Three hours of hardcore.
Today we published an in-depth feature on the history of Thunderdome and the rise of hardcore in the Netherlands. As RA staff writer Holly Dicker explains, in the '90s hardcore spawned the most significant youth culture movement in the Netherlands, with Thunderdome growing into the most iconic hardcore brand in the world. There were terrific highs and terrible lows, and in 2012 Thunderdome was officially finished. But last October it returned to throw the largest Thunderdome ever attempted. The Outside Agency were one of over 80 artists who performed at the historic event.
As The Outside Agency, Frank Nitzinsky and Noël Wessels have been making and performing hardcore together for over 20 years. They debuted on Amsterdam's pioneering Mokum Records in '96, and have since evolved into one of the most progressive and controversial acts (see the interview below) in the industrial hardcore scene. They're also accomplished solo artists, performing hard drum & bass as Eye-D and DJ Hidden, with several other projects to boot. Their music incorporates "virtually anything" and their DJ sets are full of tempo and stylistic shifts; it's about as much fun as you can have on a dance floor. Their RA podcast is not a definitive hardcore mix, but rather an extended baptism into their own catalogue and their malleable vision of hardcore. Naturally it runs the BPM gamut, easing in around 130 BPM and steadily escalating towards "infinity." This might be your first dip into hardcore, but don't make it your last—treat it as a springboard to explore one of the most divergent and deviant of all dance music genres.
What have you been up to recently?
We try to keep busy. January and February have been relatively light on gigs for us, which has been conducive to our plans as we want to do about eight releases this year. The next release scheduled on our own label is a 10-inch with two tracks by us and our good friend Ophidian.
How and where was the mix recorded?
We spent two days with some borrowed CDJ-2000s and a DJM-800 in one of our studios, as neither of us actually own CDJs. The mix was recorded over several takes. A lot of touch-ups and edits were done in post using Ableton, Cubase and Sound Forge.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
The request to do a hardcore mix for RA was surprising, to say the least. We know what the RA podcasts feature on average, and the task seemed quite daunting because we weren't sure if we would ever fit. We were emboldened, however, when we heard one of the recent RA podcasts by our dear friend DJ Bus Replacement Service. That showed us we shouldn't even try to fit in, or that people would at least be able to take what we offered in their stride.
Putting the mix together was still difficult because hardcore might just be the broadest genre in existence. It ranges from about 100 BPM to near-infinity BPM, and can be as blunt as it can be complex, with arrangements ranging from a simple four kick drums per bar to virtually impossible patterns without a single kick in them. It can be both brainless and deep, and offensively ugly and strikingly beautiful. And hilarious and dumb, of course. Its energy isn't rivaled by anything, to us at least. We ourselves operate in the darker side of hardcore, which for us is definitely the fun side. There is of course also a great surplus of uplifting and happy hardcore. We don't do any of that.
This three-hour mix represents a median of our tastes. We unfortunately had to trim off quite a bit on either side for risk of our compulsive nature forcing us into a scenario where we'd end up with a five-hour mix. There is a lot of great music in the 100 to 130 BPM range, just as there is a lot of interesting stuff beyond 200 BPM, like flashcore, speedcore and extratone, but time is limited and we admittedly rarely get to play it out anyway.
The majority of our time was spent on the track selection. What do you play to a new audience completely unfamiliar with your music, and perhaps even only cursorily familiar with the genre as a whole? Our own back catalogue spans over 20 years, which is ordinarily a good problem to have, but in this case it didn't make the selection process any easier. We even asked our followers on Facebook which hardcore track they'd pick if they were limited to just one single track to play to an outsider. We were flooded with suggestions and some of those are actually in the mix. The mix itself naturally features a lot of our own tracks as well as tracks from people we think have been pushing it in the genre. Most of the selections are from somewhere in the last ten years. All in all, we think this mix ended being a good exercise for people to see where they'll have to tap out while trying really hard to be open-minded about hardcore.
It feels like hardcore is experiencing another renaissance at the moment. What are your thoughts on that as an act that has been in the scene for over two decades?
The hardcore scene has always been subject to constant change. While particular subgenres might have gone through stagnant periods, the brand as a whole has always stayed in motion. An aspect we have always enjoyed a lot ourselves is the gradual rise in quality, both technically and structurally, which has made the music sound increasingly more mature. The fact that people have continued to experiment has also resulted in the birth of whole new genres, such as hardstyle and its offshoot known as rawstyle, which is more closely connected to hardcore.
There always used to be room for all of the various subsets of hardcore in the Netherlands, and festivals traditionally had multiple stages featuring both accessible hardcore and the more complex variants. This mentality has shifted in recent years and has given way to a more commercial and less underground-focused approach. Consequently, the number of stages at large-scale events that feature hardcore has remained constant, but musical diversity has decreased. Many promoters have opted to go for the most popular subgenres of hardcore, rather than use their festival to promote the genre in its entirety. Some events that have been around for many years have already changed their makeup so drastically that they have ceased catering to hardcore audiences altogether.
One of the reigning hardcore genres at the moment is called uptempo. It is a subgenre that is more reminiscent of the DIY punk mentality that can be found in a lot of early hardcore. Many people clearly craved a return to this level of simplicity and attitude. Compared to music from the early days, the tracks we're hearing in this new subgenre don't seem to be of a singular nature, nor do they appear to try to be. While there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and even though it is clearly what the majority of the current hardcore crowd seems to prefer, we feel that this is a devolution.
The change in mindset of many promoters means that innovators who try to push hardcore into new directions are offered fewer chances to get their music heard, and as a result fewer people that are primed to enjoy it are getting exposed to music that deviates from the norm. This makes this supposed rebirth of hardcore feel more like a paradigm shift, which we feel does not necessarily benefit the genre. In countries where hardcore has historically enjoyed more of an underground status it might seem that the genre has made a triumphant return, but it's different for the Netherlands.
The new reality is that while the next generation of potential fans might be getting exposed to hardcore now, we fear that this is often a watered-down rendition of hardcore, and definitely not the entire spectrum or potential. If tried-and-tested formulas are the only thing you're exposed to it becomes harder and harder to acquaint yourself with music that tries alternative or otherwise innovative ideas. This goes for promoters and artists as well. If what the programming people are exposed to is narrow, a standstill in the commercially dominant subgenres becomes destructive to the entirety of hardcore. It's a dangerous predicament.
In one of your tracks from last year, you called Donald Trump a "pussy grabber." Do you like courting controversy with your music, and what makes hardcore a good vehicle to do so?
"Locker Room Talk" (also known as "Pussy Grabber" by some) is part of a two-track release on a label called Heresy. The track was definitely intended to stir up something, but until its release we had no idea how polarizing it would turn out to be. Ironically, the discussion focused less on the satirical elements of the track. Its lyrics call out the current US president, but very few people were concerned with our political viewpoints. Instead, the question was raised whether hardcore as a genre should focus on subject matter that, according to some, "does not fit the scene." Others criticised the style of hardcore they considered the track to be, which was that much-maligned uptempo.
In our opinion, hardcore indeed allows for this type of material. Offensive language and hardcore in fact go way back. We just put it in a particular context. To some extent "protest songs" like this are part of the genre—they just don't often go into much detail. One could argue that music encouraging people to "fuck the system" equally fits the category. Yet, our track provoked more chatter than usual and we are happy it did.
As for our supposed choice to jump on the uptempo bandwagon, we simply shrugged it off. Most people who have been following our work long enough know that we have always released music at widely varying tempos. If some feel a need to criticise us for this or the musical palette we used, they are of course at liberty to do so. It's a good thing there is still a lot of active discussion about hardcore. Those unfamiliar with hardcore will likely never believe how much discussion the choice of kick drum in a track can generate.
In the end, "Locker Room Talk" kicked several people in the groin on various levels. It is interesting to notice that, apparently, the amount of detail matters: you can hold up a sign but you can't say who you are supporting. We decided to dedicate a track to a time period in which a head of state is getting away with things that will likely make future historians frown. It is a sign of the times we live in, which we musically combined with a current counter-movement in hardcore. Consequently, we committed blasphemy on several levels, triggered talk about the seriousness of the genre and made a release which fit the Heresy label perfectly. We probably also made the first and last hardcore track to ever feature Noam Chomsky.
What are you up to next?
We've got some fun gigs coming up soon. We're hitting the UK and Portugal in March, and we'll also be playing at Masters Of Hardcore, which is the biggest indoor event for hardcore here in the Netherlands. MOH is always a good time for us because it has consistently supported the full spectrum of hardcore and hosts every little subgenre in a proper spacious area and not just a broom closet. We're playing back-to-back with Ophidian there, which is great timing as it's right before our new record with him is out.