As both a DJ and the label boss at Better Listen Records, Martín Miguel has a reputation for selecting quality soul and disco inspired dance music. On the same evening at the end of September that I talked to Martín about Better Listen Records, I asked him several questions about his artist career. In the artist interview with Martín, we touched on everything from his thoughts on buying and DJing music on vinyl over digital, some of his influences musically and in the DC music scene, his day job doing science groundwork, and some of his upcoming DJ gigs.
In an interview with DC Music Download, you said that you started on vinyl and are now glad to be back on it after purchasing and DJing digital music for a few years. What do you perceive as the benefits of buying and DJing vinyl over digital music?
Partially it depends on the type of music that you’re trying to play, but the way that I was able to get my mojo back was that I was throwing this party at the Black Cat on a regular basis called Heavy Rotation that was all 70s disco classics and early 80s boogie and post disco music. The first couple times I did the event, I was booking other DJs and serving mostly as a promoter, and ultimately the guys that I was booking were pushing me to play too. I was hesitant because I was rusty and that time of music isn’t quantized because it has live drummers. I was probably shit for the first couple [of gigs] that I did play — this was three years ago at this point. And I think that embarrassment made me “hit the gym” for lack of a better expression.
I started practicing a lot, mixing old school disco records that only have 4 to 16 beats at most to mix out — it’s not like a house track that has 16 bars to mix out. You really need to phrase [those mixes] correctly and have platter control. Practicing with that made me better at playing the house music I wanted to play on vinyl too. It was kind of out of necessity because the scene that I live in — the scene that Better Listen lives in — really prioritizes vinyl. A lot of labels are vinyl only or vinyl first — they’ll put the releases out on vinyl way before they come out digitally. To stay ahead of the game, I was buying a lot of records. Records were something that I wanted to support for the other businesses doing it.
I don’t look down on people that DJ digitally. I don’t think DJing quantized house records on vinyl is hard enough where anyone should be talking shit or being elitist about it. And there are people who play all vinyl and are terrible technically — they can’t phrase records correctly and maybe don’t even know how to beatmatch all that well —, but they think they are legit because they are playing records. And that’s entirely missing the point.
If you’re doing it correctly, playing vinyl would make you know your tracks better. Because even though you could order something from Juno, slip it in your bag, and play it at the club to drop it on the turntable that night, unless you’ve listened to that song thoroughly, you might not know the structure of it all that well. You could be in for a B line that clears the entire dance floor. I liken it to driving with a GPS vs. driving a route that you have to be familiar with — the latter would be like playing records. You have to know your exit by heart because if you miss your exit, if you miss that crash that you were supposed to mix out on, it could be a sloppy mix out. There’s a good chance that you’ll be able to rebound if you’re a competent DJ, using effects or skipping ahead on the record you’re mixing in, but it’s not going to be the smoothest exit and you’re going to have to compensate in some way. Whereas with CDJs, it’s like driving with the GPS on — you can loop that shit if you miss the crash and figure a way out. You can still make it there on time and the crowd might be none the wiser.
But the nice part about records is that it forces you to know your songs better. Because it takes up a physical space in your bag, it forces you to be a little more selective [with what you bring]. Sometimes less is more.
“I don’t look down on people that DJ digitally. I don’t think DJing quantized house records on vinyl is hard enough where anyone should be talking shit or being elitist about it.”
“If you’re doing it correctly, playing vinyl would make you know your tracks better. “
Who are your main influences musically and who are some artists you listen to often these days?
I try not to listen to dance music all the time to clean the pallet. I do listen to a lot of 90s hip-hop. Better Listen, in terms of its sampling style, is really influenced by 90s hip-hop. So technically I’m listening to that for inspiration too. Not just 90s, but a lot of 2000s, especially more underground stuff. I do listen to a lot of disco and boogie classics, a lot of soul music, Latin and Afro music — my parents are really into salsa. I think all those things are healthy in diversifying your diet.
But obviously I do listen to a lot of house music— I have to know it, I have to know what’s coming out. In terms of artists that are currently operating that are blowing me away [pauses] … I feel like last year I would’ve had so many more ready answers to that because I think being part of the game jades you a little bit.
“I do listen to a lot of 90s hip-hop … I do listen to a lot of disco and boogie classics, a lot of soul music, Latin and Afro music — my parents are really into salsa. I think all those things are healthy in diversifying your diet.
But obviously I do listen to a lot of house music— I have to know it, I have to know what’s coming out.”
Fouk … I don’t think that anyone in the game is better than sampling hi hats and drum fills than those guys. If you listen to some of the music from their peak, maybe two years ago, it’s a clinic in hi hat work. And all of the hi hats sound like they’re sampled — they don’t sound like they tweaked a drum synth or 909 a bit. And that’s so impressive to be able to have a record collection deep enough where you’re sampling three different hi hat licks for a single track. That’s super inspiring to me from a production standpoint.
And they’re not the only people doing it — guys like Max Graef have been doing it for a while — and he’s doing live music now …. He’s playing with his band, he’s on to something else. He decided he doesn’t want to do what he blew up for anymore. And more credit to him — I do miss his records quite a bit.
I do find myself going back quite a lot to that period between 2009–2010 and 2015ish, where that deep disco, deep house hardcore sample based and disco leaning sound was really flourishing. Now it’s a little saturated — everyone is doing it. Currently I’m so intrigued by the partition — because that sample synth hybrid that I mentioned [in the Better Listen interview] has become saturated, people are going two different ways: either all hardware like Andy Hart or Detroit Swindle or samples. The latter is kind of where Better Listen is trending, and because of that, I’ve kind of been really intrigued by people who are making super dope, raw edits. Not cheap edits where they barely did anything to the song and just beefed up the kick drum — but doing a lot in terms of finding a track that deserves this kind of rearrangement and doing it in a way so that it serves a different purpose on the dance floor. For instance, there’s a duo called Krywald & Farrer, and they do a series called Persies Edits. So they self-release Persies Edits and they sell out 500 copies within 2 hrs. They are all white label edits and every single release they do is an instant dance floor burner. They’re super true-school edits — to me, they are edits in the best way. I’m super inspired by the way they do their music, especially because they’re flipping a lot of 80s boogie music, which I love.
Yea, Lobster Theremin is the in-house label of Lobster Distribution.
[Bobby Analog’s] label is called Body Fusion and it’s really fucking good deep house and disco house music. He’s killer — he doesn’t put out enough stuff [though]. I’ve tried to seduce him into doing a record with me for while, and we’re friends, but it takes him a while to finish music. He has to put his own label first and his own label is tremendous — both records are great, I highly recommend them.
In that same vein, I have a buddy named Tilman in Mainz, Germany who runs a couple labels. One is called Fine Records and it’s that raw edit style, though they also make some crazy ass DJ tools, like acid music or drum tools. He runs that, and he also runs a label called Klamauk, which is more of a polished deep house label. Super nice guy and I love the edits that he puts out — they are respectfully beefed up and arranged and they still sound vintage as hell, but they’re not.
I would say those are some deeper cut inspirations in the contemporary scene. Obviously there are labels that I try to emulate for their level of success in my scene: Razor-N-Tape; Kolour for instance for their tenure and the body of work that they have. But yea, [the labels that I mentioned before] are some of my unknown favorites at this time.
I went to grad school for medical anthropology and I thought I was going to go into the public health field. I couldn’t lock down a paying position when I got out of grad school, so I ended up working for AAAS in Science Education. I used to design high school biology curriculums. I went to the NSF (National Science Foundation) for a couple of years where I worked in graduate education policy and then I got offered a permanent position at AAAS with a different program, which is the Research Competitiveness Program. Essentially I work in proposal review. State, Federal agency, and foreign government clients will contract us to manage the merit review process for their proposals or to evaluate funded science programs. [My job] is cool because I get to read a lot of new and cutting edge stuff, things that aren’t necessarily in my direct field of training.
So I pretty much work in science vetting, managing the vetting process for grant proposals and programs, doing literature reviews, doing trainings and workshops for people to learn how to write better proposals or do better scientific research. It’s science groundwork — I’m not doing research at this point.
“So I pretty much work in science vetting, managing the vetting process for grant proposals and programs, doing literature reviews, doing trainings and workshops for people to learn how to write better proposals or do better scientific research.”
In the same interview with DC Music Download, you mentioned that you have a lot of respect for those who came before you in the artistic scene and you want to do things right to gain the respect of your “elders.” Who are some of the “elders” in the DC scene that you respect and what do you admire them for?
Directly the Sol Power All-Stars because they have the same distributor as me and we have the same rep at the distributor, so I was able to get a lot of advice from him early on. Marc (Meistro) and Rhome (DJ Stylus) are good friends of mine, and I really love that Afro/Latin sound as well. They’re also pro DJs — they’ve been DJing in DC for so damn long.
“Directly the Sol Power All-Stars … Marc (Meistro) and Rhome (DJ Stylus) are good friends of mine, and I really love that Afro/Latin sound as well.”
Marc I really look up to because he works at the National Academy of Sciences, so he understands a lot of the format of my life essentially because he’s a scientist by day and DJing. The label thing is something in the last two or three years for him, but he’s been producing for a while. So he’s someone who I can really look up to in terms of, “OK, this can be done. You can be an adult and do this.” And now he has a family, so his priorities are different. But yea, I definitely see a lot of similarities in him and look to him for advice quite a bit.
Before the label existed, I was really interested in promoting parties, both on my own and with my buddies James and Samantha who run the Sticky Fingers Collective. But guys like Joe Liehr and Juan Zapata who have been booking this kind of music way before I even knew what was up … I think it’s important to not walk in somewhere and Columbus [that] shit. [Juan and Joe] have been doing this for longer than I have. It’s nice to have their backing in what I do for that reason, for precedent.
“But guys like Joe Liehr and Juan Zapata who have been booking this kind of music way before I even knew what was up … I think it’s important to not walk in somewhere and Columbus [that] shit. It’s nice to have their backing in what I do for that reason, for precedent.”
On an independent level, those are my biggest influences locally. We’re doing a release party for the seventh [Better Listen] record at Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) on a Saturday night. We do the monthly party on a Sunday night, but we wanted a special night for this. As the label has grown, the Lounge has really gotten behind me. This will also be three years of me being a resident there. So having the release party there on Saturday night is really special for me because pretty much every single Better Listen record, when I’m developing it and deciding which songs are going to fit the record and what arrangements and sounds work best for those tracks, I have Eighteenth Street Lounge in mind. [Eighteenth Street Lounge] is the laboratory. “Would this work at Eighteenth Street Lounge?” And thankfully it does. They have been supporters of the label with the Sunday night party and now by expanding and having me do [parties] on primetime nights as well. Spiritually it’s really special for us to have the one-year anniversary at ESL because we also threw the launch party there. And that’s not necessarily one person [who’s supporting Better Listen] as much as it is the establishment. Farid and Matt have been huge supporters of me and by extension the label with time … and I don’t take that for granted at all. I think it’s something that I’m super privileged to have in DC because we have such a reputation for being, uh … I don’t know if cut-throat is the right word, but DC does have a reputation for being an unappreciative scene. Sometimes people don’t get their dues or people get hated on for a variety of right or wrong reasons. But it’s nice if you can defy that with relationships that you have built or encountered.
“[Eighteenth Street Lounge] is the laboratory. ‘Would this work at Eighteenth Street Lounge?’ And thankfully it does.”
Where can we catch you DJing next?
[Martín provided an updated answer to this question in February 2018]
I have a pretty wild spring / summer schedule planned. But locally, I’ll be at ESL for Hold Tight (my Sunday monthly) on 3/11 all by my lonesome and then hosting my pals from Homage Records at Flash for the Better Listen Sessions bi-monthly on 3/17. I have some really sweet guests lined up for April–July, but I can’t reveal those just yet.
I’ll also be traveling quite a bit. I’m venturing back to Scandinavia at the end of March for the BLR010 release party and a couple other gigs, the former of which will be at Ideal Bar in Copenhagen. I’ll also be kicking off a new (and hopefully recurring) BLR label night at a new spot in Bushwick called Rose Gold on April 7th, which I’m way excited for. And hopefully hitting LA and some other spots later in the spring.