A formerly so simple question like “When was the last good party you attended?” feels quite different to answer these days. And while the global Covid-pandemic already resulted in an overall confusing understanding and memory of time itself it gets even harder to probably answer it. Despite “only” lasting for 14, 15 months so far the carefree days of sweaty clubs and crowded parties feel like a lifetime away for most us. And although a forced break wasn’t the worst thing to happen to the overloaded party scene (and our accelerated lives in general) you start to wonder what’s next these days. Now that vaccinations are slowly rolling out the promise of a return to normal life appears to be visible on the horizon. We don’t know yet, how or when it will happen but things will change. And heaven knows we can all use tons of analogue distraction and escapism after all these months of exhaustion.
Barclay Macbride Crenshaw was lucky enough to experience such better moments shortly before we met up for a late night video call. The American house producer and owner of acclaimed independent label Dirtybird Records is better known under his stage name Claude VonStroke and when we phoned up he just got back for the first edition of his Dirtybird CampInn, an event series that took place with around 2.000 people at a hotel resort in Orlando, Florida. Judging from the videos and photos it looked like your proper US spring break party and although that’s usually not my kind of party vibe I felt extremely jealous when I found out about that event ahead of our call. Despite declining numbers and a high vaccination rate in the US it also needed a passionate house music enthusiast like Claude to make such a thing work and to give the people much needed hope.
Claude VonStroke has been in the game for almost two decade now. The Detroit-born producer is a true icon in his field. Next to remixes for Rihanna, The Chemical Brothers or Disclosure his label Dirtybird Records became a true international institution when it comes to quality house music releases. Mixmag named it the label of the decade back in 2017 and Claude himself was also voted America’s best DJ in 2016. He’s a big player after all, one that played a crucial part when it came to the establishing of electronic dance music in the United States ten years ago. Despite the shimmering spring break vibes of that just mentioned pool party Claude VonStroke remains true to the origins of house and rave culture. He didn’t mind the whole EDM hype that happened in the States during the last decade as it also helped to put the spotlight on his label and its music as well. But besides all big cooperate gigs he remains a true fighter for the independent and leftfield vibes of the scene, providing an alternative to the mainstream while simultaneously not totally ignoring it. Following the re-opening of the party scene and in the wake of a start of a new white label series on Dirtybird (starting with Oh!, a joint EP with fellow producer Justin Jay) it felt like the right moment in time to exchange some thoughts with this legend who also picked tracks for our Electronic Empathy Playlist so make sure to hit the ‘play’ button here while you are reading the following interview.
You just got back from Dirtybird CampInn and judging from the photos and videos it looks like pandemic-free paradise. How did it feel for you to restart things and party activities after such a long break?
We took a really big risk with this one. When we were planning it we already moved it two times and we said we don’t want to move it a third time but rather risk or cancel it. We got quite lucky because the first day of the event was the one when president Biden said you don’t have to wear masks anymore once you’re vaccinated. We created our own bubble where you either had a vaccination card or you got yourself tested before you entered. And then you weren’t allowed to leave.
I cannot remember a time when I saw people more excited on a party then on this one. Ever! Everybody was so hyped up; it felt like they were in heaven.
And how was the experience for you as a host?
It was great. We had a great partner with Homebase for this party and he really killed it. I didn’t have to worry that much like I usually do at Dirtybird CampOut where we don’t have a partner. This was really well done and of course, the hotel infrastructure helped a lot as well. I played like 8 DJ sets all together although I was originally only supposed to play three. (laughs)
How did these past months felt for you personally as somebody who likes to engage with the crowd?
I thought it was kind of terrible but I actually kind of enjoyed it. Well, the ‘not making any money part’ was terrible. (laughs) But the rest was okay. I enjoyed the time off and I didn’t realize how hard I was running before that for 15, 16 years. Labels, events, touring productions, having two kids etc. – I did a lot all the time so I enjoyed the forced vacation.
People might argue that the pandemic marked the death of party culture. That might be a bit too harsh but I would rather consider it to be a much needed break for the whole overloaded scene. How do you see the US scene at the moment?
The US scene is really strong and it started to get cooler. Fans are starting to request better music – at least for people like you and me. (laughs) I don’t have a problem with the EDM people because the whole hype helped me. When I started out I only toured Europe for the first years. From 2005 to 2012 I only DJed in Europe. And back in 2015 I decided to take a look around at the place where I live and I realized that nobody was running the show here when it comes to cool music. All the labels are tiny. Maybe Ghostly did four house records in a year, and then we had Ovum Recordings who barely released anything. Carl Craig’s label planet-e also didn’t release that much. Only Curtis from Green Velvet puts out lots of stuff but he didn’t do much parties. So I shifted my entire strategy and decided to be the “house music guy” over here. It totally worked but also totally ruined my European career. (laughs) We brought the sound over here and converted tons of people to house music.
I can imagine how exciting it must have felt to be an early adopter in that field and to witness how the sound you always loved finally found its audience.
Indeed. What’s also cool is that there are now lots of cool bass and breakbeat music coming from, let’s say, Germany and these young kids don’t even know us and we’ve been doing this since 2005.
A return to the roots
Which brings us to this new EP you’re about to release with Justin Jay called Oh! This one really goes back to the oldschool days, referencing jungle, break beat and less in-your-face house music. What inspired you to go into this direction?
It was quite natural. I listened to everything and I tend to also book lots of different stuff for Dirtybird CampOut – whether it’s jungle, rap, techno or house. I started as a jungle DJ and then turned to house once I realized no girls would ever show up to my parties. (laughs) When I was in Detroit I had a lot of musical background in that field because techno is a huge part of the city’s musical DNA. I remember listening to Ectomorph, Carl Craig and all these people although I was definitely more into hip hop back then.
While I was listening to the EP and your picks for our Spotify playlist I was wondering whether breakbeats would literally break into the mainstream now, seeing how popular a band like Bicep is these days. What do you think?
No, not really. I think Bicep is an exception here, of course. They are the normal anomaly that happens, the one that is quite massive within a genre. I don’t think breakbeat will become mainstream but it’s sneaking its way into various sets. It’s a nice alternative to the straight dance beats. That’s not a movement. If you take a look at the streaming numbers of these tracks I selected you will see how low they partly are. (laughs)
Was there anything new you learned while producing the Oh! EP together with Justin?
Justin Jay is really, really open minded. He’s always pushing things more forward than me. I’m still pretty much a house DJ, he’s something entirely different. I mean, he also plays Backstreet Boys at a 140bpm in his sets just to mess with his crowd. I couldn’t do this. We are two extremes who met in the middle.
There as a point last year on Dirtybird where I had the impression that every demo we released sounded exactly the same. I couldn’t stand it anymore. They weren’t exactly all terrible but were lacking of originality for me. So I was in the need of a different sound and doing something else.
This also works great in line with this very purist white label series you’re starting with this release. Where do you want to see this going?
I already signed more artists and it will go into the same direction. The next one will be this guy called Nikki Nair who is also in my playlist and amazing. Then there’s this new kid called Danny Goliger who will deliver a really beautiful sounding record. And then Ivy Lab will be there. They used to do jungle, now it sounds more like experimental bass music, a little bit more organic than EPROM. Have you heard of them?
I’m afraid I haven’t.
Oh, then please check them our. EPROM’s Halflife from 2013 is basically one of my favourite albums of all time. He’s a genius.
So these new releases show a different side then …
Yes, exactly. The thing with me is – once I start complaining too much I automatically find myself saying “What are you going to do about it?” That’s what happened when I got so frustrated with all these demos. I was bored by a certain sound so I decided to give new sound a space.
The idea to create a white label series is a very typical move by Claude VonStroke who continues to play by his own rule book. The idea for it came one night when he and Justin Jay discussed current trends in the electronic underground, and how much of the music that’s being produced and played out by respected talents today carries a resemblance to the leftfield Dirtybird sounds of the good old days. And that made the label boss return to a more adventurous territory. From UK garage to hip-hop, Detroit electro, Chicago juke – a lot’s happening on this release but apart from that it’s also quite raw and simple – plus it’s all about the fun. The now starting series will be a continuation of this easy-going, no-holds-barred approach to music making that harkens back to the core Dirtybird ethos from the 00s. And it’s a move like this that still keeps the legendary house music icon creatively hungry these days. The songs he put in our playlist might have had an impact on the process of Oh!, so it was interesting to dive a bit deeper into the compiled music.
You put together a sweet selection of tracks that inspired Oh! for us. We got breakbeats and trippy vibes and lots of stuff I never heard of. The opening track comes from Hugo Massien and Matter Of Time. What’s your relationship with it?
I try to get him to do a record on this white label series actually. I really like his style and that album. I found out that he works for Novation and wrote that app called SubLab which everybody is using for sub bass production these days. It was fascinating to talk with him over the phone about it. I’m happy that I booked him for the next Dirtybird CampOut. We did a live streaming series on Twitch during quarantine and I started playing alternative sets in there and this track was always one of my favourites.
I love it when you’re in the vibe of a playlist and then something totally surprising happens – like this more experimental track by Worldcolour called Breathless. Tell me a bit about this song.
I call these ones “producer tracks” where other producers go “Oh my gooood! I don’t know how to do that!” I listened to that in my car the other day and I thought: “This either took him five minutes or four months.” Is just that awesome.
Is such a moment intimidating or challenging for you as a producer?
Honestly, I love that stuff. I prefer finding tracks where I didn’t know how they did it. It makes me have admiration for it.
Those tracks are not just about house and techno here. Since you already mentioned your rap background it’s interesting to see hyped producer Fred again… here and trap by brakence.
Yeah, that’s quite hyper pop. He’s really good and he’s doing something I haven’t heard of before – sounds like trap, sounds like rap but then he also sings. It’s very exciting. My son actually found that guy.
The importance of your own rule book
Let us take a detour back in time. Can you recall the moment in your life you first got infected with electronic house or techno music?
I remember liking Stereolab a lot back then and stuff like The Chemical Brothers… so the stuff you could get on Virgin Records. The thing that really set me off and got me spiralling deep into electronic music was a super dark jungle mixtape. Alien Girl by Ed Rush, Optical & Fierce was on it and I was really fascinated by it. Back then I also lived in an abandoned factory. It really triggered me to go into this direction. I realized that somebody out there was doing such great stuff and I realized that I wanted to be in it.
And what about the first proper rave you ever attended? Do you remember that?
I was actually not that young. I moved to Hawaii and then back to Detroit. I was in my twenties. And I met this guy called Anthony Garth with whom I worked on an independent movie together. We were the location managers …
Depending on the type of movie that’s either a great or horrible job.
Yeah, it was tough. I don’t know how we made it to the movie because we worked all day and partied all night. Anthony knew everyone in the scene so my first raves were in abandoned car factories in Detroit. The sort of venues where you can cut your foot on actual metal that’s been sticking out of the floor. (laughs) Not very much lightning, horrible air conditions. I became friends with some of these folks and they let me play my first show: an all jungle-live set with modular synthesizers and a mixer in front of 6 people. It took me two hours to set everything up and two and half hours to break it down. That’s the moment I realized that DJing might work better for me.
And you never had any desire to go back to this?
No. I kind of a theory of live shows as I’ve been to so many. It’s so rare that someone pulls if off in a good way. Because no matter what you think nobody knows the fuck what you are doing so you might as well just DJ. Honestly, people don’t see the effects you’re doing between all the machines. They don’t get it at all. I don’t say ‘don’t do it’ I just didn’t see many artists who could do it. Isolée might be the only one who did a good job here.
Are there specific sounds and aspects of dance music that excite you a lot?
I’m really into simple sounds. Simple square wave, pitch up, pitch down – I feel like you can do anything with that. I did a track once with EPROM who I talked about earlier under a different alias. This guy is beyond genius. I remember him coming to my house saying “Okay, we’ll only use the 808 sounds for this track and that’s it.” I watched it and it was very fascinating.
I think reduction is indeed the master class of – well, basically any form of music but electronic music specifically.
I love the sounds but I’m way more into the groove of a tune and a set.
You’ve been doing this for a long time now and you’re about to turn 50 this year. What keeps you still going these days?
I really don’t know. I just love it. I still do. I didn’t come up in a normal way, I had lots of weird jobs before until I was like 32. I worked at every place you can imagine. But I always wanted to do something with film or music although I realized I wasn’t a good director, for example. When I was able to make it work I was just very conscious about what it means to not have it work out in the end. I’m very grateful, still love music and I just keep going as hard as I can.
Indeed. If you’re drawn to this thing and passionate enough you might end up in that field anyway.
Yeah. I mean every two or three months somebody comes up to me saying “Why aren’t you signing to a major label?” or “Make a track with this famous guy” and I realize that I’m doing exactly what I want to do and nobody tells me what to do. It’s the fucking best.
Plus you already had your Rihanna remix. Where else to go from that, right?
Haha. You got it.
What are you looking forward to now that the world is slowly opening up again?
Our Dirtybird CampOut festival is my favourite thing to in the entire world. It’s so funny and amazing. We weren’t allowed to have it in 2020 and now we’re about to go on sale for 2021 so we’re just finishing the line-up for this. And I can’t wait for it to happen.
And I can only agree to this. I can’t wait for any sort of joint dance event to happen again and I hope each and everyone of us will appreciate it in a whole new euphoric way. The joint Oh! EP with Justin Jay is out now via Dirtybird Records and as we mentioned before that’s only a first step in an exciting new journey of Claude’s ongoing journey. The first 16 tracks of our Electronic Empathy playlist are now picked by the man himself, ending with his 2013 tune Urban Animal. The rest of the selection is – as always – compiled by me while also featuring picks from previous contenders of this format like Lydmor and Roosevelt.
Please note: Claude VonStroke‘s selection will be only available for a limited amount of time before it will merge with the picks of the next Electronic Empathy update. So make sure to save your favourites as quickly as possible and discover the music of these lovely artists.