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Defected Malta: the house music institution's new festival is a sparkling success

After hugely successful residencies in Ibiza, a festival in Croatia, and regular tours around the world, Defected’s latest festival destination is in Malta. Ria Hylton heads to the island to take in the inaugural event

“This festival is right up your stream,” someone purrs down the phone in a voice note to a friend. It’s the third and final day of the inaugural Defected Malta and festival-goers have gathered for a day rave at Fort St Elmo. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” she adds, standing in line at the glitter stall. “Next year, jump on this.”

The sun is at its peak when we arrive, but that doesn’t stop some from giving it large on the dancefloor. Most have played it safe, staking out the shade, but others stand front and centre, soaking in the mid-afternoon heat and revelling in honeyed melodies. The site decor looms large over the crowd — Glitterbox flags hang in gonfalon style from the fort’s inner walls, some with the brand’s signature heart, others with photo prints that call to mind a youthful Brigitte Nielsen.

The stage, flanked by sky-high mirror columns, boasts a catwalk podium — for the dancers, who will arrive later — and a sound system that carries well beyond the building’s walls. And then there’s the crowd, many of whom literally sparkle — beards, cheeks and arms caked in glitter. As we set down in the make-shift green room, Fat Tony strolls through, gives someone a friendly middle finger and glides towards the stage, all in one seamless act.

Defected is a tribe. As the UK’s biggest house label — and arguable contender for the world’s most influential — its global reach and fanbase set it apart in underground circles. It’s a world in which pleasures are guilt-free and super fans can, if they so wish, attend a label event any month of the year. With parties in locations as far-flung as South Africa and Indonesia, regular US and Australia tours, and legendary Ibiza residencies — not to mention its annual six-day excursion in Croatia — there’s not much this label won’t do. Malta, however, is a new unknown — some 50 DJs have been flown in to entertain the tribe at five locations across three days, and whereas Defected Croatia is located on one site, in Malta, venues are spread across the island. 

We catch up with Wez Saunders, Defected’s newly-appointed CEO and co-owner, who’s been with the label since 2014, to talk logistics. “Feedback has been quite incredible for year one,” he tells DJ Mag at St Elmo, disco thundering in the background. “People really trust us to put on good parties and to find interesting locations.”

An aerial shot of an outdoor dancefloor at Defected's Malta festival, with a photo of a dancer with a fan overlayed

The only real ‘teething’ problem, he shares, is the shuttle buses, which haven’t run as smoothly between locations as he would like. Saunders has, however, the numbers of a few super fans, and so expects a list of recommendations to come through post-fest. And what about ticket sales? “3,000,” with hopes to bump that up to 5,000 next year. Doable? “My job is easy, really,” he smiles. “We just need to keep putting out good music and putting on good parties.”

It’s three days earlier and we arrive at UNO Malta, the island’s largest open-air nightclub, located in Ta Qali’s crafts village. Defected has brought its Keith Haring-inspired designs to the festival’s main stage, wrapping the dancefloor’s four columns in neon graffiti — and any other surface it can get its hands on. The Treehaus, the second outdoor stage, is teeming with foliage and hosts the label’s Classic imprint. Indoors at the Heart stage, the UK’s Jimpster is gently working the decks. We listen in as he teases out long blends, at a pace decidedly slower than the other sets on offer. Tonight’s billing comes courtesy of Sondela and, having inspired a generation of African electronic music artists, it’s fitting that the deep house producer is on the line-up. He weaves Stefan Ringer and Ash Lauryn’s ‘Let’s Get The Rhythm’ into Ron Trent’s mystical ‘Black Magic Woman’, before opting for tracks with busier high-ends. Spritely, calypso-like keys and beefy horn sections begin to fill the room, and the change is noticeable in the crowd.

Jamie 3:26 arrives at the decks sometime after 10PM and spins ‘Gonna Be Alright’, a new Melvo Baptiste release, on which he features. “Clap your mother-fucking hands,” he bellows out over the mic, adding, “This is a No.1 fucking track I’m playing right now courtesy of my brother Melvo — show us some damn love, we hit No.1 today!”

Photo of a packed dancefloor at Defected's Malta festival

Baptiste joins the Chicago legend on stage, and the two embrace to a rapturous crowd. Day two begins late-afternoon with a three-hour trip out to sea. We arrive at Bugibba Jetty and get chatting to Farouk, a Texas- based IT specialist and Defected Croatia regular who swears by the label’s boat parties. “They’re the best part of the festival, you’ll see,” he grins. “Tell me what you think after.” 

Nightmares On Wax, who is on for the first 90 minutes, elects for deep, funky cuts as six Glitterbox dancers begin to warm up the crowd. We set sail sometime after 4PM, heading north towards Comino island, and up deck two guys recreate Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic scene from Titanic. One embracing the other from behind, the pair begin a slurred rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and quickly trail off. There are many other playful moments like this, and time really does fly — by the time we’ve circled Comino, the evening sun has moved off deck.

It’s just gone 9PM and Todd Edwards is dishing out a heavy dose of bangers on the main stage. He whips out classics like Sandy B’s ‘Make The World Go Round’ and MK’s ‘Burning’, before moving into club-ready takes on ’80s hits by the likes of Prince, Yazoo and Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’. It’s a playful, perfectly ordered set and Edwards plays with a clear anthemic finesse, proving that there’s more to this UKG legend.

Sam Divine, affectionately known as Defected’s First Lady, is preparing for her midnight set on the main stage. “I feel really proud of that title,” she tells DJ Mag. “It’s challenging to be a female in this industry, and back then there weren’t as many female DJs. I felt like I really had a lot more to prove.” It’s a point that feels even more striking, considering the male- heavy line-up — we count seven women out of 51. Divine plays a vocal-heavy set, dropping garage, an unreleased cut she’s been working on, and anthem of the summer ‘B.O.T.A’. She has the crowd singing along to every track, and hands over to Heidi in the early morning.

Kerri Chandler, Heidi and Carl Craig behind the decks at Defected's Malta festival

By the third evening, it feels like the festival has finally hit its stride. Melé takes over from Monki, offering a muscular two-hour set with many heady moments. He riles the crowd throughout with bold gestures, directing them the way a pastor might his congregation, as a lone raver, all in white, dips into and sprays the crowd with bubbles. At one point, Melé blends KiNK’s ‘Sunshine’ remix into what sounds like Tall Paul’s extended ‘Voodoo Ray’ mix, low-end chuggers that animate the dancefloor. It’s an impressive performance, full of theatre, and a highlight of the evening.

The Treehaus is chock full by the time Kerri Chandler arrives. Todd Edwards and Heidi, both of whom played the night before, and Carl Craig — who will bring the stage to a close — are all behind the decks. The Jersey house legend, who released his first album in 14 years in October, has had one of his busiest summers. He starts off with old-skool deep tracks, mixing with one hand and playing his keyboard with the other, and brings the crowd to a raucous peak with ‘You Don’t Know Me’: Duane Harden & House Gospel Choir’s take on the Armand Van Helden classic.

He gets a similar response from Todd Edwards’ remix of Wildchild’s ‘Jump To My Beat’. Edwards leans over, scans the tribe and smiles. Not bad for a first party.

Ria Hylton is DJ Mag's staff writer. You can follow them on Twitter @ria_hylton