Strange sounds are creeping out of the Frankfurt area. Mark Smith checks in with a new wave of producers shaking up dance floors with an eclectic but infectious style.
Traffic Records is a vital piece of this puzzle. Across ten releases and four years, it has come to the forefront of a loosely defined scene that condenses a range of styles into strikingly fresh productions. While it's easy to describe some of the shapes within the Traffic sound, the complete picture can't be reduced to a genre tag or shorthand phrase.
Traffic inhabits the gaps between recognised genres. There's the b-boy rhythms and bizarro synth textures of electro; the bump and wiggle of early UK tech house; the hypnotic pacing and advanced sound design of minimal house; the shuffle of 2-step; the grinning insanity of Sheffield bleep techno; the syncopation, big bass and organic samples of early breaks—and the glue keeping the pieces together, the dare-to-be-weird spirit of Playhouse and Perlon. But part of what sets Traffic apart is that, despite the scope of its influences, the style is remarkably accessible and has an infectious edge that connects with a broad set of listeners.
They've come into their own alongside similarly ear-catching labels like Markus Sommer and Phil Evans' Pager Records and the HardWorkSoftDrink collective, and share common ground with the Gosu record store and label. They're all good friends, enjoy the same parties and play each other's music. Although they have distinct identities, these outlets share a playfulness that's becoming Offenbach's sonic calling card.
"No city on the planet can tell you a story of techno like this one here," says Martyné, a founder of Traffic speaking on behalf of its other members. "We just try to continue the story. We don't know how far we can get but we try our best."
Most of Traffic's founders and core producers hail from the countryside. Martyné, Jacob and Patrick Klein's hometown, Oberems, has a population of around 1,000. Bodin, the fourth member, is the only one from Frankfurt proper. They were friends long before they became immersed in music, and more often than not, they produce in pairs rather than alone. Although they cut their teeth at clubs like Dora Brilliant in Frankfurt, Offenbach's Robert Johnson was their window into the possibilities of dance music.
"Robert Johnson was always the inspiration," says Martyné. "Over the last seven years or so, we've heard some extremely intense sets there. This was a source of knowledge for us. It's where we learned what electronic music can be and how it can develop. We experienced a huge range of moods and possibilities that I haven't heard matched at another club. When we produce music, we always have the Robert Johnson floor in our minds. We're thinking, 'If I was on the dance floor and heard this synth, how would I feel about it?'"
Traffic tracks sound like the producers have gone directly to the studio after a DJ set left them perplexed and inspired. The way they capture the essence of that energy is part of what makes them distinct. "Frankfurt is a really judgmental crowd," Martyné says. "If a DJ isn't so hot, word will spread fast. This means DJs are really preparing and trying to do something different when they play here. That's why you get these intense experiences."
Thanks to the knowledge base formed by the history of labels in the area, the transition from enthusiasts to label owners was remarkably smooth. "We've got all these labels from the tech house time who we could ask the basic questions about manufacturing and distribution," Martyné says. Since 2013's Resonance, Traffic records have been made at Pallas, one of Germany's most respected plants—"we can submit a record and have it finished in two months. I want to have my record really fast and this is what they deliver"— and come adorned with the understated artwork of Jan Paul Müller and Martin Pierre Taylor (their posters for Traffic's Robert Johnson parties are more dramatic).
It was the second release, 2013's Action by Bodin&Jacob and Julian Chenaux, that signalled the beginning of Traffic as we know it. It also made waves with some of the group's favourite DJs. "The second one was heavily supported by the [a:rpia:r] guys. They have made big impressions on us with their sets at Robert Johnson," says Martyné. While the grooves on Action have a stripped-back chug that understandably resonated with the Romanians, there's a flair and character bubbling under the surface that would emerge into one of the label's defining traits. Action is full of loops that contain plenty of subtlety and detail, but simple pleasures, like "Back In Forth"'s deliciously swung hats, hit on a basic level. Ricardo Villalobos thought the release was so good he played all four tracks in a single set.
The positive reinforcement helped push the crew to challenge themselves in the studio. Their productions became more personal and reflected their steadily diversifying tastes as DJs and record collectors. An obsession with digging played a big role. Exciting new finds from record stores or Discogs would inspire new ways of producing and urged them to move outside of their comfort zone.
The quality of their EPs increased as they became less predictable. We get the first glimpse of 2-step garage in Patrick Klein's "Jimnastix" from 2014's Parallel, yet the other two tracks are hypnotic house more in line with Action. Martyné & Jacob's superb Dune from the following year saw Traffic really hitting its stride. The sound became stranger. Their drums and synths began drawing more from the '90s than modern times, but the final productions paradoxically ended up with a stronger personality.
Dune's B-side in particular pointed the way forward. "Disander" was the most economical track of the catalogue to date, using little more than classic drum machines, a couple of odd synth tones and an impeccable bassline to create a 4/4 roller with subtle hints of electro. The title track sounds like slowed down dark garage. But the sub-bass, atmosphere and structure would never have been produced in the UK circa 2000. Traffic were beginning to make unique records.
The quest for new sounds led them to the first release of a producer from outside the Traffic family. Until a couple of years ago, A² were an obscure duo from the UK who released a string of mind-bending records on their label, An Alien Recordings, in the late '90s. Describing Alec Stone and Andy Panayi's style reads uncannily like a description of the latest Traffic releases: electro, breakbeat, UK tech house and deep house.
"Bodin found A² and was like, 'Guys, you have to check these out, every release is amazing,'" Martyné says. "All of their records were selling for around €90, so we wrote to them on SoundCloud saying we are some guys from Offenbach, we really want to play your records. And they sent us a lot of the 12-inches for way below what they were selling for on the internet. Then we said we have a label that's a perfect fit for your sound and we'd love to release your music. And they accepted."
A²'s Resurgence was their first release in over a decade. They went on to contribute to a Slow Life compilation and have experienced a surge of interest, leading them to reissue their coveted recordings via a DIY email distribution system. "I played with them in Barcelona and they told me how no one cared when they first released these records," says Martyné. "Their music was too futuristic for its time. Now they're getting the attention and respect they deserve. It's a positive by-product of this digging culture. Now is the time for this music."
Digging culture isn't a new phenomenon, and can't be reduced to the actions of just a few people. Yet it's difficult to discuss its impact without mentioning the likes of Nicolas Lutz, Onur Özer and Binh, who helped inspire a shift away from deeper minimal towards sounds like electro, bleep, breaks and so on. The strange unknown bombs these types of DJs unearthed were bewildering and helped push other DJs and producers into new directions. As Lutz said of Binh's style, "There's no specific genre, just good records."
"What those DJs were doing was a hard contrast to the Romanian style," Martyné explains. "There was a time when you could not hide from the Romanian sound, it was really overwhelming. I cannot speak for those guys, but you felt like they loved these records so much that they just had to share them, even though it didn't fit with the trends of the time. We first heard this at Robert Johnson when Onur and Binh were playing, and we became really fixed on it and wanted to understand it."
As so often happens, what begins as something new and undefined becomes a formula. New and veteran producers alike who previously produced loopy house suddenly changed tack around three years ago when Binh and co.'s stars began to rise. In the last 12 months, a noticeable waves of new labels have begun releasing quirky, obscure-sounding music that ironically ends up sounding formulaic. In some respects, Traffic are a symptom of this shift, but part of what sets them apart is that the eclecticism of the diggers is just one inspiration among many, rather than a template to blindly copy.
"It does not feel real sometimes," Martyné says. "It makes no sense to kill this hype by releasing five records in a row that sound exactly the same. This doesn't develop the sound in any way. But even someone who you might describe as an uneducated listener can tell the difference—they can feel when a track has come from somewhere honest. You can tell if a track was made on a high level after the club in a 12-hour session or whether you made it on your couch with a beer during the week. When a track is not sounding real, it is not kicking the people."
By the end of 2015, Traffic records began kicking the people in increasingly unpredictable and exciting ways. In a blind test, you'd never guess "Vikoprofan" wasn't produced in the UK. Patrick Klein's "Infinitum," from the Orbital EP, is perhaps the label's finest use of UK-school shuffle to date, but the same release showed that electro would become one of Traffic's strongest suits. "Geddo" nails the anxiety of the best electro, but "Who's Snorki," from the following 12-inch, is even better. Benza is arguably the label's strongest release. The synth sounds and melodies on the A-side are deeply bizarre yet they're inviting, joyful and even catchy. There's a sense of humour at play that brings to mind the bug-eyed abandon of early rave sounds.
The strong run of releases has seen Traffic records being played by DJs who previously displayed little awareness of the scene from which they've emerged. This is no mean feat given the long-standing separation between the so-called minimal world and the rest of house and techno, suggesting that Traffic is becoming a sort of gateway drug for people. Martyné doesn't totally agree with my assessment, but thinks it could have something to do with the label's variety and its surprising ability to destroy big rooms.
"For me, the sound is also functional for a crowd of 10,000 people," he says. "It's subtle rave. It's no less massive than a big-room track but it's more intelligent. Our records are more than just endless grooves, they have the emotions that people want to feel." This is certainly evident on Bodin&Jacob's Mahoney, which builds on Benza's melodic sensibility in creating Traffic's most feel-good release so far. Their most recent 12-inch, from Montevideo's [email protected], continues the shift towards bright melodies and flashes of colour and draws a link between two likeminded scenes located thousands of kilometres apart.
The Traffic crew will have chances to test their sound in big rooms in the near future. Cocoon signed them to its booking roster, and they'll be playing Amnesia with Villalobos and Sonja Moonear in June. And with an EP for long-term Frankfurt area compatriots Pressure Traxx on the way, Traffic's steady upward trajectory shows no signs of abating. Although their sound is becoming more popular, few would have guessed that this oddball style would take them so far so quickly. "For sure, it's an underdog line we are following," concludes Martyné. "But perhaps it's getting bigger."
Martyné, Bodin and Jacob stake out the parameters of their style, traversing weirdo deep house, electro and early techno sounds.
The art of DJing: Venus X
Bold, confrontational, unique—the New York DJ talks shop with Max Pearl.
RA Sessions: Space Dimension Controller
Everyone's favourite time traveller performs a classic and a new single.
April's best music
The essential albums, singles and mixes from this past month.
Top 10 June 2017 Festivals
We shout out our favourites from around the world in June.
Label of the month
Label of the month: Basic Channel
On its 25th anniversary, we examine the roots and philosophy behind one of techno's most beloved labels.
Label of the month: Version
Will Lynch checks in with one of Germany's best sources for sub-heavy sounds.
Label of the month: Kranky
Andrew Ryce talks to the artists behind the influential label as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Label of the month: EM Records
We celebrate 20 years of this Japanese label's humble dedication to obscure music.
Label of the month: Sound Signature
Waajeed, Specter, Lakuti, Gerd Janson and more reflect on 20 years of Theo Parrish's pioneering label.