Thang Tung Tran - aka just ‘Thang’ - is a living legend in the Belgian nightlife scene. Even more so in his hometown of Ghent. After a whopping 20 years behind the decks, countless all-nighters, one to many shots and probably more hangovers than most of you ever had, the time for proper celebration has come. To mark this milestone accordingly, the man who was once part of musical outfits like VillA, TTN and Fredo & Thang has put up a year-long ‘Thangk You Tour’ (see what he did there?). Naturally, we wanted to hear what this veteran had to say about the changing nightlife scene, the essence of DJ-ing and the advice he would like to give to beginning selectors…
The Thangk You Tour! Who would you like to thank mostly?
"The dancefloor! This is literally the most important thing for any DJ that wants to bring something to the table. Nothing is more painful than seeing a full house without any movement. Throughout my career I’ve seen familiar faces turn up every now and then, which is a sign that some people like what I do, for which I am really grateful. Of course, I’d like to thank a few other people too: the folks that gave me a platform, trusted me, advised me and all the people involved in making a night out work (with which I mean doormen, toilet ladies, bartenders, promoters, etc.). Lastly, I’d like to thank my family, my friends and my amazing girlfriend who often has to spend weekend nights without me."
Where will this tour bring you?
"Honestly, I can’t tell you much right now. The tour is spread out over 10 months, starting on January 13, at the cozy Criss Cross Club in Kortrijk. On January 20, I’m doing an all-night set in the second room of MODfest under my TTN alias - a project focussing on the ‘darker’ side of music, which I started with my mentor Olivier Tjon. All in all, I’ll be passing through both established venues and truly unique locations. However, I can already tell you where I’ll end the tour: where else than in my hometown, Ghent? I’m in the midst of booking one hell of a night at Kompass. A little tip for that lineup: something with two famous brothers from this city…"
Could you tell us a little more about the very first official gig you ever played?
"If you asked me 10 years ago I might have been able to tell you (laughs). I started out doing all-nighters in small Ghent bars like Video, Sous Sol and Zodiac. At this time, I was doing a lot of gigs with Turbo Davy, who I’ve met when he was playing at the Vlasmarkt during the Gentse Feesten (during that time, the DJ-booth was still just a small caravan next to the hamburger stall). One year later, we were playing there together – I believe we called ourselves ‘The 69ers’ "
How many gigs have you played altogether? Make an educated guess…
"If I take 2 or 3 gigs per week into account (even when there were times I did 4 to 5), the total number has to be around... 3000!"
How have you changed as a DJ, compared to when you started out?
"I just learned a lot more about music during these years. I’ve never been able to limit myself to just genre, so I tend to change directions during my sets. During some years (mostly when I played sets with Fredo at Culture Club during the Mish Mash days) these turns could be really sharp! After spending a lot more time in the studio during the VillA or TTN years with my bestie François De Meyer, I’ve started to pay more attention to organic mixing by learning to understand how music works: the keys, the tone scales, but the frequencies and grooves too. As a DJ, you have to see your selection as a musical instrument. Certain combinations of tracks work better than the sum of their parts – which is especially effective when the songs are not-so-obvious choices."
How much has the nightlife scene changed?
"From my point of view, I can conclude a lot has changed, but we shouldn’t be surprised about that. First of all, I believe there’s a lot more collegiality between DJs and promoters now – it feels like there used to be a lot more rivalry and viciousness. Again, I’m telling this from my own experience, so I could be wrong. Ghent parties like Free The Funk, Eskimo, Belmondo and later Culture Club could offer a variety of genres like house, disco, drum ‘n' bass and hip hop in one single night. Each different clique would be there, which resulted in a lot of different collaborations between people you would not expect it from. That was magical – and I have the feeling club nights are less eclectic now. Additionally, it has become a lot more difficult to throw events in special locations nowadays. You need to be more creative to cut through the red tape; just look at projects like KERK and the rebirth of the open air party (f.e. Roots of Minimal, Nächtvøgels, Abstrkt, Kowboys & Indians, Tuupe, etc). That’s a great leap forward!
I also have the feeling social media really turned the nightlife scene upside down. Not so long ago, you actually had to move your butt to the club to experience cutting edge music. I remember some people would follow up the exact DJ weekend schedules in order to see every set they played. Maybe that’s where the expression “music is a religion” come from? These days, it has become easier to just stay at home and watch a nice Boiler Room set online. This resulted in fewer patrons in the club, and parties only picking up steam after 1AM, which is really unfortunate. This evolution, combined with the fact that festivals have started to book big dance acts too, have had a negative effect on big clubs. After the recent news that La Rocca will close its doors, the few nightlife institutions that are left in this country will probably also be the last.
Finally, hip hop has taken no prisoners in its rise to the top. Just look at the success of guys like Roméo Elvis and Zwangere Guy – or events like Fire Is Gold. A big shout out here goes to TLP, who was always supporting this scene from day one. The fact that you see more and more mosh pits at hip hop events only proves my point. I love it!
All these things could be seen as ‘changes’ in our nightlife scene, but I rather interpret them as ‘evolution’. In the end people will always want to go out – for whatever motivation."
How do you keep it interesting for yourself after so long?
"Not by ‘reinventing myself’, but actually by making it more challenging for me. If a certain mix works well, I’ll try not to play it the next weekend. I used to play in a DJ-duo with Fredo, so I needed to be a lot more assertive. The feeling of carrying the weight by yourself once we had parted ways was something I had to get used to – but that made me a better DJ. Obviously, I still do B2B sets every now and then with my mates John Noseda, Jean Le Rouge or Bafana. I’ve also taken on a lot more professional projects now, compared to before. I co-run a techno night at Kompass, called ‘1988’ with Stefan Bracke and Maximiliaan Dierickx; I work behind the scenes for the ‘Abstrkt’ events and I’m a respresentative for the ticketing company Tibbaa. And, like mentioned before, every now and then me and Olivier Tjon come together to show our ‘dark side’, meaning we play all-nighters under our ‘Luid Vuil Traag’ banner. This means the tempo NEVER goes over 108 BPM – our way of tributing the New Beat-era. Taken together, all these projects keep me on edge."
Tell us, what’s the craziest story after 20 years behind the decks?
"(laughs) There are way too many to mention. What about the naked guy at Libertine Supersport, or the escort girl who threw serious money at us if we played her customer’s requests. I also remember the panic I that dawned upon me when I realized I had left my USB stick at home, right before I had to play WECANDANCE in 2016 – or the sense of relief I felt when I was able to improvise with someone else’s music. Then there was the epic race against the clock in London when me and Fredo had to take over from Horse Meat Disco on Bestival (spoiler: we arrived during their last track). Or what about peeing in a bucket behind the DJ booth at Culture Club because I was playing for a full house by myself and I had nowhere else to go? Or how could I forget Lenny Kravitz dancing right in front of me when I played Soul Makossa? Obviously, there’s a lot more, but let's keep it with that (winks)."
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned or the best advice you’ve ever been given?
"Well, there are a few things:
• Surround yourself with people that love music as much as you do. Music makes friends.
• Open your mind to as much different music as possible – you never know what could inspire you.
• Sit down, be humble.
• Take care of your ears: buy custom-made earplugs and treat yourself to some quietness after the weekend.
• If you have the chance, learn how to beatmatch with vinyl records. That really is the basis of what it takes to be a DJ. The feeling of mastering this art is priceless.
• Determine the ideal time of the night for every track. This skill, taught to me by my mentor Olivier, can not be underrated.
• Drink a lot of water!"
Any quick tips for beginning DJs that want to start a 20-year-long career like you.
"It’s extremely important to create a network around you, so I would advise to talk to a lot of people, make mixtapes, etc. It’s ok to take small steps in the beginning – don’t expect to play the main stage straight away. I started with countless all-nighters in small bars; I couldn’t have imagined a better way to learn the craft of DJ-ing. One last tip I’ll put here was given to me by one of my personal heroes, Benoeli from The Glimmers. He told me to look at your audience. Keep an eye out for a few people throughout the night and see if your selection works on them: it’s the perfect way of telling you’re doing a good job or not."
Which dates do we need to mark in our calendars?
"I’ve already mentioned the first night of the tour (January 13 at Criss Cross Club in Kortrijk) and the ‘all night wrong’ set (at MODfest Hasselt on January 20). On February 24, I’m playing the brand new Meatpack for the first time, which I’m sure will be a lot of fun. Other than that, I have gigs in Lokeren, Knokke (Kitsch Club), Brussels (Fuse) and Antwerp (Jardim), but you’ll know about these when the time comes. Finally, I’ll host the closing night of this tour in October at Kompass in Ghent. It would be amazing to see all your lovely faces there!"