Kabuki, aka Jan Hennig, is one of the most experienced German Drum & Bass DJs. We have been lucky enough to be able to follow his career as a producer over the last seven years on the Precision Breakbeat Research label, co-founded with his partner Mainframe. He also manages the label Spectrum Works, offering us musical experiments below the Drum & Bass speed limit.
Kabuki began his career in music as a student of classical guitar at Dr. Hochs Konservatorium in Frankfurt. He also studied jazz theory, aural training and composition at the American Institute of Music in Vienna, the European equivalent of the famous Hollywood Musicians Institute. Together with his partner Mainframe he produced his first Drum&Bass album. Under their project name Megashira they released a very well received cd and lp on the Frankfurt label Infracom in 1996. Soon after this success, the duo founded their label Precision Breakbeat Research, to publish their 12" singles. Under the name of Makai they had already released two Maxis with the sophisticated British Drum & Bass label No U-Turn and soon after, the first Makai album, Millenium, was produced. The success of the first Makai album led to a tour of Japan, where Kabuki performed together with MC Glacius and sampled the local scene. It proved to be a very important phase - not only did Kabuki discover a first class producer team with Pentagon, he also landed a job as sound designer and composer for Sony Playstation in Tokyo. It was the beginning of a journey that lasted a few years, with Kabuki travelling between Germany and Japan on a regular basis.
Nowadays Kabuki is not only a big name in Drum & Bass, his star has risen far beyond. Through co-productions with Vikter Duplaix or Cleveland Watkiss, releases with labels like Sonar Kollektiv or Reinforced and last but not least his remixes for various artists like Sabrina Setlur or Rocker's Hi-Fi, Kabuki can demonstrate his wide-ranging interests. Incidentally, the name "Kabuki" is Japanese for a genre of classical theatre. The single syllables of the word also have their own significance, symbolising music, dance and technique; these are all words with high relevance to his status as a top-ranking DJ.
Jan, you are known as one of the very first Drum & Bass DJs and you are a producer on the Precision Breakbeat Research label that you co-founded with your partner Mainframe. But initially you studied classical guitar, composition and jazz theory. What's the story behind Kabuki?
Initally we released music under several monikers, but for the past couple of years we decided to focus mainly on the Kabuki sound, since this is something that I also represent when I DJ. I try to cover the full spectrum of Drum & Bass and try to also keep it interesting for those who are not knee deep in the scene. On the production side of things we are currently working on the followup to my debut album Signal to Noise, and for this there are a couple of interesting collaborations in the pipeline.
A few people may know of your involvement in technology and th e close relationship you have built up with companies like Sony, who you worked for as a Playstation sound designer, and later, Native-Instruments. Could you describe how the way you produce music and perform as a DJ has evolved over the last decade?
I've always been interested in new technology ever since I was able to afford my first four-track tape recorder. In the last decade there have been so many quantum leaps in music production tools that I've sometimes had to make sure it was me using the technology and not the other way round. With so many new products being released every day, it's important to focus on being creative with whatever works best for you instead of always trying to stay up-to-date.
What is the main difference for you between producing music and performing as a DJ? Is there any - what are the needs and what are the tools you prefer to use?
Due to my background as a musician and producer, I try to create different dynamics in my set. To me a DJ set should be treated like a piece of music, and it needs a buildup, a climax and also some sort of release in order to make it memorable. This can be achieved in many ways, but first and foremost by selecting the right tracks. With modern DJ technology it's also possible to focus only on certain sections and to loop them. When I DJ with Traktor, the Lemur is a great hands-on controller that can be set up exactly the way I need it to work.
As a DJ you do a lot of travelling, so portability must be an important factor. When we think of a DJ we used to picture guys at train stations or airports carrying tons of records, nowadays we are getting more and more used to seeing DJs working with laptops. How do you see the development here and what has changed in terms of interfacing - is the mouse a poor replacement for turntables and a mixing desk? What's the future of djing for you?
In my opinion vinyl records will always be an integral part of the club culture. Vinyl has a rich history, and it's also a great-sounding medium. To me, digital DJing is something completely different because if a DJ wants to dissect tracks instead of simply playing them he's entering the realm of a live performance. Most of the DJs who are using a digital system at this stage are only selecting tracks and playing them, because there are so many functions and parameters that are difficult to control without a tactile interface.
Jan, you are using the Lemur in conjunction with Traktor. In the Trakor tutorial DVD we can see you and the Lemur in action. Could you describe why you chose to use this piece of gear and how it affects your daily work?
Software gives you the possibilty to control many parameters, but there are only limited practical applications. What I like about the Lemur is that after I figure out WHAT I want to do, I'm able to create a way, HOW, to do it. A dedicated piece of hardware like an MPC is great if it's really well thought out, but if it just has a bunch of buttons and faders with no real workflow it creates more problems than it solves.
What is your outlook for the future?
That's a tough one. As a musician, I wish that more people would find their love for music again and and not only see it as disposable goods which end up in your house in form of the free CD that was attached to a magazine.
What was your initial motivation to investigate the Lemur?
Curiousity. The Lemur looks and feels great, which is an important factor for me because making music should be fun and stimulating. It's also very easy to use, which is great because a device for making music shouldn't distract you from the actual process of being creative.
Can you give me a statement to summarise your experience of the Lemur?
It's fun to DJ with the Lemur, but also very different to what I've done as a DJ in the past ten years.
And finally, what's the usual reaction to your use of the Lemur?
The crowd is always curious about what the Lemur can do, because in action it does look like a piece of Alien technology. As soon as the trainspotters notice that I'm really manipulating the music with it, and that I can create some interesting new ways of mixing tracks with the Lemur, the reaction is almost always positive.
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