As the capital of Europe, Brussels has always been a vibrant city where cultures collide in a beautiful, chaotic stew. This is also reflects in its nightlife, where some venues can host a dark techno rave on Friday and a series of alternative live concerts on Saturday. That said, the city wouldn’t be as colourful as it is today if it were not for the efforts of the Lowup crew. For almost 10 years, this group of friends have thrown parties, released music and hosted radio shows that serve only one purpose: pushing alternative club music from all corners of the globe. One of its founding members is the friendly Maxime Vercruyssen, better known as Max Le Daron. He may not be a DJ that’s frequently seen on big festival lineups, but he is a hardworking producer, label manager and just an exceptionally good selector. Whether its kuduro, dembow or grime, nothing is too exotic to be left ignored. After a third trip to Ghana in 5 years, Max Le Daron brought back a hard drive filled with collaborations with local artist, and so he is a step closer to releasing his long-awaited debut album. Before we get to that point, he was asked to answer a couple of our questions. If you didn’t know him before, be prepared to meet one of the most underrated and eccentric producers our country has to offer.
Lowup is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. How has the ride been so far?
"It's been a great ride! We're so glad to have kept the fire burning for so long, working with so many artists from all around the world! On the party side, it took us a few years after the closing of our first venue (Momo's) to find our new, ideal venue; but now we're very glad to work with Beursschouwburg. It's clearly one of the best mid-sized venues in the country. Radio-wise, we're very happy to showcase our universe every Tuesday from 10PM 'til 11PM on BRUZZ for 6 years now already. As for the label, we're currently focused on releasing only a small amount of EPs each year, putting quality over quantity. We also have big plans for our 10th anniversary: a big compilation with original tunes from artists close to the Lowup family. These can be artists that played at our parties, remixed one of our tracks or appeared on our radio show. Our artistic director and graphic designer Tim Colmant will provide some beautiful visuals, which we will put on a new series of merchandise. Not unimportant: we're crowdfunding this whole project to make sure it meets our high quality standards (click here to fund)."
How did the Lowup story start in the first place?
"We started 10 years ago as a monthly ‘illegal’ party in a speakeasy, hidden between two evangelist churches in Anderlecht. Imagine bumping into families in their Sunday clothes going to church at 8AM in the morning when we were going home! We were already fusing what was then called ‘global ghettotech’ and UK underground sounds. We had guests over from every corner of the world, like DJ Edgar and Sany Pitbull from Brasil, Baobinga from the UK or Schlachthofbronx from Germany. Having a full house was a regular thing, which was noteworthy, given we had no real advertising, only word-to-mouth promotion! Unfortunately, that venue shut down back in 2010. In the meantime, we launched our label to push our productions and those of others that didn't get exposure. So that’s when we joined BRUZZ (FM Brussel at that time) for a weekly radio show."
Is it hard to keep an identity when you are releasing all these different sounds?
"For us, the UK sounds (i.e. grime, UK Funky, and ‘bass music’) and what some people call ‘tropical’ are deeply linked. We visited Notting Hill Carnival a few years ago and this just really confirmed our vision. Over there, global club music was played alongside underground club sounds. Unfortunately, that mind-set is not shared with everyone. Sometimes DJs unsubscribe from our promo list after we release an Afro track, after which they ask to be included again one month later when we release a grime track. It really is a question we're asking ourselves every day, but we are very comfortable with our current balance. At our events it works a lot better usually. We always try to have a both a ‘bass music’ and a ‘tropical’ headliner. It turns out that combo works perfectly."
With Lowup, you have brought a lot of interesting talent to our attention, like the Moroccan bass beats of Gan Gah and Jabo for example. Do you feel like it’s necessary to push sounds like these in a music scene where these genres usually get ignored?
"I'm beginning to think that genres are disappearing, you can find similarities between Gan Gah and the Jersey Club scene, M.I.A., Omar Souleyman or the Egyptian Chaabi. In the end, it's pop music; not because it airs on the radio, but because it's catchy, accessible and the rhythmic language used is universal, while staying rooted to a specific culture at the same time. So, yeah, I think it's necessary to push those sounds, to make them reach a larger audience in order to make people realize they can enjoy music outside of their comfort zone."
We presume you’re not a fan of the term ‘world music’?
"When I hear the term ‘world music’ nowadays, I picture mid-aged white people selling old vinyl records for insane amounts of money (laughs). Seriously though, 40 years ago, the Western music industry needed a term to market all this ‘non-Western’ music that this dude from Genesis wanted to sell, but now almost everyone can record and produce his own music on a cheap computer. It can be sent all over the world without validation from a major record label. For example: 2 years ago this Cameroonian song "Coller la Petite" became a massive hit all over Africa and France. It was even broadcasted on mainstream media without PR or record label. Although you can hear the Makossa influence in the beat, it's been made in the same way Soulja Boy made ‘Crank Dat’: with the extremely simple FL Studio software, in a bedroom studio. So why is ‘Crank Dat’ labelled as rap or pop, while ‘Coller la Petite’ is called ‘world music’?"
Last year, you travelled to Ghana for the third time in five years - in this case to work on your upcoming EPs and album. How do you get in touch with the artists there?
"I’m lucky to have a lot of friends there, especially Benjamin Lebrave (who runs the Akwaaba Music record label) and Gafacci who is a well-known producer over there. Combined, they have a lot of connections with Ghanaian artists. I showed them some drafts I had produced and they immediately put me in touch with local rapper Bryte. After that, the both of us met up and made like 6 tunes together in 2 studios sessions, all while he was going through a severe malaria fever. However, it wasn’t only new artists I worked with, I still have a lot of old friends from previous vists. For example, Stevo Atambire, a true Kologo master (which is a string instrument from Northern Ghana) and member of Mabiisi, a Burkinese / Ghanaian band of whom I mixed and mastered the debut album. Or Joey le Soldat, a long-time friend and collaborator. I met a lot of new people during my last trip, but only being able to stay there for 3 weeks, I didn't really get the chance to work with all the people I wanted. I’m lucky with friends like Benjamin and Gafacci, because I can send beats to the artists through Whatsapp and they can record their part in the Akwaaba Music studio in Accra."
Why exactly Ghana? How is the music scene over there? Which artists or movements should we put on our radar?
"The first time I went there, it all happened a bit random: my friend Benjamin just moved there a few months before, and he was looking for a sound engineer to help out with workshops and record a sound bank of local percussion, aimed for Ghanaian producers, who were mostly using Indian and American percussion sounds at that point. In Ghana, I got really interested in the local pop music scene, which was then called Azonto and Hiplife. This made me come back, so I could make a second season of this sound bank and I could start my collaborations with local talent. The music scene in Ghana is just a really vibrant one. There’s a multitude of small studios, although it's all very basic compared to what you would expect. A lot of producers make a living with religious music; they call it ‘gospel’, but for Westerners it could probably be described more like a Christian version of highlife (traditional Akan music made with Western instruments, red.). Many of them try to make it in the Afro-pop game. Sadly, the ‘live’ scene is not very developed; if you want to see live music you better turn to the alternative spheres, which are really growing at the moment. Just check out acts such like Jowaa, Keyzuz, EliaFree or the aforementioned Bryte. Live music is still frequent in the ‘traditional’ scene too. The key players of Ghanaian highlife (like Ebo Taylor or Ambolley) are often performing in jazz bars and hotels across the capital."
Over the last 2 years, you had gigs in less-than-obvious places like Burkina Faso and Uganda. What does playing on festivals over there feel like?
"Oh, it's super nice! In Burkina Faso, I played at Africa Bass Culture, which is a smaller equivalent of European festivals like Nuits Sonores or Sonar: a mix of arts, technology and music showcases happening across different venues throughout the city. The festival had free entrance, so there was a great mix of people: from young, curious and motivated neighbourhood kids to French expats. Joey Le Soldat unexpectedly joined me on stage and we performed our best tracks. The crowd went crazy because all the kids knew him; he's the local hero and they all knew his lyrics! Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda was also super nice, but that had a completely different vibe. I would compare it to an African version of Dour Festival; there’s great rave-y, positive energy, with a lot of attention for local acts, food and crafts. I've been lucky enough to be invited twice already and I see this festival getting better every year! I want to give them a huge big up! I'll always remember my B2B set with BBrave from 1AM until sunrise, right next to the Nile river with 400 people dancing non-stop. At some point, a live drum ensemble joined us for a few tracks; it was pure magic."
About the debut album: how long has it been in the making and how is it going to be different from the other forthcoming EPs?
"It has already been a long journey: 3 years ago the plan was to start a band with my friends Gan Gah and Joey le Soldat, so we made a lot of tracks together. Unfortunately, the physical distance between us and the work for our solo careers took a lot of time, so we changed our expectations, decided to put this project on hold for a few years while I kept some of the tunes we made for my upcoming album and EPs. Each of the 3 EPs showcase a part of the collaborations I made with other artists. The first one is all about Joey le Soldat and Gan Gah, the second one will contain the most recent collabs I made in Ghana and Belgium, with contributions featuring Eli A Free, Azizaa, Sami Tha Ripou, Stevo Atambire and much more. Eventually, the final one will focus on the tracks me and Bryte have put together.
That said, some of the tracks on these EPs will also appear on the album, joined by new songs that I still haven’t finished yet. I really try to put together a coherent set for this occasion. I do have an album title already: "Unless Tomorrow", a Ghanaian expression meaning "not today, but not necessarily tomorrow". It’s quasi-philosophical pun saying that ‘it will happen someday; we just don't know when’. That represents the whole process of this record quite realistically, as it’s plagued with a lot of unexpected mishaps and surprises. For example, last year the studio in Ghana where I stayed got flooded, destroying my hard drive and my camera, amongst other stuff. Some music and a video I really loved and was planning to release got destroyed in the process... Stuff happens, and I quickly tried to get over it, starting with new tunes the following day."
As for Lowup: any other releases or parties we should know about?
"We have just signed a fresh Belgian artist called Qwasa Qwasa. He has released his first EP in February: ‘C'est Quoi ça’. He is a great dude, he is super inventive with his use of samples and weird instruments, comparable to déBruit, but a little crazier, with the aim to make people dance. We're also launching a crowdfunding campaign to support the release of our 10 year anniversary compilation, so expect a lot of goodies designed by the one and only Tim Colmant and some dope music curated by us and produced by artist from all around the world. Lastly, we are already planning a huge release party / birthday celebration at Beursschouwburg in April."
While Max is finishing his album, you can listen to his Monin’ Guetin Remix EP which he made with Gan Gah and Joey Le Soldat and also contains remixes from Gafacci, Pedro and Lorenzo BITW.
Each Tuesday between 10PM and 11PM, you can listen to the Lowup radio show on BRUZZ.