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Interview: Ben Huang

One of the most famous DJs in the country, Ben Huang's music career mirrors the slow and steady rise of clubbing in China in the '90s and '00s. Signed to Beijing label Modern Sky, Huang is a vete...
2009-05-29 12:05:00

One of the most famous DJs in the country, Ben Huang's music career mirrors the slow and steady rise of clubbing in China in the '90s and '00s. Signed to Beijing label Modern Sky, Huang is a veteran of a slew of large festivals and high-profile parties in China and Europe, and he's also heavily involved in parties and promoting in "underground" clubs in Beijing and Shanghai.

Huang's dual roles as both originator and instigator in China of club culture, but also as a DJ who has maintained a career on the cutting edge of dance music has afforded him a unique vantage point to explore his other creative outlet: photography.

This Saturday, Huang presents another side of his creative persona with his first ever photography exhibition at eno. For his opening reception, he'll be showing his photography, taken during his travels as a DJ.

And he'll also doing he does best: playing music.


SmSh: So your show is this Saturday at eno? It's a photography exhibition and you're also DJing?

Ben: Yep.

Is this your first photography show?

Ben: Actually yes. They asked me to do it even though I'm not ready for it yet. I didn't have enough time to get ready for my photo exhibition. At the beginning I was thinking about having photos that told more of a story but I didn't have enough time so now the pictures are just about my life. Not really a deep story to them, it's just my life.

SmSh: How is it going to look?

Ben: I'm using prints of my photos and also I'm using a projector to show photos on a screen.

SmSh: Many, many people recognize you as a DJ. When did you get interested in photography?

Ben: For a long time. Ever since I was a kid. I would do it for a while, take a break, do it for a while and take a break. For the last couple years I started again. It's all very natural. When I have a gig or when I travel around I take photos...

SmSh: The photos in this exhibition -- is it all in Shanghai, people in Shanghai?

Ben: No it's all around. Mostly Shanghai and Beijing. It's my DJ life actually. Shangahi, Beijing, and a little in Europe.

SmSh: So you were in school for fashion in the '90s right?

Ben: Well, on my profile I was studying fine art, when I was really young. And then I got interested in everything. I played guitar, played drums... and then I was actually a dancer before DJing. Actually I don't like to talk about it much and not too many people know about it. [Laughs.]

But all my life I've been involved in arts, entertainment, shows... but all around music.

SmSh: So what kind of equipment do you use for photography?

Ben: Now I only use a film camera. I don't use digital... I don't feel that I need to use a digital right now. I can wait another one year or two years when digital gets better. I feel like film is better for color for feeling and with digital everything is different.

SmSh: Are there photographers whose work you like?

Ben: Actually, I don't know... I don't focus on famous photographers. Actually, I like [Ansel] Adams. For me I look at the way he does expressions. His style is more traveling in the mountain like a monk. Also in Shanghai I have some friends who are really good photographers like Tim [Franco] and Patrick [Wack]. And in Beijing I have friends who are musicians but now they are into taking photos...

It comes from my life really. I used to study fine art and now I'm using a camera to tell people my life.

SmSh: So do you think you'll do lots of exhibitions?

Ben: No, I don't think so. I'm not ready. For eno I told them, "I'm not ready" but they said to me, "Why not. These are good pictures". For me, I'm a perfectionist though, when I play music and when I do pictures.

SmSh: What kind of music are you playing for the show?

Ben: For the show I will play more like minimal techy house and electronic down-tempo music.

SmSh: Do you find that the skills and knowledge in DJing transfer into photography?

Ben: Yes actually, it's similar. It's all from the feeling. When you play music you play how you feel and in the pictures, it's the same.

SmSh: What kind of music are you listening to these days?

Ben: Actually classical. A lot of classical. [Laughs].

SmSh: Are there DJs in China that you're listening to and liking a lot?

Ben: In China? B6. B6 is really good. His album is very good. As a Shanghainese I can say this: we did something very good. Also some of the DJs in Beijing I really like. Like Mickey Zhang. He hasn't released anything. He's a cool guy. We're not good at selling, you know.

SmSh: Are you doing lots of producing these days?

Ben: Trying. I've got to get in touch -- go back to use my software but these days I'm more at home reading books about photography. But I will come back to music. I've been doing a couple tracks and I did some with some friends. Actually, I'm still learning producing. I don't want to just copy and paste elements together. A lot of people are doing that now but I want to do more professional stuff with my sounds. And when I'm ready I will come out with something.

SmSh: Where are you DJing these days?

Ben: Last week I did my Color party at MAO and I have my weekly night Yellow at LOgO. For me the Yellow night is always the best, but also MAO last week was very good. We did a good show and my guest DJ was great. He did a really good show -- program and set.

SmSh: What do you think of clubbing in Shanghai these days?

Ben: It's still good. Still good. Underground has the underground scene. Mainstream has the mainstream scene. And there I am in the middle. [Laughs]. I'm not underground, I'm not mainstream. Maybe tomorrow I'll play some rock or punk, who knows.

Actually I'm looking at old school house, Chicago house, Detroit techno and funk music. The beginning of dance music maybe.

SmSh: How has clubbing in Shanghai changed since you've been playing?

Ben: It's changed a lot...

SmSh: You know people always point to you and say, "Ben Huang is responsible for a lot of the music in clubs in China..."

Ben: Well, you know before me there were a lot of DJs -- a lot -- playing in mainstream clubs. So for the history of mainstream clubs, I don't know as much as a resident DJ in a mainstream club. And you know the early DJs in Shanghai or Beijing -- they're now managers of clubs. They don't DJ anymore. Like Calvin, the manager of G Plus. He knows more about mainstream clubs and local clubbing history. For me I've been outside...

But you know these days in China it's all getting smaller and smaller. Huge clubs are getting smaller. But it still getting better like Acupuncture Records in Beijing. They did a great, great techno party last weekend.

SmSh: Did you play at it?

Ben: No I already confirmed with Michael [Ohlsson, Antidote promoter] and for me I think its better that I give other DJs a chance, younger DJs. It's a good thing.

SmSh: How often do you go to Beijing?

Ben: These last couple months it's been one week in Shanghai, one week in Beijing. I'm also doing parties in Beijing at White Rabbit and I'm doing my Yellow night at a bar called Punk. The bar called Punk. It's got nothing to do with punk but the place is called "Punk".

SmSh: How's the music in Beijing these days?

Ben: For music Beijing is always good.

SmSh: People always say that Beijing is good for rock music but Shanghai is good for electronic music...

Ben: No, no, no. It depends on what kind of electronic music, but in both places promoters are very good so there is a lot. But in Beijing there is a lot of new school minimal music. Like Berlin. Local DJs are into this kind of music, it's the fashion now. Also the Yen party organizers are really good. All their parties are good. But in Berlin it's already over. In Berlin, they more come back to house, like deep tech-house.

But both Shanghai and Beijing have good promoters. In Shanghai, Antidote, Sweatshop, PAUSE parties are good. I think for me Michael is a great promoter.

And also I hope my Yellow parties are good too. [Laughs.] Actually, for my Color party it's hard to find the right venue for the concept. Why I call it the Color party is because I want to invite different DJs, make different connections, between Shanghai and Beijing. Bring the Beijing DJs. Or even people from around the world if I have enough money. Every color, every people, all different music. Real DJs, real music.

SmSh: A lot of the time it seems like Shanghai and Beijing don't get along. Like there is competition in terms of music and DJs...

Ben: Yeah, that bullshit is already history and this kind of talk has already gone on too long. I don't really like it and even when I'm in Beijing people tell me, 'oh Shanghai has no music' but everyone has something different. And if you want something to come from the heart and make something happen in China then it should be all support for people. Not shit talking blah, blah, blah. Everybody is doing good and nobody has it easy.

You know, sometimes me too I complain -- 'that's shit, that's shit' -- but when I calm down I know that it's not the way to do things. Everybody is good. No one has it easy. Let's keep going and do something good. Support each other. That's why I want to do Color to bring the Beijing DJs to Shanghai.

SmSh: How about outside of Shanghai and Beijing -- Wuhan, Nanjing, Guangzhou...

Ben: Even better than Shanghai and Beijing. [Laughs.] Well, at Midi Festival in Zhenjiang. Everyone was thinking, 'well Zhenjiang... maybe its too small' but compared with Strawberry Festival most people were going crazy and dancing in Midi Festival. In the big city most people were too cool and just standing around, but in Zhenjiang even in the afternoon most people were already going crazy.

SmSh: So Midi Festival was still good this year then?

Ben: Yeah still good, still good. I'm surprised. Everyone is surprised. And they also got the government support...

SmSh: Many people are nervous about Shanghai Expo and maybe clubs will have problems because of that.

Ben: Well, yeah that will always happen but we will always find something. If they close the club then we will find somewhere else to party. Even for me, it's better if they close the club I can try to do a better party. [Laughs.]

We have to go underground.


The sights and sounds of Ben Huang are at eno this Saturday from 4pm until 6pm. There's no entry fee and its FREE BEER.