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Surkin Talks 'Ghetto Music', Rap, Daft Punk (and Streams New EP!)

Listen to the deluxe edition of his new record with the Club Cheval crew.
October 23, 2013, 7:30pm

Photos by Caesar Sebastian



Surkin is a guy who can't sit still. While he may look like a teenager, you may know that he's been releasing big tunes since 2006, with tracks that exemplified the indie-dance-electro-house thing that grew up around Ed Banger and their bloggy French cohorts. He's still holding onto those crunchy synths and nods to the 1980s, but has added sleeker elements, new rhythms, and broader reference points. The 28-year-old, whose name comes from his pre-teen days tagging mailboxes, grew up with rap and then moved onto urban dance styles like ghetto house and Baltimore club. But these days he'll take from even more genres—whether it be Chicago house, ballroom, or trap—and mold them into his own model of what the future of dance music should hold for us. The Paris-based artist keeps moving forward alongside like-minded producers under the Marble Records banner. Get to know the man:

THUMP: Your last EP featured a lot of "Ha" crashes, and you made a track called "Paris Is Burning" in 2011. What's your connection to the ballroom/vogue scene?
Surkin: I got into club music through ghetto music because I grew up with rap music. My first connection to dance music was ghettotech and Chicago ghetto house. I was listening to that before I listened to French house music. I actually ran a web site called Ucreatures dedicated to ghetto club music like Baltimore club in 2005. It's been dead for like five years now. I remember one of the first things that made Diplo famous was Hollertronix, and I started to make club music after that. So I'm always trying to find new subgenres, and recently it's been ballroom and Jersey. So even if I'm not really doing ballroom and I'm not a ballroom dancer, I'm still influenced by these subgenres.

Some people say you shouldn't make ballroom if you're not gay. How do you feel about that?
I kind of understand that. But like, house music was started by gay people, so you can't make house if you're not gay? I don't think it really matters. I'm not trying to get into the ballroom scene. And it's not really ballroom music. It's just the same way as how the early ballroom tracks were influenced by Masters At Work. I don't think they were gay. That's actually where the "Ha" sample comes from. I was always interested in different genres. I think it's totally stupid. It's just music in the end. I'd think a lot of those guys would be happy to know that people in France are influenced by them.

Is there a ballroom scene in Paris?
Not really. There are a few ballroom dancers but it's not a huge scene.

Have you ever been to a ballroom party?
No, never.

France seems to have long embraced urban dance sounds from America. Can you talk about its place in French culture?
France has always been transit territory for club music, and I think people are curious about what's happening outside. For instance, French house is really based on Chicago house and things like DJ Sneak. It's not just ghetto music. A lot of people here are listening to rap music at the same time as house and mixing them in their sets. So it's not explicitly ghetto music. There's no real boundaries. It's not like, say, Berlin, where they have their own scene and listen to things they play at, say, Berghain. But there are a lot of guys playing ghetto music here like the people from Cleck Cleck Boom.

It seems like while the world embraces these different styles as they become trends, France in particular has always supported them.
Well maybe it's because rap has always been very big in France, and is still one of the main genres here. Even the electronic producers listen to it, so I guess it's natural to like these styles if you grew up listening to rap. I'm so into them, but I don't really know why. It's like a weird obsession [laughs].

So do all these people listening to rap understand the lyrics?
I think a lot of teenagers don't understand the lyrics at all. But you can feel the vibe, even if you don't get the lyrics at first. A lot of pop music in France is from the US, so people are used to listening to music they don't understand at all. But there's also a big French rap scene. I think the French scene was the second biggest market for rap in the 90s. It was huge back then. The main things people were listening to were Paris' NTM and IAM, which is from the South of France from Marseille. So there was this rivalry like the East and West coast.

Do you like trap?

The good thing about it is that it's building on what dubstep did to break down the rule that dance music needed a 4x4 beat and helped bring half time to the big clubs. But I'm getting tired of hearing the same trap tracks, and it's become an industry. I really like older Hudson Mohawk. The Just Blaze and Baauer track "Higher" was good. But it's reaching a point where there's too much trap. But it's easier to make tracks at a different BPM now because of it.

How come you never produced it?
I'm not interested in following all the trends. I've actually been very influenced by trap though. I try to incorporate these things into my music. But I'm not like, "Oh let's make a trap track." Who knows where it's going in six months.

How did Cam'ron end up on Para One's "Every Little Thing"?
Para has always been a big fan of Dipset - we all were - since like 2006. It was kind of his dream to have Cam'ron on one of his tracks. And it's kind of funny because everyone always sees Para as a serious producer. So he just asked him once, and he said yes. He never came to Paris though.

What kind of Jersey club are you feeling?
I was really into it like a year or two ago, but I've found it really repetitive lately. It became kind of like Baltimore club. I think some guys like Sliink are really reinventing themselves. And there are still some really good tracks. But you know, these kids are like 16-years-old and produce like 5 tracks a day, so it's so hard to follow what's happened in the past six months. But I find it really interesting that some kids with shitty laptops in their bedroom and they're like in high school making tracks about their basketball team. I really like the vibe.

Why do the French love electro and the 80s so much?
I don't know. I think France was just in the middle of Italy, England, and Belgium. So there's italo disco, and the UK new wave post-new romantic stuff… I think its everywhere, but because of Daft Punk it seems bigger here.

Did you like the new Daft Punk?
Actually, I did. All my friends hate it, but not me. It's been so overplayed that it's definitely a guilty pleasure. I really respect the fact that they went in a totally different direction. Everyone's overcompressing their music and trying to get louder and they just spent three years recording with old amps. I don't know if I love the album or the reason they did it. It's the kind of record that even if you don't like it, it's changing everything. Like, you'd go to a label, and they'd say, "You have to do David Guetta. It's the only thing that works," or "You have to have a big trance record with a huge drop." But now, here's Daft Punk, using a track that was released in 1979 or something, and it's huge everywhere in the world now. So now people know they can still be surprised.

Where are the parties you play at and attend in Paris held? Clubs? Warehouses?
There's not a lot of warehouses—it's a lot of clubs. I usually go to Paris Social Club, we have our label residency there, so most of the time I play there. It's like family there. All my friends have parties there.

You were on the official Usher remix album. Do you listen to his music or much R&B generally?
I'm really into R&B. I don't like everything by Usher, but I was a huge fan of "Climax", which Diplo produced. R&B is one of my top three genres right now. Not just recent stuff, but stuff from the 80s and 90s. Recently I'm into The Dream, but not the album. I have a lot of stuff I'm not going to say here [laughs]. The last Jeremih mixtape was one of my favorite records of last year. I was super impressed by Frank Ocean's album. I actually liked the Justin Timberlake album - I'm a big fan of Timbaland.

Do you like this Alt R&B type stuff?
Oh the Soundcloud-ish type stuff? [laughs] I don't mean that in a bad way though. Like sort of half time IDM half R&B. I really like Cashmere Cat though. He really traumatized me last year. It was just so fresh and amazing.

When you play live, you use Abelton?
I started playing out with Abelton back in 2005 when I started. Back then CDJs were shit. It was a nightmare. People were using vinyl. So I was playing on Abelton with my big PC tower. I was bringing it to gigs. I was using all my effects. A-Trak might be able to do what I was doing with Serato, but not me [laughs]. I don't really have a set playlist. I pick tracks one by one. Sometimes I drop a track every 30 seconds. I'd rather focus on finding the right track than beatmatching. Now it's easier because of BPM counters and all, though. I'll warp the tracks to fit, or use effects to transition. It's hard to blend tracks because I'm not playing minimal techno tracks, but sometimes I'll play two at once with a vocal loop and a drum loop for a transition. But the big plus with the new Abelton is the search function, so I can pull stuff up faster than with folders.

What's the goal of your label, Marble?
Trying to push music we like, but not be constrained by genres. We don't want to be an alternative to EDM or anything. That's a two-sided thing now: on one side you have like deep house stuff and on the other side there's the big Swedish House Mafia stuff. And we're not serious enough to be on the deep house side. But we also don't want to make big room, cheesy tracks. We just want to make music of the future basically. I'm not saying we are that music, but we're trying to be.