Westbam talks about his passion for hip-hop, benefits of modern technologies, favorite collaborations on the latest album “Risky Sets”, his recent approach in creating music and videos and neverending excitement
Maximillian Lenz, mostly known by his stage name Westbam, is one of the most influential Berlin dj’s, a true raver who was responsible for the massive techno-culture explosion at the edge of the 80s/90s and reaffirmed his position as one of the most interesting and creative artists on this scene during the following decades.
Maximillian started his musical journey with forming punk band Anormal Null in 1979. In the mid 80s he got more interested in dance music and went deeper into Djing. At that point he got his now well known DJ moniker Westbam — a kind of reinvention of Afrika Bambaata’s name that showed his passion for early hip-hop music. As Westbam, he quickly achieved the status of being one of the most interesting and forward-thinking dj’s of his time, the one who was pushing DJing from just selecting songs for the moment to a new art-form that is based on the way of creating musical compositions using records and mixing effects. Starting with playing eclectic mixes of electro, new wave, italo disco and hip-hop in the legendary club Metropol in West Berlin, Westbam soon turned his head to the most futuristic sounds of house and techno.
In 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, techno music and night clubs became one of the most distinctive signs of this new time and Westbam became one of the leading figures in an evolving cultural movement. According to Westbam, techno became at that time a kind of soundtrack of liberation and played an important social and political role especially for East Berliners, and today’s Berlin techno fame is in many ways an echo of that era.
Westbam stood behind the events that pushed the development of this rave scene, as the organizer of the trademark festival MayDay and a dj who played on all legendary Love Parade’s. At the moment, he’s retired from his promoter and event organizer duties and just enjoys himself as an artist who only dedicates himself to creative things like making new music and playing it to the people. He regularly releases his music as well as composing new tracks everyday just for the listening pleasure and in order to make the sets that he plays in clubs and festivals exclusively consist only of his material. Throughout his career, Westbam made a huge number of contemporary dance music hits and epic rave anthems which covered different genres from electro to techno and house music, as well as conceptual albums, remixes and collaborations with big artists that stand far away from the electronic music world like Iggy Pop and Brian Molko. His successful work in this wide range of musical genres always carried a mark of his personal style – always very experimental, energetic and with a sense of humor.
We had a chance to chat with Westbam about his latest album “Risky Sets”, passion for hip-hop culture, benefits of modern technologies, his approach in creating music and videos, retiring from the event business as well as some other interesting things.
Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov
Hi! As I understand your main new work is the new album “Risky Sets” that was released just a few months ago? Can you tell a bit about it and did the creation process took a long time?
Well you know, these days, I don’t work on tracks as long as I used to do in the early days of my production – in the 80s and 90s. I believe that a good track must be done fast, and when you are working too long on it, you are losing the main idea. But the hall technical process of making this album happen took a long time as I had a lot of collaborations on “Risky Sets” with different unbelievable superstars. And it was a long way, confirming everything with their management. And as time goes by while you are doing the same work, there comes a moment when you run out of ideas. Because of this long process of confirmation of everything it was evolving for a long time, so at the moment when everything was finally confirmed, I had around 10 versions for each track of the album. And think it all worked well at the end and I’m really satisfied by “Risky Sets”.
There are a lot of collaborations on the album with great hip-hop artists from different eras, which represent the old and the new school of this musical genre, like – Busta Rhymes, Grandmaster Flash, Tyler the Creator, Lil Wayne etc… Does it mean that you have a special passion for hip-hop?
Well yes, as you know, even my dj name Westbam is a kind of reinvention of Afrika Bambaataa’s name, which was used to be called in hip-hop circles – Bam, and Westbam, meaning Bam from West Berlin.
Hip-hop artists were always a big inspiration for me. They were first dj’s who took DJing beyond just playing tracks and made a kind of new art form from it. I took what they were doing to a new direction, but used many of their technical approaches. I always had a big interest for black music in general, and in hip-hop forms of DJ music particularly.
And the reason why I really like to work with hip-hop artists is there easy approach when compared with other great artists that I used to work with. For example, Iggy Pop or Brian Molko are great artists yet they are so much about songwriting, they always watch what you do, and control the process of creating the track. Hip-hop artists are kind of much more loose, they give you something and they don’t really care, you can do anything you want with it. For me, this kind of approach is really attractive, I like that.
Do you still use the old-school techniques in your sets that were invented by original hip-hop DJ’s?
Yes I still use some of these techniques. Original hip-hop dj’s used to spin two copies of one track at one time and to play with the loops, making break-beats and slow-bits. Back in the days I started to do the same thing with the disco records and I think in many ways this is how first house and techno music started. Now I still use this technique with the help of a loop function on CdJ’s.
There are many really impressive collaborations on “Risky Sets”. Do you have the one that you enjoyed most of all?
Well you know, collaboration in this context means that I was sending these guys my ideas of tracks and they were sending me their vocals. I think some of them maybe didn’t even listen to my original track, but I’m ok with it, as I really like to play with my stuff and to rearrange my musical ideas and the final album version of the track is usually very far away from its original version. This approach is really possible when you are working with hip-hop artists, with singing it would be much more complicated to change the structure much with the melody of the track and with rapping it’s way easier.
I was really surprised that such a big pop-star was really careful and thoughtful with my music
The track that I made with Drake for “Risky Sets” was a different situation, as Drake has a more traditional way of singing that has to be very true to the original music. But it all worked very well with him too. I was really surprised that such big pop-star made up his mind and was really thoughtful and careful with my music, he sang such a great song that was very tide with my melody.
The funniest thing was with working with Tyler the Creator
The most funny moment was with working with Tyler the Creator. The vocal part that he sent me sounded like he was from his phone call to his answering machine while he was walking through the city and at some point passing through a children’s playground – you can even hear kids in the background and at the end the dial tone of the answering machine. I really think this is the way he intended it and I really liked it. Originally, his rapping was something like 90 BPM, I edited it, and it became much faster, turning from an ordinary rap flow to something else. And I really liked the result, it sounds very free and open. I can say that I was surprised with what I got from him, as well as being surprised with what I did with it.
You have a few great videos for the tracks from “Risky Sets” that are done in your recognizable style – a kind of lo-fi and very ironic. Who usually directs your videos and brings the ideas for them. Is it some one, particular director?
I’m very happy you like them because usually I bring all the ideas and I’m the director as well. Back in the 90s, I had to work with some directors and spend a fortune on videos with some trashy ideas. Sometimes, of course, they were nice, but usually it was some little stupid film that the director thought of. So, I decided that I didn’t want to do it this way anymore and wanted to do something that is much closer to who I am and what I am about. I thought that much of my time I’m on the road and my music is reflecting it and my videos must reflect it too. All the videos that I do in last years are mostly based on my footage from my phone from the party’s I play at and from different parts of the world I visit. And I like them much more than all these expensive videos that I did in the 90’s. They are really about me, about what I do and how do I feel the music must be put in to pictures.
All the videos that I do in the last years are mostly based on my footage from my phone
Back in the day, I had to always go to some conference meetings with people from music channels like MTV or VIVA Music about my videos and they usually filtered something stupid and average for my videos. Now I don’t have to do it and I don’t miss it at all. I can present my videos directly to the people through youtube without this filter.
Besides being a productive musician, you are also an intensive touring artist. What do you enjoy more – working in the studio on new tracks or going each weekend to new places to play music to the people?
Actually I make way more music than I play gigs. But I play quite a lot too, this week, I’m doing 3 sets, and it’s quite a lot. Even in the 90s, I wasn’t doing 3 gigs each week all the time.
I work on new music every day, but I don’t spend much time in the studio these days. I prefer to do all the music on my laptop at home and to go to the studio only if I need to do some mixing, or to record the vocals. Since the mid-80s when I came to the studio first, I was there every day, I was almost living in the studio for decades. And I’m very happy that modern technologies now allow me to do my music at home, I’m much more productive this way and make way more music than I used to. I can start doing music when I’m lying in bed in the morning, then continue after breakfast all day long. It’s a much more quicker way, I can do 5-6 new tracks a week. Thanks to this I mostly play only my music, much of the stuff I play was never released and I did it only for mine and the audiences listening pleasure, this makes all my sets really exclusive.
So your dj sets now 100% consist of only your music?
More or less yes. Sometimes I buy other peoples music, but even then I usually re-edit and rearrange it in some ways. I really enjoy that now it is possible to invent each a new style on weekdays and play it on the weekends. Today, I will be playing two new tracks that were made just this week, for me it’s so much fun. Back in the days when the music was released on vinyl I had to wait 4 weeks for first test pressing of new tracks. Now, everything is much more direct – you can make a track in the morning and play it in the afternoon.
And what do you think about a vinyl revival that is in the air, seems like many, even young dj’s have turned their heads to vinyl again?
Many people ask why I don’t play vinyl anymore. I actually play it sometimes, I still have all my vinyl’s, they look good and it feels good to play them. But I really enjoy that now everything is not the same as it used to be and that I can use all these new possibilities. I don’t want to be a 50 year old DJ that plays in a way that he used to 30 years ago.
If it would be the same for 30 years I probably would stop doing it. And I go on because there are different new things for me to discover, new ways of building the set and everything became much more direct and quicker.
A lot of people are surprised when they hear it from me, but it’s real – these days DJing is much more fun for me than it used to be when I was young. I still feel the same excitement, plus I have more wisdom.
Think these new fast and direct ways of presenting your art to the people are the benefits of digital technologies. Looks like the track “No Facebook” that you have done with Grandmaser Flash for “Risky Sets” is about them?
It’s true. I’ve heard these words in the Grandmaster Flash interview and I really liked them and used them for the track, they really reflected my feelings and ideas about how back in the days we didn’t have all these possibilities that modern technology gives us.
I’ve heard these words in Grandmaster Flash interview and I really liked them
Besides being a world-known dj and producer, you used to be a serious event organizer who was involved in important events for the evolving rave-scene of 90s events like Love Parade and MayDay. Any plans in this field, are you thinking about organizing some events in the future?
I used to do these big events back in the days because nobody else did them. Basically, at that time it was much easier, this business was new and the costs for organizing everything were not so high. Even somebody who was not a real professional promoter could do it. At the first MayDays it was all about the music, new style, new dj’s that played something groundbreaking and people gave us their trust in it.
Now, for big events you need very big names, so the fees really went up. This business is no more for people like me, it’s not attractive for me no more. It became all about calculation, if you are a promoter you must always calculate – who do you will have to book, how much it will cost, how many tickets and drinks you will be able to sell.. And I’m really happy that I don’t have to do it anymore, it’s not exciting for me, I think I left this business just at the right moment, and I’m really enjoying much more than just being an artist.
I sold MayDay as a brand. I’m really happy it still exists at least as a thing that I started in the early days, but I don’t identify myself with its current direction. Being an artistic promoter was possible in the 90s but not these days. I am really more about creative things and would prefer to leave all these capitalistic questions to the people who are concerned with them.
Think it means that you are in a very good position as you can concentrate only on your favorite things – creating new music every day and having a great feedback from the audience each weekend.
Yes I’m really having fun from what I’m doing.
Congratulations and thank you for interesting conversation.