Cornerstone Tracks: Sunil Sharpe charts the start of his DJ career
Until a few years ago, it was quite rare to hear the name Sunil Sharpe outside of Ireland. The Dublin-born artist has been considered one of the country’s best techno DJs for the best part of a decade, but his growing following has meant you’re now as likely to find him at places like Bassiani or Concrete as you are anywhere in the Irish capital.
The increased interest surrounding Sharpe is easily explained. Over the years he’s developed an outstanding talent for mixing records, sometimes cutting between 30 tracks or more in the space of an hour. A string of banging techno releases has also helped, and his forthcoming On A Roll LP with DeFeKT under their Tinfoil alias should be an opportunity for more of the same.
Sharpe joins us on a techno-heavy billing in Farringdon this Saturday, so we asked him to pick out a handful of records for our next Cornerstone Tracks feature. In his list, he discusses some of his earliest vinyl purchases as an aspiring DJ, and how these shaped him as an artist today.
Cambodia (Clanger remix) – The Art Of Trance [Platipus]
Some older friends of mine were big into trance, goa trance, and anything with a trippier sound palette. I picked up a lot from them, and by the time I got a pair of decks, it gave me a head start with trance or tech-trance, or good old acid-trance as well. Naturally I knew of Platipus Records. Like many Platipus fans, I was a bit of a completist when it came to artists like The Art Of Trance, Union Jack and so on. I still occasionally play some of them. This one is slightly more minimal but has a different hypnotic ingredient to the others; definitely one for the head as well as the feet.
It’s interesting because trance gets a bad rep but lately we’ve heard a lot of big name house and techno DJs playing it. Is there really much difference between trance and techno?
At one point there wasn't. I switched off to it as vocal trance came in but the early era before that had so much amazing music. It's disappointing that many will overlook what an incredible movement it was or base their judgement on the more commercial stuff. Trance was just as vital as techno for a while. Like with techno though, you can't just scratch the surface, you need to look deep into it to find much of the best stuff.
Tranceido – Tandú [Noom]
This was on a Billy Nasty mixtape that I used to listen to. Back then it was close to impossible to find track names, but it wasn’t as important, as you could still hear it on the tape and preferred hearing it in the mix you knew anyway. After I started playing records though, things obviously changed. One day I popped into a shop called Music Power in Dublin's Merchant's Arch, and picked this one out to listen to. BOOM! The track with the sireny horns off that tape was now mine! It was such a rewarding part of buying records back then: randomly putting the needle on a record of something you loved and never expected to hear.
Quite a fearless sound to this. Were you already looking for a specific style of record like this at this point or collecting from quite across the board?
As simple as it sounds, I just wanted any records that sounded good, I wasn't thinking quite like a DJ yet in terms of what could go with what. As I started to find labels and producers I liked, I would get fairly obsessed with their music. I was buying mostly techno then, all kinds, and some tech-trance records too I guess. Some Chicago stuff also which crossed into house here and there. I think I widened my collection a lot more when I started getting bored with new techno for the first time – a situation that everyone probably reaches at some stage!
Vessels in Distress – Model 500 [Network]
A second-hand copy of this and The Art Of Stalking by Suburban Knight were two of the first Detroit techno records that I got, delivered from Hard To Find Records. Like a lot of records back then, I listened over and over, really absorbed them, and it was tracks like this that I feel "coated" me somewhat going forward. It was techno on a much deeper level. I later found out that this was co-produced with Martin Bonds (aka Reel by Real), which makes sense considering his own classic track Surkit; you can definitely hear a connection between them. We're at a point now where the first wave of techno partially gets forgotten, but I think you should know that first wave, and especially Juan Atkins' music. It's so warm and free, uplifting and tension-filled too. It's nice to see the appreciation people have for Drexciya's music, and rightly so, but it’s still clear to see who a lot of this can be traced back to.
So would you say discovering Detroit became a gateway in itself for you?
Yes and no. I was probably drawn more towards the darker sound of Detroit, and got more into second generation people like Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, and Kelli Hand; there was another producer called Punisher, I liked her stuff a lot too. The Kalamazoo guys like Jay Denham also. I think when I began working in a record shop called Spindizzy, I discovered a lot that I had missed or overlooked. I worked with Graham O'Sullivan (who had co-run the D1 record shop in its early days) there too, who showed me some less obvious stuff that I may not have known otherwise.
Crisis A Gwarn – Bandulu [Infonet]
I bought a second-hand copy of this in a short-lived shop called Vinyl Frontier in Dublin’s Abbey Mall. At one point there were about five record shops in this mall, including one that specialised in German and Dutch hardcore and gabba tapes. This was like heavy metal meets hard techno when I first heard it. So fierce and warped. I eventually got the chance to play with Bandulu and see them live. Such an intense and masterful clash of worlds, dub reggae v techno. Lucien MCing and owning the room, an authoritative-looking John O’Connell controlling the desk and Jamie Bissmire rocking the 909. It’s extraordinary that Bandulu haven’t had more coverage in recent years for their contribution to techno. What a group they were.
We’ve heard one Ricardo Villalobos playing a record of theirs at the club recently, but we have to say in general we’re also surprised by how few techno artists seem to know of them. Do you think there’s still a lot of untouched gold in 90s techno like this that people have overlooked?
Definitely. Having said that, I think social media and the ongoing sharing of content means that people are clued into a lot more old stuff than previously. As DJs, we can introduce people to older acts, but I think journalists have a responsibility too. In London alone, the amount of techno history is mountainous. I appreciate that some journalists weren't listening back then, but if not, get to know this stuff and share the knowledge. Techno has a history that needs to be told and sometimes re-told; DJs and journalists have a duty here. I'm not going to say we're the “historians”, but you know what I mean!
Chord Memory – Ian Pooley [Force Inc. Music Works]
Back when you’d associate certain tracks with a specific DJ, as if they nearly made it themselves, this was very much a Carl Cox tune. I was after this for a while, and had to settle for the likes of Celtic Cross or the odd Ian Pooley remix until I got it! This is probably the first time I remember buying what was considered to be a ‘big’ tune that my friends also knew after hearing it out. At the time I was hooked in by the jacking beats and “Rock The Discotheque” sample, but these days it’s more about the chords and breakdown for me. An all-time highlight for producer and label.
It’s interesting how the appealing part of a record can change with time. Or the B-side you never played suddenly sounds like a gem you’re been missing.
Definitely. It often happened with some older Marco Carola records – one side would be a banger, but over time I’d go for the other side or inside track, which would be a lighter, pulsing groove for earlier in the night. But yes, it is an ongoing thing for me – sneaky A2 or B2 tracks that later become the highlight of a record!
This is surely one of the biggest records that came out on Force Inc. Do you still play a lot of stuff on the label?
It kind of depends on what I have access to. Not all of my collection is in one place, and some stuff has fallen out of sight here and there. I'd say the ones that I kept closest were Heckmann’s later Welt In Scherben releases. They’ve aged quite well too.
Praline Horse – Neil Landstrumm [Tresor]
I was on the way home from town one day. I had literally just got my own decks, and had a bag of records with me that I’d bought in Comet Records, including labels like Labworks and Prolekult. I bumped into a friend and early DJ inspiration of mine called Mark Gormley, and showed him what I'd got. He recommended a label called Tresor. The seed was sown. I knew of Joey Beltram and the first Tresor record I bought was by him, but it was over the next year that Neil Landstrumm, Cristian Vogel and Tobias Schmidt opened up a new kind of world for me. They were like protest records against everything else I was hearing, as they were so original and followed no template. Landstrumm’s music was obnoxious, Vogel had this weird insect funk, and the Tobias Schmidt stuff was very one-minded too. I loved Swedish techno for instance, but I could tell that these producers were very much the opposite of loop techno.
This doesn’t sound a world apart from some of the tracks you’ve made. Have you taken inspiration from Landstrumm in your own production?
That's hard to say, but I guess I must have. I think what I took from him and other producers of then was a mind-set, that techno is an experimental music form where you create your own style and sounds. Making my own original sounds was my main goal when I started making music, before I ever fleshed things out into completed tracks. It's not so hard to make sounds that are different, but forging that into a style of your own becomes a challenge. Neil is one of those producers who can make an electro track or a techno track, or a ravey track, or something slow and dark, and you still know it’s him. To have such a distinct sound that carries over many styles is quite rare. Definitely one of the greats.
Freddy is one of my all-time favourite techno producers. I used to read Mark EG's reviews in Eternity Magazine, which is how I found out about him originally. Mark's writing was funny, colourful, full of enthusiasm and made me want to track down and own anything I'd find by someone like Freddy Fresh. This was taken from a CD on Freddy’s Analog label, and Holzplatten put out five tracks from it on a 12”. It's an epic 303 workout, turned into some type of dark sci-fi soundtrack. Amazing.
Like Bandulu, we’re surprised Freddy Fresh isn’t better known in the techno world.
Freddy did what some techno producers weren't "meant" to do – he didn't make only techno. He was big in the breaks world and through his association with Fatboy Slim; he had a long background in hip-hop too. He had also stopped releasing techno for many years. Dustin Zahn then re-released an old track of his on Enemy, and I managed to get some new material from him and Paul Birken for Earwiggle after that too. He has since become reinvigorated by techno, his Analog label is back up and running, and it seems people have been discovering his old stuff again too. His name is going to grow in the techno world again for sure.
This sounds like an end of the night record. When would you pull normally pull it out?
I've been the other way around, I would open up a set with it. I agree though, the end of the night would be a good time for it too because it's such a climactic piece.
Photo: Alexandros Petsavas