Mixmag’s DJ Of The Year is lying on the bed of a hotel room watching a montage of classic basketball slam dunks on YouTube. There’s no trace of booze in the mini-fridge, the sheets remain unruffled and a solitary kind of silence fills the air. There’s not the slightest hint of mischief, even though it’s the Saturday night before Halloween and ghouls are busy roaming the streets outside. This sedate atmosphere isn’t quite what we expected from someone who’s had an extraordinary year in dance music, but it kind of makes sense. Mladen Solomun is the quiet, understated guy who’s become the undisputed king of underground house over the last 12 months.
Things started kicking off in 2011, when he produced incendiary remixes of Noir & Haze’s ‘Around’ and Tiefschwarz featuring Mama’s ‘Corporate Butcher’. Released in June and November respectively, both tunes promptly exploded and propelled him straight into 2012. Since then he’s put together a stunning mix CD for German institution Watergate, released cult single ‘Kackvogel’, turned in a storming remix of ‘Flash Of Light’ by Luca C, Brigante and Róisín Murphy, held immense parties showcasing his Diynamic record label in Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona and London, toured South America and completed a highly successful season in Ibiza. His popularity on the White Isle is probably the best testament of his breakout success so far, having sparked a major bidding war between all the main clubs, and DJs such as Richie Hawtin and Jamies Jones, for his services at their nights.
In three hours Solomun will live up to those credentials by sending a sweltering party at Cable in South London into total meltdown, but for now he’s happy chilling at the Bermondsey Square Hotel, a pristine establishment in a scruffy corner of town five minutes down the road from the club. He arrived earlier in the day and, as he greets Mixmag with a warm handshake and a wide smile, we notice that he’s made the trip alone. There’s no entourage of glitzy party girls, drinking buddies or managerial bods; none of the mêlée that usually surrounds a DJ of his stature. The only company he keeps tonight is a laptop, used to chat to his 120,000 Facebook fans and to translate any sticky English words he can’t quite get his tongue around. At 6’3” he looms large and could easily come across as big, brash and egotistical. Instead, he’s soft-spoken and slightly reserved, a gentle giant who has become the toast of dance music, revered by industry insiders and ecstatic ravers alike.
“It’s been a fucking great time,” he says with a grin, clenching one fist victoriously. We’re sitting in two leather chairs by the window of his hotel room talking about how he captured Ibiza during the summer. “It’s been a dream, it’s like, ‘Please wake me up’, because nobody expected this,” he says. He’d never been infatuated with the island or ever had any aspiration to scale the sun-soaked DJ career ladder that exists there. Rather, high-profile players approached him about bringing his very particular style of ice-cold, super-soulful house to the Mediterranean. Unexpectedly, he plumped for Sankeys, one of the island’s newest clubs, hosting a Tuesday night residency that ended up being a highlight of the season thanks to the vibe that he and his crew created. “It was amazing,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “People were coming for our music and our artists. Every fucking night we had two or three sit-downs. That may not be the sign of a good party, but it does say something about the atmosphere. It was intimate, the crowd were into it and we were able to play our slow, bouncy sound with no pressure.” And it’s that sound that has everyone spellbound; house music, but with deep, ultra-funky basslines, euphoric melodies and emotionally charged vocals. It’s super infectious and makes you feel damn good, and Solomun’s been deploying it to full effect, even picking up Best Producer at the Ibiza DJ Awards. “I think they needed a new face for this movement,” he says modestly, when we ask why he won. “I had a good season, I was in the press, I had some good tracks out. They needed a sign of change, that’s why they chose me.” He’s spearheading a new wave of underground artists and nights in Ibiza. With Jamie Jones’ Paradise at DC10 and Kehakuma at Space, he’s ushering in a new niche that’s setting the island alight.
His Sankeys residency was so successful because he brought everyone involved with his label along for the ride. “I always said that when I go to Ibiza, I want to bring my boys,” he says, as if he’d been plotting the trip ever since he started Diynamic nearly seven years ago. The project began as a club night he started with his best friend and agent Adriano Trolio. Back then the pair just wanted to throw a quality party in Hamburg, but when they met fellow heads H.O.S.H. and Stimming things started to evolve. Diynamic turned into a club (Ego, co-run by Adriano and Solomun’s sister), a party brand and, most importantly, a record label specialising in high quality underground house. Its roster includes the prodigiously talented David August, young, up-and-coming duos Adriatique and Hunter/Game, Spanish matador Uner, rising German lights Thyladomid and DJ Phono, veteran outfit Kollektiv Turmstrasse, Dutch hope Karmon, Romanians NTFO, and, of course, the godfathers: Solomun, H.O.S.H. and Stimming. Their Neon Night party was used to showcase what Diynamic is capable of. As well as Ibiza, it’s taken the Amsterdam Dance Event and Sónar by storm, a proper example of what this continental posse are all about.
It’s when on the subject of his gang that Solomun’s personality starts to open up. He’s a tall guy with a broad, athletic build, but you wouldn’t notice him in a crowd. His taste in clothing is simple: T-shirts, jeans and fleeces in blue, black and grey. He’s extremely down to earth and seems always to be relaxed, but he doesn’t really give much away. At 36 years of age, with a production career spanning back to 2006 and a reputation for supremely well-selected DJ sets that usually span several hours, he probably doesn’t have to. When he talks about Diynamic, however, he refers to it as a family, as a community of people that he’s brought together because he believes in what they do and what they can achieve together (so much so that there are never any contracts involved, just trust). “Now we’re growing, we have a lot of good artists and we are very proud and very happy,” he explains. “For me that is the biggest success. It’s not about the amount of records we sell, or the fees that we earn.” Solomun actually means it, though, confiding that he turned down other highly lucrative shows in order to commit to the parties in Ibiza. “In the end I lost money this summer, but I don’t care,” he states matter-of-factly. “My mission was to have my own party, I believe in this project and you’re always stronger when you build your own brand.” He’s headed toward the stratosphere and he’s dedicated to bringing Diynamic with him using a very keen sense of team tactics, a trait that’s been developing his whole life. “I learned very early that you’re stronger when you’re not alone. You have good times, bad times, but it’s always great when you have people to talk to.” He’s referring to his salad days, growing up in a working-class, immigrant area of Hamburg called Altona. His first love was football, of which he has fond memories: “I played every day after school, always with older guys because I was so tall. I’d help them out and because of that I got better.” He got so good that he was offered a place on Germany’s national under-16 team, but because he’d been born in Yugoslavia and still felt a strong affinity with the country, he declined – and subsequently ditched sports. “Many, many years later I understood that decision,” he says. “Everything I do, I do one hundred per cent. I have to stand behind it. I don’t compromise. If I don’t have fun or my heart is not pumping, I can’t do it.” His teenage years were spent out in the streets dossing around with his mates because there wasn’t much else he felt like doing. “Our parents didn’t have so much time for us because they worked very hard every day and they always came back home late, so it was like we had our own family,” he says. But he did learn from his parents. When war broke out in Yugoslavia, they gave many of his relatives refuge and helped them find jobs. A horde of people ended up living in their four-room family apartment. That sense of loyalty and togetherness has stayed with him, and it’s what guides him today, even after all these years.
Before we leave for Cable and notorious promotion crew Ketoloco’s sixth birthday party, Solomun swaps a blue v-neck T-shirt for a black one and puts on a trucker cap bearing the insignia ‘DIY’, a neat nod to his label and the do-it-yourself, get-up-and-go ethos that inspired it. When we reach the club it’s rammed and hot, a proper dirty London knees-up drenched in sweat and fizzing with chemicals. He remains unfazed, posing for photos with a group of girls in vampire fancy dress before he hits the booth. It’s par for the course: for the duration of his three-hour set he high-fives people in the crowd and lets over-excited ravers stand beside him as he plays records. It doesn’t take him long to get the place jumping, rolling out vocal, techy, bass-heavy house with plenty of peak-time moments. Girls and guys clamber onto the speaker stacks or get onto their mates’ shoulders in order to get a better view. A macho dude with a shaved head leans in to Mixmag’s ear and shouts, “Solomun’s on another level, bruv, he’s something special!” while on the other side of us a short, blonde girl starts pumping the air with her first, hollering “I love Solomun!” at the top of her voice. The place hits a glorious type of pandemonium, especially during the hefty funk of ‘Kackvogel’ and the sensuous ‘Around’, which is awarded a White Isle-style sit-down. Every so often Solomun looks over and gives Mixmag a bashful grin, obviously relishing every moment.
That vivid image of a DJ hitting his stride in front of hundreds of people may never have happened had it not been for a fateful moment back in the day. Before music took hold of Solomun, he worked for his father’s small construction firm and at one time was based on a building site in a bleak and lonely region of what was once East Germany. He remembers it as “a very dark time and place”, and ended up having a personal epiphany in an unlikely place: “It was about 11 o’clock in the evening and I was in the toilet, alone, having a shit. It was the end of a fourteen-hour day, I was very tired and I started to think about life and I drifted away for twenty minutes. Then I thought, what the fuck am I doing here? This can’t be my future, there has to be more.” He returned to Hamburg, jacked in the job and followed his passion for film, getting into the industry by making his own short movies and picking up work as a camera assistant. He also got into the party scene after his flatmate started taking him to raves, revitalising a love of record collecting and DJing that had been buried ever since his vinyl box got nicked from a house party as a kid. He worked in film throughout his 20s, music his hobby, before, inevitably, his DJ bookings got bigger and better and he started making tracks. He met Adriano, threw the first DIY parties and moved into a flat with H.O.S.H. where the pair’s creativity blossomed. That’s when he jacked in a career in film to become fully involved with house music.
All that Solomun has since achieved is in evidence at Ritter Butzke, a warehouse complex in the east of Berlin, on a rainy Saturday at the start of November. The city is in a miserable mood, but inside the venue all of the Diynamic crew are in effect and getting ready for a marathon 14-hour Neon Night. All the boys are here, taking part in a photoshoot before the three-floor, 3,000-person party kicks off proper. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie between them. “It’s a good harmony,” Adrian from Adriatique says. “You can only be a part of the label if the other guys feel you, if they connect with you.” When H.O.S.H. arrives he dishes out high fives to the whole room, while the Adriatique and Hunter/Game lads compare beer bellies, pinching the puppy fat they’ve picked up from too many boozy DJ gigs. Adriano appears and heads over the latest Diynamic test pressings, and Solomun ambles around in a plastic crown. We’ve all been calling him ‘the king’, ironic because he’d never refer to himself in such grandiose terms. Though he leads the troupe, he’s on equal terms with everyone. They all refuse to refer to him as a boss, instead calling him a brother; someone who’s on hand to listen to them and give out advice. “He’s taken everyone under his wing,” explains David August. “That’s his character. It’s always about the team, never about himself. That’s very brave.” Solomun has collected a group of young, talented people around him, a stable of artists that will push Diynamic’s lush, warm and at times highly anthemic sound into the future.
In a year where his artists, label, productions and DJ sets have become more renowned than ever, Solomun’s actually had very little time to himself. He talks frankly about it during our conversation in the backstage area of Ritter Butzke. The whole crew have just finished dinner, the club’s opened and the opening notes of the evening drift over from the main room. “This year the time went so quickly,” he says. “The whole journey has been amazing, but sometimes you can’t enjoy it because everything happens so fast. Sometimes it’s sad, but I’m thankful.” He talks about not being able to do normal stuff like going to exhibitions or hang out with friends and how his gig commitments have stifled his ability to make tunes. “I was not so inspired because my head was so focused on organising Ibiza,” he goes on. “I think everybody has his own time, and for me that was last year.” He’s philosophical about it, knowing that what goes around comes around. And even so, he’s put out two monster tunes this year and plans to take time off early in 2013 to make more. “Nobody knows what the future will bring, but I like the idea of new collaborations, maybe with r’n’b or soul singers. I love the funk, it’s so important,” he beams. “I need feelings, I need emotions on the dancefloor.”
That’s exactly what he gets when he steps up at 4am in front of another crowd that could easily fill two rooms this size. The air is thick with energy, heat and the sound of his name as people call out “Solomun!” in fervent anticipation. A stern security guard is on hand to stop girls getting on stage, and impatient kids slam their hands on the side of the booth as the start of his set approaches. Though he’s not had as much time to make tunes this year, he’s honed his DJ sets into a smooth ride that takes in sensuous deep house, bug-eyed thumpers, joyous r’n’b reworks and his trademark Solomun style, where tightly wound grooves court skippy percussion and soaring vocal chords. He’s a master of suspense, looping tunes and teasing out drops that send explosive ripples through the room. At one point he plays an Adriatique tune and Adrian bursts on stage, filming the moment on his phone before giving Solomun a huge hug. Even Friedrich Liechtenstein from the ‘Kackvogel’ video joins him, mimicking the mojo-fuelled dance moves that went viral across YouTube. It’s definitely a family affair when, toward the end of his set, Solomun’s manager Daniel and H.O.S.H. both appear for more of the bear hugs for which the giant DJ is famed.
“The special memories with him are parties like this where we play all night,” David August says. “There’s a point in the night where everything changes, about seven in the morning. Those hours are unique; you play special tracks. The journey to the end is the best.” It’s actually 10am, and David, Solomun and Adriatique are crammed into Ritter Butzke’s ‘Hut’ room along with 100 of us who are still going strong. The whole place is made of wood, and umbrellas and trumpets hang from the ceiling, like a Mad Hatter’s tea party on super-strength pills. We’ve reached that point and the boys are going back-to-back, tune-for-tune, rolling out tunes that engulf the intimate space. This what Diynamic is all about: going long, getting religious. Making every party the best one ever. “Tomorrow this could be over,” Solomon told us when we met back at the hotel in London. “I’m sure if I disappeared people would talk about me for a month and then forget me. Life goes on, so it’s important that you’re grounded, you have your friendships, your family– and maybe that’s the reason why I’m proud of Diynamic. I’m here for them, they’re here for me.” He has his people and his crew around him and that, for Solomun, is what really counts.