Motor City Drum Ensemble: Looking for Light in the Nighttime
“I feel that society is going in the way of being hyper-ego centred, fast paced nonsense that’s not actually going anywhere and people like Donald Trump are the perfect iconisation of this,” Danilo Plessow remarks. It’s a Saturday night and I’m sat with the man behind Motor City Drum Ensemble, discussing the intense realities connected to club spaces and politics in a crowded restaurant at Minehead’s Butlins resort.
As we finish up eating, we take our conversation somewhere less crowded, walking out into the darkness towards his chalet accommodation provided for tonight’s set at Bloc. weekender. Having just jumped off a flight from his current home of Amsterdam, he looks around curiously, taking in the family-tailored amusements and the hoards of festival attendees – many of whom seem to recognise him immediately.
Plessow has never been a DJ who cares about being on trend or pandering to expectations. When I mention the wealth of techno at the event he’s about to play, he says with a wide smile, “Fuck it, I think I’m going to take it slow.” Going through his laptop in his chalet beforehand in preparation, he mulls over tracks that range from the blissful electro of James Stinson’s The Other People Place to Hafi Deo, a popular peak-time set staple from African singer-songwriter Tabu Ley Rochereau.
Having been playing out for over 10 years now, Plessow’s sets see him take his audience on a musical journey throughout soul, disco and house, into jazz or even zouk – a genre centered on a jump-up beat, that originated in the 80s from the Caribbean islands. “For me, there is no one genre or style that I feel that I should represent,” he plainly states. “Discovering music has always been very random for me. Meaning I would go to a record store and there would be crates and crates of records all mixed up. In this way, you just picked from every genre that you liked and that’s the spirit that I try to keep in my DJ sets as well.
“I don’t have anything against so-called hits,” he clarifies about the better-known end of his DJ selections. “Every DJ has these go-to records from playing shows endlessly, they always save a party. I’m not ashamed of admitting, of course, there’s definitely a box of things like that to rescue a dancefloor.”
Over the years, certain tracks have become heavily associated with Motor City Drum Ensemble – and they’ve become more rare because of it. One of those is Keep The Fire Burning, an adored disco record from Gwen McCrae. Ever since it was played in his first Boiler Room set, the price of the record has sky-rocketed. The effect has completely shocked Plessow. “I played in Australia recently and this one girl came to me and said, ‘you’re such a son of a bitch, you made this record a £50 record and now I can’t buy it!’”
Talking about classic and rare records leads us onto the subject of repress culture and Discogs inflation, the former of which he views in a positive light and the latter, not so favourably. “I believe that limiting your records as a record label only plays into the dealer’s hands,” he relays to me sternly. “For me, music must be accessible for people who don’t have the means but still want to own the object… so why would you want to be cocky about it and not repress?”
In March, MCDE Recordings, which Plessow runs with Pablo Valentino, released their first ever repress, It’s All In The Groove by City People/20 Below. For some time, the sensuous deep house record from 1996 has been a favourite of Plessow’s. “I’ve known the guy for a long time, he explains. “Accidentally, it also happens that he made one of the best house records that ever came out of the UK, so we were linking on both levels.” Fortunately, everything came together. It was put together purely on City People/20 Below’s terms – from mastering to packaging to the timing of the release. “It’s really positive to see that there’s such a big market for this music because even though it’s 20 years old, it’s really fresh and hasn’t aged a bit.”
"I need to create this cave where I switch off from all the troubles and just do music”
Releasing productions of his own has been put on the backburner in recent years, and Plessow admits that “life got in the way”. He’s currently searching for apartments in Paris, and he’s lived between five cities in 10 years. He seems a little averse to the claustrophobia of settling into a tight-knit scene. “I grew up in a place where everything was far removed,” he says – Plessow was raised in the German town of Schwäbisch Gmünd. “All my biggest records have been done when I was not so exposed to a constant stream of like-minded producers or people into music.”
“I don’t want to release something that I feel wasn’t created in a unique environment,” he continues. “I need to create this cave where I switch off from all the troubles and just do music, like how people do yoga – it’s really a spiritual thing.”
Extending on spirituality, Plessow has put together the debut compilation for Dekmantel’s Selectors series that incorporates the work of a minister called Reverend Raphael Green – a process which involved calling a church in St. Louis, Missouri to convince them. Those familiar with MCDE’s sets will have guessed that Plessow has been listening to religiously-informed music for a very long time, having grown up on Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane. “It feels really weird to play this very spiritual and deep music that’s so far removed from all the hedonistic things that are going on in nightlife,” Plessow tells me. “But then I feel that if I can put out the message of universal love and god forgives and all of that positivity on the dancefloor and people listen to the message from that, in a way you create a better place as opposed to playing a track that says ‘we are all high on ketamine.’”
When we discuss that aspect of the DJ lifestyle, the excess that comes with all the late nights and the euphoria, he explains, “This has always been the background but it’s more – you can do drugs and be an idiot, but you can also do drugs and be a sane person who cherishes certain values.”
Three years ago, Plessow shattered the endlessly celebratory image of the DJing lifestyle very publicly through a film with Resident Advisor. Talking at length about his anxiety, it was an eye opener for many viewers – realising they weren’t alone in dealing with the issue. After it was published, Plessow had a lot of people emailing him and coming up to him in person to talk about their own experiences and thanking him for speaking about it. “People with this kind of illness, they can’t tell their friends because they don’t want to lose face. If someone who has a following speaks out about it, it has a direct effect on so many people who couldn’t even tell this to their parents,” he states. Towards the end of our conversation, he confesses that he once felt the same way. “I hid it from my parents for years.”
But, hopefully, Daniel Plessow is in a more positive place now, focusing on the family- oriented vibe of MCDE Recordings and working on new productions of his own. His next release will be a departure in a way, as he reveals to me that it’ll be the last that demonstrates the production ethos of his Raw Cuts series, which sees him working with an MPC and SP-12 samplers onto reel to reel. “It’s really basic house music. I love this kind of shit,” he says, looking over to me with a grin. “If it’s done right, I love it.”
Motor City Drum Ensemble’s Selectors 001 compilation will be released 23 May via Dekmantel
He appears at Field Day, Victoria Park, London, 11 – 12 June