Live: Rotterdam Beats

November 27, 2012

Last week I flew to Holland for the Rotterdam Beats conference and music festival, a three-day showcase of “urban bass and beats” sponsored by Buma/Stemra, an organization of Dutch music authors and publishers (think ASCAP, with weed). Six nightclubs around Rotterdam—a port city about the size of Brooklyn, with a quarter the population—hosted shows, headlined by the likes of 2 Chainz, Hudson Mohawke and the Dutch rapper Hef. During the day, a small theater down the street from officially-sanctioned graffiti quoting Muse lyrics housed industry lectures, pep talks for producers and product demos.

I sat on a panel of journalists called “A New Age for Music and Media,” but our talk wasn’t as rewarding as just wandering the city (and its by-the-train neighbors of Amsterdam, Delft and Munich, in Germany). In Rotterdam, I had dinner at Bird, a bar and club whose young owner’s parents had met there when it was one of the city’s only jazz spots; after the venue closed and fell into disarray, the couple’s son bought and reopened it. I saw a sex shop called Fetish with a copy of 50 Shades of Grey in the window, the book’s cover draped with a riding crop. In Amsterdam my train car was overtaken by a drunken band of singing, stomping soccer fans. In Munich, after skipping a night of sleep, I spent a day looking at ‘60s and ‘70s land art in the Haus Der Kunst, a colossal museum built by the Third Reich to house propagandistic art that was overtaken by American forces during WWII and refitted with mess halls and basketball courts, then reopened as an international art museum. (My favorite piece: Charles Simmonds' "Dwellings" [1974], a video of the artist making teeny miniature architectural ruins inside the cracks in the walls and rubble of bombed-out New York buildings.) The trip was good for beats but it was good for me, too.

Photos by Aico Lind

The night 2 Chainz performed at Corso, a big venue comparable to Terminal 5 in New York, Joey Bada$$ played in Mini Mall, a venue one-third the size, next to Bird. It was probably the festival’s most illuminating split—two seemingly very different sides of the contemporary hip-hop coin. To a full but not packed crowd, 2 Chainz wore a single diamond-encrusted Michael Jackson glove, and when he stopped rapping mid-verse, a significant portion of the audience shouted to fill in the lyrical blanks. Joey Bada$$ fans crammed his venue, and despite his backpack-ish beats, his jumping, shouting delivery wasn’t a far cry from 2 Chainz. (And its not like a lady gone be a lady and a ho gone be a ho is really more progressive than 2 Chainz's fantastic rich-man grumpiness.) For Joey’s last song, he and his two background guys even rapped over 2 Chainz’s “Birthday Song.” A Dutch bartender I met at the panel, who also attended both shows, said, "Leaving Corso I was so sad, it was like being stabbed in the heart. And those other guys [Joey Bada$$] were just copycats."

So neither of them was my favorite. And while I’d imagined a trip to a Dutch country opening up some future techno I’d never heard, most of it sounded like the same style of American trap music you’d find at Mad Decent Block Party. That is, besides one event, showcasing a long-outdated style of Dutch hardcore. It all came down to gabber. As a native of the city explained it, working-class Rotterdam DJs of the early ’90s, fed up with soft-edged house from Amsterdam, took to pitching up Detroit techno to breakneck tempos and overlaying violently distorted kick drums and some unlikely vocal samples, from Hitler to Jim Morrison. The scene was widely believed to be neo-fascist. We got to Worm—a promising name for a venue—around 3AM, when DJ Rob was onstage. An MC shouted overtop: One! Two! One! Two! There were 30 or 40 people there, and everyone was doing the dance. The amused Europeans I was with kept saying how weird it was to see such a clean-cut gabber audience (and they were by and large the most averagely dressed crowd I saw, with any skinheads long reformed). A couple guys wore long mullets with cut-off sleeves, and there was only one track suit. When the video playing behind DJ Rob ended, someone took over the screen and scrolled through Windows 98 for stuff to play—a lot of looking through image folders full of mug shots/passport photos, sometimes just a blue Windows background, a YouTube video called “Big Americans #FUNTRIP” and for one 15-minute span, a GIF loaded in Firefox of a dancing cat. Finally, something as truly weird as I’d hoped.

Live: Rotterdam Beats