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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Tristan Jong

I’m very much influenced by the medium. I like how you often hear a more human touch in a vinyl set.

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Marco Di Stefano

Four years ago, Tristan Jong traded Brussels for Berlin. He and his girlfriend Emma now share a small flat a few hundred metres from Tempelhof, the old airport in Neukölln which was transformed into a big park in 2010. Jong was attracted by the buzzing nightlife and notorious music culture of the German metropolis. “There are so many record stores, new ones just keep popping up”, Jong says.

“I still religiously follow up on all new releases and have developed a weekly system. I always go by Hip Hop Vinyl for a few new records, then choose one other shop. Hard Wax, Oye, Bikini Wax and Sound Metaphors are some of my favourites. That way I’ve been to every single place once a month and I can get a grip on the flow of new releases.”

The early years

Jong did not have the luxury of such a broad spectre to choose from when he was buying his first records as a fifteen-year-old living in Leuven. JJ Records was the only place he could go to. Influenced by Wontime, he got hooked to Drum ‘n Bass and artists like Ed Rush & Optical, Dj Krust and Bad Company. When the D&B sound started turning a tad too dark for him, Jong shifted his attention to another genre that was raging the Leuven scene at that time: house.

It was a very important period for Jong: “I was a real sponge. I wanted to check out every single release that came my way. In Plastiks, a Belgian magazine, I’d read something about Jazzanova or the new Luke Slater album and I’d immediately go out to look for them. I discovered loads of new music through the sample CDs that came with the magazine. I still have them at home. I picked stuff from every genre, but house became my main feat. The first time I set foot in Silo, a club in Leuven, DJ Sneak was at the decks. From then on, I’d regularly sneak out of the house without my parents knowing, or I’d be asleep in math class on Friday morning after a night out.”

They gave me my first DJ gigs and coined my nickname Jonni Gratts, an anagram of my name and my MSN moniker at the time.

Out and about

During his student years, Tristan was a regular at Club Silo and Rumba as well as the Food, Fataal and Deep House Xtra parties. For hours on end, he’d listen to the many American DJs on the booking roster, or to residents Raoul and Geoffroy. “The US house, which was very popular then, really got to me. I was crazy about the Buggin' Da Beats mix by DJ Sneak, Derrick Carter’s Mixmag cd, the whole Chicago scene…”

“While digging for gold on an internet forum focused on DJ sets by Mark Farina, I struck up a conversation with the organisers of Touché, which were parties in Leuven back then. They gave me my first DJ gigs and coined my nickname Jonni Gratts, an anagram of my name and my MSN moniker at the time.”

Jong quickly made a name for himself in Leuven and around. He co-organised the Moodclub parties and started going to record shops in Brussels like BCM, Urban Grooves, Dr. Vinyl and Music Mania. He went on to attended Wally’s Groove World’s eurosales in Antwerp and bought records in Ghent’s Music Man. His finds became the basis of a show on Radio Scorpio, Leuven’s local radio station, which was hosted by Tom De Cock, who is an anchor at national station MNM today.

This is not a label

Meanwhile, Jong shortened his DJ name to Gratts and started playing in Berlin, Belgium, The Netherlands or cities all across Western Europe every week. As a team with DJ Kong, he founded Ensemble, a multi-disciplinary label. “In 2012, we started organising events so we could have a place to play all these records we were buying. When we met Xosar, an American producer, we immediately hit it off and asked her if we could release her music.”

“One thing led to another and we were thrilled to be releasing our own vinyl. But in those early days, we didn’t want to use the term ‘label’. We even had the words ‘this is not a label’ scratched on the inside groove of the record. Every year, we released one record, until we decided to up the ante this year and become a full-blown label. Our newest release is titled ‘So Underground It Hurts’ and comes with a small magazine with interviews. After summer, we’re releasing the debut of Rhythm Mind, a young Brussels producer. We really believe in him.”

Yes, even the missus

Vinyl is everywhere in Jong’s life. He shares the passion with his girlfriend Emma, whose Australian roots are reflected in the Severed Heads poster in the couple’s living room. Both have started DJing as a duo and recently started composing their own tunes. Their first record was released a few months ago on Dutch label Bordello A Parigi. The A-side features Jong’s remix of Moneymax (a new beat project by De Mens’s Frank Vander Linden from 1997), while the B-side consists of two new original tracks they’ve written under the name Ca$hminus.

Emma’s vinyl collection is much more succinct than her partner’s as she often uses digital files. Her tastes are more well-reasoned and melodic than Jong’s. To the latter, style and medium go hand in hand: “My DJ technique is a lot more agitated: I rely more on energy and I’m very much influenced by the medium. I like how you often hear a more human touch in a vinyl set.”

Sacrilege? Meh.

Another reason why Jong keeps on vouching for vinyl are the limitations of the medium. His apartment, shelves and even his brain have more or less reached maximum capacity, leading to a ‘one comes in/one goes out’ policy. But Jong has an even more fundamental outlook on things. “Records cross your path sometimes, like fate. I once found a rare and expensive Gemini record in Jakarta, which was on sale for only a few euro. Digitally, you can buy as much music as you want, but with vinyl, sometimes the tracks find you.”

“I often buy doubles to give to friends. A digital file can be copied endlessly, but offering someone a vinyl record is a real treat.” Jong mentions another perk, which is slightly less voiced among vinyl purists: “You can write on the sleeve. Such a big piece of cardboard, it’s almost like that’s what it was made for. I sometimes write a message on there to communicate with my audience. Or notes to myself about the track I want to play or even the structure of the record. I sometimes write complete manuals—pretty handy in a dark club.”

And then there’s another advantage Jong likes to cite. “I’m a little shy when I’m DJ’ing at times. I don’t always like to be at the centre of attention. So I like to turn around to shuffle through my records. It’s my safe haven, a place I can retreat to.”