Will Lynch checks in with one of Germany's best sources for sub-heavy sounds.
"Ended up being a very long night," he said, though he didn't seem particularly tired. He rolled his chair up to his computer to bring up the file of his new track. "I started it in January. That's when I got the idea done, sort of, and I've kind of been listening to it since then on and off, but I've never been in the situation where I feel I can add what I want to add or do the final mix down or whatever—you know, finish it. Last night, nine months later, I got to it. Here I'll just play it to you. You wanna sit in the sweet spot?"
The track, a still-unreleased cut called "Toxic Waste," had sweltering reverb and a swampy kind of bass that felt very dub. The drum pattern, though, was pure house, albeit at a lazy 115 BPM. Orson said this is handy for the way he DJs now: starting slow and gradually getting up up to around 145 BPM. Like all of the music on Version, his tracks are functional: made to work for DJs and come to life on soundsystems.
"We have OHM as a reference," he said, referring to the tiny Berlin club where Orson, together with Hops, throws Version's parties. "Every time, I go early to soundcheck, so I can play bounces of ideas to get a reference when I go to the mastering guy."
Version began in 2006 when Orson brought Mala to Düsseldorf for his first gig in Germany. Since then, it's been one of the country's best sources for sub-heavy sounds. At their parties, Orson, Hops and the party's other residents, Skratch and Clara Badu, make a semi-conscious effort to chart the entire spectrum of dub-influenced dance music, moving in a single night through dubstep, jungle, UKG, drum & bass and so on. The label, meanwhile, compresses these influences into system-tailored club tracks that are as understated as they are immense. If the parties find ways of stitching together different sounds, the records home in on the fundamentals that connect them.
"Music as a medium is so ungraspable," Orson said. "The tune is there and then it's gone the moment it's played. But how many hours have gone into making that record? Or the records that record samples? What I like about sampling is that you're taking something someone else has already spent time on in some other time. You bring it into the now, like you're compressing time. Almost like time travel."
Orson is obsessed with samples, which he collects from his favorite records ands organizes in vast file-trees on his studio computer. He opened a folder to show me his stash, revealing a long column of audio files. Clicking on one summoned up a tinny clap that sounded familiar. "Dance Mania," he said.
He clicked another one: a single kick drum. Then another: a rim-shot. Then some vocals:
"It's... Not... Oh-veeerr…"
"This is Drexciya cruiser control…"
Sinister groaning noise. "That's Joey Beltram," he said. "Just little sounds, you know? Whenever I hear something, I cut it out and throw it in my sample folder. In a lot of my tracks, even if it's just snares, they come from my favourite records. Stock sample libraries, I use those too, but these are the ones I've actually recorded, cut out, saved, so it gives it more meaning for me. The history of dance music, the way it gets recycled and reused, I like that whole idea."
Orson's been around long enough to see musical movements come and go. His first love was drum & bass, which he felt grew stale after the turn of the millennium. "Too technical, too focused on sound design," he said. "Just kind of boys' club, who can go harder, faster and all that." Dubstep was a revelation, but it, too, was transitory. "Around 2008, 2009, it all got very noisy again, very bam bam bam—burrgghg. What I liked about it was the openness, the space."
You can sense that in Version's records. In its first few releases, which dropped in 2009 and 2010, Orson and Hops presented a form of dubstep that recalled Rhythm & Sound's take on dub: reduced to its core essentials, with plenty of space for its perfectly sculpted sounds to roll around in. Over the years, as boundaries dissolved between dubstep, house and techno, Version's music homed in on the common ground between these styles. Take 2016's "Fabrik," a dark and sparse wobbler with a 4/4 beat. More recently, the label's sound has skidded in more unpredictable directions, thanks to lush beat experiments from Yak and Agrippa, both of whom released their first records on Version.
Though Hops helps him throw the parties, every aspect of Version, from the curation to the artwork to around half of the music it releases, is Orson's personal project, one that at this point is largely indistinguishable from his personal life. He learned this lifestyle from his parents: both are career photographers who would work throughout the day and night at their home studios in Düsseldorf, where a teenage Orson found employment as their digital archivist (he still manages their catalogs today). It was through them, too, that he discovered clubs, albeit indirectly: his mother taught at Universität der Künste in Berlin, and when Orson was 15 or 16 some of her students started bringing him to raves.
"It was the mid to late '90s," he said. "I was lucky enough to experience that time. But I wasn't into techno too much, I wasn't into raving, or as we say in German, feiern, you know?"
Meanwhile, drum & bass was having a moment in Germany, with big names like Doc Scott and Kemistry playing huge gigs sponsored by cigarette brands. "I have to blame my sister for taking me out to some drum & bass nights when I was 16 or 17," Orson said. (They still rave occasionally today.)
A few years later, Orson made his first pilgrimage to London, then came back every two months for DMZ parties at Third Bass in Brixton—"the church thing next to the tube station." He'd started getting into dubstep through Rinse FM, or more specifically, "shitty mp3s of Rinse shows uploaded to internet forums, with all the static and noise in there."
"It was first grime, then dubstep through that. Then I saw a flyer for the first DMZ party, and I thought, 'I'd like to go. I was still writing for De-Bug back then, so I thought maybe I'll do something on that. I took my camera and went. Everyone was there back in the day. Appleblim, Shackleton, they were punters in the first row, dancing. Ben UFO, all these guys, they were just all kids coming to the parties. Actually Ben, funny enough I already knew him from the forums."
By then Orson had started putting on dubstep nights in Berlin, with guests like Skream, Kode9 and Loefah, but felt he needed to do something on his own. Back in Düsseldorf, his friend Aron Mehzion was booking Salon Des Amateurs with Tolouse Low Trax. "I told him that I was doing these nights in Berlin, and he was like, 'Why don't you do one here at the Salon?' And that's when I brought Mala over. That was the first Version night."
Orson became a regular at Salon Des Amateurs, a club known for its anything-goes music policy. "Playing back to back with Toulouse Low Trax, you couldn't just play dubstep, you had to play all sorts of stuff, it would be six hours or all night long, you had to kind of dig. It evolved into this concept of playing all these styles that are somehow influential to how I write, what I like, but it's obviously more than dubstep, drum & bass, i'm just as interested in house, electronica. It's nice to be able to bring these things together. I really enjoy this journey we can bring across with Version."
A series of near-identical flyers in Orson's studio tell the story of Version, from the early nights in Düsseldorf to last month's edition at OHM. It's now been 12 years since the first party, and nine since Version's first record.
"Sometimes I think, How long am I gonna do this?" Orson mused. "But then something comes along—a track, someone gives me feedback—and that gets me enthusiastic again. I have my doubts and my uncertainties for sure. But I try to make what it's actually about—the music, the nights, the label—as good as I can, and everything else comes after that. It's a lot of work. But I'm working for myself, and in the end it's mine."
Orson showcases the sub-heavy sounds of Version, its influences and a few like-minded labels.
Single White Female - Secret Gardens (Dubplate)
Loefah - A.I. (Dubplate)
Piezo - The Mandrake (Version)
Joey Beltram - Psycho Bass (Transmat)
Mickey Pearce - Polyester (Swamp81)
No Smoke - Koro Koro (Warriors Dance)
Paleman - Talk Louder (PLMN)
Frankie Bones & Lenny Dee - Is Rhythm Rhythm (Overload Mix) (Nu Groove)
Yak - Kaepora (Version)
Piezo - Tinned (Version)
Unique - Jus' Unique (10 Records)
Piezo - Fkn Intercom (81)
Lamont - XIX (Swamp81)
Orson - Life Gamble (Version)
Orson - 12:09 (Version)
Orson - Trace (Dubplate)
Orson & Skratch - Vitamin X (Version)
Walton - Mad Zapper (Tectonic)
Lamont - Aldgate Pump (Dubplate)
Mickey Pearce - Washed (MPCT)
Peverelist - Left Hand (Idle Hands)
Steve Poindexter - Computer Madness (Muzique)
Errorsmith - Lightspeed (Pan)
Skream - Tippa (Southside Dubstars)