30 Years In The Game: Orlando Voorn Talks


Orlando Voorn is one of Holland's techno icons. The first artist from Amsterdam to forge links with the Detroit originators, Voorn instinctively grasped the ephemeral blend of funk, jazz and machine music that drove the Motor City groove, and furthered that grove with well over a hundred of his own cuts under a dizzying array of monikers. In fact, his high production rate and keeness to switch names at the drop of a hat probably held his career back in later years – piecing together just what is and isn't an Orlando Voorn production is a task that only the deepest techno spotters are equal to. It's only now, as techno history is being carefully annotated that Voorn's importance as a producer is being fully recognised. 

Having started his career as a 13 year old scratch DJ with serious skills, Voorn then spent the 90s in Detroit focusing on production – now he's back in Holland, back on the decks, running a few labels, and keeping the flag flying for true school techno. There's no room for half measures with Voorn – he's proper techno or nothing, and proud.

In this extended interview we touched on everything from his early days in hip hop, his Detroit links, and his candid thoughts on an industry that he's made his home since the mid 80s. 

Ian: hey Orlando, I thought I'd talk about your early years first- I was just reading about how you won your first DJ competition by borrowing someone else’s records, is that true?

Orlando Voorn: Yeah, yeah that’s correct.

I: That seems so bizarre- How did it come about?

OV: Well, it was um… I started out, when I was younger, when I started to get interested in disco and American import music and stuff like that, I started buying records whenever I could. But most of the time I was just spending time in the record shop, just looking, watching, listening… I went out to clubs real early- back when I was 12 I looked like I was 18,19 years old, so I put on a suit and went to the clubs that were for 21 and over. Going out I met a friend called Dave and he had turntables, that’s how it started. We were always practicing in his room, back-spinning and that sorta stuff. When I first got into this DJ business I was very much into Hip Hop and old Disco, it was a mixture of things, there was nothing like nowadays where everything is in cages. Back then we still could vary a little bit.

So what I would do is practice back spinning, scratching and that sorta stuff. So when this competition was going on, it was in Flora Palace, I think it was around ‘83 or some shit, and I went there basically at first to look, “what’s going on?” I wasn’t even planning to be in the competition. When I entered there the guy who was in the competition knew who I was and he knew that I did scratching stuff so we talked a little bit with each other. His name was Johnny Tiffany, he was a white guy and he was really good, he was a pretty professional scratcher and he had tricks and stuff. And he said, “Are you in the competition, do you wanna join?” and I was like, “yeah sure, but I ain’t got no records on me.” He said “well you can lend some of mine,” so I was like “yeah, no problem, cool, that’s very nice of you.”

And to make a long story short, when I came on and I had my ten or fifteen minutes, the whole place was jumping up and down (laughs).

I: Do you remember what you played? What were the tunes he lent you?

OV: It was like Kurtis Blow, the Breaks, you know I had doubles of stuff, he brought doubles with him, those type of records from the early rap stage.

I: So, were you scratching up that “clap your hands everybody” intro?

OV: Yeah, yeah, cutting it up and then taking the volume all the way down and scratching and stuff. There was an American judge so they were like “yeah, that’s the man, that’s the man!” and with my age, I was younger than everybody. So I won that competition and I was too young to go on TV, they wouldn’t allow that here. So, the second place which was Johnny who lent me those records, he went on TV and showed his tricks. But yeah, that was my first DJing encounter. Later on, I entered AVRO which was a mix competition on Radio 3. First you had to go through rounds where you had to mix three records, blend them perfectly together and then you can go onto the next round and so forth, and so forth. So I went to do that and after that things got pretty fast because they went to organise the first Dust DJ championship here and I won that. After I won the first one I went on to the DMC world championships- that was in ’86, and I came third. And I even questioned the fact why I was third and not second or first. Yeah, I was very secure about my case and I was not very pleased with the outcome and made it very well known. I’m very known for that too.

I: Do you remember who won? Who came second and first?

OV: Yeah, second was Chad Jackson and first was DJ Cheese of the United States. DJ Cheese didn’t do any mixing but he was incredible with his tricks and that made him number 1. And Chad Jackson was, you know, the UK favourite so he basically got, as far as I’m concerned…

I: The home advantage.

OV: Yes, yeah. But I made a comment when I got third- it’s really funny because I wasn’t happy at the time- I said, “Well, is this a mixing or a scratching competition?!” and then Tony Prince, from DMC, kicked me in the butt, grabbed my microphone and said “OK, now it’s time for you to go,” and Mixmag had a whole thing written about that statement that I made because Cheese was in, that particular period, the only one that really scratched and the rest of the contestants were mixing a lot. So it was a great experience. I had a wonderful time and after that I went touring with two guys who had a hit record and I went all over the world and saw a lot of places.

I went two more times to the DMC world championships, the second time they have footage of but the first time unfortunately not. The first time was way better than the second time. But, yeah, there was footage made. The first time actually where DJ Cheese was on, I haven’t seen much footage of that.

I: So how did you ending up switching from hip hop over to your techno production?

OV: When I started out with this techno thing it was a little different because I came from the hip hop world so what I did was I worked with rappers. This is a big part that drove me to this music. I was working with rappers and we always had arguments about money even before there was anything accomplished, anything done. I always had problems with these guys thinking they’re big shots. I told them you have to work for something, in America you can’t just expect stuff to fall out of the sky. You gonna have to work for it here. And that was back in the late 80s. So I got so tired of it and I said, “I don’t need all this shit. I’m gonna do something that I can do by myself.” This is how Frequency – Where Is Your Evidence came about, it's all based upon samples of hip hop parts and little pieces and then I play on top of it. This is how I started. So, it’s true that I looked back on what was interesting for me and made it something new and then started to figure out that there was these Derrick Mays and Juan Atkins’. I started listening to all of these guys.

When I made my first record for Lower East Side Records, the guy who ran the label knew Juan. He said “hey Juan, listen to this, it’s Orlando Voorn from Holland blah, blah blah, he sounds like you when you make techno, maybe we can link you guys up.” So he basically linked us up and 2 weeks later Juan was in my bedroom and we were doing a track together.

So that’s how that came about. Life then wasn’t internet based. It was still about mouth to mouth, word to word. I got a phone club from a club, the Roxy, and they said Blake Baxter was there. They said “Blake Baxter is here and guess what his favourite record is? It’s one of yours…” I said “wow, cool.” I went to see him, talked to him and two weeks later I was in Detroit making records with him for two weeks. It felt real, natural, smooth without no promotional bullshit around it. It was just pure, you know. At this point it seems more like you have to have an enormous budget to promote your stuff online.  I believe people are being bought. There’s people behind the larger sites with great money and power that push things up front. I mean, it’s not always like that but in most cases it’s been the system.

I: All of this sounds like the start of a film to me. Do you ever think about making a film of your life?

OV: Yeah… Quite some things have happened… At the end of the road though it goes back to the same thing that everything goes to… When something is pure and starts out it’s a little bit more interesting, and easier to remain relevant. It’s a bit harder these days. It’s because of the commercial vibe… Techno and house music and electronic dance music has been involved immensely over the years in the technology, so it makes it very easy for people to jump in and join the musical revolution. Whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t really matter. Everybody now has a chance to be heard and have their music presented in some kind of way. Whether it’s on the internet or vinyl, however you wanna do it. I’m still trying to cater to the people that like Orlando Voorn as an individual, music-wise. That’s how I still make my music so I’m not sitting at home with a formula… “Oh I gotta do this now because this is hot right now.”

I guess because I used many monikers it has worked against me at some points because a lot of people didn’t know that I was such and such. I’ve a lot of names: Complex, Playboy, Four In One, Night Tripper, Frequency, and so forth. A lot of people didn’t realise that I was behind certain records until later. I got pretty much recognition in my own country when I started working with the Detroit elite. Before that it was really kind of rough to get anywhere, to get acknowledged in house music. When I started making house & techno records back in '88, the first real recognition was always from outside, outside of where I was from and then it comes back. But I heard that’s quite a common thing with producers on their own turf. That they’re more known elsewhere than on their own turf first.

I: Yeah, I actually just spoke to a lot of Scottish producers who felt that they got recognised outside of Britain far more than they got recognised inside England through the 80s and early 90s and the same is for a lot of the Detroit guys as well –

OV: Oh yeah, sure, especially because I’ve been very close with them and been around the first wave very early… In Detroit it’s even worse because Detroit doesn’t even care about their own people or artists as much as Europe does. Now it’s getting much better because it’s been recognised as techno music, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson- are recognised characters but they are still more recognised over here in Europe than they are in their own country because America is still much more of a rock and hip hop nation.

I: I think North America is more comfortable with black people making hip hop than they are with black people making techno and dance music.

OV: Yes, and that black people might be more open to the idea of multi-racial culture where the gays and everybody had fun and danced together. But right now they have so much in the world. Detroit is their home base and they’ll look at it as that. But other than the Movement festival, there’s nothing much going on there.

I: Did you go to the Movement Festival?

OV: Not this year, no. I’ve been moved to Holland and…

I: Oh, you’ve moved back to Holland? I thought you were still living in the States.

OV: Yes, yes. I’ve moved to Holland and I’ve been here for a little bit and I’m trying to get everything going here.

I: What inspired you to move back to Holland after living in America for so long?

OV: Well, for me it was a little bit of a problem – I’d never DJ’d very much when I left Holland before, so when I left and went to the states, the DJ thing kinda fell off. It was more like Orlando Voorn the producer. So I’m trying to get that situation sorted where I’m still very much DJing and that’s why I came back here, so I’ll be closer to the places where I can play. There’s so many DJs around already and they’re in the loop, they’re playing every week, here and there. It’s a set road. For me I kinda bumped off that road because I went to America and started to focus too much on production and not too much on DJing. Basically what I’m doing now is I’m setting up NightTrippin Records, Night Vision records as well and I’ve got a few other labels I’m working on. I’m trying to get that going here so I can start doing label nights.

I: Is the move back towards DJing driven by the economic reality that you have to be a DJ to earn a living off of dance music now?

OV: Well, it’s been a bit of a struggle to remain doing the music I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing it and I’ve been maintaining it but it’s been an up and down situation, especially when you are a producer of a certain type of music. It’s not like EDM one hit wonder thing where you make 50,000 Euros for a record and you sit on your ass and do nothing. The first thing that’s important for me is that what I do is what I love. I can’t do the stuff that people try to tell you sells just to make money. That’s a no for me. Sometimes I wish I could ‘cause it would make life a lot easier. But I also think that sometimes people are lazy with creating. Creating is supposed to be creative and not something super duper simple without any meaning behind it- there’s a lot of music a lot of people call techno but it’s not. Again, to each person music probably hits different. For people that work 9-5 and go to a party and just want a night out to get the whole week out of their system, they don’t care about those things. They just want to have a nice night out and they feel like “OK, this is techno. Now I’m hip and I’m part of the society because everybody dances to techno.” Those are not the people that I am making techno for. I’m making techno for people that understand what it really is, that understand what is a good record, why it’s a good record and why does this one hit and why that one don’t. 

Then, basically, there’s too much going on, there’s too many records coming out right now. There was always too many records coming out when it was just records, but now we have records and some more records and some more digital music that we get thrown everyday so it’s quite impossible. Even if this is your profession, it’s quite impossible to understand how many things are going on at the same time. So you have to distance yourself from that and only pick out what is good for you. That is basically what I do it right now.

I believe that the purest music comes from somebody who makes it without any financial pressure. That’s how I made my hit records. When I was most creative, I didn’t think about sales, none of that. I just made it and I felt very strongly about certain records that I made, “this is going to be really good.” A musician can only be creative when his mind is totally free. That’s why you see a lot of guys that do this and they take a job, they get a 9-5 and they do this when they get off of work and they start making some music. That’s not how my life went. My life went like I took literally to struggle. I said if I wanna do this I need to be able to do this 100 percent. I can’t be doing that 9-5 and be doing this a little on the side and see, you know, this is my great passion. That’s the difference between a lot of people. They will not sacrifice for what they love. I have.

I: Do you look back and regret using so many aliases over your career?

OV: Oh, I regret a lot of things. I regret a lot of things.

I: Have you got a list?

OV: I don’t have a list but the thing is this, the most important thing about regretting things that you’ve done in the past is that you learn from them and that you get a better person and that you understand what not to do in the future.

I: I’ve got a theory about aliases, I think that in the '80s and '90s everyone wanted everything to be new. Dance music was looking to the future and I think the aliases thing was part of people taking on new identities which seemed to make sense because it was like “we’re from the future,” it was almost like leaving behind everything that happened in the past.

OV: Yeah. This is how I looked at it. Business-wise I could have done it a little bit better. I made these aliases so I could do three, four records in the month on the different aliases then there we go! So that’s how I did that, plus I had different styles of music. I did some hard stuff, I did some housey stuff, and some more just listening stuff. So I made aliases but yeah, it got out of hand because I wanted to keep going, keep doing what I’m doing and I had too much output and they advised me back then, don’t put your name on everything because it’s gonna look like you’re selling yourself out with the same name on every record. Which kinda made sense to me because I was like “ok, I kinda get with that” and also people not knowing who it is sometimes is good because people have prejudiced feelings about certain things.

I: You’ve been in the industry now for a long time, longer than most people. What do you think of this state of the techno scene currently? Do you think it’s healthier, not so healthy compared to other points in your career?

OV: Well, I honestly feel that all the BS, disappears on the way ‘cause it just won’t last. So there will always be waves of bullshit, because these people don’t know what good music is and will never understand and they’ll never learn and they’ll never know. They’ll never get taught either. But I do see that a lot of young ones are digging into the history right now and they are doing it very, very well and they are very well educated which makes me very pleased. Those are the guys that are our future so I see a lot of young people digging into the history, they’re learning their history and they understand who started the process. They understand what’s real sounding and what’s not real sounding. Those people inspire me to keep doing what I’m doing.

And the vinyl thing is booming- the young ones are very into this vinyl thing which is a very good thing. I’m not against technology per se but I didn’t feel the digital thing as much as vinyl. I still don’t. It helps because the people that don’t have a record player can download your stuff, but I think the real fan will buy your records. I think it’s hard to be focused on what’s really, really good because there’s so much going on. As a producer myself, my time is more invested in making my own music. So half of the time I probably miss a lot.

I: Ok, so is it possible for you to define for me what you consider real techno?

OV: Well, this question is really hard because again it is all about the taste of music. But if I talk production-wise, I can also talk about music I don’t like. For instance if I hear a trance record and I know it’s well produced I will totally say that, “this is not my thing, but this is some serious production behind it.” But that is something that’s in my brain, I cannot explain that to somebody and you can’t explain the feeling to another person.

I: Of course you could have very well produced, complex records that are really fucking boring, and if you look back at the history of techno you see some of the early stuff, say, tunes like Spank Spank, are very simple and still amazing.

OV: Yeah, well it is tricky and that’s a very good point because what’s simple sounding is not always simple to make. At all. It’s mostly the stuff where it goes towards jazz, let’s say jazz, let’s talk about jazz music. If you have the most complex chords, that’s gonna be way too much for people. The real jazz lover will be like “ah, these chords and the combinations!” and people who can’t comprehend it are like “oh, that’s a bit too much for me, you have something that I can follow?” Techno is a repetitive music so when you have one repetitive line, that repetitive line better be so damn good that it will be staying good whenever you put it on. That’s making a classic record. This is the hardest thing ever because there has been so much done already. Right now, 2015, it’s hard to make a classic record.

I: Now you’re starting to DJ again, can people expect you to bring any of the tricks that had you winning DMC when you were a kid to the turntables?

OV: I’m a freestyle DJ. I like quick mixing and I like to do some back spinning sometimes but most of the time you have to be very careful when you’re doing techno and house and that sort of thing. When you dance it’s a little different, it can be a little irritating to hear someone scratching all the time. So I don’t do it too much.

I: I love seeing a techno DJ who scratches a little –

OV: Yeah, it makes the live feeling better than somebody pushing a button. Which is going on a lot now – even the bigger guys do it because it‘s easy. Give me a controller and I can tune everything together. I don’t have to do nothing. It’s the easiest thing to put a mix together on a controller. But if you have a record you cannot possibly tune it to another record. It is that record, it’s pressed, that’s it. You gotta do it with that. So you gotta find another record that matches that record. The difference with technology is I don’t have to do that. If I use Traktor I can fine tune every record on top of another one.

I: And you don’t think that that allows a different type of creativity? I’ve watched people using Traktor, playing things at the wrong pitch, making loops, and using it in a more creative way than trying to make everything sound like one smooth level. I mean, it can be used really lazily but –

OV: Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think Traktor is incredible. If you’re a real DJ and you have Traktor you can expand your ideas, all the ideas that people always thought about and wished for, they can do now. So it’s really stupid to say “oh technology is destroying whatever,” no it’s inevitable – everything evolves. The essence of the thing is the person behind the controller, whatever it is, still has to have knowledge of what he’s doing. There are major differences between a  producer and a technician. You have somebody that can be profound in knowing what a piece of equipment does from a-z but has no idea how to put a soulful record together. I’d rather see someone with very creative ideas who didn’t know so much about how to handle the equipment than the other way around, than somebody that knows everything and knows how to put the parameter there and how to make the kick sound a little fuller blah, blah but doesn’t know how to make the track touch you (laughs). Cause there are some records you can put on and my whole body will be full with emotion. I can feel my whole body trembling and getting chicken pox and my skin goes, you know what I mean? Those type of records, those are the ones that will be lasting. You hear less and less of them. It’s hard because there’s a lot going on. It’s not as specialised anymore as it was. It’s now a world phenomenon. Everybody in the world does house, techno or whatever they think it is (laughs). You know, they call it that. That’s why when somebody asks me, ‘what music do you do?’ I honestly always answer with “I’m doing electronic music.” Because that’s what I’m doing. I don’t like to put myself too much in a category because they always try to keep you there. 

Keep up to date with Orlando Voorn through his Facebook page.