The strangeness and postmodernist ideologies that exist within the Russian DJ and producers music makes him a symbolic reflection of the country’s contemporary electronica music scene.
“The Russian Prince of Techno…” Nikita Zabelin leans back in his chair and, proceeding with a short laugh, discusses the topic with a weight of solemnity upon his face. The music press inside and outside of his native Russia consistently refer to him by this title. Perhaps it would have made sense a decade ago when his primary musical practice was techno, dance and electronica. Things are different now, however. Besides, he does not mind the cliché. For him, the title is just a relic from the past, from his ever-evolving career and talent as a musician.
“I don’t take this thing seriously. I cannot say that I am kind of a ‘techno’ person,” he says. “The thing is, if it was not me, then it would be somebody else. So, I decided to be this person because I can be responsible for it. Being a ‘prince of techno’, I can still talk about all of these things, about postmodernism, about Deleuze, about Russian electronica and about music itself.”
The idea of Nikita Zabelin being a ‘Prince of Techno’ is somewhat strange. In truth, he is somewhat responsible for the growing national and international popularisation of the Russian electronica scene through his radio project, Resonance, along with his assistance in Nina Kraviz’s label, трип (Trip). Amidst all of this though, he has taken the roots of techno, bred it with electronica and unnatural ambience, and created something which sounds, well, Russian — perfectly encompassing the environment of its production.
Zabelin is from Ekaterinburg, which is approximately a 24-hour drive from Moscow, 30 hours from St Petersburg, and is also infamous in the west for being the city in which the Romanov dynasty met their end. And past the Ural Mountains that surround Ekaterinburg is what Zabelin describes as a “kind of endless landscape.”
How is it then, that for an artist so far away from Moscow and Petersburg — which are both considered the cultural centres of the nation — in a country where there is little funding for music and virtually none for that of the dance and electronic genre, grew to be so successful? Success stories like these do not usually occur, and though Zabelin prefers not to elaborate further, he highlights the importance of Moscow’s positioning as a pedestal for him, for Resonance and other artists.
“It is true, it is not easy,” he acknowledges. “I think that to build up your career you need to do something outstanding. I tried to move to Saint Petersburg, but it was not my city, and then I moved off to Moscow and within five years of being there I got almost everything that I had expected from the city.”
Moscow’s importance within the cultural sector has led to a national boom in the countries’ underground dance community, which has often been marred by police corruption, investigations and raids. In past interviews, Zabelin has often expressed that the community and the state could work together to understand each other.
Nevertheless, over Skype, he appeared somewhat saddened. He recognises the importance of the issue if Russia’s electronica community is to progress. When asked on whether Boiler Rooms’ recent documentary on the Russian underground dance community could help the state to understand the situation and improve on things, he disagrees.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “I think it’ll do the absolute opposite. I think the more we influence the culture, the more they will grow against this movement because as we evolve our thing, the more visible it will become. The thing with Boiler Room and with all the shutting down of clubs is… I don’t know, I thought we could find a way to discuss things.
“But recently, after all the things that had happened with IC3PEAK [a Russian electronica duo that was arrested in December last year] and then this idea to ban the internet, I decided to change my opinion on how to deal with the authorities.”
Nikita is situated in a hotel in Chisinau, Moldova at the time of the interview. Later on this evening, he will perform a mix before heading back to Moscow to work on his latest project, Tesla, which he simply describes as “Woah”. Prominent Rus artists quite often tour Europe, frequently stopping in Berlin, yet far fewer Russian artists are touring the UK compared to that of five to ten years ago.
Perhaps this is due to the recent sanctions that the United Kingdom have placed on the Kremlin, along with the price of visas to visit the UK getting higher and the chances of obtaining one getting increasingly difficult. Zabelin refers to an artist on трип from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Roma Zuckerman, as an example. Zuckerman had gotten the opportunity to play with his main influence, DJ Rush, in London, however, once the event was arranged, he had his visa rejected.
“There is no sign of warmer relationships between the west and the east and it is expensive to visit the UK,” summarises Nikita. “For me, it costs like 250 Euros and I need to have special documents, which artists don’t have because we don’t have jobs and don’t pay taxes. We just don’t exist, not officially.”
It is evident that Nikita Zabelin does not need the UK. He loves his country and has great pride in the nation’s electronica scene, he also recognises that things have improved tremendously since the nineties.
“People in Russia, they struggle in life. This is why I respect them, and this is what I like. I like to see the real problems of people and to see how they reflect them, how they still have this kindness to each other surrounded by all this mess. If everything is bad, we’re still smiling and having fun because that’s what we should do.”
Since moving from Ekaterinburg to Saint Petersburg, and then from moving Saint Petersburg to Moscow, where Resonance led him to international success, his own compositions have evolved immensely.
Likewise, Rhizome, a dark experimental ambient project of Zabelin’s that sought to abandon traditional songwriting by recreating environments with different frequencies, has begun to take over the sound of releases that belong to his name. ‘Trans-Siberian Express’ is an excellent example, especially when compared to that of 2009’s ‘Malaysia’. Clear distancing from the techno-dance genre is evident through the emphasis on ambient tones; ‘Pluton’, the second track on ‘TSE’ exemplifies this change.
This musical evolution of Nikita Zabelin has culminated in the ‘Tesla Project’ — a design that sees Zabelin manipulate Tesla machines to create music, thus forcing them into the role of oscillators and, presumably, patching them through various filters to create abstract sounds. ‘Tesla’ oozes with the concept of postmodernism; the removal of boundaries and genre definitions and absurd narratives have taken the Russian cultural scene by storm over the past few decades.
Evidently, Zabelin is excited about the project. He states how lucky he was to obtain a Tesla machine when he found out Moscow was one of only three cities in the world to produce them and refers to the motives of the project “future paganism” and “cyberpunk”, whilst also talking of its potential to create a “primitive collective experience”.
“This is a concept, this is not music,” he says. “This is more about how I see things in the world now, and this is more to observe cyberspace because I understand that now we live in this virtual reality in which we’re like primitives. We’re just going from one site to another, trying to fight each other with comments. And now, these conquistadors have come with guns, the government, they’re trying to ban the internet.”
Zabelin and his many projects are, for the most part, a product of their environment, each with a postmodern twist. And his latest commitment, Tesla, is more of a self-deprecating yet serious postmodernist twist on this environment; it is a somewhat testament to the evolution of his own personality and music.
“For me, right now, Tesla is the main thing,” concludes Zabelin. “It has become kind of an effigy, you know, because I was the ‘Techno Prince’, because I got this kind of avant-garde idea about Rhizome, and I had my bands and I played rock music, I now see Tesla as a really new level. I can combine all the ideas, all my experience, to put it into this.”