The Untold Story of Joey Beltram, the Techno Titan Behind the 90s' Most Iconic Rave Anthems
How did the NYC-bred producer go from "Energy Flash" to collaborating with Laidback Luke?
Left to right: The Advent, Blake Baxter, Joey Beltram, Mr. G, and Jeff Mills in 1997 (Photo courtesy of Joey Beltram)
For those who were indulging in the early-90s dance music underground, it hit with like a bolt of lab–built lightning— all Tesla-coil pulses, spiraling smoke trails, and Frankenstein kicks, soaked in a catalytic vat of synthetic compounds. The song was "Energy Flash," and back in the heady days of 1990 it was a major milestone in the rise of rave culture, establishing a benchmark for a new form of hard-edged techno and twisting heads everywhere from the outer boroughs of New York City to the love-parading street of Berlin and beyond. The tough, sinewy techno cut was the brainchild of Queens native Joey Beltram, rocketing the 19-year-old to clubland glory and carving out his place in rave history.
A quarter of a century later, Beltram's still committed to the steely, moody and unwavering sonic template that launched his career's scene-defining history—but he's also mellowing out a bit. His latest single "Together," released on the Halocyan label, is pure Beltram, with a stripped-down, sinewy groove that kicks you in the gut. But it's the choice of remixers that comes as something of a surprise, with a trio of producers more associated with the populist EDM than ruthless techno: OWSLA's "jungle-terror" specialist Wiwek, Dim Mak's Jewelz & Sparks, and the veteran big-room kingpin Laidback Luke. Another sign that Beltram might be loosening up—when we reach him via Skype in early March for a chat, he's not holed up in some Berlin bunker, though he still owns a place in the German capital. Instead, he's in the bucolic confines of his current home in upstate New York.
Here's another indicator that Beltram isn't quite the rigid technomeister nowadays that you might imagine: Until recently, he didn't want anybody messing with his sound, let alone artists who might invite a bit of skepticism from his followers. "Up until four or five years ago, I was really against other people remixing my music. I didn't want to be interpreted by anybody else. I didn't get the point," he says in his still-strong tough-guy NYC accent. "Of course, I was being a little hypocritical, because I was doing tons of remixes of other people, completely ignoring their directions. It was all about me. But I'm a little bit older, and a lot more relaxed. I've been opening up a little bit."
"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
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.
"I was only about 14 or 15, and I had never really gone into Manhattan by myself. It seemed kind of scary, but I did it." At the time, house music was just beginning to filter in from Chicago, finding fans in DJs like the Garage's Larry Levan and Better Days' Bruce Forest. Joseph Longo, later known as the deep-house production wizard Pal Joey, was working at Vinylmania, and steered Beltram towards records like "Music Is the Key" by JM Silk, which ended up as Beltram's very first house purchase. Beltram also cites Tony Humphries' mix show on NYC's 98.7 Kiss FM for opening him up to this new kind of four-to-the-floor sound. "All of a sudden—I was hooked," he says.
"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
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."
His first techno-tinged production efforts, recorded under an array of pseudonyms and released on such labels as Nu Groove and Easy Street, sold moderately well and found airtime in the more adventurous clubs. But it wasn't until "Energy Flash" that Beltram became one of the sound's towering figures, thanks in part to Renaat Vandepapeliere, the Belgian kingpin running the hugely influential R&S label.
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."
"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
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."
"We were like, 'Let's give up. But we tried again, and 'Mentasm' was it—our post-defeat effort."—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.
Songs like those have been the basis for a fruitful DJing career that's taken him from Tokyo's Womb to Coachella festival and beyond. "I've been busy since the beginning," he says, before amending that statement a bit. "Well, there have been a few quiet spots here and there, but it's been close to 30 years, so that's okay. There are times that you want to do other things with your life—and sometimes it's fun to just let six months go by and do nothing."
"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
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.
And, of course, there's "Together"—another Beltram belter, full of adrenaline-rush propulsion—and its unexpected array of remixers. Beltram claims he hasn't gotten much in the way of blowback from his longtime fans, though he admits that might be coming. "I do like to inject a little variety, but sometimes it's hard," he says with a sigh. "But I've gotten used to criticism. Even back when 'Energy Flash' came out, that got a lot of horrible reviews. They were like, 'Oh, it's hardcore, it's just noise'—now it's some of those same people's favorite record. Same with 'Mentasm.' People were saying 'This is the death of music. This is just shit.'" Beltram says years of weathering criticism has helped him develop a tough skin. "I'm ready for anything. What can you do, anyway?"
You can just keep making music for the techno masses—and that's what he's going to do. "I've been doing this for most of my life, ever since I was a teenager—and that was a long time ago." he says when asked about his plans for the future. "There's always something rattling around in my head that I want to turn into reality. I can't imagine ever turning that off." From the moment he walked into Vinylmania and clutched a copy of "Music is the Key," Beltram's been a lifelong devotee to alchemical, merciless techno—the kind that you scream to in strobe-lit concrete caves where sweat drips off the ceiling. "If I make a track that I like, well, then I'm gonna want to go out and play it for people," he says defiantly. "So it's not ending, not anytime soon."
Bruce Tantum is a longtime NYC-based dance music writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter