Read a Lost 1995 Interview with Techno Icon Joey Beltram

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I remember the time I stumbled upon a lone, dog-eared copy of Generator, an indie UK magazine, in the magazine section at Tower Records on 4th and Lafayette Street. I thumbed through it and enjoyed the mix of artist interviews and reviews. I was writing for music and culture magazines here in the U.S. and had been profiling local DJs and producers who were underground celebs at home and superstars abroad. Seeing an opportunity, I typed up an intro letter, stuffed my published clips into an envelope and mailed a fat package to Generator‘s office in London. Not too long later I received a call from the magazine’s editor, David Fowler. We instantly hit it off, and I started contributing to the magazine.

I recently unearthed my Generator interview with New York City techno stalwart Joey Beltram, who got a shout-out on Daft Punk’s “Teachers” off 1997’s Homework. It’s a cover story where he shares his background, early success producing genre-defining tracks “Energy Flash” and “Mentasm,” and why he slowed down the pace of his career in order to get his creative bearings. The issue dropped in tandem with the release of his third album, 1995’s Places (Tresor/Logic). All these years later any of the cuts could do damage on a dance floor.

The sleepy bedroom community of Orange County, NY, is a little over an hour by car from Manhattan’s perennial state of mania. Graced with quiet, tree-lined streets and sprawling, well-manicured estates, this is the suburban oasis which Joey Beltram moved to six months ago, desperately seeking a much-needed break from life in the urban jungle.

A far cry from his previous, cramped apartment on Metropolitan Avenue in Queens (which overlooked a cemetery), he now lives in a roomy, split-level home, complete with all the trappings you’d expect—except the white picket fence, of course. Aside from choosing Orange County for its bucolic charm, Beltram had a definitive reason for making the move: he wanted to get his life together, take his production career to the next level, and use the new surrounding s as an inspiration for his music.

On most nights when he’s not DJing, Beltram is usually sequestered in On One, his well-equipped home studio, where he’ll tweak loops, beats, and samples into the small hours of the morning. Amongst the well-appointed gadgetry and heavyweight synth technology, Beltram is ready to talk about Places, his eagerly-awaited new album on Tresor. It’s already well after midnight — the time of the day when Beltram prefers working — and although the sun went down hours ago, the air outside is filled with the sound of chirping crickets. The night is thick and unbearably humid. Inside, one light illuminates the suite, casting cross-legged to Beltram in an almost angelic light.

Beltram is the visionary who helped define and refine modern-day techno. Acclaimed for his early cuts on Nu Groove, Easy Street and Trax alongside his seminal R&S classic “Energy Flash,” the teenage Beltram was suddenly thrust into the glaring eye of the international spotlight. Lacking the proper guidance and direction, he admits that he succumbed to the dark side, and got drunk on the fame. But after a period of intense self-assessment he’s bounced back. It’s only now with Places that he reckons he’s truly evolved into a worthy production force.

Now twenty-three, an age when many producers are still striving to establish their sound, Beltram, a self-described “techno old-timer,” has seen it, been there, and done nearly everything there is to do with dance floor music. He’s DJ’ed all over the world and used his own expansive production signature to help sculpt some of techno’s most urgent blips and bleeps.

Suddenly catapulted to superstar status in Europe, Beltram began gigging regularly in the U.K., Italy and Belgium. At that point, he says, life, became almost surreal. “One minute, I was just a small-time DJ just trying to get a break, and the next people couldn’t get enough of me.”

Having taken the world by storm from behind the decks and the mixing desk, he’s stayed intensely underground, unwilling to dilute his style for mass consumption.

“I’ve only taken producing seriously within the last two years, because I’ve matured a lot,” admits Beltram. His manner is gentile, considerate, and surprisingly shy. “When I first started to out, I was making records just for the fun of it, and I was amusing myself. I might’ve done some impressive records when I was fifteen or sixteen, but I was a young and immature kid. I never took things seriously; I just lived to have fun, and to make records for the day. Now I’ve adopted a mature attitude where I’ve gotten serious about what I’m doing, and I think that it shows a lot on the album.”

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At the center of Joey Beltram’s persona is a single-minded spirit. Perhaps it stems from his days growing up in Middle Village, Queens, the type of working-class neighborhood where you had to use your smarts to stay out of trouble. Though he ran with a graffiti crew, he confesses that he was generally an outcast as a child. “People looked at me like I was a weirdo,” he says bluntly, “Everyone was into a lot of lame musical things, and I was living in my own little world.”

Instead of wasting his time on the streets, Beltam went underground. Literally. “I was a basement DJ, and I’d make tapes everyday to sharpen my mixing skills.” he recalls. “I played for myself, but I wasn’t trying to pursue DJing as a living. I was buying all of these records every week, and I just messed about. I did enter some DJ contests; I’d tear shit up, but the resident would always win. When I was a kid, man, I was probably better then because I had a lot to prove! Now, I’m into the party and making sure people are having a good time. When I was sixteen, I wanted people to have no doubt whatsoever about me once I got off the decks.”

Beltram’s passion led him to explore the unraveling microcosms of Detroit and Chicago. He journeyed there vicariously by snatching up every quality release which came out of the two cities. Alan Oldham (a.k.a. DJ T-1000) recalls Beltram paying his first visit to Detroit: “I don’t have any of the old stuff left,” he says. “Because Joey came by and went through my record collection. He was so enthusiastic that overtime he asked me if he could have something, I’d give it to him.”

These days, Beltram admits to having “housefuls” of records, ranging across the dance music spectrum. Back then, inspired by raw, kinetic beats and electro-driven tracks, he was seduced by artists like Chip-E and Adonis. But he admits that he was never moved by the soulful garage sounds emanating from his hometown.

“When I started making records around 1988,” Beltram remembers, “I was still playing the stuff that was already three years old. House didn’t break in New York until about ’88 or ’89, so people thought that all of the stuff that I was playing was brand-new. By the time house picked up here, it didn’t have the same raw flavor. New York’s cleaned up the sound, and I didn’t really like their version of house.”

Unable to hang at roller skating rinks or discos (“I was too crazy for those places—the owner would hear me play, and he’d yell ‘Get the hell out of my club!’”), Beltram had time on his hands. He began producing his own material, which found its way onto raw, limited-edition white labels, As the sound of New York grew more soulful, Beltram drifted in the opposite direction, hooking up with black sheep imprint Nu Groove, who issued three of his left-of-centre Code 6 Gems.

“At that time, Nu Groove was always a little more progressive than the norm. Strictly Rhythm wasn’t around, and there wasn’t an Eightball [Records] or any of those other labels,” he says. “There were a few big labels, and then there was Nu Groove, who put out everything that the other labels were afraid to release. If your record didn’t sound like everyone else’s, you either released it on your own, or you went to Nu Groove.”

While Beltram was working at an unglamorous courier job, R&S stepped in and licensed “Let It Ride” from Nu Groove. They were so delighted with it that they promptly commissioned an exclusive track from him. Intrigued by the Belgian label’s sound and its foreign mystique, Beltram went to work for R&S, and began spinning all over Europe. Things started happening way too fast, and without any sort of grand inspiration or preconceived notion, he cut “Energy Flash” in his own studio in 1990, accidentally writing an unforgettable chapter in the book of techno.

“Tracks just happen and that’s it. I never go back and do something over. If things don’t fall into place within a few hours, I’ll abandon it, and I’ll start over from scratch,” he says.

Suddenly catapulted to superstar status in Europe, Beltram began gigging regularly in the U.K., Italy and Belgium. At that point, he says, life, became almost surreal. “One minute, I was just a small-time DJ just trying to get a break, and the next people couldn’t get enough of me.”

Beltram’s growing reputation enabled him to see the world, though he regrets the fact that he lived for the moment, and failed to map out his career in a lucid fashion. Sure, he had fun partying and spinning, but the crazy times are now little more than bittersweet memories. During that period, he quit producing altogether, and remixed a lot of tracks which he’d prefer not to remember. “I went through a stage a couple of years ago where I’d remix anything. I didn’t put a lot of thought into what I was working on. I was just looking to stay busy.”

“I don’t try and go for a minimal sound; I work on a track until I feel that it’s done, and that’s it.”

Last year, Beltram took a long, hard look at his career, and decided to regroup. Hardly in dire straights since DJing at clubs and raves was still creatively satisfying (and financially lucrative), he rid himself of the “snakes and leeches” who were surrounding him and preventing him from going forward. After getting things together, he began thinking of himself for the first time as an artist, as opposed to a legendary DJ-for-hire. He cut tracks for Warp, a picture disc on Visible, then intentionally stayed quiet, deciding to adopt a quality versus quantity ethic.

Though he says he never plans his life, Beltram targeted 1995 as the year he’d step out from the shadows. But first, he had to make the best album of his life. Reflecting on his success, failures, experiences, influences and emotions, he poured his heart and should into the sequencer, and walked out of On-One several months later with Places, an album of taut, compact tracks which stitch out over edgy sonic boundaries.

After a while, Beltram moves to the turntable and finally cues up a test pressing of “Game Form” which packs equally walloping interpretations by Mike Dearborn and Robert Armani. As hi-hats and sub-bass begin resonating through the monitors, the rhythm becomes relentless, insistent and utterly compelling. Feeling the instant connection, Beltram smiles, and proceeds to give me a cut-by-cut tour of Places.

“I’m becoming more album and artist-oriented. I’m steering away from being the guy in his basement studio just banging away to amuse himself. I consider myself to still be growing and exploring music.”

“I hate the term ‘minimal,’” he complains, nervous about his sparse style being compared to the genre’s current roster of New Jacks. “Underground dance music has always been minimal, but it’s only now that people have slapped a label on it, and there’s suddenly all of these producers who only let themselves use two sounds. I don’t try and go for a minimal sound; I work on a track until I feel that it’s done, and that’s it. Some tracks are fuller than others, but I just work on something until I think that it’s finished. Everything has to have a name right now. Things just can’t be.”

In this age and new and improved Joey Beltram, Places not only makes up for lost time, but it also finally rids him of the monkey which clung so tightly to his back. Until now, every record he’s made has been compared to “Energy Flash.” When all is said and done, Places constitutes the new yardstick.

In “Game Form” itself, or the dreamscape soundtrack of “Floaters,” or any of the incandescent moments which occur through Places, he’s created classics for the future. But the days of ecstasy anthems are over.

“I’m becoming more album and artist-oriented.” he says. “I’m steering away from being the guy in his basement studio just banging away to amuse himself. I consider myself to still be growing and exploring music.”

With a new work ethic in tow, Beltram is even more passionate about his sound, and confirms that he has no interest in watering down his craft for the sake of selling a few more records. “If the album sells, fine,” he concludes. “If not, it’s no big deal, because I’m still going to make the kid of music that’s going to make me happy and make me feel good about myself. At the end of the day, it’s up to me to determine if I’ve succeeded.”

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