Budapest’s electronic music scene undoubtedly wouldn’t be as colourful and diverse without DJ Palotai. Renown for starting ‘Tilos Az Á’, the most important underground club of the early 90’s in the post-communist era, he also co-founded ‘Tilos’ in 1991, the very first independent civil radio. DJ Palotai can be described as godfather of a subculture growing up from illegality, and yet as a DJ he’s still in charge on every significant party line-up in Budapest. Looking back to the early 90’s in Hungary we took a nostalgic trip with the 50 year old DJ and talked about the euphoric and magical moments when Western electronic music found its way into the country.
Can you remember the time you opened ‘Tilos Az Á’? What kind of post-communist environment was the club started in?
We didn’t think about what it can become. We’re just making it for ourselves and for our friends. Then on the first day, at the opening on New Year’s Eve in 1989 we had all of the city there.
What did you play in ‘Tilos Az Á’?
My friends had always the same 50 records. I thought there are so many other kinds of music out there they never heard of and I need to show them. Tilos Az Á was about that. That time we were not speaking about electronic music, but I played punk, jazz, folk, Afro, Latin, simply everything.
So you didn’t have any focus on genres in those parties?
No, and I’m doing the same kind of approach since then. I always play everything, I just change the tones, because each time period has its own music. That time there wasn’t really any kind of electronic music over here. Some foreigners brought records from Berlin and Amsterdam, but there’re so new, so different that it was hard to understand. We also had to go abroad to Vienna or to Germany if we wanted more stuff because there weren’t any record shops here.
Which bands played in Tilos Az Á?
In the golden age of the club there was no need to invite bands, but rather reject them. They simply came down with cassettes or with music instruments and they asked in. Beyond any genres, there was rock, gipsy music, jazz, everything.
It could have been a real melting pot…
Yes, you had always someone to chat to. But my favourite thing was that all the old locals were there. People living on the square and they just came down to have some drinks. They said that they were experiencing everything looking at this building, prostitutes and whatever, but it’s the best now. They might be right, because there was a big buzz at that time – not only the place but also the square was packed with people. Not even the police made a challenge to come there. It happened that a cop came down and people just hustled him out. The place was giving a real freedom feeling. However we were always prosecuted. There was a high school near to Tilos Az Á and they handled us like the devil. Children were not allowed even to turn their heads towards the club.
Starting in 1991 and becoming popular as pirate radio what did Tilos change in local underground music life?
In my life it meant a crossroads. It needed too much time to run it together with the club. I made a decision, I chose the radio, because at the parties I couldn’t play all the music I wanted. The radio opened up new ways for listener-focused music. Still today if my weekly radio show has been cancelled, I have a bad feeling.
On the other hand speaking about electronic music, there was a big change back in 1993 when the radio was enforced to stop the signal. However we didn’t have any frequency, the studio was alive, as usual. We worked in a half-squatted house and everyone just came in, listened music and did radio shows. A guy working in the film industry hosted us, he had a small radio transmitter so we became a micro-sized block radio for that time. Then as we re-started our listeners were surprised very much because they expected us to carry on where we left off. But we had been evolving continuously for two years, and we got also electronic music to our playlists. That’s why people just didn’t understand what’s going on.
Were you afraid of their reaction?
Sure, although it was obvious for us what we played, our listeners were complaining for a long while about the music. Then all the electronic music parties got started and people began to understand this issue slowly… There were two types of DJ that time. Ones having their roots in disco, playing at the first big clubs, and us gathering around Tilos. The problem was the audience believed both types of music was disco, and this word had a negative meaning. It was hard to switch over people’s mind, that this is also dance music but in a different way.
And then you had also your own parties, right?
Right, but there was no real club life. Budapest became a popular because of it’s party culture, but no proper clubs exist even today. There are pubs and parties.
Tilos Az Á was supposed to fill in this niche?
Yes, it was, but we never accomplished it; maybe because it closed up in a too short time. Things coming from the underground are never supported to develop. As the club opened on Mikszáth Kálmán square, similar places mushroomed in the neighborhood. You can’t make developments like this from above. To destroy is always easier than to build something.
What was the very best period of Tilos radio?
It started with being 24 hours on air and with our studio located in a small house in the suburbs. It might have happened around ’94 or ’95. There is a story that because the change was late the guys in the night shift got so tired that they placed the mic into the garden and the noises from the garden were on air. Later we got a letter from an old couple that they got up early morning to tune in for the latest news and they found chatter of birds. The husband woke up the wife to listen to the news mixing together with the chatter of birds.
Tilos’s enchantment is being persistent. We got stopped eight times and we are still running, you can’t say any other example for that. It’s role that it exists, moreover everyone does in the radio what they like.
As one of Hungary’s most respected and well-known DJs, have you ever thought about moving abroad?
No because it’s much more exciting to do something when people want to see me here. Furthermore Hungarian parties and audiences are amazing. And I realize that every time I play abroad, for example in Germany or in France, I experienced that people like my miscellaneous sets, but there not as big a craziness as here. People just party in another way in Hungary. In addition during the past decades I learned to think with the mind of the audience and this is what they already expect from me.