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Five Reasons Why Belgians Did It Better

From cardboard jockeys to new beat, here's why Belgium's role in dance music history deserves more kudos.

Quick question: When you think of Belgian electronic music, what comes to mind? The Soulwax brothers? The EDM Disney fantasy known as Tomorrowland? Stromae's latest attack on the European pop charts?

Belgium's contribution to the field of electronic music far oustrips these blips on the pop culture radar. Many of the country's residents will tell you that in the mid-to-late 80s—before Berlin, before Ibiza—Belgium was the European hub for electronic music, giving rise to the "new beat" movement that combined industrial synthesizer music (or EBM, electronic body music) with acid and Chicago house. Stacks of Belgian records were coming out every week at this time, and since they had the new beat movement's smiley face logo on them, they practically flew off the shelves.


The country is only about the size of the state of Maryland, but had something like 200 operating nightclubs with no legislation at the time on opening hours—so you could always find an open club, even at 3PM on a Tuesday afternoon. Needless to say, people were coming from all over Europe to join the never-ending party.

Belgians have been behind genres like new beat, gabber, and jumpstyle, but also one of—if not the best—techno label, R&S. But until recently, no one seems to have given a fuck about Belgium's contributions to electronic music history, not even the locals themselves. Jozef Devillé, who just directed The Sound Of Belgium, a documentary that retraces his country's essential but seldom-discussed role in the rise of dance music across the globe, has a theory: "This is typically what we call Belgitude—a Belgian's nature which make us a bit carefree and not chauvinistic at all. Belgium is a country invented by the English and made of Flemish, Germans and Walloons. This mixture of cultures didn't create a strong national feeling as you can find in France, the UK or the Netherlands."

Well, if they aren't doing it for themselves, let's pay tribute to Belgium with five reasons why they raved better than we did:


A Belgian dance organ built by Albert Decap

Books of perforated cardboard for mechanized organs

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Belgium has been a dance nation par excellence, with a tradition of "tea parties"—raucous afternoon dances—supplied not by tea but by free-flowing beer. They were early adopters when it came to dance parties and sound system culture, introducing the multi-instrumental barrel organ, or dance organ, which played in lieu of a live band—meaning that music was mechanized even prior to World War One.


Organs worked like hardware sequencers, following instructions from strips of perforated cardboard that were typically about 33-feet-long per track (the Albert Decap model above is a Belgian model from the 60s). And because you need to load them into the machine one at a time, they quickly found somebody that would be happy to do it in exchange for some free beer. Eventually, the organ operator realized he could raise his hands during the breakdown and everyone would get really stoked: DJing was born.


You may think of DJ Screw, or even Nicolas Jaar, when it comes to slow and syrupy tunes, but in fact… the Belgians did it first. In the late 60s and early 70s, American soul records started to invade Belgium and quickly became very popular across the country. Music nerds were fighting to get exclusive copies before anyone else. Some DJs were even using markers to obscure their vinyl labels to keep the track names secret. This whole scene was called "Popcorn," in reference to the legendary Sunday afternoon party hosted in the desolate East Flanders region. And because Belgium never does it like anybody else, local DJs reappropriated this imported soul music by systematically slowing down the tracks they played. 45 RPM vinyls were played at 33 RPM mode, then pitched up a bit from there. The records sounded sexier and darker than the original, with louder bass and more distinctive sounds… but you already know that.



The new beat look

In the mid-to-late-80s, Belgian new beat music quickly became the center of attention. People went crazy for it, and records sold out immediately—they were often copied by UK producers trying to get an edge. If new beat was an essential musical contribution to electronic production, the movement also provided a turning point in the history of street fashion. And if the new beat style is inseparable from the iconic yellow smiley face, the stories of the other little accessories deserve to be told too—like the fact that biker shorts became hot clubwear after an entire team of cyclists took over a new beat party one night in the late 80s. Light wash denim, big black boots, crucifixes and goth-y accessories like mortuary pictures were all the rage, and rumors flew that club kids were raiding cemetaries for their macabre knick-knacks. On top of that, plenty of kids were repurposing Mercedes and VW hood ornaments as necklaces, buckles, and pins… to the great despair of cars' owners.


As you probably know, Belgians are some of the world's biggest beer drinkers and brewers. But sometimes the wildest parties were alcohol-free, and Belgian partygoers didn't hesitate to make a stop at the pharmarcy for amphetamine pills like Capatagon—something similar to Adderall—which were unrestricted at the time and would keep them on the dancefloor for hours and hours. Rumor has it that certain clubs provided "enhanced" cocktails that included ecstasy pills certified by the owners themselves, and speed dissolved into the smoke machine fluid! I guess it's no suprise the crowd was always so friendly?



In 1984, jointly inspired by the budding new beat scene and frustrated by the country's overly-commercialized clubs, a local DJ named Renaat Vandepapeliere teamed up with his girlfriend, Sabine Maes, to start a record label out of their shoebox-sized apartment in Ghent. That label was known as R&S Records, and along with its ambient division Apollo Records, it became the source of a plethora of iconic releases by the likes of Jaydee, CJ Bolland, Capricorn, Aphex Twin and Biosphere before shutting down in 2000. (The label has since re-launched in London with James Blake, Radioslave and Delphic under its belt.)

According to Vandepapeliere, the apartment had "one square meter to live, and 19 others for the studio." Most importantly, it gave talented Belgian kids access to the machines they needed to produce future techno anthems, while also offering them a place to sleep… even if it was just the floor. If someone deserves the title "the supernanny of techno," it's definitely this guy.


Joey Beltram - "Energy Flash"

Jaydee - "Plastic Dreams"

CJ Bolland - "Camargue"

Antoine's dream job is to feed perforated cardboard into Belgian dance organs -@AdePointZero