A few weeks ago, we had a chance to go and have a chat with the legendary DJ and well known Estonian broadcaster Raul Saaremets. We met in his studio in Raadiomaja. We talked about his role in the birth and rise of the drum and bass scene in Estonia and what are his thoughts, views, and preferences today.
Throughout the years you’ve inspired a lot of Estonian drum and bass DJ-s and producers. How did you get into drum and bass yourself and what did you find fascinating about it?
I got into drum and bass at a time it wasn't called drum and bass yet. At the very beginning it was called breakbeat and then it became jungle. It started with me having pen pals from England, who were sending me mixtapes, several of which were recordings of some pirate stations. Thanks to those mixtapes I got a taste of it. It was at the same time the jungle was taking over in London and it came on as an unprecedented wave. It's safe to say, it was one of the biggest musical innovations that has ever happened, definitely in pop or electronic music at least. I had a famous friend from BBC Radio 1 named John Peel who was sending me records which included quite a lot of jungle and drum and bass. And of course, because I had my own show, I immediately started playing them.
What are the moments you can look back to and say they affected the rise of the scene here?
The very first time jungle was played in Estonia to the public was at a festival called Rock Summer in 1994, where I played with my band Röövel Ööbik. I can't say how many people there were exactly but there might have been tens of thousands of people. We were given 40 minutes to perform. We ended up doing just half an hour of our set and in the end, I played my cassette. It was one of the pirate station mixtape recordings. Also, the friend, who recorded it for me, rang the very same radio station and asked them to give a shoutout to all of us, Estonians. So there was this sound coming out of the big sound system that was incomprehensible to all those thousands of people, because for most of them it was something totally unreal and also we got this greeting in the end.
The second public performance, which I've later heard that had affected people, was The Prodigy's live in Linnahall (a former concert place in Tallinn -ed.). I was invited to warm up the band and was told that I have to play for 40 minutes which turned out to be an hour and a half because The Prodigy was late. There were a lot of children because The Prodigy was really popular among teens. So there we were, those kids really impatient waiting for The Prodigy to appear and me playing them this ugly, mean music. I do understand how that could have affected people. Those 12-13-year olds, who went to see The Prodigy with their parents, heard drum and bass for the first time in their lives. Since I had to play for such a long time, there were a lot of kids who, later in their life became true drum and bass heads.
And of course, the radio show itself, where I played a lot of drum and bass, surely affected people as well. By all means, we have to realize this was the time before the internet. At that time, the radio show was the only source where you could hear such music. Nobody else played jungle or drum and bass back then. It was only later on when other people started doing it as well. So, I guess you could say I was probably the first. But I was a fanatic, well, in a sense I still am, and getting new music was the most important thing in my life. I didn't care for anything else as much as for the new music and then of course a lot of work was put into it.
Who else would you say played an important role in the evolution of the scene in Estonia?
In terms of making it popular, Lu:k for sure. To be honest, I don't believe that we have ever had such a jungle artist in any of our neighbouring countries, who doesn't perform a lot, but whose tracks are known by the crowds by heart and everybody just screams along with them. He plays his tracks on cassettes and they're very well made. In that sense, Lu:k is a very special artist and it's a bit of a shame that the new generation doesn't know him that well, but they should really listen to him. More about the older artists, Flexus was really good at times. They are both the first-generation artists who should definitely be mentioned.
You’ve been called the godfather of Estonian Drum and Bass. What do you say to that?
I have never claimed to be that. I never wanted to own or direct this scene or anything like that. I just have my own taste and I play that and that is it. I'm kind of a traitor in the sense that I like all sorts of different of music styles. Generally, if some new style is discovered, people tend to stay loyal to it and nothing else matters to them anymore. But if I personally find something new and interesting, then I like that- I can't stay loyal to one thing. You have to be loyal to your woman or your man - everything else is secondary.
How often do you play drum and bass in your sets today?
I rarely play drum and bass today. One of the reasons is that I like the kind of drum and bass that isn't the most popular nowadays. For me that pop thing with a vocal is very strange, I wouldn’t even call it drum and bass, it's just some fast pop music. I do like the fact that jungle has come back though, and I have many good friends in England who make absolutely fantastic jungle, remarkably good. The new jungle is like the old one, but it's somehow more concentrated and has much better sounds, meaning at times it's way better than it used to be. I’m actually planning to have a jungle stage next summer. I'm organising a couple of festivals, one of them is called Kalana Saund (now called Sõru Saund). I've already spoken to a few people who are now all waiting for the next summer to come and play.
How about your fans? Have you ever received any fan mail?
I did get some deranged letters from some people in the past when the radio was still the most important medium. Of course, I have kept all the letters. I was just sorting out my garage the other day when I saw a big box with all the letters in it. There were some letters which content I don't even want to mention.
Your show “Tramm ja buss” – have you kept that going purely out of sense of mission?
Yes! There I can play some stuff that maybe wouldn’t get played that much. All sorts of minimal tracks and the 160 bpm beats which are (some kind of) hybrids from techno and jungle or footwork and jungle. Of course, there are still loads of intriguing artists, but they don't dominate which is good. So, I play all that and sometimes some of the older stuff as well. We take turns doing the show with Sound In Noise.
Alguses sai neid helisid kuulda ju saates “Vibratsioon”. Mis hetkel tekkis vajadus teine saade kõrvale teha?
The point where drum and bass raves started to happen, it was clear that the time was right for a separate show. It was in the mid-90s and at the beginning of the second half when the drum and bass raves were massive. For example, the raves in RET and Zelluloos factories where there was an insane amount of people.
Is it important to know the history of the scene?
Well, it wouldn’t hurt to know the history. You can always take something over from those times but then again, it's not too important. It's nice to know that we had some really cool things happening here in the 90s. If I must feel satisfaction or some other good feeling about anything, it's about Estonia not being behind at all compared to Finland, for example, where nothing was happening at the time while everything was already happening here. First the Finns were to come here to see what was going on, what we were doing and then we started to work together. We collaborated on inviting the artists over - they were playing here on Friday and the next day in Helsinki. This kind of cooperation was completely normal and then at some point it fell apart, everybody started doing their own thing. But in that sense Estonia was still the forefront and I think that's really important.
How well do you know what's going on inside the Estonian drum and bass scene these days?
I'm hearing a lot of it is this pop kind of music. Very high-quality, but not so different from others. I've had a problem with that my whole life when people are limiting themselves to making music with exactly the same quality and sound like everybody else in England right now, even though drum and bass isn't a thing of England for quite a while now.
Is it a more recent problem, the fear to stand out?
Well, it’s always been and always will be a problem for me. I really like Thing, for example, I know him from the very beginning. He's a different kind of guy, if we're talking about Estonia, he's not afraid to do his own thing and thanks to that I think he has accomplished a great deal of success. Hats off to him!
Nowadays it's really popular to release your own music, meaning labels vs do it yourself. Which one do you prefer?
I'm one hundred percent in favour of releasing your own music, I think it's really cool. If I'd have more time and capability, then I'd actually really want to listen to some stuff from the remotest parts, those which have a non-existent number of fans in SoundCloud. That way I've discovered tracks no one knows and then you feel like you've struck gold. You can find all sorts of things in SoundCloud.
Are you involved in a record label or perhaps even labels?
No, I only have one - Porridge Bullet.
Have you ever thought about releasing an Estonian drum and bass compilation?
I'd rather release a jungle compilation right now, if there was enough good music what differs from the regular radio pop music. I think if I'd release anything at all, it should be something that hasn't been done in the world yet.
Talking about recorded music, do you prefer physical or digital?
I get that digital is awfully comfortable but I'm a vinyl friend, always been, even when it wasn't cool. Of course, people who say that in the end it's about the music, not the tools, are also right.
But I also like the saying that if you want to know who’s a DJ, put two turntables and a mixer in front of them. If they can play with them, they are a DJ and if not, they aren't. Nowadays a lot of people call themselves a DJ even when they really aren't.
Which record from your own collection is the most valuable for you?
There are many important records but the favourite one ever is A Guy Called Gerald "Black Secret Technology". That record is so special to me that I have all versions of it, even 2 cassette versions. From time to time, when people talk about history of jungle, the album is always brought up, which shows I'm not the only one who thinks that it's a very special record. I’d say it’s a very mystical record that keeps on getting better with time, you can even say that it feels like it came from another planet. It was way ahead of its time back then and still has the same effect now.
Do you have some certain places, where you find new music from?
I have got a couple of record stores who are doing some serious curator's work. You can say that they sell a very specific kind of music and I trust their taste. I also keep my eye on what's going on in Boomkat. And of course, I get horrifying amounts of promotions.
I'd recommend young people to listen to more radio shows because they do that work for you.
And to conclude our interview - What do you think is the most important thing for making it big in the music industry?
As sad as it sounds, you need connections. A personal relationship is critical. Of course, the most important thing is that your music has to be good and it has to stand out from the crowd, but unfortunately sometimes it's just not enough. To get your music to go it where it's supposed to go, you need a personal contact - it's unfortunate, but that’s how it is.