Still Spinning: Jean Claude Ades on the 90's Clubbing Spirit
As the legendary house DJ and producer Jean Claude Ades tells it, stepping into Amsterdam’s iT club in 1993 was like a moment of movie magic where a black and white screen turns into vivid technicolor. The dance Mecca was an Aladdin’s cave of self expression; under the lasers you could expect to see foot-high pompadour wigs, revellers dressed as woodland nymphs, and day-glo ravers mingling with jocks, queerdos, punks, and the occasional celebrity — Grace Jones or Boy George were known to occasionally drop by. “It was so eclectic,” recalls Ades. “There were straight people, trans people, bankers wearing ties… It was amazing.”
JEAN CLAUDE ADES
“Clubs like iT in Amsterdam were so eclectic; straight people, trans people, bankers wearing ties, all dancing together. I got hugely inspired by Masters of Work, David Morales, and Frankie Knuckles.”
The exuberant attitude was fuelled by a thrilling new sound. In the early ‘90s, US-born genres like Detroit techno and Chicago house were being retooled by a wave of young DJs across the pond, eager to add a European flair to the previous decade’s sound. At the time “there was a new flavour,” says Ades. “I got inspired by people like Masters At Work, David Morales, and Frankie Knuckles, because I loved more soulful house.”
As the author McKenzie Wark says in her recent book Raving, some clubbers “come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor.” In the iT club, Ades found both: an exuberantly-attired and diverse audience that were also there to commune with the music. Inspired by nights in the Dutch capital, Ades opened his own club on the outskirts of Munich at 22 years old, taking the then-unusual step of booking American DJs like George Morel of NYC label Strictly Rhythm, and Motor City techno pioneer Derrick May. “I was the first one bringing that kind of house music to south Germany,” Ades remembers. There was only one hitch. “People still didn’t know how to dance to house music!” he laughs. “So I started to bring in all these dancers from the iT club.” Under the strobe lights they led by example.
Rave was life; Germany’s thriving dance music community centred around parties at Frankfurt’s legendary Omen and Berlin’s Berghain predecessor Ostgut. The scene was soundtracked by then-new labels such as Ata and Heiko MSO’s Playhouse, WestBam’s Low Spirit and Mousse T’s Peppermint Jam, as well as raves like Time Warp, Mayday and the Loveparade. And the rest of the continent felt the call of the dancefloor, too. London’s Ministry of Sound opened in 1991, inspired by the musical innovations — and hedonistic thrills — of New York’s Paradise Garage, and, in Ibiza, clubs like Pacha, Amnesia, DC 10, and Space set the island alight. Meanwhile, current electronic music mainstays such as Amsterdam Dance Event and Sonar Barcelona debuted in 1996 and 1994 respectively, on a smaller and more affordable scale. A more modest cost of admission made nights out “a regular weekend activity” for many, says Ades. “There’s this table culture now that we didn’t have so much in the ‘90s. It’s 5K or 10K to book a table behind the DJ booth. Back then it was more important to be in front of the DJ booth.”
Ades can’t help but be a little nostalgic for the pre-CDJ, pre-USB stick era of DJing. At the time, catching the eye of a fellow dance fan while crate digging at music hubs like Frankfurt’s Delirium or Cologne’s Kompakt could feel like a secret handshake for many devotees. “The record stores were a meeting point for DJs,” says Ades. Copies of the latest mixes were both scarce and highly-prized. “If there was an import from America or Japan, there were sometimes only 100 copies.” Sounds like an expensive habit? “Yes, but you considered yourself lucky if the owner had put one to the side for you!” Ades says.
As well as a place to pick up rave bibles like Groove Magazine and Partysan, bricks-and-mortar record shops were treasure troves for DJs on the hunt for cutting-edge white labels for that night’s set. “Nobody could Shazam it, and most people would never hear that track again,” Ades notes. “With all the social media, it has become so different. People are going [to clubs] so they can show people Look where I am. It’s less about living in the moment.”
Access to sound-proofed space was also vital for producers, who relied on a complex MIDI set-up of analogue machines as opposed to a single laptop. “Drum machines played a crucial role in creating the rhythmic foundation of dance music in the 90s,” says Ades, while “synthesisers were used to create the melodic and harmonic elements of dance music.” Particularly crucial were samplers — a 90s DJ’s secret weapon — that enabled artists to add individual flair to their music. They “allowed producers to manipulate audio samples, which were often used to create unique sounds and textures in dance music,” says Ades. “Most popular were the Akai S1000 and E-mu SP-1200. I loved to use them.”
A veteran in the community, Ades runs his own label Be Crazy! and regularly headlines Ibiza destinations like Pacha, Heart, and Blue Marlin, as well as at his regular residencies at The Sunday at Scorpios Mykonos. Reaching the top of his industry’s totem pole has given him a bird’s eye view of electronic music’s waxes and wanes in the mainstream consciousness. “In the ‘90s, it was primarily associated with underground rave culture and was often seen as niche or alternative,” he says. “Today, electronic music is a dominant force in the music industry.” Ades puts the genre’s endurance down to its fluidity. “It has diversified, integrated with pop music, and embraced technological advancements, resulting in a global phenomenon that continues to evolve and shape the music landscape.”
Ades’ own evolution is powered by the same restless hunger for new sounds that first lit a fire in him back then. “A DJ set should take you on a journey,” he says, adding that his drive is to always foster a sense of discovery. If he surprises himself in the process, so much the better. “I’m very easily bored of music styles,” Ades says. “I’m always trying to get at something new.” ■