Justin Berkmann started DJing after being schooled in the Family Funktion & Shake’n’Fingerpop warehouse parties in mid-eighties London. Then, after moving to New York City in 1986, he discovered the Paradise Garage. There, he found his true calling; to play House Music as loud as possible. Living in New York City for the next 2 years, Justin formed his style from the weekly radio shows on Kiss FM & WBLS. But what really inspired him was Larry Levan manipulating the sound texture on the Richard Long System every week at the Garage. He started to buy his music from Vinyl Mania and got himself a residency at A.D. – an all night lesbian dance club on West 8th Street. Soon he had taken over the night, opening it up to Garage core members and renamed it The Closet.
Various residencies followed, but after the Paradise Garage had finally closed its doors in 1987, Justin returned home to London and started to DJ at the Summer of Love Acid House raves, soon after creating a Friday night “Heaven Garage” but always with the intention of building his dream Paradise Garage type club in London. That happened in 1989, after he met old Etonian entrepreneurs James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse. After two years of misery, hard work, sleepless nights and immense stress, Ministry of Sound opened its doors in September of 1991.
Now 25 years on, Justin’s legacy continues to grow with the ever-changing landscape of London nightlife. The weekend of 2nd September will see the realisation of all that blood, sweat, and tears with a party celebrating the old and the new. Alongside Justin that night in the DJ booth will be some of the finest selectors House music has on offer, so we sent our own House music hero, Kinki Maliki resident Grant Richards to find out a little more about the man behind in most recognised dance music brand in the world.
Hey Justin, good to catch up with you again, the last time I saw you was when you took over after me at Kinky Malinki’s 17th Birthday party at Ministry last year, now I don’t want to start the interview off on too much of a fanboy tip, but that was a cool moment for me, what’s your favourite DJ hand over you’ve ever had over your illustrious career?
In 1991 being resident meant I warmed up the box to hand onto all the DJ legends that we booked there. Later in 1993, I changed to play the close of the box, so I had the honour of taking over from Tony Humphries most Saturdays around 5am, which was probably the best time of my life for pure music happy-people joy. Magical times. But the most ”stars in the eyes” moment would have to be when I handed over to Larry the first time he played at the club. And he had just turned the system into a technicolor soundscape after the dross I’d been playing and I didn’t give a fuck how bad he made me look. He was God and was on my sound system.
Having DJed for such a long time, what still keep you motivated? Is there anything else that’s on your DJ ‘to do’ list or have you achieved everything you set out to achieve?
I’ve been DJing 29 years now and I just love it. What can I say, playing your favourite music on a massive system to people who love what you’re doing is an amazing way to live. And it’s so spiritual, taking that musical high all together into paradise to offer it to the Divine. Nothing else compares. I’ve never really had a to-do list per se. Desiring slots at prestigious gigs wasn’t high on my agenda, it was more about discovering fresh places and breaking new markets. More the adventurer. That would still be my mission were it not for the global danger versus family equation.
I read that before you set up Ministry, you were interested in launching some kind of energy drink. This was before 1990 and before Red Bull hit the UK, do you ever think about how life could’ve been different and that you’d be a CEO of a huge energy drink company instead?
Like my father was once offered back in the early 70’s to take and run McDonalds Inc for Europe which he refused, so perhaps that’s two close shaves to me becoming an Illuminati. Don’t really see myself as a CEO of a major drinks company, especially as I know a few. That world was never for me and I already had rejected one CEO-ship in the family wine business. I prefer to do my own thing, and my life right now is exactly where I want it.
I’ve often wondered about the pioneers of various music scenes, especially the UK house music scene. When does the penny drop and you realise that you’re involved with something that is going to be such a game changer?
I suppose I didn’t really start to get the magnitude until perhaps a year in when I started to travel around doing gigs. The brand was becoming massive and in some places like Italy people were going really crazy for it. The third time I played in Naples, a bunch of guys had had tattoos done of the logo. I think the initial club itself for which I am responsible was just a link in the chain of all the other great clubs that have paved the way for underground dance music scene, to me Hi on Hope and The Gardening Club were just as important musically, they just didn’t start a label.
With such an over saturated dance music industry, it’s harder to be a game changer now, but are there any clubs, promotions, even DJs that you feel are doing something so different that it’ll be talked about in years to come, in a similar vein as to how we do about Ministry of Sound?
We were fortunate to be in a less populated period where we could hog the spotlight a little more. But there are so many cool things being done these days, just so much more choice and other white noise to cut through. There are so many microcosm scenes that hardly anyone outside knows about, like Glasgow at the moment.
We’re all part of a massive house music organism, and everyone is critical and plays their part. Will anyone’s top 10 single matter in 100 years? How many tracks from back in the day are unplayable? Notoriety is irrelevant really, it’s about being a part of the Global House Family.
Can I ask you about the new Ministry Logo? I doubt you had any involvement with it, but it seems to have come out and now Ministry branding feature both the classic logo alongside the new logo, what’s going on with it?
I had no involvement in the new logo, but I did always like the roman God Janus concept of looking forward and backwards, which this seems to be. A modern logo for the modern generation and a renewed version of the Mark I for all the heritage stuff.
Over the years, there have been quite a lot of changes across the industry. What has been your favourite change and what do you wish had never darkened your door?
If there’s anything it has to be digital. Access to music, manipulation of music, theft of music. A bit of a double-edged sword. Not too sure what major positive changes have occurred in the last 25 years. The sound was great 25 years ago, the music was too, the lights, the people, everything was there already. If you were to copy the best club from 25 years ago verbatim, it would smash it today.
The Bad? Digital sound. If you A-B a digital system next to an analogue one, the digital is crystal clear and sharp you hear everything, whereas the analogue system is mushy and gooey and wraps you up in the music, much sexier. I’ve always believed that too much information is not necessarily a good thing.
We may not have been able to sit here and celebrate this momentous occasion if the club had been forced to close due to the property developers opposite the club. Was there a contingency plan in place for if you did have to close, or were you all just praying for sense to prevail?
Damocles’ sword seemed to be hanging for ages so there were different cunning plans drafted, projected, costed and binned, we went looking for a new place if it did go bad and it all felt very Deja Vu. I think James Palumbo played the game expertly to keep the club open. Chapeau. The temporary loss of Studio 338 and difficulties other big clubs are facing are very unfortunate and never good for our city, the more clubs we have here, the better. London cannot survive on a handful of venues, our music scene is incredible and lives on the enormous choice of amazing spaces London has to offer.
In other interviews, I’ve read that you use the analogy of church and priests representing a club and its DJs. It’s probably more fitting to institutions like Ministry, but what analogy would you use for the high street Luminar leisure type clubs and whilst we are at it what about an analogy for festivals?
It was the religious fervour that gripped us around 11:45 Saturday night just before Star Trek started on Channel 11. We were all going to the Garage in an hour, hail or high water. Midnight the record button on the cassette machine was pressed for the dance party on WBLS. An hour later we were walking up the ramp to Garage paradise.
Can’t say for me Ministry has any particular religious analogy but people have said to me in the past they felt the same way, which to me is the ultimate compliment. Although your questions are excellently researched, you seem to have a penchant for dangerous ones Mr Richards and this is a cracker. Luminar hmm… maybe the like the followers of TV preachers in the states, and festivals go-fers are perhaps a hybrid of free love Hare-Krishna with a bit of lizard worshipping Church of Scientology? Swiftly moving on…
Do you think festivals are now more important to revellers than clubs these days?
It’s gone full circle, as we all started raving in fields, didn’t we? Only different is back then it was exciting like Base Jumping, today it’s more like Disneyworld. Safer. The edge has gone a little. And festivals were the best way to get our clubs back. They will have their lifespan and then something else will take over and round and round we go. Every generation thinks they reinvented the wheel. We too were just following in the footsteps of the 60’s hippies.
Let’s talk about the Dolby sound system the club has switched to in The Box. I recall talking to Mark Radford about his Audio Rehab night and him saying he actually sits down with a Dolby engineer to work on his set so that it can be manipulated in such a way that it uses the full surround sound technology. Impressive stuff. Have you played on it and used it to it’s full potential?
I was lucky enough to be involved with the Dolby Atmos project installation at the club from the beginning. We were shown its potential in the studios in Soho Square and to be honest it threw me into a dilemma. I vote analogue sound every election, and this was the Digital dark-side seducing me, to throw any midrange element onto the ceiling and to make dramatic cinematic soundscape events in a DJ set. Dream come true really.
The mad games Larry used to play with the speakers at the Garage and taught us to do are now programmable. We’ve had half a dozen sessions and all have been quite different, but for me, the potential is yet to be truly realised. Francois K had us enthralled back in June but each event is a steep learning curve experience, marrying this complex new concept into the workings of a DJ set will take time to perfect.
I think in the long run, this will be a massive new part of future sound system designs, and due to the laws of physics, seems to be better suited to a club sized room, so this will feature in nice cozy clubs rather than in massive fields. Problem is, speed of sound is a bit too slow.
Do you think there could ever be a Ministry of Sound anecdotal book, maybe a cheeky stocking filler for Christmas? Maybe some residents and guests regaling stories from over the years? I know my good friend Jeremy B has told me a fair few stories that could go in. Do any pop to your mind that you would put in ‘The Box Tales’?
Already been attempted, one of our original bar staff has been doing a book like that for the last 5 years, she cant find anyone that can remember anything and be independently corroborated. No cameras were allowed so no photos exist. Any stories worth publishing will be equally worth suing for libel. And photos and videos never capture the actual vibe as no-one there saw it in reality in the first place. I do have some tape cassettes from the beginning years though yet to be heard or released. Might do something with those one day.
Before we go I’ll ask you a little fun question if Ministry was an actual person, what would you buy 25-year-old MOS for it’s birthday?
Because for me, MoS is like one of my children and female; she is my first born daughter, and now a grown up woman. So maybe she would need her own little flat in town somewhere…