Interview by Steve Lewis.
For me, DB Burkeman—DJ DB—has been around since Redzone, my almost-great joint up on west 54th street. Redzone was one of those mega-clubs back in the day, where a club social scene was balanced with great music from big DJs. Now it’s usually one or the other, as crowds are trained, and accept the same ol’ same ol’ track, spewed out by computers garnished from the internet. Music and clubs have become a means to escape from the troubles of the world, and rarely are culturally forward—at least, musically. The sounds of the future are only found in smaller venues. Even the mega-club Pacha offers only one superstar DJ per night, with the smaller Pachita room not getting famous for breaking any ground. It was important at one point to break ground musically. Now you can walk into a joint and hear good music which was ground breaking 20 years ago. Each DJ will put his own little twist to the track but rarely is there anything to shout about. DB is a DJ’s DJ. His well-earned musical chops have been breaking new sounds since vinyl was king.
For those who don’t know you, give me a quick run down of who you are and what you do.
My name’s DB Burkeman, but people may have heard of me through music as DJ DB or Simply DB. I came to NY in 1989 from London, where I was one of the main DJs and promoters at Peter Gatien’s Limelight there. I was really only planning on staying 3-6 months, but I fell in love with this crazy city, and then Wini, who I would go on to marry, and have two amazing kids with. That was over 20 years ago. I met you, Steve, in the early 90s working for all the “cool” clubs—MARS, Redzone, MK—and although grateful for the heaps of cash people like yourself were paying me, I quickly realized if I wanted to eat more than pizza everyday, I’d need to do more than DJ for hip clubs. So my late friend Dorian Chinner and I started throwing our own outlaw parties under the name of “DEEP.” At the same time Gary Pini & Cory Robbins of Profile Records offered me an A&R gig putting together the Best Of Techno & House compilations. Gary and I were then given our own imprint, Sm:)e Communications, which went on to become a seminal 90’s electronic label.
Sm:)e was originally going to be called NASA Recordings, as I was now running a really incredible club night called NASA, but I had a greedy idiot of a partner who wanted Gary to pay him a fortune for the name, so Gary simply came up Sm:)e. NASA was the first club to feature a style of music from the UK called jungle which later became known as drum n’ bass, and Sm:)e was the first label to release that music in the U.S.
What was Breakbeat Science and is it still around?
Well fast forward to the mid-90s, when DJ Dara and I opened Breakbeat Science, the first and only record shop dedicated to D&B. This quickly became a label, and also the very epicenter of the jungle scene in the U.S. In ‘97 I got hired by Warner Bros. records to set up their “ELECTRONICA,” (I hate that word) label. What a fucking disaster. Then Ministry of Sound poached my partner Andrew Goldstone and myself away from WB to head up the U.S. version of the dance label. Fucking disaster number two. Fast forward to 9/11. Not only was that the death of 3000 innocent people, but I believe it was the death of the music biz as we knew it, or at least, the tipping point where downloading music for free became the norm. I kind of knew it was over, but many didn’t yet.
We decided Breakbeat Science needed to change or it was going to die. So we partnered up with one of the Surface 2 Air guys, and flipped the store into a men’s lifestyle boutique called BBlessing. Breakbeat Science does still exist, but only online, as the only place in America to buy D&B records & its cousin, dubstep.
Do you still DJ? What do you play? When I used to book you for The Palladium & Red Zone you were very eclectic.
Yes, one of my best friends who’s also my agent, jokes about how I hitched my wagon to a real winner with the whole jungle/drum n’ bass thing. If I’d stayed with house, techno, electro or even trance (god forbid), who knows where my DJ career might have taken me. But I do still love that jungle music. I still get booked to play an occasional rave, or d n’ b night in some sad club that’s hurting for business, in some city that has seen better times. In NY, I mostly get booked to play old school sets.
So what have you been up to lately?
Since I’m pretty much unemployable, other than for a record label, and there are none left, I’ve been “ducking and diving,” trying all sorts of creative projects and entrepreneurial schemes to make a crust. There’s too many to go into here, but some have worked and others failed. Other than music, the only other thing that I’m passionate about is art.
Three years ago I was at home on the couch putting a scrapbook together of the stickers I’d collected over the years from punk rock and skateboarding. The husband of my wife’s best friend, who happens to be a literary agent, said “That collection of stickers would make an interesting book.” So after three years of my family putting up with sticker insanity in my house and over 1000 artist’s contributions, 30 writers, incredible input from a partner, and tons of volunteers, September 14th my very first book will be released by my favorite publisher in the world, Rizzoli. It’s the fucking bible of stickers! It’s called Stuck-Up Piece Of Crap: Stickers from Punk Rock to Contemporary Art. My partner Monica LoCascio and I are now in the process of organizing a worldwide tour of the 6000 stickers, other objects & ephemera. It’s 40 years of pop culture that starts with Andy Warhol’s banana for the Velvet Undergroundand& ends up on the streets of NYC with today’s street art. I also have been given an outlet for my musical tastes by Alanna Heiss of PS1 fame, who now has an online art radio channel called Art On Air.org. Her program director, DJ Jennie Hopper has given me a 90 minutes show every two weeks to do what ever I want. I wanted to do the most eclectic show that anyone has ever heard here. I grew up listening to the late great John Peel and I wanted to do a mix tape type Show, that at least attempts to be as inspiring and eclectic as Peel had been. The shows are archived as you look down the page.
Most of the so-called high-end clubs have the same DJs with the same mashed up format. Is it possible, in NYC, to have a club like the olden days of yore, where advanced music programming is embraced by the “monied” crowd? The “in’ crowd?
Sadly, I think those days are gone. The divide of the “haves and the have nots” continue to get wider worldwide, and resentment grows with it. It’s always been the people who are economically hurting that produce the most original and interesting art/music.
Are we, in America, drifting farther away from Europe musically? What is the major malfunction and is it on which side of the Atlantic?
I actually think the lag in time is less now than when I was first in America. I think we were five years behind back then. Now, because of the internet, DJs can hear about, and get the same music instantly. The problem is American’s taste may be lagging.
Give me 5 or so hot tracks that my readers may not know, but could change their lives.
I’ve absolutely no idea what you readers may know, but here are 5 tracks from when I fell in love with Wini. She still requests them.