Umek Talks Eastern Bloc EDM and Party for a Cause Music Festival
The breadth of DJ-producer Uros Umek's achievements during the course of his two-decade career simply cannot be overstated. Not only did he help kick-start the local electronic dance music scene in his native Slovenia after the fall of the Iron Curtain but he went on to conquer the global techno scene as one of its biggest stars. He's a permanent fixture on DJ Mag's prestigious Top 100 DJs poll and even made the 2011 Beatport Staff Pick Artist of the Year.
But Umek is also a candidate for most humanitarian DJ in the world, having founded the annual Party for a Cause music festival in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, an event that draws as many as 30,000 festivalgoers each year, raising funds and support for both local and international charity organizations.
Ahead of a headlining performance for Kontrol Thursdays at Mansion this week, Crossfade caught up with the man himself to chat about Eastern Bloc EDM, Party for a Cause, and the life of a globetrotting DJ superstar.
Crossfade: Electronic dance music must have been very rare when you were growing up in Slovenia during the post-Soviet years. When did you first encounter this type of music? Where did you first start hearing it, and how did you go about finding records when you first began DJing in the early '90s?
Umek: Well, for me it was the post-Yugoslavian years -- not totally the same thing, but still behind the Iron Curtain with the full-on socialism experience. I've always had an ear for electronic music. I grew up in the '80s, and I remember listening to the then-popular singers and bands such as Falco, Human League, Modern Talking, and local acts like Denis & Denis or Videosex, who were using a lot of electronic elements in their mainstream productions. And then, in the early '90s, the borders fell down and the whole generation suddenly became exposed to so many new sounds. It was just the right time when I discovered this new electronic music coming mostly from the Germany at the time.
At that time, it was really hard for me to be in touch with electronic music, as the scene in Slovenia was literally non-existing till the beginning of the '90s, when I discovered the Cool Night show hosted by Aldo Ivancic, MC Brane and Primoz Pecovnik on Radio Student. They played all kinds of electronic music, from trance to rave, techno, EBM, some really dark stuff. And they were also hosting a resident night in the student union-ran Club K4. I became a regular, and I there got in touch with artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, now producing nu-disco under the moniker Sare Havlicek) who invited me to his studio and showed me how this music is done. Soon after that, I started doing my first steps as a producer, and so it began.
What was the electronic dance music scene in Ljubljana when you first started DJing and organizing parties? Did you encounter any challenges or resistance from the authorities when you were throwing these first parties?
As I've already said, we had no media and party infrastructure for that kind of music. We'd had to travel 500 kilometers away to Munich or Vienna by old smelly shopping buses without air condition to buy a couple of vinyls each time, and it was hard to even get any information about who is who on the scene, what's happening and which tracks were the hottest. So we'd had to build our local scene from scratch, and with a lot of improvisation, as we didn't have a clue about how to produce music, organize events or anything else, in fact. We just played it by the feel and learned everything on the go.
This was already a post-communist era. Slovenia declared independence in the early summer of 1991, and our transition was quite soft. We adopted a new political system fast and without rough cuts. People who used to work in the police or in public administration remained in their positions, they only had to adapt to the new set of rules, system of human rights, and limitations of their powers.
But adapting to that did take some time. So it's not a surprise it was almost impossible to get the permission to organize these kind of all-night events in the early years of our democracy. We could do something till 2 a.m., and they were more open to allow these kinds of events around New Year and some other festive occasions, when people were more tolerant to noise and partying. At that time, it was still the police who was approving all the paper work, not the ministry of internal affairs or a local community, as it is usual in democratic states. So we were careful to obey the rules.
Nowadays, we are part of the E.U., and the rules and standards for organizing these kinds of events are more or less the same as everywhere in the E.U., which is not that different to the situation in the States. And the government is quite tolerant to the scene. They only show power when something goes wrong, because of the media hype, but that luckily only happens once in couple of years.