Chatting to Skrufff last month, underground techno producer and one-time US Marine Abe Duque was decidedly blasé about being arrested with his Rambo style army issue hunting knife at JFK Airport, though emailing this week, revealed his optimism was justified.
“I won my court case. I was acquitted of all charges, because of the improper handling of evidence on the police officer’s side,” said Abe.
“They screwed up the chain of custody of the knife and with no knife in evidence the judge had to dismiss the case. I went on a serious bender after I won,” he laughed.
As a teenager growing up in Jamaica, Queens he was first arrested and fined for ‘criminal mischief and vandalism’ aged 14 after being caught writing graffiti, with street gangs another issue he had to cope with at the time.
“Gang violence was inescapable at that time. Either you knew how to deal with that situation or you were in a lot of trouble,” he recalls.
Though the gangs were more important in the 70s, with gangs such as the Latin Kings. In the 80s they started to become crews and became more about artistic expression, such as graffiti and break dancing,” he adds
“Which sounds kinda gay if you think about it,” he chuckles. ‘Oh, we’ve got problems, let’s dance it off’. But that’s actually what happened and break dancing was taken really seriously at the time. So I was lucky that the violence wasn’t so bad. I remember hearing from older generations of rumbles, involving sticks and chains. No knives. I didn’t really face that, though I did face a lot of violence. New York in the 80s was a very different place to how it is now. You were afraid to be on the train after 9pm at night, you were afraid to be in certain neighbourhoods if you were a certain colour.”
Leaving New York to join the US Marine Corps in 1986, he was also lucky to leave the army just as the US invaded Iraq for the first time in 1990.”
I was getting out the same month it was happening. So the same month I was signing out, all my friends were packing up to go. I was like ‘see you later, guys, have a good time’ (laughing dryly). I missed it, yeah.”
Instead, he concentrated on establishing himself on the global DJ circuit, becoming a leading light on Germany’s then nascent techno scene releasing tracks on then uber cool label Disko-B.
“In the mid 90s I had a nice little run. I was signed to a label in Germany and released three albums which did quite well- I toured Germany a lot,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t say I was a rich, rich man but I was making enough money to live OK. Money wasn’t the first thing on my mind.”
However, by the end of the decade his fortunes changed dramatically as, in the post Michael Alig relatively austere era, he increasingly struggled to find gigs.
“I actually took on a regular job, I was always good with my hands so I took a job as a carpenter/ finisher for a company that was servicing the offices of (investment bank) JP Morgan,” he recalls.
“I was finishing CEOs’ and other bankers’ desks while they were cooking up the economic trouble we’re in now. That was actually a very well paid job compared to what I was making in clubs and music. So that pulled me out of the hole for a bit but I remember standing in an elevator one day just thinking ‘I’m bored to hell, I’ve got to get out of here’.
So I convinced my wife to try music for one more year. This was in 2000. I asked her to give me another chance and said if it doesn’t work I’ll quit this path forever, if it does then let’s see where it goes. And it worked. I gave it everything I had.”
9 years on, he’s back near the top of the techno tree, touring the world’s bigger techno stages where he’s performing tracks off his new album ‘Don’t Be So Mean’. Always a fan of punchy titles (previous efforts include 2005 album ‘So Underground it Hurts’ and 90s single ‘Champagne Days, Cocaine Nights’, he’s refreshingly no nonsense and direct, qualities he admits have more than likely been ingrained from his military training.
“You might not like the military for political reasons, such as the killing that’s involved but there’s a certain purity about the mentality of being a soldier,” he suggests, “I still think there is something honourable in that one little aspect of it.”
“And the training they put you through, especially in the Marine Corps, is extremely severe. It’s basically intended to break you so they can build you back up again in their mould, but when you’re a young person and you’re pushed to the extremes of your psyche and mind and body then you find out your limits and what you are capable of. You’re allowed to grow in a way that you wouldn’t if you were just hanging round your parents house watching TV, getting high in the basement.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): Why did you join the Marines, what was your mindset when you did that?
Abe Duque: “I have to be honest, I was a poor kid and it was a way out. In the States you have to pay for your university and it was virtually impossible to do it if you didn’t have any money. So I took advantage of what is called a GI Bill where they pay for your college. That’s how they get you, and they still get you like that. It’s sad that they lure kids in, with the promise of a future like that.”
Skrufff: Did you leave the Marines with an ultra-disciplined attitude of ‘now I’m going to be a DJ and apply myself with total focus?’
Abe Duque: “I didn’t think of it that way consciously but the training and attitude was with me and it’s still with me today. A friend of mine today often tells me when I’m dealing with situations that I handle them in a certain way because I went to boot camp. I find that I’m resilient. Maybe I would have been anyway but I do notice situations sometimes where my friends freak out and lose it that I have a certain level headed way of dealing with it.”
Skrufff: Your biog talks of you being extremely broke and poor in the early 90s . . .
Abe Duque: “That was more the late 90s, in the mid 90s I had a nice little run. I was signed to a label in Germany and released three albums which did quite well- I toured Germany a lot. I wouldn’t say I was a rich, rich man but I was making enough money to live OK. Money wasn’t the first thing on my mind.”
Skrufff: How did it change from comfortable to tough, did your bookings suddenly dry up?
Abe Duque: “Yeah, exactly, I stopped getting booked plus there was no hype on my name. So I started concentrating more on doing parties in New York but you know how that is. You’re always dreaming of that big payoff but it never comes. You work your ass off, you’re in clubs every single day but nothing ever comes off. So I had to give that up. The club owner made money but never the guy doing the party.”
Skrufff: You were hanging out with Michael Alig, one of your songs is called Champagne Nights, Cocaine Days’. . .
Abe Duque: “Yes, you could call those days like that.”
Skrufff: Ketamine was also a big drug on that scene. . .
Abe Duque: “I never really got into those harder drugs, I’m not an angel but I was lucky not to develop any of the serious addictions that many people on that scene developed. First there was ecstasy, then heroin was the next big trendy drug, then K (ketamine) was the big thing. And these days I guess it’s coke. I’ve seen it all.”
Skrufff: Did you have any freaky dressing phases?
Abe Duque: “No, I was more the music producer- slash DJ- slash in-the-office guy.”
Skrufff: How did your breaks come when you decided to quit your carpenter job and return to DJing and making music full time?
Abe Duque: “Mostly through production. I seriously think I did it all through the studio. I started a label where I decided to use no artwork, and etched in the details. Then I’d make records and not give them to anybody. I’d not even tell DJ friends I was making tracks, I just put them out. It worked, because people started to notice them. Plus I got lucky a couple of times.
Firstly, Sven Vath found one of the tracks and he charted it and that provided enough promotion in itself. That started the hype coming, then around release number 5 or 6, DJ Hell asked me to produce his album in New York. And that made a huge difference. Hell was at the centre of the universe at that point and once he started working with me everybody else was suddenly interested. I had the Pet Shop Boys phoning me up and asking me to produce their album. Though in the end it didn’t work out. I did a couple of remixes for them.”
Abe Duque’s new album Don’t Be So Mean is out now: http://www.trackitdown.net/artist/100655/abe-duque.html
Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)