Joey Beltram – Uncut Exclusive Interview
From a distance the ‘New York City’ skyline of grey steel and concrete skyscrapers, silhouettes as a vibrating, pulsating mosaic waveform, with dancing peaks and troughs, that hints at a rich history of artistic and cultural endeavor. From its centre emerged the musical revolutions of disco, Hip hop and on through to its own regional style of underground house beats.
From this backdrop emerged a talent so raw, it was destined to reshape dance music, out across the world. The 1980’s saw a guy that ‘just listened to music’ cutting and shaping his craft on the decks in his parents basement in Queens making hip-hop and electro mixtapes for his friends, a teenager oblivious to the impact he was about to make. Joey Beltram, now immortalized as an innovator, a ‘teacher’, a leader and a star in his own right, became one of the most influential DJ Producers in the world, with one of his seminal masterpieces “Energy Flash,’’ a harder edgier style of techno that was a first hated by some, but that brought with it a new raw breed of raver, that ushered in one of dance music’s most hedonistic and celebrated eras.
I was only 16 when Energy Flash dropped in 1990, it changed the way I listened to, and understood dance music, and was a driving force in my continued interest and pursuit in producing my own beats. It was always a goal of mine to one day to reach out and talk to this guy in an open and raw manner, to hear him from the street from the heart, this is Joey Beltram techno legend raw & uncut..
Even before I was a producer even a DJ I was just that guy that listened to music”
MM – Yo Joey, great to finally hook up with you after a year, and thank you for talking to us at iconic underground, you are still a seriously busy DJ / Producer after 30 years and still hammering it and touring the World. What inspired a normal guy who just listened to music in the New York Borough’s to make his mark on the world of dance music….?
JB – Yo man no problem, and yeah I was trying to find the time ya know, as you say I’m a busy guy, there’s a lot going on now with touring recording etc, it was tough man to find the time, and really, I didn’t have a lot to say to be honest, but persistence paid off for you eh haha?
MM – Yeah man haha
JB – So I can touch on certain things Mike, as I’ve done all the documentaries about the old days and anyway, sometimes you just gotta move on, as all the stories have been told and you just get bored of it so I can imagine everyone else is too? For me, I prefer to talk about stuff that I’m doing now instead of going back in time, as I’m doing loads of new things these days, I still maintain that whatever strengths I had in the first 5 years of my career I still got it f****** now haha you know… I’m the same person I was then, and there’s more to me than that!
MM – Yeah I appreciate that man, but people today still wanna know what inspired you, Joey Beltram to create monsters like ‘Energy Flash’, as we have got a whole new generation now exploring the roots and origins of dance music….
JB – First of all this is a big question which requires some details, because you couldn’t just open your laptop back then and release a track in 5 minutes, as everything you did was from scratch, you had to programme everything, it was all hardware with midi cables running across the room like f****** clothesline’s, and sometimes, actually many times, you’d find that stuff wasn’t working and you had to check and re-check and move cables around, and then eventually you’d find the problem, haha and there you go “now it’s working”! It was harder to maintain creativity like that, I mean also everything I had early on was second-hand equipment, I didn’t have anything that was brand spanking new and I was just hoping it’ll f****** work like it was supposed to, and like I said that wasn’t always the case.
On top of that whatever your idea was, you had to make a reality with what you had, so it didn’t always sound like it did in your head, if you were lucky you came up with results that were even better due to the circumstances. You had to know the ins and outs, and couldn’t just go onto YouTube tutorial’s to see how do I get this 808 to sync up with my 101, how do I get the sync cables I need to this interface, you couldn’t find any of that s*** out, you had to go and hang out in music shops and get one of those sales guys who we’re always miserable, haha.
Those sales guys back then were frustrated roadie types who didn’t relate to dance music. Then you’d have to go home and figure things out, it was a hard process, especially those time’s you’d get hardware or keyboards because everybody else said you gotta get one because of its sound, that this is the keyboard they made ‘Planet Rock on’ or it was the must thing to have until you took it home and then you find out it wasn’t what you thought it would be, that it wasn’t the s***, and only had two good sounds that you couldn’t even program, and you’d be like ahhhhhhhh it’s all just hype.
Today, it’s so easy for someone to make a track and farm that stuff out, they go online and buy construction kits and try this synth or hi hat pattern from one track and drag this bass riff stem from another track and layer em up, and now they got a track, and it sounds great against all the landscape of shit out there haha. But it is ultimately disposable, as everybody today is an amateur producer and they all got laptops, Ableton, and Logic and it’s no longer something you have to dedicate your life to, you don’t have to quit your day job like you once used to, like I said back then you had a whole room dedicated in your house for your studio that you had to build from scratch, nothing virtual!
When I was producing ‘Energy Flash’…I had that pissed off 18 year old kinda attitude, as a kid I just wanted to kick it up a notch”
MM – So your creative frustration naturally came out in tracks like Energy Flash?
JB – Yeah, I remember when I was producing ‘Energy Flash’ I had a couple of things going on, on a couple of New York labels and stuff, Nu Groove & Easy Street it was my 15th released track I think, I had that pissed off 18 year old kinda attitude, as a kid I just wanted to kick it up a notch, like the same attitude Slayer fans have, that heavy rebellious vibe and wanted that energy into my dance music. It wasn’t a process that I did overnight, I started out like everyone else making house music, and it just happened slowly, each song got a little more aggressive with more attitude , until it got like ‘Mentasm’ (eventually that got picked up on, then people kinda took it into that hard core realm, which to me it was a goofy thing I didn’t like, as it took the idea and gave the wrong message) and don’t get me wrong I like house music and I like everything about house music, Todd Terry he’s the guy, and for me I wanted to follow in his footsteps and others like Marshall Jefferson, and just put my own spin on it, you know.
MM – So you got inspiration from Todd Terry and Marshall Jefferson?
JB – Yeah man, there we’re a few tracks that came out as early as 1986 that really influenced me, and what really stood out for me that hit me and made me think holy s*** was Master C & J ‘When You Hold Me’ the first time I heard it, and then it took me a year to find out what the record was, no Google then, I didn’t even know the name until I heard Tony Humphries play on his radio mix show he used to do Friday and Saturday night from midnight to 4 in the morning that I’d catch from time to time. I remember he mixed in with something and I found myself sitting by the radio, and the mood just came over the whole room this dark droning kind of haunting sound, and just the beats (the instrumental version, with the vocal kinda gives it a different feel) and I was like f*** I got the goose bumps on my back man, I thought ‘this is music’ and it was just so simple, as it was just an atmosphere, it was scary but beautiful at the same time, unnerving and spooky but different, and I was like wow man and remember this is 1986, and then later on I was always trying to tap back into that track.
I still maintain that whatever strengths I had in the first 5 years of my career I still got fucking now”
MM – Like tapping back into a rush haha?
JB – Yeah man, I just wanted to make something that made me feel that way, I wanted the goosebumps I wanted to make people feel how I felt when I listened to that track first on the radio, it made my mind kind of go places, it just brought this feeling up inside me, and even now I’m trying to recreate that. Very few times in my life I’ve had that feeling when a song just came on the radio and my mind is going with the track and I’m thinking f*** man this is tapped into something.
MM – Rare moments indeed but something we all experience at times?
JB – Yeah even before I was a producer even a DJ I was just that guy that listened to music, those we’re the magic moments, and I always try and go back to that, as that was the ultimate goal I got in that moment, whatever I was listening to. Sometimes you lose sight of that when you just try make a track for the sake of making a track, just to put one out there.
MM – So keeping it fresh and pushing it forward…?
JB – Of course, I still try to stay somewhere on the edge with what I do now, like those records we’re back in the day the most cutting edge records at that time, and that’s why I don’t play at those old school parties. I’m just not into showing up and playing a bunch of my old s***. I still like making edgy music in the now, not in retrospect, I was trying to make records that were ready for that time, not old school records that were going to go on…. I always try to stay in this head-space even years later, in edgy tracks such as ‘Ball Park’ and ‘Start it Up’, and the same attitude as I had with a tribal drums track I produced a big monster party tune with very percussive elements and thinking, ‘let’s see what happens’ because there were just beats, no baseline no nothing, just crazy tribal rhythms going on with those big hand claps. So yeah pushing it forward man.. Then after the whole success of the ‘Mentasm’ thing I did with another friend of mine Edmundo “Mundo Muzique” Perez, ‘they’ wanted us to become that sound, and that’s why we never did another record like that, as we didn’t embrace the whole hoover thing when it exploded. We didn’t call it that either, the track got labelled with hoover years later. It was bestowed onto it.
It can’t be forced, and I won’t force it as it has to be right, I have to feel everything’s aligned”
MM – Once is enough?
JB – I’ll try to do things the first time and be great at it, and then move on, you know, even if it becomes a thing, because if I kept repeating myself there would be no new territory and where am I supposed to go then? I did it to the fullest I could do and that was that. At the time I was considered one of the top five guys in the 90s that always put out the biggest Techno floor bangers so by 98 and 99 I was in the studio looking to make the next Techno Monster, and everything I did in the studio to me just sounded like I was repeating what I done a year before and the year before that. Which would’ve been fine, but I was looking for some progression. I could have put it out and released it and it would have worked, but it was boring to me.
MM – Sometimes it’s good just to take a step back to get re-inspired to breathe..?
JB – Yeah, I started listening to other stuff like Armand Van Helden and CZR and Erick Morillo and labels like Subliminal and all that stuff that was hot in the world of House music at the time, for a change of vibe. I wanted to step away from my comfort zone. I thought what if I did some heavy Techno s*** on this vibe and gave this stuff the Joey Beltram treatment.
So from 1999 to 2006 I began to release that stuff on STX, because I realized I couldn’t give this stuff to the same labels I had previously been working with who have a particular sound, and at the time I was the only one doing it so I had to make an outlet for a new genre of Techno. Then people were like “what the f*** is Joey doing, why isn’t he making more s*** like ‘Ballpark”? That’s what they expected me to do, but like I said I felt it was boring for me to do similar stuff to what I already made. The results were tracks like “Arena’ and even “The Rising Sun” album. I have to find ways to make it fun and challenging.
It’s easier to maintain your focus when you’re enjoying the process. Otherwise it’s easier for me to get distracted and give up what I’m working on at moments when I’m blocked and decide to do something else altogether. So there will be quiet periods where I’m not releasing much music. It can’t be forced, and I won’t force it as it has to be right, I have to feel everything’s aligned.
MM – Yeah, trust your gut…?
JB – That’s it Mike… once this new kind of style I created for STX caught on and people started putting disco Loops in that techno s*** that’s when I lost interest, and stopped the STX record label. Because now it’s a thing and everybody was doing it, it became common, and because it wasn’t fun anymore for me. For inspiration I started looking back at my musical roots. Maybe to the House and Techno I began with. I’m not so pessimistic about today’s music though, in some ways it’s a lot better because it gives the opportunity to sculpt sound, as the plugins now are amazing, and I would have been all over that shit back in 1991, and a lot of other producers too had they had been available, there was no equivalent, nothing even close. Funny thing though, back in the day we used to dream about a little black box that could do everything, ‘if they could only shrink my AKIA MPC down so I could put it in my back pack’ haha and now they have it, but with way more features, so in a way it makes things worse but also makes things better, its progress, and if you still put your heart and soul into your music you can achieve anything.
These days my studio is much smaller, and I use logic to write a track and I think really it’s probably the best studio I’ve ever had man, and I will still f****** sit and play with my stuff, as long as I’m that little kid back in 1986 listening to that track, and I can still get those feelings into the tracks that I’m working on, I’m happy with that.
the plugins now are amazing, and I would have been all over that shit back in 1991”
MM – So from smaller studios and laptops what else has changed in the techno scene over the last 30 years for you?
JB – Wow! Man, it has just been one long evolution, it didn’t just start n stop either, it evolved, progressed and sometimes it was barely noticeable. In the old days, if I can say that haha, Techno was a dirty word, house was the champion, and none of the clubs wanted to run Techno nights. It was seen as riff raff, and they thought the ravers were just gunna come down and sneak in their own bottles of water haha, barely paying the entrance fee, getting pissed up and arriving drunk before they got to the venue and wreck the place. Whereas the House crowd came in buying the expensive bottles of champagne booking big tables with service hahaha, and now techno is in fashion …so maybe that’s the biggest change?
MM – HhaHa maybe, any advice you would give the producers of today?
JB – If you’re a kid Just do what you like whatever gives you goose bumps, whether it’s EDM or whatever I don’t really care, a lot of people hating on EDM, let it take you where it takes you, you might see things differently 15 years later and then you can do things differently. My daughter loves EDM, so who am I to tell her, she’s just 13 years and doesn’t connect with the techno I listen to, I’m just her dad ‘Joey Beltram’ haha you can’t make magic if you not feeling the magic, so do what the f*** that makes you feel that way, be true to you.
MM – Exactly, music is such a personal thing isn’t it… how its listened to, how’s it played, how it’s produced, how has the sync button changed the way DJ’s deliver their sound as opposed to how you started beat matching on vinyl back in the day?
JB – It’s weird man, the beat matching with vinyl isn’t that hard, it’s not something I think about, I used to practice in my parents basement way back when as a hobby when I was 13 or 14, and by the time I was able to hit the road at 18 I could just do it. I spent night after night playing club after club all round the world, the beat matching was automatic like feeding yourself, the fork goes on the plate, you stab the food, stick it to your mouth and it’s in, you never miss and hit the cheek haha. Sometimes shit happens, someone hits the decks or the platter drifts a little you can nudge it back in, or the needles are fucked up and worn out and they don’t hold the groove, there are things that happen, it becomes a function it’s ingrained, its auto. But saying that, if after a few years in and you still can’t beat match then there’s something wrong, like maybe you got an imbalance in the ears haha you gotta check that s***, it’s something you just do, just like a guitar player isn’t looking at the cords they just play.
Today I’m using CDJ 2000s and ditched the laptop as I couldn’t have a laptop in the mix, and even with the digital read out saying the bpms match they f****** drift ya know what I mean, it’s not an exact science. I still cue the tracks up in my ear rather than trust the auto bmp features, just like with the turntables I just ride it out, regardless of what is displayed on the little digital screen. I used Seratto as a way of holding onto the decks, and just flip a switch and bypass the Seratto between the tracking record and the next track, and then little by little all the tunes I was listening too were getting released on digital as the record companies stopped making vinyl and clubs stop providing decks only digital, so I said ‘F*** it and ditched the decks. If you want to play the latest s*** today, then most of them are not on vinyl, but if they are then I buy them, as I love owning vinyl it’s an obsession, I have to have it, it’s a sickness I’m a vinyl junkie! And because of that in my opinion I have one of the best vinyl collections I think as I’m always buying em …. I’m actually sat in front of my decks right now, I love listening to my music, and man sometimes I get the MP3 version so I can preserve my vinyl so I can abuse the digital copies hahah. When I get the feeling to take out my vinyl I’ll go through a whole shelf like, and pull out the records from 85, 86 and crack em open and that brings out the creative feelings, especially looking at the sleeves and art work, there’s a lot of satisfaction to me.
MM – ….. a musical creative balance?
JB – Haha I don’t think so be honest, I don’t think I do a good job on that man, I think I’m always out of balance, either too much time in the studio or not enough or on the road …. I feel I’m slacking sometimes so I’m always trying to reach it haa..
MM – So Joey what’s next in the pipeline…
JB – So I gotta few remixes coming for Carl Cox, Skober and collabs with UMEK and some others that I can’t go into just yet, also I’m finishing off an album and I’ve been playing at major festivals like Bangface and Glastonbury and more to come around the world…
I love owning vinyl it’s an obsession, I have to have it, it’s a sickness I’m a vinyl junkie!”
MM – Cheers Joey much appreciated
JB – No problem man thanks for reaching out.
In his raw uncompromising New York accent Joey delivered the goods on three decades of his still hectic and dynamic career that is still fresh and still relevant, he holds his own. Committed to pushing the boundaries and ‘kicking it up a notch’ with his unwavering passion and drive, he’s created a unique sonic template that has defined an era and inspired generations to come, his mark on dance music history is assured.