Beats From Brussels | An Interview With LeFtO
LeFtO is no newcomer, for he’ll be celebrating 15 years on Studio Brussels this year, but he’s one of the few true champions of eclectic global music. A longtime staple of Belgium’s radio culture running one of the most successful radio shows on Belgium’s foremost national station, over the years LeFtO has encapsulated what it is to be a true DJ.
From his early days of exposing underground music to larger audiences on Studio Brussels, he’s continued to evolve both his radio shows and DJ sets throughout the years. As one of the most diligent crate diggers around, the Brussels-based DJ is a tastemaker in the truest sense of the word; with an expansive knowledge of many forms of music, his enduring ability to seek out sounds from across the globe transpire seamlessly across his work, making his output educational, intriguing and consistently fresh.
Selectors that have the ability to truly boggle your mind are rare – any DJ can throw down a few unknown gems, but it takes a highly dedicated digger to stack their sets. Whether it’s on his show or when he’s behind the decks, each time LeFtO brings in a new record it dawns on you that you’ve never heard these tracks before.
He’s recognised as a DJ unrestricted by the boundaries of genre, offering listeners a detailed and intricate take on hip hop, jazz, house, funk, Brazilian, Afrobeat, and all else in between. With close ties to numerous record labels such as Stones Throw, !K7, Blue Note and Brownswood, LeFtO has deservedly earned the plaudits of numerous other revered tastemakers. Ahead of his upcoming gig at SuncéBeat in Croatia, we got the chance to catch up with LeFtO to talk Hip Hop, Gilles Peterson and some of his top picks right now.
What can you tell us about the clubs, labels, and releases that first inspired your interest in music?
Well, I got interested in music thanks to the movement that was built around the genre we called ‘new beat’ here in Belgium. It was a worldwide phenomenon apparently that put the country on the map for clubbing and influences. Some people involved back then are still active, think Renaat of the R&S label and many others… Acid was also part of that whole movement, and people would wear ‘acid’ badges and steal Volkswagen signs from the cars to put on their shoe laces…
It feels like you had a major, somewhat pioneering impact in championing the hip- hop movement in Belgium at the time you were working at Studio Brussels. When I say championing a movement, I mean in terms of the exposure you gave to the genre. At the time, did you appreciate the influence you were having with your show? Also, how important was your relationship with Krewcial to your show growing?
Well, we’re celebrating 15 years on Studio Brussels this year, and when I started with Krewcial in 1999, it was around the end of the golden era of hip hop. We exposed underground music to a much bigger audience and it paid off as I was able to pull off major hip hop events around that time. But the show throughout the years just evolved with the music, it’s not just a hip hop show anymore these days, it’s an all round music show with genres that influenced me and hip hop producers.
In terms of Hip Hop we were spoilt with a plethora of rich talent that naturally, however the genre has evolved we will always compare new music to the golden generation of hip-hop. Granted we have artists like Jay Electronica, Kendrick Lemar, Joey Badass, ASAP etc all doing great things, but there’s an inherently different feel in this era. I recall Erykah Badu made a comment a few years ago calling the state of R&B and Hip Hop music as “pop techno cornball a** music.” For someone who has a wealth of hip hop knowledge and having been exposed to the genre greatly throughout the years, what is your opinion of hip hop today?
It’s a difficult topic, I totally understand Erykah when she quotes r&b and hip hop that way, I sometimes think like that when I listen to some new and upcoming artists; coming from where we come from it doesn’t sound right. Hip hop today is so large it has created many subgenres, and usually subgenres get created because someone didn’t feel the hip hop that was made at a particular time so he created his own thing. It’s pure creativity and at some levels, hip hop is still the same as we knew it in the mid 90’s, but at another level, a commercial level, it can be pop techno cornball a** music yes. But there are exceptions, some might be exposed to the masses but still make conscious, soulful, meaningful music. You can’t put everyone in the same bag.
What can you tell us about your show nowadays? Do you have a set aim with the show or does it vary from week to week?
The show is very versatile these days, I might be in a jazzy mood and you’ll have to deal with a 60% jazz show, new stuff, old stuff. But in general I try to reach everyone with my weekly finds. It is essential to me to bring a lot of new and upcoming releases but it’s also important to give them the basics. The amount of upcoming material I play can’t be underestimated but still it does by most of the musical magazines. They usually wait until it gets aired in the UK to give it attention.
What can you tell us about the music scene in Belgium, does the music from Brus- sels tend to infiltrate throughout the rest of the country?
I am very happy with the music scene surrounding me in Brussels and Belgium in general; I share a lot of the music to friends overseas and it gets played on various shows, from Gilles to Benji, Jrocc, Kutmah and Gaslamp Killer. There is a boom of young talented producers out there who can easily compete with what’s happening in other countries, and their sound is original, which I find the most important. We don’t need copycats!
For someone who is classed as the ‘DJs DJ’ and for someone who’s seen as some- what of a gatekeeper of new, unheard music, I suppose it was only natural that you would eventually cross paths and align with like-minded selectors like Gilles Peterson. How did your relationship with Gilles come about and what’s it like to work with him?
Gilles saw me play a couple times and really wanted me to play the Worldwide Festival; That’s back in 2007, since then I’ve done many different things to help him build his network and Worldwide empire. The thing I like most with Gilles is his knowledge, I love to hear stories on jazz musicians, hear unheard gems from his crates, feel the drift and his energy, the kind of energy that pushes you to do better. But it’s not always about work, ah well, it is but we don’t see it as work, we share tons of music with each other, it helps both our shows, and what is more important than giving the audience the latest bits? We’re messengers.
Having been heavily involved as both a radio DJ and as a DJ who plays out, how do you feel radio and club culture has evolved over the years?
I feel we might be the last ones who are actually just radio dj’s and dj’s; it’s like it is a dying breed especially as I am on a major radio station (comparable to the BBC in the UK). Many producers became DJ’s out of necessity, thanks to software it’s not as hard anymore; I used to give workshops to form DJ’s but that’s not necessary anymore as there’s software programs who will sync tunes for you; I think that the clubs make big mistakes sometimes by booking producers for dj sets in their clubs; it’s a different approach and not everyone understands that, not everyone can read the crowd and what it needs at a particular time. I’ve always tried to book DJ’s for sets and producers for live sets, it’s honesty towards your following and them showing up at the gigs you organise.
The line-up at this years SunceBeat festival is, as always, full of top tier talent – the promoters really know and have a clear vision of what they’re looking with their parties. What are your past memories of playing at SUNceBeat like?
I’ve always been the one who doesn’t feel 100% confident at Suncebeat, just because I think out of the box where others would have no problem playing what they know works best at Suncebeat. I am the one who wants to bring in the unexpected, not to shock but just because that’s exactly who I am. I never compromise. I really loved playing with Kev, Rich and Karizma on the boat; It was a new experience for me, and the energy was strong on the boat, so strong Rich burst into tears. Suncebeat has amazing crowd, dedicated.
What new talent is exciting you at the moment? Do you have any tips on artists you feel worthy of recognition?
I have been a big fan of the Tartelet records label with artists like Glenn Astro and Max Graef; they bring house the way I love it, with a touch of hip hop rawness and the sound of the rhodes. Definitely worth checking them out. Another label I really feel is 22a with Henry Wu, Tenderlonious and Jean Bassa as well as Reginald Omas Mamode IVth. From London, they’re amazing as well.
Can you shed some light on some of your current favourite records? What’s going down well when you’re playing out at the moment?
A record that works really well these days is a brand new release from The Maghreban on Versatile records, Romare works, he has many fans, and some of the Flako record is doing the job as well.
You travel around a lot which must really add to the fun of collecting, what are some of your standout stores from your travels? Would you ever consider opening your own shop?
Oh well, there’s a few places I categorize as dangerous; one is definitely Disk Union in Tokyo, it’s the worst place to go if you have a certain amount of money in your pocket and you don’t want to use the credit card. Another place is Cosmos Records in Toronto, owned by Aki, a cool guy from Japan who knows what I like and always finds that rare piece for me. I loose my entire dj fees in those record stores, it’s a shame… Opening a record store would be nice if I could mix it with a coffee shop or a barber shop but it demands day and night dedication and that I don’t have right now.
What’s next for you, what have you coming up and what are you looking forward to?
Next are the festivals around the planet in the summer, with gigs in Europe and USA in July and August. I have a triple compilation coming out via Universal France, focussing on the not so obvious hip hop classics between 1980’s and 2010. And there’s a compilation mixed with LA deejay and producer J.Rocc coming soon as well. Stay tuned for more.