With a new EP just released on Rebellion, we catch up with this NYC veteran and learn that he's FINALLY making an album
Joeski is a DJ and producer who should need no introduction to any house music lover worth their salt. He's been a stalwart of the New York house scene since the late 80s, DJing at now almost mythical clubs like The Limelight, The Tunnel, NASA and, most notably, Save The Robots, one of several NYC nightspots that Michael Alig and the rest of the notorious Club Kids made their own in the early 90s.
DJing since the late 80s and producing since 1991, over the years he's chalked up an almost endless string of singles and EPs on some of the most respected labels in the house game, from Siesta, Tango Recordings and Shaboom to, more recently, Suara, Defected, Crosstown Rebels and Poker Flat. That's as well, of course, as the many releases on his own Maya Recordings label, which he's been running since 2001.
But it hasn't always been an easy ride. Indeed, as he explains below, he actually took a step back (or at least half a step back) from the music industry in the late 00s, before returning with a vengeance in the past few years.
His latest release is Let The Drum Speak!, a three-track EP featuring his other half and regular collaborator Rachel on vocals that dropped last week on Crosstown Rebels sub-label. But the real news is that, when iDJ phoned him up at his studio, we found him hard at work on his debut artist album – a long-player that's been a full three decades coming!
For full details, read on...
I was just looking back at your discography, and a few things jumped out at me… perhaps the most suprising being that, in all these years, there's never been an album!
"Yeah, I never released any albums, I've basically just always done singles."
Was that a conscious decision you made at some point, or…?
"You know what it is? I did a compilation for NRK back in the day, but It's funny you should mention that because I'm in the process of doing that now! I am going to release my first album and I'm working on it now.
"But it was never a conscious decision, things just turned out that way. My work rate was so crazy, I was releasing at least two singles a month but I just kind of kept it like that and I never put an album together. But better late than never!"
So is that early days still, or do you have a release date in mind?
"Nah, it's still in its very early stages. Basically the whole concept of the album is to record different songs on the road in different countries. So I've been working with different local musicians in the Dominican Republic and did a song that's gonna be on the album, I did another one in Spain, so I'm just working in different places with local musicians."
So it'll be almost like a travelogue?
"Yeah, pretty much, kinda like that and just with different sounds, you know what I mean? Like for example, the track I did in the Dominican Republic, that's obviously more Latin-influenced. So it's a spectrum of different music, that's the whole concept of the album."
And that's kind of the concept of Joeski, too, isn't it? Because you've spanned a huge range of house styles over the years…
"Yeah, that's kind of always been my thing. Even with my record label, Maya Recordings, I can't stick to one style. Just doing straight-up house I get bored, so I'll get the urge to do some harder stuff, or some Latin stuff, or some deeper stuff. I like to do different things within the genre."
Does that happen on a day-by-day basis while you're working, or is it more that you tend to get into this sound or that sound for a while?
"It's a bit of both. I like a lot of different types of music and I listen to a lot of different music for inspiration, be it jazz, salsa or whatever, you know? So for example, I'll get an idea to sample some jazz and that'll turn into something. But I like being like that, because I think it keeps it fresh. You never know what you're going to get, because if I just made a techno record, my next record could be a vocal house record."
What about when you're making any given track: do you start out thinking "I'm gonna make a Latin track today" or is it more just, you start with a drum beat and see where you end up?
"Yeah, exactly that. What used to happen was, I'd have this cool idea for a Latin track and it'd end up as a techno track anyway! So these days I really just go with the flow and see what comes out, without trying to force it in any particular direction. That's how I end up with a lot of what we call 'happy accidents'!"
Has being so stylistically diverse hindered your career in any way, do you think?
"It's funny you mention that, because I have spoken to other people and they were like, 'Don't you think it'd be better if you stuck to one particular sound?'. But I'm like, it works for me – I'm still here, y'know?! It's just a different approach, I guess."
And what you haven't done, to be fair, is jump from one style to another depending on what's hip and trendy that year…
[laughs] "No. I mean, I get that, because I believe in being creative but you do have to move with the times a bit, too – you can't get stuck on one particular thing if no one's feeling that any more. But because I do a lot of different styles anyway, there's never been much risk of that."
So will it be more of the same on the album, then?
"Yeah, it'll be a little bit of everything. There'll even be some downtempo stuff on there, just to show my range of production."
Another thing that jumped out from your discography was that, for a New York producer, a hell of a lot of your music has come out on west coast labels like Tango and Siesta. How did that come about?
"Well, back in the early 90s, the scene had got very segregated. The techno room and the house room were miles apart – not like it was at the start, back in the 80s, and not like it is today. And that was true of the east/west coast thing, too. So I originally released on some west coast labels, because I was friends with people like Hipp-E & Halo from the rave scene, and then from that I kind of got labelled a 'west coast' artist. Which to this day some people still think I am!"
Were you ever tempted to move out there, to capitalise on that?
"Nah, not really, I like it here in New York! I mean I love it out there too, and back in those days I'd be out there every other week, but I started out at raves in New York and New York's my home, simple as that.
"But the scene out on the west coast is still great and I still play out there a lot… especially in Los Angeles. It always used to be that my gigs were mostly in San Francisco but the scene in LA has really picked up, it's rocking… to proper house music, I mean, not EDM. And of course, you've got all the festivals now."
Yes, but festivals are a bit of a double-edged sword, aren't they? Because, here in the UK at least, the rise of festivals has really hurt the club scene…
"Yeah, that's the same here, it's hurt the clubs for sure. But don't get me wrong, I love playing outdoors – it's a different vibe, a happier vibe. But you can have outdoor club venues too, like Mirage in Brooklyn – that's amazing."
I read in an old interview that you took a break from the industry in the late 00s/early 2010s… what happened there?
"I'd started a bunch of labels with my friend Chris, who runs Syntax Distribution here in NYC, and we were killing it in the late 90s/early 00s, but then everything changed: a new generation of kids came in, everything went digital, EDM came in and suddenly we weren't selling records any more. So I had to figure something out, and what I did was I invested in a bar in Manhattan.
"I was still making music, I'll do that till the day I die, but I had to make a living and pay the mortgage, y'know? And I did that through the whole EDM thing."
Ah, that makes sense! I knew you hadn't stopped completely because I knew I'd reviewed plenty of Joeski records during those years…
"No, I was still making music, and in fact my biggest-selling release digitally was in 2008. But I had the bar as well, until things started changing again. I could see a lot of the EDM guys were getting away from that and moving towards techno, and at the same time the lease for the bar was up for renewal, which would've meant committing myself for another 10 years. So around 2013, it seemed like the right time to go hard on the music again."
…including one that sampled The Ramones, which I think was a first!
"Ha ha, yeah. I love rock, man… especially classic rock. I love Zeppelin, I love the Stones, and I've always made a lot of edits to play in my sets – although, let's be honest, they're not really edits, they're bootlegs! But yeah, at that time I was making a lot of those kinds of edits to play in my sets, sampling some of those rock and punk records I grew up with, and that one just ended up getting released."
Coming back to EDM… you've mentioned the negative impact it had on the house and techno scene but in the longer term, has it had a beneficial effect as well, in terms of introducing a new generation to the music?
"100 per cent. This is the thing: I don't necessarily hate on EDM just because it's something I wouldn't play. Because as you said, it introduced a lot of kids to electronic music: kids who might otherwise have been listening to hip-hop or pop radio got into electronic music through EDM.
"The only thing I really didn't like about it was the way it changed New York nightlife… before EDM we had these amazing clubs with amazing soundsystems, then when EDM came along it seemed club owners were like, that's done with now, it's all about making money, let's have bottle service and VIP booths, and what we sacrificed were the soundsystems. In some of the venues in that period there were hardly even dancefloors, it was all bottle tables!
"It tied in with that whole thing of Rudy Giuliani and cabaret licences and trying to crack down on club culture generally. But then Output came along, and thank God for Output because they said, 'We're gonna make a club the way New York clubs always were'. And boom! that set it off again, and right now New York nightlife is amazing."
Although – looking across from this side of the pond – a lot of the scene seems to have moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn…
"Yeah, that's changed, because I was born in Brooklyn and back then it was like, if you were out in the boroughs you were nowhere! All the clubs were cheesy and commercial and if you wanted to go out anywhere good, you had to go to Manhattan. So it's funny how that's shifted: now the boroughs are the place to be and no one goes to Manhattan any more! All the best clubs and venues are in Brooklyn now."
We had a similar thing in the UK, in London: the scene moved pretty much wholesale to East London, and it revitalised things because the venues were that much more accessible. It gave young promoters more scope to try radical new things…
"Yeah, same thing! The city got so expensive it pushed all the artists out to the boroughs. But of course now the boroughs are getting expensive, too…"
Coming to the new EP, tell us about the three tracks on there…
"Well, the first one is a vocal track I did with my girlfriend Rachel, she's an amazing writer and I love the spoken word, so that was the whole concept of that. The way we do it is, she comes into the studio while I'm working and sits down with a pad and jots down some ideas based on the vibe of what I'm doing, then we put it together.
"The other two are kind of deeper and techier, but that one's very tribal and drummy with live percussion. And then I guess Expressions In Dub is the dubbiest and As We Dance has a bit more of a big-room feel, but they're really all kind of variations on where my head was at the time."
You've done quite a few bits with Crosstown Rebels/Rebellion now, haven't you? And quite a few with Poker Flat in recent years, too. In fact, your discography reads like a Who's Who of house labels over the years… do you deliberately shop tracks to the 'hottest' labels at any given point?
"Well, I'll target labels I'm feeling at a particular time, for sure! I've never been a producer who'll make a record and send it to 10 different labels – generally I'll make a record and then send it to a label I'm liking a lot at the time."
Okay, now the big question. You've been doing this for 30 years… as you said, there were times it didn't pay the bills and you had to get a proper job. I've been doing this for 25 years, and it certainly doesn't pay the bills! So: I know why I do it – house music is the closest thing I have to a religion, because it's a positive force that brings people together regardless of age, colour, sexuality or whatever – but what's your excuse?
"Oh, the same, 100 per cent! That's why, when it wasn't paying, I still kept doing it. Like you said, house music brings people of all different kinds into one room, and makes them happy… I mean, how often do you hear of a big fight or a stabbing at a house party, compared to a hip-hop night? Practically never!
"Honestly, I feel so blessed to be able to do this… to still be able to do this. It's been a long ride with a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day I'm still here doing it and I really feel blessed. Because I've lived this… and I still live it. I go to bed and I'm composing drum loops in my head… I can't even sit and watch a movie with my girlfriend because I'm Shazaming a song from the soundtrack!"
Anything else you want to say before we finish?
"Not really… just what I said before, that I really feel blessed and happy right now, to still be doing this, after all the myriad changes we've been through. I mean, we really went through the wringer in our industry… I was up here, then I was down there, and that's a serious blow to the ego! To work so hard at something, feel like you've made it and then everything changes and you have to start all over again… that's really hard. So I feel blessed to have come through that. I'm still just doing what I was always doing, but now it seems to be getting some recognition again, which is fantastic."
Words: Russell Deeks
Let The Drum Speak! ft Rachel is out now on Rebellion