Italian House Nation 
ITALY is Europe’s house nation. The last four years have seen the rise of a huge house-dominated club scene that has fired and inspired a generation. It’s a country that boasts a three hour dance music show on a major radio station every day of the week. That has a small homegrown record industry that is rapidly booming on a strict diet of house beats and bpms. Here, leading DJs are cultural icons. National heroes, clocking up mileage that makes Sasha or Grooverider look positively housebound by comparison. This is Italy. It’s a nation famed for its food and its football, its style and its wine. And its maniac driving. Welcome to Italy. Welcome to the future.
In the last six years, a fresh new musical genre of American origin has been imported, imitated and repackaged to a willing Italian audience that can’t get enough of dance music. However, slowly but surely, the Italian’s homegrown brand has started to match, even better, the original. The smarter kids have begun to make their own music, and the smarter businessmen invest in it. As it was in rock’n’roll-obsessed Britain thirty years ago, so it is in house-besotted Italy in 1992.
“We have no rock’n’ roll culture like you have in the UK or America,” expounds Albertino, mainstay of the daily three hour long dance show on Milan’s Radio Deejay. To Albertino, the freshness and vitality of the Italian dance scene is due to a generation of Italian youth, for the first time, adopting a new form of popular music as their own. Embracing it, even producing it themselves, and all dreaming of the kind of success enjoyed by international Italian dance stars such as Blackbox, Cappella and the 49ers.
Every afternoon, Albertino, his sidekick Fargetta and mixmaster DJ Molella present three hours of upfront dance to a national 1.5 million strong audience. It is the country’s most popular radio show among 15-25 year olds. And unlike Britain, there is no playlisting, the choice of records lies strictly with the DJ presenters. This is symptomatic of the Italian approach to dance in general, and house in particular. For those working in the dance industry in the UK, every success has to be fought for. Not so in Italy.
IN a shrinking world, changing daily with advances in communications technology and the increasing ease of international travel, it was only a matter of time before the US/UK stranglehold on the popular music scene was challenged. Dance music has been the catalyst for the European gauntlet to be thrown down.
In the UK we may snigger at the rash of less than inspirational euro-techno records with titles such as ‘James Brown is Dead’, ‘Who killed JFK?’, ‘Who is Elvis?’ and ‘Where is Marilyn?’. But perhaps the huge success of such records on the Continent is simply the Europeans revelling in their abandonment of 35 years of US-inspired, Brit-supported cultural imperialism. It’s 1992, and Europe’s open for (music) business.
Few would contest that Media Records is currently leading the field in the Italian dance scene. It was also probably the first major Italo house label. Arguably, the first Italo-house track, the early M/A/R/R/S-derivative ‘Bauhaus’/’Push The Beat’ Cappella tune, was a Media release, as was the first UK crossover Italo-house hit; Capella’s euro-disco ‘Work It To The Bone’-based workout ‘Helyom Halib’. Since then the label has scored with the 49ers, Katherine E and East Side Beat. Then there have been “by DJs for DJs” records from the likes of Francesco Zappalla, Molella, and DJ Professor, as well as underground club anthems such as Pavesi Sound, Clubhouse, and Shafty.
The man at the Media helm is Gianfranco Bortolotti [pictured]. A man with vision, a man who has seen the global potential of house music, a man who is equally shrewd as both a producer of music and a businessman. “A few years ago, I see the effect disco and dance music has on Italian youth, and I decide to invest in it,” he tells me simply as we cruise along in his fiery red Ferrari, one of the more ostensible signs of his success. This man sold 1,200,000 records last year.
Bortolotti has also gone for the best in studio machinery, striking a sponsorship deal with Akai in Japan. Indeed, the Japanese way is a major influence on Bortolotti, hence the prominence of the red sun in the company logo. Media’s producers advise the Japanese on areas of studio hi-tech ripe for expansion and innovation, and in return receive cheap gear with which to flesh out Media’s ever growing studio complex.
MEDIA'S set-up is a revelation. There are definite echoes of Motown. Studios, record labels and promotions people are all under the one roof. “For every release, we have a DJ, a producer, and a musician working as a unit,” says Bortolotti.
Media’s ever growing producer roster is now pumping out material for a total of ten different labels, each subtly different from the last, each slowly but surely establishing an identity and sound of its own. ‘Traditional’ Italo house, techno both specialist and mainstream, licensed import smashes, crossover dance, special projects with the likes of the Radio Deejay team, and pure Italian underground music – all have their niche in the Media empire.
Inside the Media studios East Side Beat’s follow-up to ‘Ride Like The Wind’ is being fine-tuned. In another, club mixes on a forthcoming 49ers single are being crafted, while in a third, an as yet un-titled techno nutter bastard is being banged out. Four more new studios are nearly ready. Bortolotti, who still assumes the role of Producer or Executive Producer on many of the labels’ releases, issues quiet but firm instructions concerning drum patterns, frequencies and the like.
The atmosphere is positive and relaxed, but ruthlessly professional. The DJ/ Producer/Musician units are by turns locked in concentration, then beaming with satisfaction as their work progresses. Everything is spotless.
Bortolotti reckons dance currently accounts for 5% of the Italian records market, the bulk of that, he claims, belongs to Media. He estimates that in a few years, dance will be 50% of the Italian market. If so, Media is poised to be the Italian equivalent of Sony, Warner Brothers or Phonogram. A major player. No wonder Italian businessmen are queuing up to work with him.
There’s serious empire-building going on here. Bortolotti has dreams of investing in all areas of leisure time, from videos and magazines to a research institute where people can study studio technology and dance music production. “He wants music and leisure complex which will match Disneyland – Medialand!” jokes Nicolas, Media’s Promotions Manager. Don’t bet against it.
Naturally, there is a lot more to the burgeoning Italian house scene than Media - where they stand out is in their pioneering work in the promotional field, and their perfection of the ‘in-house’ system. The Time Group, based like Media in Brescia, works along similar lines. With a background in Italo-disco and Hi NRG, the worldwide success of ‘Keep Warm’ by Jinny in ’91 and the buzz on other tracks such as ‘You Too’ by Nexy Lanton, Gino Latino’s ‘No Sorry’ and ‘Get On The Floor’ by DJ Pierre cemented the operation’s house leanings. Like Media, Time also runs various labels under its roof (such as Style, Line Music and MGM), and works on the ‘in-house’ system. Boss Giacomo Maiolini has three studios, a team of producers and a slick promotions team to back it all up.
British clubbers will however be more familiar with Flying Records who, along with Discomagic, is one of the country’s leading dance distribution companies. Flying’s ambitions as a label have already led to an expansion into London’s Hammersmith, where their office looks after the British operation. Flying UK has already enjoyed major success with The End (those Radio Deejay boys Albertino and Molella again), Joy Salinas, and Digital Boy, while the more recently formed (and self explanatory) Underground Music Movement label has scored with The Underground Sound Of Rome and DJ Ivan.
But these are only the most prominent names in an enormous network of Italian independent dance labels. Other leading lights include the highly-respected Irma and Palmares labels, as well as Paradise Project (home of the FPI team, and currently responsible for the massive ‘Berry’ by TC 1991) and X Energy (which bought us the UK club anthem ‘I Say Yeah’ by Secchi).
IT is 1.30pm on Saturday afternoon. Claudio Coccoluto, a gentle giant of a man, one of Italy’s leading DJs, and the figure behind the huge underground cult record ‘Angels of Love’ by CocoDance, stumbles bleary-eyed out of his friend Fabio’s house in Modena. He arrived five hours earlier, having driven over 100 miles from Milan after DJing most of the night. Despite his obvious tiredness, he is only too keen to explain his genuine surprise at the international buzz on ‘Angels of Love’ and his delight at his recent trip to London where he played at both Kinky Disco and Ministry of Sound. He also takes time out to recommend the best local pasta, and play the fool with fellow DJ/artist DJ Professor.
After lunch and a photo shoot, it’s back to Disco Inn, a DJ-friendly shop where Fabio and Daniele (who run the highly successful Italian branch of DMC’s worldwide DJ club from the same building) load Claudio and Professor up with the best new releases. Six fellow DJs sit perched on stools, turntables in front of them, headphones on, sifting through piles of records like American college kids sifting through their burgers in a 50s diner. That night, Coccoluto will drive the marathon journey to Rome to play through until 6am before driving on to Naples to spin from 8-10am.
As in the UK, such travelling is now part of everyday life for Italy’s leading DJs. The situation is exacerbated however by Italy’s substantially larger size and an abundance of clubs that stay open all night and well into the next morning. Approaching 6am on Sunday morning, after a blistering night’s entertainment at Matmos, a trendy one nighter at Milan’s Linea club, tiredness is beginning to set in. DJ Andrea Gemolotto, who, alongside Luca Colombo, has provided us with inspirational music all night, looks perturbed. He is convinced his set was too commercial. He can’t be persuaded otherwise, and he is disappointed to learn that, faced with a flight back to London that day, we don’t have the stamina to move on to his 8-10am slot at a gig near the picturesque Lakeside village of Sirmione.
A night at Matmos is a stirring antidote to the currently confused UK club scene. Unlike Britain, Italy has not yet developed any specific “youth culture” to go with its house revolution. The crowd here is a complete mish-mash of fashion victims, art students, transvestites, ‘Duffer’ type boys and Gaultier girls. The music is equally hard to categorise, but there is a distinctive Italian underground sound beginning to develop. Both Gemolotto and Colombo pepper their sets with ‘serious’ garage and ‘frivolous’ ’90s disco, but the overall feel is what the Italians refer to as ‘deep’.
Indeed, ‘deep house’, a term first coined back in ’88 to cover the work of the likes of Marshall Jefferson and then discarded as we rushed headlong to the extremes of techno and garage, has been adopted as the Italian underground sound. Crisp percussion and production (not a break beat in sight), funky fluid basslines, and moody, ambient yet uplifting instrumentation are in full flow here. It’s a potent brew.
THIS deep house sound has now found its spiritual home. The ever-inventive Media empire, keen to prove they are more than a house music production line, has begun the Heartbeat label. The label’s outlook is strictly underground: minimal promotion, limited pressings, a specialist music aimed straight at the leftfield DJ and the serious club music collector. The first release, ‘Deep Inside of You’ by Shafty, left the UK’s taste maker DJ fraternity foaming at the mouth, and made No.1 in Mixmag Update’s Buzz Chart. And we can expect more.
Heartbeat is about as cool as a label can get. It consists simply of seven of Italy’s leading DJs. Media is bank-rolling them and has given them the freedom to go musically where the mood takes them, with no pressure to be mainstream. Media is delighted that Shafty has sold some 7,000 copies in Italy. Gemolotto, one of its co-creators, is even worried that this is too many. The seven DJs in question are Gemolotto, Cocculuto, Columbo, Leo Mas, Ralf, Ricky and Flavio Vecchio They all play on a more or less rotational basis at five of Italy’s hippest clubs: the previously mentioned Matmos, the Coco Rico in Riccione (as featured in Mixmag last summer), Yabium in Florence, Ranch in Venice, and Echoes, which is also in Riccione.
Imagine if a UK label signed up Sasha, Danny Rampling, Andy Weatherall, the Slam Boys, Justin Robertson, Graeme Park, and Mike Pickering, and you’re probably some way to understanding just how large is Heartbeat’s hipness quotient. The next two Heartbeat releases’ Kiss Me (Don’t Be Afraid)’ by Love Quartet (aka Ricky and Flavio) and ‘I Know’ by the Nightflowers (that man Gemolotto again) share Shafty’s gloriously deep feel and floor potential, and should catapult the label into every discerning DJ’s heart.
The most striking thing about Italy’s DJ-led house boom, is its sheer scope and size. From Heartbeat at one end of the dance spectrum to DJ H at the other, the whole of house is here. “If you need to fill the dancefloor in Italy,” says Disco Inn’s Daniele, “the best records to play are DJ H, Antico, 49ers.” All homegrown acts.
Italy has accepted the house revolution with open arms. There is no stifling rock tradition, no major record label cynicism, no having to convince doubters that guitar-based, image-dominated rock ‘n’ roll is tired out, and that the age of the sampler, the drum machine and the universal language of dance music is upon us.
The final thought comes from Gianfranco Bortolotti. “We have a trendy new generation led by people like the Heartbeat DJs,” he says. “From this generation will come the artists, the thinkers, the political and social leaders of tomorrow.” It is a radical viewpoint. Through history artists, writers and musicians have frequently been feted as an intellectual vanguard, as motivators for political and social advances. It is a role rock music has often flirted with, but here in 1992 is an Italian talking of DJs and clubbers in such terms. Make way for the new cosmopolitan order.
© Nick Gordon-Brown
Originally published in Mixmag, April 1992
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