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A fresh spin on uplifting beats

As a dancer, Oliver Heldens seems to be the antithesis of what a DJ is expected to be: his awkward moves seem like a throwback to the 1980s, which is difficult to make sense of because he was born in 1995 and is arguably one of the most ­talented DJs and producers in the business.

“Yeah, I’m kind of aware of it,” he says of perceptions of his nerdy dance moves. “People tell me all the time. Most find it funny, so it usually works for me. But to be honest it doesn’t really matter to me. I just want to make music.”

A steely intro sets the tone on Heldens’s smash hit Gecko, peppered with a distant, wafting melody. His droopy hair hovers over the mixer as he constantly tweaks and tunes the sound. The build-up is constant and relentless, the riff speeds up, Heldens’s head begins bopping. An ominous pause follows, before a twist of distortion and … the drop. It’s always about the drop in the world of electronic dance music.

The bass bursts into Gecko as he proceeds to do some weird sidestep move while his elbows go the other way. Gecko is the world-renowned hit that launched Heldens into the big time and gave him the opportunity to play among his heroes, DJs such as Tiesto and Afrojack.

At 20, he is the newest wunderkind to come out of Holland. With global hits such as Koala and You Know, he has been described by British radio DJ Pete Tong as “one of the producers of the year”.

Heldens’s rise has been somewhat meteoric, but not unusual given the explosion on to the scene of Dutch DJ/producer Martin Garrix at the age of 17.

“When I went to high school parties, I was like 12 or 13. Some pretty cool DJs performed there like Hardwell” – a DJ who is considered one of the best in the world – “but he was not as big as he is now though. When I went to those parties I thought: ‘Yeah, this is what I really want to do.’”

Tiesto quickly signed Heldens up to his label and the nerdy kid from Rotterdam hit number one with Gecko, and debuted on DJ Mag’s Top 100 at number 34. Before long, he was a regular at the big dance festivals in Europe and the United States.

“It was definitely an epic journey. I’ve been performing at such amazing venues and festivals all over the world, so that is really cool. I’m still very happy and amazed by everything that happened.”

Heldens plays at the Ultra South Africa Music Festival that takes place on Friday and Saturday in Cape Town and Jo’burg respectively.

“I know a little bit about South Africa because the Dutch had kind of a big influence here in the past so we learnt about it in school,” he says.

Heldens’s brand of music has set him apart from the horde of superstar DJ/producers doing the rounds. It’s a lot deeper and more melodic, in contrast to the hard-edged, uncompromising anthems of some of his peers at Spinnin’ Records.

“I guess my music is really accessible. It’s not like you really have to be a fan of a specific genre to like it. I’m not sure why it works exactly, but it works,” he says.

“At the moment my sound is really groovy and a bit deep, but also really uplifting and danceable. I think the uplifting part makes my music different from others.”

Holland has a knack for producing some of the world’s best DJs, a phenomenon that has been well documented: Tiesto, Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, Hardwell and Martin Garrix, to name a few. Heldens offers a theory for why that is.

“People always say that the Dutch crowd is really picky and easily dissatisfied; people have to be really good to stand out there. That’s why a lot of producers and DJs get so good in the Netherlands.”

Ultra South Africa is expected to attract more than 40?000 hyperactive youngsters and its popularity matches any of its international iterations. The Ultra movement has touched Argentina, Japan, Spain, Brazil, Miami, Korea and Chile.

“People are pretty much the same [all over the world], they just come to the parties to let go and not care for a moment. Crowds are different though. For example, in the US people are much more wild with signs and big extravagant outfits while in the Netherlands people don’t really do that,” Heldens says.

This high-intensity environment is a tough ask for someone so early in their career, but Heldens is exuberant and has no worries about his ability to stay relevant in his 30s and 40s. “People are always surprised when they hear how old I am; somehow they have more respect for what you’re doing when they know you’re still very young. Another advantage is I can do this for a long, long time.
“The beauty of music production is that it’s constantly changing. There’s a new sound every now and then and you never know what it’s going to change into,” he says. “I’m just going to stick with my gut and make what I like most. I’ve got some really cool things ahead and the first thing coming out is my collaboration with Zeds Dead You Know.”

Heldens’s understated yet musically accomplished sets make him one of the acts to watch out for at Ultra this year.

Not bad for a skinny kid who can’t dance.

The Ultra Music Festival takes place on February 13 at the Cape Town Ostrich Ranch and on February 14 at the Nasrec Exhibition Centre in Johannesburg. Visit ultrasouthafrica.com

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Adrian Ephraim
Adrian Ephraim is a journalist and editor who has worked in print, radio and digital over the past 20 years – for The Star newspaper, IOL, Mail & Guardian and Eyewitness News. He has covered sport since 2005, when he won the SAB Newcomer of the Year Award. His work has focused on human interest stories in news and sport, and the triumph of hard work and determination over adversity.

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