Are you starved for techno? Real, honest-to-gosh techno? Well, Shanghai’s Void crew has you covered. Several times a month they fill up LOgO and The Shelter to bring you the foot-tappinest, head-noddinest, neck-snappinest techno you ever could lay ears on. They’ve showcased both DJ Nomadico and Jason Hodges in Shanghai, and this Saturday March 1st they bring a little bit of Detroit and Berlin to The Shelter.
We sat down with Shanghaiist football contributor and Void cofounder DJ Shanghai_Ultra and picked his brain about the philosophy behind his crew and what it has to offer the city.
What is Void?
Void is basically just me and Nat Alexander, who are two British guys, and Fish and Ben Huang, two Shanghainese DJs. We’re just about playing real techno music and some house music too. We’ve got a monthly at The Shelter, and we do every two weeks at the LOgO bar. We book techno and house DJs and bring them to Shanghai. We try and bring international DJs here who people probably haven’t heard of. But back home in their underground scenes, in Europe or the States, there probably will be a lot of people who’ve heard of them.
For the first two guys we brought here, DJ Nomadico of Underground Resistance and Jason Hodges, this was the first time they’d been here. They both played really good shows, and people were like “Wow, how can these guys have such a good show when these guys aren’t listed as the Top 100 DJs?” Well, that’s what it’s all about – Void is just about bringing quality electronic music. But we’re also trying to build up a proper scene. There’s so much misinformation and a lack of knowledge about what electronic music is. We hope to fill that void of knowledge.
What is proper electronic music?
Well, that’s a really hard question. The whole point of electronic music, in my opinion, is to innovate and make music in a different way from the music that came before. Otherwise, we’d still be listening to what Mom and Dad did, right? Having said that, if you’re having any kind of party where music is being played, people need to have a good time and dance. Super-experimental electronic music is not always gonna be fun to dance to. So what we’re doing is kind of a trade-off between keeping the beat going, keeping the 4/4 pumping rhythms going, and also keeping it fresh and bringing in stuff like the Detroit techno, stuff which captures the spirit of that music. Stuff which is kind of still trying to be different and clever without using all the obvious tricks and techniques that a lot of more commercial dance music uses.
Why is it important that you bring proper electronic music to Shanghai?
Because I think there’s a lot of bullshitters in Shanghai who present a particular genre but don’t appear to know what it is. For example, they’ll say it’s a techno night and they’ll play “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit” by Fedde le Grand. Well, that’s not a techno track – that’s a commercial track that is intended for an undiscerning audience. It’s quite a tired and cheesy sound, very sugar-coated. And I think that’s part of the problem in Shanghai and China.
We don’t expect Chinese clubbers to have an awful lot of knowledge, because [techno] is quite a new thing here. The thing that irritates me is that there’s people taking advantage of this. They’ll think “Oh wow, let’s take these themes and concepts that exist in Western culture and recreate them here to make money.” But they’re just doing it to make money – they’re just using the ideas and imagery of electronic music, or hip-hop or house whatever, to take advantage of the lack of knowledge in the clubbers. I think that happens a lot here.
How did Void get started?
I came back to Shanghai two and a half years ago, and I was really inspired by the place. I was first here in 2000 for a year, and during that time, there was a lot of exciting stuff happening, a lot of energy and dynamism. And it definitely still has that, but in some ways, a lot of the creativity here is crushed by the overwhelming need for things to generate as much profit as possible. There’s very few exceptions to that.
To demonstrate, there are so many new clubs opening in Shanghai, every weekend almost, that most of the investment is aimed at the top end of the market. I think there are a lot of Taiwanese and Singaporean businessmen who come to Shanghai for a couple days who see people drinking Tsingtao for 50 RMB. They say “Hey, we can buy Tsingtao for 2 kuai from Lawson’s, open up a pub next door, put some fancy lights in it, put on some shitty fucking crap rubbish electronic music, have everyone shake dice, have no dancefloor, and we can sell Tsingtao for a 48 kuai profit.” That makes money, and that’s all they fucking care about. That’s all they want to do.
The upshot of this is, because there’s this huge influx of investment, this huge amount of cash into the clubbing venue sector, it artificially inflates everything to a higher level. The guy in the middle, the cheap bar, is thinking “Why am I working my ass off seven days a week, not getting to bed until five in the morning, and only making 10 kuai on Tsingtao?” So basically pretty much the entire market is aimed at the people with a lot of money, people who think having a good time means being seen spending money, or wearing Prada or whatever crap shit poseur soulless shit labels, and fake crap empty annoying places where people just have no fucking idea about how to do anything other than look cool and spend money. And they think that’s cool.
So that’s the situation in Shanghai. And that’s fine – every city has this kind of tension. Every place in the world is like this. Where Shanghai is different is that it doesn’t really have anywhere catering to people who want something a bit more genuine and authentic. There’s been a lot of people trying to make it happen for quite awhile, but only in the past year has it actually started to happen, mainly because of a lack of venues for it to happen in.
There’s two reasons why Void started. One reason is, I met Nat [Alexander] a year ago, and we have similar backgrounds. We grew up going to techno and house nights in the UK. There’s no other country in the world that has a richer dance music culture than the UK. In Germany, it’s pretty much the same. The States doesn’t have that in the mainstream way, but a lot of the music came from there. We’re not saying we’re better than anyone – we’re just saying we’re lucky to have grown up in that fantastic environment and culture.
Nat and I are like peas in a pod. He’s a guy who really knows his music. He’s a fantastic DJ, a vinyl addict. I’m more of a producer. Basically we got together with similar tastes in music, backgrounds, and a mission. That mission is to bring Shanghai not only the quality electronic music, but also that mad, adrenaline-filled, crazy clubbing experience that we experienced in the UK. In Shanghai that hasn’t happened anywhere yet. Only a few people in Shanghai come close to it. [DJ Siesta’s] drum and bass nights get close to it. Antidote is very diverse and at times they’ve done some nights that are crazy. But I think all the promoters in Shanghai would probably agree that the general atmosphere of clubs here is not as good as wherever they’re from, be it Europe, North America, or wherever. And that’s not a slight at Shanghai; it’s just not very well developed.
Have you seen any changes in Shanghai’s electronic music culture since you’ve been here?
I think the scene has gotten better because places like The Shelter have opened. That’s basically a place that could’ve opened a couple years ago, but everyone was too busy chasing the big bucks of the big glitzy clubs. It’s only been recently, because there’ve been so many failed clubs, that other clubs are thinking “Oh, the only way to survive is to offer something that no one else is providing.” And no one was providing a good solid venue for electronic music. And so far The Shelter has proven to be that venue. The scene is really related to the venues, because a scene can’t exist without a place to have it in, and that’s been a problem here.
But in terms of the scene itself, it’s just still too lao wai. It’s as big a problem for Void as it is for anyone. There’s no point in us doing a party for only foreigners. If that is the way our parties are, I would regard them as a failure. And there’s a million reasons why there’s not more Chinese people coming to events. We could probably do more to attract a bigger Chinese crowd, but it’s a matter of development and people becoming familiar with the types of music and people having access to information about all this different kinds of music out there. Right now China’s been absolutely saturated with meaningless mass-media corporation propaganda about MTV, bling, hip-hop, and all that meaningless rubbish. Chinese kids have no real good sources of information about anything other than Western pop music. Everything in Shanghai and China is about making money, and nothing else. Culture, youth culture, is neglected because I don’t think the value of it is realized here.
I think most Chinese kids, when they leave school, and if they’re smart and their parents have enough money, they go to university. Their parents will tell them, “Okay, study really hard and work really hard, get married as soon as you can, have kids, and then have them look after you.” The way Chinese society is, [the parents’] ideas of leisure are different; the older generation doesn’t really understand the alternatives that the younger generation now has to enjoy themselves. Because of that generational gap, I think that there’s not as many Chinese kids going out and listening to cool music as there could be, if there wasn’t that gap.
What are your goals with Void?
To re-create the wonderfully fun and communal experience all dancing as one, locked on to the DJ’s sound, going crazy together. That’s one of the goals – the second goal is to establish an indigenous electronic music culture here. And I think that’s kinda happening. It’s not just us trying to do that – there’s a lot of people making very praiseworthy efforts to do that too. That’s an aim of ours. We’d also like to encourage Chinese youth to make their own electronic music, to inspire them or show them, whatever way we can do it. I’ve been a producer, an amateur one, for 15 years. And just to bring everyone together under one roof to dance and has fun. It doesn’t matter where you’re from – when people come to Void, everybody is Void partygoer, we don’t care where they’re from. I mean, I’m an amateur guy. This is just a glorified hobby for me. I’m not trying to say I’m a talented super DJ waiting to be.
What’s the most difficult part about promoting techno in China?
The lack of awareness of all the different musical genres. And in some ways, that’s not even unique to China. We could easily be having this conversation back home, in New York or Austin, Texas. But specific to China – I think there is a growing awareness of musical genres among the Chinese people who do go clubbing. But unfortunately, there’s things like the Top 100 DJs list which I think is just an absolute piece of shit. I think it’s the biggest load of rubbish ever. It’s a thing which is designed to create pop stars out of a type of music that does not readily lend itself to personalities and characters. For me, the reason I like techno is because, in my opinion, it’s quite a pure form of music and culture. It’s an intellectual form of music. It’s not about the heart really – it’s more for the head. It’s not about if the guy making the music was fucking some sexy actress last night – it’s not about that. There’s not really any egos or big personalities in it – it’s traditionally been very faceless.
The Top 100 DJs list is trying to create personalities out of this culture, to make it more accessible, so they can make money off it. The list is published by DJ Magazine, whose aims are not primarily to inform people about dance music culture. Their primary aim is to make money. To make money, they need to sell advertising space. To sell advertising space, they need to attract a certain demographic. To attract a certain demographic, you need to seduce them with these glamorous images of DJs posing, wearing clothes, fashion, all that stuff. Which is fine, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that – but with every step you get further away from what it’s all about. For me, for Void, it’s about music.
Do you see the Top 100 DJs list as an obstacle to Void?
Yes, because you could infer that anyone not on it is not worth booking, which of course is utter bullshit. Now, the advantage of it is that it does bring people into electronic music. To that end, it does serve as an accessible entry point. But I think we’d be better off without it, because people will find electronic music anyway. In terms of the culture itself, I think the Top 100 DJs list encourages people to conform to whatever style is popular today, to get on the list and get more bookings. In terms of music diversity and cultural development, that’s not healthy.
In many ways, these problems are exacerbated in China because Chinese don’t know better – there’s no alternative information, so they have no reason to question the Top 100 DJs list. And Chinese people don’t really question what they’re told anyway, because that’s how they are. I think some of the Confucian philosophy dictates that you should always respect your elders, never question them, and either help them hide their mistakes or ignore them. They don’t have a questioning mentality. So if you bring in someone on the Top 100 DJs list, which says these are the best DJs in the world, the Chinese will say great! Let’s do it!
What’s your favorite part, then?
The most fun part is just playing lots of records you like and seeing people enjoy them and dance to them. Pretty simple. I also like watching people, who don’t like electronic music, screw their faces when I play some really twisted, fucked-up techno record. [laughs]
If you’re not using the Top 100 DJ list, how do you decide who to book?
Jason Hodges and Nomadico are both very good examples of what we regard as good techno and good house. Obviously, Underground Resistance (UR) is one of the biggest names in techno. Anybody who knows techno knows that UR is the shit. Furthermore, they’re social activists, and they came to Shanghai for much less money than a Top 100 DJ would – in fact, exponentially less, because they didn’t come here to make money. Of course there’s a fee, everyone’s got to make money, that’s cool.
But for us, the main reason for booking UR was a statement of intention for [Void]. There’s so much mediocre electronic music here, and we wanted to show people the real shit. That night, someone in the crowd gave Nomadico a piece of paper that said “I’ve been in Shanghai eight years, and I’ve never heard music like this before. Thank you very much.” And that was just the first party.
Basically, we bring over people who we think are great DJs, true to their vibe, and they’re not about making money. They’re following the original spirit of house and techno music, which is to make music.
Who are your musical heroes?
Derrick May, Joey Beltram, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Rob Hood, Neil Landstrumm, Cisco Ferreira (The Advent), and Carl Craig.
Who would you like to bring to Shanghai?
Rob Hood, but he’s coming, he’s confirmed! [laughs] And some other people, but we don’t want to let the cat out of the bag in case someone else books them. I’d like to see Joey Beltram here. Technasia, I’d like to bring them. All of the original Detroit guys. Mad Mike. I also like Japanese techno, like Fumiya Tanaka and Shufflemaster – fantastic.
Any last words for the crowd?
I wanna thank my girlfriend Jade for inspiration recently.
Saturday 3/1: Fish, Nat Alexander, Shanghai_Ultra, James Westwood, “Void:Detroit – Berlin”. 30 RMB. 5 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Lu.
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Pictures by Void and Romain Capelle.