The little label that could.
Its debut release broke new ground, the first Dutch-language record to be played on BBC Radio. Magnetron Music from Amsterdam is a small and innovative label, centrered around a closely-knit aggregation of producers, designers and performers. Its remarkable success raises a few questions. Like: is the future of rap multi-lingual? And: is electro the ‘lingua franca’ of dance?
Watskeburt by Amsterdam-based rap trio De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig (‘youth of today’) was rush-released late May 2005. It had been leaked via the internet and illegal copies were whipping up a storm in Amsterdam clubs. Its origin was a mystery; the artists an unknown quantity. The lyrics of Watskeburt (novelty lingo for ‘What’s up’) didn’t make much sense and sounded funny, very funny: a fascinating blend of street speak, pidgin Dutch and fantasy language. Within days of its official release, the track was all over Dutch national radio and galloping up the charts, hitting the number 1 spot in no time. Soon, Belgium fell as well for Watskeburt’s anarchic mix of surreal raps and stripped-down electrofunk, and the track was licensed for release in foreign territories. Pete Tong gave Watskeburt a couple of spins on BBC radio – a first, no Dutch-language record had ever graced the British airwaves – and ‘de Jeugd’, plus their producer Bas Bron, did a photo-shoot at Abbey Road.
Not to be burned by its lightning start, Magnetron Music’s A&R and general manager, Kostijn Egberts, had to rely on his instincts and establish a legal and financial infrastructure for the upstart label while managing a run-away sensation. “The label hit the ground running and it took me a year to catch up with the facts. A problem of luxury, as far as I’m concerned”, he says.
De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig’s nova-like start set the course for Magnetron Music’s policy. Working with a small and mutually supportive pool of creative talent (producers, deejays, rappers, designers, visual artists), it stimulates in-house collaboration and synergy. De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig has generated several spin-off acts, all successes, and its limited artist roster functions like an extended family.
P. Fabergé, Vieze Fur and Willie Wartaal, collectively known as ‘de Jeugd’, are the public face of Magnetron Music; producers Bas Bron (label co-owner, with Egberts) and Rimer Veeman its force behind the scene. Bron and Veeman collectively record as electro act Comtron. Bas Bron has released tracks and albums using a series of aliases; as Seymour Bits he does ‘80s electrofunk in Prince mode, Neger Des Heils (an impossible-to-translate and outrageous pun on ‘nigger’ and salvation army’) is the nom de plume for his role as De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig’s producer.
Atypical and resourceful, these guys toss off hilarious puns and fresh concepts in their sleep. And they have an original take on rap and funk, bringing hip hop full circle to its early ‘80s electro roots. “It all has come together in an organic way”, Kostijn Egberts concludes.
Magnetron Music’s hectic start turned out to be a blessing in disguise. To Kostijn Egberts and Bas Bron, it all was strangely familiar, yet different. Back in 1999, Bron had recorded a funky pop album for Virgin Benelux, using the Bastian moniker; the single of the album, You’ve Got My Love, garnered a reputation for its provocative yet funny video-clip, a collage of female chests in close-up (the ‘titties clip’, check YouTube). It turned out to be a hit.
Kostijn Egberts: “In the ‘90s, I had worded for the ID&T company as one of their label managers. Through [Dutch hip hop act] Brainpower, I had heard some tracks by Bas Bron and I had signed him right away. I released several of his tracks, using the name Gifted, which met with some success. However, Bas’s background is funk and he has a natural inclination for bands and performing live on stage. After setting up the Bastian deal with Virgin Benelux, I quit ID&T and started organising club nights and events, all the while staying in touch with Bas and helping him out with the business side of being a producer and performer. We had an understanding: as soon as we’d have the right track, the two of us would start a label.”
The right track turned out to be Watskeburt and it fell out of the blue, sort of – the result of engineered chaos and serendipity. Egberts: “Bas had fallen into the habit of inviting his artist friends – the Spaarnedammerbuurt collective - over to his studio every Friday afternoon, for sessions of beer-drinking and informal studio tomfoolery. One of the regulars was Sandder Lanen, director of the famous-infamous ‘tieten clip’ of You’ve Got My Love. His younger brother, Pepijn, started to join these Friday night sessions, nursing fantasies of being a rapper.”
Freddie Tratlehner aka Vieze Fur, a bohemian-minded art student from Amsterdam-Noord, had been nursing similar
fantasies for some time; with long-time friend Ollie Locadia a.k.a. Willie Wartaal, he formed a virtual rap act, Baksteen (‘brick’) – virtual, since Baksteen never practiced, recorded or performed. Egberts picks up the story: “After a Saturday night on the town, Pepijn was chilling on a fence at Waterlooplein. Freddie, whom he had met while cruising the clubs, happened to walk by and they started ‘battling’, hitting on the novelty word ‘watskeburt’, ‘wat gebeurt er’ in plain Dutch (what’s going on). By now, it was 9 a.m. and Pepin suggested to ring the producer who hosted those freaky Friday night sessions. Bas Bron jumped on his bike, paddled to the studio and 90 minutes later, the track was down. Bas insisted I had to hear it right away and I was literally jumping up and down the studio. We had our track to kick off the label. That’s how Watskeburt and Magnetron Music happened.”
Watskeburt had all the markings of a novelty success and business veterans were quick to write off De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig as one-hit wonders. However, the quickly recorded and rush-released debut album, Parels Voor De Zwijnen (‘pearls before swines’), included several follow-up hit-singles – although not hitting the top of the Dutch charts, like Watskeburt – and ‘de Jeugd’ were offered a 30 minute weekly show on Dutch tv; Parels Voor De Zwijnen was hailed as Album of the Year. Overnight, Pepijn Fabergé, Vieze Fur and Willie Wartaal had turned into media darlings and entertainment prodigies.
Kostijn Egberts: “At first, every journalist came up with this question: Is De Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig a fabricated act? Some kind of Spice Girls of Dutch hip hop, put together by a smart manager with Euro signs in his eyes? It’s not. It all came together in an organic way, it just happened.”
Egberts is quick to point out what sets ‘de Jeugd’ apart. “All of them are very creative individuals, and collectively they complement each other. Pepijn is the intellectual, sending up hip hop culture while putting a fresh spin on it. Freddie (Vieze Fur) is the introverted Dada artist, dreaming up weird lyrics. Ollie (Willie Wartaal) comes across like a silly clown, yet he is very serious about his role as an entertainer; he has been a professional deejay for years, working seven nights a week in Mediterranean night clubs. Each of them appeal to a different section of the audience, adolescent girls as well as electro trainspotters.”
That’s not fancy promo talk, it shows in Magnetron Music’s track of chart success. The label’s second number 1-hit in The Netherlands (and Top 3 in Belgium) is Konijntje (‘little bunny’) by A.k.a. The Junkies. Released in February 2008, Konijntje is a solo outing by Willie Wartaal, his teasing innuendo set to a minimal techno production by upstart producer Arjuna Schiks, also hailing from Amsterdam-Noord. Egberts: “Arjuna’s production is Spartan, totally stripped down. Radio doesn’t play tracks in that vein, however, Konijntje was all over the airwaves in the Benelux. It’s damned catchy.”
The multi-lingual Le Le (alternating lyrics in Dutch, French, German and English) is another successful Jeugd Van Tegenwoordig spin-off: Pepijn Fabergé, Rimer Veeman (half of Comtron) and Piet Parra, who is an internationally reputed designer and a talented producer. Kostijn Egberts: “Le Le is the product of weekly Tuesday night recordings sessions. Pepijn is a friend of Piet Parra, he wanted to try out some lyrics over Parra-produced beats. They contacted Rimer to polish the production.”
Le Le was off to a flying start as well. Before their debut album, Flage, hit the shops in the Summer of 2008, the trio had released an international club smash, the infectious (and silly) Breakfast. Egberts: “Breakfast is Le Le’s Watskeburt. It’s a classic Chicago house track, topped off by Pepijn’s processed rap of wanting to eat his female company for breakfast. My immediate response on hearing it: this is it! Piet Parra directed the video-clip, which was selected for the Top 10 videos of 2008 by US magazine Spin. Breakfast was in the record box of every name dj, from Carl Cox to Don Diablo. Tons of remixes and edits popped up; the Diplo edit, the Switch remix, you name it. Due to the silly lyrics, it proved to be a cross-over hit. At last year’s edition of the Lowlands festival, it was dropped by six totally different jocks and every time the crowd went bonkers.”
Meanwhile, Le Le has toured The States, the UK, Germany and France, among others, and Magnetron Music is preparing half a dozen of albums, to be released in the upcoming twelve months (see sidebar). After a explosive start and an enervating take-off, the little label that could is about to up the ante. “Both Bas Bron and myself are not dependent on Magnetron Music for a living”, Kostijn Egberts says. “The traditional trap for a label is to rely on volume over quality control. We prefer quality over quantity.” Small is beautiful indeed.