Label of the Month: Drumcode
Talking from his family home in Ibiza during lockdown, Adam Beyer is cherishing his time with his wife Ida Engberg and their three children. It’s also been a productive time for the Swedish DJ, producer, and founder of Drumcode Records. He’s made 10 tracks so far, though he’s only happy with three or four that “are up to DC standards,” the self-critical 44-year-old says. “But, of course, I’m looking forward to putting the first bass drum back on for a dancefloor…”
Getting his start DJing hip-hop, early hip-house, and acid house at the age of 12 in the late ‘80s — “for me, hearing a 909 sound was revolutionary” — Adam has always been at his happiest behind the decks. But when he was “bitten by the techno bug” a few years later, things were really set in motion. “It was all nice and fun and glossy, but then I finally found techno in ‘93,” he says, remembering discovering early Jeff Mills records at Berlin record store Hard Wax.
Struck by the “seriousness and political messages” of techno and the feeling of it being an “outsider society,” Adam says it resonated with him more because “it had a message to identify with.” Mostly though, he connected with its “no bullshit attitude and the raw, real vibe of it — nothing could be picked out as cheesy, and that suited me as a person.”
While working at iconic Stockholm record store Planet Rhythm, Adam launched his own “pure techno” label in 1996. It was the result of teenage Adam restlessly waiting for his tracks to be released. He’d been releasing on labels like Planet Rhythm, but was making so much music that he wanted to speed up the process. “I realised that, thanks to the connections I had made, I could take control of it.”
Investing £3,000 of his own money to get Drumcode up and running, Adam “took a chance” and the first release sold out. Some of his heroes began playing the tracks out, too. “I remember we gave Jeff [Mills] a box of new records and he played them straight away in his set that night,” Adam recalls. “As a 20-year-old raver, I thought I’d already made it, like my career had peaked.” What followed was a string of limited releases — “people started buying them, so they got popular and the label grew fast.”
By doing things his own way, and dedicating all his time to the label, success came naturally for Adam and Drumcode. And with that, a new Swedish techno sound was born. “I always knew what I wanted and just went for it,” he reflects. “Back then, it was so much about our group of friends just doing what we did. It was a collective of people helping each other.”
One of those friends was Adam’s old school mate, Joel Mull. The two started raving together in their teenage years. “School didn’t really get our fullest attention,” Joel laughs. Instead, they were focused on buying records and finding out how the music was made. “It was all about finding out where sounds came from, how to make them, and that led to finding equipment.” It didn’t take long before the pair built their first studio together in Adam’s bedroom, where they were collecting instruments and figuring out how to use them.
For Joel, it was natural to see Adam progress from being a DJ to running his own label. “He was so into it, and all this knowledge got to him really early.” Joel even recalls the first Drumcode test press arriving: “We were all in the record store and buzzing for the release.” Since those early days, Adam and Joel have collaborated on tracks together and Joel’s productions regularly feature on the label. “I can see how focused he has been, it’s all about pushing forward. Drumcode became its own being in a sense, almost like seeing your child growing up and then what it’s become. It’s bigger than just a record label.”
And Joel is just one of dozens of artists — including Alan Fitzpatrick, Joseph Capriati, Enrico Sangiuliano, and Ilario Alicante — whose career in techno has essentially been launched by Drumcode. And that’s because, rather than placing himself on an untouchable pedestal, Adam is willing to lend a helping hand. “I know some labels where the main DJ has put themselves really high up and no one can reach their level or even have a chance to stand out or play at peak times at shows,” he says. “But, to keep the label alive, I’ve always believed it’s important to push others and help people. Even if some of the artists on the label stride past me and take over, I don’t really care. I’m grateful for what I’ve had and couldn’t have asked for a better job; there’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to help newer artists.”
It’s certainly been the case for the label’s youngest signing, 27-year-old Layton Giordani, who boldly handed Adam a USB when he saw him DJing at Pacha NYC five years ago. The Italian New Yorker’s confident move paid off: at Awakenings festival that summer, Adam would go on to play two of his tracks. “It was unreal, Layton recalls. “As an outlet for music, it’s incredible. Once you’ve been signed to Drumcode, you’re set on a whole other level because you’re reaching an insane audience.”
According to Layton, it’s Adam’s future-focused approach that’s helped Drumcode climb to the top tier of techno since its DIY beginnings. “He never looks back at the past or gets hung up on music for too long,” Layton says. “He always goes with his instinct and wants to move forward, which I think is the most important thing.” Joel agrees: “Having Drumcode as a platform, for a lot of new artists, it’s a stepping stone to get involved in many new territories.”
Alongside being a springboard for upcoming DJs and producers, Drumcode has arguably helped change people’s perception of techno and opened it up to a wider audience. “For a while, techno could be a bit negative and elitist,” Adam considers. “That was something I wanted to change,” he says, admitting that although he fits that bill as a youngster in the mid-‘90s — “I was that angry guy” — his perspective changed as he got older. “Seeing the world, getting to meet other DJs and being exposed to other dance music cultures, that changed me as a person — as well as having children.”
Adam now says he “cherishes the side of dance music that isn’t that serious… I’m more concerned about everyone being under the same roof with equal rights.” This realisation also made Adam understand what he didn’t previously like about techno: “It created division and a schoolyard mentality with some DJs that I met on the road. It shouldn’t be the case that we judge other people because of their taste in dance music.” With Drumcode, Adam wanted to turn that on its head. “It was always a very conscious decision to try and portray it as something positive that was about techno but didn’t judge or point at other music styles, saying ‘this is shit, that’s rubbish’.”
These all-embracing values ring true with Drumcode’s mixed fanbase. “As a techno brand, I think we’re very lucky to have roughly an equal split of men and women coming to our parties,” Adam says. The label’s audience also happens to be among the most dedicated you’ll find in electronic music. As well as the DrumcodeArmy account on Twitter, countless fans worldwide have had the label’s logo tattooed on them. “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself,” Adam says. “It’s unreal how much some fans buy into what we do. For many of them, it’s a lifestyle.”
The culmination of more than two decades worth of hard work resulted in the first-ever Drumcode festival, which took over Amsterdam’s NDSM Docklands in August 2018. With its line-up consisting entirely of artists who had released on or were affiliated with the label, the festival broke new ground. “It had never really been done before on that scale,” Adam considers, “and the response it received was totally surreal — we had people flying in from the States, Australia, and Sri Lanka just for the event.”
This summer is different, though: festivals have been postponed and clubs temporarily closed as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t mean Drumcode is on pause. Instead, Adam and the team are carrying on as usual during the coronavirus lockdown. As well as continuing to release new music as planned — Bart Skills’ Settle In The Sun EP is out June 8 while Raxon’s Orbit Connection lands June 19 — there’s Drumcode Indoors, a series of DJ streams on social media featuring label favourites playing virtual sets.
“The idea is to give our fans something as a way of connecting everyone; it’s also allowed certain artists to play different sets than what they usually would.” Adam is also planning to release a solo EP in the summer, which will be his first in five years. “I finished a live stream with an early version of one of the new tracks. It’s got an end-of-the-set vibe because it’s really melodic but with a trap vocal; I like the contrast between beautiful strings at 130 BPM and the raw rap vocal. A lot of people were asking for the track ID, which was reassuring.”
Adam’s also been busy recording weekly Drumcode Radio shows from home, and then there’s DCLTD, the label’s vinyl-only offshoot that he’s keen to grow having put a call out on social media for “darker, harder and faster tracks”. He’s hoping it will reconnect with Drumcode’s roots. “A bit more raw and real techno like Steve Rachmad and Psyk… there’s a lot of good stuff around.” If something comes along that he likes, Adam says he might put a digital compilation out. “But it needs to be right. I’ve got a lot of demos, but I haven’t found a single track that I want to sign because a lot of them so far have just been the normal Drumcode thing and not specifically trying to do what I was asking for.”
This uncompromising attitude is exactly why Drumcode has led the techno charge for the last 24 years. “People know what they’re getting and the sound has a unique vibe,” Adam suggests. But what does the future look like for the label? “I want to keep it intelligent, with that Drumcode sound intact and not go too much towards different trends like hardstyle that are seeping into techno now; I’d rather keep our flavour a little bit.”
Adam’s extremely aware of his and the label’s place in 2020. “There are always people looking for something that’s more challenging, tracks nobody else knows,” he considers. “I’m aware of that, but it’s not my job anymore to do it. I did that when I was young and hungry. Now, I love playing music I love on big stages and making as many people happy as possible. I took that decision, to make something that people could identify with.”
The key to Drumcode’s long-term success, then, is the combination of Adam’s unwavering DIY ethos and his unpretentious attitude towards music. “It lives its own life now, and obviously Adam is captain of the ship, but there’s so much more attached to it,” Joel says. “I’m super proud of where it’s come from,” Adam adds, “where it is and where it’s going.” For millions of ravers across the globe, the label has provided an entry point into techno – but Drumcode’s impact and legacy stretches far beyond the dancefloor: it’s a way of life.
Ben Jolley is a freelance journalist. Find him on Twitter.