Danny Berman aka Red Rack'em is a veteran of the electronic music scene. Forging his own path from an early age and possessed by a staunchly independent ethos, he has built a rich and varied career, which recently went stratospheric with the release of his hit single 'Wonky Bassline Disco Banger' in 2016. Ahead of his guest lecture at dBs Music Bristol we sat down with Danny to talk about those early days discovering music, having a multi-faceted career and eschewing the corporate side of music.
Tell us a little about your journey into electronic music…
It all started from hip hop really - I was a huge hip hop head from about 1988 onwards. I loved US hip hop like De La, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, NWA, Boo Ya Tribe etc - all the Golden Years stuff basically. I saw the DJs using turntables and heard the scratching. That got me interested in scratch DJing so I bought a set of Technics in 1994 when I was 18 with my student loan and started buying stuff like Mo Wax and Mighty Bop. Trip hop basically.
I discovered Jungle and Drum and Bass around 1993/94 as I was going on holiday to the South West of England and had friends down there who were Junglists. So my first real ‘dance music’ thing was actually Jungle and Drum and Bass - I had been into labels like Shut Up and Dance a few years earlier so I think it felt like a natural progression from that. When I moved to Edinburgh in 1995, I started going to house and techno clubs like Tribal Funktion, Pure, Lift, Sativa, Purple Moon etc., so I was also enjoying that kind of vibe. But it all seemed quite tame to me against the mentalist dark side vibes of Source Direct and Photek etc.
Discovering hip hop whilst growing up in a small fishing village in Scotland must have felt a little surreal. Did you have a strong musical background from your family or friends that helped shape your tastes, or was it pure self-discovery?
Well my parents have got pretty good taste in music so I was brought up with a mix of hippy stuff like Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Mahavishnu Orchestra, but also some cooler stuff like Talking Heads, Miles Davis, Big Youth and Television. So from an early age I was enjoying music without worrying about genre and I think this was something which has inspired me from a young age.
I had a crew of friends at high school and we all skateboarded, listened to hip hop, US funk music, metal and generally were reprobates. Our group was like a big melting pot of cultural references - Red Hot Chili Peppers (they were actually quite edgy pre Blood Sugar Sex Magik), Del The Funky Homosapien, Nirvana, The Meters, Cat Stevens, Ivor Cutler, we listened to all sorts. Not really any dance music though. I think everyone was bringing something to the table - it was such a great time for music 1990-94.
You mentioned that the isolation of your teens gave you a voracious appetite for new music. Would you say that isolation also helped you forge your own unique voice and techniques rather than trying to emulate others?
Well I have always just had a kind of sound I guess. I don’t know how to explain it apart from I just hear things a certain way, I guess. I just love hearing fresh sounds and atmospheric things. I appreciate things like classical and jazz a lot more these days. I guess your tastes mature.
I am influenced by such a vast array of music. Every day I hear stuff and think ‘I wish I could do that’. But at the same time I don’t really want to make carbon copy stuff. Making ‘standard’ music would feel a bit of a waste of an opportunity to me. I have become more obnoxious in a way. I am trying to make music which is kind of subversive, but also make it something that most people can dance to. Sneaking in the weird stuff if I can.
As you delved deeper into music you chose to teach yourself production. Was this due to a lack of resources or more part of your underlying ethos to do things your way?
Well I did go to music college in Nottingham around 1999 and did a lowly ND in music technology but I didn’t really learn HOW to make music on that course. It was more about how to use the equipment rather than ‘how to make a sick house beat’ or something like that.
When I was learning how to make music - there wasn’t internet tutorials and the more experienced producers in Nottingham where I was based at that time were all quite scary older people. I used to pretty much live in a record shop there called Funky Monkey and it was during that time I made the transition from DJ to also being a producer. There simply wasn’t any other way to learn apart from getting your hands dirty.
All my friends were DJs. I was pretty much the only person making tracks at that time. There were lots of great producers in Nottingham around that time - Charles Webster, Inland Knights, Crazy P, Schmoov, Bent, DiY etc., but they were much older than me so I was too shy to approach them for any help. It didn’t really feel like things worked like that back in the day. Nowadays a lot of people want to do the famous bit without the hard work bit. The internet has a lot to answer for.
You dropped out of college to pursue your passion, an incredibly romanticised path for a lot of creatives, yet one that rarely works out. Was there a voice in your head that knew this was the right decision for you or were you venturing into the unknown?
Well I guess I just always had this hope that everything was going to be ok in the end. I never doubted my ability - it’s more about if the planets align and the powers that be ALLOW you to be successful. I never willingly dropped out of anything. I was always kicked out. I was banned from my high school music dept as a teenager which was a bitter blow. I refused to be a last minute replacement in a regional concert as I had no time to prepare and the teacher couldn’t handle it. I had to watch my mates play through the window at lunch time which was pretty depressing. That set the trend really.
I got kicked out of the first college course I did in 1994 as I spent too much time in the pub trying to learn how to drink. I got sacked from my corporate Avid video editing job in Nottingham after 1 month which is actually what led me to the ND in music technology. So I wouldn’t be doing music I guess if I hadn’t been sacked from that job. I am not sure if that was a good thing or not really as I had a bright future ahead of me as an Avid editor but I was put off by my first taste of the corporate world. I came from television where I told the boss to eff off and went out with the weather girl. I wasn’t ready for a REAL job.
The thing I would say is, I spent many many years being constantly on the breadline. Making money as a DJ or music producer isn’t so easy. So I had many fallow years where you think ‘how am I ever gonna make it?’ But then suddenly you can put the right record or two out and it all clicks into place. It’s very difficult to have a steady career in music especially with the current brand driven, fashion model DJ-type thing we’re seeing. I wouldn’t advocate the ‘maverick’ route to anyone BUT I doubt I would be able to make singular music if I had toed the line more. Do you want to be a leader or a follower? Leaders have to take risks. Doesn’t mean it’s always fun though.
Stocking the studio with some healthy sustenance…and pizza
You did return to education in a teaching role. What was it like being on the other side?
I found teaching a challenge to be honest as I wasn’t so mature in my late 20s/early 30s and I was trying to be a DJ at the same time so that led to some pretty tough Monday mornings as you can imagine. I taught FE in inner city Nottingham which meant with some students, it was part-time social work as well. A lot of the students I taught were living the street life. So it was challenging sometimes when you could see that they were only doing the course as it was a way for them to avoid jail or keep their support worker happy.
It wasn’t always easy to convince young, angry people that a ‘poxy’ college course was going to make any difference to their future. But there were also some heartwarming moments too. A lot of the students I taught had pretty fixed ideas of what they would do when they were older so they didn’t really listen to any advice from us oldies. I am actually still in touch with some of them now. One of my former students is currently directing an advert for Galaxy chocolate. Another is a rising star in boxing.
For the most part, your music has been released independently through Bergerac. Do you think that retaining that creative control has been paramount to getting where you are today?
I don’t think it always helps in the short term as the music industry is geared towards anything fresh not being allowed in unless it makes someone higher up the food chain money - be that by hiring the right PR, booking big DJs to play with you etc. So being independent is a long hard road, BUT ultimately you’re building your own brand, which means then all roads lead to you.
The thing about working with other labels and relying on bigger media partners etc is you’re just giving them free content in the end. You’re looking outside for ‘help’ and solutions to things which you could do for yourself. Obviously, it’s great to have a release on a label like Ninja Tune but when the brand has more weight than the actual content then is it really so good in the long run? If you look at all the best artists - they all have their own brand, record label and exert a lot of control over how the media presents them. It’s a struggle to get it right the first few times but sometimes it can all come good.
After a bit of a lull, I made the biggest selling vinyl single in 2016 and I self released it on my own label. There was a good pre-release PR campaign from Dean Driscoll (who does all Peggy Gous press now) but after that the single just took on a life of it’s own, so SOMETIMES you can beat the system. I did eventually license it to Classic/Defected, but the initial buzz came from the strength of the music and that was really encouraging and inspiring.
You’re not just an artist and performer, but also a radio DJ, label owner and a teacher. Is it borne from a desire to surround yourself with music in any way you can, a measure of future-proofing or a little of both?
Well I think unless I am working on music every day - instead of doing social media and general crap like that - and playing four times a week in the best clubs in the world with private drivers and five star hotels with jacuzzis and all that, I tend to get a bit bored of ‘just’ being a DJ/Producer.
I really enjoy doing other things too. I like golf, hiking, skiing, free clothes, single malt whisky etc. I am a social person and being a loner DJ/Producer isn’t very social. You spend most of your time alone. So things like the radio, doing workshops and releasing other peoples music give you a bit of much needed interaction. It’s also another way of influencing things. Which is why we’re all in this right?
What are your must-have tools?
MacBook Pro, portable soundcard, Logic Pro X, turntable, old records to sample, mic to coo into like an injured pigeon, Ultrasone headphones, Dynaudio BM5 speakers, healthy vegetarian food, rice.
What’s been your proudest moment so far and why?
I think it would have to when Wonky Bassline Disco Banger became the biggest selling dance vinyl single of 2016. For me, it was a massive triumph for independent artists as the ‘underground’ dance music scene has been completely infiltrated by management and PR companies who manipulate so much of the results in how music and artists are perceived and presented to the public. They can’t fake the sales though.
You look at the stuff which is being ‘pushed’ by the media - it’s all leading back to a very small amount of people. It might not appear to be but trust me, they have teams of people working hard to make sure all the investment is returned. So it’s all pretty much pre-ordained; what’s going to be ‘big’ - and what’s NOT going to be big. What CAN’T be big. I think that really sucks.
For me to have the number one record for sales at Juno and also to be record of the year at Phonica - these are genuine results. They aren’t being manipulated. Imagine who would be popular if it was actually based on how good the music was? We wouldn’t be doing so much Instagram that’s for sure.
What advice would you give to someone looking to work as an electronic artist?
Learn how to do as many things yourself as you can because the less people you rely on the better. Make friends with as many journalists as you can. Don’t take people not replying to your emails personally. Everyone will like you when you’re hot, but most of them will stop liking your posts when you’re not.
Surround yourself with people who actually like you as a person instead of people who are looking to ride on your coat tails and take your energy. AIFFs are much better than 320s. Be nice to everyone as most of the people you fall out with will probably end up being able to shit on you in the future. Get some sleep. Eat well.
If you’re doing a collaboration, make sure they are more famous than you. You will have to sleep in the studio sometimes and brush your teeth in some pretty manky bathrooms. You don’t need to compress most of the time. Learn how to use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Don’t sign anything. You can do your own publishing. They just take a % for registering your tracks with the PRS. Don’t use any mastering plug-ins on your master out on the DAW. I could go on…
Where can people find out more about you and your music?
You can listen and buy my music music from the Bergerac Bandcamp. I also present monthly radio shows for Rinse FM and Noods Radio. Additionally, you can check out DJ mixes and Rinse shows on my Soundcloud and there's a recent documentary below.