The paths Black Merlin’s music has taken him are just like the movie-magic he loves to inject into his productions – filled with a healthy dose of uncertainty and intrigue. We follow the work of this master of suspenseful dreamscapes as he leads us sleepwalking down some unfamiliar yet enticing roads. With playlist contributions by Thomas Reijerkerk.
In the 20 years since Antal Heitlager co-founded Rush Hour, it has become so much more than the initial store and mailorder service for more obscure house and techno records. In 1999, the record deals between Dutch artists and companies overseas led to the birth of the Rush Hour Recordings label, which has released hundreds of titles over the years. Today, their events for like-minded music lovers make it to major cities around the world such as Tokyo, Paris and London. I met up with Antal at the Rush Hour store – which had been upgraded to a much bigger location a bit further up the Spuistraat last year – to talk about how it all started and how Rush Hour came to be the household name it is today. “I think the endless love for music is what drives everyone here at Rush Hour. That love brings along the endless hunger for new music.”
We sat down in the back of the Rush Hour HQ – the spacious building that houses their store, and from where they also run their distribution, record label and events. The room we were sitting in played host to a Japanese pop-up bar during ADE last year, run by friends.
“We never really had a plan; we just started,” recalled Antal. “Of course we had some sort of plan for the shop, but from there on it just happened, and we did what felt right. The driving force was our love for the music we sold, so Rush Hour is really a hobby that got out of hand.”
A year after Rush Hour started, they began organizing events and parties in Amsterdam, and the rest is history. Today, the Rush Hour label has released records by a broad range of artists such as Hunee, Soichi Terada, Boo Williams, Mutant Beat Dance, San Proper, and Virgo Four, to name a few.
Rush Hour’s activities have by far outgrown just the supply of house and techno; walking into the store immediately reflects the huge diversity of genres on display. Their reggae stock is notably extensive and overtime they also started selling records from more distant parts of the world, like Brazil and South Africa.
Antal described the process: “I think in general it takes time to know more music. To get to the core of what you really like takes so many listening hours… you have to shift through a lot of music that doesn’t appeal. Over the years, all of us at Rush Hour got a broader interest in music, as we just started digging into different corners of music and got to know more and more about it.”
Antal was quick to point out that Rush Hour does not just owe this great diversity to the staff’s broad knowledge; the whole process is accelerated by the power of the worldwide niche music community that we’re a part of. Offline and online.
“I would say an endless love for music is what makes us meet like-minded people from all over the world, at places all over the world. It’s a vicious circle – meeting people through music to exchange even more music and keep discovering from there. That’s what drives everyone at Rush Hour in general… our love for music brings that infinite hunger for new music. It keeps us digging and eager to discover new stuff.”
“We meet a lot of curious people in the store too. Customers often come in for something we might have never heard of before,” said Antal. We try to look up something we do not have or do not know as much as possible. This whole concept is one big learning process for us; we try to keep pushing our limits with the stock and always stay open to our customer’s music recommendations or suggestions. So, the hunger for the unfamiliar always stays alive through our customers as well”.
The internationality of Amsterdam as a city definitely plays a part in that; record fanatics from all over the world come into Rush Hour. “What I love about Amsterdam is that not just the tourists but the citizens of the city are themselves from all over the world. Here, the diverse cultural backgrounds, and for us specifically, their suggestions and demands, definitely help in breaking the boundaries of music on a geographic level.”
To break not just boundaries of place, but also boundaries of time, Rush Hour sells second-hand records, and even more significantly, it reissues certain forgotten classics.
“Our interests go beyond what has been made recently; what we define as a great tune could date back to the 70s or 80s.” remarked Antal, “To me, something that was made 30 or more years ago could be equal in value to the new; the most important is if, and how the song touches you. The problem with older music is that sometimes, while digging you might come across something you really love but is either not available anymore or very hard-to-find. That is why we decided to start repressing certain records that we feel should not be forgotten.” He laughed and continued: “A lot of fantastic records have been made throughout time. I can imagine this makes it really hard for producers nowadays to be original or innovative; they have to keep in mind everything that has already been done in the past, and come up with something different and new.”
Antal has himself become one of the most respected DJs in his field, best known for his exquisite selector skills. But what came first?
“I always had the ambition to become a DJ, but then you also need good records. So owning a record shop supplied me with what I needed to become a better DJ: more and new records. With both the shop and my work as a DJ, I was constantly submerged in music, which has also helped me get to know my own records by heart and improve my skills. 20 years ago it was a lot harder to get your hands on music than it is now, so the shop supplied me with a great collection and overview of tracks that were available at the time.”
“I think the endless love for music is what drives everyone here at Rush Hour. That love brings along the endless hunger for new music.”
Looking back at the past 20 years, and the digitalization of a big part of the music industry that took place during this period, I wondered if he feels like the role of the record store has changed over time. Antal thought about it for a bit.
“In the end, I don’t think it has changed,” he says, “I guess the only thing that did change is that our role has become more complex. On one hand you still have to try to supply people’s demands as much as possible; on the other hand we try to offer some records that customers might not yet know about, go beyond the surface of demand and supply. Like our customers, we dig deeper nowadays. Even though vinyl collecting and record stores are making their comeback now, there are a lot more different ways for listeners and selectors to obtain their music knowledge. It depends on what you prefer: spend hours online on YouTube and other online platforms, or go into a record shop.”
Finally, I asked Antal how the record store has changed him over the past 20 years, and what he has got planned for Rush Hour for the next 20.
“I was already shocked we made it past 20 years, so I don’t bother thinking about the next 20. I don’t even want to either. Over the past 20 years, I spent around 60 hours a week in or around Rush Hour. To be fair, Rush Hour and I have become intertwined.”
Rush Hour will be celebrating their 20th birthday with a stage at Strange Sounds From Beyond Festival. Tickets are available here.