Chance meetings and burnt CDs: the DIY success story of Dan Shake

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Credit: Lewis Khan

If you close your eyes and immerse yourself in Dan Shake’s music, you can almost feel the same unbridled euphoria that Frankie Knuckles would have invoked in Warehouse, swinging through raw house cuts to jubilant disco anthems, a sound firmly rooted in the rich musical history of Detroit and Chicago. Kenny Dixon Jr had a single CD to measure up his talent, and it only took two tracks for the most singular artist in Detroit to sign him to Mahogani, the first artist based outside of The D to achieve such a feat. ‘3am Jazz Club’ has all the hallmarks of a classic Detroit number: soulful and unapologetic in equal measure, everything KDJ and Mahogani represent through their releases and demeanour. When speaking to Dan though, it’s a surprise to find him so open and down to earth, a real juxtaposition to the curious enigma that is Moodymann. Detroit has attitude, but Dan has stayed grounded and humble. He never thought he’d end up as a DJ or producer, so in such a volatile and confusing industry, his story is an inspiration to those who first see his achievements as a little too out of reach.

Speaking about his roots and influences, it’s apparent that Dan is very self-assured and at ease with how things happen, not wishing to force things forward but instead waiting for them to fall into place naturally. This goes all the way back to his childhood: “I wasn’t very academic, so I settled into doing more creative things like art”. It wasn’t something he set his heart on doing though. Despite his father “playing the piano everyday” it never prompted Dan to pick up an instrument, bar a brief stint on the drums. Despite this regular contact with music, it didn’t seem to have an influence on his creative drive or direction, and he admits never thinking of it as “anything more than a bit of fun.” Even now, as a producer, he still doesn’t feel his upbringing played a part in his musical intuition, but is rather “inspired by my own discovery.” We take a second to muse on why family influence has become more and more negligible, coming to the conclusion that the rise of the sites like Discogs making developing your sound a lot more of an individual process.

Taking up production classes at school, Dan started dabbling with software and making beats during lunch break. He sheepishly reveals a tune that he made when he was 15 that’s clocked up over a million plays on the UKF channel. “It’s got more views than anything under my Dan Shake alias! It’s crazy, the worst produced tune ever”. Like all teenagers, he experimented before finally finding his niche. “It could have gone a few ways really, but just before I came to uni I got hooked on Dilla thanks to an older friend, and the Detroit sound became my main love”. Our ever-changing music tastes in our formative years are often times we look back on with great fondness and nostalgia, crucial stepping stones that cement the foundations for our taste in music. For the millennial generation, the story of discovery via the Internet and through friends at university or college is one that is all too familiar, and what makes Dan’s story so relatable.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

However, developing a musical identity isn’t going to land someone a release on Mahogani, regardless of how much Underground Resistance or Stones Throw you listen to. While Dan certainly didn’t plan his meteoric rise into the world of underground dance music, he needed a starting point for this journey to become a reality; this was provided by music management. “I actually worked with some really cool bands”, helping to manage Submotion Orchestra and working with Vagabondz and Dimensions as well. “DJing was never something I intended to pick up and production was always just a hobby at this point too”. This is one of the key crossroads in his life. Had he not met KDJ, Dan may well have continued with the artists management and let the producing slip by the wayside, another forgotten hobby to add to his dusty drum kit. Instead, he was bestowed the good fortune that has made for one of the most unlikely success stories in recent memory.

The easy-going approach, however, very nearly led to him missing out on this famous break altogether. He had been working at Dimensions in 2013 as a stage manager but wasn’t intending to give out any of his music while there. He admits that “it was pretty last minute”, with his girlfriend persuading him to burn some CDs in Croatia, to give to whoever he ended up on a stage with. “As it happened, one of those was with Kenny!” Moodymann’s larger-than-life persona can put most house fans in awe, so Dan still needed further persuasion, even when came face-to-face with one of his heroes. “She told me to go and do it”, again attributing credit to his girlfriend. “I didn’t think he would even listen to it, he’s quite an intimidating person to approach”. Behind the big personality, though, lies an unassuming man. “Everyone think’s he’s pretty mysterious and hidden, but it’s all part of his stage presence,” Dan explained. When he approached with the CD, he remembers Kenny being “super humble about it. We had a little two minute chat and he went and put it in his record bag”.

A little over a month later, Dan receives the email that would kick start his new career and, in true KDJ style, it was slick and straight to the point. “His assistant emailed me with a one sentence message – ‘Hi Daniel, Kenny wants your tracks, can we licence it?’” It didn’t take him long to reach a decision. “Erm of course you fucking can! I couldn’t believe what I was reading”. He recounts how there wasn’t much creative dialogue between himself and Mahogani for the release, given that both tracks on the CD – ‘Thinkin’ and ‘3AM Jazz Club’ were both finished. “Kenny just mastered them and released them”. And what about the person who’d persuaded him to burn the CD in the first place? Dan laughs, “yeah my girlfriend was pretty smug, she was joking for a while about becoming my agent”.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

It was a remarkable position to find himself in and, while becoming the prodigy of Kenny Dixon Jnr carries a lot of expectation, he realised the need to stay on his toes. “It was the best push off you could get”, he remarked, “but I can’t say it’s put a lot more respect on me as an artist, because I didn’t have that before. I wasn’t already established”. Even after the release, breaking into a circle of artists as tightknit as the Mahogani crowd still seemed a world away. Dan describes how they remain “quite hard to get a hold of”, and very much embedded in their own community, “going round to each others’ houses and making music.” The familial nature of the Detroit crew must be frustrating to watch from across the Atlantic, but he’s not completely detached. “Moodymann wants to hear more, not stuff to put out but just likes to listen whenever we catch up. He keeps telling me to come to Detroit and go roller skating and make beats with him.”

Aside from all the sudden publicity, being thrust into the limelight like this was a reality check on another front for Dan. ‘’I realised, shit, I actually need to learn how to DJ now. I had been collecting records for a while but I’d never even attempted to mix them”. Just like he had done with the Mahogani release, and everything before it, he jut took it in his stride and worked on his skills. Since emerging last year, his DJ sets have been a big part of his success, with a level of selection and technique that suggests years of experience. Given that he’d never given it a go before ‘3AM Jazz Club’, it gives you a real sense of his natural musical intuition. Just like so many other things in his story, the DJing fell right into place at exactly the right time and, again, a recurring supportive figure returns to the fold. “My girlfriend actually had some decks and wanted to give mixing a go, but she didn’t stick with.” Pretty much when he inherited the turntables, he received that life-changing email from Detroit.

If releasing on one of the biggest house music labels of all time seemed like a tall order to live up to, then spinning to a full room at one of the UK’s biggest nights – Flux – was just as pressured. Playing only vinyl in a room of 500 people for his first ever set, he’d definitely jumped into the deep end. By his own admission, he was “shitting myself”, recalling how “the decks were a bit fucked and the speakers weren’t the best”. Maybe this baptism of fire was an intentional test from a promoter who are usually on point with their production? Either way, he’s grateful to Flux for putting him in that situation, especially co-founder John, who Dan praised for “taking a chance on me as a DJ when not many others would have done, given how little experience I had”.

He’s come a long way since then and his lauded debut appearance on Boiler Room (above) is a great example of the infectious groove he has behind the decks. “I still get nervous before gigs,” he admitted, “Boiler Room was a bit difficult before I got into it as I actually put the wrong track on at the beginning, but they’ve edited that bit out”. Dan Shake sets encapsulates a fun mix of classic house, afro-centric sounds and disco edits so, stylistically, I ask who he looks up to when selecting and mixing and, unsurprisingly, the unequivocal talent that is Floating Points gets a mention first, “I love his diversity and the way he moves between genres.” To this end, an additional mention of Theo Parrish also comes as no surprise.

Dan’s style makes him a hit for the less discerning to even the most critical of audiences, partly attributed to the edit heavy nature of his sets. He agreed, both in reference to DJing and production, seeing them as “a way to put your own style on a track and give it a bit more of a kick in the club”. Labels like Lumberjacks In Hell and artists like Cratebug are great contemporaries for him and it seems like he’s been mixing in the right circles to help him progress in the direction he wants. “Marcel Vogel has been extremely supportive of my music and really digs my tracks, which is great ‘cause Jamie 3:26 and Mr Mendel have had some of the best edits releases to date.”

Despite appreciating the support from those around him, there was a desire not to rely on other people to make his path in the industry. “I’ve always liked to run things myself,” he told me, “I don’t really like being bossed around”. It’s this headstrong approach that helped launch the Shake imprint. Starting life as a platform to put out a brace of his own edits, it’s recently notched up a first original release from afrobeat-indebted London producer XOA, complemented by his own remix. Asked if it’s just going to be solo output from him, he tells us he’ll be focussing on some original material by himself, not just edits, and also to keep an eye out next year for “some tracks from my mates on there”. Given the company Dan Shake’s now keeping, the mind can’t help but wander.

Dan’s honest approach to production is also incredibly refreshing at a time when the scene seems to be gripped with a hardware revival that some producers take to an obsessive level. He concedes, “there’s a lot of pressure about what equipment you use or how people are getting that ‘vintage sound’”, but he reveals all his own work is done on his laptop, plus his vinyl for any sampling. This sample-based approach is something that he draws from the Detroit way of taking old funk songs and turning them into “something completely crazy”, something that initially interested him through J Dilla and then later Moodymann. With a look of disbelief still visible on his face he contemplates how crazy it is to be simultaneously influenced by and affiliated with such an important figure.

This is the crux of Dan’s success: he doesn’t pretend to be something that he’s not. In the Internet age, it’s easy for artists and labels to copy a tried and tested formula, which can lead to stagnant music. The beauty of Detroit lies in its sheltered existence, which is what led to the city creating some of the most singular and recognisable dance music ever made. He’s certainly a product of his time, but he’s not been entrapped by it. A lot of people have commented on how his debut release sounds exactly like a classic KDJ cut, but instead of resting on his laurels, he’s carving out his own niche in the industry. His gratitude towards Detroit is without doubt, and it’s this mix of humbleness and ambition that has prompted the subsequent meteoric rise among his peers. More than anything else though, it’s his intensely relatable story that makes Dan Shake such a likeable talent. In an age where DJs are elevated into superstar status, this dream can seem unreachable to most, but Dan has proven it is possible to be true to yourself and, with a bit of luck, reach that dream without selling out; a true inspiration to any bedroom producer. In his own words: “a little Jewish kid signing to Mahogani…it gives you hope”.

Catch Dan Shake at 51st State Festival (London, 6th Aug) and Dimensions Festival, playing the STW stage on 25th Aug.

Photos shot exclusively for STW by Lewis Khan.

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