks. As more attention lands on this type of DJ, Özer and other highly skilled selectors become increasingly important. They're a reminder that unearthing forgotten tracks is only one part of the picture, and contributions should be made in other areas, too. According to Özer, a scene truly leaves its mark with the tracks it puts out—searching for records alone is not enough. "Trying to find records from the past to play now is nothing new," he says. "It's your job to do this as a DJ. Of course it's great when it happens, because then people hear new things. But you have to add something. When there's a fresh sound or music coming from a city, then you can call it something new."