July 15, 2016
Our Crate Diggers series profiles record collectors around the world. Up next: Midwest veteran techno DJ and producer DVS1.
Not many DJs have a backstory like Zak Khutoretsky’s. Born in Saint Petersburg under Soviet regime, Zak moved Minneapolis at a young age, his parents divorced early on, and he spent most of his troubled childhood getting kicked out of schools.
After attending some Midwest raves, he started throwing his own underground parties, aged 18, but also got caught up drug dealing in the scene. He was briefly incarcerated. The experience left him with a new sense of determinism, leading him down a promising path as sound guy, club owner and eventually full-time DJ and producer.
His major breakthrough came in 2009 with a release on Ben Klock’s influential Klockworks label. He’s since launched his own Hush label and party series, as well as sub-label Mistress Recordings for “house, techno and everything in between.” Describing himself as a DJ first, producer second, he’s known for his regular appearances at techno juggernaut Berghain. An avid record collector with a gobsmacking set up, Zak’s been on our Crate Diggers hitlist for some time.
Interview: Amar Ediriwira
Let’s start at the beginning – did you grow up with records around the house?
You know, no. My parents weren’t really into music, we didn’t have a record player. I would probably say my first listens were just through the radio. My mother lived in Minneapolis, my father lived in New York. My father probably had a stack of records, my mom didn’t. My dad was into old classic rock, you know Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin kinda stuff. He also had a guitar; he was probably the most musical person in the family.
I think my interest in vinyl came directly at the same time as my interest in DJ’ing. I was in boarding school, I was fifteen or sixteen, and there was a couple of guys who DJ’d. One guy was a hip-hop Dj, we became friends. When he moved school, I bought his turntables and started buying records.
Was there a defining record for you in that phase?
This is the sort of question that I’m always bad at. I can’t really think of any one specific record that defined anything for me, it was more that I became addicted. I hate to compare it to drugs, but I think it’s similar to a drug addict’s first injection; they just need more and more. I think I just suddenly turned all my attention to accumulating and acquiring more music. At the time, because of my interest with DJ’ing, I was buying beat records right away. I always joke with people that my thing is that I’m a beat addict. As much as people know me as an electronic music DJ, I’m just an addict of rhythms and that can be anything from hip-hop to disco to soul, funk, electro. There was really no one thing that set it off. I just went in all directions and looked everywhere. Whether it be a garage sale, a record store, a person, whatever. Everything was fair game.
You spent some time in a juvenile correction after becoming involved with drug dealing in the dance scene. During your stint there, was there a formative musical experience?
There’s actually kind of a funny story there. In Minneapolis where I lived at the time, I was running some soundsystems for people and there was a really big drum and bass collective in the US at the time called JVC (Jungle Vibe Collective). They were part of a bigger group of US drum and bass guys doing concrete jungle and all these things. One of my best friends Rob was a drum and bass DJ [in JVC]. Let’s say, he had the taste in drum and bass that I liked and I had the taste in techno that he liked. At the time in Minneapolis, there was a radio show called Strictly Butter – it’s actually still going now – run by a guy named Chip.
While I was locked up, the only access we had to music was radio. We were allowed to have an AM/FM pocket radio. Every Saturday night I would listen to Strictly Butter; it was my only connection back to the music scene. One of the nights, my guy Rob and the crew from JVC got on the radio show and had a one hour segment of the show. I told all the guys I had become friends with in my cell block to turn on their radios to this little station at midnight. Some-how it [the signal] made it to where we were so we were all listening. One of the guys played this old classic drum and bass track that sampled a hip-hop track and the vocals were “This goes out to the homies on lock down” [laughs] and literally, 12 of us raised our heads out of our blankets because it was lights out and we weren’t allowed to be moving around and we all just kind of put our firsts in the air and laughed and hollered to each other. We were even still able to connect in there in some way.
Did you leave prison with a focus on becoming a full-time DJ and producer?
The incarceration happened when I was 20 or 21. When I got out, I started to take music much more seriously. I realized in there that life was too short and that I had made a lot of mistakes. So my life began to revolve 100% around music at that time but I didn’t make a career out of it until later. I still had a day job and I was producing music but I didn’t release anything until 10 years later when I was in my thirties.
Your collection is really impressive, when did you acquire all of these records?
There’s two parts to the collection. My collection that I’ve collected over the years reached about probably thirteen to fifteen thousand records. Where I live, unfortunately the record stores for what I do as a DJ were shutting down one by one you know in the late ’90s, early ’00s. But that didn’t stop me and I was still buying a lot of records.
The second part of the collection was about twenty thousand records that I acquired three years ago. It was a fellow DJ in my city named Thomas Spiegel who went by the name Man X and he had passed away the day before New Years in 2013. He was 10 years older than me. I was close to his family, so when he passed away, they contacted me and asked me about helping them with the collection. They thought there was about 15,000 records there. In the end when they got down to his house to clear everything, they found 25,000 records and they kind of panicked. I had already told them about selling records on Discogs because they had to settle some of his debts up. In the end they called me and said, we can’t deal with this, give us a fair offer and just come get all the records. So I made an offer, the best I could do and it was fair. The records were in storage, I sent someone down to Miami in a truck and they came back with over 200 boxes of records. That took me about two and half years to go through and organize into what I’ve kept. I’ve now kept about 10,000 of those records and the rest of them are now mov-ing on to another home.
So in total how many records have you got?
So I would say now, with what I’ve kept, I’m a little bit over 20,000. The last couple of years it’s been sitting at about 35,000 but I did a big flush over the last two years as I went through the collection that I got, as well as my own collection. When I moved houses three years ago everything had to get boxed up and then unboxed again so it was my chance to go through it all. Every time I was home I literally had piles of records on the floor and I was needle dropping on things.
I spent most of the time on the new collection, which was basically the roots – disco, soul hip-hop, synth music. The guy was 10 years older than me so he was collecting 10 years longer than me as well and he was in a generation where he had the music that I missed. So to get to his collection was almost like I acquired a library.
While I was on the road travelling, I paid a guy to spend about 100 hours alphabetizing the collection by label. I went to IKEA and spent about 2000 on shelves so we could keep everything organized as we went through the process. He put everything up by label and then every time I was home I basically grabbed one letter – so I would grab say A 0 which could have been anywhere from 50 records to a thousand records – and I would just spread them out on my floor, getting rid of the things I didn’t want, keeping the ones I did. As I put them back on the wall I actually organized them even further, arranging them by catalogue number. Now what’s left is super organized. What I’ve kept, at least in my perspective, is the gold. Even though a lot of it is music that I’m never really going to play out, it’s having that library of influence on my wall so when I wanna go deep into a genre or label or artist it’s right in front of me.
That’s an amazing resource to have.
My trinkets are my records. They’re just all over my house. I remember at one point I moved some stuff out and put a studio somewhere else and took the records out of my house and I almost felt lonely. I actually missed the smell of the records. When people walk into my apartment, they almost always say it smells like records in here.
I’m interested to know what it is that attracts you to the format.
I sometimes wonder – I think the answer to my own question is going to be yes – but I wonder if I was brought up in a different generation where vinyl wasn’t the priority would I still be addicted to it? I think the answer is yes because I have a physical connection to things like that. Those records were part of an experience to me. It was everything from sacrificing my time to not be social with people, to not hanging out at the bar or a BBQ; instead I was at the record store, I was driving around on the weekends and looking for garage sales.
I have terrible memory with artists and label names. If somebody asks me if I’ve heard of something, I won’t know it. I’m visual. So for me to pick up a record, see the color of that label or the artwork, then I can suddenly connect with something, connect with an experience that I had when I bought that record or where I was or if I DJ’d it somewhere.
Are you strictly vinyl when you play out?
I would love to say I do but I don’t at the moment. I’m probably 50-50. When I started touring I was carrying two bags of records to every gig, but the hard part was you could only bring so much. When I was on tour for a month or six weeks away from home I was kind of getting fed up with exactly the same music in my bag even if I was record shopping. I was also running into problems in clubs where turntables weren’t working. There’s some clubs I trust more than others so I’ll play more vinyl. I’m doing my best to keep it going.
On that note, do you think the club landscape for vinyl DJs is getting better? There was a real dip right?
There was a definitely a huge dip. I do feel like it’s coming back a little more and I feel that people are taking a little bit more respect of their equipment. There was a period where there was a few clubs that I played at – I’ll leave them nameless – but I was really shocked to go there and see the state of disarray of the equipment, the turntables specifically. They would have brand new CD players, brand new mixers and then they would have this completely torn up turntable sitting there. They would know we were coming to play vinyl and they just didn’t care. That’s changed. Now the problems we’ve run into are simple things like vibration or feedback because the soundsystem maybe is more powerful or it’s a pop-up party in an off-location and they just didn’t get it right. I hate to say I can live with that but I can live with a circumstantial problem. What I can’t live with is a club that’s stopped taking care of vinyl DJs. That’s something that bothers me.
It’s good to hear that it’s improving though.
It’s definitely improving. You know the other thing – again not to talk bad about anyone specifically – but I think there’s also a problem where a lot of guys are playing vinyl because maybe it’s cool to but if you put them in a situation they wouldn’t know how to weigh a needle, how to adjust the tonearm, they wouldn’t know how to troubleshoot if something’s feeding back or something’s wrong. They just kind of give up. I think if you’re going to dedicate yourself to being a vinyl guy, I think you also have to have the knowledge to manoeuvre in that world. I have tricks from putting water bottles under turntables that I learned from Derrick May to bringing two different sets of needles and weighing the needles and just doing the basic things to give yourself a chance to make it work.
It’s so technical, it’s such a craft.
If you think about, it we’re amplifying this tiny little needle riding in the groove of a record on these ten, twenty, thirty thousand watt systems. If something is wrong, it’s going to be amplified times ten. I just think there are so many moving parts to that puzzle, that you have to know what you’re doing if you’re going to claim that’s what you do.
Are you kind of hinting that the vinyl revival is style over substance?
I would say, no. The majority I think are honestly appreciative of vinyl and they’re doing it for the right reasons because the reality is vinyl is not cheaper as a DJ or a collector or a dedication. It costs money, space, energy, strength to carry everything.
What’s your favourite record store worldwide?
I have a very personal connection to Hardwax in Berlin because they distribute for my labels. For record shopping, there’s a great record store there called Spacehall which – at least within electronic music – has got a little bit of everything, old and new. They’ve got a warehouse with a hidden stash of records that they’re pulling boxes out of. It’s an endless black hole; you just don’t know how deep it goes and they’re pulling out you know five to ten boxes every week so even if you can comb through the whole store, by the time you get from one end to another there’ll already be ten new boxes out. It’s kind of amazing, I don’t know where they keep pulling this stuff out from.
I don’t really know if I have a favorite overall but I think there’s something really unique about territorial areas and their record stores. Wherever I might be, there’s going to be a certain batch of music that’s just specific to that location that hasn’t made it over. I’m really lucky that I get to travel because it puts me in a place where I can come into a store somewhere and say hey what do you have that I’m not going to find anywhere else.
And it’s a nice way of exploring a local culture.
Absolutely. I’ve never been to South Africa but I would love to go and go record shopping there because there were so many record plants at a time, now all defunct, but there’s probably so many records that never made it out of that country.
Imagine your house is burning down and you can only save one record, what would it have to be?
I hate to give you the cliche answer but I think I would go die with all my music. I could never pick one. It’s like asking somebody to pick one person in their family to save. This is my family, this is my surroundings. I’m 40 years old and I’ve had records in my life for more than half of my life so how can I leave all of them and only pick one?
Tell us about that stop smoking record you’ve got there.
This record I remember buying as almost a joke, as I was a smoker and thought it would be funny. In the end it became one of my signature openers for a few years. Deep hypnotic voice telling you to relax and focus your mind. Those words were exactly the mood I wanted before playing a long set, or when I needed to grab every ones attention as I started and draw them in to my vibe. These are the type of records that you find cheap everywhere and will almost always find something useful on! You just have to take the time to play them from start to finish and wait until you hear the few things that are worth recording!
Have you got a go-to record for rescuing the dancefloor?
There’s a couple of records that have never left my bag. I would say… [opening record bag] I have a feeling it’s going to be a Jeff Mills track. I’ve got two different Mills records that I would say are something for me that could always save the day. One classic – I almost stray away from playing it because it’s one of the most obvious ones – but Jeff Mills ‘the Bells’ will always save everything no matter what. The other isJeff Mills ‘Alarms’, also will always save it for me, no problems.
You caused a bit of a stir recently when you posted a picture of (half) your record collection on Facebook. Am I remembering correctly that you’re building a ladder for it?
The picture was basically the 10,000+ records [from the acquired collection] that I’m keeping. Originally that shelf was not that tall, it was spread out around the apartment on some lower shelves but as I kept going through and getting rid of stuff I realized that what I had left would perfectly fit on that wall because I don’t need daily access to those records so I decided let’s go as high as I could with them and free up some space in my apartment finally because I’ve been fully engulfed. So I put them tall. And yes I need a ladder to get to them. So the next cool thing I’m going to build for it is a library ladder that will glide left and right.
Have you had any strange or funny experiences whilst out digging for vinyl?
I remember one of the first times I properly came over to Europe. I was younger and I was over for a wedding. I was in Frankfurt somewhere, I walked into this record store and was ready to spend the day there. In fact I think I spent two days there. The first day, I’m there I introduce myself to the guy in the store and I’m shopping and looking for stuff and I keep handing him things to stash behind the counter. I remember at one point the guy says to me, ‘You need to go home’. I’m saying, ‘Sir I have money, I’m going to buy all these things.’ I bought the big first stash that I had just so he would know I was serious and wasn’t just wasting his time.
Then I remember, at some point in the middle of the second day, being kicked out of the store as I was going to buy another big stash. I remember being so weirded out by the fact that I was ready to spend every waking moment in this guy’s store and hand him money and he would actually kick me out of his store because.. I dunno? Maybe I was too much or maybe I was there too much. At that point, maybe because I didn’t know my taste, I was digging from one end of the store to the other.
Other than that, other weird stuff that’s happened has mostly been finding dead animals, dead rats and weird things under tables in the back of rooms as I was digging through records. Just things that were nasty that I don’t think anyone else would want to go near to get to a record that they wanted. I’ve walked into places where I’ve spent time upstairs and the guy will look at me b-cause he sees what I’m buying or maybe he sees that I’m really spending time there and he’ll say, ‘Do you want to look somewhere un-organized? I have a basement!’ And whenever they say that, that’s when you know there’s something down there that you need to look through.
Photography by Sharolyn B. Hagen