Berlin's Prodigal Son: Paul van Dyk

The world-renowned DJ talks about the city, its music, and his passion for the electronic dance scene.

DJ and electronic dance music pioneer Paul van Dyk is a native East Berliner who has effectively shaped the city's nightlife scene with his artistic creativity. Where caught up with him to talk about his newest projects and even how Berlin's abandoned factories shaped a whole genre of music.

Why do you think Berlin has become such a music hub, especially for electronic music?

I think it has to do with the history of the city, and not just since the Wall came down. David Bowie recorded here, Depeche Mode recorded here. Some of the best records ever made have been recorded in Berlin. The city never sleeps. There’s no time when the clubs or bars have to close, unlike everywhere else in the world. And that not only attracts people who just want to go out and enjoy life but also artists, because whatever’s happening during these late-night hours has to have artistic value.

When the Wall came down, the whole economy in East Germany, and especially in Berlin, broke down. There were a lot of old factories with nothing in them. The authorities didn't know what to do either, so suddenly parties started to pop up in these off locations. And that attracted a lot of people from places like Detroit and Chicago, where they weren't being given proper respect for their music and their art. Then they came to Berlin and they were appreciated and invited to be part of the scene.

You grew up in East Berlin, lived for four months in Hamburg, and returned. What drew you back?

My friends, and that I knew at least half of the city. I knew East Berlin, and then there was West Berlin to be discovered.

You made your DJ debut at Tresor.

I’m more than grateful I’ve been around to see electronic music growing from 150 crazy-ass people in some small hole into what it is these days, being much more respected, and to see many more people enjoying it. But those Sunday afternoons or Monday mornings at [former nightclub] Planet, I will never forget. I’ve been at the center of a cultural revolution, right in the middle of it, together with everyone else that was around that time, and that leaves a mark on you. Obviously at the time you don't know what you’re a part of, but when you look back you’re like, “Oh, s---.”

But in 1990 to 1991, there were maybe 150 or 200 people in Berlin that actually enjoyed this music, and we all knew each other. We were the freaks of the city. It was weird—in a good way.

Paul van Dyk performs at Berlin's Aquanario.Who were your musical influences growing up?

I was a massive fan of The Smiths. I never knew what they looked like and what they were singing, but I was still singing it. Later on when I learned English, I was quite surprised that when singing along I'd been calling for some rather drastic measures somehow.

Still, to me, it’s never just one person [who influences you]. It’s the music genre itself that develops and reinspires. It’s everybody who’s involved, and if I had to say everyone who inspired me, I would have to name every single person who was around back then making music. Even if it was really [crap], at least it inspired me not to do that.

Who would you like to work with in the future?

There are many artists I would still like to work with because of whatever sort of talent they may have. When I make music, I develop an idea that a certain vocalist would be great, or a certain songwriter would put some nice lyrics to it, or this orchestrator could put some really amazing string orchestration to it. I know people always want to work with superstars, but it’s not that important to me. It’s more about what someone can bring to the project so I can achieve my goal, to make music that leaves a mark and is not just over after three minutes on the radio.

You’ve been quoted as lauding the electronic music scene for its inclusiveness and for embracing all backgrounds. What do you think it is about electronic music that fosters that?

Its main characteristic is that everyone is really open to bringing different cultural elements into the music. This is why it’s such a global phenomenon, because people can identify themselves in the music, they can always find something to take away for themselves. A good piece of electronic music never tells you the whole story; it gives a sketch, an idea of where to go, and then you have to fill it with your own experience and your own dynamic. People come to me about the same track. Someone says, “Oh, it’s so beautifully sad." Then others say, “It’s so uplifting and great." Because people fill in the gaps with their own experiences. This is what people who really love electronic music are so passionate about.

In light of that, I read that your recent Politics of Dancing 3 was banned in several countries due to the appearance of Israeli DJs on the album. What are your feelings on that?

Obviously, it shows that still a hell of a lot more work needs to be done to overcome those boundaries. It’s bad enough that because of religion people don't talk to each other and fight against each other, and that people are putting sanctions on each other for political reasons. But I think it should be understood that culture is the only universal language that can overcome those distances. It’s clearly very disappointing from an artistic point of view. I could understand if they had banned it because [of explicit lyrics]. But it’s purely because of where two of the artists are from, and that’s obviously complete bulls---.