Tsepo: A Feature

It’s 3:30 PM when I see him whizzing into the terrace behind Oosterbar on his bike, one hand on the handlebars and the other holding a loosely folded festival sweatshirt tucked under his arm. We’re here to check out the new Danley sound system installed in the basement. The technical aspect of a good dance party is very important to Jan (also known by his performance moniker and middle name, Tsepo), evidenced by his excitement as the bar manager, Jelle, plugs in his USB and cranks the volume. “This is the same sound system as Woodstock ‘69. I love it. Really clean sound.” Next week, 150+ dancers for Tsepo’s all-nighter will pack tightly into this space for a proper basement rave to kick off the Amsterdam Dance Event. What can entrants expect from an extended all-night set from Tsepo? “It will be a huge surprise! I’m going to warm up for it at a gig in Berlin tomorrow, then an all-nighter in Breda. I’ve got a big playlist now, but I’m going to shave it down to a decent size to see what works. I like to change my set once a month, so on the first gig of the month I will play only new records then slim it down so my set gets better and more refined.”

 

At 28 years young, Tsepo cut his DJ teeth as a former resident at Trouw just 5 years ago. Since then he has been hosting all-night-long parties in Utrecht, Den Haag, and Amsterdam, so he’s no stranger to prepping and planning before a big gig. When he’s not winding down from a weekend’s worth of gigs with a yoga session, catching up on “shitty television shows,” or playing the new FIFA game, he’s rummaging through the world’s largest crate of records – the internet. “I love playing new music while I cook. It’s a great way to find new tracks. I don’t listen to promos that much from the big labels, anymore. If I see something labeled as “the biggest blah blah blah,” I’m not going to listen to it,” he laughs. “I found that I can go through Spotify and find some great new records in their daily mixes, like hidden or obscure disco tracks. Sometimes I just love a stupid, cheesy kind of dance track like Pet Shop Boys that you think is easy to make on your own, but is actually really difficult.” “Are you a (physical) record digger?” I ask. “I think I should do more. I don’t play vinyl at gigs, but I do play it at home. It’s funny because I’ll walk into Bordello a Parigi and the manager (friend and DJ Pieter Jansen) will joke with me, like “What are you doing here? Can’t you just message the label owner for the files?” “Yes…and I do.”

 

 

It’s 3:30 AM on a cold Saturday in February 2015 in Club Closure and “Agass” by Hotel Lauer is rolling through the Funktion One speakers two meters from my ears. I look up behind the decks to affirm my pleasure in his choice of song, but also to find out who was responsible for painting this brilliant, well-timed sonic landscape. With the lights behind him silhouetting his large frame and now-familiar afro haircut, his presence and command behind the decks were evident. My first experience seeing Tsepo play was here at Closure – an intimate, dark, now-defunct basement club in Amsterdam. Today, we’re sitting on the back patio of Oosterbar in the late afternoon sun sharing a beer and I ask if these intimate club sets like Closure and Oosterbar are where he is most comfortable and in his element, as he appears to be. “Yes definitely. It’s also hard because I’m not sure whether my sound has changed; like I still do my party sets from time to time. But when I DJ for the music I really dig for, I think it tends to get more hypnotizing than “normal” stuff. When I play that at festivals, it won’t work. Actually when I played a festival in Amsterdam, one of the stage managers said “the stuff you’re playing is like 4 am or 8 am morning music, which is super trippy,” and I was opening!” he proclaims with a hearty laugh. “I enjoy playing the big room stuff, but not that often. I search for the stuff that’s not difficult, but can – kind of get you in a trance, instead of the ones with the big breaks; the ‘get your hands in the air’ type stuff. I’m going back to where I started with my first podcast – the Indian stuff, weirder stuff – I think I’d like to go back to that and I think you can hear that now when I’m playing. And of course you can hear a 90s hit from time to time,” he smiles, “but not the party stuff I used to do 1-1.5 years ago.” I wonder aloud how or if this stylistic tweak impacts the way he’s perceived by festival and club bookers, especially since he’s not producing original tracks that would provide some clear definition of his sound. “No. I do my best, and if it doesn’t work, who am I to keep playing the hypnotizing deep stuff? I don’t think it’s wrong to switch back and forth between the party stuff and the deep stuff.” Tsepo’s chameleon-like ability to adapt is what makes his talent so sought after, whether he’s closing down a King’s Day house party with big room hitters and techno rollers, playing an extended club set chock full of italo-electro and synthy disco bombs, or warming up a big festival stage, he knows how to fill a dance floor. This is because his attention to detail extends beyond the technical side of DJing. “I am definitely paying attention to body language. There’s always a few subtle changes in the body when a new track is coming in – you can tell and I can anticipate that. When people stop talking, put their drink on the bar. Of course, it’s super flattering for your ego, but for me, I’m trying to make it a little more sophisticated. If it doesn’t work, I’ll find something else. That’s the joy of a USB stick.”

 

 

If it sounds like I’m talking to a man who is well-adjusted and has avoided the lavish, spoiled trappings of the touring DJ, you’d be right. It may have something to do with the overall ethos of Dutch life, where egos are kept in check, and boastful, shameless self-promotion is generally frowned upon. “The Dutch people have definitely grounded me,” he says as we share a laugh in solidarity of shared experiences. “Especially my friends from the eastern part of The Netherlands  – they don’t like egos. But the honesty is also nice so that I (know I) can be proud of my achievements, as well.” The Dutch also have a noticeable and discernible taste for their dance music, and with that comes expectations. With sounds and styles varying from one big city to the other, and in what seems like a competitive market loaded with genre-bending, youthful talent, I ask what, if any difference he notices between playing for the home crowd versus an away game. “Well, every city in The Netherlands has a small, tight community of DJs. I still have friends from the Trouw scene. One of the reasons I don’t think it’s as competitive as Berlin is because most of the people know each other, and I think everyone that is living here and playing here can have the opportunity because there is so much going on.”

 

“THE DUTCH PEOPLE HAVE DEFINITELY GROUNDED ME”

 

 

Thankfully for Jan, there is no falsehood in his modesty. During a brief interruption between a phone call and a beer refill, Jan informs me that he has just been signed by Temporary Secretary – the Innervisions-based booking and management agency located in Berlin. Their client list is a veritable whos-who of familiar electronic music heavy hitters, both established and those on the cusp of international break-out success. (Dixon, Ame, Gerd Janson, DJ Tennis, Simple Symmetry, Terr, to name a few.) “My current booker was hired by Temporary Secretary, and she was asked who she wanted to take with her, and she said my name – and they approved! I mean, they are heroes. I remember playing b2b with Ame the first time and I was like a child.” To say he’s in good company would be an understatement. To say there is a validation of his effort would also be an understatement. Having opened for Ame at a festival a couple years ago, Tsepo has since hosted him for a night during his residency at Shelter, which turned into an impromptu end-of-the-night b2b – a highlight of Tsepo’s career. I ask if he now feels any added pressure or responsibility as a DJ to be a tastemaker for his audience, and before I can finish he is confidently shaking his head “No.” This is something he’s thought about before and learned through observation. “I don’t see myself as a tastemaker, but it is important for others. Like sharing a political view or something, I’d prefer to stay in the background and see where that takes me. I like to entertain, but not shock. There are a few DJs who can bring special tracks like that. For example, Ben UFO is really good at it. Ame, Dixon – the left-field weird records that people love. Their mixing is flawless. You don’t even realize they are mixing between tempos and genres when you’re on the dancefloor. And these DJs have 10-plus years of experience playing these records in clubs, which is something I aspire to do.”

 

Speaking of aspirations, what does the future of DJing hold for Tsepo? “To be honest, I don’t know. It would be easier if I released something, but I don’t know where it will take me. I’m still dreaming bigger, but for where I am now, I am happy. If I knew then (when I started) what I know now, it would be super boring. It’s really a learning process. The way you treat people, how you put yourself out there. In a way, it’s a game, and if you know everything already, that would be boring. Of course, I have my frustrations during the week and wonder why some things didn’t work out, but that’s part of the game.”

 

With his jovial, good-natured, docile demeanor, Tsepo plays the game well. To be successful in close-knit professional communities at home and abroad, he realizes the value of the artist-promoter relationship. “I tend to go for the smaller promoters. Also because I like to play smaller clubs and they are the most loyal. I get to build a personal relationship with them and I get excited because I know them, we’re all happy and the mood is right – that’s something I really like about that.”

 

It’s close to 6 PM and Jan has to be home soon to unlock the door for his girlfriend who forgot her keys when she left for work this morning. The sun is leaving the bar patio, and even though the beer has temporarily warmed us, the shade from the tall park trees are telling us it’s time to go. Before we part ways, I asked Jan what he has planned for ADE this year. “Well, I start with the premise that I won’t drink too much the first day,” he exclaims with an unconvincing chuckle. His drink of choice while playing is a version of Italian sparkling wine, which he finds amusing putting on his rider as only a 5th year DJ, if only for the status. He says there is a cheaper version which he prefers, as its easier for the promoter to find, and he insists it’s only for the taste. “Most promoters will order a bottle of Moet,” he begins, but I cut him off and start mocking and miming the bourgeois depravity of a man swishing Moet in his mouth and spitting it out in disgust, and Jan lets out the loudest laugh of the day. “Actually, last time I did that because I really don’t like the taste!” he says bashfully, but with conviction. “Oh man – that sounds so decadent. But if the people are nice, why should I complain? I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time – why should I be unhappy when I’m at a gig and my bottle of cava isn’t there? It makes no sense to me at all.” His gratitude is evident, and his protestations against opulence seem authentic. (He can’t even name his favorite Italian sparkling wine, after all.) Whether it’s nature or nurture, the Dutch ethos has served him well.

 

Words by Tyler Besse