Barry Nicolson heads to Brazil for some gold medal partying with Netsky, whose track ‘Rio’ soundtracked the BBC’s Olympics coverage
This has to be one of the most stunning cities in the world,” marvels Boris Daenen as our cable-car trundles towards the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain and the iconic Art Deco figure of Christ the Redeemer is glimpsed rising majestically above the clouds on the other side of Rio de Janeiro. The statue is visible only for a few seconds, scarcely long enough to adjust the focus on your iPhone for a half-decent photographic keepsake, but much like watching Usain Bolt leave lesser mortals trailing in his wake, it’s a moment of awe worth travelling halfway around the world for.
You might not recognise Boris Daenen, AKA Belgian drum & bass prodigy Netsky, but if you caught any of the BBC’s Olympics coverage, you’ll almost certainly recognise his latest single ‘Rio’, the Macklemore-featuring track used to soundtrack the daily highlights round-up. Daenen swears he didn’t write ‘Rio’ with the Olympics in mind – he insists, not altogether convincingly, that it was mere coincidence – but since its initial release last year, the song has taken on a life of its own, landing him the role of Belgium’s musical ambassador to the games and ultimately bringing him to the Cidade Maravilhosa – the Marvellous City – itself.
“It started off with the Belgian Olympic Committee looking for a song for their TV advert, but it’s turned into something much bigger,” he explains. “They opened an Olympic House in Belgium, where they streamed all the games and where I DJ’d at a few parties. I also spent four days at the training camp in Lanzarote doing swimming, judo, table-tennis, badminton, mountain-biking and sprinting with the best from Belgium. When you spend time with athletes who haven’t drunk alcohol for six years, when you see the level of dedication they have for their sport, and when you think that some of them will be going back to a normal nine-to-five job once these games are over… it kind of embarrasses you as a human being.”
Daenen isn’t that sporty (although he was a decent table-tennis player in his youth), but he’s full of respect for the sacrifices these athletes make. Are there any parallels between the discipline of an athlete and the discipline of making music?
“There probably are some, but in my job I can shut off for four days if I want to. I can have a drink and not ruin my body. I can have a bad night and it’s OK. With these guys, it’s completely different. Like today, when we were at the Olympic Stadium, we saw this poor Puerto Rican guy get disqualified from the 400m hurdles for a false start. I was getting emotional just watching him. He’d spent years training for that moment and his dream was shattered in a millisecond.”
Later that night, Team Belgium’s musical ambassador holds court at his embassy the Casa Mosquito, a plush boutique hotel whose rooftop terrace has been fashioned into a makeshift dancefloor. Daenen is DJing at Team Belgium’s send-off party, capping their most successful games in 20 years, and despite an ill-timed downpour the mood is jubilant, with caipirinhas flowing freely and the president of the Olympic Committee throwing himself fully clothed into the hotel pool. As the evening goes on, we come to discover something important about Netsky: if partying were an Olympic sport, he’d be on the podium every time. His night finally comes to a close around 5am, when he wanders into a random hotel on the Copacabana – via an even more random nightclub spinning trap remixes of Bryan Adams songs – only to be informed that all the bars are closed. By that point, he’s been awake for 24 hours.
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Daenen’s real discipline, however, isn’t partying but production. With his parents’ blessing, he dropped out of university in his second year – after writing an entire album on his headphones during class – and soon landed a deal at Hospital Records, the seminal London-based drum & bass label that released his first two albums, 2010’s ‘Netsky’ and 2012’s ‘2’. Those records made him one of the stars of the genre’s resurgence, but as he explains: “It was starting to feel a bit narrow for me. I wanted to experiment with other genres, work with other musicians, and that wasn’t working out for me at Hospital. I’ve still got a deep love for the label and the guys who run it, but I wanted to go broader and wider. It’s too easy to stay in that scene, making the same music, pleasing the same fans.”
In 2014, he signed a deal with Sony, the first fruits of which – the imaginatively-titled ‘3’ – were released in June 2016. The album – featuring Emeli Sandé, Jauz and Chromeo – is his poppiest to date, but also arguably his best and most cohesive. Inevitably, it’s proved controversial with D&B diehards.
“I get the most grief of anyone in the drum & bass scene,” he groans. “Among the old-skool fans, I’m the traitor who moved into a bigger genre. I guess I felt that way, too, when I was younger: for the real purists, it’s something that’s a part of their identity and they don’t like it when it becomes popular.”
The ubiquity of ‘Rio’ probably won’t do him any favours with those purists, but Daenen isn’t about to lose any sleep over it. “The guy I wrote ‘Rio’ with, Digital Farm Animals, has the same mindset as me when it comes to songwriting: we both like to write poppy, positive music. That’s what I want to do as a DJ. I’m nota poet; I’m not going to change the world with lyrics. I’m just here to make people smile.” Clearly, he’s come to the right place for that.