Holly Dicker goes deep on the label that put Holland's techno scene on the map.
The music is hard, fast and broiling with acid basslines. The lineup is a family affair featuring Djax-Up-Beats' inner-circle: Chicago's Mike Dearborn and DJ Skull are on the decks; Dutch duos Random XS and Acid Junkies are performing live, as always. All four acts have produced key Djax hits, adding to a lofty catalogue that's passed 120 records in just five years. A huge swathe are from Chicago.
Fast forward to July 11th, 1998. Now in Berlin. It's the tenth edition of Love Parade, the annual techno free-for-all that began in the summer before the fall of the Berlin Wall. More than one million revellers have turned out to celebrate "Friede, Freude und Eierkuchen." They're amassing the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park for the parade's grand finale. Earlier in the day, a 17-metre red-and-white chequered rocket ship––fortified with 20,000 watts of sound––kicked off the parade at the other end of Strasse Des 17 Juni. After four consecutive years at Love Parade, the Djax truck begins in pole position. A Dutch flag ripples proudly from the bow.
It's dusk by the time Djax's commander-in-chief Saskia Slegers, AKA Miss Djax, ascends the podium for her Victory Column set. Slegers' popularity in Germany has been steadily growing since being named Frontpage magazine's DJ of the year seven years ago. Dressed in a silver chequered racing jacket, her long blond hair falling freely over her face, she drops "Smack My Bitch Up" by The Prodigy. As darkness descends, her selections mirror the mood. There's the rushing hard trance track "Amphetamine" by Thomas P. Heckman (in Drax guise) and Plastikman's jacking remix of "Alpha Wave" by System7. She ends on "My House Acapella (Jack Had a Groove)" by Fingers Inc, a nod to the Chicago house lineage that informs Slegers and the Djax-Up-Beats label.
Djax and Dutch dance
In the early years of Djax-Up-Beats, the label was mostly a platform for Dutch artists recording tracks falling between house, techno and acid. Inspired by Detroit and Chicago, artists like Stefan Robbers (Terrace, R.E.C., Acid Junkies) and Sander Friedeman (Zero Zone, Random XS) helped define the early sound of Djax-Up-Beats. The music was rough, screwy and trippy, quite distinct from the house (or "mellow") sound typically heard in Amsterdam and Rotterdam's reigning early-'90s clubs.
Djax-Up-Beats was hard, and got harder still as the '90s progressed, but it sat strictly apart from the Dutch gabber scene that was gathering momentum at the time thanks to Thunderdome. Unlike gabber, which was hugely popular in the Netherlands, the techno scene was small and underground until the 2000s. "The Dutch house scene consisted of gabber parties and [housier] club stuff. Except for some small parties, there was nothing in between," commented Slegers to Gert van Veen in a piece for ID&T Magazine in 2004. "Djax showed the world that there is more than club and gabber music from Holland," says Sander Friedeman.
Djax and Chicago
Djax-Up-Beats was one of the first European platforms for Chicago house music, and it's this Djax-Chicago axis that the label is perhaps best known for. Mike Dearborn's 1992 EP, Unbalanced Frequency, was the first of many Chicago signings to grace the label between 1992 and the mid-'00s. "Djax actually put Chicago on the map," says DJ Rush in the 2009 Djax documentary Underground Nation.
In October of 1992, Slegers made a two-week trip to Chicago and Detroit to meet the artists and labels she'd been collecting since the '80s. Underground Nation documents some of that journey, following Slegers as she hangs out with Carl Craig, Alan Oldham and Kenny Larkin in Detroit. She visits Transmat, KMS, 430 West Records, Plus 8 and Underground Resistance before boarding a Greyhound to Chicago where she goes record shopping with Mike Dearborn and visits The Warehouse to see Armando DJ. She's shown around the chaos of boxes and precariously stacked vinyl at the Trax pressing plant, and in DJ International Records we zero in on a conspicuous yellow smiley grinning crookedly from the export rack––the Acid Junkies logo.
"I met so many people. Producers came to my hotel to give me demos," reflects Slegers. Phuture's Earl Smith Jr., Paul Johnson, Gene Hunt, Felix Da Housecat, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground and K-Alexi are among the long list of Chicago contributors to release records on Djax. There's also the six Warehouse Remix EPs that came out on Djax-Up-Beats between '92 and '93, where Warehouse and Muzique classics like Steve Poindexter's "Work That Mutha Fucker", "151" by Armando and Mike Dunn's "Magic Feet" were given "a Djax makeover," says Slegers.
Signing to Djax proved especially significant for Mike Dearborn, in his twenties at the time and studying communications at university. "Djax was pretty much my introduction to the world outside of Chicago," he says. In 1993 Dearborn performed his first major gig in Paris, a Djax showcase at a Mayday event organised by Frederic Djaaleb, a key promoter during the founding years of the Parisian party scene. "That was the first rave I'd ever been to and there was probably 5,000 people," Dearborn recalls. "I was extra nervous because I had never played for that many people. My hand was shaking so bad I could barely put the needle on the record."
As an extension of Slegers' personal tastes and experiences, Djax-Up-Beats was an international label from the start. Slegers had been playing and collecting US music since the '70s, starting with disco and funk and progressing naturally to Chicago house and Detroit proto-techno in the '80s via labels like Trax, Warehouse and Transmat. The first two Djax-Up-Beats records by Terrace (916 Buena Avenue and In-Motion) were globally distributed, which is how artists like Alan Oldham in Detroit and Mike Dearborn in Chicago first encountered Djax.
Oldham's Detroit Is Burning EP as Signal To Noise Ratio was Djax's first US signing. This would be Oldham's first and last EP for Djax, although he'd continue working with Slegers as an illustrator. Oldham's signature hand-drawn sleeve art spawned a Djax spin-off comic book series. Starting with a CD inlay for the 1993 compilation Welcome To The Future, the comics feature Miss Djax as a rebel heroine in a dystopian future where underground music has been outlawed. "I would stitch together a little storyline, and use the various artist and track names in the text," Oldham explains.
As a DJ, Slegers first broke out in Paris and Berlin, and when she launched the Djax It Up party series, she found Djax's most receptive club audience in neighbouring countries Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and Belgium. Djax received regular coverage in '90s rave magazines like Frontpage in Germany and Coda in France. "Djax was one of the main labels for us," says French journalist Jean-Yves Leloup, former editor of Coda. "It's a historical label, very important in the whole Paris underground rave scene."
Djax-Up-Beats was also lauded in the British dance music press. As reported by Dutch journalist Gert van Veen in de Volkskrant in 2000, Dave Clarke, then working as a music journalist and writing for Mixmag, was an early supporter of Djax.
Djax-Up-Beats' global reach was reflected in its releases, which were cherry-picked from demos sent from all over Europe and the US. Most curious, perhaps, are the records made by artists using pseudonyms adopted early on in their careers, like Alan Oldham, but also Luke Slater, Bjørn Torske and St Germain.
Saskia Slegers is the beating heart of Djax, an empire that she's managed almost single handedly for 30 years. "From '95 to '99 I had an assistant," she says, "but I'm a loner. I like to do things by myself, following my own path." Her fierce independence defines both the Djax Records and Djax-Up-Beats labels, as well as her own DJ career.
She claims to have inherited her liberal thinking and deep-seated need for freedom from her father, a painter, and her determination and strength from her mother, a judge. Both encouraged her to follow her musical passion. "At the age of 12 I knew I wanted to be a DJ," commented Slegers in a 1999 interview with Penthouse Holland. "Those days I was already mad about music. Being as young as I was, I wanted to create my own little world and I disliked any restriction whatsoever. All night long I was listening to pirate transmitters. My mother often came to my room in the middle of the night to tell me to finally go to sleep."
She'd listen to the Sunday night show Spleen on VPRO radio and record cassette tapes to sell to bars in Eindhoven for 15 guilders each, shrewd business sense already intact. At the age of 16 she moved out and was DJing every weekend at local club Vox. By 18 she was working in record stores. In her twenties she was the bass player in a new wave band and honed her wide-ranging taste at the record shop Bullit, all the while heading up the store's new dance music division.