It’s a red-hot evening in June when Menno Steels, aka Mixmonster Menno, takes us up to the top floor of his house in Ghent. Both rooms there are set up to accommodate the man’s passion-come-profession as a musician and a DJ. He is one of the five members of the instrumental jazz or hip hop (one can never really say for sure), formation STUFF., joins the Uberdope rappers onstage every once in a while and is a fixture at nightcrawler’s venues like Ghent’s White Cat and Bonnefooi in Brussels.
“Summer is looking busy, I’m looking forward to it,” Menno says. “It’s hot in here today, would you like another glass of water?” The windows are wide open, offering a view of a children’s playground. Menno puts the needle on the first record. Basa Basa, a band from Ghana, is doing the honours with ‘Homowo’, their 1983 album which has just been rereleased and is now ricocheting against the walls.
GETTING OUR BEARINGS
The first room contains roughly 6000 records, organised per genre, divided over two big racks. About ten boxes are arranged on a large table, containing neatly stored singles, the result of a long winter of sorting through the whole collection and tidying up. In the second room, the eye is immediately drawn to a double DJ setup, with a third console to hook up both mixers. Underneath is some space carved out for the shiny new arrivals, fresh from the record store, flea market or web shop.
Menno usually trusts Ghent’s Music Mania to provide him with the latest goods. Online, he prefers Rush Hour and HHV. Whenever he’s out and about, Menno puts his faith in Serato’s Final Scratch, the hard and software designed to play digital files on a pick-up. Usually, those files are recordings of his own vinyl collection. As soon as a record is digitalised, it’s allocated its own spot in the vast collection cupboard.
THE ODD MAN OUT
To Menno, being a part of STUFF. means even more time spent digging his own crates. As a DJ, he’s kind of the odd man out in the band. He doesn’t play an instrument and can’t read sheet music, but none of that makes him less present in the band’s sound. “I study the track we’re working on, check the keys and use those to get to work. At home, I make databases of samples I come across on my records and list all harmonic samples, for instance, or all the ones with percussion. It’s a lot of work, but the better prepared I am when meeting up with the band, the more fun it is for me. Rehearsals are exciting, challenging even. Usually I only have my input ready near the end of our session.”
ENTER THE DJ BIGBAND
What Menno does as a DJ with STUFF.’s music, he used to also do as a part of DJ Grazzhoppa’s DJ Big Bigband. At first, they were six DJs. Later they doubled up, adding musicians and a singer to the blend to create a live mix of scratches, samples, sounds, jazz and hip hop. Between 2003 and 2013, they toured their way around national and international stages. It was a very inspiring period for Menno.
Menno puts on Aria, a 1971 track performed by Placebo, the band around Brussels’ legendary musician Marc Moulin. STUFF. is working on a series of Moulin interpretations, the result of which will be heard onstage at Flagey in Brussels, somewhere in autumn. For ‘Aria’, which sets off with sounds of children playing, Menno simply held a microphone out of his attic room to record the cries of kids horsing around beneath his window.
“When Fabricio Cassol from Aka Moon joined us, a whole new world opened up for us. His musical background was overwhelming. He knew how to align everyone’s influences like no other. He taught me that you can’t just pile up any number of sounds. I learned how to work with keys and gained insight into how compositions work. The Bigband came to an end, though. We all wanted to go in different directions with our lives. But we didn’t ever officially call it quits, so you never know, something might still happen one day.”
ALL HAIL THE GRAZZHOPPA
It’s not the first time during our visit that Menno mentions Grazzhoppa, and it won’t be the last, either. Menno talks about the iconic DJ, turntablist and musician from Ghent with respect and awe. Grazzhoppa was the first DJ Menno ever saw spinning records. “I was in the fourth grade at the Voskenslaan primary school in Ghent. We had an end-of-the-year school party and Rhyme Cut Core were playing, a band with TLP (more on that in TLP’s collector’s interview) and Grazzhoppa, who back then where newbies themselves, still in high school.”
“Grazzhoppa played some serious tricks on those turntables, I had no idea what I was looking at. I just had to give it a try myself, so I started experimenting with friends. In the beginning, I used just one pick-up and my parent’s old stereo. Meanwhile, we followed Grazzhoppa everywhere. In thev 90s, he became European DMC champion (Disco Mix Club, an unofficial DJ championship that gained momentum in the 90s and was very influential for turntablism, Ed.) and came in third at the International Turntablist Federation World Championship.”
Ghent was a breeding ground for talent in those days, and Menno fed off it with enthusiasm. He made his way through the graffiti and skate scenes (more on that in Richard De Muynck’s collector’s interview) and one day ended up in Grazzhoppa’s home. There, something clicked. “The first time I went to see him, we already made a song together. Grazzhoppa was always putting together beats. You’d show up there with a record with samples on it, that’s the way things went. That song ended up on ‘How To Survive The Crack’ many years later, a record I’m very proud of. They’re all beats with cuts on top, not an easy listen, though the tracks are all quite witty, like a collection of quirky stories.”
SKIP SCHOOL, TAKE UP DJ’ING
Another influential character for Menno was American DJ Q-Bert. His ‘Wave Twisters’ LP and the included video cassette containing 50 minutes of batshit crazy animation became his bible. Back when the millennium was still fresh and Menno entered his twenties, scratching and DJ’ing were his way out of a troubled youth. “The school system didn’t agree with me, I got expelled from a couple of schools. It was quite a struggle, few people understood what I was trying to do. In 2000, I found this house and I’ve lived here ever since. At first, I shared it with two friends, which meant things went haywire half the time. All three of us were DJs, we had friends over all the time. One of our neighbours actually sold his house out of sheer desperation. These days, I’m a lot more easy-going.”
Menno keeps on rifling through his records, looking for all-time favourites: Kraftwerk, Jerry Goodman & Jan Hammer (a gift from STUFF. drummer Lander Gyselinck), Lio’s Sage Comme Une Image (another Marc Moulin hit), André Brasseur (“A bargain, found at Kiekeboe in Ghent. That place is my best kept secret!”), and syrupy, thick Afro, funk and disco. Menno concludes our listening session with Abidjan City Breakers, a funk record from the Ivory Coast, recorded in 1983.
“My girl and I were strolling around a flea market in Brussels when I saw this stall with all kinds of awesome African records, loads of which were on my wish list. At first, I walked on, not ready to believe what I’d just seen. My girlfriend saw what was going on and sent me back. I bought this record and now I play it all the time. Long live flea markets, my favourite week-end pastime!”