The alphabet according to WestBam
In the early nineties, Maximilian Lenz, alias WestBam, helped usher in an era of euphoric, post-reunification revelry in German techno, one that redefined the country’s image abroad. Move over philosophy, fascism and fussball—make room for the Love Parade. Named after his role model Afrika Bambaataa (cf. Westfalia Bambaataa), the Münster-born DJ and producer was never modest about his musical contributions. But he was also never content to rest on his laurels, either. Westbam’s continuing collaboration with Zulu Nation co-founder Afrika Islam has once again reshuffled the joint deck of European techno and New York electro funk. So pay attention, you could learn something.
A as in Anthems: My anthems are programmed hymns and they’re an integral part of my work. They’re made to express the feelings of a community, like ‘The Mayday Anthem’ at the end of 1991, “Sunshine”, and the more recent anthems I’ve done for the Love Parade. In retrospect, I’m extremely glad to not have contributed to the hymn for the last tragic Love Parade.
B as in Berghain: Just as Planet represented Berlin nightlife in the early nineties, Berghain represents both the city and the global scene in the twenty-first century. After all their battles, this club got its act together in the world of post-modern techno and has consistently followed a clear concept. Suddenly, clubbing was no longer about exploring new worlds but rather about what’s undeniably excellent. The incredible space, the Panorama Bar, the dark rooms and cash machines in the corner—it’s where the best DJs have played the best tracks on the best sound system in the best location for the best clubbers. But somehow, it’s still pretty bleak, isn’t it?
C as in CDs: I feel at home on turntables, so I stuck with vinyl for a ridiculously long time. The main reason that I’ve been using CDs since 2007 is that after fifty years of being able to perform on turntables in clubs, it seems that the knowledge required to set up the decks without the needles continually jumping has been lost. I love vinyl, but I hate skipping records. It drives me mad. Also, these days ninety percent of the tunes that I would love to have on vinyl don’t even get pressed. Not even my own releases.
D as in Digital DJing: The first time I came across digital DJing was not in a hip, high-tech location but in a huge abandoned disco in Rügen, Germany, where the DJ used his hard drive to play everybody’s requests—from Herbert Grönemeyer to The Village People. At the time, it seemed unbelievably boring, but in fact, digital DJing has revolutionized DJ culture like no other development in DJ history. And everybody seems to have access to everybody else’s playlists too. But you still have to know what you’re doing to really rock the floor.
E as in Ecstasy: The first time I was offered ecstasy was in 1982. The guy’s name was actually Dr. Drug, believe it or not. Real incognito. He told me, “I’ve got this new pill and it’s incredible. The CIA tested it on a thousand American families on Christmas day, and they all said it was the best Christmas they’d ever had!” This is before I’d taken any drugs, so I was like, “Sounds interesting. How much?”—“Seventy deutschmarks”, he told me.
F as in Future: I can’t predict the future of dance music. However, something that’s always interested me is how house and techno will be looked at in the future. For example, in three hundred years time, will it have the significance of, say, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach? I have my doubts.
G as in Global Player: I have already played all over the world, and over the years, my desire to travel has significantly decreased. You really have to come up with something special for me to feel tempted to travel to faraway places.
H as in Highlander: The audience stands under the bright lights, the image of eternal youth. The Highlander stands at the DJ booth and says, “There can be only one.” He looks around and sees only a sea of young faces. He goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror and is startled by his old, aging face.
I as in Irritainment: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” There is nothing worse than when I go to a club and hear three minutes of music and then know how the rest of the evening will proceed. An essential feature of playing music is the spirit of adventure and the joy of surprise. Whenever there is new kind of fun to be had, then this is good fun. I call this concept irritainment. All good entertainment is also irritainment. All bad entertainment is just food for the masses.
J as in Japan: When some people think of Japan, they think of cherry blossoms or minimalism or whatever. I always have to think of my man Mark Spoon. Back in the day, he would arrive at Narita International and then ask to be taken to his five star hotel by helicopter. At the end of the night, he’d usually end up in some brothel, but none of the prostitutes ever wanted to serve him. He actually got stuck in the shower there once because it was so tiny and he was so huge.
K as in King Tubby: Everybody loves King Tubby if they have a brain. Noble studs like him did it all before us, so eat your heart out dubstep. Everything we know about the deconstruction of sound, delay and bass he did in the sixties and seventies. He is our teacher. Jah bless.
L as in Love Parade: The image of the Love Parade with a million people dancing around Berlin’s Victory Column truly characterized Germany in the nineties. In my opinion, it even contributed to the country’s post-postwar reinvention.
M as in Minimal: The success of minimal in the last decade is, in my opinion, strongly connected to the need to retreat into privacy after 9/11. But its ongoing success also has gastronomic reasons. At, say a Skrillex concert, you’re bombarded with jittery rave signals and check your watch after five minutes. At a minimal party, ten hours slip by as if nothing happened—which means more turnover at the bar.
N as in Nineties: I used to think that my destiny and what I became in the nineties was a result of my achievements. But the truth is that it had everything to do with historical circumstances and very little, if nothing, to do with personal achievements. Either way: the music we made became the soundtrack for a decade of great awakening. People were drunk with joy—it was a naive and emotional time, and people thought that the West had won forever.
O as in Odeon: The Odeon in Münster was the first club that I ever played. I was the “warm-up” DJ there in 1983. I still remember that I started my set before the doors were even open, and it was almost over when they finally were open. The last record I played that night was Sid Vicious’ “My Way”.
P as in Purism: As a DJ and an artist, I am the opposite of a purist. I am a universalist. The purist enjoys stripping everything down to the bone and clarifying everything. He enjoys bringing even greater clarity to things that are in no need of explaining. In contrast, my strengths lie in accepting the chaos of certain situations and grabbing the dancing star at the right moment.
Q as in Quo vadis, rave culture?: Who knows where science will take it? Back in the day, everybody was so optimistic about the direction of rave culture. They thought that technical advancements would carry it into the future on its own.
R as in Rock and Roll: I have always believed that techno is a continuation of rock and roll but with new technology.
S as in Sponsorship: Money does not create culture, but it does act as a catalyst. Without money from the Catholic Church, the ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel, and indeed the Chapel itself, would have been inconceivable. Broadly speaking, this captures the essence of sponsorship. It can be a blessing and a curse. And in our case, I would say that it was a blessing. I’m glad that companies sponsor DJ culture and events. After all, it’s better than a lot of the nonsense they could be spending their money on in the name of culture.
T as in Techno: Kraftwerk’s Computerwelt is, in my opinion, the best and perhaps only real techno album ever made.
U as in Underground: Underground is a collective term for anything that opposes the mainstream. There wasn’t really much of a dance music underground in the mid-eighties in Germany, though gay hi-energy culture came pretty close. Today, I feel most at home in underground venues. I prefer makeshift locations to fully done-up, glitzy disco temples.
V as in V-2: The rocket scientist is the paradigm of scientific progress, and there are few rocket scientists of greater repute than Wernher von Braun. OK, he made evil rockets too. But they didn’t work very well. He took the Americans to the moon.
W as in West: I am a child of the Western world, and I still think, perhaps somewhat naively, that Western culture has a lot to offer humanity. Maybe it’s just a European delusion of grandeur.
X as in X-Chromosome: “This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.” This has always been true, even in the worlds of house and techno.
Y as in Mr. Y: For our project Mr. X and Mr. Y, Afrika Islam always attached great importance to being Mr. X. I never really understood why, because if you call yourself Mr. X and Mr. Y, outsiders won’t know exactly who’s who anyways. Anyhow, he was fascinated by European dance music, and the idea of the project was to combine the interesting sides of hip-hop and European dance music for the techno/electro world. Today, this fusion has taken a different direction entirely. When David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas collaborate together, you can safely say that this is the worst of both worlds.
Z as in Zeros: The zeros at the beginning of the twenty-first century did not signify my decade as such. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself. Honestly, the feeling of swimming against the tide is something I’ve known well. Actually, it’s kind of my attitude towards life in general. It was like that in the eighties when nobody paid a thought to DJs, and it was the exception in my life when, in the nineties, the tide turned and swam with me. The 2000’s were marked by 9/11 and a general feeling of fear. I would say that Osama bin Laden influenced phenomena like minimal techno, Berghain and the withdrawal of techno culture into smaller and more hidden locations. It was a decade of deep uncertainty. We realized that other people hate us, are willing to die fighting against us, and electronic music could only provide a small niche, a temporary respite. We became withdrawn. That’s the difference between techno culture in the nineties and the noughties. And now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the cards have been shuffled once again. ~
Photo: WestBam photographed in Berlin by Andrea Stappert.
Published May 22, 2012.