Charlotte de Witte is techno's next-gen superstar: UK cover feature
It’s 2017 and techno is bigger than ever. It’s a statement that could, of course, be applied to dance music overall, but this year has marked a boom for the dark, futuristic side of four-four in particular. With the broader fanbase, and increasing number of dedicated festivals and superstar headliners have come questions as to the legitimacy of the so-called underground, and what we should even class as techno. Yet demand has also helped bring through a fresh wave of talent, and few have seen as much hype as Charlotte de Witte.
It’s a grey, though pleasant, Tuesday morning when DJ Mag clambers into the passenger seat of de Witte’s car outside Brussels Midi train station. A short hop over on the Eurostar has given us time to indulge in repeat listens of the 25-year- old’s new ‘Wisdom’ EP for Sleaze Records — a four-track excursion into her ominous, stripped- back sound, complete with signature eerie vocal snippets — but despite already knowing she’s no stone-faced techno golem, the contrast between de Witte’s moody music and the bright-eyed, affable, outspoken young woman who greets us is stark to say the least. Back in her base of operations and refreshed after a weekend that saw her play Festival Les Nuits Secrètes in France, before jetting over to the White Isle for Suara’s Privilege residency, de Witte jokes about the rigours of her lifestyle, chiefly it preventing her from getting a pet. “I’m destined to be sad forever,” she laughs, as we head for lunch at a nearby café.
Although she maintains her weekdays are still “pretty normal”, it’s fair to say that de Witte’s weekend schedule is rather hectic — certainly more so than ever before — having packed in over 20 festivals already since the start of the summer, alongside her own KNTXT nights across Belgium and heaps of other club bookings. Early June saw her over in the UK for the second edition of London techno bonanza Junction 2, where she played the indoor Warehouse stage. “It turned out it was a lovely day in London,” recalls de Witte, “Blue skies, sunshine. I was like, ‘Oh fuck me, nobody’s going to come in’, and for the first half-an-hour there was literally no-one in there... Turns out they just didn’t open the festival doors yet, so people are just queuing and waiting to get in, but nobody to told me. After 30 minutes people came in and it was a big party all of a sudden, I was like, ‘I’m so happy!’”
Seems promoters LWE were pretty chuffed too, as de Witte has been invited back to the UK capital next month (Saturday 7th October) to help open the sophomore series at new industrial mega- venue, Printworks.
DJ Mag hazards a guess that it’s not Junction 2 that tops the Belgian’s list of favourite fests this year, however. When it comes to techno gatherings, few places in the world compare to Dutch haven, Awakenings, and 2017 marked de Witte’s debut. Unsurprisingly, she’s still over the moon about the gig — particularly, it emerges, as she’d not slept, and was worried she’d miss it following a delayed ight from a previous gig in Kosovo, thankfully arriving just in time to tear it up in front of a packed-out crowd.
Yet it’s a slightly more obscure event, from DJ Mag’s perspective at least, which de Witte notes as a personal highlight. At over 40 years old, and with a higher daily capacity than Tomorrowland, Rock Werchter is a true behemoth of a festival, but as its name suggests, isn’t exactly known for its DJ bookings. “They don’t really book DJs, unless it’s for the after-party, especially not a techno artist,” explains de Witte. “I think I must have been the rst one ever who got to play there, and that was just crazy. I didn’t expect it at all; it was a tent of 10,000 people and before my set started there was a changeover and silence for 45 minutes — I got there 30 minutes in advance and it was packed, nobody could enter anymore. There was nothing, no music, they were just waiting there. I got so nervous!
“It’s just confirmation when you see so many people standing in front of you and you know that they’re mostly Belgians, it’s a very nice feeling. And they were shouting all the time, there was an atmosphere I’ve never seen in my life.” True patriot that she is, de Witte treated the crowd to Belgian trance classic ‘Universal Nation’ by Push as a thank you.
She thanks her weekly radio show on Studio Brussels for her popularity at home. Now over three years deep — following a residency dating back to 2011, when she rst made a name for herself on the station after winning a DJ contest held in conjunction with Tomorrowland — she says the 60-minute slot keeps her somewhat grounded, as she records the show in the Belgian capital each week. In fact, alongside her club-night, KNTXT (originally only held at Brussels techno staple Fuse, before branching out to host nights in Antwerp and Ghent), it’s one of the few sets she actually plays in her own country anymore. “Everything changed. Everything,” she says with a wide-eyed stare. “I did some festivals last year, and I could never complain, but this year is just crazy, and I dunno what happened that made it so different.”
When pressed, de Witte reveals that signing with worldwide booking agent FMLY just over a year ago had a de nite impact, however she recently moved to Decked Out — “Sometimes you have to be a cold-assed bitch,” she jokes, adding: “Oh man, it was the hardest thing I had to do in my life!” She’s quick to point out it wasn’t dissatisfaction which made her switch as they’re still on good terms and she recalls working with her FMLY rep fondly. “He did a lot of things for me and really believed in me, and I think as a new artist it’s very hard to nd someone who wants to work with you. It’s not so hard to sign to an agency but you have to be a priority.”
The change is the latest in a series of relatively dramatic shifts de Witte’s career has taken over the years — the most gradual of these being her switch to techno from electro-house. First introduced to the world of dance music after switching middle schools from the small municipality of Evergem to the major city of Ghent, “I went down to a club called MakeUp Club,” she tells us. “It was in a bunker, very small, during that rave period where people would go there with feathers in their hair and funny glasses.” At least we’re not the only ones haunted by the memories of nu rave!
Having fallen for the then-popular electro and Dutch house sounds, listening to the likes of MSTRKRFT, Erol Alkan and The Bloody Beetroots (and even Afrojack when he “used to be cool”), de Witte started putting together mixtapes on Ableton, and eventually began to send them out to small bars and clubs across Belgium, to no avail. Finally de Witte landed herself a gig at a local bar — the only trouble was, it happened to be the exact same day she bought her rst set of decks... “I didn’t have time to practice. There was nobody there except for some friends and the bar staff, and I was just like, ‘OK... how... the hell... does this work?’,” she says, giggling at the memory. “Obviously it was horrible, I couldn’t beat match, I couldn’t do anything. But I got to practice there, and luckily they had Pioneers so I could really practice with club equipment, because the stuff that I bought for my place turned out to be broken.”
In fact, it was a case of bad luck turning serendipitous that allowed de Witte to get her gear in the rst place. “I bought my decks when I was in an accident on my scooter. I was driving to school and then this driver, she wanted to go to the right and she didn’t look in the mirror so she crashed into me, my scooter was really broken, and you can still see I have some scars,” she says, pointing to a small, faded blemish, “and some burns on my legs. Nothing that bad, but the insurance gave me quite a lot of money for those burns and those scars, and with that money I bought two Pioneer decks, a Pioneer mixer, a MacBook Pro and an iPhone. I was like, ‘Sooo Mum, I have €5000 and I will spend it all, is that OK?’ And she was like, ‘Do with it what you want, it’s your money’. So it was a happy accident, and honestly I just have this little scar and one on my ankle as well...” And now an international DJing career, we might add.
De Witte says her parents have always been supportive of her choices, and, in fact, when she began falling behind near the end of high school, encouraged her to follow her dream instead. “I still had a couple of months to go so I really wanted to do it, and I was being persistent,” explains de Witte, “but I was struggling and the school was being such a pain and very disrespectful towards me... actually, I don’t have anything positive to say about them. But at some point my mum came to me and said ‘Charlotte, just let it go, just quit’. There’s not a lot of families that would do that.”
Studying to organise events, de Witte realised her DJing experience was far more valuable than what she was being taught in school. “At some point, the guy who was supposed to guide you if you have any struggles or issues with your studies, he came to me and was like, ‘If you think you will get your degree just by playing some records, think again’. You just don’t do that. I’m a human being, don’t treat me like a piece of shit,” she continues. “I’m still angry with him for that, one day I will get my revenge!” By our reckoning, she already has.
By this time de Witte was already making a living DJing under the alias Raving George, and began to score releases on Crux Records, Bad Life and Play It Again Sam — the latter putting out her 2015 single ‘You’re Mine’ featuring electro-pop singer Oscar and the Wolf, which became a crossover hit in Belgium and Turkey. “I’m very happy I made the track, no regrets there, but I wouldn’t do it again,” she says, “not at this point as Charlotte de Witte, because even though I’m still convinced that I don’t want to limit myself, this is just not how the world works. There are purists all over the place and if you’re not cool enough you can never play Berghain. So I think it’s just much easier, and also for promoters to book you, if you’re a techno artist you make techno. As soon as you start making something else, you will just make your own life much more difficult. Unless you’re big, like Nina Kraviz, then you can just do whatever you want.”
As the years went on, de Witte’s tastes changed, leaning evermore towards techno, while still operating as Raving George. She cites Len Faki’s ‘Podium Mix’ of ‘Stranger To Stability’ by Dustin Zahn as a particularly epiphany-inducing track, although emphasises that it’s the overall “stripped” nature of the music that drew her in as she got older, helping her find “an inner peace”. “When you go to techno clubs you really can be yourself, whoever that may be,” she says, “and I think the philosophy has spread together with the music.”
Then in 2015 came de Witte’s most defining career move to date. Having signed her ‘Weltschmerz’ EP to Tiga’s Turbo label, she had a change of heart, and with it a change of name. While the actual elements of her Raving George moniker were pretty much picked out of the blue, de Witte readily admits that she picked a male alias in an attempt to reduce any sexist backlash towards her. “I got bitched on a lot in the beginning, being a woman and very young, it was quite rough actually,” she says. “So it was like, ‘OK, if I put Raving George as an artist name I’m not ‘exploiting’ my female side to get more bookings because it’s a male artist name’. If you saw me play once then you would know I’m actually a girl, so it was not really me being female and trying to hide it, I just didn’t want to bother with those negative thoughts all the time.”
But with her transition into the realm of techno, and her career really starting to take off, de Witte decided it was finally time to reclaim her identity. “This is really who I am and I have found myself and my purpose in life,” she explains. “I know what I want to do and what I have to do, so it was like, ‘Why should I actually keep a name I picked out of insecurity?’ It doesn’t make any sense. This is me, I’m playing techno, and so many techno artists, like Ida Engberg, Adam Beyer, Alan Fitzpatrick, Nina Kraviz, they all use their own names, so why should I still hide behind a male alter-ego? Fuck no, I’m sick of it! It was like getting rid of my insecurity, and holding a big middle finger to the ones that were very mean to me in the beginning.”
And de Witte could never have predicted just how beneficial her act of self-acceptance would be. As she says herself, it’s difficult to take Raving George seriously, particularly on the techno circuit, and as such, she sees a direct correlation between becoming Charlotte de Witte and her increased international bookings.
Unfortunately, as with anyone in the public eye, she still has to deal with haters — particularly now so many sets are recorded or streamed live. Accusations that she “just plays the same set” or plays pre-recorded mixes have been cropping up more over the summer as her performances from Awakenings, Dour and more have gone online. “On Studio Brussels I always play a completely different set cos I have new tracks,” de Witte tells us. “At a festival it’s good to play your own tracks, or your new tracks, your unreleased tracks, and you know the kind of music that really, really works, so of course a lot of the time the sets are quite similar. Not exactly the same, but it’s quite similar, you know which transitions work. I don’t have enough really good music to renew my set every single week, so you have your structures. A lot of people are being very nasty about it online. At Dour as well, you couldn’t see the lights on the Pioneers cos the sunlight was coming in — that’s the never-ending issue with DJs playing during the daytime, it’s unbelievable, why don’t people realise?
“Actually I should never react on those things, because it feeds the fish, it makes things worse. If they put it on my page I just delete it, if they put nasty comments like, ‘You fake-ass bitch, maybe you should stop shaking your ass’, stuff like that, it’s like, ‘You know what, fuck off you’re blocked’,” she adds with a smile. It’s not all negative either, it seems, as later she shows us a Facebook fan page which posts the exact same photo of her everyday. “It’s hilarious,” she says through fits of laughter.
In fact, de Witte’s only real problem now may be the future of techno itself. With several releases in the pipeline, including the intense, acid-flecked ‘Closer’ EP — a second effort for Mary Go Wild Black due to drop in October — she’s confident for the moment, but is well aware of the dangers of resting on your laurels, and still doesn’t really believe she’s actually made it yet. “It could always flip,” she says. “You cannot stand still, not in this business. You have to keep on going and keep on pushing yourself, in a good way, not in an exhausting way — keep challenging yourself.”
She dreams of releasing on Soma, lathering praise on label-heads and Scottish techno stalwarts Slam, and says an album is slowly but surely coming together too — although don’t expect it before 2019, at least. The main challenge now is how to present herself as an artist at a time when techno is such a vast, multi-headed beast. “I’m actually a bit scared that techno is becoming too big, because everything that’s a hype, either it will die or it has to be very, very strong to be able to survive that,” muses de Witte. “If you look now at what is happening to Marco Carola or a lot of the Drumcode artists, it’s getting very mainstream techno, and I don’t really like where that’s going. But I think on the other hand you have a big movement from the underground that really wants to keep it underground, and makes extra underground techno music. So it works both ways and it’s very interesting to see, but it’s difficult to decide, for me, which side I’m on, because I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to be mainstream techno but I want to grow as an artist as well.”
Take de Witte’s recent gig at CircoLoco in Ibiza, for example. Booked on the same bill as the likes of Marcel Dettmann and Ellen Allien, but not for DC- 10’s main room (the Terrace), she felt out of place, and a request for her to play less aggressively was even put to — and subsequently denied by — her manager. “The set was good, the time-slot was alright, the vibe was good, it was just the wrong room,” de Witte laments. “If it had been the main room it would have been much better. It’s a shame because I was really looking forward to it.”
There will be those who would argue a DJ should adapt to the audience, but de Witte is adamant that if she is booked, she’s booked to be herself. “It’s also the never-ending discussion between DJs, are you a good DJ because you really represent what you stand for, or are you a good DJ because you adapt to the crowd? Depending on the time-slot I adapt, but I wouldn’t be able to adapt to a crowd because I don’t have the music to do it. What you see is what you get, it’s techno.”
Overall, while she understands the direction the powerhouse labels and megastar artists have taken, she just hopes “people won’t get sick of techno because it got too commercial”.
“I love the underground, I love the vibe and the respect that comes with it,” she says. “I wanna be a good techno artist... but not necessarily a commercial one. But it’s tough, because what is commercial? Are you commercial if you play commercial music, or are you commercial because you’re just big and you earn a lot of money and sell a lot of tickets? So I try to think in the long term... I over-analyse everything, thinking about where I want to sign and what does it mean?”
Admittedly impatient by nature, de Witte thanks her manager for helping her see the bigger picture. “He taught me how to think like that, in the long term, and not do anything because it would fit you right now, because more often than not, those things won’t fit you in a couple of years.”
It’s a refreshing attitude amongst the seemingly never-ending race for recognition, and a healthy one in a scene where homogenisation and popularity have led to an increase of ambiguous genre-labels being applied lazily to the sound. And it poses a question: Are the titanic stalwarts of the scene where we should really be looking for inspiration and progress, or is it the new wave, artists like Charlotte de Witte — confident in her identity, uncompromising in her dedication, and passionate about creativity — who will really shape the future of techno?
Back in May, Charlotte de Witte launched our DJ Mag HQ live stream sessions; check out her full set of heavyweight techno here.
Next month, de Witte is set to open the second run of shows at London’s new multi-purpose mega-venue Printworks on Saturday 7th October, before heading over to Amsterdam for series of ADE performances alongside dance music’s finest.
Pick up a physical edition of our Charlotte de Witte cover in stores across the UK throughout September for other great articles featuring Gerd Janson, tINI, Midland and and more.
Pics by Marie Wynants, Fille Roelants
Ben Hindle is DJ Mag’s Clubs Editor and co-founder of DJ Mag Bunker. Follow him on Twitter here.