One of Berlin’s favorite DJs speaks about his method and the future of his hometown, Detroit.
Ryan Elliott has built a reputation for his stripped-back, sleek, and versatile selections as well as his highly dynamic mixing style. The Michigan native got his start as a resident DJ at the clubs Shelter in Detroit and Goodnight Gracie in Ann Arbor, and in 2009 he resettled in Berlin, where he swiftly secured residencies at both Berghain and Panorama Bar. Although he’s been active as a producer and DJ for over a decade, Elliott’s renown picked up steam in the past year, thanks to his regular sets at Berlin’s most famous club and Panorama Bar 06, his contribution to its esteemed mix series, which includes previous contributions from Nick Höppner and Steffi. Elliott’s was the first to arrive as a digital download package with specially commissioned 12″s rather than as a physical CD. We caught up with Elliott via Skype from Detroit, where he was taking a rare break from an intensive touring schedule that hit parties like Just Jack in Bristol and continues this weekend.
You grew up outside Detroit and held down residencies there when you were just starting out. Detroit is always a common reference point, but there’s an extra amount of discussion and speculation about the city recently because Dimitri Hegemann, the founder of Tresor in Berlin, has been talking to the press about opening a club in the Fisher Body space. Do you have any thoughts on that, given that you’ve lived in both cities?
When I heard about it, I loved the idea. Part of the reason that Berghain works is because—I don’t know how close they are with the city officials—but they’re allowed to be open as long as they want. I know police come in when they want, so it’s more of an open relationship. Berlin really embraces clubbing, they’ve done that for a while now. Now I think they’re doing it more and more because they’re realizing it’s a tourist attraction.
But in Detroit, a club would be open from 10 pm to 4 am at the latest. That’s only six hours, and that’s just someone’s set in Berlin. I’d love to see Hegemann do it. There’s plenty of space for it, there’s plenty of big empty buildings. I just wonder how you would run a business—get enough money, get enough people through a door, sell enough drinks in a night to keep something like that open if you’ve only got six hours to jam it all into. He’s a smart guy, he’s obviously run successful clubs for a long time, so maybe he’s in touch with politicians, maybe they’re going to have it be open more or maybe they’re going to do more daytime-based stuff. Every piece of it is there. It would be pretty affordable for him to open a big crazy building, and Detroit has such a culture with techno that I don’t see any problems with getting people into it. I think people would come from probably all over the US from it, and they would have a crazy couple weeks around the Detroit festival. The only thing is the hours, and its ability to even open would be my hesitation.
We had an email conversation with Brendan Gillen (the founder of Interdimensional Transmissions) recently about this, and he shared a similar reaction—club audiences in Detroit these days don’t come close to the crowds that you might have found at Motor in the late ’90s and early 2000s. However, he did say that, all reservations considered, residents would generally welcome the introduction of a new club or cultural center. Would you say there’s a current demand for a European, industrial-style club space like Tresor or the Kraftwerk?
Detroiters will always surprise you. I think many people would be really curious and interested in a new Tresor opening there. But clubbing for 18 hours or however long usually isn’t even legal, and also it’s not “socially acceptable.” Clubbing in America has never been as culturally ingrained as it is in Europe. That said, I do think people would be happy to see a new club there.
Do you think it would have been possible for you to be as successful and as active as a touring DJ if you had stayed based in the States?
Absolutely not. That was one of the reasons that I moved, because I was at a point where—without having so many releases out—I was coming to Europe quite a bit, but if I were to have stayed in Detroit, that’s where I would have stayed as a DJ. And also I had lived in Detroit my whole life and I wanted to see a little bit of something else.
You moved to Berlin in 2009, landed residencies at Panorama Bar and Berghain, joined the Ostgut roster, and over the summer you released Panorama Bar 06. What kind of response did it receive?
To be honest, I didn’t see too many bad reviews—it seemed like everybody really liked it. At first when they announced that it wouldn’t be in CD format—that it would be online—there were some ho-hums about it, some people were a little confused. But I think after, when they heard the mix and when they saw the total package online on the SoundCloud page with the downloadable art and people could really grasp the whole thing, it was a really positive response.
The mix also marked a kind of seminal moment for the series, namely, the end of the CD format, no licensing fees, and free downloads. Given the number of mixes released digitally and online, what makes the mix, or the Panorama Bar series in general, stand out for you?
I worked really hard on it. I started to get the original tracks from people last February, and I really took the time to try to make it special. Most of the tracks that I used were either new, unreleased things that I really liked, or older records that I knew would stand the test of time, so to me they already seemed timeless. I was trying to build a mix that people couple listen to more than once, listen to it multiple times, maybe even over multiple years. That’s how I feel about my favorite mixes. The Richie Hawtin Decks, EFX & 909 series, Craig Richards’ fabric 01 mix, Josh Wink’s Profound Sounds. I still listen to those even though they were made ten plus years ago.
You specially commissioned a number of exclusive tracks for the mix. How did the selection process work for you? Did you have existing relationships with the artists that you approached?
I kind of knew—hoped—that I would be doing a Panorama Bar mix. Once I joined Ostgut about four years ago, I started to make notes of tracks that I would use or artists that I would ask, because I would find good records and want to remember them. I had a list going for a couple years of artists I like or with whom I had working relationships in the past.
It was a new thing, so I really had to explain to some people how it was going work with exposure, and how it wasn’t going to be the normal royalty payment. Some of the artists were a little hesitant at first, but I guess I used the powers of persuasion, and there was only a couple that I didn’t get that I really wanted. Now it’s out, and it got really well received. The 12″s sold well, and even some of the older records that I used, some of the labels have told me that they sold out of their backstock and might do a repress. So I think everybody on the mix got some good recognition. They didn’t get a licensing fee, say, for one of the tracks, but the flipside of that was they got more exposure, and maybe they got more than they would’ve got on a licensing fee by selling out their backstock of that record. It really was an experiment. Honestly, when our label manager came to me with the idea, even I was a little hesitant at first. But then we got into what it would look like, that it would be mastered, that it would be a .wav download, all of that, he really got me on board fast.
I’ve noticed you make a lot of charts, and you seem pretty religious about updating your music on a weekly basis. Would you take us through your approach to acquiring music? What are listening for, and what’s catching your attention these days?
First on the chart stuff: I have a monthly chart. I’ve done it every month since 2000, I think. I do it because I want to show the labels I like to the people who read my charts. It’s hard enough to survive as a label anyway, so I feel like if I’m playing someone’s record, I owe them that respect.
As to how I pick new music, it’s still record store-based. I check Phonica every week, I check Hard Wax every week, I check Rotation, I’ll go to Space Hall and dig around. I don’t always buy all that stuff on vinyl because if I know I can get a digital file, maybe it’s out of stock. But it’s still based around record shops, because record shops have a buyer, and usually a buyer at a record store gets good things because they need to sell them. Say if I went on Beatport and there’s five zillion tracks, that’s too much information. If you look at a record store and what they’re selling, that narrows it down for you because they don’t buy junk. I have favorite labels that I check for stuff, and favorite artists that keep me updated on what they do. It’s been the same way I’ve done it since the beginning, it’s just an organic thing. It’s never something that I feel like I have to do, it’s something I want to do. I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and get on the websites or go to the shops. That’s what I like doing.
Are there any labels or artists you represented on your charts when they were starting out that have since developed bigger profile?
Well there’re these two guys, one of their names is Marcel Dettmann. I bought some of his first records. Ben Klock—I think I charted his first. I remember seeing the first Ostgut 12″, and it was them: Dettmann and Klock. I was blown away by it. That’s how I got to know them. I think somehow I got Ben’s email and we started swapping tracks. It happens all the time. I’m always surprised, especially now with Facebook, how many of the artists who, after I chart their tracks, contact me and say thanks, and then from there we have a relationship already. I want to expose those artists whose music I’m playing. I have a hard time with DJs who don’t do charts because they think they’re showing their hand; they don’t want people to have those records. If it’s a good record, I want to share it with everybody. I can get new stuff if they’re playing one that I had.
Ostgut seems to provide a pretty secure platform, but have you ever thought about starting your own label?
I have yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot—and I think I will. I don’t know if I’ll do it this year, maybe next year. I’m in the position of getting a lot of really good unreleased music from a lot of lesser-known artists, and I feel like now I have the ability to showcase that. There were people that helped me out when I was first starting to DJ, and now I’ve started to feel an obligation to get some of these people out there. So yeah, I think it’s coming.
Ryan Elliott is currently touring in Europe.