Charlotte de Witte

Photo: Marie Wynants

DJ Charlotte De Witte Talks Exploring New Sounds In Belgium Lockdown, Her Rise To The Top & Sexism In The Industry

"I never would have dreamed of being where I am now. I mean, no one can fully grasp what has happened," the Belgian DJ/techno producer said
GRAMMYs
Jan 27, 2021 - 4:34 pm

At 28 years old, Belgium-born DJ/producer Charlotte de Witte has firmly established her place as techno royalty. Soon after discovering her love of underground dance music at 16 years old, she began DJing local clubs. Just two years later, in 2011, she won a DJ competition to open the main stage at the massive Belgian dance festival, Tomorrowland. She's been on a roll ever since.

After taking over her home country, she swiftly made waves across Europe in 2016, including in dance club hotspots Berlin and Barcelona. That same year, she played her first stateside shows—in Brooklyn, of course. By 2017, she was one of the most buzzed-about new underground DJs in the U.S. scene and played both EDC Las Vegas and Detroit's iconic Movement Electronic Music Festival in 2018.

In addition to her in-demand tour schedule, she's released hard-hitting techno banger after banger, launched a label, showcased her effortless style in a collab with TOMBOY, and cultivated her ever-growing fanbase on media content (she currently has 1.7 million followers on Instagram).

And while 2020 meant much more time at home in Belgium than she's had in years, it was still a triumphant one for the powerhouse producer. In November, she was named DJ Mag's No. 1 Alternative DJ, and the following month she celebrated the one-year anniversary of her label/event brand, KNTXT.

GRAMMY.com recently caught up with de Witte to learn more about her journey to the top, what the 2020 slow down felt like for her, her experience with sexism in dance music, and more.

You were named DJ Mag's 2020 No. 1 Alternative DJ, what does that recognition feel like for you?

It's a pretty big milestone to hit, especially in the year that's as weird as 2020. It felt like a massive hug from the scene and from the people out there. [It felt like they said], "Hey, thanks for being connected and thanks for sharing the music." Carl Cox was always No. 1 since the beginning of this alternative list [in 2018]. So, to knock someone like Carl Cox off the throne is really massive. And I mean, there are so many incredibly talented people on there, so it's still pretty surreal actually when I think of it. It's incredible.

You're the first woman to get to the top of the list and while it does feel like things are shifting a bit, I'm curious what you think needs to happen within the dance industry to keep lifting up more women, and people of color, to the top?

Well, I'm a firm believer that the dancefloor and the dance scene should be a place of total freedom, a place where you can express yourself no matter your gender, your color, your beliefs, your sexuality—it doesn't matter, it should be a place of freedom. I think there's still a lot of work when it comes to equality and fighting for those rights. I think you can always do more things, and it's very important to keep an open mind and to keep an open conversation about these things.

I can speak a lot about gender inequality because obviously, I've been having these questions since I started DJing. I don't think there should be necessarily a 50-50 equal division on the lineup, but there should be equal opportunities and equal chances, and you should treat people the same. So I think there's still work to do, but it's getting better. You see more and more female DJs popping up as well and getting a lot of opportunities same as male DJs, but there's still a lot of work. It's important to keep an open mind and keep the conversation going, always.

"I'm a firm believer that the dancefloor and the dance scene should be a place of total freedom, a place where you can express yourself no matter your gender, your color, your beliefs, your sexuality… So I think there's still a lot of work when it comes to equality and fighting for those rights."

One thing I think about a lot is the term "female DJ." Do you have instances where people say, "You're my favorite female artist?" How do you deal with that? I'm sure that that can be pretty frustrating.

It is, it's incredibly frustrating. And it happens all the time. A very annoying thing that happens as well is, when people online tend to compare DJs, 99 percent of the cases, it is between two female DJs. And indeed, they refer to you as a female DJ or "DJane," that's also a word.

I've been DJing for 11 years now and it's bad to say that I sort of got used to it. Not that it doesn't give me the chills, I mean, if someone in my close surroundings would say something like that, I would probably say something about it, but I realized that this mindset is a very slow one to change in people. Also, people don't fully realize what they're doing with saying those things—that doesn't make it right—but there are much worse things you can say than referring to someone as a female DJ. I mean, there are a lot of other battles to fight.

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I remember you getting a lot of buzz in 2017, and, from the outside, it's seemed like you've had a steady, rapid rise since then. What has the journey to where you are today felt like for you?

It's always sort of fascinating to look back at it myself because indeed everything has been a massive rollercoaster from where I was 11 years ago. How I started, I never would have dreamed of being where I am now. I mean, no one can fully grasp what has happened. In the beginning, it was really the tiny clubs in a tiny area where I used to live and then just massively going with the flow and doing what [felt] right. And I think having a lot of luck and being surrounded with the right people and doing things at the right time together with the right kind of motivation and ambition that you need.

I think those aspects really made the difference and got [me to the next level] in Belgium, first of all. And then things just started heading off on a worldwide basis. And indeed, for the past three years, minus this year, I've been touring non-stop and I've been probably one of the DJs touring the most in the world. And it's incredible. So it's been a rollercoaster, but touring really made me happy as well. It gave me so much energy. It was extremely exhausting, but it shaped me so much as a human being.

What has it felt like to finally have some time at home and off the road to reflect on all of it?

Well, 2020 has been a bit strange. I was lucky to be with people that I really love, very close to me. I think without them, I would have fallen into a black hole. There is no doubt about that. Even now, mentally, it's not easy, but that really kept me going. Also, having the time to have a normal pattern in my life, a normal sleep cycle, healthy food, because you don't have to eat shitty airport food again, [has been good]. So I'm trying to be productive. And [I'm] resting a lot. I did realize that my body and my mind could both use the rest at the beginning of the lockdown, so we rested.

I think it's been a very interesting year to work towards the future, but it's confusing because no one really knows what it is—I don't want to [get] too philosophical or too depressing. But I think it's been a year to be productive and to really clear minds, and take the experiences from the past and try and shape the future.

You released a couple of EPs in 2020—including Return To Nowhere and Rave On Time—and some remixes and singles. Did you work on those before or after lockdown?

I made them at the end of 2019, so everything was already scheduled. When everything happened, we were thinking of holding back the [label] release of Return To Nowhere and Rave On Time until a time where we could go to clubs and festivals again because they're made to be played at those places. But we just decided to go for it. It provides some music in these times.

I made the Bob Moses [and ZHU] remix in March and that one just got released [in December]. So that's the only thing that had a short time span [from when I made it], but all the others were made before. Now we've made some new music that's coming out in 2021, so hopefully we'll be out of lockdown.

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I talked to a couple of DJs at the beginning of lockdown. If you're used to making music for the dancefloor, it's like, "Well, what do I make now?" Some artists talked about not feeling motivated to make dance music when they didn't know when that space would return. I feel like any time good dance music comes out it is a good thing, we need that release of moving our bodies, wherever we are.

I get it. But it is strange to make dance music [in lockdown]. In the beginning, it was still OK because the memory of the dance festivals were still fresh. But after 10, 11 months, when I'm sitting in the studio, it's really tough to make something with a strong kick. I'm experimenting a bit towards more ambient stuff, which is nice as well, to have [during] this time of experimenting. I completely understand what they said, it feels so strange even listening to new music or trying to find new techno tracks. It started to be very strange. I think it makes sense. You're just so distant from it, but you have to keep it alive. [Laughs.]

To that point, what are you most looking forward to when you get to return to the dancefloor?

I think the entire experience. Stepping on to your flights—preferably without a mask by then—arriving at your country of destination, going to restaurants there, the conversations you have with the people there, the promoters, the club's hard-hitting bass—the volume, the loudness that we all haven't heard in such a long time—and the energy, the sweating, everything. I'm sure it will be very magical once it comes back because we will not take it for granted anymore. It will be a new era, we just have to be patient.

It's going to feel weird.

It is. And I think there's going to be so much energy on the floor and the explosion is going to be massive. Like every single show will be—it already was unique, but it will be incredibly unique and very intense. Hopefully, by then we can look back at it as a healthy reset because people don't take it for granted anymore. I think that is a good aspect. And people are also starting to realize the importance of having clubs and festivals around and nightlife culture—because nightlife culture has always been the ugly sister that no one wants to talk about. Everyone just regards it as drug-filled and dirty. And it is, but [it's not just that]—nightlife is really important. I think we still have a very long way to go [in order] to convey this message to people and for people in charge to realize that we matter a lot.

Recently in Germany, they declared that techno was music.

That was cool.

Now, German nightclubs can get the same funding and tax breaks that other venues do. We've seen the nightlife community come together to ask for relief funding for clubs because otherwise many are not going to survive. You're right, it matters and not just to "ravers," it's important to so many people, including those who work in it and keep those industries alive.

Exactly. There's so much more to it than what an unknowing person thinks. I think it's important that people are made aware of that. We still have a long way to go. I mean, why at the main stage [of a festival, do] you never really have DJs? You can have electronic music acts, but when you talk about a DJ, they are never fully considered a musician. That's a never-ending discussion. So, I think the fact that Germany did state that techno is music is a good start.

You just celebrated the one-year anniversary of your label, KNTXT. What was your goal when you were launching the label and what is your vision with it going forward?

Basically, to find a creative platform for my music, but also music from other artists—that was the main thing, to release good music. And to organize parties, that was also a very important part of it. We did a couple in New York, Milan, Barcelona, and London. They were going very well and we are going to start again as soon as we can.

Besides that, we just want to be a creative place and connect music with other things. For instance, I'm a big foodie, so we are trying to see how we can connect music with food or chefs because a lot of chefs are also big techno fans. It's a very interesting platform to discover things from. And now we had the collaboration with the headphone brands AIAIAI . That was a very cool one. We had a fashion collaboration too. It's just a bit of putting out your arms towards the other creative industries. It's nice, it's very cool.

To celebrate the anniversary, you released a vinyl box set that includes the new track "Lighthouse." Can you tell us a bit more about the sonic elements and mood of the song, and what else you have in store for the White Label?

Well, "Lighthouse" is the first White Label release. White Label-wise, we still have to explore what direction we want to go with it. I think our main focus is to release EPs like we've been doing, but I think "Lighthouse" was a very nice addition to this collector's box set. I also made that track a while ago.

It's very dancefloor-oriented, it has an acid line in there. Fun fact: in "Lighthouse" you hear a voice saying some things; it's my voice saying the definition of context, and I reversed it. I like reversing things because it makes things sound less common or cheesy. The definition of context is in there. So, you're getting context on context, basically.

Reversing parts of audio is somewhat common in hip-hop—Kendrick Lamar used it a lot on DAMN. Producers will play a drum loop or something backward and it feels like you're like falling backward or dreaming.

Yeah. Some things just sound more interesting in reverse. And I have the feeling that, especially with vocals, it makes things a bit more alienating. If I would just have said the definition of context, it would be a bit lame.

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What do you think are the essential elements of a great techno banger?

It's always a tough one when they ask you to define music because I can give you a Wikipedia-type definition, but in the end it's also very much of an emotional experience and what is best for me, is slow for someone else. But I think techno is a very functional 4/4 beat. It's not necessarily happy, it's quite undeground and it can be quite repetitive and loopy and can be quite stripped. So it's not chaotic or not happy sounding. That's how I would describe it to an audience. It's not like EDM where you can put your hands up in the air. I mean, you can put your hands up in the air, but not because they tell you to.

"I am drawn to sort of the 'less is more' aspect of [techno]. You don't need a lot of very audible elements to give you a lot in return. It speaks to me in its emptiness, in a way."

What specific elements are you typically drawn to in a techno track?

I am drawn to sort of the "less is more" aspect of it. You don't need a lot of very audible elements to give you a lot in return. It speaks to me in its emptiness, in a way. It just gives space to a lot of the elements that you use. And that underground side, which is just more interesting to me because it makes me think about those things and wonder.

When did you first start listening to techno? And at what point did you know that you wanted to start producing music yourself?

I started going to these underground clubs where I went to school at the age of 16, 17. I think that's where I first got in touch with electronic music, but also the more underground side of it. Electro was quite big in Belgium back in the days, but it also started getting me in touch with techno music. So, my initial step into electronic music was electro, which you don't hear that often nowadays.

Gradually, by digging deeper into this world of electronic music, I found techno and I'm still there. I think I started producing a couple of years later. I also started DJing almost straight away because I fell in love with the music and I wanted to do something with it. Initially, it was just for me, like I was mixing tracks at home, to listen to on my iPod when I was going to school and never thought of putting them online.

But at some point, I did [put mixes online] and then things just started rolling. Music-making started a couple of years later because I felt a need to not only play other people's music but also to explore this world of beat making myself. Because it's a whole world and it's extremely fascinating to delve deeper.

You dove in, that's awesome.

Yeah, sort of. And I could—my parents were always supportive, they just let me do me. I mean, I wasn't harming anyone with it. They just saw that it made me happy, so they just let me be. It was cool—I was lucky as well. A crazy path.

What are your release plans for 2021?

I've been working on some stuff to release on my label, KNTXT, in 2021. Also, we have a remix that's coming out. I think a lot of people will release a lot of music in 2021 because everyone had so much time. I have stuff coming and I'm very happy with the results.

I really look forward to playing it on the dancefloor and seeing the reaction of the crowd. I've been playing some of the tracks on [live]streams [I've done] but having six cameras pointed at your face—even though millions of people are watching—can not compare with the crowd. So I really look forward to that moment.

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