“Mentasm” – Tracking Beltram’s production and the aesthetics of the mix


Stan Hawkins, University of Oslo

The genesis of this paper stretches back one year to an article I worked on that dealt with music and temporality. For the purposes of that study, which used dance music as its focal point, I happened to stumble across the exciting productions of the NY DJ producer, Joey Beltram. During the weeks and months that followed, I agonized over questions that had to do with temporality and the body with the sound of Beltram ‘mentasm-riff’ in my head.

In this paper I want to consider the primacy of the producer as a creative catalyser. A main trajectory here involves a critical evaluation of the producer in a space where sonic details are realised and flaunted. When we respond to recorded sound, we access an imaginary world of social structures and musical practices that narrate the tastes of people and the ways in which music is experienced.

Joey Beltram

My example is the pioneering hardcore track, ”Mentasm,” which hit the dance scene in 1991, produced by Joey Beltram, with Mundo Muzique. Born in 1971 in NY, Beltram grew up in Queens, the son of a Mexican father and an Italian mother. In a tough neighbourhood, he soon gained the necessary ‘street cred’ through his graffiti art and belonged to a generation of kids whose graffiti in the New York subways showed obvious traces of their social and political sentiments. Interestingly, Beltram’s pseudonym, ”poes” can still be found under numerous awesome, colourful pieces of graffiti.

At the age of twelve, in 1983, Beltram took to his musical instrument, the turntable, for the first time, and five years later recorded his first maxi single for Nu Groove in New York. A batch of releases followed for Atmosphere Records and Easy Street, NY and Trax Records in Chicago, under the project name Cold Six. It was the release of “Forgotten Moments” in1989,  Beltram’s first official EP, that established contact with the Belgian label R&S Records, which ended up signing him to a recording contract.

Towards the end of 1989 Beltram went to Gent in Belgium as the first American DJ to work there for a longer period. His cooperation with Mundo Muzique as “Second Phase” resulted in the productions, “Vortex” and “Mentasm,” with his worldwide breakthrough coming at the time of the release of “Energy Flash” in 1990. This Techno classic succeeded in getting the new club generation onto dance floors in no time at all. But it was the album “Beltram Vol. 1” (1991) that helped to push the Techno revolution forward, and eliminated any of the early doubts that perhaps he was only a short-lived, one-hit phenomenon.

While DJ-ing for big gigs in Holland, Germany, the UK and Belgium, Beltram became well known on the European circuit for his new sound. In various interviews, he puts his success down to his fans, insisting that Belgians were the first people who could relate to him, claiming that Belgium was a sophisticated country. Notably, Beltram’s music entered the Belgian scene on the start of the wave of the New Beat craze that provided Belgians with a one off chance to break into the Anglo-American market.

The track, "Mentasm," a classic of "hoover"-style techno, so-named for its blaring, vacuum-cleaner synth noises, was embraced by Belgian techno/hardbeat fans and DJs alike, catapulting Beltram to widespread acclaim. It is worth adding that although Beltram remains best known for his techno work, he has, by no means, confined himself to that style.  
Sound object: a question of the primary text
When it comes to the question of working out the music and production of this track, certain issues surface that are of musicological interest. For instance, the primacy of the recording as text and the range of compositional techniques used through sampling, mixing, and choice of sounds, need to be considered as dependent on cultural and technological factors. In turn, this necessarily implies some conceptualisation of how style in functions within dance genres.

In the early 1990s, "Mentasm" became iconic within dance culture, as it was the track that gave birth to the "mentasm riff" — a churning, dirge-like sound that wormed its way into techno's communal body, which has since mutated itself into literally thousands of records. Beltram and the "mentasm riff" became synonymous with the Belgian techno scene. For many this surpassed “Energy Flash,” mainly due to its ‘mentasm’ or ‘hoover sound’. As a preset on the Roland Juno Alpha synthesiser, this thrilling sound was seismic and utterly psycho for its time – a steaming, industrial jerky rupture propelled by a pounding kick drum and distorted, snaking around sub-bass line. In addition, Beltram’s control of this sample within his mix, alongside stripped down beat riffs, helped customize the rhetoric of a new style.

In a production where the hi-hats and noisy snares are replaced by occasional, sharp handclaps on the second and fourth beats, the impact of the aggressive mentasm drone dominates everything. With its aesthetic deeply rooted in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, Beltram’s classic "hoover"-style helped shape a new direction of hardcore on the European continent. Indeed, the flavour of the mix, a harsh engine-like grind, something halfway between a synth riff and a turbo-charged snow scooter, includes a sound that mutates into countless spaces and styles. In its initial inception, hardcore covered many stylistic tendencies between 1989 and 1993 as it spread through Europe and permeated the underground rave circuit.

There is no doubt that Beltram's musical inspiration is derived from his infatuation with Detroit techno and Chicago house music. The raw, electro-driven beats and kinetic energy of the 1980s sound of artists, like Chip-E and Adonis, got him to begin producing his own tracks. Hardcore, often referred to as Ardkore (mostly by people who were ‘there’ (or who at least ‘claim’ to have been there,)) was all about the experience of the rave, with sirens and whistles and the Mentasm stab.

Creative Evaluations
Today, "Mentasm" is considered the original hoover record and is probably the most sampled record in the history of dance music. Surrounding the hype of "Mentasm" is an abundance of opinions, feelings, and judgments that can tell us much about production and sound. Which leads us directly to the question of creativity and the aesthetics of production. The dominating characteristic of the production is its hoover-sound, and how this is processes, manipulated, and arranged in a mix that consists of many repetitive drum patterns, and a very sluggish bass line. How the producer adopted this sound, and intensified it has led to an astonishing amount of discussion during the past 12 years. Consider the following comments by two young producers published on a recent website called V-Line, almost 15 years after the track came out:

” and a buddy were talking about that "what the" preset on the juno alpha 1, it was used in Joey Beltrams 'Mentasm' track

from my understanding its basicaly two square waves pulse width modulated, i do not know how to make this with the v-synth. I heard the reason why the alpha could do it so well was it had a very fast lfo and a very wide pulse width.

CAN SOMONE PLEASE HELP ME create this sound on the v-synth? here is a sample:

reply: Artemio/14 August 2005    

Oh, yeah, I love this sound. It has been used on so many breakbeat and hardcore tracks in the 1990s.

From such discussions there is much to be learnt from the mentasm sound. I would suggest that the responses form part of a much more complex argument. In order to understand the significance of these and many other responses that take place by the minute in cyberspace, I would suggest that sound, as a phenomenological entity, is central to understanding the aesthetics of production. The point worth stressing is that sound objects always have specific aesthetic and ideological associations.

From this, two conclusions can be reached that concern style, aesthetics, and creativity. First, conceptions of authorship depend on the generative power of conceiving new sounds, styles, or techniques. We can hear this in Beltram’s track, stylistically, as hardcore takes over from house and techno. A lot defines the style of hardcore other than the musical characteristics alone as the performance rituals of the DJ are intimately associated with a whole range of qualities that relate to identity in space and place.

Second, musical sound does matter as it idealizes the space it inhabits. This opens up the question of authenticity and the virtual impossibility of locating any authentic site to guide musical interpretation. Indeed, sampling a sound from a Juno synthesizer, and taking one’s inspiration from this sound alone, and then transforming it into a dance track, is a matter of creativity that can be linked to authenticity. However, as Simon Frith argues, authenticity is not just a quality of the music itself but more “of the story it is heard to tell, the narrative of musical interaction in which the listeners place themselves.”  

So, in dance productions sampled statements become narratives that reveal the relationship between producer and technology. Why Joey Beltram’s tracks are regarded as an innovative force within hardcore obviously has to do with questions of personal preference. As a New Yorker, Beltram has claimed that he is not part of the New York scene: ”...with my productions I have to have my own sound”. His tracks present what he sees, whatever is running through his mind, and moreover performance practices that extend over boundaries.

Let’s say that his productions articulate a musical identity that ritualises a social reality. Most of all, his mentasm riff demonstrates how the producer authors space and tells stories about the dance space, and, moreover, how dance styles can contribute to a particular sense of identity. This leads me to conclude that the producer’s technological innovation is about technological quotation, something that is ordinary at the same time it is exceptional in all sorts of compelling ways.