House. Techno. Brazil. Jazz. Soul. Disco. For more than two decades Amsterdam-based record store and distributor Rush Hour has been serving up exceptional, eclectic music. Launched in 1997 by Antal Heitlager and Christiaan Macdonald (who left the company in 2012), the company has grown to become a key institution in the global music community. As a label Rush Hour has always provided room for fresh, up-and-coming artist like Aroy Dee, Rednose District, Aardvarck or San Proper in its early days, as well as Hunee, Interstellar Funk, Jordan Gcz, Mutant Beat Dance or Masalo in recent years. In-between they peppered their catalogue with must-have records by legends like Elbee Bad, Virgo Four, The Burrell Brothers, Ron Trent, Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Rick Wilhite and Soichi Terada to name but a few.
Aside from spreading soulful sonic wisdom via their label and it’s many sub-labels, the company also functions as a distributor for all sorts of music and labels such as Music From Memory, Knekelhuis, STROOM 〰, L.I.E.S., and Whities. For Carhartt WIP Radio, Rush Hour co-founder Antal has prepared a mix that takes a mesmeric look at the distribution side of his company, with released and soon-to-be-released tracks from artists such as Garrett, Sabla and Hypnobeat. Instead of speaking to him about the history of his company, one that has been told so often before, we asked Antal about his life as a DJ, the balance between company work and his passion, crate digging, vinyl overproduction and more.
Hey Antal. The last time we saw you was at Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), just a few days ago. In-between, you been traveling the States and Canada. How are you?
Antal: Oh ADE was strong. And then USA. And in-between I relaxed a few days with my family in Paris – that was good. But the States been good too. I first went to Boston and played at the Make It New party. Very nice crowd, amazing hosts! It’s always fun. The day after I played a new New York club called Nowadays for the first time. It was also my first time all night long in New York – seven hours. It was very special. A lot of music from the culture I love came from New York so it is always exciting to perform there. I remember when I came the first time, I thought, what am I going to do here? That was like ten years ago with Kindred Spirits. It was good, but I was kind of nervous back then.
And now it feels different?
Antal: Yes. I’ve DJed now for almost 23 years so you know what you do. I’ve studied the music and I feel I have my own voice. I do what I do.
So you would not play, for example, a Paradise Garage nostalgia set?
Antal: No. Also, if I ever play in Detroit I will most likely not play Strings Of Life or Big Fun. Or when I am in Chicago I will not play The House Music Anthem and when I am in New York I try not to do what DJs in New York do. It’s about doing your own thing. Obviously I put my references in there, but I try to do it in a subtle way. When things are too blunt it doesn’t make sense. If I did that, it would be better if I stayed home!
Last night you played with your buddy Hunee b2b at XOYO in London. When did you go to sleep?
Antal: Oh we played only until five. But I came straight from the USA directly to London. And I had an early flight to Berlin today. But that’s our life.
How do you can cope with all the sleepless nights and waiting times at airports?
Antal: Well, I always get energy from music. As soon as the music starts playing and people start to dance you get into a vibe and I stay in it. Also, at the end of the day every DJ decides this by themselves. You can also calm it down a bit if you like and take less bookings. Personally, I’ve started to find a balance. I stopped playing on Fridays so I can concentrate and spend more time with my family and do my Rush Hour our work of course.
You also need a balance, to maintain the fun and curiosity in what you do.
Antal: Yes, for sure, but it is more difficult than that. Rush Hour for, instance, is a company. It is work. You have to think about a lot – from employees to investments and so on. But I like it. For me the only difficult thing is when I have to work with music that I am not interested in – but that almost never happens. But still you need to find a balance between being an enthusiast and a businessman. That isn’t always easy.
I still have the fire inside me to discover music and find the time to listen to it. I realize more and more again that this is what I am and who I am.
At Rush Hour, you seem to have invested in what many would consider risky strategies.
Antal: Today, when you look at the social media, you see so many people talking. But talking is one thing, doing it is another. It sometimes really annoys me. Because when the economy was poor in like 2005/2006, you wouldn’t hear them. During those years, we had a very difficult time as a record shop and distributor. We are also a big distributor and at that time we had very loyal customers, for instance in Japan, that were shut down overnight. Like Cisco or DMR. Gone, just like that. No replies. Outstanding invoices not paid. We lost so much money in those years. Many people stopped doing their trade. We managed to stay in business and built it up from there again. At that time we had many possibilities to do, let’s say, reissues from our heroes. We did that and we stood up again. When you look for instance at the Kindred Spirits label, we did a lot of projects that were, in terms of content, really good, but it was hard to sell them. From 2007 things improved again. But also, the opportunism increased. All of a sudden, there are a lot of people who talk and know how things get done and they start putting out one record after the next. And when you look now in 2018 on the market there is huge overproduction, you can get everything. It isn’t really selective in terms of what comes out. Obviously it will kick back a notch one day, for sure.
So it is important that there are good record stores like Rush Hour, Honest Jon’s and Boomkat that have a curatorial approach?
Antal: For us, in the shop, we’re always fine tuning what we curate. When there is so much music on offer you have to do this. When you get offered 20 great Brazilian reissues per week, there is no way to highlight them all. We used to do that. Now we select the best out of that. If somebody wants to go really deep into Brazilian music, he or she has to dig deeper anyway. Individual fans find their own ways.
And you as a distributor know, that records stores only have a certain budget to curate their store, so they can’t get all the stuff in.
Antal: Sure. That’s a very important issue that is often forgotten by those who put records out. You see it very clearly with things like Record Store Day. It is a nice thing and in the beginning it was – and still is – a nice gesture. It was something that supported record sales and shops. But now it has become a very commercial activity and big record companies see it like Christmas. They produce a lot of things that people don’t really need. And certain records stores are saving their money before and after record store day. They have a nice moment on that day. But before and afterwards it doesn’t get financially good again for a long time. So on this day, stores need to be selective again and independent. And in that period around record store day many releases that are not linked to it are getting overshadowed by Record Store Day and get less attention.
Do you still go digging when you tour?
Antal: I always try to stay one or two days to do that. Last weekend I played Boston, New York and Toronto. I took one extra day in Toronto to look for music and then I went to Detroit which is nearby and did one day of shopping there and then go home. I still have the fire inside me to discover music and find the time to listen to it. I realize more and more again that this is what I am and who I am. That’s why we are organizing a record fair in Amsterdam in De School on the 15th of December. I put a lot of energy into that. I feel that my energy is still more in that direction rather than what is the next big business adventure.
And who is selling there?
Antal: We’ll sell stuff, but also people who buy at our store and friends should come and bring their bins with stuff they want to sell. We only ask that they curate the crate a bit. Not just bringing dumpy records – make a nice selection. Rather come with one box then with ten and that one box has only nice stuff and you be an inspiration to others. That is our dream scenario. And we hope that labels from Amsterdam participate and present themselves. We’ll also invite a couple of dealers which we think always have nice things on offer.
You run a company, you are a busy DJ and a family man: how do you find the time to listen to the music you buy?
Antal: At the moment I would say I buy more than I can process, that’s for sure. But my excuse for that is I have one room where all my music is and as long as I can close the door, it’s fine. When I have time, like in January where I take a month off from DJing, I use this room to go back to music I found in various locations. Often, I buy something, come home and then travel again without having the time to listen. But it does not matter. You do not have to process the music directly. As a DJ and shop owner it is always good to have a buffer on stock. So, you do not have to go out all the time to find new stuff. You just can find the time to process what you’ve got and get it into your system. I need this as I only play what I know.
Would you ever play records that you just bought without knowing them well?
Antal: I am careful with that. I play a lot of music when I feel like I can play it. And when I do not really know it I am quite careful with it. But sometimes I do it by chance.
For some DJs it is almost a rule to only play music they know totally.
Antal: If you want to build a solid story it is quite important to know the records you want to play. With more abstract music it is different. Let’s say you play a techno set with some abstract flavors and you kind of know what will happen, you can maybe experiment more. But if you play songs you need to know what it is about so that you don’t play a song about love and the next is about hate. That needs some attention to build a story arc.
As a DJ you have the gift of bringing many different genres together. Does this skill come from a long term experience in clubs where you had the freedom to play what you want?
Antal: Well I think I played a lot of shitty gigs back in the days and maybe some people think I still do. But when I start playing and I get into a certain groove one songs tells me in which direction I can go with the next. Either by just seeing the name or the record cover, or often by hearing the songs in my mind – that is why I think you should know your music well. Because in my head I hear the next songs and I just go with it.
Does vinyl DJing help with this?
Antal: A bit. But I am not into the discussion on the mediums you play with. I play any medium. I like them all. Digital DJing has some great features. I don’t have to prove anything to people by only playing records. The only thing I don’t do often is use effects. I’ve not found many I like. Sometimes the echo is a feature I like. It’s a good feature to round a tune off to start with a slower tempo afterwards. But you can only use it once a night maybe.
Would you say that clubs today provide you with a good set up so you can play all formats?
Antal: Well that’s funny, as I would say last night at XOYO, the vinyl sounded better in the room than the digital set-up. A rare moment in which I wished I brought more records. But that’s also a problem with traveling. Going on planes and giving up records that have a huge value is a no go. I don’t give up my expensive records and hope they come out of the plane. So I smuggle them in as hand luggage. Sometimes about 60 records. That’s what I can bring, plus some underwear and toothbrush.
But with 60 records and some USB sticks you can make a night of it.
Antal: Sure. With digital alone you can play for weeks.
What is something that you like or dislike about the music culture of today?
Antal: Well, every year there is always something special that the industry does and pushes. So for us it is always fine-tuning. It’s a journey that never ends. In terms of musical styles you change and things change. As we do. And every year there are trends and then new ones are coming in. And that is something that annoys me with music. And with music journalism. I recently read in a Dutch magazine that the trend of old disco music is over. A strange thing to read by people who come from a rock background and who labeled our music dance just to have a label. For them LCD Soundsystem and Underworld is dance. And now they say Disco is over. But hey: music is a feeling and it is never out of date. If the feeling is there, then all is fine. If you want to start a night playing Brasilian music, dub or Latin and then bring it in into god knows what will work: do it. This is how music travels. I do not believe in any trend or wave. Rush Hour has always embraced everything and that’s our nucleus. Lets take the label house music. I never understood it. For me house music is a way of playing music. Not a label. It is a sequence of playing all kinds of music and feeling it. It is about a feeling.
And finally, what is the future of Rush Hour?
Antal: Well we set up a new store in Amsterdam three years ago. We will set up a new website early next year. These are big steps. But these things are tools. What we really want to do is promote good music and special stuff – be it old or new music. We do not have the plan to open more stores, our investment will be in music, like the Mutant Beat Dance vinyl that we just released. This was a big project by Melvin Oliphant aka Traxx, Beau Wanzer and Steve Summers. Six records in a large booklet. I would like to spend more time going in that direction. This is my core and I hope that I can put more energy in the label in the coming years. That’s my aim.