“I see DJing as an art form, and clubs as culture, so I’m inclined to think less about commodity, and more about experience / artefacts rather than products.” – Jon Rust
Jon Rust is one of the few U.K selectors, alongside other like of Four Tet and Alexander Nut, who is as comfortable spinning cosmic jazz, soul and disco as smashing out grime and U.K funky. It is this flexibly and open-minded attitude alongside a technical prowess that has enabled him to have rise in stature as a DJ and label head (for Levels). We spoke to Jon about his upcoming plans for his label, some reflections on his hometown and his own profession. Alongside, we’ve got a three hour mix, recorded at Dance Tunnel earlier this year, warming up for Galcher Lustwerk (whos set is also available as part of our Live at Dance Tunnel series). As Jon says, “the set here might not be the tightest thing I’ve laid down, but the night was a real vibe and the recording I think captures that spirit”.
First, our usual ice-breaker…what was your first musical memory?
“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” on a Fisher Price music box.
Most music lovers and DJs recall a time when they first fell in love. I remember reading Alex Nut saying he heard Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix as a young lad and his life was changed forever. Can you think of the time, when music become more than just part of life, but grew into an obsession?
I think when I started heading to clubs to hear music that none of my friends were into… that’s when I realised that I was into things much more than the next person. I went to go see DJ Zinc do a garage set at Fabric. Soon after that I would make my way down to FWD>>.
Diversity gets thrown around too much these days when it comes to DJing, but you’re one of the few who are as comfortable playing jazz-fusion and post-punk on NTS as you are laying down sweaty garage and house bangers with Oneman. In an industry obsessed with trends, how do you manage to stay so open-minded when it comes to music?
I’ve always been into different type of music, and always saw DJing I saw as a way to represent whatever I was listening to. You do often hear DJs playing more functional music as they play to bigger crowds though, so it’s probably fair to right to point out that within the industry there is a pressure to specialise. But I’ve got away with it this long, so why stop that now?
Running our own events over the years, as Standard Place and Levels definitely played a part. You run the night as you see fit and people are drawn to that. I also think that the best thing about London is it’s diversity of cultures so representing that in a set is a very London thing.
It’s also a very faddy city though and trends go hand in hand with genre tags – it makes the marketing of things more straightforward. But the more you specialise, the trade off for that convenience is that you begin to stifle people’s expectations of what a type of music is, or can be, or even what types of music can be enjoyed in a club. And that is something I think that definitely needs to be avoided.
You have been a part of NTS since the beginning, a station which sticks to its music principles even if more financial gains can be found in broadening its scope. Why do you think it works so well?
I think NTS’s reputation was built on its community of DJs and hosts. And it is a real community, with a shared understanding. NTS have consistently recognised that, and that’s why it goes from strength to strength with it’s core values in tact. At events over the years, they have consistently offered the platform to the people who’ve been a part of getting it off the ground. That said, they are keen to embrace the opportunity to grow and reach out to other creative communities. Their plans I’ve heard sound really exciting and I read that they’ve now secured Arts council Funding to assist in that. So full respect to the crew, steering it as they have – it’s been no mean feat.
How has being part of NTS shaped your life?
Well in the early days I was still working a day job which I didn’t have much love for, living for the weekend, as a lot of people do guess. Finding music to play and looking forward to my show each week, while listening to all the other shows – it was a way to get through the week.
NTS co-incided with Plastic People beginning to wind down, so NTS became a hub for a lot of those people who would have otherwise been there. NTS being where it is in Gillet Square meant that shows were really sociable events too. People would come down and hang out, make connections.
Beyond that though NTS offered me an opportunity to reach out to a wider an audience… and as the listenership grew you’d get people regularly listening in from as far afield as Australia, North and South America, Canada as well as Europe. Soon enough some of those people started booking me for their club events, until eventually I was doing enough to leave my day job to pursue music full time. That’s been a dream come true and I’m really fortunate to be able to say that.
You play pretty regularly with Jamie XX. How did that relationship first come about and what is it about his style and music that makes you so compatible?
Back when we were still doing regular Standard Place parties and around the time Jamie had released “NY is Killing Me”, I’d heard somewhere that Jamie was a big Oneman fan. So we just invited him to play with us. I also had a friend who worked at Young Turks, Jamie’s label – another connection through Plastic People – and they would get me to come and play their parties. Both Jamie and I are from south London and had a shared love of UK garage, but also for rare grooves and I guess we got to hang out more from there. I think he He started getting me on some of his club shows abroad and then last year I toured with him in Europe which was great fun…. My first time on a tour bus and it was a lot of fun.
Let’s talk about your label Levels. What was the catalyst in developing it from a party to a label?
Making a label came from a desire to create something with more lasting impact I guess. Events at their best can be amazing, even life-changing, but they are also such a temporal thing – a specific time, space, context.
Were there any labels you were trying to emulate, or provided inspiration when starting out?
Not consciously I don’t think… I mean, there were some labels that I loved, and I had worked for a couple, Bingo Beats and Tempa briefly, but that was just on the admin side.
I lived with Alex Nut around the time he was putting together the whole Eglo thing and I thought that looked really cool.
I’ve picked all most of the Big Apple releases too – from BAM001 Artwork’s Red EP. That was a really important record for me especially. Dancehall, garage, techno flavours all there on one 12”. But I knew that label came through the shop, and a very specific time.
I’d actually done a record with Reecha, as Lightworks previously. As everyone does with a label, you learn through your mistakes, so I knew a few things that I didn’t want to do.
So far you’ve released the dubby electronics of Lord Tusk to blissed out house of Estonian veterans Ajukaja and Andrevski. Do you have a specific sound (or even just a wider mission statement), which guides what you do with the label?
No… no specific genres or tempos. I just want to hear fresh ideas.
As regards to aesthetics, I’ve never been able to put words to that myself – but Jan / Ruutu Poiss (producer of the latest Levels 12”) he hit on something a while back that all the releases so far have had a cartoonish quality. Each record has had a very distinct character, almost larger than life.
Was it a challenge to channel your wide music tastes into a common thread to tie all Levels output to?
Not so much a challenge, but I think following on from the club nights, we’d set out to make 12”s for the club and that has been the focus to date.
What are your plans for the label in the next year?
To put out more music that doesn’t sound like anything else out there.
As someone who played and worked at the legendary Plastic People, how do you think London is doing without it? Are there any other venues or parties in the UK you love playing at?
So far, outside of London though I’d probably say Soup Kitchen in Manchester has been my favourite to play.
London is definitely a poorer place without Plastic People though. It was a vision of excellence so fully realised, its going to be so hard to top that.
Dance Tunnel, although not around for long, was a great spot. As it’s recent closure shows, clubs of that size in London are increasingly less viable to hard to run.
Corsica Studios I have been going to since it’s very early days and I love the family vibe there, plus the sound system really bangs.
On the larger end of the scale though, Phonox is very promising – one large main room to keep things focussed, a quality sound system, great staff and a large booth on a level with the crowd to operate out of. I played there earlier this year with Actress and another time with Mount Kimbie and had a great time, so was keen to go back.
[Assuming you’re gonna give Phonox a shout-out!] Speaking of Phonox, you’ve just started your month-long Saturday night residency there. How are you feeling about an extended stay in one spot? How will you approach these dates differently to one-off parties?
Awesome yeah – When you play a different club each gig, theres so many things you have to deal with – different sound system, the acoustics are different, different layout which can affect the flow of the crowd… To be able to fix the setting means you I can focus on to getting all the other things right, the selection, pace of the night etc…
The first one we did this Saturday just gone I was joined by Secretsundaze and it went so well. It was a real honour to have James and Giles down since SS is such a clubbing institution itself – and we just ran b2b2b which was a real vibe. Being given free reign to be able to play an evening like that, in a club of that size is such a pleasure. I already have high hopes for the rest of the dates.
London nightlife is in a state of flux at the moment, but we won’t make this another question about a DJ trying to explain why it’s all happening. Instead, it’d be interesting to know what’s making you hopeful about London clubbing culture?
The old saying – where there’s a will, there’s a way. I think that holds true. London is a big city and people need to dance.
Another forward-looking question…what young labels, DJs and producers are you excited about at the moment, who you can see great things in store for?
John T Gast and 5GT.. Get to know. His new 12” on Apron is a monster…
Coby Sey. I’ve know Cobes a few years, but caught his first live performance earlier this year at Klein’s album launch. He was amazing.
DJ Slyngshot / Yappin Records.. he’s had some killer releases and has more to come on the label. Me and Ruutu got to jam with their crew in Germany earlier this year and had a blast.
EYE. Four releases so far, each one just a single sided piece of vinyl, but they keep getting better and better. The vibes on the record are so free… it’s unlike anything else I’ve heard.
Finally, beyond your Phonox residency, what have you got coming up in the coming months (parties, book tours etc.) we should keep a look out for?
Greece at Odyssia Festival, I am really looking forward to that. I’m heading out straight after Carnival weekend to join Giles Peterson, Benji B, Josey Rebelle and Marcellus Pittman on the Wednesday. Closing the festival, Body and Soul celebrate 20 years with Francois K, Joe Caussell and Danny Krivit doing a ten hour set…I just can’t think of a better end to the summer season.
For more Jon Rust on STW:
Jon Rust’s 10 most wrecked records