The kaleidoscopic world of Courtesy
Sitting in the Berlin bedroom of DJ Najaaraq Vestbirk, better known by her stage name Courtesy, the presence of colour is notable. The sofa in the corner where we sit is a deep teal that matches the silk blouse she wears, tied at the front over blue trousers. Above the desk where her laptop sits – on a stand surrounded by hand-scrawled notes about visa applications – hangs a colourful wall tapestry, beneath our feet a similarly vivid woven carpet.
Colour plays a big part in Vestbirk’s relationship to sound. When she closes her eyes and listens to the music she plays, visions of bright shades float past. Many of Vestbirk’s sets and mixes evoke a similar feeling; they’re fast paced and splashy with an emphasis on rhythm. “More and more I like to play music that’s positive. I like to bring positive vibes into the [dance] floor,” she says.
© Julian Mahrlein
“I want to do something that’s different. I’m not interested in releasing electronic music that is still just a throwback”
Born in Greenland and raised in Denmark, Vestbirk made her name as a figurehead of Copenhagen’s quickly expanding dance music scene. She rose to prominence as part of the collective Apeiron Crew, going on to create techno label Ectotherm with fellow member Mama Snake, all the while fostering her reputation as an internationally known solo DJ.
But Vestbirk’s career wasn’t always this slick. In the beginning, odd jobs and flyering at local parties funded the equipment she needed to kick-start her career. “I spent my savings on a DJ setup and a friend gave me this book called How to DJ that had a guide on how to beatmatch. I didn’t know any DJs, I didn’t have a mentor at that point at all,” Vestbirk explains. Starting the duo Ung Flugt with her highschool bestie Johanne Schwensen, the pair set out to make their mark on Copenhagen’s music scene. “I convinced a bar that we were actual DJs when we weren’t. We showed up and we didn’t even have headphones because we didn’t know you were supposed to bring your own headphones to the club,” she laughs.
Of course, Vestbirk has come a long way since then. The scene she came up through in Denmark was a tight-knit one, with the capital city housing only half a million people. The sound that has emerged from that scene in recent years – blistering techno which averages a pace of 140 BPM – is one Vestbirk has been integral to introducing to the rest of the world.
“People are, like, there’s always been fast techno. Yeah, but when we first started releasing those Ectotherm records four years ago, you couldn’t find any contemporary techno that was 140 [BPM],” she says of her label’s early releases. Despite its successes in putting Denmark’s distinct sound on the map, the label closed up shop earlier this year, leaving space for Vestbirk to go out on her own and start a new project. Taking the Danish word for colour – Kulør – as its name, this new label will be exploring sounds that reach beyond the techno wheelhouse, with the curation of visual content given equal importance as the music.
Kulør’s first release will feature work from graphic design studio Spine Studios and photographer Fee-Gloria Groenmeyer. The fresh aesthetics are just one of the ways Vestbirk hopes to establish a modern identity for the project, far from the popular throwback approach. “For me, techno culture – and maybe broader electronic music, but particularly techno – is a monoculture that rewards people that copy other people,” she explains. “I want to do something that’s different. I want it to look different, I’m not interested in releasing electronic music that is still just a throwback.”
© Julian Mahrlein
Where the jobs of label head and DJ intersect is in their emphasis on mediation. Both rely on pinpointing the best music from past and present and finding a relatable way to present these finds to a greater audience. Kulør’s first release, a compilation featuring the likes of Schacke, IBON and Sugar, is an homage to her city and embodies this connecting spirit. “Basically the whole [Copenhagen] scene is contributing more or less with a track. That’s been a very wonderful thing to present to people and every single person on the release is a friend,” she says. “They’re running the scene; the Copenhagen scene is them. I’m good at getting shit done and I’m curating the whole affair but they’re making the music and they’re throwing the parties.”
The overwhelming respect Vestbirk has for her peers and collaborators is something that comes up again and again. She waxes poetic on artists she’s released or tracks she’s played with a visible passion. Throughout our interview she’s sure to mention key members in Copenhagen’s scene by name and before I leave asks me to go over the spelling of these names with her by email because she “wants to make sure the Copenhagen shout outs are right.” Community, after all, is a key part of why she’s pursued this career. “For me, being in music is about collaborating with people. I’m not a producer. I don’t DJ so I can sit in the studio. Every project I do is about how we can play with music together.”
Photography: Julian Mahrlein
Kulør 001 is released 11 October
Courtesy appears at Club to Club, Turin, 1-4 November