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“Today, kids want to be more like Kerri Chandler than Kerri Chandler”: An interview with DJ Deep

“Today, kids want to be more Kerri Chandler than Kerri Chandler,” says DJ Deep, his words accompanied by a gentle flutter as he leafs through his enormous record collection. A man whose two-decade career has seen him forge a close personal and professional relationship with New Jersey’s house pioneer, he’s in a good place to judge. “Just because something sounds like Kerri Chandler doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to put it out,” he continues, “because Kerri already did it 20 years ago.” His voice lilts gently down the line from his Parisian office. He doesn’t sound upset by the sudden re-emergence of the Chicago and NY house sound he’s been obsessed with since he was 16. Instead, he’s fascinated at its cycle. When it comes to music, Cyril Étienne des Rosaies is always fascinated.

The re-emergence of tropes from dance music’s 30-year history, and the difference between inspiration and mere pastiche, is a recurring theme in our conversation. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a man who’s been listening to, buying, studying and playing these records almost as long as this writer has been alive. He’s seen every trend emerge, disappear and get resurrected 10, 15, even 20 years down the line. “I like the retro Chicago feel, of course,” he counters when I ask if he’s bored of hearing the same sounds come back time and again. “That’s my church, as we say in France. But let’s not sleep there. It’s cool, we got the point. Now let’s more forward.”

Innovation, moving forward – these have always been the central tenets in the career of DJ Deep. Indeed, they were once the central tenets of electronic music. From the robotics of Kraftwerk’s man-machines through The Electrifying Mojo’s calls to the mothership, and culminating in those personality and tradition-free boxes of bleeps muscled into shape by the Belleville Three, electronic music is a culture that is historically forward-leaning. But as house and techno reach their third decade, this music that’s been young since it was born suddenly has a history, an archive, a weight of format and template and tradition that peers over the shoulder of producers young and old. Are we spending too much time now re-examining the past, gazing too eagerly over our shoulders at the expense of moving forward?

“Today, kids want to be more like Kerri Chandler than Kerri Chandler”

“Our music is based on everyone copying each other,” says Étienne. “Sampling is about copying the other, and adding your own talent and identity. It’s what Todd Terry and Kenny Dope have been doing all their careers.” But for Étienne, there’s a stark and important difference between the appropriation of a sample, twisted into new shapes, and the slavish recreation of an old sound. “There is a trend today to make exact copies of early Chicago tracks, using the same machines, mixing them the same way, so you can’t tell if it was produced today or 20 years ago. Which is cool, actually, and I kind of like it,” he says with a laugh, “but I think it would be nice if we did not sleep for too long on that.”

It might seem strange, then, considering his views on retroism, to find his latest compilation, Kern, peppered with records from dance’s formative years. From the opening synth-wiggle of “Music In My Head”, a cut from house pioneers Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes, Arthur Forest and Santonio’s collaborative A.E.S. project, to Visions, aka Juan ‘the Originator’ Atkins on a Jersey garage tip and even Xperiment’s “Karn Evil #10”, a slab of bouncing Detroit techno from 1987, the past is heavily represented. But this is no history fetish. As Atkins’ squelching subs fade into the low-end workout of “Harlequin”, an exquisite track released last year on Étienne’s own Deeply Rooted House by the faceless Rootstrax and recently edited by Kerri Chandler, we see the same ideas approached in different ways across two decades. It’s the crux of DJ Deep’s approach, drawing the lines and parsing dance music history. For every Armando and Atkins on the tracklist there’s a Skudge or Marcelus. Merely copying the old is boring, but we should be constantly inspired by it.

“I had this image of a DJ writing his diary,” Étienne explains when I ask about this marrying of old and new, “and I had this idea of some classics – when I say ‘classics’ I mean records from around ’89 – and that some of these records could be relevant today.” Of course, DJ Deep’s definition of a ‘classic’ is about as far from the immediately recognizable room-rouser as you can get (that the release is accompanied by a 12” Rarities EP is illuminating). He is the consummate crate-digger, a man who’ll “buy and collect everything you can think of, even represses of stuff I already have,” and while many of the names on Kern are familiar, the actual records are more obscure.

Étienne’s record obsession was born from his first exposure to dance music, a 16-year-old in the hip-hop clubs of Paris who should have been at home studying. Among the De la Soul and Tribe Called Quest records the DJs would mix in early house cuts from the likes of Marshall Jefferson, and in a city where electronic music was treated with, at best, suspicion it was a revelation. “The music was not well-received in France,” he recalls. “It was difficult to fight against the club policy, and it was really slow to get this music accepted.” Unlike Berlin or London, which enjoyed a proliferation of record stores and a closely-knit underground scene, even getting hold of this exciting new music in Paris was hard enough, letting alone finding somewhere to play it.

“The record store in Paris, called Bonus Beats, was a big experience,” he says. “They were the guys importing everything. They’d have all the British imports, the US imports, they’d have everything.” A young Laurent Garnier worked there for a few months, and it was through France’s brightest techno light that Étienne caught his first DJing breaks. “I was very close to Laurent at the time. I was following him everywhere and he was kind enough to let me warm up for him at different parties,” he explains. But while opening up for one of the world’s biggest techno jocks may seem like an enviable way to learn your trade, the effortlessly seamless mixing that was Garnier’s trademark made picking things up difficult.

“When you learn music from someone who’s really gifted, sometimes it’s harder than when your friend’s got turntables in his house, and you make mistakes together,” he explains. “I had something that was somehow unreachable. So I obsessed with the records, I would learn everything I could from what was written on the record – Kenny Dope would do the drums on this and Todd Terry would do that. And Laurent would make fun of me, he was always saying, ‘You’re like a fucking book, man. You remember all the records’.” He laughs, and is quick to assure that that’s not his approach these days. “I was like a fucking dictionary. I was trying to be Discogs before Discogs even existed.

“When you learn music from someone who’s really gifted, sometimes it’s harder than when your friend’s got turntables in his house, and you make mistakes together”

“But that was my way of trying to say, ‘OK, I love this music, there is a culture behind it, it’s not just me doing my own stupid thing.’ But by showing people things in the deepest possible way, hopefully it will touch them, you know? So that was my perspective,” Étienne says. “When Laurent was the super talented artist who was just expressing himself, I was trying to be more the guy who says, ‘Look, there’s a culture behind this.’ You know?”

It’s that encyclopedic understanding of dance culture that Étienne’s channeled ever since, as a DJ and label owner. He describes himself as “a filter’, sifting through a sea of raw music for those records that stand out, that do something different, or that simply make sense in the narrative he weaves. But as music’s become more accessible, and dance culture itself more mainstream, he’s seen a change in the way people respond.

“When people were going out when I was 20 years old, they were going out to hear this new sound. They wanted to know everything about it,” he says, when I ask how he’s seen thing change over the last 20 years. “Today people are maybe not 100 per cent dedicated to it, or some are but the rest are just there to have a good time. And that’s a little bit harder for a guy like me, a weirdo who’s obsessed with this. It’s a criticism of myself, that sometimes I need to be more basic.”

Does he feel he has to compromise more these days? “You just have to make sure people are entertained, and that you play them music you think is really nice,” he laughs. “That’s my challenge. I’ve never compromised, I’ve never played a record I think is bad. I’m always trying to do something I love, and I hope people have a good time with that. That’s the challenge.” It’s perhaps ironic that Étienne should mention the ubiquity of electronic music as a diluting force, considering the difficulty he found getting it heard in Paris in the first place. He was part of France’s early rave scene, forced into life by Garnier and others at the aptly named Wake Up parties, where they were arrested, had gear confiscated and even found themselves gazing down the barrel of a gendarme’s rifle.

“The years we started DJing were about resisting, fighting. It was always about fighting against something,” he recalls. “You loved Derrick May’s music? You’d have to fight for Derrick May’s music to be played, instead of music that you considered not as interesting.” He tells a story of driving with Laurent through the suburbs of Paris, and suddenly hearing the crazed 303 wine of Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” playing on a commercial station: “This guy played it on the radio for 20 seconds, and then broke it. Snap.” He pauses, to contemplate the crime of snapping an import that a young Étienne would have killed to get hold of. He still sounds angry. “We pulled over in the middle of the street and we were shouting, screaming. We were so pissed off.” But those moments just stoked the fires, reinforced his belief that this music needed to be played and people needed to here it. As a 20-year-old he spent three years hosting a house and techno show on Paris’ pirate station Radio FG where, alongside friends DJ Gregory and Alex from Tokyo, he brought a flavour of New York’s vibrant house scene to a Paris that was only slowly learning the names of Kerri Chandler and Romanthony.

“To run a label and be an artist are two different things. You need someone who at some point tells you, ‘Look, the track is great but there are already 250 tracks that are doing this exact same thing’”

Étienne’s career at times feels like a throwback to a different era, one where producers and DJs were separate entities and being good at choosing records was at least as important as making them. Bar a handful of early experiments with friends Étienne doesn’t release music, claiming that he doesn’t want to “pollute the world with my boring patterns”. His frustrations with production were the motivation behind the launch of Deeply Rooted House, originally a medium for putting out his friends’ music but which has evolved into one of the most well respected and vital imprints in modern house and techno. “To run a label and be an artist are two different things. You cannot be the church and the advocate,” he explains. “You need someone who at some point tells you, ‘Look, the track is great but there are already 250 tracks doing this exact same thing’.” He points to Jonas Kopps’ recent Reforce EP, released this year after 18 months of polishing it into something that made sense for Deeply Rooted House, and that was original enough to merit actually pressing to wax.

“I’m not sure I’m excited by a 20-year-old kid who’s doing the exact same music that was done 20 years ago by a 20-year-old kid,” he says. “There’s something that annoys me a little about that, you know?” And perhaps in that lies the crux of DJ Deep’s approach to music. So long as those Kerri Chandler records, those Steve Poindexter records, those Todd Terry records still exist, we don’t need to make them again. Yes, house is deeply rooted, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck here.

Tom Banham