The Rush Hour cofounder's sets traverse genres, tempos and continents. He shares 23 years of DJing wisdom with Aaron Coultate.
Two hours earlier, at about 7:30 AM, Heitlager was politely waving away requests for one more tune at the end of his five-hour set at De School. That night had been a DJing masterclass, with a wide range of music—disco, house, acid, techno, kwaito—skillfully woven together. Working under torchlight in the pitch-black club, Heitlager had approached his task with gusto. Sometimes, during a mix, he would fling his hands away from the EQ knobs as if they were scolding hot. Having completed a satisfying mix, he'd pull the record off the slipmat, punch the air and wave the record in front of his face like a fan before putting it back in its sleeve.
Heitlager is many things: DJ, football coach, family man and the central figure at Rush Hour, a globally respected record shop, label and distributor based in Amsterdam. Though his taste is anchored by house and techno from Chicago and Detroit, his musical knowledge touches on many genres and most corners of the world, from South Africa to Brazil to Japan. It's hard to say what ties his tastes together, but perhaps it's his love for music that's soulful, whether it was crafted with a piano or a drum machine. In this interview, Heitlager lays bare his passion for DJing, sharing hard-earned technical tips and outlining his creative vision.
When did you start DJing?
In 1994, maybe late '93. I was 15 or 16 when I first heard house music. It sounded so strange to me. My brother used to work in clubs, and at that time there were a couple of venues in Holland that were playing house music. I started to work in a club, called De Waakzaamheid, when I was 17. It was in a neighbourhood town, but it was one of the three most important clubs in Holland for house and techno. There were always a lot of local DJs, but once a month someone like Derrick May, Carl Craig, Darryl Wynn, Jedi Knights or DJ Rush came to play. At the end of the night, when I'd finished my job, I would go to the club manager and say, "When can I warm up?" I'd ask him every week. It's embarrassing if I think about it now. And he was always like, "Well, maybe next time." One day I came home from school and there's a flyer—this is back when they would send party flyers to your home—and my name was on it. I was so excited.
What are your memories of your first few gigs?
For my first gig, I had completely pre-planned the first 30 minutes at home. No improvisation. I knew that I would mix Lime's "Your Love," so I was already wanting to play disco. It was the only disco record I knew, along with Sylvester "Do You Wanna Funk" and Harry Thumann's "Underwater," which was quite big at De Waakzaamheid. I would hear these regularly in house sets. I guess it meant I wanted to also know other stuff.
You started Rush Hour when you were around 20, so you must have really thrown yourself into this world for those first few years.
I knew it was what I wanted to do at that moment. I wasn't necessarily thinking this is what I want to do for life, but it had a very strong attraction. I had this nervy, excited feeling towards records. Just seeing the labels and looking at them and holding them, it was very precious. I remember we had a burglary in our house and they stole my video games and I got some insurance money back. I parted from all the computer stuff because I was kind of done with it, and I bought a Technics turntable. I would go to sleep and it would be next to the bed. I'd wake up and I'd be touching it, and it was such a heavy turntable. I couldn't believe I had a Technics 1200 in my house.
At this time, I was learning to mix, and looking for opportunities constantly. I remember I went to London on a school trip, and visited record shops like Fat Cat and Reckless Records. After that I started travelling to London regularly. Those trips were pretty hardcore because I didn't have money for a hotel, so we would take the bus in the evening and drive the whole night. Then we'd take the underground, go to Fat Cat, shop the whole day, and then at night the bus would leave and take us back home. At this stage I was a private seller, trying to hustle and get more records and more knowledge. Then at some point I was introduced to Christiaan [Macdonald], and together we opened Rush Hour.
At this point were you DJing much?
Not too much. But in 1998 I met KC The Funkaholic, who was, and still is, a programmer at Paradiso in Amsterdam. He was a soulful guy, into his disco and hip-hop. House used to be very connected to that, but then house became more techy. At that time you had all the guys from West London, people like IG Culture and Dego, starting to do more upbeat music. DJ Spinna, who was hip-hop, all of a sudden started doing house. That stuff, combined with Detroit, that's the sound we really liked. And KC liked that we were approaching house music in a more soulful way. He had a night called Paradisco where he would play hip-hop and disco and soul. And then he started the Paradisco 2000 party with us, which was a more modern thing. So immediately we were throwing big parties. We would bring guests from abroad, people like Peven Everett and Joe Claussell.
When there was a downturn with the record industry about a decade or so back, you made the decision to double down and expand Rush Hour's music and vinyl focus, right? How did that impact you as a DJ?
Well in 1999, 2000 and 2001, everything was going up. First you have no gigs, then all of a sudden you have gigs. You have no reputation, and then all of a sudden there's a bit of knowledge about Rush Hour. So things go up in every direction, but then there was a moment—it was around 2005 or '06—when all of a sudden iTunes, streaming, everything, the whole digital thing comes up. And a lot of people were like, 'OK right, this is the future, I'm not interested in records.' I just generally loved what we were doing, but it became a bit more difficult because some people were losing interest. But people would also sell their collections cheaply. I still have some very hard-to-find records from that period.
There were people saying Rush Hour should become more of a lifestyle store. Some stores were closing—for instance, Mr Bongo, who had a great store, that store closed. Other stores, they started to bring in sneakers and coffee and things. And it was uncertain—at some point you have to think where is it going? So we said, 'Let's get more involved with records.' To me it's more about knowledge. If everything goes digital, and somebody from Austria or wherever can go to your store's website, then that is an opportunity. I didn't want to be involved with all these other disciplines. I just wanted to do records.
Was your style as a DJ changing through those times?
I think the way I DJ is the way I prefer to play, but it's also, unconsciously, a reflection of the time. I became active with the Kindred Spirits label, so I was really into African music and Brazilian music, and I kind of left house music and the dance music scene for a bit. I was more leaning towards the organic things, releasing African music and spiritual jazz. I was still DJing, but I would not buy a lot of new productions. The scene in Amsterdam was still going, but it was just a bit calmer.
Was there anyone who inspired you to be the kind of DJ that plays lots of different genres?
We have a very important teacher in that sense: Theo Parrish. When I heard him for the first time he would play Tony Allen, Chaka Khan, deep house, disco, whatever. So that was the blueprint. But I learned about Theo Parrish earlier than I learned about Ron Hardy. I didn't know very much about the Chicago history of playing uptempo soul mixed with house. But when we heard Theo for the first time, it was like, "What the fuck, he's just playing everything." And this is also why we started the Paradisco 2000 night. We wanted DJs to play everything, not just house.
Do you think in terms of dance floors now, you can get away with playing broader sets than ten or 15 years ago?
Yes, for sure. With the Paradisco 2000 nights we were playing a diverse range of music but it wasn't always that easy. It did set the tone of how I am playing music today. But I remember it was also easy to clear the floor with certain records. Today there's so much music that's been discovered from various corners of the globe. We can see that also in the big amount of cool reissues we get in the shop every day. But people also seem to be way more into discovering all these obscurities. And today there's a good number of DJs playing a wide range of tunes and it works on the dance floor.
These days you play to busy dance floors. But I'm sure in your time you've played to half-empty rooms. What did you learn from those experiences?
These things happen. It was frustrating, especially in the beginning. Paradisco was really cool, but there was also a moment where it became a little less energetic, and this is when I learned to DJ. Sometimes I would play in the upstairs room, while downstairs something big was going on. Maybe a DJ like Joe Claussell. And the room upstairs would be filled, say, 30 percent. If I was playing then and I played one wrong record, I would clear the floor. I started learning to mix faster and faster so I could keep the crowd going and not lose them. I could lose them very easily. For me, it's a better surprise if something is not really turning out to be a great party, and it actually becomes a really nice party. There needs to be chemistry between people dancing, and the energy they bring, and the music that a DJ plays.
How would you describe your own style as a DJ?
It's difficult for me to describe, because it's very instinctive. I wanted to learn all the elements of the craft. I was never really interested in scratching and beat-juggling, but I was interested in trying to cue everything on the one and get it in, or just mix while both faders are open. I bought a hip-hop mixer to practice being quick with faders. I went through all these phases as a DJ and then everything comes together after a period of time. But what I try to do as a DJ is make the sets I play musically interesting and bring in various styles, moods and levels of energy.
What's your preferred setup in a club?
Turntables, CDJs and an E&S rotary mixer. Super basic but it works for me. I prefer to be at same level as the people who are dancing. Maybe a little bit higher is OK, too. And I like low ceilings. I prefer intimate dark spaces because I feel the best in these spaces. Wooden floors are always the best, but you don't see that so often anymore. The further away I am from people that are dancing, the harder it is to connect. That's why I liked Dance Tunnel in London. It's not there anymore, but it was just a basement. I like basements.
How picky are you over soundsystems?
Well, the soundsystem in Dance Tunnel was not the greatest, but because of the vibe I really liked it. Soundsystems are important, but a vibe is maybe even more important.
I've noticed sometimes you'll play the same track two or three times in a night—you did it with Kerri Chandler's "On My Way" at Melkweg last year, and with Voilaaa's "Spies Are Watching Me" at De School this January.
This is a classic DJ trick. For me there are a couple of reasons why I do it. The first one is intuition. If I am fond of a certain song at a certain moment, then why not play it again when it comes to mind? The second reason is that I like people to leave a night with a good song in their memories. It is also a DJ's job to promote records. Banging it out is not that difficult, but to have people fall in love with a tune once they leave the dance floor is important to me. And so I play songs more often. Sometimes even more than two times in a night.
How hung up do you get about beatmatching?
Technique has always been important in Amsterdam. If a DJ made two trainwrecks in a night, people would talk about it. But now I think I don't care so much. I like it when all the mixes are smooth, but if it's not smooth I also realise it can say a lot about what kind of decisions I'm making. And sometimes if I'm experimenting and improvising a lot, then I cannot expect all my mixes to go right. Track selection is really important. If I play only house at a certain tempo and I'm doing it through rekordbox, it's hard to get it wrong. I remember, people would write all the BPMs on their records, but I never went that far. I really don't want to care about it. And then if I make a mistake, whatever.
As a DJ who plays a lot of tempos, how do you deal with that?
I put things in a tempo or style range, in little stacks, but I still have to improvise everything together. This is also why I play techno records at minus six. When I go to a party, I see what I have, then I see the little stacks. I need to make sure I have music that fits together for a certain moment, so I know I can stay in a housey groove if I want, and not find out the hard way that I brought all the wrong records. But now, since I travel more, airlines are being difficult with records and I don't want to check them in, I want to bring them as hand luggage. So I tend to bring 40 to 60 records to gigs, and this is why I play a combination of digital and records.
If you find an amazing unquantized record, how much practice does it take to work it into your sets?
I spend between three and six hours preparing for a gig. I have quite a lot of new records that I want to play right now, but the issue is always to really get to know my records and get a good feeling with them, so I know when I want to play them. When I mix something for the first time, I learn about how the record goes, I know which part of the record I want to use for mixing it in. In house stuff and techno it's less difficult because it's quantized and everything is tight. But if I play an African record, and in the first 16 bars maybe the guy is drumming out of time in the first eight, but I know in the second eight he's tight, then I need to mix in the second eight. I also need to feel where the energy is in the tune.
How do you strike a balance between preparation and spontaneity?
I think you can prepare everything to death if you want. And, I guess this goes with a lot of art projects, it's a challenge to combine DJing with the other elements in life. Anybody can do one thing really great if he or she has all the time to do it, but to also manage all the other things in life... that's where the difficulty comes in. I prepare depending on the hours I have available and then I let it go, because I need to be able to work within this timeframe. I've never been able to fully go for DJing, because I've always seen something uncertain about it. I never wanted to make a lot of money with DJing. I wasn't feeling it in that sense. That's why I started a record shop. I'm not saying it's wrong—I respect everybody who can fully go for it—but I've never felt comfortable only DJing.
With a couple of kids, a football team to coach on Saturday mornings, running Rush Hour, how have you dealt with that, in terms of keeping a normal life?
I tend to have better results if I have a tight schedule. And sometimes, like this weekend, it's too much—I did Dekmantel radio, then played De School, then went to coach my daughter's football team and then went to Düsseldorf. It's about getting the most out of a limited amount of time. I like DJing a lot, I'm very happy that there are gigs that I can play. I see it as a privileged position, but I also see it as a privileged position to have a family and have a family life, and I don't want to leave one of the two out. I want to do both. And it's the same with the record label and Rush Hour. So it's just sometimes a case of a little bit less sleep, and a little more work. My social life is not always there. I'm trying to balance things more with gigs, as it's not always necessary to play two or three times a weekend. I can also play one time and then have a bit more social time. It's about balance, and I'm still learning and finding out how I like it the best.
How do you get the balance right in terms of giving the crowd something they know versus something they maybe haven't heard?
I feel that a lot of it comes down to timing. If I start a night, and I don't give away too much in the beginning, I can build something nicely. There are certain songs that are anthems, and if I play them too early, people won't relate to it because they're not ready for an anthem yet. They just want some things to get into the groove. So it's easier to start slow and let everybody get used to the situation, and then when things get more comfortable, build it a little bit more. I find pleasure in that.
How do you deal with taking over from another DJ at peak-time?
That can be difficult. If you start 3 AM, I'm not necessarily ready for the energy that the dance floor might have. Hunee and Sadar Bahar often start with their acapella where they just break everything in one go. Because if you start with an acapella, you kind of—
Yeah, you reset the room. And then you can go in all sorts of directions. But if I try to mix in from where the other person left off, the story is not really in my hands, especially if that person left the energy high. So when I have to give over to someone else, at 3 AM, or 4 AM, most of the time I make sure I'm not ending on a super high level, because I don't think it's good for the whole room. It's not nice for the DJ after you, and it's not nice for the room. If you bring it a bit down and the next DJ can just start nicely, then everybody can pick up the energy again together. I think this is why it's nice to start a bit slower and calmer, because then you can give more. But if I end on a super high energy, what can you do? Of course you have to bring it all down and start again, but it's not necessarily what people might want at that moment.
You've started playing more all-night sets at clubs. Dance Tunnel in early 2016 was one example. How did that become a thing for you?
It's something I wanted to do, and I'm thankful and happy that people and promoters are up for it, too. I feel it's from the same mentality of trying to learn different skills. I think it's important as a DJ to know how to do an all-night set. Trying to stretch my energy over six or eight or ten hours, it requires some thinking, it asks me to learn, and to reinvent myself in a moment of the night when I'm going into the wrong direction. I get this feeling inside, I know it's heading in the wrong direction, and I have to come up with a solution to get things back on track.
Building up sets is something I've done a lot of times because of the Paradisco night. I would often open the night, so I would do the first layer. And the first sets are important, but they're also easier because people are not going to walk away. I know this because they want to see the main act. But then when I do it all night, I have to start from there, but then I have to bring some energy, but I also have to stretch that energy. I have to make a nice thing that becomes a great night overall, and I can only learn by doing it, and I've done it a couple of times now.
Basically you become your own warm-up DJ during an all-night set.
It's up to me to decide when I want things to be a bit calm, and then feel when the energy goes up, and then bring it up again or bring it down again, or go in different directions. I also have a lot of interest in playing a lot of different types of music. I think that's nice. And it's also something that comes up in my head, especially when the night is right, I have a little drink, and I'm playing a Stevie Wonder song, and then I think, "Fuck it, now I'm gonna play a Robert Hood track," and I try to mix it. And Stevie is a pretty tight drummer, so it's OK, but sometimes it's not so tight and trying to bring in things is difficult. I remember once in Trouw I constantly changed the last ten tracks of the night. It went from disco to Jeff Mills "The Bells" to Fela Kuti, just to fuck around. Just play a lot of different things, but try to make sense of it. Pick up the energy. And it seemed to work.
How do you feel about the idea of, say, playing an all-techno or all-house set?
Recently I played a techno-only set at Concrete, in Paris, with the Indigo Aera label. And it was nice. I liked it. Within that limitation, I felt progression. Generally I like to combine a lot of different styles of music and I don't want to limit things, but a limit sometimes also forces me to get creative. That's why I really enjoyed playing a techno-only set, because it meant I couldn't escape by playing Afrobeat or disco. It forced me to keep a flow within a certain area of music.
I'd like to ask you about some of your trademark tunes. There are a few records that I and others would associate specifically with you as a DJ. Tim Maia's "Acenda O Farol," for example.
I found that one in Brazil. I played it and it worked. I played it again—it worked again. It's very catchy, so I guess people react when you play it in the right moment. The song was not really known in Europe as far as I know, but in Brazil it's a classic, which I didn't really know neither. I found out later by playing it in Europe and getting a response from Brazilians about it, like on the video of the Macki Music Festival.
How much of your focus is on breaking a song—as in, being the first person in your circle to play it, rather than picking up tunes you've heard other DJs play?
I think there's a certain respect for a DJ that comes with introducing tunes that are unheard in a certain scene. I try to focus most of the time on trying to discover new and old music. That's where the passion is. I have a hunger to find stuff that I haven't heard before. It's nice when I go searching in a direction where I don't know a lot of stuff and hear new tunes and then play them out. To me, that's the role of DJing, because in essence a DJ is just a record promoter. He or she has to promote records that you haven't heard so that they become valuable for people. If I copy tracks from other sets, because I hear a great song, and then I start playing it myself, it doesn't necessarily give me that same feeling. Not to say that I don't do that—I learn about music through other people all the time.
There's also one track from your Boiler Room set at Dekmantel festival last year.
That's "MBO Theme" by Warrior, which is a cover version of Klein & MBO's "The MBO Theme." I found out by playing that one that nobody really knew it. I didn't know that in advance, I just played it. I found it in Cape Town on a digging trip.
Talk me through how your personal record collection is organised.
They're sorted by country, style, artist and label. So for instance, I have tabs with Brazil, Brazil Boogie, Samba Rock and Tim Maia. Or a section with Chicago House, Relief, Dance Mania, Lil' Louis, Prescription/Ron Trent etc. Or Disco 12-inch, then Loft Classics and then Patrick Adams/P&P. I try to create a range of tabs so I can find want I need quickly.
You've been playing back-to-back with Hunee a lot these past couple of years. How would you describe your dynamic with him?
We've gotten to know each other well over the past five years. We booked him to play at a party, so we played together—I played a couple of hours, he played a couple of hours, and then at some point we started to DJ together. And it's nice. We don't break each other's flow. We go in all these different directions, but it just stays in the same vibe. And so we kept doing it. Some promoters picked up on it—the first things were Trouw and Lowlands Festival. At Lowlands, the room exploded. It really was crazy. We came to the last record and we decided to play "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer, and so we play it, and then this happens. This is where it begun. I've never seen a room react like this from just playing records, not a band or anything. And I guess people saw it and started asking us to play back-to-back more often.
Is there any kind of layout of, "OK we'll do three tracks each, or two tracks each?"
When we play together we don't plan anything. The only thing we know is that we cannot play stuff that would bore each other, so we have to play fresh, because if you start repeating things, it's a bit like, "Ah, I know how this goes." We know unconsciously that this is not what we should do. So it pushes me into trying to do something else. It's very natural. Sometimes we have very little time to talk before we start playing. He comes in, I come in, and then we start.
You're playing the closing set on the main stage at Dekmantel festival this year with Hunee. How are you preparing for this, and what kind of tunes do you think work well in an environment like that?
It's a huge honour and challenge at the same time. I have played big rooms before at festivals like Lowlands, so it's not completely new. It's also not necessarily my favourite thing to play big open stages, but when the festival asked us we accepted the challenge with open arms. I think it's important to do things that don't necessarily feel comfortable straight away.
I also had this with the You're A Melody party in London, where we played with EMT turntables, which basically means doing everything with buttons, no mixing, without pitch control, so each song plays at the original speed. Such a limitation might sound unnecessary today in a world with unlimited options, but I realized that I had to come correct with my selections.
The same thing goes for a big 1000-plus person stage. I'm currently thinking about songs that stand out on a bigger system, in a bigger space, and that work for a bigger audience. Of course there's a lot of well-produced modern music that can bang it out on such a system, but it's about transforming into the slow, sweet, soulful, experimental and whatnot... I'm listening very carefully to productions and the energy a tune holds and how this might sound. There is a big difference between a solid Kerri Chandler production and an old recycled Trax record for instance. As far as our back-to-back goes, we've agreed that for a big stage like this we will follow the same process we do for all our sets together, as it is important to find that honest energy. I can't prepare for that.
After last year's RA DJ poll you revealed on Facebook that in the past you took a couple of breaks from DJing to recover from cancer surgery. What was it like taking those breaks and then coming back to DJing?
The first time I got sick it was difficult because I had gigs, I had plans, and they had to stop. I was just about to go to Germany to DJ and I was still trying to build an international career, and then I couldn't play. I had to cancel things. It took me a year to get back into it and get the energy back, especially after chemotherapy. That was 2006. After five years it came back again and then I kind of kept it quiet, so it was only a small circle of people who knew. I had to manage it and play a little bit less. This period is behind me now—it was more than five years ago, and my health is restored.
What did DJing mean to you at that point in your life?
For anybody who has to deal with an illness, there's a lot of insecurity in it. But as long as I was under treatment, there was some calmness as well. I only started to get stressed again when I wasn't on the treatment, because that's the moment where I had to let go and see how my body was going to react. But, at least in my case, during treatment it was kind of calm. It's more like my physics were super bad at certain points. Because when I had chemotherapy, everything inside changed. At times I felt very weak. But when I felt good, a friend would bring me to a gig, and I'd just play and leave again, no drinks or anything.
What advice would you have for people who are starting out as a DJ?
Enjoy it, listen, study, observe and play from the heart. I like to keep it as natural as possible. That's also what I love in the back-to-back sets with Hunee for instance, or my other gigs. I can prepare as much as I like, but if I improvise—and that's where the nice momentum is, in improvisation—then I also have to let go and just trust that my feeling will be in tune with the feeling of the evening and the crowd. And that's why there's always a lot of uncertainty as well, because I have no idea how my next gig is going to go. That's what inspires me to look for music. When I look and discover stuff that I haven't heard before, there's a lot of value to that. And there's also a story to it—your own story.