Cinthie is the house music polymath at the core of the Berlin club scene
Berlin’s Cinthie is responsible for some of the most sought-after deep house records of the moment. In between her hectic schedule of label management, running a record store and gigs, we caught up with her in Amsterdam to find out how she’s built an independent network through determination, drive and good taste...
Words: ANNA WALL
Pics: GEMMA PARKER & MARIE STAGGAT
Let’s put things into perspective — a lot can happen in 12 months. Try launching a new label, a vinyl store and building a new studio from scratch, all the while touring the world, committing to weekly studio sessions, and being a full-time mum. For some, that might seem an impossible list of things to juggle, but these are just some of the commitments that Cinthie Crystal has dedicated herself to lately. Unflinching ambition is something that she has in abundance, and it’s been 22 years of hard work that have led to where she’s at. Right now, she’s enjoying the successes.
An avid vinyl collector with a multitude of independent record labels, plus years of experience in the booth, have led to her being one of Berlin’s most treasured house music selectors. She’s spent the best part of her career playing records, knowing what works on the dancefloor, and releasing records that do just that. The proof is that they’re repeat sell-outs — an impressive achievement in what has become a frustratingly oversaturated market.
“It makes me proud, because you know when you’re working so hard for a product, it’s so nice when it gets recognised,” Cinthie says with a smile when DJ Mag congratulates her on her recent EP. At the moment, her imprints Beste Modus, Beste Freunde, Unison Wax, We_R House, and the brand-new 803 Crystal Grooves are consistently in high demand.
Cinthie greets DJ Mag with a big embrace. Although she was playing until the early hours of this morning, she’s full of positive energy, and arrives with some good news to share. Technique Records in Tokyo, one of the most widely respected stores in Japan, are now stocking her new record ‘Crystal Grooves 001’. It bodes well for the re-press of her solo EP that flew off the shelves, released on the fifth label she manages.
We’re at the idyllic Blauwe Theehuis café in the leafy environs of Vondelpark in the Museum Quarter; away from the ritual commotion of Amsterdam Dance Event. Last night, Cinthie played back-to-back with fellow producer, DJ and friend Anil Aras, best known for his output on SlapFunk Records.
“When we started Beste Modus, we got booked for Watergate as a crew with Kerri Chandler on the second floor, and we were allowed to book a warm-up artist,” she says. “Last time, we booked Malin Genie from SlapFunk, and Alex Salvador, both from the Netherlands. Then when we had the next party half a year later, we booked Anil Aras. We had the best night… it was like a click immediately — we became super-close friends.”
The pair have great chemistry in the booth, with mid-set hugs and high-fives that become pleasantly contagious across the dancefloor. When we witnessed them DJ at Amsterdam nightclub Claire, the room quickly filled, the crowd clearly drawn in by their groove-laden selections. There were plenty of moments, with the duo throwing down Chicago classics or cheeky twists such as 20 Fingers’ ghetto house anthem ‘Short Dick Man’. You could tell that it wasn’t the first time they’d played together. As the lights went up at 3.30am, it was apparent that no one wanted it to end.
Friendship and loyalty are clearly qualities that Cinthie values. One of the most pivotal moments in her career came when she met a group of friends that have since become the core label set-up: Diego Krause, Stevn.aint.leavn, Ed Herbst and Albert Vogt, now collaboratively known as Beste Modus. They were acquainted back in 2012, at a party in Berlin — although about to leave the club in the early hours, they heard some music that enticed them to stay. It was their first time seeing Cinthie, and they were immediately intrigued by her record collection. A friendship formed naturally, and after some music swaps, she was also impressed by their productions. You could call it a bold move, but it wasn’t long after that she approached them with the idea to start the label. The intention was to create a platform to release their music, in a simple vinyl-only white label format. No frills. It was a formula that worked; BESTE001 was the first record they put out together, and it subsequently sold out within 48 hours.
The collective’s own club-ready records were clearly a driving force. Like with any sought-after label, it gained them plenty of attention from other producers, and in 2015 they launched their first sub-label solely to put out music sent to them from their “best mates”.
“With Beste Freunde we are so open,” Cinthie says. “It can be like a techno track, for example Anil’s ‘Untitled’. It’s so good that you can reach a different audience, not just the deep house fans… a lot of my techno friends play this tune.” She’s talking about the A1 of Beste Freunde 005 by Anil Aras, striking a different audience with its industrial kick and deep dub techno stabs.
“I mean, always aim to the dancefloor,” she continues, “but come on. The four-to-the-floor kick-drum — never change a winning team! It’s worked for so many years. Of course you can produce electro, and sometimes I like to play a broken beat track, but you can also see the reaction in the crowd, and they really have problems dancing to it.” Like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and it’s this groove-laden four-four sound that she’s become renowned for. Every track signed has been road-tested at gigs the weeks prior, and in Cinthie’s words, “Everything is dancefloor approved”.
This could well be the key to the sheer amount of units they’re shifting worldwide, and each release they’re repressing, a position that other independent labels would aspire to be in. We discuss in-depth her thoughts on the vinyl market. There are so many factors to selling records these days, and the secret to success isn’t something you can learn overnight.
“Our best-selling record has sold about 4,000 copies,” she says. “It’s amazing yeah, it’s crazy. When we start pressing, we usually press like 1,000 to start with, and I also realised that the market is quite saturated and it takes a little bit longer, so I was like, ‘Let’s take it easy and press 500’. That’s what I did with the last Unison Wax, that’s what I did with the last Beste Freunde, that’s what I did with my record. And it sold out in like 48 hours. What the fuck, you know?” she laughs. “So with Unison and Beste Freunde, I re-ordered 300 — that’s the usual amount I would re-order. But with my record, I had such a big demand, I re-ordered like 800.”
It’s about knowing your market, and regardless of what the critics say, it’s satisfying to know that dedicated vinyl buyers are still alive and kicking. It’s this insight that led to the inception of Elevate — a new record store for her ‘crew of kindred spirits’, exhibiting their in-house labels and those of their fellow Berlin-based artists. And as we know by now, Cinthie has a lot of talented friends. Among the racks you can find back catalogue picks from Italojohnson, Slices Of Life, Nick Beringer’s Rubisco, Certain Circles and some very desirable label merchandise. Even Cinthie’s daughter Marlene has been rocking the latest Crystal Grooves jumper to school.
“I worked in record stores since I was 16 for like five or six years, and I always loved it,” Cinthie says. “During that time I always played on the Friday. People came up to me asking, ‘What’s this, what’s that?’ and I’d say, ‘Just come to the shop’. They’d all come and buy the record, and that was really nice you know, and something I’m still keeping inside of me. Sharing music and track IDs,” she says. “We have so many people in our circle that have amazing labels, and why are we not just putting the power of all the labels together and supporting each other? Maybe try and add some other labels as well so you know we have this really big community.”
Cinthie has big ideas — at the time she was working with a local merchandiser to package the stock, but knew already that she wanted to expand. “So I put everything in my living room, and I was going crazy with all the boxes. Even my daughter was like, ‘Mum, if there’s any more records coming I’m moving out,’ and she’s nine,” she says. Two weeks later, she’d found the perfect space just two doors down from her house. For the Elevate opening weekend, they invited down friends, fans and family. “Especially with my record, because it was selling out so fast, I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to give something back, you know? We were buying some beers, and my neighbour who has this French restaurant was doing some tarte flambé, and I was giving that out for free, and people loved it.” It was an opportunity to give back to the record buying community and connect with the fans that buy every record.
Cinthie’s DIY attitude has also been the motivation behind building her own studio.
“I had the feeling that production was the one thing that I could add a bit more time into, and get better,” she says. “I was like, ‘If I really want to do this 100%, then I need the best room I can work in’. If I really want something, then I work really hard for it so I can get it.” If you can account for all the goals accomplished in 2018, it’s a mind-set that works well for Cinthie. With the help of a friend who has built studios for Ben Klock and Rødhåd, she got the blueprints and went about making it herself.
“I have to say it was really satisfying, because I was always setting myself some daily goals, and then at the end of the day I was like, ‘Oh I did it’, and I was so proud of myself,” she beams. Her core studio essentials include the TR-909, Roland SH101 for basslines, and the D50 for keys and pads; emanating the classic house sound that is so prevalent in her work. “A friend of mine saw on Facebook that I was renovating my studio. He made music in the ’90s and he was like, ‘Hey, let me have a look at my cellar, I think I have some gear… ok, there’s a Juno 106. Then he also had a Yamaha DX7, and he gave me this really big rack with some stuff in, and I didn’t have a proper look. I was in the studio and I’d just finished everything. I wanted to plug in the cables and my friend who makes the videos for Electronic Beats (Holger) was like, ‘I’m just round the corner’. So he came round and said, ‘Give me the cables, I’m just going to do it for you’… he was there for six hours. Now I have all this gear and Holger gave me a 505 for my birthday. But like with every new instrument, you need to learn.”
Although it’s been over two decades that she’s invested herself into music, it’s in the last five years that she’s been able to concentrate on it full time, and her daily routine is disciplined.
“Usually I go to the studio three times per week,” Cinthie says. “I’m really strict, so I bring my daughter to school at 9 o’clock, and I’m in the studio from 9am until 3.40 or something. I usually switch my phone off so I can work really, really focused.”
Sonically, she’s come a long way since her first production ‘Chicago Is Near’, a classic sounding deep house record with Kerri Chandler-esque piano stabs. “From that, you can really see that each track is getting better and better. But naturally, like baby steps.” Even within a year, you can hear the rapid development in her sound. Her latest EP is perhaps her strongest and most dynamic output to date — ‘Together’ is as instantly recognisable as it is anthemic: think The Rhythm Odyssey’s ‘Move Groove’. On the flip, ‘Ada Lovelace’ is a dose of feel-good filtered disco, while ‘No Need To Worry’ moves into stripped-back dub territories. With a glint in her eye, Cinthie also tells DJ Mag that she’s already got the test pressing back for 002 set for January, plus there’s the EP on Will Saul’s Aus Music out this month. She is certainly in the flow state with her productions right now. Inspired by the ’90s sounds of Chicago and New York, she’s fast established herself alongside the artists that got her into this in the first place. At this point, Cinthie also reveals some exciting news, that she’s been asked to rework the 1984 house classic ‘On And On’ by Jesse Saunders, sharing remix duties with one of her heroes — Paul Johnson.
“Those people created this kind of music,” she says. “They bought all these broken machines no one wanted, and they made something new with it. That’s something I really respect. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to make a living out of this music thing. So I have a lot of love and respect for them. Those were the records I bought when I was younger. Now I’m on a record with Paul Johnson!” she exclaims. “It’s good that they like what I’m doing and they respect it, and also because of the fact that I’m a single mum. It’s really satisfying me, and it’s not just like, ‘Oh you have to get her on the remix because she’s hot’, it’s because they like the music and they love what I do.” Then there’s the two remixes she’s finished for NY-based label Homage, and her contribution to Point G’s remix compilation next year. “I feel so honoured,” she says, when we ask her about being the only non-French artist on the release. It’s clear that Cinthie’s brand of house is resonating worldwide.
“I use the music quite carefully,” she says. “Of course I’m doing it for the money, because I make a living out of it, but I’m not doing it to be famous or for my ego. I love it, and it was such a big part of my life always.” When talking to Cinthie, you can see her motivation is unfaltering: she’s confident in her art, and there’s a strong sense of independence that comes with financing everything herself. It’s impressive to see the life of a record label and its subsidiaries continue with the sheer momentum she’s had since their inception, and it’s a solid foundation for those to come.
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