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Interview

Holland's R3hab breaks into America and masters the art of the pop-electro crossover

By Dan Carter
r3hab

A golden boy if ever Dutch house needed one and a proven favorite flavor to the avid stateside clubbing circuit, R3hab has quickly become The Netherlands’ worst kept secret where peak-time club fuel is concerned. Led forward by the grinding synths and low-end tendencies that have gained him his now widely deployed “Chainsaw Master” moniker, the young Dutch frontrunner Fadil el Ghoul has found himself a comfortable middle-ground between full-bodied peak-time favorites and audacious chart remixes—which few could have comprehended in the context of festival-proof electro house.

As a stalwart on Afrojack’s Wall Recordings imprint and a recent addition to the ranks of Tiesto’s Musical Freedom label, R3hab’s latest single, “Skydrop,” saw him leave his national comfort zone, a move that may suggest his tough yet versatile sound is just too much for one imprint or genre boundary handle. Beatport News sat down with the Dutch heavyweight during a brief pit stop at London’s Ministry of Sound to talk universal club music, breaking America, and his debut single for Musical Freedom.

How are you feeling as we pass over to 2013 and sign off on a huge year for you professionally and musically?

2012 was a really good year for me, full stop. There was so much music and a lot of opportunities to tour across the globe and see some amazing places and people along the way. I feel like it has been a really productive one and the fact that the world didn’t end means it can be translated nicely into 2013.

Like many of your European peers, the achievements we are seeing you tick-off once seemed unimaginable for electronic music artists. What do you think changed to allow for the scene to peak in such a way?

There have been so many theories regarding “what happened,” but for me it just feels like there are more people paying attention to us as an industry. Of course, having producers who can put club music onto the radio helps, but the internet has definitely made the communication between artists and new fans incredibly easy. Social media means we have all the information and communication at the click of a button—which the last generation of producers never had. It was a whole different world then, and the fact is that the current generation will always develop to use what is around them culturally to their advantage. In my case, it was timed perfectly with this wider appreciation for the music and that has been a huge advantage throughout.

Between regular stints in Las Vegas and Miami, it is fair to say that your presence on the stateside club circuit soared throughout 2012. Talk us through your experience of breaking America and how you interpret the hotly discussed scene that has emerged over the past couple of years.

My first residency in America began in 2011 and the time has absolutely flown since. The scene out there feels really strong, especially over the last couple of months. Americans like to do it big—be it the shows and the production that goes into them, or just the way the crowds are. That is the very nature of America, and dance music found a great way to utilize that. Despite what we see with festivals like Tomorrowland, the States offer some events that I believe could only ever be possible in America—it has this ability to make everything it touches feel the biggest and most energetic it could ever be. To be a part of that is huge.

There doesn’t seem to have been anyone “too commercial” as far as your remix efforts are concerned. Given your personal approach to remixing popular artists, how do you respond to those getting cynical about the disintegrating boundaries between electronic music and pop?

I look at it all as just music, and the fact is that different occasions call for different sounds. Sometimes you just want a dance-oriented remix of a pop track that suits you just for playing in your home or on your iPod in the car. Obviously a lot of us came into this game making music for the club, but as your profile increases and you develop as a producer, the ability to make different music is one nobody wants to pass up. Calvin Harris has been really good at this in that he doesn’t just make anthems for the club, but songs that scale a huge range of moods and emotions. We have the power to be open-minded now, so why not use it rather than just chugging out the same peak-time stuff for every release.

Your homeland of Holland has not been immune to some considerable cultural stereotypes where dance music is concerned. As far as you are concerned, was being part of the initial hunger for Dutch an advantage or disadvantage?

Being Dutch had its advantages, but there were a lot of stereotypes also. Obviously the competition means you have to stay sharp, but there came a time when there was so much attention and all the labels were looking for that “next” Dutch producer that the exposure was readily available to those working hard enough. A lot of the other Dutch guys think that the crowds are quite stubborn, but to me this is a good thing as it means you hard to work hard for them; nothing is taken for granted over there, and just because America loves you doesn’t mean one size fits all. These sorts of crowds keep you on your toes, which is really healthy. I have this theory that in the same vein as everyone in the UK wants to be a footballer, all the kids in Holland want to be DJs. It all comes down to the ones who persevere and don’t give up; both industries are incredibly competitive and so staying motivated and honest towards the scene is vital.

As your popularity has increased we have seen you join some pretty huge festival line-ups, not to mention the more audacious crowds American club land now offers. Was the transition to these bigger live scenarios one that you found relatively easy to execute?

The most notable transition was the point where I went from playing crowds of 200 to crowds of 10,000. It was a huge leap, but I was lucky in that it happened pretty naturally for me rather than at a click of the fingers. I tried not to give it too much thought because, to be honest, when that happens it happens very quickly, so time spent thinking is time you could be getting yourself set to do the job at hand to the best of your ability. The whole process just happens, and if you mean what you do on those stages and love doing it, then the whole thing continues positively.

“Skydrop” marks a notable debut for you on Tiesto’s Musical Freedom imprint. Talk us through the track and whether this transition is the shape of things to come, in terms of your studio output.

With “Skydrop,” it was just a case of checking out the other labels that are out there—as not every track you make can fit one specific imprint. I felt like it was a great record—it had that huge melody and a really cool electro vibe to it, and ZROQ were great guys to work with on the track; I have huge hopes for them. So far the crowds have shown a lot of love for it, and I am really happy with the way it panned out.

At a time where it feels like this industry is changing at 100 MPH, do you believe that the majority of its developments have been positive?

Absolutely, I see it all as a positive. The only thing that maybe works negatively is that a lot of people start producing music that really isn’t in their heart, but this will always show in the finished product. I try not to worry about that too much, because at the end of the day there is little gain in worrying about other people’s actions; the focus has to be on the positivity and progression you can make yourself. So much energy is wasted on being negative and the truth is that time spent musing over what you can’t control could be spent developing yourself creatively and professionally. I know which I would rather be doing!

In a previous interview you jokingly told me that drinking and flying was one of the more challenging elements of being a DJ on the road. Given the air miles you are now clocking on a daily basis, has the process of touring and managing yourself on the road gotten any easier?

Touring and making music simultaneously is a big challenge, especially now that the tours are so long and widespread. Getting creative on the road and meeting the same deadlines is always a hard one in terms of balancing your work and managing your time, as this becomes even more difficult when you are battling with new time zones every week. Traveling is hard, full stop, but it is part of the job so I try not to complain about it. After all, there are much worse jobs out there and I am one of the lucky few that has been able to carve a career out of a passion. It could be so much worse.

Outside of the new singles and remixes en route throughout the year, how do you want to see your career progress from here onwards? Are there any outstanding aspirations you hold?

So long as this year goes steady and upwards, then I am happy. I want a smooth and organic line of progression rather than one that rises straight up only to crash and burn after a short period of time. Making more original music is definitely a priority, and making sure I keep aiming upwards both in terms of quality and career landmarks. It is a really positive time to be doing what I do and I cannot take the platform I am currently holding for granted, so the only option is to utilize it and make every moment count.