That opening-up process has actually been 30 years in the making. Beltram began his career as a budding bedroom DJ, making electro- and hip-hop–infused mixtapes for his high-school pals. "Around '85, I found out about Vinylmania in the city," he recalls, referring to the iconic West Village record store located just a few blocks north of Paradise Garage.
"If you could go back and talk to the little 19-year-old Joey, you'd be talking to somebody who thought he was hot shit and could do no wrong."—Joey Beltram
Beltram's transition from house to techno stemmed from his love of tougher sounds. "I sort of stumbled onto techno without even realizing it was techno," Beltram admits. "In '85 and '86, a lot of house was that real tracky stuff—just two sounds and a 909 beat. Very basic stuff, and that was what I liked. But at some point, everything had to have piano chords; everything had to have this real soulful kind of sound. Nobody was making tracks anymore." When he started producing in '89, Beltram says he deliberately stayed away from this wave of melodic, expressive "piano-chord stuff" and swerved towards harder sounds. "I wanted to make tracks—just a bassline and a beat, but a little heavier, a little moodier, a little more modern sounding. The emerging techno audience found that stuff interesting, so I got pulled into that world."
"In '85 and '86, a lot of house was that real tracky stuff—just two sounds and a 909 beat. Very basic stuff, and that was what I liked."—Joey Beltram
Vandepapeliere had already put out a version of the Beltram-produced "Let It Ride," a bleep-heavy electro tune released under his Direct alias, and invited him to their studio in Belgium in the summer of 1989 to try and bang out another hit. "I was a little nervous—what if I don't deliver the goods?" Beltram recalls. "I actually prepared something to bring with me, so that if things didn't go well, I could pull something out of my bag and save the day. Things went… OK. But I did end up pulling out that prepared track—it was on a reel-to-reel—and he liked it. And that track was 'Energy Flash'."The number, released on R&S in 1990, became one of the era's rave anthems; its fame was further cemented when it was picked up on Derrick May's Transmat label. "I was kind of a new guy, and all of a sudden, in one shot, I have a track on the two hottest labels of the moment," Beltram says, still a hint of disbelief in his voice. "I mean, I was just this kid from Queens! When I came back to New York, I was like a new person. I think I made ten tracks in my studio that first week back, turned around, and went back to Europe for another couple of months."
One of those ten tracks was Beltram's other groundbreaking anthem, "Mentasm," produced with childhood friend Edmundo "Mundo Muzique" Perez and credited to the pair's alias, Second Phase. According to Beltram, "Mentasm" almost never saw the light of day. Working with MIDI, everything had to be continuously saved, but Beltram and Perez, being young and foolhardy, rarely did so. During one studio session, the two were putting the finishing touches on a track—one that was Beltram claims was "better, much better, than the current version of "Mentasm"—when a thunderstorm came along and cut the power. They lost everything. "We were like, 'We're never gonna be able to do that again. Let's give up.'" Beltram says. "But we [tried again], and 'Mentasm' was it—our post-defeat effort."That tune, also released on R&S in 1991, became nearly as important to the rave scene as "Energy Flash," its unmistakable sawtooth swirl finding its way into dozens of copycat tracks and becoming known as the "hoover" sound, so named for its resemblance to the roar of a vacuum cleaner. The radioactive tone became a favorite of nascent genres like drum & bass and hard house, and its influence still reverberates today. "I'm really proud of 'Mentasm,' and I'm proud of having created that sound with Mundo," Beltram says. "But I'm not a big fan of the hoover genre, exactly—don't blame me for that! Still, to have come up with something that seems to inspired so many people is pretty cool."
"I was just this kid from Queens! And all of a sudden, in one shot, I have a track on the two hottest labels of the moment."—Joey Beltram
Not many artists have one scene-defining hit in their career, let alone two of them right out of the gate. "If you could go back and talk to the little 19-year-old Joey, you'd probably be talking to somebody who thought he was hot shit and could do no wrong," he says, laughing.In the years since, Beltram has been busy crafting a steady stream of releases that are largely variations on the tough-techno theme that he perfected in 1990, for a list of labels that includes Tresor, Warp, Drumcode, Harthouse and his own STX, among many others. While those productions haven't had the impact that "Energy Flash" or "Mentasm" had, it's hard to deny their primal power. Listen to 1998's "Ball Park," for instance, or 2003's "In the Ultra Drive." Like "Energy Flash," they're defined by crisply efficient, driving drums, anchoring just a handful of samples and synth bleeps—in other words, raving material in its rawest form. The man knows what he can do, and he does it well.
"We were like, 'Let's give up. But we tried again, and 'Mentasm' was it—our post-defeat effort."—Joey Beltram
He may never again match the frisson—the shock of the new—that his early work provided. But in terms of sheer prolificity, it seems as though Beltram's entering a creatively fertile phase. He's just released the ballsy, acidic "Sirenator," a collaboration with Umek; there's a Beltram remix of Raul Mezcolanza & Envel's "Trumpets Of Death," a track that conjures up images of city-wrecking Decepticons; there's another remix for Marc Romboy that's coming out soon on Christian Smith's Tronic imprint; and a full Joey Beltram album is due sometime around the beginning of summer.
"Even back when 'Energy Flash' came out, people were saying 'This is the death of music. This is just shit. Now it's some of those same people's favorite record."—Joey Beltram