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Zki and Dobre, Jark Prongo, The Good Men or just plain old Rene et Gaston; whatever you prefer to call the DJ and production duo most commonly hailed as Chocolate Puma, chances are you know them one way or another. Gaston Steenkist and René ter Horst are two of Holland’s most celebrated electronic producers and with a career spanning 20 years, 200-odd releases and countless remixes under their various guises are a duo whose influence on the European dance music scene cannot be underestimated.
Drawn together by a common appreciation house music movement of the early 90s, their career got off to a turbo-charged start with the release of what would become one of the defining records of their career. Recording under The Good Men the duo released what they hoped would be a popular club track, ‘Give It Up’ on their own Fresh Fruit label in 1992. The record surpassed all expectations, reaching #1 on the US Dance Chart and #5 in the UK Singles Chart when it was re-released a year later, propelling them to unexpected global stardom. Created on a small mixer and mixed on broken speakers in Gaston’s bedroom, ‘Give It Up’ remains a unique record that people still sample and play, and one about which they are extremely proud.
Making a hit record may have been the outcome, but it certainly wasn’t the intention. “We never set out to make hit records” states Gaston. “We don’t know how! We just know how to make dance records for clubs or festivals and we do that the best way we can. If a lot of people like it then that’s really cool, but a hit is never our goal.”
As if to drive that point home, Rene and Gaston embarked on a staggeringly diverse and accomplished string of releases, dabbling with house, techno and even breakbeat as the number of aliases they recorded under grew steadily in number. Arguably the best known of these early incarnations was Jark Prongo, the increased recent support for records like ‘Moving Thru Your System’ proving just how ahead of their time they were. Indeed, some of this “strange underground stuff”, despite only selling a couple of hundred copies when initially released has been picked up on and championed by some key players in the German techno scene in the last few years, something Gaston says was “a really cool feeling.”
While Gaston may have been a little young to play a part in Holland’s burgeoning acid house scene (“I used to DJ at my school parties and one day I decided to play this acid house track. I think everyone was quite surprised”), Rene was heavily involved , DJing at clubs in his hometown and hunting down the latest import for the UK. Although at the time, it was the done thing for a DJ to bring just a few of their own records with the clubs providing the majority of the wax; a strange proposition for the modern-day DJ for sure, and perhaps an early catalyst for the duo making the decision to play predominantly their own records and edits in their current DJ incarnation.
Like The Good Men, Chocolate Puma got off to a dream start with the release of ‘I Wanne Be U’; another ‘underground’ record that became a worldwide hit and reached #6 in the UK Singles chart, promting an appearance from the duo on Tops of the Pops. “We saw a lot of our own heroes there” says Rene, but despite the global platform they were happy to refuse the invitation to ‘perform’ the record. “We’re happy to get on a stage if it’s real” explains Gaston, “but we don’t want to get on a stage to fake something. Our singer did sing and had a mic so it was a live performance and we were okay with that. But pretending to play would be really awkward.”
It’s this down to earth, genuine attitude that has steadily built Chocolate Puma both a loyal legion of fans over the world and unparalleled respect among their peers. Head to see a Chocolate Puma DJ set and three quarters of the record you hear will be produced or remixed by them, with the rest of the set made up of personal edits of some of their favourite tracks.
Over the last few years, Chocolate Puma and leading house label Defected Records have enjoyed a close relationship, with the duo fast establishing themselves as key artists both in the studio and behind the decks. Records like ‘Morning Rain’, ‘Back Home’ and Beatport #1 ‘Tonco Tone’ as well as countless well-received remixes have placed Chocolate Puma in a league of their own, resulting in a dedicated House Masters compilation in 2011 showcasing the very best of their illustrious catalogue, an accolade they described as “a huge honour”.
Their latest project is an In The House mix for Defected, a compilation which represents the culmination of a life spent in and around house music. 2012 also saw a new collaboration between Chocolate Puma and countrymen Firebeatz on ‘One More Time’, a record that was duly awarded the accolade of Essential New tune by Radio 1’s erstwhile Pete Tong. Despite their obvious successes however, their approach to making music remains refreshingly straightforward, especially in a time when the amount of technology can often seem overwhelming and, more importantly, unnecessary. “Some producers focus solely on the sound quality or the effects” remarks Rene “but they forget that it also has to be musically interesting. It’s fine to have all the equipment but you still have to be creative.”
The simplicity of their own studio set up may surprise some, especially when you consider the thunderous bass and heavy drums with which the duo have made their name; according to Gaston it’s as simple as “have a computer with two speakers and a keyboard, logic and some plugins”, an almost incomprehensibly stripped-down approach considering the array of all-singing, all-dancing hard and software on offer. Listen closely to the music however and you’ll see that this simplicity translates to the finished product, from the clean, catchy hooks to the sharp percussion and strong vocal performances that define the Chocolate Puma sound.
Last year also saw the re-launch of their Pssst Music label, an outlet they are excited about focussing on more heavily in the future as a home for their more techno- orientated releases and saw the release of Pssst Assorti Vol.1 – a collection of some of the imprint’s finest moments to date and the first in a continuing series for the label.
With 2012 marking the 20th anniversary of the release of ‘Give It Up’, Rene and Gaston continue to stand for quality in a music scene littered with mediocrity, setting ever- higher standards for their own production and inspiring new generations of producers with every beat, bass thump and joyously raised hand. Chocolate Puma are a benchmark for excellence, hard-work and talent; long may they continue to fly the flag.
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