Interview: Dirty McKenzie [Bass United]

Dory Kahale AKA Dirty McKenzie, is the Beirut native who grew up in West Berlin and now resides in Minneapolis, USA. As if that weren’t a colourful enough description, his alias was inspired by a ‘Scottish version’ of his own name. As you’d imagine from the latter description, his music’s not lacking in diversity either.

Since 2001, he’s helmed the Bass United imprint, a medium for whatever genre takes his fancy, with everything from house to disco to ghetto-inspired music getting an airing on the label. His latest release is the Butterfly EP, a downright, ahem, ‘dirty’ track inspired by an old Paul Johnson record on the classic Dance Mania imprint. We called up Minneapolis recently to get an insight into a story that’s every bit as captivating as the music…

HMWL:  First off, I wanted to ask about your Dirty McKenzie alias. What’s the thinking behind that one and how did it come about?

It’s one of a dozen aliases I have. In 2001, I worked at an advertising agency and one of my coworkers was giving out Scottish versions of everyone’s names just for fun and mine was Dirty McKenzie because it sounded close to Dory Kahale. I disagreed but kept the name in a vault somewhere in my head.

HMWL:  About your upbringing. You’re from Beirut, Lebanon, but when did you move to the U.S? What prompted the move?

I grew up in West Berlin from when I was 1-10 years old while my father was a fugitive of Lebanon during the 1970’s. During the Lebanese civil war, he was cleared and we moved back to Beirut in 1981 just in time as we were having immigration problems in Germany. That was a very dangerous time to be living in Beirut and we spent many nights sitting in makeshift bunkers in the center of our apartment building. We had to get the hell out of there and I had an uncle that lived in the US, so in 1983 we were able to emigrate to the US under political asylum because of my family ties with government in Lebanon. My uncle (father’s brother) is currently Mayor of Sin El Fil, which is a borough in Beirut.

HMWL:  Do you remember Beirut as a kid, then? Have you ever played there? If so, how was it? Is electronic music popular over there?

I love Beirut. I haven’t been there since 2009 but I’m planning a trip there very soon. My father lives there now. I don’t know of any producers in Beirut but I do know that it’s a huge party city and that they dig Nu Disco and House music. I’m friends with Gigamesh who’s also from Minneapolis. He was a guest at a weekly event called “Decks On The Beach” in Beirut and he said people were very cool and into it. Dustin Zahn told me he was also offered a gig there recently.

HMWL:  And when did you actually first encounter electronic music? Did it make an impression with you right from the off?

I grew up in West Berlin during the rise of Kraftwerk. I remember hearing “We Are The Robots” (“Wir Sind Die Roboter”) when I was six years old and I immediately thought it was the coolest thing in the world. After that, there was Visage, Depeche Mode, Giorgio Moroder. That stuff was constantly being played on the radio. As far as I was concerned that was the only music that existed besides Disco and my mom’s classic Lebanese music collection.

HMWL:  And what led to you DJing and producing music? Were there many gigs in your hometown of Minneapolis that greatly influenced you?

I started DJing in 1989 and was one of the first few rave DJs in Minneapolis. I started out liking club music and remixes but as my record collection grew, I naturally got into more imports and underground music, which led me to some German techno and various European underground rave 12”s. My first official rave/warehouse party that I played at was in 1992 and Minneapolis didn’t really have a strong identity as far as underground dance music production was concerned. However, by 1993 the city went along with everything that was coming out of Detroit and Chicago. There was a lot of “Midwest Pride” talk. We hated the west and east coasts as far as dance music was concerned. I was making acid techno under the alias, DJ Apollo. I got to be close friends with Woody McBride and signed to his Communique stable of labels in 1994. A handful of us would regularly release music on the label and there was a healthy level of competition between us to make our next release cooler than the other persons. There was an actual “Minneapolis” sound for a couple of years.

HMWL:  Has EDM taken a stranglehold on a lot of the Minneapolis clubs like it seems to have in other parts of the U.S?

Some of the the more recognized artists coming out of the Minneapolis Dance scene right now are Gigamesh and DVS1. I met Gigamesh (Matt Masurka) a couple of years ago when he started making a name for himself making remixes for major label artists. Now he’s putting music out on Kitsuné. DVS1 (Zak Khutoretsky) has been a personal friend of mine for twenty years. He’s been making his mark in the techno world alongside Ben Klock for the last couple of years and I’m really proud of him. There’s also ESTATE who was signed briefly to Mullet Records producing Nu Disco songs. I released an EP for them on my label with a DCUP remix among others. Dustin Zahn started out here in Minneapolis and now lives in Berlin. As far as the local scene is concerned, I don’t get involved much anymore but I know there are producers doing really cool music and just not getting much support. I would say most of the clubs are doing the EDM thing although I admit I don’t go downtown much. I have a regular gig at a pub called Clubhouse Yäger just outside of downtown Minneapolis, which I’ve had since 2006 and I haven’t left. It has a nice little dancefloor and some lights and a loud soundsystem. I like the small venues and the small crowds. Also, I get to play whatever I want. I mean I throw on Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and the crowd goes nuts. I don’t know that I can do that at a gig downtown and get away with it.

HMWL:  Are you noticing that there’s a whole new generation of people more interested in ‘underground’ sounds these days, then?

I do. I’m not sure that ever stopped, though. The term seems to mean so many things right now. I think there’s a certain amount of fighting back construction kit music right now. 909’s and other pattern based instruments where you turn a pattern on or off every 4-8 bars seem to be making a little bit of a comeback right now. However, that might just be what I like… plus these also may have been made with construction kits!

HMWL:  Talk us through your label, Bass United. What was the thinking behind the name? Are you heavily interested in bass music too?

Bass United was conceived in 2001 when I started putting together small events with various local artists and DJs from different music scenes on one stage. The music scene in Minneapolis has always been really big but very segregated by music genre. I really liked the live/organic aspect that a lot of experimental electronic artists were doing at the time mixing laptops with vocals and keys/drums, etc. I also liked a lot of the techno and house musicians. I thought it would be cool to bring everyone together under one roof. That’s where the name came from…“united”. Eventually, when I decided to start a label, I didn’t need to come up with a name because I already had one. I do like bass music but that’s not tied to the name.

HMWL:  What are the biggest challenges facing a label owner today in your opinion? And have you worked with other labels in the past?

There are all kinds of challenges that label owners deal with but one of the big ones is the obvious challenge of making a release visible. If the stores that release your music don’t like what you’re doing, the releases won’t get featured anywhere on the site and it will go unnoticed. I have a great relationship with TraxSource who feature all of the labels releases. Those cats in Florida seem to have my back with every release. They LOVE underground music and they give me personal props every time. Juno Download is on to me as well. I haven’t been able to develop much communication with Beatport yet but I’ll keep trying.

HMWL: What’s your main goal with the label? To shift units or to gain recognition for putting out music you love?

The most realistic and attainable goal for a label owner or artist is to be recognized for the work being released and hopefully get hired to work on other platforms such as DJ gigs, production work/licensing for TV or film, or remixing. Tons of units moving would be a nice sign that I’m heading in the right direction but it’s not imperative. I don’t expect to make money on any given release based on downloads.

HMWL:  Your latest EP, Butterfly, is doing really well. I believe it’s inspired by an old Dance Mania track. What is it about that label that so appeals to you? And at what stage did you realize it’d be a cool idea to use Paul Johnson’s famous lyrics?

I was a big fan of Dance Mania in the early and mid 90s. I played under a secret alias of Ralph Laurenn where I played only Chicago Ghetto House. People would go nuts at every set. Kids dancing like mad to tracks that were mastered onto consumer quality cassette tape and made on some of the cheapest crappiest music instruments available. I honed my small room DJ sets during that era. The PJ track was just one of the many signature tracks I’d play at house parties. Techno sounded terrible on small sound systems and Dance Mania records were practically made for living room dancing. I remember playing house parties in the deep freeze of Minneapolis January’s where a living room with its ceiling light ON would be shoulder to shoulder packed with 50-70 kids going ape-shit over music that has nothing but a 909 and a dirty vocal hook sample in it. Steam dripping from the windows and walls. I just really fucking miss that.

HMWL:  Have you sent the track to Paul and the guys at Dance Mania yet, then? What did they make of it?

I sent it to Paul and he loved it. I had never spoken to him before and he said incredibly nice things about it. He likes the Jenny Lovlein vocal mix the best.

HMWL:  You also remixed Giorgio Moroder and Arcade fire too. Are you more comfortable remixing than producing your own stuff then?

I don’t know if I prefer one over the other. Remixing is fun and satisfying to make if one is needed but there’s nothing like starting a track from scratch and ending with a banger.

HMWL:  Do sounds of a certain age really influence you then? What’s your take on where electronic music is at the moment?

I really do love so much music. I know I really like a song or track if I wish I had created it. My influences range from A-Z. Jazz, Rock, Country, R&B, Hip Hop, Techno, House, Drum and Bass, whatever. One of the 303 lines from my big Acid banger in 1996 “B True 2 Your School” (DJ Apollo – Communique Records) was inspired by a guitar riff in a Primus song called “Big Brown Beaver”. It’s a direct lift. Compare them, you’ll hear it!

HMWL:  And what’s next for Dirty McKenzie and Bass United?

For Dirty McKenzie, I plan on continuing to make more banging house tracks for now. I’m planning on a DJ tour this spring which will include a date in the motherland of Lebanon. As far as Bass United Recordings goes, I’m going to keep letting it morph into whatever feels most natural.

About Alex Esser:

DJ, surfer and entrepreneur residing in Malmö, Sweden. HMWL label daddy. My music network is always open. Holler at