FIFTEEN YEARS of ecstatic labor have gone into honing the sound of Dirt Crew Recordings — a sound that’s sharp but with a soulful bounce, deep but never boring, popular but never ordinary.
Since 2004, Dirt Crew and founder Break 3000 have broken numerous artists that are now household names on the scene, among them Till Von Sein, Mano Le Tough, Nachtbraker and of course Detroit Swindle. In terms of A&R, the label is the model of modern perfection: to this day, Dirt Crew still builds their brand on new discoveries and developing enduring relationships with artists in their extended family.
5 Mag spoke to Break 3000 for Dirt Crew’s 15 year Anniversary. He also put together a dynamite mix sampling the flavors from what is widely considered one of the finest back catalogs for a deep house label in the world.
Listen: Break 3000: 15 Years of Dirt Crew
What can you tell us about the days when Dirt Crew was founded?
That would have been around 2002 and 2003. I met James Flavour in Berlin in 1999 when attending the second Red Bull Music Academy and we stayed in touch and played together a lot, especially at the original Tresor club. At a certain point we decided to make music together and the first releases came out in 2004 on the Cologne label MBF which was part of Traumschallplatten. Shortly after that we did a string of releases, albums and remixes on labels like Mood Music, Lasergun, Fine, Systematic, Gomma, 2020 Vision, Freerange, Crosstown Rebels.
When things really took off we decided to start our own label as well. That was the start of Dirt Crew Recordings. The first release came out exactly 15 years ago, in October 2004.
Were there any other people involved?
Only us two really, we worked and played together for some 10 years up to the point where we thought it would be a good time to stop and split up. That was around 2012. From that moment on, the DJ act “Dirt Crew” stopped but the label Dirt Crew Recordings kept on going and is run by me alone up to this day. I have had tremendous help from a good friend these last years running the label as it became too much work for me alone to handle all. And I of course have my promotions in hand of a professional agency. As a one man business it would be impossible to do all by myself.
Was the intention of the label at the start to showcase your (the Dirt Crew) productions?
At first yes, our Dirt Crew stuff and both our solo outings as Break 3000 and James Flavour. But we straight away asked friends also to release their music on our label in the first 5 years — people like Tigerskin, Adultnapper, Sasse, Mano Le Tough, Chymera, etc. This was also the real intention: to start a label that releases different music than what was coming out in that period, especially in Germany. The scene was quite depressive and minimal back then and we just loved full-on “hands in the air” house- and disco-influenced music.
When I like it, I sign it, even if the artist doesn’t have any social media accounts yet. I think thats what a real label should be like.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
Mainly some “business” stuff — things like good publishing, neighboring rights etc. But I guess you also need to learn and make the journey. In the beginning when you are a touring DJ and playing worldwide every weekend, the only thing on your mind is partying and music and not so much the business side of things. I guess for many young artists and labels it’s the same — when you grow older you get more serious. But the label is still up and running after 15 years so I couldn’t be happier!
There is a Dirt Crew sound but I’ve never been able to articulate what it is. Can you? When you’re listening to demos is it an instinctual feel — “this is Dirt Crew, this isn’t”? What are you looking for when you’re hunting for new music for the label?
Hmm.. yeah, there certainly is, and the sound changed also a bit over the years. At first we did proper electro house and even tech things.. but since 2012 I really put a deep house stamp on the label. It started with artists like Ben La Desh, Elef, Jay Shepheard, 25 Places and evolved in that special sound of Brame & Hamo, Harry Wolfman and of course Detroit Swindle.
What I look for nowadays is much different than back than I think. It has to be original and I’d also rather sign a complete unknown artist and keep working with them for many years. I tend to not release music from artists that are already on Label B, C and D or follow trends… This has been the key to success with so many of my artists of whom I put out their first productions ever. Stylewise I am really into Electronica and Leftfield sounds right now but also still love proper disco house a la Lorenz Rhode and S3A. I personally must truly love the music and as I am also producing myself the standards are quite high when I listen to demos. Also the overall quality of the label got higher and higher over the years.
I maybe sign up one new artist a year. I really like to keep the Dirt Crew family close and small and do at least a release per year by Lorenz Rhode, The Revenge, Felix Leifur and by my new faces like Dampé, Dan Only and OUER. With being able to only do six releases on vinyl per year my space is also limited. This last year especially with the album by S3A, i am hoping to do more albums also, at least one per year.
It’s been pointed out that this is an era of hits, blockbusters, familiar names. You’re still digging though demos and finding new artists early in their careers. Why?
This is quite simple, because I don’t need to make a living from the label and I do most of it by myself. I have a regular job also at a music distribution company called “EPM Music” and the label is my “little” hobby. So as long as I can finance the next vinyl and pay my artists all is fine!
I would never sign an artist solely because he sells well or is hyped. I am a music fan and the music is most important, when I like it I sign it even if the artist doesn’t have any social media accounts yet. I think thats what a real label should be like and in the end what makes it special and successful. It makes me very proud to see how successful and big some of my artists get later on in their careers. Such a great feeling to know you put out some of the very first records by guys like Detroit Swindle, Nachtbraker or Mano Le Tough.
You have caught a lot of those prominent producers early in their recording careers — I’m also thinking of Till Von Sein, Brame & Hamo, Waze & Odyssey… How did those connections happen?
Till and Mano where good friends from Berlin, we knew each other way before I released their first music. Both just handed me their demos (Mano on tape back then) and we DJ’d a lot together in Berlin clubs and bars… so it was basically releasing music from friends. And both Brame & Hamo and Detroit Swindle just mailed me a demo direct or I got it through friends… They did not have a single record out yet, no profile, nothing… It was just the music that convinced me at the time. I am still working like this today, I do listen to demos I get sent and if I really like it I sign them, like Dampé and Dan Only. It’s enough if I believe in their music, I really don’t care if it sells or not. (I do hope that it does, of course :))
Is developing that early relationship one of the keys for Dirt Crew’s longevity? Like on some of your remix records, like S3A’s “Pages,” it very much feels like it’s more than just cutting a check to some remixers. It’s a family affair.
Yeah, I think you could say that. I am always hoping to work a long time with my artists. And I don’t release that many remixes either — only if I personally really like the artist, like the new ASOK remix for Dampé’s new “Garden” EP. On that S3A record there is only one guest remixer — “Art Of Tones” — because he is a close friend of S3A and I also always wanted to work with him, been a fan since his Llorca days at “Fcom.” The other remixes on the S3A EP are all done by my friends and label artists representing all sides of the label’s sound, you could say.
You’ve sold records from your website even long before dance music labels began to colonize Bandcamp. How important is it to your bottom line? I notice that SoundCloud posts and the like nearly always link back to your own site. Could Dirt Crew survive selling records from its own site?
Oh, no it couldn’t, I do rely much more on my distributor, which has been wordandsound for fifteen years on the vinyl side of things. We are very close friends and they do a great job. We started as a label in 2004 so digital was just starting back then and Beatport was super small still. Vinyl sales were huge! I mean rarely any label nowadays would press 1,000 records as first press, and we sold that on every record in the first one to two weeks after the release date… haha… Nowadays it’s so hard and I really need my own website too. Everything helps.
I really love to be in touch with the fans direct also. I think thats the main reason I do the web shop. Sales-wise vinyl is a real luxury for me, the money needs to be generated by streams and digi sales. But keeping it vinyl is very important for me, I think you are not a real label if you are not willing to put in the cash for that.
What is the value of having a deep catalog for a label these days as Dirt Crew does now? 15 years is a lot of records. Does the back catalog of a label like Dirt Crew keep generating revenue these days in decent amounts?
I think its the key value, I was also really lucky having some “hit” records in the past years and yes, the sheer quantity of tracks we released also helps of course, with all my sub-labels (Players Paradise, SPIEL) added in we’ve done well over 160 releases to date.
A lot of people are always bashing Spotify & Co. but I would not be able to survive without them. I am so happy paid streaming started a few years back. It’s the best thing that could have happened to the music industry. It’s the only reason i am still able to press vinyl! Streaming completely killed all those illegal download platforms.
How has Spotify changed how you make and release records? I notice you’re not doing a ton of “radio edits” which are becoming popular again on account of music being made for Spotify listeners without the long intros & outros for DJs.
It has very little influence if none at all… The vinyl and the DJ comes first and thats the main thing I look at. I would only do a radio edit if i think the song is actually for the radio! I think in all my releases we only did that twice. One was “64 Ways” by Detroit Swindle Ft. Mayer Hawthorne as it was such a catchy tune. I never had the thought, “Ooh this would have a better chance in a Spotify playlist if we cut the intro.” And I have had numerous tracks that are over six or even eight minutes and have one minute intros in very big Spotify playlists. So I think you do not really need to do this if the track itself is good. I think this is much more relevant for commercial labels and the pop world. Nowadays there are really cool underground playlists that are excellent and don’t look at the arrangement of a song.
Thanks so much for this opportunity and interview! And make sure to check out Dampé’s new “Garden” release featuring a special ASOK remix, it really means a lot to me and leads the label yet again into new territories music-wise.