The New Beat of Belgium
by Matthew Collin
There's a culture crash at the crossroads of Europe. Belgium, home of the European Community, has always been regarded as a joke by the stylemongers of the western alliance. But now the DJs and dancers of Belgian clubland are striking back at that cultural colonialism. The new beat of Belgium is ready to explode.
Entering the Boccaccio Club in Ghent is like falling into a dislocated vision of life in slow motion. Two and a half thousand dancers are standing, backs rigid, limbs swinging at robotic half speed to a soundtrack of deconstructed, underground Eurobeat. The tempo is cast down so low that the vibrations are close to heart-stopping. Bass drums explode in cascades of digital reverb, electronics undulate sensuously and any stray shreds of voice are ground to a growl. Bass, how low can you go? Lower still, say the dancers. For the music they're calling New Beat, they'll go as low as you like.
Every Sunday night, people come from cities all over Belgium, from Holland, France and even Germany to feel the beat of the Boccaccio. The club is a massive mirrored place of glitz, a garish temple to the laser and, as the clock crawls toward daylight, an enormous neon-lit sauna. Everyone is moving to the New-Beat, standing at the bar, on the stairs, on the balcony and the dancefloor, the whole club shifts to and fro on its feet in an unconscious Mexican Wave formation. When DJ Olivier pushes the speakers to the bass limits of endurance, switches the lasers to overdrive and mixes up IN-D's 'Bastion In-D Stress' - one of the New-Beat crowd's own records - the reaction is total bliss-out.
New-Beat is to Europop what house music is to disco; a sound savagely stripped of everything unnecessary to its central purpose, a naked synthesis of happy-happy pop-house and electronic disco, as tacky and tasteless as its tempo is slow. Like house, it's a music of necessity, developed through dancefloor demand. In the style-conscious UK, out of its natural environment, it'd probably sound like a bunch of balding Belgians tinkering with technology, but Britain never really got to grips with DAF and only just accepted the likes of Sabrina (and if you see any contradiction between the two, you've obviously never got down in a Continental disco). From imported French lamb to Spagna's 'Call Me' and the Common Agricultural Policy, Brits have a traditional loathing of all things European. We drive on the other side of the road, hold the European Court Of Human Rights in contempt and clutch our pompous British passports to our chests like some inflated badge of honour. So we're not about to welcome some tacky Belgian technopop onto our dancefloors.
But Europeans are bothered little by British notions of what's hip and even less by our fetish for Black American music. New-Beat has plentiful roots in British 'alternative' music and few in the more critically-acceptable US styles - you're still more likely to hear Public Image than Public Enemy in a Belgian discotheque. "We can't produce any rap music," explains New-Beat producer Bellucci. "Rap music is black, and white people trying to copy rap is very stupid."
lnstead of copying they've brought their own white noise, and although its 'untrendy' content might superficially echo the Ibiza-bred and Brit-imported Balearic Beat, it's far from a UK-packaged 'cultural phenomenon'. If New-Beat had been born in Britain, by now it'd be infested with bug-eyed music biz parasites, each slavering for a piece of the action. But there are no organizers, no publicists and no neatly arranged compilation albums (not yet, anyway!). While a cod Belgian accent intoning 'move your ass and feel the beat' might be desperately offensive to our uptight conception of cool, the whole scene has an untainted freshness which could never last in England's cash crazed and cynical atmosphere.
In the '70's, 'Popcorn'-style novelties were the norm in Belgian clubs until superceded by American and European disco. The disco era lasted until as recently as three or four years ago, when the club scene became hungry for a change. An Antwerp DJ known generously as Fat Ronnie was already pushing for that change, working the box with raw Eurobeat and UK synth-pop in small clubs throughout the city, building his audience and his reputation in proportion to his waistline. A new club, the Ancienne Belgique, opened and offered him the chance to play to a crowd of 1500 with a full battery of laser effects and a soundtrack of the best in European electronic sound. The Ancienne Belgique's door and drink prices were outrageous, but every weekend the place was packed to bursting and as the sound became more defined its devotees began to call it AB-Music (from the club's initials), just as house took its name from Chicago's Warehouse club.
But the wages of sound obviously weren't enough for the unfortunate Ronnie - "he needed to powder his nose too often," according to another local DJ - so he took a few liberties and found himself behind bars for burglary. The focus of the scene shifted, and seven months ago a DJ called Marc Grouls gave AB-Music a new name - New-Beat.
Alongside Olivier from the Boccaccio and Pascal from Vertigo in Brussels (Belgian DJs are generally known by first names only, the club name often doubling as a surname), Marc Grouls is one of the DJ figureheads of the New-Beat scene. He programs the slow and low sounds in Antwerp's Prestige from ten every Saturday night until far into Sunday morning. A couple of years ago he was one of a group of DJs dissecting the latest discs in a downtown Antwerp record store when the subject of 'Flesh', Split Second's latest 12" was raised. Too fast at 45 for even the wildest bodyslammer, Marc flipped the Technics pitch control to 33. The bass billowed out suggestively, the electric drums switched their four-four emphasis to every second swinging beat - and the assembled DJs wet their collective knickers. The tempo for New-Beat was, as Marc puts it, set. All the DJs went home and began pumping the rearranged Split-Second to wear-out point. Things were starting to get exciting.
"New-Beat has a very strange sort of alien atmosphere because of the low bass drum and the slow hypnotic rhythm," says Maurice of premier New-Beat label Subway. "People want to feel that music - it should shake their bodies.
"In Belgium, if the beat is fast, they won't dance," affirms the quietly fanatical Marc Grouls. "They want to hear the beat, the smashing sound."
As DJs responded to crowd demand and started to slow other records from 45 to 33, Marc began to feature the 'smashing' sounds on his weekly local radio show, Liasons Dangereuses. Named after a seminal German electro-group who split off from DAF, it spotlighted a particular slice of New-Beat each week. And each week, following the show, Antwerp's premier dance music shop USA Import found itself inundated by demand for Marc Grouls' choice. The word was spreading.
However, DJs were still playing revived and re-scheduled Belgian records like Snowy Red's 'Euroshima', Euro classics like Boytronic's 'Bryllyant" (on 33 of course) plus hardcore UK electro-disco like Nitzer Ebb's 'Alarm', slowed so much that the manic chants of the original were transformed into the heavy rhythmic exhortations that the clubbers were demanding. There was obviously a desperate need for some original Belgian New-Beat productions. People wanted it, and the time was right. As in Britain, the DJs felt that need and responded in vinyl.
Marc Grouls recorded his first 12" under the name In-D in a living room on a 16-track on a low budget. His goal was to sell the thousand copies pressed, a large amount for an independent dance disc in Belgium. 'Virgin In-D Skies' was released on a Friday; by Saturday lunchtime the thousand were completely sold out. Marc's label, Subway, followed this success with a slew of singles from the production team Morton Sherman Bellucci (the Stock Aitken Waterman of New-Beat), all of which recreated the decelerated bass implosions that the DJs were achieving with their varispeeds. One MSB production, the Erotic Dissidents' 'Move Your Ass And Feel The Beat' sold an unprecedented 30,000 copies and reached No. 17 in the Belgian charts without any national airplay at all. As MSB churned out the hits for Taste Of Sugar and Kings Of Agreppo, DJs like Olivier Boccaccio and Chris Kastaar, a DMC Mixing Championship regular, followed Marc Grouls' example and committed their own instincts to tape.
The underground scene also nourished itself with bootlegs. Snowy Red, The Weathermen and Split-Second found themselves the subjects of illicit re-releases and another Belgian DJ found himself in trouble due to his amazingly popular Euro-remake of Chicago house group Master C & J's 'When You Hold Me'. A steady flow of illegal DJ megamixes were issued by record shop owners, some of "real genius" according to Subway Records, whose music they often lifted. But like the sub-Steinski London underground collages, these shady New-Beat mixes only served to publicize the genre.
"They don't want to play any of this music on the radio in Belgium", says Bellucci, reflecting on the British cultural imperialism that keeps Belgian national radio locked into a subordinate role (we give the Belgians Heysel Stadium and The Theme From S-Express and then we call them uncultured!). "The only records they play are the ones in the English charts. We are in the charts here but they won't play us."
"The people are calling out to them to play some New-Beat!" exclaims the incredulous Marc Grouls. As with Detroit radio's lack of response to its city's Techno music and Radio One's ignorance of chartbound house, the conservative audio programmers are passing up the scene that's exploding all over their Hush Puppies in favour of an imported sound.
Back in the Boccaccio, two and a half thousand people are grinding their dirty Doc Martens into the face of that complacency. Outside the club hundreds of yards of polished motors, Mecedes and Porches among them, testify to the wealth of both the scene and the country. These are the well-off kids, the ones that can afford the cocktails and the clobber and can stand losing a Monday's pay in the cause of some serious Sunday raving. The hardcore New-Beat addict will slip into some lycra, cycling gear or a cut-off top, bootleg BOY gear from Belgium's Virgin and City operators plus anything with the word 'London' on it (in a bizarre tribute to a city which treats their culture with contempt) and drive hundreds of kilometres to make the party. In London's West End, clubs are commoner than DJ records and nothing remains special for long. But for the party people of the Boccaccio, every Sunday is a historic occasion. This is the first time Belgium has bred an authentic, indigenous dancefloor culture and people aren't about to let its birth pass quietly.
"Six months ago only three or four clubs played this music," says Bellucci. "Boccaccio is the trendsetter, the most extreme club, but now it starts to grow in all sorts of places. The story is not yet finished."
"It's going to go much further," declares DJ Marc Grouls. "If I play it, people go crazy. At this rate, the rest of the world simply can't keep their eyes shut." Born out of the Belgian underground, developed by DJ innovators and nurtured by an ecstatic club crowd, New-Beat is already spreading across the borders and deep into Central Europe. Whether the Europhobic UK responds or not is irrelevant. The New Beat of Belgium is here to go.
-1 SPLIT SECOND 'Flesh'
-2 IN-D 'Bastion In-D Stress'
-3 VICIOUS PINK '8:15 To Nowhere'
-4 BOYTRONIC 'Bryllyant'
-5 SNOWY RED 'Euroshima'
-6 TASTE OF SUGAR 'Hmm Hmm'
-7 B-ART 'Alright'
-8 EROTIC DISSIDENTS 'Move Your Ass And Feel The Beat'
-9 CONFETTI'S 'The Sound Of C'
10 NUX NEMO 'Hiroshima'
(To be decelerated as desired.)
BOCCACCIO, Ghent, Sundays
PRESTIGE, Antwerp, Saturdays
VERTIGO, Brussels, Fridays
Click here to go to New Beat menu page: