25 years on,
fan the flames of Berlin’s nightlife
Dimitri Hegemann is a night owl.
A true veteran of Berlin’s music scene, he continues to work best under the cover of darkness, helming not only the iconic Tresor, but the smaller Ohm club, and an industrial venue called the Kraftwerk. “I’m a big fan of the nighttime,” Hegemann says with a laugh. “It is beautiful, not only for partying, it’s also good for thinking. It’s magic.”
If that seems sentimental, it’s with good reason. You might know the story — in the 25 years since Tresor opened, its history has become a Berlin legend. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the city changed. Reunification resulted in a new, fortified population of young people, a wealth of abandoned buildings, and a lack of governmental control that made Berlin the ideal place for a music movement like the one started by Hegemann (pictured below, next to a young Jeff Mills) and his cohorts. “The city was burning. I’ve never seen such euphoria in my life because both sides spoke the same language,” Hegemann explains. “It was like a melting pot of young non-conformists from all over Germany who hadn’t found a platform in their home city; so they created new visions. That was massive! Everybody had two ideas in their back pocket.”
Hegemann’s two ideas? Find a space to play the music that he loved, and create a home for the like-minded artists and young people that were playing it. With strong ties to the Underground Resistance, a Michigan-based collective putting out a brand of electronic music influenced by the industrial aesthetic and factory sounds of Detroit, Hegemann, along with accomplices like Johnnie Stieler, DJ Tanith, and Carola Stoiber, brought this new sound to Berlin. It was called techno.
After time spent throwing illegal parties in abandoned buildings around the city, techno found its home in the vaults of a former department store in Mitte in 1991, and Tresor was born. According to Hegemann, “there were four points that came together: the Wall was down, the euphoria, the right space, and the right time.”
For Carola Stoiber, founder of the PullProxy label, and Tresor’s original label manager from its inception until 2011, the amalgamation of these four points was the essence of this nighttime magic. “Definitely there was a magic because techno was different from anything we ever knew. It changed everything,” Stoiber says. “Everybody could dance individually on your own, in your own space. To me, that’s freedom.” With this freedom, techno flourished: communities formed within club culture, bonds that mirrored the spirit of reunification era Berlin. “Back in the day, it was about diving into the music,” explains Stoiber. “You went to meet your friends, everybody knew each other, it was all connected. People threw parties because they wanted somewhere to dance and play their music. There was a sense of community in those days that was very underground.”
The importance of nightlife, though, runs deeper than just an emotional connection or a sense of community; for Berlin especially, techno is one of the city’s biggest exports, with the nightlife industry pulling in millions of visitors a year. “More than 80 percent of the tourists that come to Berlin, come because of the alternative culture – that’s an economic force,” Hegemann asserts. “It influences the entire creative culture of the city. Looking back after 25 years, it’s these alternative cultures that have really flourished.”
A thriving nightlife industry, however, has proved to be a kind double-edged sword; the source of both the said economic prosperity, and a music scene that has become astonishingly oversaturated. “In 2016 there’s a lot of competition,” Hegemann argues. “There are so many festivals, so many clubs, so many DJs… There is a lot of creativity so much so that sometimes I get bored of all this creativity!”. Stoiber agrees that the scene’s financial prosperity has altered the atmosphere. “Electronic music just took over the whole nightlife. Step by step, of course, but everywhere you go today, every club, it’s based on electronic music. It’s a big business! This is a whole economy. And because of that, the feeling is different.”
What feeling, exactly? “It’s just something that’s missing,” Stoiber continues. “I don’t know what. The community that I talked about, that’s changing. Now I think the community feeling is a little bit fake, people think they are part of a community because they go out to clubs and stay there for a long time and be there… But this is not real life.”
Both Hegemann and Stoiber agree that today’s club kids are partying for different reasons, and sometimes they’re the wrong ones. “This is sad, I must say,” laments Hegemann, “Club culture has become very disconnected. People long for something… They long for a moment of togetherness.” He’s not wrong; looking back on the most important musical movements in history — the Love Parade, Woodstock — these were crusades formed by the coming together of people united in fighting for a cause. Reunification era, too, embodied a sense of euphoric rebellion; Berlin seemed to need techno. “Today, the rebellion, the anarchy, the movement? Yes, it’s missing,” says Stoiber, “There’s not a lot of independent thinking anymore. I wouldn’t say this is only in electronic music, but it would be nice to have some action going on, where people say we have to do something, we have to stand up!”
For Hegemann, this lack of passion extends all the way to today’s promoters, bookers, and club owners. “The quality has changed with age. I think most people who successfully, commercially picked up techno, like in these huge festivals or clubs, this is out of control and not in line with the true spirit. You see it everywhere,” he explains, “I meet many promoters who don’t care. They’re just interested in making money, selling festival tickets for 120 bucks, boom, boom, boom… There are so many promoters and club owners who don’t seem to care. And that’s really a shame. My question is, and I wait for an answer, Berlin gives these people so much inspiration, ideas, vision… What do they give Berlin?”
The whole concept comes full circle, though; such is the paradoxical way of any industry. Economic growth begets lack of passion, sure, but all the passion in the world doesn’t necessarily equal success. Even Tresor has seen its fair share of hard knocks, closing its doors temporarily in 2005 due to financial problems. “In the early days of Tresor, we had no idea what we were doing,” admits Hegemann. “We had no idea how to even sell a glass of beer, let alone throw a party. We made all the mistakes you can make, everything. Most clubs fail because they have no economic understanding. That’s what happened to us… The demand was so big, the momentum was too strong.”
But since reopening in 2007, Tresor’s hold on Berlin’s club scene has remained intact. “The new Tresor has the same atmosphere, the same vibe. It’s nothing fake. And without Tresor, music culture in Berlin wouldn’t be like this now,” Stoiber argues. “People know that, and they respect that. It’s very close and very intense, and the DJs love that. And I love it too. Today if you ask me where I get my passion, it’s definitely more about the artists. If I didn’t love the music, I wouldn’t be able to do this job anymore.” This year, Tresor celebrates its 25th anniversary with an ambitious worldwide series of parties which run until October.
For Hegemann, hope for the future of club culture lies with the next generation. As such, Hegemann is constantly cultivating new ventures with which to inspire and encourage today’s budding industry heroes. 2015 saw the launch of his Academy for Subcultural Understanding, a school that aims to teach deeper awareness of music and arts, as well as the start of his Happy Locals organisation which promotes alternative projects. “There are people who still have goals with electronic music,” says Hegemann. “You need to care about the culture, about club culture. The next generation, they bring some passion. And that’s important.”
“I like the idea of keeping a city weird,” Hegemann says with a smile when asked where he sees club culture heading in the next 25 years. “That’s the goal. We can only accomplish that with the nighttime. Many cities just waste this wonderful time, but here in Berlin at night… The city is shining.”