Mark Dale spoke to the co-founder of Amsterdam's treasured record shop Rush Hour about the store's beginnings, back to backs, Trouw and the label.
Date published: 29th Sep 2015
Antal Heitlager is the co-founder of Amsterdam's Rush Hour record shop, a music store which specialises in dance music, especially house, techno, disco, hip hop, soul, Brazilian and African music, jazz and reggae.
It has been one of the city's best independent music retailers since the late 1990s. The business developed from Antal's insatiable record collecting hobby, an interest he's held since his teenage years when he began DJing. Rush Hour has evolved since its humble roots to become a record label and a distribution company trusted over the world by producers and labels, particularly in Detroit and Chicago - cities whose music those involved at Rush Hour hold great affinity for.
The label is a constant favourite of the vinyl buying public and DJs, not least because it eschews any traditional working methods by releasing new music (such as Tom Trago, Tevo Howard, San Proper), reissues (such as the vintage American house of Chicago's Trax records and New York's Nu Groove recordings) and unreleased old music (from the likes of soul/jazz musician James Mason and Chicago deep house crew Virgo Four).
Antal combines all the music that the Rush Hour store specialises in when DJing. He also has a huge collection of vinyl that he draws from for sets he plays across the globe (check out his set from Concrete above). Alongside his Rush Hour collective, he held a monthly residency at the world renowned Trouw nightclub in Amsterdam, which sadly closed earlier in 2015. Antal has since had a very busy summer season DJing at festivals, frequently playing alongside his friend and Rush Hour associate Hunee, who this year released his debut album on the label.
Mark Dale caught up with Antal between trips to Brazil and France for an interview in support of his forthcoming appearance at the I Am party in Manchester. The night has a distinct ethos. It does not hold parties with multiple rooms, nor does it bill or book supporting DJs. It focusses on one DJ, allowing them to flex their vinyl muscles and DJing ability from the start of the night to the end of the party to no more than 150 people.
You started a record store in the late 1990s. It wasn't so long afterwards that downloading began to have a serious impact on music stores. How did you manage to make it through that period? Were there times when you thought you wouldn't?
The dip because of downloading started around 2005-2006 I think. At that time some people would look at us with a screwed up face, like "are you still with that vinyl stuff?" But it was also a period where all the nutters and opportunists left the game. So I enjoyed it. We always did fine, with a good amount of freaks coming to the store and with a well functioning worldwide mail order service via our website.
Downloading and digital music is still so huge, yet music stores, especially independent ones, seem to have pulled through to become kind of popular again. Why do you think that has happened?
I think this is because of all the good records stores and the real music lovers. Social media, YouTube and sites like Discogs made people able to share more easily, dig (for records) more easily, go deeper more easily. After those things had become part of how we do things, I think it made some people want to collect those objects. It became an inspiring thing for some people to do, although it already was for many. I guess people want to hear a good quality sounding format, plus there is a little bit of collecting going on, nostalgia, DJing with records. All these factors made this thing move forward again.
Why did you decide to found a record label from running a store?
At that time we just wanted to do so. Some possibilities presented themselves to us and it was like, ok, let's do it, why not. At the time we didn't have many independent friends, apart from Marsel at Delsin.
It's quite unusual for a record label to simultaneously issue new music, newly released old music and reissue music. Why do Rush Hour do that under one label and if it's as easy as you make it look, why don't you think other people do that?
It has never been easy. We have had to put in 60-70 hours a week at least and still do. For instance, we used to do 2 shifts a day, so when we close the shop at 7pm we start doing distribution until midnight. At weekends we would close the shop at 7pm, select records, DJ at our various parties and gigs until the early morning, then open the store again at 11am.
Slowly more people came to work at Rush Hour. But it has a lot to do with Amsterdam. We felt there was really nothing here back in 1997. A lot of the creative people have started doing their own stuff and bonding with each other in the last 10-15 years. Now it has become a solid scene, with people doing different stuff. But when we started we could easily do all different disciplines because there was not much competition around. I think that's the root of why we do so many different things.
These days there are a lot more strong organisations working here in different fields. Also when we started to do Delsin's distribution, the next thing we had on offer was Steven De Peven's Rednose Distrikt stuff. After came Peter Perquisite with his jazz instrumental hiphop beats. So in the beginning that was kind of a problem with distribution, because we couldn't fill packages to stores easily, because of the diversity. Later it became our strength. We didn't have 10 guys who were into electro and made only dark electro stuff or something like that.
I think it is quite an Amsterdam thing to have such a wide influence. Lots of DJs that come out of this town will mix up anything they like, for instance, long-standing DJs like Aardvarck were a big influence on that happening. He would mix Motorhead with a DJ Rush record or something like that.
You personally are part of two record labels, Rush Hour and Kindred Spirits. Can you tell us the difference between the two, specifically in regards to the kind of music each issue, who you work alongside at the labels and your own role at each?
Kindred Spirits is not really active any more because of the lack of time we can put into it. But the first difference is the crews that worked on the labels. They are different. I was in both, but most of the Kindred Spirits people are not in Rush Hour. Secondly, we originally kept Rush Hour for more electronic music and Kindred Spirits issued more organic styles, as we used to call it. This is now changing a bit.
Rush Hour has reissued some classic deep house music. Thinking specifically of the Burrell brothers music and the Trax material, how easy was it to put that stuff out in regards to the legal side of doing so and attaining the master tapes of that material? Those reissues sound better than many Trax pressings on badly recycled vinyl. As it was so old, did you do anything sonically to that music before you put it out in order to improve the sound? Have you ever chased after any old music and not been able to reissue it because of any specific problems?
These particular releases you mention were done by my ex-partner in Rush Hour at the time. So I can’t say too much about that. But for all the reissues we have been working on we either find master tapes, which is rare, or we get it from DATs, straight from the artists.
We have also mastered off vinyl sometimes, if there really is no other option. Maybe the saddest story is that I was talking with (house producer) Blue Jean for a while in order to try and reissue some of his work only to find out a couple of months later he sadly passed away because of a traffic accident.
How did you find out about the unreleased James Mason material?
Rush Hour had already reissued a longer version of his track 'Nightgruv' a couple of years before, so we had a relationship with him. Then, all of a sudden, James started talking about this music he still had that was unreleased. I asked him if I could hear it. After some time he sent the files and I was pleasantly surprised by the songs. 'Dance Of Life' in particular stood out to me.
Afterwards, it turned out that he had already licensed that music to a Japanese partner. It took over a year from the time I first heard it to get the masters from the Japanese company and get the reissue produced. Rush Hour released the vinyl and the Japanese company released the CD. I am happy it all worked out because it's an honour to release this music.
When I think of the house music that has inspired people, much of it was American and mostly it came from Chicago, Detroit or New York. It's easy to see the affinity Rush Hour has for Detroit and Chicago music through its releases, yet aside from the Burrell brothers compilation Rush Hour has never really issued much New York material. Can you explain this?
I guess the NYC house sound was always a bit too clean for us. Now I don't want to say anything negative, but at some point there where hundreds of Masters At Work records around. I still like songs like 'The Bounce' or 'Bass Tone' the most. But we were more Detroit house and techno nerds and we just liked that rawness a bit more.
I'm not necessarily saying it's better or anything, but we just had more of a drive towards that sound. Same for Chicago, things like Larry Heard or Cajmere, it was just like that and it probably had more to do with the fact we weren't aware because these days I keep discovering great NYC house tunes which I never heard in the early years.
You came from a DJ and collecting background. It must be a buzz to now be releasing the music of people whose records you maybe used to search for, such as Boo Williams, Carl Craig, Burrell brothers and James Mason. Would the teenage, record collecting Antal be surprised if he learned that he would be doing that in the future? Are these experiences always positive and as pleasurable as the enjoyment you get from the music?
I think It's amazing what we now produce and what we distribute with Rush Hour, working with classic labels and artists. But next to that we work with a lot of interesting new labels, people, musicians and young artists. Every day I am amazed by the Rush Hour team, the people and labels we work with and the position the company has in general. It's something I am very, very proud of and it's something I will teach my children.
I hope independent companies like these are inspiring to many other people, because I believe in a world like this, I believe these are the places that are super important. I remember only too well that I had no clue what to do when I was around 16-17 years old. After my dreams of becoming a professional soccer player vanished I quickly got into music by opening the store. Nobody in school told me that I could think about doing something independently.
It could feel quite lonely when I was in my teens, but it felt so rewarding when things started rolling for us. I must also say that in the first years, at the beginning of Rush Hour, there were moments I felt like quitting the whole thing. But I never did. I guess it's true what they say - what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Rush Hour now produces its own magazine. Why did you decide to do that and how and where is it available?
That started out of fun. It was just something we wanted to do. It's all produced by our own first lady who goes by the name of Mijke. The format was created by Young Marco. We felt we wanted to produce some honest content in a lo-fi, DIY way. Almost the whole RH teams works on it with little or bigger articles.
As it is so time consuming we only do it once a year, but we might go to two times a year as the feedback is really good. We have distributors in Japan and the USA, but we also distribute ourselves to a worldwide network of stores. So it's kind of widely available. We press 3000 mags right now, so it's limited, but not too limited.
How has the closure of Trouw (pictured above) affected Amsterdam, Rush hour and you personally?
A bit, but also not too much. We miss it and we want something like Trouw back, but Trouw had some great years and it had some not so great years. These are phases and it will all happen again in different ways. Everything is replaceable, no matter how great it is. I believe the goodness they brought is in the people now, and I hope more good things will happen through people in this city. For me personally, it definitely helped my DJ career.
You've been playing quite a few back to back DJ sets with Hunee recently. Why do you think you work well together? Can you explain your opinion of how your styles are different? Do you ever feel restricted by playing in the back to back format? Both of you are crazy collectors of rare music. Is there ever a danger that you fall into the trap of competing with each other when you play like this, in regards to playing either rare music or going too far into one specific genre?
Our DJ gigs together just happened organically and we like to do them. We're lucky that people like to hear us together too so we get more invites to play like that, but we are not a DJ team or anything like that. I guess we have a certain similar feel for sounds so I am always a bit surprised by how easily we can flow together when playing back to back.
It's definitely not the case that it goes so easily with everybody when playing that way. I think our tastes are as wide as each others, although we have different roots. Hunee is more from a hip hop background and I come more from a house background. And yes, I have felt restricted doing back to backs with other people and I am not necessary a big fan of playing like that.
I don’t feel we ever compete with each other and that's important. It’s more that we don’t want to bore the shit out of each other by playing the same music over and over again, so it keeps us sharp to bringing in new music all the time. I think I can safely say we both don’t give a shit about rare music. We give a shit about tunes. I am honestly most impressed when a person plays a great one dollar record that I don’t know.
You're playing at "I Am" in Manchester soon. The night has a great concept. It doesn't have a lot of supporting DJs billed, taking up playing time, it concentrates on one guest DJ and allows them to play long sets and really show the breadth of their music. It's perfect for a DJ like you with such wide tastes. What do you think of the concept? Are you looking forward to it? What does Manchester mean to you?
I think the concept of one DJ for six hours is great. I am a fan of long sets. That’s what it’s all about. You can hear all sorts of stuff and really go on a journey. And yes, I am looking forward to it very much. The first time I was supposed to play in Manchester I arrived in town with food poisoning, so I had to stay in the hotel and went back on the plane the next day having never played a record. So this will be my first time in Manchester. I've always seen Manchester as a place full of music lovers. Next to that, I also used to like a Manchester soccer team.
What's next for Antal and Rush Hour?
Next on Rush Hour are a couple of releases, like an Orlando Voorn album and a Prescription reissue series. And an album by Super Mama Djombo, which is a band from Africa with songs recorded in the 80s. There will be some remixes for the Hunee LP, more work from Vincent Floyd.
We also did a co-op with (London based label and African record shop) Stern's on some reissues from the Syliphone label. I am working on some rare groove boogie seven inches at the moment. More to be announced. We are also doing a Rush Hour fall tour with a team of DJs and producers in cities like Berlin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Kobe, New Dehli, Bucharest, Bordeaux and Milan.