Chances are you’ve heard this track before. It’s a track instantly recognisable for its quirky bass-line hook, House form, and collage-like cut-n-paste sampling technique that blurs the boundaries between genres. It was the best selling House record of 2016; has received several represses and has seen its fair share of play time at Jæger over the last year. It’s called Wonky Bassline Disco Banger and you’ve definitely heard it before, but its creator Red Rack’em (aka Hot Coins), real name Danny Berman is a name that might have eluded most, a name that has enjoyed the shadowy limelight of the underground for an extensive career with a fair few seminal moments for the informed music fan.
Wonky Bassline Disco Banger might have moved said artist more into a new echelon of notoriety with media outlets like Thump professing “it took Berman a quarter of a century to make it big”, but Red Rack’em is certainly not a one hit wonder with a discography that spans three albums, thirty five singles, and twenty remixes (as Red Rack’em and Hot Coins) since 2008. How does Danny feel about a track like Wonky Bassline Disco Banger? “I’m really glad it blew up as it’s given me the chance to present the music I love to a much wider audience” says the Uk DJ and producer in a glitching staccato as the digital stream buffers, his friendly bearded face frozen temporarily on the computer screen. It might have been the track that introduced the established talent to a larger audience, but for Danny it “was just me doing what I have always been doing really”. More than that it was just the latest addition to an extensive career, which in Danny’s opinion had already had some “minor hits”. How I Program”, “In Love Again” and “Kalimba” on Dixon’s Philomena label – a track that the Innervisions supremo played everywhere on cdr for a year before before even realising who had made it – had already cemented Red Rack’em as a tour de force on the dance floor for the music head. The success of Wonky Bassline Disco Banger might have catapulted the artist to the next level, a level that Danny believes “involves doing a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with music”, and it is only as relevant as the broader context of Red Rack’em and Hot Coins in a career extending back to the 90’s.
Growing up in a “Scottish fishing village 50 miles from civilisation” Danny’s start in music strikes a familiar tone. Skateboarding was an entry way into Hip-Hop and Indie punk rock, through artists like “A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Bad Religion and Dinosaur Jr” where an interest in music and production blossomed. With Danny it matured at an earlier age than most when he was eighteen and his high school band ‘The Wizards’ made their first record for a prominent label. The track found its way onto the Stereo MC’s Natural Response imprint, a label that might have been little more than a “tax write off”, but gave Danny his first “great taste” of a career in music and working with professionals like Joseph Malik from Blackenized and (many years later) Compost records. It laid the foundation for a career in music that went from Hip Hop and Funk to Nu Disco and House, with an eclectic musical taste listing between genres.
In that regard, Danny is undeniably a child of the nineties and like period contemporaries his musical tastes would be invariably informed by those close to him. “It’s always the case when you are young, you have a friend or family member introduce you to new things”, he explains. His older sister was an introduction to Acid House when he was 14, giving him his first experience of a dance floor at a house party replete with “beautiful, half naked girls and Scottish football hooligan men with a lot of stuff to help them have a good time”. Later through a friend in Bath, Acid House and Hip Hop would lead to an affection for Jungle/Drum and Bass and a sound he refers to “Ecstasy Tears” with a wry chuckle –“not uplifting House and not raw Techno, but something in the middle, emotion for hard people”.
Before Danny even got a set of decks and a studio, music has always been broad and vast experience, but releasing music was not always a priority, Danny preferring the versatility of a set of decks, after that tentative start early on. “In the early days the priority was just to get 400 quid a week (to) blow on partying and records” says Danny. Later in the mid 2000’s productions for the dance floor started again much in the same way as it did for a lot of DIY artists back then with Danny releasing “a series of successful Hip Hop bootlegs called Smuggler’s Inn”. Not quite confident yet to release his own music, the bootlegs used acapellas to probe audiences about the appeal of future releases by standing on the shoulders of giants. “It was kind of a way to test productions” but by bridging a gap between the unknown and the familiar. By taking an unknown track and adding something like “Q-tip rapping on it” people were more likely to “accept it”. Danny’s confidence surged as a result, and it wouldn’t be all that long until he was playing his own tracks out more frequently, even if it was just for the punters at his local record store in Nottingham at that time. Saturday mornings would see the DJ and producer take newly made exclusive tracks down to the record store and play it to the customers on the floor through the store’s system… with some mixed results. “Sometimes it was only on for five seconds before the guy in the shop started shaking his head”, remembers Danny, but there were also other times when it clearly gave an indication of what was to come for Danny, “One day this guy was like ‘can I buy that track’” and that track ended up being “Jazz Ending”, which would find its way onto Tirk records as the second Red Rack’em presents Hot Coins release. “It got to point where I had to take the plunge because the quality of my music was definitely good enough”, says Danny and that led to his first brush with fame in 2008 with his Hot Coins remix of the Joubert singers “Stand on the Word” originally done on spec for Tirk with no plans for an official release. It was a track that brought him to the attention of Gilles Peterson (amongst others), who played it on BBC Radio 1 often. “I was everywhere with that track”, adds Danny, even sharing the stage and the spotlight with a young Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) when Peterson invited the pair to his worldwide awards event as his up and coming talent for 2009. “Sam obviously went on to be mega famous, and I’m still working on that” says Danny with a knowing smile.
Stand On The Word was an early indicator of Danny’s collage House sound, a sound that uses sampling techniques passed down from Hip Hop, with a distinctive squelching bass sound which has become something of a Red Rack’em trademark. For Danny it’s all about improvisation in his music, and “people like Isolée, Herbert and Theo Parrish” are notable sources of early inspiration in music where “atmosphere is very important” and the idea of found sounds and sampling form the basis from which he builds his tracks. Today Danny believes he’s pulled back from the melodic approach of his early work, mostly found on his debut album “The Early Years”, absconding from the midi keyboard completely. The sampler has become central to his work with his early Hip Hop references and influences coming to the fore yet again. His latest album, “Self Portrait” is exactly that, Red Rack’em “expressing (a) funky side” and is a direct nod to the influence of Hip Hop on Danny’s music. Featuring some “mad samples, things off youtube you wont believe”, the album creates the most abstract pieces from the most obscure places, like a “college metal band” on a “House track”. Self Portrait is also a self-referential personal work for the artist as the title intones, “an album that wasn’t pressured to meet dance floor banger needs” but rather allowed Danny to explore all these different elements that make up his artistic identity. As such it finds itself of Danny’s Bergerac label, as music he doesn’t “trust other labels to release” and while it might feature Wonky Bassline Disco banger, the attitude to the entire album was quite different. “I wanted to make dance floor tracks that are more musical” explains Danny and not just a bunch of DJ singles which often gets to be a “quite mundane” experience for the artist. He won’t take anything away from the lead single however, which for Danny “exists because of a magical moment” in the studio and has its own merits exactly for those reasons. “Making music to stop rampant paranoia” at the end of a 72 Hour party session, Danny made that track without any preconceived notion of what it might become and it was exactly successful because he “didn’t try to make a successful record” suggests Danny. In the larger context of the album and the discography Danny boasts today, it’s no more significant than the the DJ sets, the 10 years of cult radio, running several labels and all the other tracks he’s produced.
There’s so much more that informs Red Rack’em than a single track and as point of reference of how diversified the artist is, Danny turns to the analogy of a DJ set… where else: “I can play a Techno set, a broken beat set, I have a good jazz selection and I have a broad musical taste.” This is the result of those diverse formative years, going from Hip Hop to House and Drum & Bass and is probably also informed by the UK urban music scene in general. “It’s the influence Jamaican people and reggae sound system culture” remarks Danny, “the communities that mixed and got together” to create this awesome and extensive thing we call UK bass culture. “The thing that I loved about all that bass stuff, be it grime, drum and bass or jungle is the drama and the emotion in the music”, explains Danny. I’m glad to hear these things still make it into a Red Rack’em set with a “no-holds-barred” approach where “Sylvester’s Body Strong” can live right next to the “Ragga Twins”. Danny feels more “emancipated today” in the booth than ever and prefers to hear the “three percent that’s really good in every genre, than the other ninety seven percent which is just filler.”
Danny very much lives in the moment as a DJ too, suggesting he improvises when in the booth much like he does when creating music and when I ask him what that he means he says: “When I DJ I never plan anything and play the tracks in whatever order.” When he packs his bag he realises “a choice has already been made, and obviously that music is hopefully good”, but it’s in the booth that he “really gets a chance to test things out” with little or no preparation and it’s here where audience feedback is vital. “Playing in a club when the audience is in tune with you, they’ll dance to anything” suggests Danny. “That could work in a good way and a bad way.” In some ways Danny prefers radio in this regard, something he did for ten years with his much-loved Smuggler’s Inn Radio show (which he’s recently stopped to concentrate on ‘less frequent radio spots’). “Radio is more of static environment, more of a test” proposes Danny. “Radio is more music based, and the club is about the power of the sound system, the power of the intoxicants”. It’s there he often tests out new Red Rack’em and Hot coins tracks, relying on that audience feedback yet again as a vital component to his work. “When I do radio shows and when people are asking what a track is that’s obviously a good sign” he muses. Like the guy in the record store that asked after “Jazz Ending”, the five represses “Wonky Bassline Disco Banger” required; or the Radio 1 playtime his Joubert Singers remix received, Danny’s music is certainly informed through the reception stage, but it’s not merely defined by it’s bolder successes. There are certainly these very distinct moments like Wonky Bassline Disco Banger where the Red Rack’em or Hot Coins sound found a large audience, but these moments are isolated “magic moments” as Danny says, and he never considers repeating them, preferring the continuity and the “creative integrity” he enjoys as an artist and a DJ working within the underground. Where those seminal moments exist we only find the tip of the artistic iceberg that lies below the surface, a surface we’ve only just begun to scratch through the 30 odd minutes we had with the artist, but look forward to exploring further when he takes to the booth this Thursday for Retro.