Red Rack’em is the pseudonym of Scottish DJ and producer Danny Berman, who runs the excellent Bergerac label, home to music from artists like Ajukaja, Tommy Rawson, Body Beat Ritual, James Dole, Seetheroad as well as his own Red Rack’em tunes.
Back in the UK from nearly a decade living in Berlin, Danny’s latest release, “Wonky Techno Banger” has been blowing up and is poised to be just as big as his “Wonky Bassline Disco Banger” which was supported by just about everyone and ended up being the biggest selling house record of 2016.
Berman has developed an extremely distinctive take on the house template, his productions featuring idiosyncratic harmonic elements and unexpected musical juxtapositions. His continuing success is at least partly down to the fact that he simply makes interesting records that stand out. “Off kilter” seems to be the journalists’ favourite term when talking about Berman’s productions, as he has a particular gift for marrying discordant parts together and somehow making them work.
It was Berman’s remix of The Joubert Singers “Stand On The Word” from 2009 that first bought him to most peoples attention. An absolute killer remix full of disco strings and dub effects together with a highly distinctive electro-esque b-line, channeling Loose Joints via Space 1999. We chatted to Danny to try to get to the heart of his unique production approach and about his “wonky” records.
Your remix of The Joubert Singers “Stand On The Word” was the track that really kicked things off for you. It’s a very distinctive mix, full of dubby fx and interesting little production touches. I know it was a while ago, but can you tell us a bit about your approach with it?
In 2008, I was kind of oblivious to how big “Stand On The Word” was, which helped when tackling the remix. The Unabombers had licensed it for their Electric Chair compilation for Tirk Records and I had just done a single for Tirk so label boss Sav Remzi asked me to remix it “for vibes and stuff.” I don’t even think there was any plans to release it – it was just on spec. I was making a lot of post-dubstep “Future Garage” stuff at the time and I guess I just wanted to put a big bassline in the track.
I wasn’t worried about the bassline being a mistake but quite a few people were more into the disco loop at the start and when the wonky noise came in they were shaking their heads. Of course when it was the biggest selling house single of 2016 no one was shaking their head anymore.
I didn’t have the parts – I just had the original track and the “clapapella” which was the live takes of all the choir singers with the backing track being played on speakers in the church in the background. I didn’t want to just do some loopy edit (as that would have bored the shit out of me) so I wrote a whole new section with a call and response between a live bass and a kind of “donk” bass noise with reverb on it. I just cut between the original track with beefed up drums and my new section which was very sparse and it seemed to work. I also wonked out the samples from the track using reverb and reverse techniques. I made it in the living room of my shared house in Nottingham as I was bored of being alone in my studio all the time so I wrote the main idea through HiFi speakers, just kind of hanging out in my living room with my laptop. It ended up being hammered on BBC Radio 1 by Gilles Peterson, Rob Da Bank and even Zane played it on his daytime show, which was a trip. Gilles invited me to play at his Worldwide Awards in Jan 2009 at Cargo in London and my DJ set was broadcast on Radio 1 the following week. It was the stuff of dreams!
There’s a thread of certain musical ideas running through lots of your productions, would you say you have a particular production style? And how would you describe your music?
Well it’s the same brain making all the tracks but it’s not always the same style of music. I enjoy many different types of music and I enjoy bringing those influences together when writing. I don’t even think writing is an adequate word – I just “do” music, if that makes sense. It flows out of me like water… I don’t generally have an ideas or imagination problem when it comes to music so I think my production style is mainly just me getting lost in creating a mood. I am zoning out. It’s a welcome escape from my annoying mind.
In terms of my production style I think it’s “do a lot with a little.” I think tracks have way more impact if there’s not loads of different parts fighting with each other. That’s why I developed techniques to make something repeat over and over but still have some kind of subtle variety within the track. I love sparse music which cuts through like EBM, New Beat and dubby disco type stuff – I am constantly looking for music which is basically just great drums, bass, a bit of reverb and some whooshing noises. I make music which reflects my character – it can be pretty edgy at times but there’s also a lot of love and joy in there too. I dunno – GOOD MUSIC HOPEFULLY!
So how do you achieve your particular sound? Are there any machines or software you always use or can’t do without?
I have been using Logic since the mid-’90s so that’s probably the most important thing in my workflow. I would say that my attitude to sampling and 30+ years of enjoying hip hop is also very important. To be honest – the best piece of equipment is my brain – it’s the thing which creates the sounds in the end. In terms of hardware I have been going to Devon Analogue studio which is a kind of rural Airbnb with a badass studio so that’s been fun as I never had access to things like the Waldorf Wave and Deckards Dream before. I tend to make more classic sounding stuff with hardware which isn’t really so appealing to me. I love the immediacy of sampling. You can make a hit record in 10 minutes with samples. Trust me! In Devon, I was just recording for the full duration of each track for each part which mean it’s not as repetitive as sequencing on Logic. There’s pluses and minuses for both in the box and hardware. I think there’s far too much emphasis on having “authentic” equipment these days – it’s not a more interesting record because of the equipment used. I find about 75% of hardware music dull as fuck. Boring ideas don’t become more interesting when played on vintage synths.
OK, so what music has influenced you as a producer?
If you want a list of artists – gosh… Pepe Bradock, Isolee, KDJ, Theo, IG Culture, 4 Hero, DJ Krust, Jonny L, Moonstarr, Photek, Art Of Noise, Dilla, Madlib, Jneiro Jarel, Material, DAF, Funkadelic, Freeez, Level 42… it’s a long list. In terms of genres. I was massively into hip hop from around 1987. I can remember enjoying the emerging rave scene as well with stuff like Shut Up and Dance and Ragga Twins piquing my interest as a 14 year old in the early-’90s. Around ’93/’94 I discovered jungle and drum & bass and that’s been an ever present influence on me since then. I wasn’t massively into US house when I was younger as it seemed a bit posh and shiny to me. Stuff like Motorbass and 2 Lone Swordsmen was more my bag – I guess it was more edgy. Broken Beat was another big influence on me. It was really exciting for a few years until all the tunes sounded the same. I had a dubstep stage – I even wrote loads of wobble bangers and some of it got cut on dubplate by big name DJs but I never quite went for it with the dubstep at that time. Maybe I dodged a bullet? I like EBM, Jazz, New Beat, Fusion, Sega, Dub (but only the proper stuff), Techno (but again only certain stuff), UK Garage. Basically I like about 5% of each genre. It’s all about quality rather than a style of music.
“How I Program” is another very distinctive record, those not-quite-right chords and that outre b-line… Can you tell me a bit about how you arrive at your particular chord/bassline combinations?
Ah, you know what – I have no idea how that record happened really. I was living in Nottingham at the time and I was in my early 30s, partying quite a lot in those days. I think my mangled inner state influenced it. There’s a lot of firsts in this record for me. The (in)famous late timing Donk noise (which was even copied by a few people who should know better but that’s another story). The “Mafia Don with dementia” yelping on it (a character I have occasionally resurrected). I have always had that voice inside of me but I guess on “Program” it was the first time I made that voice public. It was a great way to launch my Bergerac label in 2010. It sold well and was played by a diverse range of DJs – bit of a crossover hit. The great thing for me was this was a broadside on anyone who thought I just did “disco house” – it set the tone for the next few years.
Onto “Wonky Bassline Disco Banger.” Tell us about how you came up with it. When you were making it did you think it was going to be as big as it was? What were the first reactions when you played it out? Were you ever worried that you’d made a mistake with the b-line?!
Well I came up with the initial idea after being awake for over 48 hours so the inspiration was just to make music because I had got home after a typical “celebratory” Sunday/Monday in Berlin and had nothing to occupy myself with. I remember making something that I thought was pretty good… But unfortunately the battery ran out of my laptop and Logic 9 had no autosave so I lost the whole thing! Cue the biggest amount of depression ever. I had to remake it from memory the next morning when I felt like I had been run over by a truck.
I actually wrote it in 2014 but it took two years to finish it off so I was playing the demo to people during that time. The reaction from “those who know” was immediately to say “This is a game changer, Danny.” It was interesting. People who I have known for years like Kaspar and Mike Stellar in Lisbon and Chris Tubbs in New Zealand were just like adamant it was gonna be a smash. Chris was like, “This is the one, Danny.” I first played it out at the Southern Soul Festival in Montenegro in 2015 and people were like “WTF is this?” I just knew to be honest. It’s a great feeling. And if you look at how long the shelf life was of the track – it was still being hammered a year after it came out – it was completely natural. It actually was much harder for the track to be a hit than people can imagine as it was coming from a small independent label. The industry isn’t really geared up to allow outliers to have hits.
I wasn’t worried about the bassline being a mistake but quite a few people were more into the disco loop at the start and when the wonky noise came in they were shaking their heads. Of course when it was the biggest selling house single of 2016 no one was shaking their head anymore. Oh how I laughed.
And now we have “Wonky Techno Banger,” tell us a bit about making it. Did you set out to intentionally make a follow up to “WBDB”? Also what were early road-tests of it like?
I made “WTB” by going to Devon Analogue studio last year and just letting myself go. I had two full days and nights there and I worked round the clock and managed to write eight pretty solid track ideas during that time. I was just recording full length takes and playing everything in live. One of the ideas had this kind of demented arpeggiator fairground noise and I was like “Aha…” It had a kind of vintage Jeff Mills energy about it. I think that sound was the Waldorf Wave. Then I got busy on the 303 Devilfish which I ran through a CV sequencer and suddenly there was a dope flappy, off-kilter (ha) bassline. I didn’t set out to make a follow up to “WBDB” but when I road-tested it at a massive Bristol warehouse party last October, I was blown away by the response. The crowd was mainly young kids in their late teens and early 20s and no one had ever heard the track before. It got by far the best response out of any tracks in my set – people were pulling faces and giving it the gunfingers so it was a great feeling. My wife filmed throughout my set (which is a great way of reviewing how things went down) and I posted a couple of clips of the track and captioned it “Wonky Bassline Techno Banger.” My FB, Insta and Twitter went into a bit of a meltdown – people were saying “What the fuck is this?” and stuff like that. It got such a good response I immediately knew this had to be my next release. It was perfect market research!
So you’re launching your Disco Banger label, tell us a bit about your plans for the label.
Yeah so the Disco Banger stuff will be vinyl only, hand stamped white labels with the emphasis on just getting the music out there. I have already finished four singles worth of stuff so am aiming to get at least two out this year – perhaps three if the vibes are right. The first one is kind of in the vein of “WBDB” – it’s an epic nine minute long track with my trademark 3-4 tracks in one track stylee. It’s called “Deep In Love” (original title eh?) and it’s a whirlwind of emotions and vibes. The B side of the first release has a heads down housey track called “Peace” and the final track is a surprise. I don’t want to say too much but yeah watch this space. I am not pulling any punches with this stuff. Strictly vibes.
You’ve moved back to the UK from Berlin, you’ve got another big tune on your hands; tell us about your plans for the rest of this year.
I am excited to be back in the UK. It feels like there’s way more opportunities here than in Berlin. One of my biggest regrets of living there was that I only played outside of Berlin a handful of times, whereas in the UK there’s many different towns and cities I can play in – so that’s exciting. I got my US visa approved so I should be touring the US later on this year. Hopefully in a town near you. I am also going to relaunch my website redrackem.com as I will be starting a new mix series BERGMIX and I will also be organizing some events in Bristol too. I have got so much music to finish off and release too which excites me. The hard part of having the ideas is done. I just need to take them to the limit of their potential and just get them out. It was really hard to write music in 16/17 due to all the mad touring but I feel back to my old self now so it doesn’t feel like such an impossible task.
The future’s looking bright then. Looking back, how do you feel about your career to date?
I am proud of what I have achieved with the music I have written and also the amazing experiences I have had touring around the world. When I was making beats in Nottingham in the early- to mid-2000s – just getting booked outside of the city (or even in a local club) was something to look forward to. So to be thrust into the limelight after only a couple of records and be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jazzanova and Gilles Peterson in 2009 was a dream start. I think for the real heads out there – they know my stuff.
My Smugglers Inn radio show was something I am particularly proud of – I did the show for over 10 years and it was a chance to develop a style and learn how to present a bit too. People come up to me all over the world and say “I used to listen to the Smugglers Inn” and that gives me a warm feeling inside. Nowadays I am presenting regular shows for Rinse FM, Noods and I have also appeared on NTS, Worldwide and BBC Radio 1, so I think that decade of producing my own radio show was invaluable in my progression as a radio presenter.
I just want to share my vision. I hear things a certain way and have always just had an inner sense for what I think is good quality. So my whole thing with releasing records, playing gigs and creating radio shows is I am trying to give people the gift of music and hopefully they will have a little moment in their day, a little mindful moment where the stresses of life evaporate and you just feel that vibe. Music is such a mood enhancer. A mood changer. A stress buster.
I guess I have often felt anxiety and pressure when things get serious – part of that comes from how addictive and hollow fame and “success” can be. You feel amazing and on top of the world but it doesn’t last forever and then you’re left feeling empty as you’re not Mr/Mrs Popular any more. It’s so illusory. I have made all the music myself, all the traveling and DJing on my own, running the labels on my own, managing myself can be pretty stressful. I am not feeling sorry for myself – it’s OK to be honest and say it’s quite taxing sometimes. You can’t be on the hamster wheel all the time. Some people dream of making a record. But once you’ve made 40 or so – what’s left to dream of? More money? Bigger gigs? I guess that’s where management comes in – they force you to dream bigger so you/they can get paid more.
I think having a job where your progress is affected by a constantly varying degree of perceived value is incredibly damaging for your mental health. Factor in excessive social media use, being around a lot of excess and having strain on your close relationships and you can end up with quite a heady cocktail. I have realized as I do every time I go back to my safe place and regroup that we all have the keys to whatever door you want to get through. You just have to make it happen. No ones gonna come up and hand it to you on a plate and even if they did, then you’re not going to progress as an artist. You will just coast along from paycheck to paycheck. So yeah for me even though it’s felt like the hardest thing sometimes, I am proud that I have retained control over what I do and didn’t get sucked in any further. There have been many crossroads moments and I am sure there will be many more.
Wonky Techno Banger is out now on Bergerac.