Gideön: The underground’s rebel with a cause
Gideon Berger has co-created something amazing with Glastonbury Festival’s Block9 field, but it’s been somewhat to the detriment of his own DJ career. In recent years, though, he’s ramped up his own DJing activity — as Gideön — and now gets booked to spin his delicious dubbed-out deep house in places well beyond the LGBT and squat party zones in which he built his rep. DJ Mag meets the former traveller for whom music has to have a purpose...
It’s mid-summer 1994, and the first anti-Criminal Justice Bill demonstration in Trafalgar Square. There’s over 50,000 ravers packed into the area around the famous London landmark, all there to protest the government’s proposed legislation aimed at suppressing the UK’s burgeoning free party scene. There’s only one soundsystem in the square — a crude bicycle-powered set-up — and a teenage Gideon Berger is the first DJ to spin, dropping The Fog’s ‘Been A Long Time’ as his opening track.
“Everyone went fucking mental,” Berger smiles on a warm summer’s day as he sits in The House Of St Barnabus — a non-profit members’ club in Soho. “I remember my hands trembling so much I couldn’t pick up the needle, but everybody went ape- shit.”
23 years later in mid-summer 2017, Berger — better known by his stage name Gideön — spins a 10-years of NYC Downlow set on the Saturday night at the temporary nightclub he co-founded that’s now the beating heart of Glastonbury’s gay autonomous zone, Block9. Dropping a history of house music that works through deep, US garage, acid and more — from the early ‘90s right through to present day — it’s an emotional moment for Gideön, who has committed much of his life to parties with a cause.
“Those club-nights that are just about DJ worship, being seen or hook-ups are usually empty and devoid of anything I’m interested in,” he explains. “Parties that have moved me always orbit around scenes that have meaning beyond surface value, as for me music is empty without a cause.”
When DJ Mag meets the London-born selector, it’s nearing the end of a season that’s seen him spin at Love International, DC-10 and Berghain’s Lab.Oratory. But it hasn’t always been this kind of space that’s hosted Gideön’s performances — he had a two-decade-long career in underground music before becoming a successful ‘touring DJ’.
“Where I cut my teeth was really far removed from the current scene,” he reflects. “I was playing illegal raves, squat parties, festivals and teknivals, surrounded by the travelling hardcore techno world with soundsystems like Spiral Tribe, Total Resistance and Bedlam.” But much has changed in the time that Gideön has become the face of NYC Downlow.
“It’s going bananas for me,” he smiles. “I work all week and spend most of my weekends in airports, but [because of wider commitments to Block9’s projects] I’d kill myself if I did three gigs every weekend. It’s just unsustainable.”
Sitting in the garden at the back of The House Of St Barnabus, it’s clear that Gideön is a deeply reflective individual, with a wide bank of philosophical musings on the scene he’s established himself at the centre of. Dressed in a worn-in denim jacket, cotton scarf, cream trousers and sporting an Aiguille Alpine rucksack, his appearance is as relaxed as his personality.
He says he’s had “shade” thrown at him in the past by people questioning if he’s only booked because of his position at The Downlow, but seeing him spin it’s clear that if anything his full-on role as co-director of Glastonbury’s psychedelic playground has delayed his DJ career.
“There are always haters,” he smiles. “But I like to think I’ve got a pretty dope record collection and know how to use it. I’ve been buying records and putting together sets for almost a quarter of a century; it’s what I do when I’m behind the decks at Block9 or NYC Downlow that matters.”
He explains that disentangling himself from Block9 as Gideön is sometimes difficult, as co-running a space that carries the baton for gay culture alongside collectives like Honey Sound System or Chicago’s Smart Bar is fundamental to his being. “Music is my life, as is Block9,” he explains. “In the 10 years The Downlow has been going I’ve found a platform to present a vibe, exploring LGBTQ culture through sound and music, whilst actively promoting it. People have been paying more attention recently, but I’ve been doing the same thing for over two decades,” he laughs.
As well as running Block9 with creative partner Steve Gallagher, Gideön also does his Absolution parties in Berlin, which have welcomed artists including Seth Troxler and Detroit Swindle, and take place in off-location spaces away from clubs. “Essentially, they’re unlicensed, illegal, queer squat parties founded on exceptionally high- quality deep house,” he explains. “A lot like the stuff I did a long time ago.”
The synergy through Gideön’s career is clear as he talks through a life that’s been committed to electronic music, protest and kinship. Born in south London, he first fell in love with US deep house through listening to DJs like Luke Solomon and Matt ‘Jam’ Lamont on London pirate radio stations in his bedroom from the age of 12.
He went on to get his first set of decks shortly after. “I was completely electrified by something about the music,” he enthuses. “I’d tell my mum I was staying at a mate’s house and go to Fruit Machine at Heaven or hitchhike to the West Country where my best friend was heavily involved in the travellers’ free party scene.”
After raving through his teens, he went to Brighton University to study Digital Music with Visual Practice when he turned 18. By this time, he was so immersed in the scene that he used his student loan to buy part of Leicester’s legendary Babble soundsystem — a rig that helped launch deep house in the UK in the early ‘90s. But the decision left Gideön no money to rent accommodation whilst studying, so he bought a 1977 Bedford coach to live in, which he parked on a 150-vehicle new age traveller site in Sussex that also stored the giant soundsystem.
“It was a pretty lawless zone of techno, dogs-on-strings, mud and drugs,” he recalls. “It wasn’t particularly luxury. I was digging a hole to have a shit in the woods, chopping wood for the burner and carrying water from a stand-pipe in the next field.”
During term-time, he studied by gas-light, whilst through summer he travelled around Europe with other soundsystems. “I’d follow Spiral Tribe or Total Resistance parties and do the house room at bigger raves,” he smiles. And that’s where he established the sound he still plays today, all based around “that deep, dubbed-out, homocentric fantasy of house music.”
When he finished university, Gideön moved to San Francisco to see the US deep house music he loved in its natural habitat. “I was like, ‘Get me to the epicentre of the homo universe’,” he laughs. It was a decision that had a huge impact on him. “I was bowled over by the Yanks’ lack of shame. They were breezy, non-binary, laid-back and the opposite of how I’m built. So I slowly tried to work that into my psyche.”
Whilst there he would also become a regular at Burning Man. “Having lived and breathed that world in the UK, it blew my mind to walk around this polyamorous, leftish, psychedelic utopia with a soundtrack of amazing deep house by crews of homos from New York, LA and Chicago,” he says.
When he returned to the UK in the ‘00s — and after switching his coach for a much bigger 1989 Leyland Roadrunner removal lorry that he converted and parked on squatted sites round London — he was given the chance to create a piece of what he’d experienced in the States at Glastonbury Festival with Block9. “The Downlow is a product of wanting to be around that kind of freedom,” he explains. “But I had no idea it would turn into the cultural phenomenon that it is, or be so widely celebrated.”
Five years into that journey, he “bit the bullet” and set up social media accounts as Gideön to promote himself. “I decided I’d spunked enough tens of thousands of pounds on vinyl — and that it makes me very, very fucking happy to play music to people — so there ain’t no half-stepping. It’s was time to either do it or not.”
It’s his wide-ranging collection he features on the open studio Soho Jams show he’s been doing for the last two years on Soho Radio. Previous guests include Prosumer, Midland, Jackmaster, Mr. G, Robert Owens and Dungeon Meat, who are invited to spin anything from reggae, soul, gospel, Northern soul and beyond. “I invite friends and musically like-minded souls on and we try not to play dance music,” he explains. “We have a beer, play records and hang out. There’s no music policies, no promo department, I just rock up and play music.”
Two days after we meet at The House of St Barnabus, Gideön performs at Craig Richards’ inaugural Houghton Festival in Norfolk, where he’s been booked to spin three sets: two reggae and one house. “If you’re a professional DJ and you don’t have a collection that goes deeper than the genre you’re known for, there’s something shy about that,” he says backstage there. “There are a lot of fizzy-pop EDM stars that are all image. Pretty DJs with a USB stick who are manufactured starlets. But they’re easy to spot.”
So did EDM not take off in the UK because we have a deeper history of electronic music? “EDM didn’t take off because the music’s fucking shit,” he laughs. It’s this understanding of exactly what he does and doesn’t like in music that makes Gideön such a talented curator. Programming the music across Block9, he creates the eclectic soundtrack to Glastonbury’s most revered electronic music stages; NYC Downlow, Meat Rack, London Underground, Genosys and Maceo’s, whilst when DJing, many of the tracks he plays are his own edits.
“If a track has a part that’s too much, even if it’s four bars, I just can’t play it,” he explains. “So when you can digitise something nowadays — drag it into Logic and chop it up, taking out the bits you don’t want and extending the bits you do — it has to be done, as that means I can play much more music.”
Having relocated to bricks and mortar in south London at the end of last year, he’s also currently putting the nal touches to a new studio, which he hopes will allow him to further his music-making.
Although it’s clear through his selections that Gideön is much more than a concept DJ, he’s definitely carrying the baton for gay culture and the music and parties surrounding it. “I got turned onto it going to New York and seeing black gay underground culture in the States, and how disco turned into house music,” he explains. “It’s a vibe and a feeling, an identity and a way of being, acting, dressing, dancing and communicating. I want to pass our precious gay heritage and history down to the next generation.
“That thread is at the centre of my sound and loads of other really amazing people too – Prosumer, Michael Serafini, Gerd Janson, The Black Madonna,” he continues. “The really shit-hot people have identified a reference point and are constantly referring back to it. It’s a fine line, though, as I have to be careful I’m never prostituting the sound, our identity or culture.”
The ultimate demonstration of this was the 10-years of NYC Downlow set at Glastonbury in June, a celebration he describes as “amazing”.
But Gideön says the increasing popularity of the scene doesn’t come without its problems. “Gay is going mainstream,” he explains. “I was looking around a festival the other day thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ There were about 300 straight lads all dancing to disco, and they all looked like pseudo-homo Topman clones,” he laughs. “It’s a fashion thing and people want a slice of it. After decades of protest and campaigning for equality I guess we should be self-congratulating that we are integrating into mainstream society, but somehow it doesn’t feel so sweet. It’s important that gay culture and identity never becomes sanitised or homogenised.”
Gideön is still excited about the state of house music as a whole. “There’s a shit-load of producers that really have the right idea right now,” he enthuses. “You have to dig, but there’s a lot of amazing music coming out.”
Before the end of the year he plays a huge Block9/NYC Downlow warehouse party in London and Manchester’s Warehouse Project, whilst his Absolution party returns to Berlin in the autumn. “It’s still a novelty when people give me money to play music,” he concludes with a smile on his face. “I fucking love it. I’d pay people to let me do it.”
Want more? Go inside Glastonbury’s Block9: The festival world’s wildest clubbing space.
Rob McCallum is DJ Mag’s deputy digital editor. Follow him on Twitter here.