Back in 2014, Dekmantel added an official Selectors stage to its annual summer festival in Amsterdam, with an eye toward celebrating a select class of DJs. Since then, the artists playing the stage—including Floating Points, Mike Servito, Traxx, DJ Harvey, Ben UFO, and Donato Dozzy, to name just a few—have varied widely, yet there's a particular dedication to the craft that ties them all together. In 2016, Dekmantel will take the Selectors concept a step further with a new limited-capacity festival and compilation series. Taking place in Tisno, Croatia, the former will showcase the talents of some of the world's finest DJs in an intimate, picturesque environment. Ahead of that, the Selectors compilations will begin to appear, with Motor City Drum Ensemble, Young Marco, and Joy Orbison at the helm of the first three chapters. These are not mix CDs; every compilation will include a collection of hand-picked, unmixed tracks personally curated by the artist. There's no strict formula involved, but the idea behind the compilations—and the Selectors concept as a whole—is simple: Dekmantel wants to shine a spotlight on not just DJs, but the art of DJing itself.
Of course, that still leaves us with the question of what exactly a selector is. Aside from the term’s obvious roots in Jamaican dub and reggae culture, there's little to distinguish the modern-day selector besides vague notions of vibrant musical narratives and unfathomably deep crates. In hopes of exploring the idea a bit further, we sat down with Motor City Drum Ensemble, Young Marco, and Joy Orbison and quizzed each one about how they approach their craft. As we found out, their philosophies—and their record crates—are often quite different, but there's no question that these fellows are all absolutely dedicated to the art of DJing.
Text: Shawn Reynaldo | Photos: Gioia de Bruijn
Motor City Drum Ensemble (a.k.a. Danilo Plessow) loves records. His vinyl habit dates back to his days as a teenage producer searching for potential sample material and hasn't slowed since, which explains why his collection is currently in the neighborhood of 15,000 pieces. With so many tunes at his disposal, it would be easy to assume that the German-born artist is someone who revels in obscurity, but in practice, his DJ sets aren't designed to appeal to the chin-strokers in the crowd. "At the end of the day, what matters is the people," he says. "It's not about yourself. It's not about an ego. You should switch off your ego the minute you go into the club, and be there for the people, and make them happy."
Amsterdam's Young Marco (a.k.a. Marco Sterk)—a former skateboarding diehard and celebrated record digger in his own right—employs a similar philosophy. "I don't play for other DJs," he says. "I play for the people and I play for myself. I play records I would want to hear if I was in a club."
Motor City Drum Ensemble: It's not about yourself. It's not about an ego. You should switch off your ego the minute you go into the club, and be there for the people, and make them happy.
Joy Orbison (a.k.a. Peter O'Grady) doesn't go quite that far, but the London DJ/producer is definitely loathe to put himself—or his peers—on too much of a pedestal. As the nephew of drum & bass heavyweight Ray Keith, he did grow up in absolute awe of DJing. "It seemed quite important. It seemed quite serious. I remember that I didn't really see the fun in it much," he recalls with a laugh. Of course, that didn't stop him from diving right in, but even now that he's a celebrated artist in his own right, he's quick to note that "it's not playing the piano. It's not playing cello. It's something that I feel a lot of people can comfortably get into and give it a go. I quite like that it's the everyman's instrument."
In recent years, all three of these artists have been held up as examples of what a DJ should be, and it's not unusual these days for the "selector" tag to be thrown in their direction. Supporters are quick to make comparisons to fabled heroes of old—David Mancuso, Ron Hardy, Larry Levan, etc.—and while there are certainly lines that can be traced back to the supposed "golden era" of DJing, it's not traditionalism that separates Motor City Drum Ensemble, Young Marco, and Joy Orbison from their peers. "There's sort of a traditional side to the culture of DJing, which I think we're all really excited about and really like," says the latter. "But it is a little bit aggressive. Like, I love a rotary mixer, but I don't hate someone who doesn't."
For these three selectors, excellence stems from both an open-minded approach and an absolute dedication to pursuing their own vision. That's why Young Marco, who soundtracked his teenage years with heavy doses of punk and early Warp, now has no qualms about heading straight for the jazz fusion section whenever he walks into a record shop. "That's where a lot of kind of unclassified records go," he explains. "Weird electronic experiments and stuff that the shopkeeper doesn't really know how to categorize." Many of the tunes that he picks up weren't even composed as dance music, but this "accidental" character makes them all the more attractive. In his mind, these records are "way more honest" because the people making them "aren't trying to prove something."
Young Marco: I never plan the set. I play one track and then it comes to me what should come next. It's never a broad concept. Sometimes, you go into this kind of trance and the records just come to you.
Honesty is also important to Motor City Drum Ensemble, especially in the years since an intense struggle with anxiety forced him to take an extended break from the DJ booth. Stepping away was obviously difficult, but the ordeal ultimately strengthened his resolve and clarified his artistic vision. "I decided that I wasn't going to only play house the whole night anymore. I wasn't going to play venues that I didn't like where I had to play really ravey,'" he recalls. "I wanted to just play like I did back when I started in Stuttgart, with lots of disco and lots of things that I hadn't played in the couple of years prior.'"
A few years back, Joy Orbison also reached a point where he had to decide exactly what sort of DJ he wanted to be. The explosion of his debut single "Hyph Mngo" had unexpectedly thrust him onto the international DJ circuit in 2009, and while he initially focused on playing his own tunes and representing what he saw as a particularly potent UK scene, he eventually realized that he wanted to broaden his scope. Ignoring calls to develop a live show, he instead threw himself into developing his craft as a DJ. Even before "Hyph Mngo," his tastes had extended well beyond the UK hardcore continuum and he realized that he needed to incorporate that same diverse sensibility into his DJ sets. "Now, when I DJ, I'm a DJ," he says. "I'm wanting to focus more on playing music that I think is really good. Nine times out of 10, it will be something that I don't think the majority of people will know. I see it as quite separate from what I do as a producer."
"I'm less fussed about the technical aspects," he continues. "I just want to hear someone playing what I think is interesting music, but in a considered way, like they're making sense of it all. It's quite easy just to play weird and wonderful records in a random order, but to make sense of it and make it fit together, that's what I find impressive."
Motor City Drum Ensemble shares a similar sentiment. Although he believes that making people happy is his primary responsibility, he does qualify the remark. "The question is, how are you going to do it?," he explains. "You can go the obvious route, or you can go your own route and get to the same result, but by playing records that maybe none of them know, or just opening them up to worlds that they weren't expecting."
When it comes to song selection, Motor City Drum Ensemble isn't afraid to roll out the occasional club standard, but he prefers to take his favorite records and build them into hits. "I like to turn something that is maybe semi-known or even unknown into a sort of classic in my sets," he says. "You find something that wasn't played in the '70s when it was released, or even the '90s, but you just find a record that has never gotten really any attention, and make it something that is truly yours." With the rise of online mixes and things like Boiler Room, transforming rare gems into cult anthems is easier than ever, as Plessow explains, "People come to me and ask, 'Hey, can you play that one record that I saw on a video on YouTube?' That's the beauty of it."
Of course, playing records that nobody knows does come with an inherent level of risk. "If you've never had any failures, you're probably not a good DJ," says Young Marco. "If you've never cleared a room, you're doing something wrong." Despite these occasional wrong turns, he's been well served by his long-standing relationships with Amsterdam institutions like Red Light Records, Rush Hour, and Trouw, and he continues to DJ the only way he knows how. "For me, it was always a selecting kind of thing," he says. "I never plan the set. I play one track and then it comes to me what should come next. It's never a broad concept. Sometimes, you go into this kind of trance and the records just come to you. That's what I aim for—an out-of-body experience where it takes no effort anymore. You're just guided by the energy of the people and the party and it doesn't matter anymore if you make a sloppy mix."
Joy Orbison: The best moments are when you play something that isn't necessarily a hit, something that not everybody knows, but people are enjoying it.
For Young Marco, DJing is ultimately about sharing. "That sounds cheesy," he says, "but I like sharing music with people and the energy I get from DJing." That energy feeds Motor City Drum Ensemble as well, who notes, "You can see grown people cry if you play the right kind of music. What other line of work allows you to do that? It's one of the most beautiful things about my job." Joy Orbison adds, "The best moments are when you play something that isn't necessarily a hit, something that not everybody knows, but people are enjoying it," he says. "That's the best, I think, DJing can ever be."
As far as Dekmantel is concerned, the Selectors compilation series is simply another venue for these artists to keep on sharing. Young Marco's installment is slated for the late spring/early summer, with Joy Orbison's chapter to follow later in the year, but Selectors will kick off in March with Motor City Drum Ensemble heading up the inaugural edition.