Marcelle van Hoof cuts an instantly recognisable figure behind the decks. Forever on the move, the Dutch DJ flips records like they’re going out of fashion, and in the world of DJ Marcelle, they probably are. While no two sets have ever sounded the same, the notoriously unpredictable selector/producer enjoys a worldwide reputation of near-universal agreement. No-one can make a dancefloor move the way that she does, and no-one knows just how she does it – even if you ask her, she’s liable to tell you that she doesn’t know either.
Three turntables, some flowers and a big record bag: these are stalwarts in the world of DJ Marcelle, and about the only thing that you can bank on when she plays out. “In general, what i do with my music – from my productions, to my DJing, to how my sleeves look – is to be free and independent. Not giving a fuck and staying true to myself – that is by far the most important thing to me.” A punk by any other name, Van Hoof takes her inspiration from female ‘punk’ bands of the late 70s, innovators like The Slits, or The Raincoats who made music with, as Marcelle explains, “something real to say.”
“There was a sense of freedom in that music,” she says. “It was made with an untraditional approach. People who in a way didn’t know what they were doing, who were not musically trained, but were creative enough, and open-minded enough to make something interesting.”
It’s that ability to enthral, to provoke and beguile is exactly what DJ Marcelle is all about, both for the crowd and herself. “I take risks, and I try out new things constantly. When everyone is dancing, the last thing I want to do is keep it the same because that’s how things get stale.” This, of course, is part of her reputation, but for Marcelle herself it is closer to an operating mentality. “These days, when I play, at least part of the audience knows me, and they really look forward to the unexpected things, but sometimes I challenge myself by bringing records that I don’t even know, that I’ve just bought. I have lots of experience, and I know what I’m doing, for example I watch the grooves on the records to see if it is a light passage of music or a heavy one, and okay it doesn’t always work out, but mostly I think it is fantastic.”
Though Marcelle’s musical knowledge and record collection are near to encyclopaedic, a few things don’t sit well with her. And aside from heavy metal, high synths, guitar solos and Hyperdub Records’ recent inexorable decline into the realms of prog, one of her pet peeves are the ‘heads’ taking music so seriously they don’t allow themselves to free it, or be freed by it. “Men tend to come up to me and want to start talking about label catalogue numbers,” she teases. While she would be the first to admit that her appetite for new music is rapacious, there is a difference between the thirst for inspiration and the philatelist compulsion to organise, catalogue, and consume music as knowledge. This, explains Marcelle, is one of her biggest gripes with contemporary electronic music. “I don’t like music when it is too contrived. There is a nice word for this in German, ‘bemueht’, which means that you’re trying too hard to be clever.”
While Marcelle’s often quoted for her general distrust of contemporary USB DJing, her convictions are also stronger than most. Orphaned at a young age, she confesses that from 14 onwards, music became a means of survival. “In 1977, I had no parents anymore, and that coincided with the punk explosion. Suddenly there was a huge explosion of artists my own age. I was 14 or something back then, and Buzzcocks saved my life. I would never play their music live because I don’t want to be retro, but I know it all by heart because it was all about loneliness, it was sweet and intellectual.” From Buzzcocks came The Fall and Public Image Limited, and from the latter came a lifelong love affair with dub. Notably, Lee Scratch Perry, whose prolific output is eclipsed only by Marcelle’s unwavering desire to hear it.
With over twenty-thousand records in her collection, Marcelle’s coveted collection of early dubstep and UK bass is the stuff of Discogs fantasy. And yet, despite covering almost every artist you could conceivably think of, Marcelle admits that she often buys only their first records, as, after that, things tend to get a little boring. ”Music should always move forward. In my view there have been two artists who had long career in music and at the same time were always going forward and sticked to what they truly believed in: Mark E. Smith (The Fall) and Muslimgauze. Recently in New York I played a Muslimgauze track I had put on a dubplate (I never play CDs live) and the whole crowd went nuts, and thought it was a brand new tune.”
“Maybe I’m different from people who just see music as an escape or a fun thing to do. Music, for me, is very much a reality rather than a way to escape it. That’s also one of the reasons that I am still doing this in my fifties. Society is so shit in so many ways that I can’t have my music being tampered with. Some people want music for dancing, taking drugs, having sex, or whatever, and of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but for me, that is not the reason why I am in music. If I only understood music in this way, then I would stop and play it at home.”
“I know that I put myself in danger when I say that I find most DJs boring. I know that it is also saying a lot about me, and I don’t want to slag-off people all the time because as a person they are mostly nice but at the same time, I also can’t pretend that I like everything. If you come to have dinner with me, I’ll try to make you a nice meal that you’ll like, but if you come to my DJ set, I’ll do whatever I want. In my private life, I’m very easy going, but when it comes to art, there should always be a cutting edge. Honestly, I don’t see this enough. Music is too important to me, it is my life, and if I see something that doesn’t inspire me becoming the standard, then I will say something.”
A vanguardist behind the decks, Marcelle’s productions are equivalently out-there. If that sounds negative, then it is testament to the opioid pleasure we take from musical uniformity and precisely the kind of vanilla experience that she agitates against. In keeping with her punk roots, Marcelle’s output is both prolific and original. Less than a year after her album, One Place For The First Time, this month sees the release of a new LP, Saturate The Market, Now!, as well as a 10” of dub and extended versions of album track, ‘Everything Not Yet’.
”When I make music on machines, I try not to read the manuals,” she explains. “By the time I come to make a new LP I have forgotten how some machines work. I even had to stop to look for the on/off button, but then I play around a little, and I like to think I have a strong musical ear and a good sense of rhythm, and I still can make fantastic dance and avant-garde tracks.” Hardly a brag, Marcelle’s productions are united by that implacable talent for crafting leftfield rhythms that would be the envy of even the most polished hip hop producers. As she sees it, this untaught approach is the key to her creativity: “The machines are not there to control me, I’m there to control and ab(use) the machines, and as long as I can get good sounds out of them that’s fine.”
Dance music need not have infinitely complex tools at its disposal to craft a solid chug much like punk didn’t need the education to change the world. “I can hear when music is made with an open mind and when the music is made with a formula,” Marcelle continues. “I don’t like institutions, I don’t like formulas, and I always want to break out. That’s just my character, and music is too important for me to do rubbish formulaic stuff only because that’s what some people have decided the audience wants.”
Hugely inspired by things beyond the realms of music, she admits to feeling a common call in the outsider art movement Art Brut. “Society thinks that these artists often have some sort of mental problem, whether you agree with that or not is up for discussion, but these people make their art out of sheer necessity. They just have to get it out. They’re not applying for grants or wanting to be in museums; they just do it because they have to. I function socially in society but at the same time I find this kind of outlook totally inspiring. There’s a great Art Brut museum in Lausanne. It’s so inspiring that after I visit a museum like that, I feel like I can make a new album in two weeks. It doesn’t matter what the record would be; I just know that I could do it and not give a fuck what people say.”
Marcelle is a rebel through and through, but she isn’t blind to her success or influence. “I can say I don’t care all the time, but the truth is that it is going extremely well. If everyone hated me and no one came to my gigs or bought my records, of course, I could not continue, or maybe I could, but it would have to be in my own world.” As it is right now, Marcelle has found herself something of an unlikely role model. “A lot of reactions are from young women who see me as some kind of inspiring figure. I think that they feel free and liberated when I play live, free from the norm and free to dance on their own,” she explains. “People come to me and say, ‘Marcelle can you teach me how to DJ?’ and of course it is a compliment but it totally goes against everything I say about myself. If I did that, I would be training people to think like me instead of thinking for themselves.”
On her profession, Marcelle is never shy in expressing her distaste for muzak. “It is very glamorous to be a DJ nowadays, and everyone can be a DJ through DJ schools and courses in which everything is all about beat matching and pleasing the audience. There’s not much creativity, or authenticity because you can’t download that. I know, you can say, ‘Oh listen to Granny Marcelle talking!’ but you cannot deny that it is seriously conservative, listening to these shows is like watching accountants at work. And accountants don’t overact like so many DJs do.”
Even the so-called avant-garde isn’t safe, though it is among their ranks that Marcelle often finds her own records filed. “Every year at Atonal and CTM, you always see dozens of blokes dressed in black, hidden in smoke, playing some industrial noise.” And while she confesses that these statements are generalisations, it is easy to understand the depths of Marcelle’s rankle with this image. A lifetime dedicated to avant-garde performativity sees it reduced to nothing more than spectacle all too often. As we speak Marcelle’s doorbell rings and she gleefully exclaims that it is probably the postman, arriving with some new records, only to sound noticeably crushed having discovered it was nothing more than a package for the neighbour.
In the world of DJ Marcelle, it’s not only how some are undeservedly promoted as DJs, but the lack of recognition granted to those who she feels genuinely push boundaries that’s upsetting. We speak of Ata Ebtekar, recording under the name Sote, who she met when both were interviewed publicly at a festival in Budapest last year, and for whom the simple act of throwing a party in his native Iran is a completely revolutionary action in itself. This, reflects Marcelle, “reminds me that a lot of things I say and/or judge need to be put in perspective.” Musing on the idea of how we’re able to take our ability to experience music so freely for granted, Marcelle has often considered herself an outsider and yet has rarely struggled to fill a room.
“I think that I always thought it was time for something completely different,” says Marcelle, paraphrasing Monty Python, one of her less obvious, but equally important influences. Likening her process to the famous Ministry Of Silly Walks sketch, she says that her music might be considered strange but that it neatly fits when experienced in the world of DJ Marcelle. “I create my own world behind the decks and in the studio and in those worlds the things I do make total sense. You know, starting a set with somebody screaming for help is totally normal in the DJ Marcelle world of thinking.” Marcelle is, of course, referring to a Boiler Room set recorded at Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival in 2018. Following her debut there a year earlier, she was invited to return the next year, and was appointed a lifetime resident. “It was a huge compliment; I think they understood me and appreciate what I was going for.”
While it might be easy to view Marcelle as a cynic, speaking with her for any extended period of time will make you feel otherwise. There’s a warmth with which she talks about music, particularly Mark E. Smith, that is utterly infectious. Here is a master of her craft, one with unrivalled knowledge and unparalleled skill behind the turntables. To listen to her speak about music is exciting, but to listen to her play is enthralling.
“Whenever I play in the UK I feel very happy because I recognise this spirit still even though a lot of things have changed but maybe not the way people approach music, for me it’s where it all comes from: my music started with Buzzcocks, and it feels like a warm bath when I get to play there, you can go to a thrift shop and find a Fall record. You could never do that in the Netherlands; before I had this career my life in the Netherlands was maybe too convenient. In the ‘80s I partly lived on social security, I could pay my rent and buy the new Cabaret Voltaire, On-U Sound and Throbbing Gristle records.” Not too bad, I suppose.
DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess, A Psychic Yes (live) and DJ Skimask play The Waiting Room, London, on February 7th – buy tickets here