Few people know that side of Rubinstein's story because she rarely gives interviews. That means items about Dr. Rubinstein must draw from the same, limited pool of information. She was born in Russia but spent her formative years in Israel, before moving to Berlin from Tel Aviv in 2012. She's a hardcore raver. She worked her way up the Berlin club circuit from ://about blank to Berghain in a matter of years. She loves acid, breakbeat and rave. She became a career DJ without launching a record label, promoting a party, holding down a regular residency, doing press or making her own music.
Those are all important parts of her story. But they don't really explain how or why Rubinstein made it from business school in Jerusalem to nightclubs and festival stages worldwide, especially without promoting herself though the usual avenues. They don't do justice to the eccentricity and borderline spirituality that informs her approach to DJing, nor the compulsions that bring some order to the chaos of her life.
For Rubinstein, DJing isn't magic or science—it's a little of both. Her selections are guided by a sense of how hard she can push her fellow dancers at any given moment, an understanding she cultivated through raving herself. She describes this sixth sense in vague, almost metaphysical terms that stop short of invoking auras or star signs. She's perceptive in a somehow paranormal way, but she never put it in quite those words.
For Dr. Rubinstein, DJing doesn't break down, transition by transition, into discrete technical tasks. Her approach is holistic. She thinks of it in terms of an entire set: where she wants to go and how she can get us there as quickly as possible. Rubinstein is a techno DJ, but she doesn't fit in with the genre's recent turn to all-black aesthetics. Think techno's snarling intensity imbued with house's celebratory spirit. She plays acid jams with raucous top-end percussion or breakbeat's groovy basslines, and she pumps them out with the athletic fervor of a SoulCycle instructor.
The upside to exploring the art of DJing through a non-technical lens is that it shows how much one can achieve with beat-matching and EQing. You don't need to do anything else to be a killer selector, and you also don't need a mystic ability to conduct strangers' vibes. Dr. Rubinstein learned her most important lessons about DJing on the dance floor, an education that's available to anyone willing to surrender themselves to it.
How did you cross the aisle from being a dancer to DJing?
I wanted to do it for a long time, but I was insecure. This was about eight years ago, when there was a lot of talk about girls not being able to do it.
What they said discouraged you from learning to DJ?
Yeah. Back then I was living in Tel Aviv and visited Berlin for the first time. Then I met someone who was into partying and music, and we started sending each other tracks. At some point he was like, "Marina, you have to DJ. I want to come to a party and hear the tracks you're sending me. I want to hear this music on the dance floor."
So he gave me Traktor Scratch as a present. I didn't have any equipment or money, so that's how I started playing. I used it for maybe three months or four months. I think of myself as a vinyl DJ first and foremost, because that's how I actually started properly DJing: I moved to Berlin and I started buying records. I'd go to shops and listen to an entire crate from one label or style. I still do that.
How did you start playing out?
I got my first gig at ://about blank in November 2012. I was going out every weekend, but I never tried to talk people into booking me. That's really not my style. I was just going for fun—you know, to party. One girl I knew from partying was like, "Marina, I've heard you're a DJ. Send me something. I'm curious about what you play." I sent her a mix that I had recorded about a month before.
Was that the first mix you recorded?
Yeah. It was vinyl-only, so I had to redo the whole thing every time I messed up a transition. I was recording it and crying. I'd be like, "OK, now I'm going to do one more take." Then I'd fuck it up again and cry!
Did you eventually realize that you could reset to the start of a breakdown, re-record the transition and splice the takes together in post-production?
Yeah, for sure. Back then I didn't know how it all worked. When I finally got this mix together, I never sent it to anyone—the girl who asked me to send it to her was the first. She threw a party at ://about blank, and she showed the mix to the guy she organized it with. They were like, "Do you want to be our surprise DJ? We'll cut everyone else's set a little bit so you can play for an hour and a half. We'll give you €50." I was literally jumping in my living room, I was so excited. Somebody at the club saw me playing there and invited me back to play the New Year's party.
When did it start to feel more realistic to consider DJing as a career?
Not until a couple of years ago. When you move to Berlin and everyone around you is a DJ, if you let on any interest in touring, you know what everyone tells you? "It's very hard. Almost impossible." At some point I stopped sharing anything. Every time someone told me it's impossible, I would edit in my mind "...for you."
Still, I never tried to force it. I was in the right place, playing the right music to the right people. For instance, I played my first Berghain gig two and a half years after I started DJing, and I was super lucky to get that opportunity. I never thought consciously about, "How am I gonna get known as an artist? How am I gonna establish myself?" DJing has been a dream for me, but never a plan.
How did you realize your dream without a plan? You weren't actively pursuing a career as a DJ or promoting yourself via a label, productions, or in the press. So what were the milestones that brought you closer to achieving your dream?
For me it was recorded mixes. The first one I noticed a bigger response to was the one I made for Smoke Machine. After that came out, I got more messages and people coming up to me at gigs to tell me they liked it.
After that, definitely my RA podcast. First I made a techno mix, because when you're a DJ without releases, you want to show what kind of music you play. You need promoters to know you somehow. I wanted to show that I could bang it out. RA said, "We were expecting something different from Marina—not a club techno mix, but something more special." I don't know how they even knew I was capable of doing anything else.
It took me about two months to come up with the final tracklist. I knew that I had to do something with more variety. When it was accepted, I was glad that it happened that way. It showed me that you don't have to be bound to certain genres. It was also a really big step for me developing as an artist, to know that I don't have to deliver one thing. I felt like I changed from a beginner's attitude—"I play techno and I will show everyone that I play techno"—into "I play music." It changed my approach to mixes and how I work.
Did you make another mix where you applied that approach?
I had an idea for a slow mix and had been collecting tracks that would fit for a few years, and I finally did it last September for my FACT Mix. I always start with an idea. Sometimes I can't put it into words. The idea of the sound and vibe exists in my mind. Then I pick out records from my collection according to this idea.
That's why I always mark my records. Look—I can show you my stickers. I love stickers. These are my stickers: golden stars, colorful stars, silver stars. I have many different ones but I mostly use stars because you can see them real well. I use others, too. Look at this record: one gold star, one silver star. That means I like this track better than that one. The heart sticker means it's my favorite-favorite. I also make notes, like "two prime-time bangers" or "techno/house for Pano," in case I play there [Panorama Bar] someday. When I have an idea for a mix, I go through my whole collection and pick records with a sticker that might fit. Then I go through those and choose the tracks I want to play.
When I get them in the order I want, I rip the records or get the digital files and put the mix together in the computer. I mix it in Traktor. I connect my mixer to the Traktor soundcard, and I use that to EQ and mix in and out. I should just buy CDJs, but I'm very slow on anything that's not related to records.
When people told you that it takes years to make anything worthwhile—on the one hand, you know that's arbitrary. On the other hand, they're also speaking to a common experience wherein the process of learning to make electronic music reveals to you how little you know. That makes you increasingly aware of how much more you need to learn to get anywhere close to where you want to go. It's intimidating and demoralizing.
It is. I also have an aversion to getting into how things work. I grew up in a conservative environment, and I never learned about technical things. Now I have a fear of getting into all that stuff, and I always think I'm wrong—even when I turn out to be right. I've had gigs where the technician told me everything was working perfectly when it clearly wasn't, and I didn't trust myself enough to second guess him. I figured out that he had plugged the CDJs into the phono input instead of the line input. I know I should trust myself more.
There's a lot of knowledge about sound and about producing that I would love to have in order to become a better DJ. I work with sound, and yet there are so many things that I don't know. I want to be able to talk about things more specifically. You don't need to know that stuff in order to be a good DJ—but you don't even need to know how to beat-match to start DJing now.
For me it's more about how I see myself evolving and what I want to learn in order to become better at what I do. That's what pushes me. When I make a mix, I want people to save it and listen to it over the next five years.
When I'm DJing live I don't feel like I have to do everything perfectly. Because in the end it's a party, you know? I'm not doing surgery. Last weekend I accidentally turned off the track that was playing, so for a second there was no music. But like, so what? It's a party. I'm a person. It's the middle of the night. In that situation I couldn't care less if I make a mistake.
DJing live doesn't feel like the moment of truth to you, when people get a chance to judge your talents and abilities?
For me, DJing is more about the energy and flow and not so much about technical perfection. That's why I sort my record bag according to energy rather than genre, from softer and melodic to harder stuff. When I pack I make eight different piles of records according to intensity, with really crazy stuff at the back. And anyway, I've noticed that in the DJ booth you notice mistakes so much more because you're concentrating so hard on mixing, and you hear everything so precisely in the headphones. On the dance floor it's just a wall of sound, and the dancers don't really notice all those small mistakes. They're not analyzing if I mixed in on the first or third bar. Just like, whatever. I play for ravers, always.
Is that because you are a raver yourself?
I do love to party.
How did you get into raving?
The first time I went out was in Tel Aviv, 12 years ago maybe. I can't even remember who was playing. I was just like, "I want to be like this forever. I want my life to be this: this moment on the dance floor." It was like a parallel world or parallel reality—an escape from everything. Just dancing and feeling the music and living in this moment.
Had you heard dance music before you went out, or was this your first time?
I had probably heard it, but I'm not sure. I had a friend in Israel who was a DJ, and we would go to his place and smoke joints and listen to music. He'd be like, "I downloaded this new album, let's listen to it."
About ten years ago I got in a really bad car crash, and I had to spend a month in bed. That changed a lot for me. I wasn't able to keep my job at a bar, I hadn't saved money and my sublet was ending. I had no idea what to do with my life—it was my lowest point. I couldn't walk, so I had to lie in bed, and I wanted to do something more productive than just watching TV. That's actually when I started digging for music. Before that I was always asking my friend, "Give me some new music!"
I had been following lots of mix series, but I got way deeper into it after the crash. I studied tracklists and scavenged blogs to download tracks and figure out which artists I liked, then I went through their discographies. I couldn't have imagined that it would become my actual job later on. I remember the feeling of finding something really cool—it made me feel proud. It felt like I was doing something important and my life wasn't meaningless anymore.
People would still ask me what I actually wanted to do with my life, and I still had no idea how to answer that. But getting to know music and shaping my taste seemed like a good enough start to figuring it out. I've always made decisions this way—not according to what's logical or what others tell me, but to what actually feels right. Searching for new music instead of searching for a place to live seemed like a legit choice.
Did you consciously think about a vibe or style you wanted to cultivate?
Never. I'm not a person who thinks things through like that. I mean, in some ways I think things through. But I didn't consciously develop a sound or style. I never think about what kind of sound I should play beyond how I might adjust depending on the situation I'm in.
I ask because you do have a strong style as a selector, even if you didn't consciously have the idea in your mind when you started buying records.
This is the only criteria for how I choose tracks: they make me dance. Part of my process is to play records at home. If I have to get up and dance while I'm doing it, then it makes it into my record bag. I'm not trying to do anything like, experimental. I just want everyone to have fun. I want everyone to be carried away. I want everyone to have too much fun, the most fun. I want people to dance and I want to turn this party into a rave. This is my mission. That's the only purpose of what I'm doing. I just want everyone to dance.
That makes sense since you came to DJing from a dancer's perspective. Do you consciously gauge the energy in the room while you're playing in order to determine how hard to push people at a given moment?
I always try to sense what's too hard for people. I try to push it slowly and play a bit harder. I'm a sensitive person, so I can feel it when it starts to be too much for people. I've heard so many times from people who were on the dance floor, "You played so hard, and the moment I thought it'd be nice to hear something softer, you did it!" Somehow I can feel it.
How can you feel it? Do you pay attention to dancers' body language?
No. I don't know how to explain it. I just feel it. There's this certain feeling, and I don't know where it comes from and how it works. Of course, it doesn't always happen. I'm not a wizard or something. Well, a witch, maybe—a little bit.
What do you do to push the energy?
I want every track to sound more intense than the last, and I use certain elements to escalate the intensity. For example, I'll go from a track that has a simple hi-hat pattern to one with more intense top-end percussion, like maybe a snare roll. I really love drum rolls and play a lot of tracks that have them—all that '90s stuff.
And, of course, there's acid. In my opinion, acid is the ultimate rave sound. You either absolutely love it and lose yourself in dancing to it, or you hate it and leave the dance floor. It's definitely not a background sound, and it really separates the ravers from people who came to socialize.
The sound of the 303 is my favorite element, and you can hear it in my sets. I love to exaggerate and to play too much acid, to make it sound too intense. I'll mix tracks with an acid line—or a few of them—one into another. In my head it sounds like they're talking to each other, like it's an acid dialogue. Many times when I mix out a track, I push the mids all the way up and cut the lows and highs to let the acid line of a previous track run together with the next.
Is EQing one of the main tools you use to control the energy in the room?
EQing for me is just a tool to shape or correct the sound. For instance, I sometimes boost the high frequencies because it makes the track sound a little faster and more energetic and jumpy. It's definitely not a creative element of my style of mixing though. I simply mix the tracks in and out.
I'm more into phrasing a transition and developing a story rather than using filters and turning knobs. The main thing I'm working on while DJing is connecting very different tracks into one storyline, and so I think mostly about how to pivot into different directions and styles. I love when tracks have surprises in them, like elements you weren't expecting.
Do you worry about losing dancers when you change up the style or surprise them too much?
It really depends on a crowd. In some places when I start playing breaky tracks, the dance floor gets half empty. In other places, however, that's when the rave starts. It's too boring to play the same kind of simple, four-to-the-floor techno track over and over again, even if they sometimes work best because they're kinda easy to digest.
You've said you think of yourself as a vinyl DJ and you've described your style of mixing as pretty simple and straightforward. What other functions do you use on the mixer or turntables, and when did you start learning those "extra" details? Do you use filters, for instance?
I really don't like the sound of filters. To me it just sounds cheap—especially in the middle of a track just for the sake of it. I still try to spend as much time as I can on dance floors so that I really know how things sound and feel on the other side of the decks. Using a filter to take away most of the track totally breaks the immersion. It takes the attention away from the music and focuses it on the DJ. That's the exact opposite of what I'm trying to do. I let music speak for itself and make it do its job without using cheap tricks. If I play a track, it means I believe in each and every second of it, and besides some slight EQing it needs no further adjustments. I want people to hear all of it, not just the highs.
Do you know what I really hate? When I play the last track and the DJ after me—always a guy—comes into the booth, plugs in his USB stick and instantly starts turning the filter knob. It changes the sound of my last track, and that's always a very special one. I think carefully about "goodbye tracks." That makes my eyes roll three full circles before telling them to just not do this.
How do you deal with disturbing behavior without ruining the vibe in the club or the connection you're trying to build with your crowd?
It depends on how people approach me. If you write a little note to me on your phone and show it to me while I'm playing, that's a nice interaction. But if you keep trying to get my attention and eventually ask if I have a boyfriend—that can be disturbing to me and have a negative impact on the whole vibe. Sometimes people don't know where the boundary is.
I will shush people if they yell—not when they cheer the music. But you know, sometimes there's a group of straight guys who're drunk or whatever, and they yell louder than the music. They're ruining it for everyone in the front. I do something from the booth like "shh!" And they look at me. I'm like, "Listen to the music!" And everyone else starts laughing.
When people offer you a cigarette, do you take it?
No, I don’t take drinks or cigarettes from the crowd—only notes or small gifts.
Let's say I'm a new DJ who hasn't played out very much yet. What would you tell me to do in order to connect to my crowd?
I guess the first thing I would recommend is something I do myself. Or at least, I try to do it every time I DJ. When I enter the DJ booth, I leave my ego outside. It's easy to get wrapped up in trying to show people what you've got or to look cool or to be admired or praised. I try to remember that I'm there to serve the party along with the people on the dance floor and the people who work in the club. The moment you really make it about not yourself, but about the party in general, and when you want to make it happen together with others, I guess that's how you start to connect with the crowd. I realized recently that I had been thinking this way implicitly before I play.