Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Motor City Drum Ensemble: Motoring On

Motor City Drum Ensemble is on the move, en masse. In other words Cologne-based DJ and increasingly rated producer Danilo Plessow is popping out for a little afternoon record shopping; with a friend.

It’s refreshing to hear that one of clubland’s oldest traditions is still alive and well in these ever-changing digital times. One wonders just how many dusty, treasure trove record stores are actually left today. “Sales are really strong in Cologne right now,” Plessow opens. “Kompakt [globally renowned store and, in turn, label and distributor] is booming; they’re hiring another seller. When I’m travelling I’m seeing this elsewhere too. There are some countries where the economics don’t add up and for which MP3s are the perfect format, but elsewhere vinyl really is alive and well. The stores are somewhere you can hold the music, share knowledge and learn. I don’t think vinyl will ever die.”

It’s hard to see how Motor City Drum Ensemble’s reputation will either. Plessow, 26, started producing, incredibly, some 15 years ago. By the age of 16 he had released his first record and a year or so later cult broken beat house cut
Slow Swing as alter-ego Inverse Cinematics (alongside Joachim Tobias). That tune earned the attentions of one Ricardo Villalobos and catalysed a string of Inverse EPs picked up by major leftfielders including Gilles Peterson and Benji B.

Motor City Drum Ensemble materialised relatively recently, in 2008, after a move to Stuggart and various solo nu-jazz and hip-hop-edged projects. Plessow’s Raw Cuts EPs, recorded under the new alias, combined old school Chicago and Detroit with innovative, deep ‘n’ dirty grooves to huge underground acclaim. His growing status prompted an invitation from Resident Advisor to record a deep house podcast and the rest was history. Kind of….

Plessow is still, he says, getting to grips with all the Ensemble hype. “Resident Advisor kicked off this whole stage of my career. I’m so thankful, it’s led to some hectic but totally inspirational experiences. But, I’m realistic. I am still learning. I am touring every weekend and have done for as long as I can remember, and with each show comes a different crowd and different challenge. I’m constantly learning how to improve my DJ skills, my reading of the dancefloor, my use of these nights back in the studio when I’m looking for ideas….”

It’s fair to say that Motor City Drum Ensemble’s tasteful exploits on the road have taken over the production side of things. Plessow is hoping that his new mix compilation for DJ Kicks will prove a handy segue back to the studio; something evidently he has been missing.

“I’m pleased with the end product but it’s taken some time to put together” he admits. “I didn’t want this to be another DJ mix; what I love about DJ Kicks is that they allow artists to showcase the music that moves them. So I sat down at the beginning and looked to create a mix that moves through lots of different genres – Detroit, Chicago, afro-beat, spiritual, jazz, soul…. As you can imagine the licensing took a long time but we got there and I think it sums me up pretty well. I hope people like it.”

Plessow’s mix is, in a word, kaleidoscopic. It moves smoothly, yet powerfully between cuts from legendary cosmic jazzsters Sun-Ra and afro-drum kingpin Tony Allen to the classic, soulful 4-4 strains of Larry ‘Mr Fingers’ Heard and Rick ‘Poppa’ Howard and deeper electronic moments by Robert Hood and Aphex Twin. Kaleidoscopic, epic even….

Can we expect a similar methodology when our man sits down to start recording his first artist album as Motor City Drum Ensemble? - because that is firmly the next step.

“It is time to start planning this thing out, definitely” Plessow confirms. “It’s a progression from what I’m currently doing but there is some pressure, because I’m also doing it to try and justify the hype that has been building around the name… live up to the hype. I don’t want to rush an album out, I will take my time getting the right things together, maybe a few EPs before the big release, but I’ll need to focus. The next few months are an important time for me.”

What might we expect? “You’ll have to wait and see” he laughs. “I get so many inspirations and ideas from being on the road and meeting DJs, producers and singers I admire, as well as experiencing different crowds and places. I have a lot I can work with.”

Whilst Plessow will look to curb the gigs in favour of constructive studio time, his pace of work is likely to accelerate, if anything. It begs the question of when this seriously in-demand young man gets to take holidays. The modern club artist’s lifestyle is as intense as lifestyles get.

“It’s important to treat this lifestyle as a job, not a party. For sure, it’s a great life to be living but you have to have some professional balance” he offers. “I’m a disciplined performer, I will make sure I get a decent sleep before any big gigs so that I’m fresh for the crowd and don’t kill myself. I also plan my commitments so that I can include the odd holiday. I’m off to Israel for some shows in a couple of weeks and I’m taking my girlfriend so we can relax for a week or so after.”

Mr Plessow is also a stickler for his Monday morning ‘detox’ sessions down at the nearby sauna: “People often ask me if all the rushing around DJing and being holed up in the studio is worth it but it absolutely is. I love music and will never lose that feeling so even when things are too hectic there’s this motivation to keep on. Of course, yes, I do like going to the sauna on Mondays; it’s the perfect comedown after a weekend playing out; a great way to get all the toxins out and set up for the following week. I’m only 26 but I want to look after myself!”

Such pragmatism extends to his long-term aspirations. “I don’t think I will be DJing much beyond another 20 or 30 years” he confesses. “I’m not sure that I will be ready for that. I’ve started producing for other people now, like Rainer Truby [German jazz and boogie-meister], which takes me out of my box and opens me up to other things which, in turn, can feed back into my own music. I’ll definitely want to do more of that in the future, make some jazz and punk records maybe… really diversify.”

Was there ever really going to be another career path? “That’s a toughie to answer” he ponders. “I always liked swimming and a little grafitti art. But I was into music really early. I still like cooking, maybe there is a sideline there in the future? – I could open a cool jazz boutique with fine wine and food… you never know.”

In the short-term, however, Plessow is mindful of further cementing Motor City Drum Ensemble’s good name; much has been done but much is also still to come. “I’m not 100% happy with my studio yet” he sighs. “My immediate goal is to add a few things there so that I can produce the records I want to produce next and develop my label [MCDE]. I really want to make one good, worthwhile album; not just slowly disappear. I’d hate that.”

As would we...

Words: Ben Lovett (Defected)

DJ Kicks: Motor City Drum Ensemble (UK !K7) is released on July 4.

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