At home in Antwerp visiting iconic DJ Baby Bee
Just as architecture fans visit world-famous buildings to be visually inspired and historically educated, a visit to DJ Baby Bee’s home is utterly stimulating. Located on the first floor of a premise at Sint-Jacobsmarkt in Antwerp, it has a storefront well known among vinyl enthusiasts. From 1979 until 2009 this has been the headquarters of USA Import, a record shop that single-handedly defined a huge part of our country’s electronic music history heritage. The interior styling in the apartment where she lives has the sense of a DJ museum as well. With a delicate eye for detail, vintage elements of her home have been well preserved, mixed with artefacts she has hoarded over the years. The space is obviously also packed with vinyl records, neatly organised all over the large living room and the adjoining music room. It’s a beautiful welcoming place.
Sad news shook up our scene in April 2020: Smos had passed away. Aged 53, the Antwerp based DJ was well known on the Belgian nightlife scene. Almost as yin to yang Smos was connected to Baby Bee. The inseparable duo - who have been lovers as well - has together rocked dance floors all over Belgium and abroad for 20 years of which 18 as resident DJs in Café d’Anvers and four in the house oriented Motion room in FUSE. In July 1999 the influential UK’s I-D Magazine awarded them ‘DJ of the month’, and in 2001 they were entitled ‘best Belgian DJs’ in the Ticket Nightlife awards. Having started their DJ career in the early nineties, their story is closely linked with the commencements of Belgian DJ culture and electronic music scene. I sit down with Baby Bee to get to know their unique story.
I would like to start at the very beginning. How did you meet Smos?
It was 1990, I was in my twenties and I met Smos at Café Zodiac in Ghent, a small and lively spot in De Heilige Geeststraat where I often hung out. I have so many fond memories of those days, it was the epicentre of a convivial community and we were all so drawn into music, practicing DJ skills and playing long sets night after night. It’s in Zodiac that the name Baby B was coined, because I always opted for the B-sides of records in pursuit of my favourite bonus beats or dub mix. Later I changed my name to Baby Bee to get rid of a German DJ who claimed to have invented the name. Smos has always been Smos, he doesn't want anyone to know his real name. He was always ‘smos-ing’ around, a Flemish slang expression modified from the word 'morsen' that means 'to spill'. He actually took his nickname Smos from his favorite snack, a layered sandwich that is 'smossy' to eat as it's difficult to avoid dropping pieces and messing around.
What was it like in the nineties? What was on your mind those days?
In November 1989 the Berlin wall had fallen and it made a lasting impression all over the world. In springtime 1990 with a few friends I drove all the way to Berlin, we wanted to witness what was going on there. I still have a small piece of the wall, taken as a souvenir of that historical moment. The wall killed so many people, it was a symbol of suppression and division. When it fell, it opened not only German borders and united their country, it symbolically put an end to the oppressive eighties and marked the start of a new decade.
The nineties were about some kind of awakening, renaissance of the youth counterculture and euphoria, not only in a hedonistic manner. You could also see it in the way people were dressed in those days, comfortable sporty style was widely being accepted. T-shirts with a yellow smiley, a symbol that perfectly expressed the new mood, and comfortable sport shoes were very trendy, describing well the liberating, bright vibe of the new decade. Something new was happening all over Europe, the second 'age of love' was entering the youth culture after about 30 years since it first appeared in the memorable seventies. Perhaps the intro to Primal Scream’s legendary ‘Loaded’ remixed by Andrew Weatherhall describes best the nineties vibe:’… we wanna be free to do what we wanna do, we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time …’
Where did you find your first musical kicks?
In the early nineties there were a lot of parties going on in and around Ghent, mostly small and privately organised at special venues. I was really impressed by the vibe and music. My father was a jazz collector and although I have listened to a wide variety of music genres in the eighties, jazz has always had a special place in my heart. When house music started to thrive I mostly fell for its more soulful and warmer Balearic style. To find the records that I heard at parties demanded a great effort and dedication because the new style of music was available strictly in specialised record shops, it was far away from the mainstream. The sense of secrecy and the fact that it was very difficult to find records in that style gave it a special charm, and that’s when my vinyl addiction began.
Due to connections of my employer in those days I often had to travel for work to London and I quickly indulged in its vast record shops that were mainly located in Soho. Thanks to one of my London based colleagues I also got to know the underground party scene. The city’s nightlife was flourishing and I was lucky to get a chance to party in the legendary Shoom and at the Boy’s Own parties, to hear DJs Andrew Weatherall, Terry Farley, Pete Heller, Danny Rampling and Carl Cox, and to experience the unique atmosphere of those pioneering house party years across the channel. Mind you, to enter the Shoom was about as difficult as to get into Berghain. What is Sven Marquardt to Berghain, Rampling's wife Jenni was to Shoom. She kept very strict control of the audience and many people in the long waiting line would be refused the entry. It was a kind of privilege to be accepted to get in. The club was located in Southwark Street, it had a rather small capacity of about 300 people. Once you entered the club, the vibe was incredible.
During the nineties Smos and I would often make day trips to London, taking the first ferry boat connection from Ostend in the early morning, and coming back late in the evening, loaded with kilos of precious exciting new records and empty pockets. In Belgium we regularly bought records in the Music Man shop in Ghent and, of course, the USA Import shop in Antwerp.
Do you remember your first DJ set?
Definitely! Smos and I teamed up with Smos’ best friend Dirk De Ruyck, who later started the famous Eskimo parties and the Eskimo Recordings label, for a gig in Pacific in Antwerp. Run by Philip De Liser, this was a concert hall and club where DJs and live acts such as Lee Scratch Perry, Wizards of Ooze, Souls Asylum and Moondog performed. We mainly played acid jazz on that night, it was our first set ever for a bigger audience. While we were living in Ghent, we were regularly playing at Zodiak alongside good friends Mo & Benoelie, who later changed the name to The Glimmer Twins. In 1992 I found a job in Antwerp and we decided to move.
How did you become residents at Café d’Anvers?
Koenie and Steve Cop, the first DJ residents in Café d’Anvers who established the new music policy in the club, had quit in 1993 and we soon took over their place together with Steve’s younger brother Kenneth Cop. First I was booked by Kenneth, who liked my deep and dubby house style, to play together with him on Sunday evenings. When we were soon promoted to Saturday nights, Smos joined us with his energetic disco and funk influenced style that became indispensable for Café d’Anvers. The three of us were a great match behind the DJ booth and until 1996 we shared decks on our memorable 8 hours long Saturday night sessions. After Kenneth had left the club, me and Smos continued to perform our monthly all night Saturday sessions until 2010, when I decided to stop DJing. Smos stayed in Café d’Anvers almost until its closing, in 2017 he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his DJ residency in the club.
Can you describe what the Belgian scene looked like in the nineties?
Café D’Anvers in Antwerp was the Belgian temple of house music. La Rocca in nearby Lier was also beginning with a new music style policy, but their DJs played a more commercial style. In the late nineties Red & Blue, Phil Collins and Club Geluk were opened in Antwerp. We belonged to a house scene, but parallel with ours was the harder, techno and trance oriented scene with clubs such as Extreme, Cherry Moon and FUSE.
Brussels was rather quiet in the early nineties. Mirano is a veteran club on Brussel's nightlife scene, but only in the mid nineties they started to program house. DJs at the famous gay party La Demence, that was held in the same building where FUSE was established in 1994, also accepted the new style in the early nineties. I remember a few wild parties that were held at special locations, especially the party in the Vaudeville theatre in Galerie de la Reine was memorable. Pablo Disco Bar was a small bar in the centre of Brussels where you could hear good house music, and Who's Who Land was open in 1998. In a former grain silo in Leuven the Food club was opened in 1996, where the best deep house DJs from all over the world were gracing the decks. Besides the famous techno room, FUSE also opened the Motion house room on the first floor, where we were residents for about 4 years between 2000 and 2004. It was an honour and pleasure to play in Fuse, I have fond memories of those days. Reminiscing of our DJing at Rue Blaes reminds me of my dear friend DJ St-Dic, who sadly passed away in December 2006.
The third point in the Belgian party triangle is Ghent. After the closing of the famous Boccaccio located in nearby Destelbergen in 1993, you could hear house music only in Café Zodiac. In the early nineties I remember that we were going to club 55 in Kuurne near Kortrijk, a club that was run by Peter Decuypere, who later started FUSE. The closing of 55 was a legendary party. The Eskimo parties were a breakthrough for the Ghent club scene, those were very well organised parties with large rooms where various styles of music were played. The parties were set in the former Eskimo underwear factory and the audience was incredible. We always played the closing hours in the house room for a few thousands enthusiastic party people, it was a memorable experience. The legendary Eskimo parties were later on continued with the Belmondo parties held in S.M.A.K. and on other special locations, followed by the Culture Club and MakeUp club..
What was your magical formula as a DJ duo?
Playing back-to-back surely needed some experience, it took a while before we learned how to master the skill. Our playing was not planned ahead but rather pure improvising, variety and surprises were always a special spice of our sets. Someone once told me that our magic was in the fact that I was playing for girls and Smos for boys, a guaranteed formula to get everyone on the dance floor. As a woman I certainly had a female touch and Smos was the masculine side, but the magic was in balancing and bridging our differences. While I've always preferred a deeper, jazzy, spaced out and dubby groove, Smos was into solid fat-bass funk and uplifting disco. The symbiosis of our styles somehow seemed to work very well.
We always had an agreement to each play a mini set of 3 records, which we called blokskes. These small blocks of about 10 to 15 minutes allowed us to keep the groove going in a smooth way. In a packed Café d’Anvers, in the main room of 10 Days Off, in the Motion room of Fuse, at the Eskimo parties, at the Rex club in Paris or anywhere else we played, it was quite a responsibility to keep the vibe alive and people dancing until the late hours. The most important role of a DJ is to make people feel good, the selection of records in a live set is not about ego tripping, it's really important to communicate with the audience and follow their reaction. Dance music is all about mixing, creating a story with a selection of records, feeding the audience with energy for their moving bodies, but also mind and soul. The record is on average played for about 3 - 4 minutes, it is very important to think ahead, to plan your next move almost like playing chess. Playing with two has an advantage in this process, while Smos was playing I had more time to think about my choice of the next three records. Sometimes I felt like it was needed to inject more emotion or spacey tracks, other times I simply had to continue the energy flow. The choice is, of course, essential, but so is the technical skill, the way of bringing the tracks in. Give a few records to various DJs, they will all mix them in a different way, and that is the unique quality of DJing. Yes, it's literally all in the mix.
I remember how Smos on a couple of occasions took the needle from the playing turntable. All of a sudden there was no sound, he was kind of paralised, all eyes pointed on us. I shouted ‘drop it!’ and he would then literally do that, drop the needle on the spinning record. Imagine the energy going through the room when the crowd was faced with an unexpected silence, followed by a few quick pops of the needle while falling down, after which the groove would take off again in full swing.
We always spent at least a couple of hours preparing a selection of records for our set. None of our sets were ever fully preprogrammed, something that is becoming rather common in today’s much bigger and more commercialised party scene. We thrived on spontaneity, interaction with the crowd and we were often dancing behind the booth. Playing an all night set in Café d'Anvers was especially demanding by all means, as a rule we would take each two big record boxes plus a bag with about 50 specials to avoid playing the same record twice during the night. Eight-hour sets enabled us to play different styles during the night, deeper in the beginning, full energy in the mid part and spacey after-hours style in the last part. The choice of the last record was a special moment. It's like a signature, the DJ statement to round the night, a track that stays in your memory after leaving the club. We both had a few records in our boxes especially reserved for the last tune.
How did a week in the lives of Smos & Baby Bee look like in those roaring nineties?
From the early nineties until 2010 we truly lived with, for and from music. Besides DJing we both worked in record stores, Smos at USA Import and I at Wally’s Groove World, which was in 1997 opened as a second-hand record shop in the basement of USA Import. When the apartment above the shop became vacant, we did not hesitate to move in. Even though it was in the same building where we both worked, at the time it wasn’t always the matter of great comfort. The wooden floor didn’t cancel any noise coming from the shop, but since we were working there anyway, it did not bother us unless we tried to catch some sleep after a long night of playing.
During the weekend, sometimes starting on Thursday and going on until Monday morning, we were DJing and often coming home at dawn. On Sunday and Monday we were usually recovering from nightlife’s side effects and having an easy day. If the weekend wasn't too busy, we often ended our Sundays with a recording session, cooking up new mixes on cassettes, those were especially in the nineties highly in demand. We often took a dozen copies to parties where we were DJing and gave them away to people who would come and ask for it, as a kind of promotion in the days before the internet. On Tuesdays Smos would start his working week in the USA Importshop, I still had a free day. Thursday and Friday were record shopping days, fresh vinyl supply arrived in shops. On Friday afternoons shops were full of DJs and collectors who were hungry for the new releases. We were lucky to have the first choice thanks to Smos' job, working in the record shop was crucial to DJ's success in those days. There was a limited number of ordered copies, you had to be lucky to get something you liked as there was a kind of hierarchy. DJs who had a residency or played a lot had a privilege above other DJs.
When we had a residency in the Motion room in FUSE, I was often going to visit Doctor Vinyl in Brussels for another pile of new records and precious white label promos given to me by Geert Sermon, the shop’s boss.
Did you and Smos share records? What were the dynamics between the two of you, how do you remember him?
I remember him as a truly good-hearted person, we spent together many happy years. He was an energy ball, a Jolly Joker type that could sometimes turn into a Tasmanian Devil cartoon character. Until about 2011 there was a total trust in our relationship, from then on we were unfortunately falling apart, and we broke up in 2013. Although our general backgrounds and tastes in music were rather different, we gladly learned from each other and enriched each other's knowledge. Yes, there was always his and my stuff, but we often shared what we played. Only occasionally we bought the same record twice, mainly as a safety spare copy.
DJing was quite a challenging job that demanded investing a lot of time in shopping and searching for records. The nightlife’s tempo and carrying heavy boxes full of records was for sure not an easy part, I know a few DJ friends who have serious injuries on their backs. In this pre-internet, pre-digital era you were simply obliged to buy plenty of records to be able to play a good set, white label promos were especially precious because they would guarantee the exclusivity in playing a top track before anyone else could get it. Someone invented the term 'vinyl mafia' for DJs who were covering record labels with stickers or deleting info on promos to prevent other DJs getting to know them. Honestly speaking we were all doing it, finding a good record was the result of hard work and endless digging in specialised record shops. For a very long time in my life everything was measured by the basic price of a record. For example, if I wanted to buy a new pair of shoes, I compared the price with the number of records I could buy for the same amount.
Was it hard to get around as a female DJ in a world dominated by males?
Not really, it didn’t stop or restrict me to do what I wanted to do. In Belgian shops everyone knew us, but in some record shops abroad the owners and assistants were the macho type and would not easily accept a female customer. When they would realise that I knew quite something about music, they would soften their arrogant attitude. I can especially remember this happening in San Francisco in 2000. Record shopping in Berlin has always been a wonderful experience, and I can say the same about Rotterdam, London and Cologne, where we often travelled for record shopping.
In the nineties there were only 3 female DJs in Belgium to my knowledge: Trish, D’Steph and me. It was quite demanding on a physical level to live the nightlife, carry heavy boxes and frequently visit various record shops to get new records. It needed financial sacrifice to buy records and essential DJ equipment, I guess women rather wanted to spend their money on other things.
How do you perceive the changes the DJ scene has gone through during your long career spanning both the nineties and the two thousands?
In hindsight the nineties were defined by the fact that we didn’t have the internet or mobile phones, computers were still in development, music was produced analog, there was no digital files overload and easy online shopping. It was a real endeavour to get the records you wanted and we spent so much time on physical visits to shops. About three quarters of our income went to record stores. Magazines such as the UK’s Jockey Slut, DJ Magazine and Mixmag, or Belgian Out Soon and Plastics were a really important source for information about the new releases and what was happening on the scene.
By the end of the nineties the entry of the euro currency led to the start of a new era, boosting the scene by easy travelling thanks to open European borders. Suddenly it was much easier to play abroad, getting paid in a foreign currency wasn’t a hassle anymore. You could really feel things were taken to a more professional level in those days. The feeling of freedom we felt just after the introduction of the euro was comparable to what happened after the fall of the Berlin wall. Apple’s iMac and the rise of the internet and social networking like Myspace also allowed our DJ scene to grow. We were finally able to make a bit more money and organise things on a bigger scale.
By the end of the nineties it had taken us a lot of effort to find a bookkeeper who was able to help us officially declare our income as professional DJs, because DJ performance was not yet registered as a profession. After 2000 things in Belgium started to slowly but surely change, and with it also the scale of events. Another evolution in the same period was the start of booking agencies. The first booking agency where we were accepted was set up by the Food party management, they promoted Belgian DJs such as Koenie, Geoffroy and Raoul from Food, St. Dic, Pierre, Trish and Deg from FUSE, Morpheus, D’Steph and Smos and me.
Sadly in 2001 the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York happened, bringing another burden to our lives. All of the sudden the whole world got scared and everyone was a suspect and the US ignited the 'war on terrorists'. It didn’t change the sense of how we partied, but it did change how we travelled. Some customs officers could give you the hardest time checking all your stuff at the airport.
You concluded your DJ career in 2010 while Smos continued to DJ for another nine years. What made you decide to put an end to it?
I’ve put a lot of effort into my almost 20 years long DJ career with Smos, but I’ve never stopped having other interests. Before I got into DJing I had graduated at the University and got my master’s degree, but in the mid nineties I gave up my work to fully focus on our DJ career. Near the end of 2000 I started to feel the burden of nightlife, the excitement spark was somehow fading away and I felt like trying something else, pursuing other goals. Besides the physical difficulties related to the nightlife job, I did not like the upscaling and expansion of our scene. More and more people were investing in it for profit, ‘more is more’ became the rule. The rise of many big parties and festivals was often focused not on quality, but quantity. We frequently had technical issues that would make it difficult to comfortably work and enjoy it. After many such frustrating occasions I decided to leave the DJ scene. Last time I played in Café d'Anvers was the New Year's party in 2010. It was an emotional moment, but I've never regretted stopping my career because I was determined to do something else in my life.
After my DJ period I studied photography and graphic design that helped me to find work in that direction. But thanks to an ongoing book project about the early electronic music that I’ve been doing together with Koenie Van Immerseel from Wally’s Groove World, I’m actually still involved with music, although from a different perspective.
How do you look back at the end of your partnership with Smos?
Our break-up as a couple was not easy because our lives were entangled on so many levels in the period of two decades of our DJ career. Just after the separation there was a crisis in our relationship, but soon after we again became good friends. The fatal year 2020 was very difficult in many ways, his sudden death deeply affected me. Strange as it is, Smos passed away on the day of my birthday. The two of us were for a very long time closely connected, we’ve known each other for 30 years. The mysterious strings of life kept us together until the end of his life. I will always dearly remember him.