Let’s start with a confession: I didn’t always love Djax-Up-Beats, and even now there are more than a few of the records carrying their logo which simply make me want to turn the record player off and go do something else with my spare time. This isn’t actually that unusual a situation for me – there are tonnes of labels, then and now, I would cross the street to avoid. But what makes Djax different, the reason they are stuck there in my brain even after all these long years, is that when they were on form there simply wasn’t another European label that could touch them.
The original Djax label was formed in 1989 by an Eindhoven record store employee, Saskia Slegers AKA Miss Djax, in an attempt to champion the producers she knew who she felt were being unfairly overlooked by an overly conservative record industry which had no interest in anything but the bottom line. True to her uncompromising vision, the first release was an album, No Enemies, by an underground rap act, 24K.
While Djax would go on to support the Dutch Nederhop scene, it’s the house and techno that made them famous. Djax-Up-Beats was really a sub label to start with, but quickly came to eclipse the parent to the extent that for most people it’s a difference that simply didn’t matter. Those early records, releases largely by local Dutch acts such as Terrace (who would become a label staple), or Boards Of Wisdom, were thick with a sound that was a European distillation of acid house and rave. But even then there were leanings, nascent influences, towards the music filtering through from Chicago and Detroit in increasing amounts.
In the early 90’s Miss Djax spent time in the States, visiting some of the legendary clubs and meeting many of the producers who would grace the label during its most fertile period. There were plenty of labels in Europe which had taken the US sounds to heart and furthered the links between the artists of the two big cities and a scene which took it all onboard. But where outfits like Tresor, for instance, really pushed a far more purist techno sound, Djax brought something new, something that felt like a hybrid of Chicago’s fluid acid and a much, much harder vibe. Several of these early crossovers were licenses of fairly well-known tracks, often remixed by Dutch stalwarts like Speedy J or Terrace, who warped them to their own tastes, altering the basic structures until they gained a surliness that the originals seldom had. In their own way, many of these records pre-empted what Chicago labels such as Relief would later do: Stripped down, machine rhythms; often light on the tunefulness but heavy on the grooves. Beyond the music, the artwork by Detroit illustrator and musician Alan Oldham (best known for his work as DJ T-1000) provided an instantly recognizable visual style with the producers re-imagined as fantastic sci-fi comic book heroes.
The mid nineties, with the US contingent well onboard, and the lessons and information flowing between the Netherlands and the States, was when Djax-Up-Beats moved into a diferent gear. For a period of about five years, there was barely a label on the planet that could touch them for the both the quantity or quality of their releases, and when I say quantity I mean it. For almost that entire period it felt like there was a new record hitting the shelves almost every week, and more often than not they featured the cream of the Detroit and Chicago talent – well, largely Chicago in fact. Claude Young, Robert Armani, DJ Skull, Armando, Steve Poindexter, Mike Dearborn, Mike Dunn, Felix Da Housecat – their release schedule still reads like a who’s who of the electronic underground. What’s more, Djax-Up-Beats came to define what I thought of as Chicago house for a long time to come. Even today I still favour the meaner and dirtier end of the spectrum.
It wasn’t just the American acts who gave their all to Djax though, or the Dutch producers who contributed so much over the years to the label’s sound and soul. Luke Slater’s Clementine project (still his finest work) found a natural home on Djax-Up_Beats, with something in his melding of furious rhythms and ear for a fine Detroit-esque funk sharing a real affinity for what the label was doing. The earliest work of Scottish producer Stephen Brown – who would go on to release some stunners on DJ Bone’s Subject: Detroit – was to be found on Djax, and remain impossibly potent, particularity his very first release, A Function Of Aberration.
Everything changes, though. As the years passed the grooves seemed to disappear from the records and they grew ever heavier, favouring a brutal acid techno style in which the BPM increasingly shot upwards, and left little room for anything but crunching, distorted beats and howling 303s. The more recent records inched into sub-gabber territory that felt alien to anything from the label’s glory period.
The label is still going, although the releases have become far more occasional that they once did. That’s not saying much, mind you. the output of LIES or Lobster Theremin seems occasional compared to Djax in their prime. Brilliantly though, and one more reason to love them if you needed one, is that they remain one of the biggest labels of their era to have got down with digital. You can certainly spend all you cash on Discogs hunting down playable copies of stuff by Acid Junkies or DJ Rush, but almost every release that mattered is available digitally. I could never afford to keep up with the label back then, I would still be paying the debts off even now, but if you have a few hours to spare, go see what’s there and treat yourself to music from a label who really did change our world.