8-bit Babylon ‘n’ Ting

Dub? On a laptop? In Leipzig? Spannered meets Disrupt, supernice co-founder of netlabel Jahtari

By Ali Wade

We are in the midst of a musical monsoon, a data downpour so heavy it's difficult keeping one's ears above the rising tide. Netlabels are sprouting from every crevice of the web; we have Soulseek, Limewire, MySpace, Virb, MP3 blogs, YouSendIt, Megaupload, forums, mailing lists, torrents, podcasts, radio streams... not to mention thousands of sites where you can actually buy music, should the urge take you.
Of all the aforementioned entities, the netlabel gets perhaps the rawest deal — shunned by musicians and listeners alike as a distribution vehicle all too capable of destroying the cultural value of music, it's a sad irony that, while Rupert Murdoch and Google Ads rake in the reddies, most netlabel proprietors get little in return for their dedication and long hours of toil.
Netlabels may be two-a-penny, but every so often you stumble upon real a treasure trove. One such online outpost is Leipzig's Jahtari imprint. Run by Disrupt and Rootah, the site serves up some of the craziest computerised dub reggae riddims on the planet, along with super-interesting articles, übercool artwork and plenty of love for the 8-bit video game console.
The first Jahtari-related vinyl recently surfaced courtesy of south London's Werkdiscs — an EP featuring two mighty dub opuses from Disrupt, aka Jan Gleichmar. In slavering anticipation of Jan's first full-length album, soon to drop on Werkdiscs, Spannered talks to Jahtari's co-founder about making laptop reggae in Leipzig, the cult of fastfood-vibes music and the cliché-ridden world view of German humour.

How’s everything in Leipzig?

Well, nice but special. I simply love the place. Leipzig is the biggest city in East Germany, the ex-socialist GDR if you remember, after Berlin. Like everywhere in the East, unemployment is really high without perspective of a positive change, so many people leave for the West. The good side of that is that you can live cheap here — too many empty flats — and that people make very good use of that empty space. Abandoned factories, warehouses, etc. can be turned into party places very easily without asking or paying anyone. And unlike in many other countries, the cops leave you alone. So if you can get along with not too much money you have every opportunity to do whatever you want. It feels really, really free, and lots of stuff is going on beneath the surface.

After the wall came down, techno came in the early ‘90s. Those are the roots that are still going strong: a fucked-up basement, a PA, a stroboscope and a fog machine — that's how parties started. The cops didn't know who was their own boss then, so you just could do it like that. And amazingly you still can. Berlin still profits from these times too. Lots of people who come to Leipzig stay here because of the strong creative energy; a bit like Detroit on a smaller scale — post-industrial and empty but full of creativity somehow. But dubwise it's not the best place — mostly bad dancehall with some occasional good reggae parties.
Tell us a bit about your early musical influences and when you first started making music?
Hehe, I come from punk and gabba. Alec Empire's Digital Hardcore Recordings, Atari Teenage Riot, breakcore, that sort of stuff. In the mid-‘90s I discovered Aphex Twin and the whole Warp sound. Also Force Inc. and Mille Plateaux, Clicks and Cuts and drum 'n' bass. I started making music then with just an old sampler.

Then I met Christoph (Rootah, we're running Jahtari together) during a day job on a construction site in Leipzig. He was a techno DJ since years back, a massive record collector, and the whole Detroit-sound, electro and all in between really opened up for me — a true revelation. We were trying out some hardware production first but later switched to computers. Very exciting when all the new software came up — Reaktor, VTSs, etc. — but still it was very hard to use intuitively. The whole thing changed only when Ableton Live came out; all of a sudden making music with a computer felt like doing creative work rather than clicking though endless menus.
Where and when did you first hear dub reggae?
We were closely following the Basic Channel releases from Berlin since long ago and enthusiastically checked their first Rhythm & Sound and Burial Mix records. This was the first time we really got into dub and reggae. Pole was starting out then too, with his Raum Eins/Raum Zwei EP, and during a live gig he was spinning ‘70s dub before his set. I had this on tape for a long time… very inspiring. When the Rhythm & Sound guys started re-pressing Wackies records we were totally hooked.

Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald somehow played an important role all the time. Their Hardwax store in Berlin — only two hours away — was our main source for new records, starting with techno, DUB techno really, Basic Channel, Main Street, Chain Reaction, etc., and later for dub and reggae. With their own releases they always set the limits of deepness in production for us. A great education, if you will.
Your country has few direct links with Jamaica, unlike Britain, yet dub thrives there. What factors have led to its popularity? Can you briefly chart the spread of dub in Germany for us?
To be honest, I have no idea why it's rather popular now. Dub has always been there on a subculture level since the ‘70s in the West. For us in the East it simply didn't exist since it was close to impossible to get any Western vinyl into the GDR. I think Seeed, Gentleman and Germaican — the label is based in Leipzig too, by the way — made it quite big again, but on a more commercial level. It’s well-produced, radio-compatible stuff, but rather an emulation of the good old sound than something over-originally new. So I never bought or listened to it that closely. But good to see that the genre itself is back in peoples' field of view — a bit like in the UK now, where reggae and dub are everywhere since 30-40 years ago. But still no comparison.
The Jahtari theory page gives clear guidance to artists wishing to send in demos. You say that ‘the first impression of a Jahtari track should always be: “Ah, a dub track’” — ‘bass is the centre, accentuation is on the offbeat’. Do you think that the term ‘dub’ gets too easily applied to a lot of music?
Oh yes! We got sent a lot of tracks where people think it's dub just because there are a few echos in it — but neither a bass or a skank. It's electronica, good quality most of it, but no dub in sight. Many people never listened to real dub in the classic sense, though, and connect something else with it. I would too if I hadn't started to buy records from that special field. But our idea is to always have a core of “classic” dub in our tracks, a riddim, and then go from there with all kinds of sounds and styles. In the end it will still feel like classic dub but sound different.

There's another trap: we also get a lot of tracks from people who come from dub originally and know their stuff very well. But many simply try to re-create and emulate the classic sound: King Tubby, Augustus Pablo. That makes no real sense too. First it's impossible to get back the same vibe; that was a different time and a different place. And the maximum has been done there already by masters like Lee Perry or Lloyd Bullwackie Barnes. What can you put on top of that that hasn't been done before? Nothing, it will always be a cheap emulation of something better. So we don't even try.

Our big advantage is that we grew up in an exciting time, musically. Lots of new genres popped up since the late ‘70s the original dub dudes could have no idea of. Thus our generation got a very diverse background and thorough musical “education”, if you will, of the most different approaches to sound and principles in music. That knowledge helps a lot.

And we got technology. Computers are cheap and anybody can make music now. You don't need money to rent a studio or buy lots of equipment — a laptop is all you basically need. It will always sound like a computer, there's no way around it, but then that's how it is and you can make that work for you. Old-school dub done with a computer can sound really interesting, much like techno played by a symphony orchestra or something. The concept is the same but the means of production are pretty different. It's pure fun to consequently follow this approach; you always discover something new. The challenge is to make that die-hard, calculating machine groove, mostly.
Are you following much of the dubstep sound? Do you hear much dub in it?
No, not really. Like you say, I can't hear much dub in it. Apart from the tempo and a massive wall of bass, there are no real connections. But from time to time you stumble over awesome stuff, of course. Especially when you hear it in a club, on a proper sound system. Dubstep is not made for home listening, that's for sure. I wonder where the development will go there. Would be great to have more true dub in it, though.
Much of today’s music owes a huge debt to the pioneering techniques of Jamaican producers and engineers. As a sound recordist and film lover, how widespread would you say the use of dub techniques has been in advertising music and film scores?
The more you dig into the matter, the more you realise that the dub principle is truly universal. In my opinion, one of THE key achievements of modern music is to structure a track with sound, and sound alone. That broke up the rigid pop system of following the verse-chorus pattern all the time. Suddenly music — dance music! — was working via building up and releasing tension, creating atmospheres and soundscapes, climaxes and anti-climaxes. A completely new approach that opened up all that came after it. Listen to techno and listen to an old dub tune and you will see it's made of the same fabric. Jamaican DJ toasting and rap have the same root too. Kool Herc was a Jamaican, after all. Really strange that such a small place could give the whole world such a big and universal thing.

It also works for film scores, but I think that the kind of similar “art-music” approach of structuring music by sounds alone, Stockhausen, later Eno and the whole ambient field, are more important there.
You recently said to Spannered that there’s an excess of ‘music-fastfood-vibes’ on the net. To what exactly are you referring?
Well, the net and MP3s. It's a blessing and a curse. Much more people can have access to music culture now, no matter where they live or if they have any money. And the distribution of it is nearly for free. Thus many labels can become independent from the whole business machinery and just do their thing. That's the great aspect about it.

On the other hand, it completely changed our way of appreciating music as a cultural value. If you download a track, a whole release or folders full of releases, it's just a mouse click away. You don't have to pay for it necessarily and thus you won't get into much detail with it before consuming it. In a record store you will definitely check every single vinyl thoroughly, study the cover, listen to it several times, before you give your hard-earned money for it. You pay attention and you pay with your own time. MP3s don't need that. You simply click through the hundreds of nameless and faceless files on your HD and throw what you don't like at the first listening into the trash. It's getting really impersonal that way, music-fast-food, and the net is flooded with it.
Jahtari pays great attention to detail in terms of presentation; the releases all have awesome artwork - even the mix player uses some cool retro-style tape-box designs. Do you do all the artwork yourself? How important is it to have a strong visual identity for the label?
I wanted to make downloading MP3s as personal as possible. Give these files a face and an identity, so when you listen to the tracks you would have a picture in your head, much as you would have with a real record. Dub and reggae are made for vinyl really and I absolutely love the tradition of artwork in reggae. So I tried to get as close as possible to the real thing with MP3s; the Net-7”s with record hiss, a rotating cover with a hole in it, etc. It just feels much better to get a “record” or a “cassette” than a file. Although in the end it's just the same, of course.
The German sense of humour (or supposed ‘lack of’) is a source of ridicule for many non-Germans, especially the British. From the label name to the crackly intros on your net 7s, Jahtari is firm proof that German humour is alive and flourishing in Leipzig. Why do you think German humour gets such bad press? Is it, as Stewart Lee writes, simply that non-Germans are “ill-equipped” to recognise it?
Ah, the German humour... The lack of that is just a cliché, I think, decades old and coming from the post-war movies — with stone-faced Nazis yelling “Achtung!” and “Stillgestanden!” over the place. I love to watch those in the original voicing… really, really funny for us. Kelly's Heroes, Guns Of Navarone, Indiana Jones, etc. Most of the time you can hardly understand the German language there because it's just how the filmmakers THOUGHT it would sound like. But in the end you have damn nice and funny people here who can party like hell. And you have assholes. Just like everywhere in the world. If you share the same wavelength you can have a good laugh with anybody I think, no matter where the person's coming from.
Jahtari.org pays great homage to the Commodore 64. You were never a fan of the ZX Spectrum then?
To be honest I never even had a C64. Only some friends had one. I owned the East German home computer, a KC85/3. But the sound and pixel aesthetics were just the same, loading programs from cassettes and all that. I even have some old 7” around that holds software! Crazy times. But we practically grew up with it and it had a surprisingly deep impact. In the early ‘90s you either had an Amiga or a PC. Prince Of Persia, Monkey Island, Wing Commander, etc. That's where a lot of cover ideas come from. And it's really interesting to check the old bleepy soundtracks from those games — some are extremely complex musically, Monkey Island especially. We're working on a Net-EP with dub versions from this one since long back. I hope we'll finish it sometime.
There’s a ton of free audio up on Jahtari… but why has it taken so long to see a Disrupt vinyl release? Was Werk the first ‘physical’ label to approach you about releasing stuff?
Yes, Darren from Werk was the first one who approached us with vinyl. He said he couldn't believe that none of the tracks are out on real hardware yet — very surprising for us to hear, but also very reassuring. Of course, we were thinking about putting out 12”s since long ago, but doing that costs money and you definitely need a distributor to sell those, otherwise it makes no real sense. Happily we finally found one — Baked Goods from the UK, who are also distributing the fine Werk stuff and many other great labels. So lots of records are finally underway. Thank God. That's all we really care about. Dub HAS to be on vinyl.
Is the forthcoming Werk album recent material, old tracks, reworks… or what?
It's mostly some classics from the netlabel releases, all reworked and fine tuned, plus a load of new and unreleased tracks. Supernice to hear them in a pack like this together, I discovered.
XLR8R recently mentioned about a Jahtari vinyl ep coming out featuring the music of Julien Neto. Can you tell us about the release? Are more vinyl releases planned for Jahtari?
Julien sent us some great dub tracks two years ago, which we really liked a lot. Since then we're in constant contact and tons of the deepest dubs I ever heard are piling up here from him. He has his very special and unique sound, great harmonies and themes, all extremely well produced. Hard to believe none of this has ever been released. Two tunes by him will be on our first album CD, a label compilation called Jahtarian Dubbers Vol. 1, of which there'll be a 12” version with four tracks out soon as well. Then we got the Bo Marley vs. Disrupt album coming, which we were selling a bit on a home-made level via our online shop until now. A 12” with two hit tunes from the CD and with different dubs will follow. Then we got a fine Mikey Murka EP in the tube, things we recorded with Mikey one year ago — really love those a lot. And finally we'll release a 12” with a great track called Elders from the Clouds from Finland — dubstep, but with true dub in it. This will be the first round of releases. Great to see that this is finally happening.
You’ve just come back from a month of travel and touring. How was that, and what were the highlights?
Well, that was simply the nicest reward for making music so far. Getting around to the nicest places, meet great people everywhere, play fine gigs at the weekend, and use that money to make some holiday together in the area in between.

I played an awesome night with Mikey Murka in Tromsoe, northern Norway, 24 hours sun a day, completely outer space... Then we went down to Spain, Girona and Barcelona, met the Bo Marley boys again in Montpellier, southern France at the DubEnSauce festival. Volfoniq, another Jahtari artist, organized that. We spent one week at an old vineyard there, making music, having great food — and simply enjoyed being together. Absolutely great to meet a lot of Jahtari artists finally in person — we knew each other only via emails mostly. Julien Neto, I didn't even know what he looked like, and it was just perfect to be united, hang out and have a nice time.

Later on we went on to play some gigs in Germany with the Bo Marley boys, travelling in an old VW Passat from 1987, packed like a gypsy wagon, camping and relaxing during the week and play at weekends. The finale and cream-on-top was the Fusion Festival on an abandoned Russian airbase in northeast Germany — still the finest achievement of subculture I know.
And finally, does Jahtari have a message for the world?
Hehe, well definitely not consciously. Maybe not taking anything so die-hard seriously. Break up conventions, try out new stuff, throw the old overboard but have respect for its history. Be good in order to receive good… that stuff. But if there's a message at all it should be encoded somewhere in the music. I hope. Maybe it's more of a general vibe that makes up the whole fabric. Never thought about that.
Anytime, mate!
 Disrupt's debut album soon come on Werkdiscs!
dub and reggae posted 24 September 2007 (16:37:52)
Jahtari is putting out great tracks - I'm looking forward to hearing more from them! Come to the USA!
mo. posted 18 October 2007 (13:34:43)
jan aka disrupt is one of the fittest musicians in the netlabel-scene. nice to read this long interview with some new facts about jahtari. i enjoyed reading it. and thumb up for the werk-release :)
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