This Polish label and party intentionally pushes dance music beyond its comfort zone. Elissa Stolman catches up with its curator, RRRKRTA.
Brutaż's latest release, a four-tracker from Varsovian musician Wiktor Milczarek, provides a neat example of what the label is all about. Milczarek is one of RRRKRTA'S close friends, has occupied the Brutaż orbit since its start and continues to help with the label. His output as Souvenir De Tanger or Dyktando often reflects a stronger influence from experimental electronics and noise than techno or house. Even the most functional cuts on his upcoming 12-inch—"Flecik" and "Skc-Qx60"—sublimate groove to vibe, texture and instrumentation. His soft kick drum isn't necessarily a track's backbone as much as it's a metronome, around which he organises the more prominent elements: whines, acid belches or squeaks.
"What I like about what I've released so far is that every one of the records has a very emotional story behind it," explains RRRKRTA from his home in Warsaw. "What I'm doing is mostly about friendship. The records are an extension of my friendship [with the artist], an expression of my emotions towards somebody and their own emotions. I want to transpose as much of the person I know onto a record, which can then be played by someone else."
The other five artists who have appeared on Brutaż so far have all come to the label through personal connections with RRRKRTA. Most of them developed since or around the time he took over organising the party from Kelo and Piotr Kurek in late 2012. Back then it was just a recurring experimental electronics night at Eufemia, a now-closed bar in the basement of Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts. "I never planned it to be a label, and only now am I starting to think of it that way," RRRKRTA says.
The label brought with it new styles and scales. RRRKRTA had already steered the bookings toward techno and took the party to cities around Poland—not to mention a label launch at OHM in Berlin. He started booking artists from the label to perform at the events, which were starting to attract attention in Poland.
Not all of this attention was favorable. "It's fashionable to say you've been here and seen it, and it's fashionable to say you hate it as well," RRRKRTA told me for a 2016 feature on Red Bull Music Academy. But speaking two years later for this piece, he assures me that "we've changed a lot ever since you came to that party at Kulturalna." He's referring to the party's interesting and awkward former home base: the café located in the lobby of Warsaw's communist-era Palace Of Culture. It has since moved to a new music venue and cultural center called Pogłos and hosts recurring satellite events at Kraków's Szpitalna 1 alongside irregular visits to cities around Poland.
The party/label combination now works as a hub for RRRKRTA's extended network of musicians who share a desire to bring uncommon outlooks to dance music. The core crew behind Brutaż includes Milczarek, Ania R., members of the Psish collective and VTSS, who's also involved in the Polish feminist DJ collective Oramics.
"A lot of the people I work with are really emotional, talented and smart but they don't play anywhere," says RRRKRTA. "They aren't encouraged to DJ or make music—and if they do, they're very difficult and intellectual about it. I'm trying to attract those people, to make them flirt with dance music in the most direct fashion."
The first such person was Jules Venturini, who RRRKRTA met while they were both working at the first iteration of Berlin's recently revived vinyl retailer, The Record Loft. They bonded over a mutual love for "weird, cheap dance music from the '90s," and soon Venturini shared his own productions while they were alone in the shop. "He just played three tracks, and those were the three tracks that made it onto the release," RRRKRTA remembers, referring to what would become the No Reference EP. The tracks introduce electro to an otherwise sleepy house beat, which supports Venturini's instrumentation: delicately distorted strings that glide and waggle.
According to RRRKRTA, Venturini's music reflects "a really deep and personal melancholy that I know Jules has in his personality, even though he's very quiet and restrained. It really struck me that he's able to do something that's so naive and open and communicative, even though he doesn't really express that every day."
There's a similar narrative behind Brutaż-03, a crunchy experimental techno 12-inch by Bartosz Zaskórski under the moniker Mchy i porosty. According to RRRKRTA, he's a DIY noise musician who lives in a Polish village with a population of 800. The story goes that, following some kind of anxious episode, Zaskórski developed an obsession with creating intricate rhythms on a very thin pan. "He never really played dance music or thought about it, but for some strange reason he started making beat-oriented music," RRRKRTA explains. If it weren't for Brutaż's keen scouting, Zaskórski wouldn't have developed the confidence to put himself or his art out there. "Ever since he released a record, he's much more confident," RRRKRTA says.
The architect of Brutaż-02, American producer Matt Draveng, was another Record Loft acquaintance. But where Venturini's music is tender and contemplative, Draveng's is playful, cheeky and obtuse. "He kind of treats his music as if he's a prankster," RRKRTKA says. "It was like he was sending me a meme. That's why it also fit for me: because It's a reversal of the first record, which was deep and very serious." Draveng's untitled contribution to Brutaż traverses murky techno awash in grit and ambient swamps of nuclear electronics. The catchiest track, "Xeroxer," pits a sputtering vocal refrain of "Fuh-fuh-fuh-fuck the system!" over a chaotic battleground of zaps, squeaks and distorted techno drums. "It started off as kind of a joke, but then it turned out that this joke is pretty functional," RRRKRTA says.
Draveng's adolescent paean may simmer in layers of irony and goofiness, but it also hints at the political side of Brutaż. RRRKRTA and the others involved aim to provoke Varsovian clubbers with their night and label by booking odd and sometimes difficult music that pushes their expectations of a "dance party." They've collaborated with avowedly activist DJ/promoter crews like Discwoman, Siren and Room 4 Resistance on workshops and club events. Although they've also integrated plenty of apolitical activities into their parties—deep listening sessions, tarot card readings, speed dating—the ideological events are enough to elicit press that prioritises Brutaż's advocacy. To RRRKRTA, that says more about the music media in other countries than his own agenda.
"It's the Western journalists who push towards nice political PR," he tells me.
That explanation doesn't feel entirely fair to Brutaż's involvement with explicitly political dance music collectives, or the way RRRKRTA frames his work as a promoter and label owner. Brutaż has four main goals, he says: first, creating a "magical experience with records" that "also works for Warsaw's queer community"; second, playing dark music that's not sold as techno; third, being outspoken about discouraging harassment in clubs "yet inviting love"; and finally, releasing records "that present poignant stories yet are functional."
"I want to make [the electronic music industry] work for people around me: hard-working dancers, self-hating youth living far from their families and those who are working to improve the lives of self-hating Poles. Also DJs and producers," RRRKRTA says. "In order to do that we need an infrastructure that hasn't yet been established in Poland."
He's not directly talking about the country's basic civic facilities, like roads, hospitals and public schools. He's talking about how the government and economy affects electronic music culture and its institutions, like pressing plants and clubs. He points out that Polish dance music records first appeared at the end of the '90s—late compared to Western European and North American countries. Neither has the country ever had a stable venue for underground dance music.
"Poland is a young democracy and market that's already been overtaken by post-ironic internet aesthetics, which makes it even more difficult to establish anything," he says. "We're squeezed between those two trends: a lack of infrastructure versus accelerationism. And there's overwhelming precariousness and depression on top of it all."
He talks about politics as a set of challenges in his environment that Brutaż must overcome in order to achieve success in the music business. It operates on two levels. The first is the set of circumstances in Poland, like the country's lack of suitable venues for electronic music or the population's cultural biases and conservative government. The second consists of the mostly social politics of the international underground dance music "scene," which basically boils down to networking. Spend enough time in clubs to build your connections; make some tracks; put out a release; do a mix for media outlets; get gigs. Or, alternatively: start a party; launch its corresponding label; do press; get gigs.
RRRKRTA's demeanor—sweet and infused with anxious energy—is disarming, and anathema to the "ladder-climbing" mindset he's wary of. He does not seem like the kind of guy who's in this to become a famous DJ. And yet, even humble people with pure motives have to play the game somehow if they want to make it.
"First of all, there are those who don't want to climb this ladder, and in a way I want to encourage them to do so," he explains. "The other thing is that I might want to climb this ladder, but at the same time I believe it's very..." He pauses to deliberate his English phrasing and settles on, "It's kind of stupid."
"But I don't know how this works, so I am doing it my own way—because I believe that we are the game," he goes on. "We don't have to climb any ladder; we have to build our own. I think it's possible to gain more momentum and to define the criteria yourself."
Without a day job or benefactor of some kind, no one can afford to invest so much time, energy and money on a project that provides no monetary returns. Especially in Poland. This inconvenient reality is an obvious fact of RRRKRTA's existence.
"There's much to be done in terms of establishing spaces and infrastructure that can bring many more people together," he says. "But I don't think I can do much more myself, as I'm figuring out how to pay rent for my room every month. I listen to all the links people send me and I try to bring out everyone who shows interest in meeting us. I reply to all the mails I have time for. But there's a limit to the amount of bodily fluids you can spill on a party."
These irreconcilable equations lead to some pretty absurd calculations, and the results are as romantic as they are idealistic. How do I integrate political activism into my art without sacrificing its substance, coherence and efficacy at the altar of PR? How can I make money from my art without destroying its integrity? These questions sound almost hackneyed. But for RRRKRTA and other artists they remain vital and unresolved—and they're the keys to everything else.
"Once we achieve a higher position, we'll be able to devote our efforts to sustaining a coherent scene in Poland—or maybe even some consistent aesthetics or a place for transformative experiences, but we're not there—yet." For him, the opportunity provided by this situation is more hopeful than pessimistic. "Whatever we lack in infrastructure," he says, "we're trying to fill with things that test the limitations of our taste and danceability."
Opening with a tune from Brutaż's first release, RRRKRTA crafts a mix that includes music by all of the label's artists.
Jules Venturini - Nothing Ever Changes (Brutaż)
Leo Anibaldi - Muta 8 (ACV)
Brain Unltd. - Body - Mind (Toxikk Trakks)
Wiktor Milczarek - Lipowa Góra (Brutaż)
ајс дог - Biti ovde (Brutaż)
Carlo Maria - Mirage (Brutaż)
Draveng - Hang Eleven (Brutaż)
Yamaoka-Ya - Monstak (Sideburn)
Mantra - Hash Fields (Rise)
Starfish Pool - Mountain Land (Nova Zembla)
Timeblind - Tubz (Black Nation)
Freddie Fresh & Tim Taylor - 5 Mouths (Sounds)
Gluon Quarks – Analyst Debunk (Protoplasm)
Matt Mitchell - Reakt (Do Something)
Draveng - Xeroxer (Brutaż)
Heinrich Tillack - Dark Track (U-Trax)
Mchy i Porosty - Czarna Plaża (Brutaż)
The Future Sound of London - We Have Explosive (Virgin)
Kode IV - Dissolve (Vapour Space Mix) (KK Records)
LA Williams - Pulled Hamstring (Phase 23) (Relief)
The Sabres Of Paradise - Lick Wid Nit Wit (Elastic Dreams)
ајс дог - U glavi leti ptica belim repom meduze (Brutaż)
We Will Fail - Schadenfreude (Refined Productions)
Wiktor Milczarek - Wśród ślepych jednooki jest królem (Brutaż)