San Proper talks Amsterdam, collaboration and defying all expectation
When it comes to San Proper, eccentric doesn’t quite cover it. Rush Hour’s most madcap selector, he’s known for raw, genre-defying productions, unpredictable sets and a whirlwind persona. But after a chase across Amsterdam, DJ Mag learns he’s really just all about the love...
"Hello and welcome to Amsterdam. This is Dr. Professor San Proper. This is my home and I was born here in 1977." Somewhere in the centre of the Dutch city, San Proper has hijacked DJ Mag's dictaphone, and we're in hot pursuit as he makes his way to a party showcasing his work by the Children Of The Light collective - made up of artists/designers Bart Hess, Gilles de Brock and Boris Tellegen - where he wants to collect some records for tonight's 20 years of Rush Hours show at revered nightspot, Shelter.
“Woah! Watch out,” Proper gasps as he blocks us with his arm and the frantic sound of an Amsterdam tram’s bell alerts that our chase across the city is almost cut to an abrupt end. “Shit!” Proper exclaims straight after as he drops his phone on the floor. “Don’t worry,” he smiles his inimitable grin as he picks it up, “I got a bumper, baby.” Arriving at the party, Proper greets a large group containing close friend and collaborator Tom Trago and Amsterdam Night Mayor Mirik Milan. After fixing some cocktails he disappears into the party, not to be seen again for almost an hour. When he re-emerges, he’s clutching a handful of classic funk and soul records including The Pharaohs’ ‘In the Basement’, The Crusaders’ ‘Pass The Plate’ and Mutiny’s ‘Mutiny On The Mamaship’, all music that forms a part of his wide-reaching DJ sets.
Proper, who appears to know just about everybody at the party, has been a leading light in amsterdam's undergroud electronic music scene for over 20 years, playing countless DJ sets, radio shows and residencies at spaces across the city for over half his life. There have even been tongue-in-cheek rumours of Proper having doppelgangers in the city to keep up with the number of commitments he has.
“Amsterdam is a harbour, so trade was the central part of the city,” San explains once he’s talked through his records. “It’s built on a swamp. There was no culture, no backbone. That’s why the real Amsterdam never really bloomed. Since Rush Hour, Dekmantel and Amsterdam Dance Event it’s all turned out nice. It was like a melting pot and now that has turned into a nice stew. There’s a healthy club scene, a lot of techno tourists and an exchange between artists from all over the world. Even some British Brexiteers are allowed to play here,” he grins again, “Amsterdam is healthier than ever.”
When collectives like Rush Hour, the first label to release Proper’s music in 2007, and Dekmantel, who entrusted their third release with him in 2010, blossomed at the turn of the decade, the boom in electronic music came at a time authorities were beginning to see the benefits of nurturing the scene in the city. It was the perfect storm.
“But when people say Amsterdam is booming, it’s not about Amsterdam, or London, or any other fucking city, or country, or club. It’s about us. The power generation from today. We make this happen everywhere. It’s happening all over. You should never try to frame it, or put it in a box, or think that it’s about politics or culture. It ain’t no football match, man. There ain’t no winners. Everybody loses. This is dance culture.”
And although he’s right, the Dutch harbour city is part of a continuing boom across the globe. With the continuing scene emanating from here it’s clear that Amsterdam is having a moment, and Proper continues to be its beating heart. His own nights here have previously demonstrated his willing resilience to the mainstream, with Choque, The Black Disco Bust and Italo Elite all dually kicking against the status quo at the time they started before pre-empting shifts in electronic music fashion.
When we leave the party, we head to the Volkshotel — or ‘People’s Hotel’ — the high-end hostel-cum-creative hub where Proper shares his studio with fast-rising skewed soulful house producer Elias Mazian. Right on the doorstep of where the much-loved Amsterdam club Trouw used to be, it sits on the site of the former offices of De Volkskrant, or ‘People’s Newspaper’. During the construction of the hotel the building was allowed to be part-inhabited by squatters, with an art community developing that contained some of the biggest players in the city’s underground house and techno scene. As the network of creatives frequenting the space expanded, an improvisational bar-restaurant opened to serve them, before the building expanded into the hotel it is today. The Volkshotel maintains the studio spaces in its basement, which continue to house Amsterdam mainstays like Proper, as well as Detroit Swindle, Juju & Jordash, Beesmunt Soundsystem and many more.
There’s a record fair in the lobby upstairs when DJ Mag arrives, while his studio is an Aladdin’s cave of hardware and items like the “ghetto percussion” he picked up on a recent trip to South America — fashioned out of a vintage Volkswagen hubcap. We finally settle to talk in a communal space between the studios in the sprawling basement of the building.
It’s a place Proper says he can be found frequenting during the week, either at his studio or relaxing between sessions in the hot tubs on the roof that look out over his beloved city. The material he produces there is characterised by a diverse mix of different genres, combining house and techno with the organic elements of rock, disco, soul, funk, new-wave and beyond. The sound is the product of Proper’s musical past. He started out playing guitar in numerous bands as a teenager, winning the Grote Prijs van Nederland — the Dutch grand prize for recognising new pop musicians — as a member of The Mindmenders in 1999. But by this time, he was already becoming a part of the electronic music scene spinning at various bars and parties across the city.
“The whole electronic thing suddenly opened up my eyes,” he explains as he smokes a cigarette. “That was interfering with the band, so I left a month later. I did so many different styles and sessions in the live circuit though, it’s still in my system to fuse that electronic and organic fragrance.”
After leaving he immersed himself fully in Amsterdam’s electronic music scene, discovering a newly founded record store in the city that would de ne much of his career to come. “When Rush Hour opened their doors, I learned a lot about underground electronic music,” he explains. “It schooled me. So, they’re definitely to blame. They owe me money because of this trauma,” he laughs. “But they really are responsible for my career.”
Rush Hour — whose logo is nestled amongst Proper’s many tattoos — put out his ‘Proper A’dam Family Series’ through 2007, which saw him collaborate with a number of producers from the Amsterdam scene including Steven De Peven, Tom Trago and Olivier Boogie. The releases would also capture the attention of Zip, who would release ‘Keep It Raw’ two years later, still one of his most recognisable tracks.
FROM THE HEART
Mainly made using an Akai MPC, Proper’s music often sounds like it is drifting marginally in and out of time, which is in part down to the fact he records his own samples. “I like to take a drum machine, like an 808, or a dirty, grimey, dusty, grey drum machine, and play percussion and real drums on top,” he enthuses. “When I use a synth, some sort of classic motherfucker like a 106, I love to play some guitars on top. I love the rawness of real hardware and again, it ends up together like the same soup and stew I was referring to earlier.
“Trying to analyse things is dangerous, as the charm of it all is that I haven’t got a clue what the fuck I’m doing. I’ve always worked on the assumption that I’m making disco music, but other people label it under tech-house or whatever, which shocks me as obviously it’s not that disco at all,” he laughs. “I just do it from the heart though, and when someone gives me a thumbs-up because they like the music I produce I tell them it’s you and me, we do this together. This is our culture: our power house culture.”
Another key aspect through Proper’s career is collaboration. “In art now nobody is original, but you need to trigger each other to keep that re,” he explains. “It really brings out the best in myself and the person I jam with. There’s a lot of creative acceptance and progress which you can detect when it comes to Amsterdam now. It reflects the whole harbour thing we talked about, which is ironic.”
And the Volkshotel is a hot-bed for this. Proper’s inimitable vocals have popped up across releases from the band of artists held in the space — including Nachtbraker’s recent Heist Recordings EP ‘Misses Madame Mademoiselle’ — while a huge bank of hardware to pool from and artists to jam with has helped form countless working relationships.
Recent releases for Proper include a remix EP on the Sound Of Vast which contained the big beat- tinged romp ‘Born Ready’ (The Rainco Disclub Bow Mix), his ‘Elephantoms’ EP with Montreal-based producer Hear and his ‘L.O.V.E’ EP on Dopeness Galore — a trio of releases that demonstrate just how unwilling he is to stand still as an artist, yet consistently deliver highly destructive warped dancefloor cuts.
Later that night DJ Mag heads to Shelter to see Proper spin at the 20 years of Rush Hour celebration. Looming topless over the decks with a grin fixated on his face when we arrive, he has the crowd bouncing to raw ghetto house. Proper abruptly hits stop on the turntable, plunging the room into silence, before hitting play for the next record to lurch into motion, creating a rough- edged U-turn into slamming techno and proving himself as one of electronic music’s last true rock & roll stars.
Proper’s DJ style is characterised by these constant surprises and an unerring lack of fear for playing the unexpected. His rule breaking sets can incorporate acid, razor-sharp electro, ghetto, soul, funk, new-wave, rock, fried disco, Italo and more from his seemingly cavernous record collection.
“I like to tickle,” he smiles, talking about his DJ style after coming off deck. “To provoke, surprise and inspire. Dekmantel and Rush Hour created a lot of space for a variety of DJs and artists to really challenge with music and taste and the way you present it. The worst thing is for people to get stuck in a loop of, ‘This is what I like, this is what I do and this is what I represent’. People should broaden their horizons to the fullest. Non-stop.”
Proper is also a rarity in the electronic music scene: as he is original. Much has been written about his love for eccentricity and wild sense of humour, but he’s also a deeply thoughtful individual. Throughout his time with DJ Mag, Proper constantly switches role between interviewee and interviewer, asking questions throughout his answers. But his onstage demeanor isn’t an exercise in branding, in fact the shirtless DJ on stage is 10 percent of the reality once you scratch beneath the surface.
“I would never have expected it, but people like what I do,” he tells DJ Mag. “Which is something to feast upon. “A real samurai doesn’t claim to know it all,” he continues. “A real samurai is still learning. They accept this. And that’s why they’re like that. When you think you know it all, you probably lost it already. You know? So I like to focus on the moment, because as soon as you think too much, it’s probably going to backfire in your face.
“It sounds corny, but prospects and future is about love. Love is a weird sensation, but it’s important as it’s what feeds life and keeps this whole system rocking and rolling. I can tell by the way you look at me that you love me. And I love you too. I want to love. I don’t want to kill myself by clubbing myself to death,” he laughs at his accidental pun. “But I do realise that we have to focus on taking care of each other and spreading the love. So, this is what I’m trying to focus on more than ever. Babies, marriage, all that stuff is nice, but the real thing is that a lot of people need help. So why not reach out?”
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