He’s played back-to-back with Dilla, sold records to Björk, and regularly hangs with Gilles Peterson. He’s also one of the most respected international DJs and curators in music, and with a 15,000-strong collection at his home in Belgium, we needed to hear his stories for ourselves.
There are very few DJs or producers who can make the jump from being part of a scene, to being custodians of new music for an entire generation. And even fewer who can do so at the forward-thinking end of the spectrum for almost two decades.
Like his mentor and close friend Gilles Peterson, Lefto has become an internationally respected curator, holding down a show on Studio Brussel (Belgium’s BBC equivalent) since the late ’90s, opening musical minds and blooding generations of young artists in the process.
He’s worked in Belgium’s most important record shop Music Mania, A&R’ed B9000 Records to the point where he was practically one of the Oxnard gang, shared his record bag and MPC with J Dilla, and has amassed a peerless collection of records in the process.
Most importantly though, and despite his international acclaim, Lefto has always sought to amplify the innovative, often overlooked music coming out of Belgium, a country for which he has become something of an ambassador.
We caught up with Lefto on the eve of the release of a new compilation My Friends Make Music Too to hear some of those stories from his life in music.
Were you always a hip-hop head or did you things start somewhere different?
The music in the house was always more jazz than anything else. My dad had a big jazz collection and he used to put on jazz every morning. I would basically wake up every morning to jazz music, a lot of music by Miles Davis and Stan Getz.
And then at some point started finding elements in hip-hop that reminded me of the jazz I woke up to every morning.
I remember my dad being very cautious about his records, and every time I wanted to switch the record or turn it over he would say, ‘No, no, watch out, it’s expensive.’ But a lot of the records he used to listen to I now find in the 50¢ bins, so they can’t have been that expensive!
A lot of people go the other way, and listen to hip-hop first before getting into jazz through the samples…
Of course, although I would say that I discovered other music genres through hip-hop. I have to thank the homies like Madlib and others for helping me discover hidden gems from Brazil and other places. I was really into this documentary they did a while back with B+ called Brasilintime. That was, for me, one of my first introductions to the Brazilian music scene.
And Madlib became a close friend, right? How did you get into that West Coast scene?
In the late ’90s we had a label here in Belgium called B9000 Records. It first started very locally with some local artists on there. When I moved to Ghent, which is the home base of that label, I proposed my services as an A&R and wanted to really expand the label and do it internationally. We had a good connect with LA already because the owner used to go to school there, and so we would go to LA a few times a year, meet up with people and offer our services.
Of course it was at a time when Stones Throw and those labels came up so we were into that. We met up with some of the artists and we went to the old Stones Throw house where Madlib had the Bomb Shelter. We went downstairs and chilled with Madlib, Egon was at the house at the time, Peanut Butter Wolf was living there, and Jeff Jank as well I think. I met up with all these guys pretty early. Like Egon said in one of the documentaries, it was kind of weird that two youngsters from Belgium would come all the way to Oxnard! It was very interesting for us because we were at the heart of the whole new generation LA scene.
I suppose it’s also easy to take that kind of thing for granted now where everyone is connected all the time, but back then you really had to seek people out.
It was very welcoming. We would go to Kankick and then have dinner at Wildchild’s house, which was next to an Amtrak trainline – you’d be having food and feeling the house shake. We would visit DJ Romes [Lootpack], who was working in a sneaker shop, and we would go and see Oh No as well. All these guys today are still family. Now, every time I go to LA I see Madlib come to the party with his girlfriend and just dance, so it’s cool.
There’s a story about how you once shared your record bag with J Dilla too?
Yeah, there’s a famous interview with J Dilla on Youtube. I’m basically sitting next to the guy! You can’t see it but you can hear my voice every now and then. It was in Eindhoven and I had to play with J Dilla that night, but he comes in and says ‘I don’t have any of my records. Except this little bag of test pressings, my bags never arrived form the plane, so let’s do this.’ So we basically played all night, back-to-back.
To play with J Dilla was very special, and I’ve met him a few times – I was actually also the guy who booked him for his last show a month before he passed. He was staying a few days in Ghent and I decided to take my MPC3000 to his hotel room and then seeing him just laying in the bed, having a kind of iPod sound system that he would plug into the MPC.
It must have been a really poignant moment.
Yeah, it was, because he’s basically one of my all-time heroes, and in such bad shape you realise that he also is just a human being. You forget that those people can also die. You always think your heroes can’t die, but they can.
Was there a moment or a record for you which transformed music from a hobby into something you could see yourself dedicating your life to?
I think it came at a time when I went to secondary school, where I met a lot of people who were already very involved in hip-hop and hip-hop culture. We would chill in my homie’s bedroom where he had two turntables, a mixer, and records – and those things are like toys. You see those toys and you want to start playing with them. So I got totally into that around ’95, playing records and even writing a little bit, being an MC for a second, as a few opening acts for bigger groups here. I was a rapper before…
Everyone’s got a couple of years back there somewhere that they’d rather not remember…
Exactly. And when I remembered the lyrics that I wrote… ah man. You know what, I was totally into Gravediggaz and Flatlinerz and all those guys. It was a time, particularly in American hip-hop, where it was kind of dark. People were talking about ripping your skin off, and I was kind of into that mood too! I would even write my lyrics in a sort of gothic font.
You were a teenager… It’s got to come out somehow.
Yeah, and it’s a creative process too. It lets you grow into something else. That’s around the time I got purely into DJing. And then around the end of the ’90s when the Madlibs came up, I got totally into the samples – jazz, Brazilian, reggae, dub, Turkish music – and then after that I realised that maybe it was time to start producing, so I got my first Akai S-950 sampler and an Atari screen and started making beats with QBase. And then I got an SP-1200 because Madlib had one, and because I knew that the Lootpack record was pretty much made on a 12-second sampling time sampler, which was the SP-1200. I wanted to see what I could do with 12 seconds of sample time.
The limitations of the equipment can force you to be more creative, right?
Yeah, especially at that time because there were no computers to make unlimited amounts of music. You had to make a beat with the amount of memory you had in your MPC.
Were you already buying records like a collector at this point?
Yeah, kind of. I started buying records in ’95, buying hip-hop records and also breakbeats and scratch records. Then I got myself a job working in one of the major record stores in Belgium, called Music Mania. The whole scene would come through that store to buy records. I would sell records to Björk when she came in, the guys from The Prodigy, I remember Puff Daddy coming in.
What did Björk buy?
She was with her husband and kids so I don’t remember. I think it was some Sufjan Stevens-type folk stuff.
Well, working in that record shop was sort of the start of everything for me. One day, the boss of the radio station came in and asked me if I wanted to start a hip-hop show on Studio Brussel, which is the equivalent of BBC in the UK. Of course I was at the source, so for him it made sense to have me on board because I was getting all the records up-front before anyone else.
Were you mainly playing hip-hop? I’ve seen you DJ several times in the last 10 years or so, and it’s always so eclectic.
I started strictly with hip-hop, but once I got into the samples and all that stuff I started blending in a few, playing the original and then the hip-hop track. I started to be very eclectic early on, and it scared people at some point because the crowd wasn’t really ready for that. They wanted hip-hop and only hip-hop. For them, hearing jazz and all that stuff in between, it was maybe an anti-climax. But I was very stubborn and I just followed my line and kept on doing it.
I wanted to ask you how you thought things had changed in the 20 years or so since you started out – one thing is that people seem to have become more open minded, but yourself and someone like Gilles Peterson have also been instrumental in helping people reach that point…
I don’t know how it was in the UK at that time, because it’s always seemed super eclectic there, but it takes a while for the smaller countries to jump up on the same train. It takes courage and being stubborn. I had a lot of people telling me to stop doing it. Today it’s cool because people are capable of enjoying all sorts of music, because they have all the doors open for them. For me, YouTube is the best way for people to discover music. YouTube has the craziest playlists, where you listen to one disco joint and then discover some guy has collected 50 more songs of the same thing and your world opens up.
Or you just end up with Japanese ambient records…
Haha yeah, there’s always a point where you get to Japanese! But you know the otakus, when they do something, they go for it, so they are real super diggers.
Do you still dig yourself?
I always go into record shops whenever I can, and I also have a few local dealers that invite me to their houses when I’m in town. And that’s usually the best thing because you sit on the couch and he takes out the record, puts it on, and tells a whole story about it. I used to do the same in the record shop, I would sell the record just by telling a story about it. You start listening to that record in a different way.
It’s like this thing that just got reissued by Dr. Mary Sullivan Bain. People put it on and it sounds like a cool, soulful, housey record. But if you also know that that record was made in the ’70s somewhere in Miami, and was made for a school class to let young black Americans know about the achievements of other black Americans, then that gives the record a different dimension.
It sets the music in a context – in a person’s life, in a scene or in a story. After 20 years, what is it about DJing that you still enjoy?
Playing unknown music for a crowd is always exciting – to see their reactions the first time they hear a new record. Also, when you know the story of a club, it’s also very important.
Are there places you particularly enjoy or go back to?
Not really, because those places don’t exist anymore, but I had a few good places where I really liked to go, or where I had residencies. There was a club in Ghent called Chocolate, and I would have my nights there with 100-150 people every Wednesday. My girlfriend at the time would make waffles or Nutella crepes for people, and we would go into the crowd and give people Chupa Chups and other sweets. I miss those days.
Do you feel like your role has changed now?
I still do parties and I have a different message now. They’re called Lefto Presents nights and it’s a place where I invite acts to come and there’s a party afterwards in a much bigger room. It’s a night which is totally not what you’d expect. You have a thousand people and then somebody starts playing jazz for thirty minutes. It’s fun to see so many youngsters involved. There are 16 year old girls who come in and come to me with something written on their arm and I’m like ‘oh no… no requests!’ And I look at it and I see it’s Selda and I’m like Wow… you want me to play ’70s Turkish folk music? I’ll definitely do this!’
In that sense, both you and Gilles have assumed a role that has seen you move from being part of a scene to being curators of what’s around you.
Yeah, I think a lot of DJs work for themselves, whereas we try and work for the whole scene.
It started in 2002, that’s when I really started to curate and I started curating Dour Festival as well – it’s 240,000 people over four days and it’s just amazing to see how many people are into a festival that’s super alternative.
Back in the day when I started those Lefto Presents nights, I was one of the first to just do a melting pot of different music genres that I liked. And I think we slowly got to somewhere where now we have a lot of people doing similar stuff with quality music. We have a festival called Horst which is an architect school doing a music festival where last year we had MCDE and Gilles, it was crazy.
The only problem we have… it’s maybe not a problem, but Gilles says it a lot, that Belgium is the hidden gem, and somehow he’s right. As Belgians we don’t like to hang out our qualities, we don’t really share it with the world. If you want to come and see it, great, but you won’t hear too much about it in the UK.
That’s quite an attractive trait.
It is, but at the same time it’s very disturbing, because you only realise it when you’re here. Especially the bigger countries, they don’t really expect to hear things from smaller countries. They tend to think it’s only happening where they are. I think that’s also why you don’t see too many French, or Belgian or German acts playing in the UK for example. It’s really hard to break that protectionism.
It’s strange in the context of the popularity of Brazilian or Japanese music which we discussed. DJs, collectors and music fans in the UK love that stuff even though most of us can’t engage with it on a lyrical level. Somehow hearing music in French or German is perhaps more familiar and therefore less appealing?
It’s strange, yeah. Certain languages are more funky and tropical, and maybe that sounds OK. But there are a lot of corny lyrics in those genres, especially in Brazilian music because a lot of those songs were made for TV series and soaps.
Then again, there are a few artists from Belgium who are crazy. I went to New York and I heard a car pass by playing music really loud from one of our most famous Belgian artists, Stromae. Some artists really cut through, but it’s so rare.
Also, DJs never really play in the UK. When I play in the UK I realise that the UK crowd is really great, they give some love and it’s a cool crowd, but it’s just a shame that nobody really pays attention to DJs coming from Europe.
When you’re not championing new music, are there any records that you’ll return to regularly at home?
One is definitely Ahmad Jamal’s The Awakening. It reminds me of New York, I guess because a lot of those samples are in Nas’ Illmatic, and that record is the ultimate record to listen to while you’re strolling down the street in New York. You take the subway, you cross the bridge, you go to Brooklyn, and if you’re listening to Illmatic, it all makes sense.
I would say that I also like to go back to hip-hop records, and I’m parent-less now so sometimes I like to go back to a few records I would listen to when my father was around.
Are there any genres that don’t feature in your collection?
Yeah there are a few. I would like to know more about punk music, about the whole culture. I know Soul Jazz have done a few things on that. I should find some time to find out more. But yeah, there’s no hard rock and all that stuff. That’s about it I think.
Do you know how many you have in total?
Between 12,000 and 15,000. Mostly alphabetically arranged or in genre, especially the hip-hop collection. I have a very good hip-hop collection with a lot of stuff that’s really rare to find these days.
You said in another interview that you describe your collection like a ‘Museum of Magrittes’. What does the whole collection mean to you?
It is pretty much my life. I could take out one record and listen to it and remember exactly the time when I listened to it for the first time. It would put me back into that era for second. Every record has a connection, and it’s basically a timeline of my life.
Do you think you could tell a story about every one?
I think I could, the ones I bought myself, definitely. I’m very bad at years. If you ask me ‘what was happening in ’96?’ I wouldn’t know, but if you ask me, ‘what happened around the time the Lootpack album came out?’ then I could probably tell you. For me the years are pretty much the records.
Photos by Lefto & Rik De Bruycker