Claude Von Stroke on Unleashing 'Urban Animal,' Label-Running, and EDM Pop

Claude VonStroke
Tim Jones

The day before tragedy struck Electric Zoo (September 1), cutting short the festival and launching a debate about the future of EDM, Claude Von Stroke put on a DJ-ing clinic inspired by its past.

That’s not to say that the music the DJ/producer/label boss, born Barclay Crenshaw, played in the Sunday School Grove tent was a throwback. He dropped unreleased tracks from his new album “Urban Animal,” coming out tomorrow (Sept. 24) on his own Dirtybird. While they’re inspired, according to Crenshaw, by a sonic style that Chicago DJ legend Derrick Carter calls “boompty,” they’re not straight-up house. The Dirtybird signature is adventurous quirk, like an operatic baritone emerging from the electro squelch on “Animal” track “Dood.” Or the undercurrent of obsessive danger -- and occasional sickly animal noises -- on U.K. producer Breach’s “Jack,” already a worldwide hit, and recently licensed by Big Beat/Atlantic.

The classic quality of Crenshaw’s set that warm afternoon was the way he strung it all together, rather than the music itself. The ebb and flow built anticipation so expertly that the tent erupted for moments that would have been undetectable on the bombastic Main Stage, like the drop of the bassline on “Animal” highlight “The Clapping Track.”

Not only pyro-addicted “EDM” guys missed this particular balance. The day before in the same tent, underground legends like Four Tet and Dixon couldn’t make it happen, clearing the floor with esoteric sounds that even the most adventurous festival crowd wouldn’t endure. Crenshaw wasn’t playing purely for the crowd, or purely for himself. Like the DJs of yore, it was somewhere in between; a kind of practical magic.

“Three-quarters through, I went on a tangent that I wanted to go on -- kind of like a hip-hop, breakbeat section -- and nobody went with me,” he said, a half-hour after wrapping his set. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is going to work and maybe it isn’t.’ But I fucked it up, and then I back-spun out of it and just started fresh. I just turned the track off. Everyone in the room knows if it’s not working. You can cut it and say, ‘OK, thank you. I will now play you something that you like.’”

“Some DJs would just stick to it to their grave. I’m not the guy who says, ‘Fuck the people.’ But I will try something that I think is may be over their heads, just to see if it… because sometimes when that idea works, it’s like the best thing of the year.”

Crenshaw is an unlikely hero, both in the chin-scratching electronic underground and the youth-obsessed EDM mainstream: A burly, bearded nice guy who tours with his wife Aundy, and frequently ends long answers with, “Whatever,” as if to say, “but who cares what I think.” But thanks to the success of Dirtybird, he’s now straddling both those worlds. Billboard talked with Crenshaw over the din of the nearby Main Stage, about DJing, popularity, “Jack,” and the dawn of the Disclosure bro.

Billboard: “The Clapping Track” recalls tracks like [DJ Dan’s] ‘The Zipper Track,” or [Masters At Work’s] “The Ha Dance”; tracks riffing one particular noise.

Von Stroke: Well, that's kind of the philosophy. My stuff has always been based on “The Percolator” by Cajmere. If you can’t go up to the DJ and say, “I want you to play the song that goes like this,” and they don’t know what you're talking about, it’s not a hot track. I’m stuck in that era of “the track that goes like this.” 

“Urban Animal” is kind of a concept album, but not really. Was that the intention?

Yeah, it didn’t really go like the Flying Lotus route, but I did stuff that wasn’t house music, a lot of stuff actually. There’s only four tracks that are even four-by-four. 

Was Breach the first time you had the major labels come calling? Or had that happened before? 

No, actually it was [Von Stroke track] “The Whistler,” in 2007.  And that time I was like, “Get away from me.” I did the anti-move. But I did sell it for the most stupidest low fee ever.

This time was it just the one label, or were there multiple labels? 

There were like five labels. 

Really?  Were you surprised?

For that specific track, it’s kind of like when I started Dirtybird. Everyone asked me, “Were you surprised that Dirtybird worked?” And I said, “No, we really saved up and we tried really hard.” And when [“Jack”] came out, I stopped everything at the label and said, “I don't care what you guys have planned for the next two months. I only want you to work on this track, because I think it’s going to be the track of the year.” Because I was seeing it eight months before everyone else. I was playing it out [in DJ sets] with no bias, and people were just losing it. So I wasn’t surprised, not really.  The number at the end was like, “Wow, that's cool.” I was just happy because running an independent record label is always a real grind. And it’s like, oh, finally, we made some money on a record. Thank you.  

[A particularly epic drop emanates from the Main Stage.]

Do you think the popularity of that type of EDM is a sustainable thing? 

I’m having this argument like every day with my wife.  Not really about whether that's sustainable, but whether I want to go into a situation where I can get really popular, or whether I want to go into a situation where someone knows me really well and I just repeat what I’m doing on steroids. 

Which side is she on? 

She wants me to get really popular, because we can get a house and whatever. But the part I’m having trouble with when I’m arguing with her is, I’m not going to change the music. So why am I afraid to become more popular? I don't know why, but I am. 

Do you think that’s kind of happening anyway? You have momentum right now. You might not be able to control it. 

Yeah, I know you can’t control anything. I’m not going to be able to play after this [gestures to Main Stage]. So do I want to put myself in a position where I’m booked after this?  Because then it will be like, “Why are they putting this elevator music on?” A guy was just telling me that they’re doing like four levels of 3D visuals [at an Electric Zoo performance], and you have to wear 3D glasses to see it and they’re filming it with a 3D camera. What does that have to do with house music?

But I’m not going to complain about it. I’m actually so glad that there’s money and people interested in electronic music. When I grew up, I was totally an outcast because nobody knew what it was. I had to ride my bike to a gas station that was in downtown Detroit to get hip-hop tapes. They didn’t even have them at the big record store chains yet. And hip-hop’s basically electronic music.  I mean, it’s got rappers on it, but it’s electronic music.

We have a 20-year-old guy on my record label, Justin Jay. He’s in a fraternity, and he DJs at the fraternity. He tells me like all these bros are like, going off of this [gestures to Main Stage], and now they’re listening to Disclosure. He says, “In a year, it’s going to happen. All the bros are going to be at your party and you're going to freak out.” So my wife’s argument is just, “Set yourself up for the bros, because they’re coming no matter what.”

We can complain about the people who are making tons of money. But if tons of money started coming to us, we’d take it. I’m not going to be mad if we get a million fans. I’m just not going to change the music.  So if I don't change the music, then it doesn’t matter who comes.