Polish DJs and producers went under the radar of the electronic music world for decades. Until the 1990s, they were locked up behind the Iron Curtain and after it toppled they struggled to immediately compete with booming electronic scenes in Western Europe and America. Two decades and a few insanely talented trailblazers later Polish electronic music is an emerging power with its distinctive sound and fresh beats. How does present day Polish electronic music sound? Have you ever heard Polo House? It’s high time you did.
At the turn of 2015, the international emergence of Polish underground dance music is a fact. Polish-based labels such as Pets Recordings, Recognition Records, Transatlantyk, The Very Polish Cut Outs, Father And Son Records And Tapes, U Know Me Records and S1 Warsaw are at the top of their game and their releases have started making some serious noise abroad. We are witnessing the formation of a strong group of artists that is even believed in some circles to have brought the ‘Polish factor’ to electronic music, a thing very hard to define but at the same time a phenomenon that draws the attention of international media. The British magazine Juno Plus wrote of it:
But there’s (…) a real confidence, which manifests itself in all sorts of art forms in Poland. You also don’t feel that Polish electronic musicians are just copying styles imported from the US or UK. They have their own voice, which is part of a long and complex history of music in this country.
Who are the leaders of this informal movement? How did it come to life? Is it real? Is there really a Polish electronic music sound?
Two Brothers Ahead of Their Generation
There was basically almost no underground electronic music in Poland, or at least no one had heard about it outside of Poland until the mid-1990s. Still, there were a few pioneers who scratched their fingers to the bones trying to bring some western electronic dance music to their newly liberated country. Two of them were brothers – Maciek and Jacek Sienkiewicz – two of the first DJs in Poland who soon also turned into renowned promoters and producers. They started from scratch, with almost no gear, a limited number of records and hardly any clubs ready to host a rave. Nevertheless, they both remember those times as something absolutely pure and exceptional:
We would play all sorts of stuff. At that time we had a few hundred people raving every Saturday until 8am to all sorts of music, from EBM through to heavy rock. Anything went down smoothly.
– Maciek Sienkiewicz
Back in the day, when I was beginning, everything was natural and spontaneous, people used to have fun and really devote themselves to music. Then commercialisation did its job…
– Jacek Sienkiewicz
Throughout their career they’ve experienced a great deal of success, with Jacek’s albums being released by the legendary Sven Veth’s label Cocoon and Maciek becoming one of the most popular DJs and experts on electronic music. Today, almost 30 years into their careers, they both run their own labels. Jacek’s Recognition Records is the leading label for techno while Maciek’s Father And Son Records And Tapes offers a wide spectrum of electronic music with some of the most promising artists on its roster (e.g. Das Komplex, Selvy and Naphta)
Skalpel – Sampling Becomes the Polish Weapon of Choice
This duo, originally from Wrocław (one of the biggest cities in the south of Poland), is not only one of the most important acts in Polish electronic music nowadays but also the one which made a milestone step for Polish sample-based music and the whole digger society (by which we mean people who dig vintage vinyl stocks, looking for forgotten records and then bring them back to life as samples in new tracks).
The duo teamed up in 1998 and were seriously into Polish jazz and fusion vinyl records from the very beginning of their existence. The next step of their cooperation was chopping all those classic LPs to samples and spending months and years assembling their cut-and-paste mosaics, morphing dusty jazz pieces into the freshest nu-jazz tracks. The music they created was so strong and surprising that in 2003 they signed a recording contract with Ninja Tune, which was the genre's most prestigious label at that time. Skalpel's music is a perfect combination of their fascination with the past and the future. Their highly original and extremely creative approach toward the rich-but-unknown improvised musical heritage of their country resulted in the creation of albums that were the subject of rapturous acclaim and popularity.
Catz ’N Dogz - From Casual DJs To An Institution
Catz ‘N Dogz (aka., Deeop and Ketiov, 3 Channels) started to conquer the world in 2003 from their hometown of Szczecin, a beautiful port city in the north of Poland. Step by step they made their way to the most prestigious underground dance music labels all over the world. Their real breakthrough came with a remix of Who’s Afraid of Detroit by Claude Von Stroke, a popular producer of techno and the owner of two record labels – Dirtybird and Mothership. Von Stroke was so pleased with the remix of his song that he offered Catz ‘N Dogz further collaboration. In 2010, Catz ‘N Dogz decided they were ready to establish their own recording company – Pets Recordings.
Twelve years into their career Catz ‘N Dogz and five years into Pets Recordings’ activity they are both institutions. As a DJ collective they hold residencies at Berlin’s Watergate Club and Ibiza’s Dirtybird, they tour non-stop playing high-octane sets, proving their dance music star status well deserved. Pets Recordings releases big names as well as Catz ‘N Dogz' subsequent albums, and organises showcases and events around the world.
Tracing Catz ‘N Dogz' artistic evolution from underground techno to sample-infused house is a fascinating process recommended for every thorough music fan. For those who just want to have a taste of their sound, checking out their recent release – the Basic Colour Theory – might be a good idea.
Side One and S1 Warsaw – A Place That Made Things Possible
Every DJs’ and producers’ community has its main spot, a place where they meet, discuss, listen to new records, and exchange ideas. In Warsaw, since 2005, it has been the Side One, a tiny record shop hidden in the backyard of a pre-war tenement house, that has played such a role.
‘Side One not only affects taste. It is still a place where you can learn about stuff happening in town’.
– Groh, U Know Me Records co-founder and co-owner.
Side One goes way beyond the boundaries of a mere record shop. Thanks to its owner – Wojtek Żdanuk – and his intrinsic non-commercial attitude it has become a cultural centre, a place where you can go when you lack inspiration or when want to meet or learn something from the best Warsaw DJs. His persevering endeavours to offer his customers the most up-to-date and high quality selection has made Side One a significant factor of the heyday of electronic music in Poland’s capital. The shop was recently named one of Europe’s 10 best record shops by the Guardian.
In 2012, Rafał Grobel, Boiler Room Poland’s promoter and long-time friend of Side One shop established the S1 Warsaw label, as he says, ‘in honour’ of the store. Recently they’ve released a triple-vinyl box set to celebrate Side One’s 10th anniversary.
U Know Me
Another frequent visitor of Side One was Groh:
‘At that time, there was a good record store in Warsaw where you could meet the city’s best DJs. There was one big problem, and that was almost no new Polish records on vinyl. So, a few of us decided to launch JuNoMi, and later many other imprints (…) and finally U Know Me’.
– he said in an interview for Juno Plus magazine.
Soon, U Know Me Records became the leading voice in new beats and electronica. Unlike other independent electronic music labels, they also try to reach a broader audience than underground electronic dance music fans per se. Among their star-studded line-up of outstanding DJs and producers they also include two electronic indie-pop bands, XXANAXX and RYSY. What is the common point for all U Know Me artists then?
(…) it’s all about quality. Since the very beginning, UKM’s music was aimed at a global audience. In other words, everything we released must have been good enough to attract people’s attention everywhere on the planet. Plus, me and Buszkers (the other co-founder) had to like it!
– Groh said in an interview with RedBull.com
Transatlantyk / The Very Polish Cut Outs
It’s not all about Warsaw, however. The latest international revelation of Polish electronic music and one that has heavily contributed to the upsurge in Polish underground dance music as well as the coming about of the Polo House genre, came from Poznań via Berlin. The story goes like this:
Maciej Zambon, a DJ from Poznań moved to Berlin, the Mecca of European electronic dance music, and there started releasing edits of dusty old Polish records, on vinyl, as a continuation of the record label he started in Poland – The Very Polish Cut Outs. One of these records became a huge hit.
Krystyna drew so much attention that TVPC became internationally recognizable and got the cash injection it needed to expand. After releasing several LPs, at the moment of his label's peak popularity, all of a sudden, Zambon announced the end of TVPC.
I simply didn’t want to be that ‘Polish edits dude'.
– he said in an interview for dwutygodnik.pl magazine.
This is why he immediately started a new initiative – Transatlantyk, a record label somewhat built on the legacy of TVPC but with a vision much refreshed, aimed at promoting artists unknown to international public. Polish artists so far, but Maciej Zambon is already thinking about exploring other, even more undiscovered scenes, such as Romania or Belarus.
Transatlantyk’s release from 2015 titled A Look Into The Bowels Of The Polish House Underground is a compilation curated by the label’s owner himself. It’s probably the best answer possible for what Polo House is – a high quality underground dance music infused with Polish melancholy and samples from albums you won’t dig anywhere else than in Poland. Naphta, Lutto Lento, The Phantom, Eltron John, Selvy – it’s high time to learn those names by heart.
If you didn’t fall in love with the sound of Transatlantyk until now, after hearing this – you will for sure..
– says a Transatlantyk press release.
Last but not least there is Mik.Musik. They don’t want to be called a label, nor a collective or an initiative. Whatever they are, they are run by Wojciech Kucharczyk, one of the most intricate and original music producers and multifaceted artists in Poland. Mik.Musik’s catalogue is a gold mine for an adventurous listener. Any attempt at labelling the music of its members would be a complete waste of time doomed to failure. The only way you can get a taste of MikMusik-ism is by listening to some of its releases, and that is something you won’t regret.
To get you started, try these:
Wilhelm Bras Visionaries and Vagabonds
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 17 December 2015