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Interview

Dutch house masters Chocolate Puma talk 20 years on the beat and the fun of aging behind the decks

By Dan Carter
chocpuma

With more than 20 years behind them and a dizzying array of identities amidst their scattered musical legacy, Chocolate Puma have more than held their corner where house music is concerned. Always big on percussion and flamboyance in their use of genre-defying sounds from across the musical spectrum, the Dutch duo’s inclusion in Defected’s House Masters series—a 20-year retrospective of their collective work—in 2011 felt wholeheartedly deserved for an act that has survived two decades of cultural lapses within the realms of house music. Now they’ve returned to the label with another compilation—Chocolate Puma In the House—another sprawling double-wide mix.

With enough miles on the clock to have pushed both Laidback Luke and Bingo Players in the right direction, and a run of club classics that has propelled them firmly towards their current ambassadorial status, Gaston Steenkist and Rene ter Horst put down the headphones to catch up with Beatport News at the tail end of last year and trace 20 years of assorted monikers, house music mastery, and why growing old behind the decks remains a unabashedly enjoyable affair.

It seems fair to say that 2012 has been anther crazy year for two of Haarlem’s longest serving house masters. How are you guys feeling as the year is wrapping down?

Rene ter Horst: This year has been a very positive one for our music. It was great to get the House Masters treatment from Defected and also drop our second compilation for the label, but also release stuff on our own Psst Music label and “Just One More Time Baby” alongside Firebeatz for Spinnin Records. It all just fell into place really well for us, and the live shows have remained a lot of fun for us.

Gaston Steenkist: The touring was definitely a highlight and it is always a positive pressure, because to still be doing this and getting the reception we do at such incredible parties across the globe is astounding. We did a couple of spots for Defected at Pacha and a lot of other solo shows, and the enthusiasm is enough to keep us chasing our fans across the globe for ears to come.

As your careers have progressed, Defected Records has remained a vital platform for you guys since the Morning Rain EP back in 2008. What has kept you so committed to the label over the years amid your other label ties?

RTH: The consistent opportunities to play for Defected mean a lot to us even to this day. For me, it is always a little nerve-wracking because the crowds are always so strong and modern—but the nerves are all good because they make these shows all the more exciting. Defected shows tend to be the more high-profile ones, and if we only have an hour or two, it is vital that we make it the best couple of hours we could possibly play.

GS: They have hosted some real landmarks in our career, and the fact that to this day we are still welcome on their label and bills is a great achievement for us. The times may have changed, but their support has been invaluable.

From The Good Men and Zki & Dobre through to Rene & Gaston—to truly collect the best of your work involves some considerable moniker juggling. Talk us through how you finally came to rest upon the alias of Chocolate Puma?

GS: When we started releasing in the early ’90s, it was a bit cooler to have loads of different aliases and to drop white labels on strange and quirky names. We had a lot of high-profile success with our Fresh Fruit imprint and aliases such as The Good Men and Rene and Gaston, but eventually we decided it was time to drop our more underground-sounding records under one solid name. In that sense, Chocolate Puma started as the name for our weirder music, but it didn’t necessarily last very long.

RTH: It all changed when we made “I Wanna Be U” back in 2000, as the truth is we didn’t have a clue what to do with that track. We pressed it on vinyl, stuck an email address on the label, sent it out to a few people, and forgot about it. For a while it seemed like no one was interested, so we thought nothing of it and got on with our lives. Several months later we remembered that we had put an email address on there and when we checked it the inbox was full of emails from Pete Tong and some amazing labels asking for copies and for us to sign it. Four months down the line that track is #6 in the UK charts and Chocolate Puma was born. We have remained comfortable with it ever since, and as the times and trends have changed, that alias has come to hold exactly what we wanted our music to stand for.

It seems fair to say that the general sound and usage of the term “house music” has changed significantly during your years on the beat. Do you both still believe that it provides a positive creative canvas for you after so many years and developments?

RTH: I genuinely think so. When we started 20 years ago, house music was still a new phenomenon in Europe. There were a lot of records we played together that we genuinely believed deserved radio play. After two decades, it has finally become one of the biggest and more influential musical genres on earth. What’s to complain about that? Not all types of electronic or popular music is for me personally, but if it is made well and makes people happy, then I say fair enough to them!

GS: It is quite funny to see people complaining about modern music and “EDM” because there is always a reaction to something like that—it happens throughout the history of music in one way or another. Now we can see that whole ’90s vibe of deep house emerging back into the popular market, and I personally find it interesting to watch how popular culture gravitates towards new sounds that were once reduced to underground club culture. Taste will always change, as that is what allows music to progress—you either embrace it or just leave people to get on with it.

Having laid down your first compilation for Defected Records back in 2009 alongside Hardsoul, your return to the label last year certainly made a lot waves across the industry. Given the level of artistic license you bring to the compilation, it feels more like an artist album at times. Is this approach an intentional factor for you both?

RTH: The latest compilation was an attempt to do what we do onstage in a long-running format. First time around the duties were split, so this one was all about us and it felt nice to take control. Most of the tracks are records we like to play in our sets and a lot of them we are not always able to fit into the sets because they are simply too deep or strange. We put them here for the versatility, and as a result it felt like the finished product was one that can be played both in the club and on your home speakers.

GS: We tend to do a lot of edits for our DJ sets to try to fit and them more into our Chocolate Puma style of production. A lot of the deep house tracks out there are ones we love, but the production simply isn’t strong enough for our sets. It was our own compilation this time, so when it came to doing our own thing there was nothing to stop us customizing the tracks. Ibiza 2009 was a cool experience, but as Rene suggests, this felt like a good insight into the bigger picture of what we hope people experience through Chocolate Puma.

Given the wide range of protégés you have taken on over the years, how important do you believe sharing your knowledge with the next generation of artists is?

RTH: The fact is that we love getting involved with these younger and up-and-coming guys. We are still resilient to new ideas and fresh enthusiasm, and after so many years of collaborating with these younger guys, the process is very interesting; we learn a lot from them, as well as them learning from us. We had it with both Laidback Luke and Bingo Players back in the day, and it was so good to get in there with guys like Firebeatz and test the waters with a new generation of producers. The whole thing is quite funny because you realize how much you have learnt over the years when working with these guys. We go through stuff and they are amazed, but to us it is the only way we know how. They are so enthusiastic and eager, so the process is always really fun. “Just One More Time Baby,” alongside Firebeatz, was just a fun track to make, full stop, and the fact it got great attention was a great bonus.

You have made two decades on the beat look like a considerably easy feat, but has it always been clear sailing or do the challenges simply happen behind closed doors?

RTH: To an extent, yes, the road has been good but not without its challenges. The biggest challenge for us is actually not a challenge at all, which has been maintaining our personal relationship. One of the most impressive feats is probably that we have remained together for such a long time. We have two egos and two creative minds and in turn these can often end up going in all manner of directions, but after 20 years we still like each other and have that solid musical chemistry still bubbling away. This is a great thing but it doesn’t just happen—you have to be willing to work at it and see throughout the years as a unified force.

GS: If you don’t encounter challenges then you probably aren’t doing it properly. Music-wise, it is always a challenge because you want to say on top, but at the same time there are all these young guys killing it, and as a result you want to teach them a lesson. No one wants to lose touch with what they love, therefore it is important to work hard and listen to what is going on. This hasn’t been too hard for us to do, as we love making music and are naturally curious of the new stuff going on around us.

Your industry, genre, and the culture to which you’ve served have changed significantly since 1992. Have your own musical ambitions shifted alongside these developments over the years?

GS: Our ambition changes every week because we are going all over the place. We have a lot of smaller internal ones, like making the best record of the month or playing a killer show. In the bigger picture, we want to be more executive and senior figures within the industry. There is a lot of talent around us and we always identify these guys, so we like to pass our knowledge and collaborate with fresh talents wherever possible. Sometimes the union of the old-school mentalities and the new-school enthusiasm can have amazing results, and I think that has kept us pretty focused over the years.

Having laid so much positive ground for 2012, what will the new year hold and are there any further landmarks you guys are looking to reach for 2013?

RTH: We are staying true to what we do best: making music. Nothing groundbreaking or special is set in the pipeline just yet because a lot of the things we do just happen—either that or we just plan them all last minute and act upon impulse. Most notably, we have a collaborative release on Size Records alongside Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano called “Stiffness.” It went down really well during our set at Defected’s ADE party and we enjoyed making it with these two talented guys, so we are looking forward to finally joining the label and unleashing this release.