“I like to think I have around 99% of all Belgian New Beat label catalogue releases out there.” Serial collector Steven Keimi on the work of a lifetime (Interview)

Steven Keimi’s the kind of collector that takes collecting to a whole new level. There are the records, yes, and tons of them. All New Beat, all neatly catalogued. Then there are the pins, the nightclub glasses, the magazine covers and clippings, the clothes, the patches – an entire lifetime’s obsession that’s resulted in one of the most important documentations of one of the most short-lived, yet nonetheless crucial eras in Belgium’s musical past being put together. Here, in an exclusive interview following years of relative silence, the man that should really be knighted for his contribution to Belgian history finally opens up. Make sure to check out our visual feature of his collection to match.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c)

Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got into collecting New Beat memorabilia.

I’m a technician by trade, born and raised in the provincial town of Aalst. A nice carnival city with very strange traditions – and incidentally, a rich New Beat history. If you talk to people in Antwerp, they’re more nightlife and disco-oriented. In Ghent, their history is more about house and techno. Leuven is rock-oriented – guitars and drums. Brussels is a mixture of all these scenes, while West Flanders has an entirely different scene due to its proximity to the north of France. And I’m in the middle, taking in all of these different influences. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s – the heyday of New Beat in Belgium – my friends and I were completely immersed in its all-encompassing world. A friend lived just across the street from Target Records, one of the first important New Beat labels and we used to spend a lot of time in there, checking out all the new releases, buying them up to play. We’d sort all our records in a friend’s garage, which then became long forgotten. It was only years later, at the end of the 90s that this friend was moving homes and asked if we wanted our records back. There were so many – and that was what lead me to start my New Beat collection in the early 2000s.

What are some of your earliest memories of New Beat?

I was still too green when New Beat first came about, so I unfortunately never got to experience the clubbing scene in its prime. In fact, I remember how a friend went to one of the first New Beat parties at Boccaccio, and came back revolutionised – that was my first trigger. But all in all, it was about the records, hanging out at our local shop. One of my strongest memories is Brussels Sound Revolution’s iconic Qui…?, sampling excerpts of former Prime Minister Paul Vanden Boeynants’ speech after being kidnapped by Patrick Haemers and his crew. It went beyond simply making music; it was so creative, from its influences right down to its fashion. The sleeve design and covers alone were a true hallmark of its time, relying on cut-and-paste techniques as opposed to your digital editing and Photoshops of today. I remember clearly how a friend and I would buy yellow adhesive paper to make our own smiley stickers, or steal hood ornaments from cars to turn them into New Beat-style logo chains, all to sell on our school playground for an extra buck.

New Beat really was all about that slowed-down beat and atmosphere, the evolution of New Wave and other non-vocalised instrumentals.

How would you define New Beat?

It all originated from New Wave, slowed down. Pre-1987, people would go out dancing to disco and New Wave – largely instrumental music, played by bands. Around 1983, musicians started to experiment with computers and electronics, which eventually fed into nightlife music. On top of that, DJs started to warp and re-pitch their New Wave records, from 130 to 100 bpm, mostly in a bid to keep their records obscure and to themselves. This kind of secrecy was incidentally carried into the New Beat scene too – that’s why you’ll find so many records with “fake” label stickers, so that all traces of identification were erased. And over time this slowed-down sound started to pick up speed again, to 110 bpm, up to 120 bpm two years later in 1989. Post-New Beat hype, Belgian house and techno rammed it up to between 120 and 125 bpm, before going as fast as 150 bpm during the 90s rave era. But New Beat really was all about that slowed-down beat and atmosphere, the evolution of New Wave and other non-vocalised instrumentals.

The common perception is that New Beat was gone just as quickly as it had come – what explains its rise and fall?

Belgium saw an impressive wave of New Beat take over in the short span between 1988 and 1989: I’ve calculated that around 2,000 tracks were released in those two years alone. That’s about three releases a day. People were constantly on the hunt for the hottest new record to play in clubs, looking to stay ahead of everyone else. Today, most people are only familiar with the more commercial output released after these two years, once big labels and marketeers jumped on the New Beat bandwagon – but that only amounts to 20% of all New Beat releases, at most; 80% still remains largely unknown. It snowballed into everybody wanting a taste of New Beat, trying their hand at producing, starting up labels, throwing events, designing clothes. And once New Beat reached its commercial peak, people quickly got bored with it. Though the spirit continued on of course, with the likes of Maurice “Praga Khan” Engelen’s Antler-Subway Records, for instance, and their evolved “heartbeat” sound.

I’m hoping that my collection will rightfully and adequately commemorate the memory of New Beat, and its short yet crucial legacy.

So your collection started with an innocent adolescent collection of records. What was, or is, your aim with your New Beat collection today then?

I was initially just curious to learn more about it. What is New Beat in the first place? I didn’t know. So, I wanted to collect and catalogue everything, all in Excel documents, from A to Z: listening to it, beat-marking it, screening the sleeves, finding out everything I could about the people behind the music. I like to think I have around 99% of all Belgian New Beat label catalogue releases out there – even if there is still plenty to discover. Every record would come with a vocal A-side, an instrumental B-side, and sometimes a dub version. The A-side was considered more commercial – and tends to be the most-known version – while DJs would spin either the instrumental or dub version in clubs. My collection’s not just limited to records though – I also look for fashion items, posters, you name it. For instance, I reached out to a former owner of a pin factory, and got her to send me all the smiley pins she had left – and since production stopped following an unfortunate fire, most of them have never even been revealed. I’ve also got a few hundred Belgian nightclub glasses, magazines and article-clippings, and kilos of clothing.

Thing is, New Beat was an all-encompassing subculture, spreading across north-western Europe and taking in not only music but also a crucial and strong visual identity. For example, it’s common to design and distribute promotional flyers for events and parties nowadays, but New Beaters were the ones to start this trend. All in all, I like to think of the collection as a sort of encyclopedia, a lifetime’s work that’s neverending. What I mean to say is, I’m hoping that my collection will rightfully and adequately commemorate the memory of New Beat, and its short yet crucial legacy. Belgium has sadly forgotten – deliberately or subconsciously, who knows – about New Beat. It almost feels like we were ashamed of New Beat and its ensuing commercialisation. And of course, I also want to make sure that the virus spreads to the rest of the world, not just remaining within Belgium. It’s exciting to be contacted by people from Mexico, Sweden and Argentina, looking to share their tracks both old and new. Like a couple years ago, someone made a New Beat track using samples from Obama’s inauguration speech. So that’s where my encyclopedic research comes in: leaving no rock unturned, I explore all of New Beat’s influences and avenues, from house, techno, New Wave, disco to avant-garde. Having said that, my collection has always been a highly personal, and rather private project. It’s quite the internal struggle, between keeping my collection to myself, and letting it go for the sake of the public. It would be nice to see it all go into some sort of museum, that would have the necessary resources to conserve everything appropriately. And I always greatly appreciate New Beat donations from a kind-hearted stranger!

What’s been the public response to your work?

People in Belgium were laughing at me. “What are you going to do with New Beat? Nobody’s into New Beat!” That’s all changed now, with all the renewed interest New Beat has been receiving, especially since this year marks its 30th anniversary. I’m increasingly being approached by producers, labels, clubs, media platforms and passionate fans to learn more about the phenomenon, study my collection, and share knowledge. Like Doctor Vinyl’s Geert Sermon, The Sound of Belgium’s Jozef DevilleRadio Soulwax, VRT’s Belpop New Beat. Or as of more recently, Kristof Vandenhende who’s just released a New Beat compilation and book. It’s gotten to a point where I couldn’t drop this collection now, even if I wanted to due to the sheer amount of people who contact me from around the world every day. But I still remain largely in the background.