Brenk, born Branko, was born and raised in Vienna. His mother was a salaried employee, his father a truck driver. Not a typical environment to become a musician, but from an early age he was fascinated by music and its rhythm. Today, when I ask him what exactly fascinated him, he explains:
“There were certain moments on records that I’m better able to explain now. Back then it was just a feeling. It’s when certain harmonies or voices fit perfectly together for seven or eight seconds. Listen to Liberian Girl, by Michael Jackson together with Quincy Jones, both in their top form. The way he sings and the way Quincy brings in the choir at the end: it’s incredible.
At that time I wasn’t able to describe it, but I got a great feeling from it. That's what I used to chase. Where I found this feeling, I stuck to it.”
At the end of the 80’s he heard the first rappers laying down their disjointed verses over 120 BPM dancefloor beats. This was a complete new territory for him “Nobody knew what rap was, at least in my environment.”
A few years later he bought his first hip hop records from his tediously saved up money (Ice Cube: Lethal Injection) and began his long journey with rap music.
“Today, I laugh about it but for the first few years I was very attached to rap music… no, that doesn’t even come close. To put it another way: I was crazy for it. At that time, I hated every other musical genre. The music and the lyrics were a fusion that provoked something in me every time.”
Like punk in the 70’s, rap music originally was the music of underdogs.
There was violence in the lyrics, the rappers posed with weapons and dressed in baggy, oversized street clothes, and the media was biased in their coverage.
For a 15-year-old kid it provided enough depth for its own identification.
While others were listening to DJ Bobo or Hardcore Techno, Brenk was playing records from the West Coast over and over again.
About the same time the East Coast/West Coast feud between Bad Boy Entertainment on the one side and Death Row Records on the other escalated with the deaths of 2pac and Notorious B. I. G. .
“When this whole thing happened, we were rooting for the West Coast. I remember that we went to the park and burned newly bought and expensive Biggie records, pissed on them and danced around the fire like some devil worshippers. Of course, now I think ‘what were we thinking?’ but explain this to 15-year-old who takes it all too seriously.“
Brenk wanted to make music himself and to learn why a beat sounds like it does, so he delved deeper into the matter.
It was the end of the 90’s and in Vienna there was only one producer who made music on a level that would inspire Brenk to buy a record from him:
Saiko had already worked with a handful of rappers and had released some tracks on vinyl; he became Brenk’s mentor.
With the same passion he had as a fan, Brenk began making beats. Like an obsessed top athlete he trained every day. The first step was to push some buttons and to figure out which one makes which sound. The next challenge was to develop his own sound. Through the analysis of his favourite beats he gathered more and more components. Especially at that time, rap-music was full of samples. Producers reused a portion or sample of a sound in another recording.
Of course the sound of the West Coast had a great impact on him, but through his opening to other musical styles he was able to add more and more different elements.
From Soul music (“when you’re listening to a good Soul record you can hear harmonies that make you cry in heartache”), to jazz (“I never got into jazz the same way I did with soul “) to Krautrock. “Before I started to sample Krautrock records, I loved listening to them, because they were unpredictable. When you listen to a three-minute soul song, you know after about ten seconds what to expect. Listening to a Krautrock record, there’s no chance to know. Next thing you hear are some flutes, then there’s a double bass or a synthesizer and the singer begins to sing about his mother. You don’t know what comes next. It’s a very creative style of music and I think that’s what appealed to me as a producer. “
Even though money, success and above all, the way to achieve this dominates rap lyrics, none of it was the motivation for Brenk to make music.
“My drive didn’t come from money or success, I just wanted to make music. When I started, the thought of making money just with beats was crazy. It was more likely that I become a wildlife manager in a rhino enclosure in Africa than making a living out of music.”
Today, even in the face of the increasing popularity of rap, there are only a handful of artists in Austria who can earn their keep with their music. Brenk is one of them.
Early on, it was his calling to make beats, and in the last five years it’s also been his job.
“It was always my life’s key component. I went to work, even though I had made beats until four in the morning, but when I came home from work I continued where I had left off the night before. I got my dark rings under the eyes as a souvenir from that crazy cycle.“
Brenk took several bread-and-butter jobs: Assembly-line work, warehouse staff for a shoe company or working for Persil. However, he was always a bad employee and had difficulty with his bosses.
“I always had a problem being submissive. Perhaps I would keep my mouth shut a couple of times, but after the third time I told them “fuck it, I’m not doing this.”
This didn’t go down very well, and I know why, but in the long term I think it’s the right way to get by in life.“
In the course of our conversation it becomes clear that this attitude is one of his guiding principles. That’s what makes social interaction with him so refreshing. Through his respect for his counterpart, he masters the thin line between being clear and being arrogant.
As a producer he works with a lot of different people. What’s the most important thing for him in a business relationship?
“The most important thing is that we get along. That can also mean that we don’t have to become best friends but communicate at a face to face level and talk to each other with respect.“
In particular, the cooperation with some artists with a growing reputation or some from America can bring a few problems. “I noticed that they’re not used to someone who says ‘no‘ or ‘can we do this differently?‘ when they surround themselves with a lot of of “yessir” or “yesmam” people. They expect everyone around them to act as they’ve been told. And that’s something I just won’t do, no matter who you are.“
For some, his straightforwardness is equivalent to a life-threatening event, but Brenk is appreciated for his honesty as well as for his constant discipline. A typical day for Brenk starts at eight when he gets up together with his wife. Two hours later he’s sitting in the studio. The only thing that interrupts his flow: riding a bike to increase his blood circulation.
“Sometimes it’s 13 or 14 hours. I don’t see anything besides my equipment and I feel the electrosmog. Yet there’s no other way, my experience has shown that the best stuff happens after long sessions and guesswork.”
This is combined with time pressure. I know this because he tells me that he finished the beats for 'Reinwaschen' and 'Pusher' for Said’s latest album the night prior to release.
His studio is filled with synthesisers up to the ceiling. “Each of these is a world of its own. When you’re willing to dip into it, you can get the most amazing sounds out of them. That’s why I got to know every one of them, and now I know which one to use if I need a specific sound.”
I can’t put it into words, it’s more the ’feeling‘ I get that makes me recognize one of Brenk’s beats in an instant. Not because he does the same stuff over and over again, not because of his famous “Brenk Sinatra“ sound-tag at the beginning of his productions, but rather because he has found his signature sound that’s apparent through all the updates. Due to his enduring interest and enthusiasm for new tones, his sound keeps up with the times.
While other producers these days confine their creativity to recreating the beats of other, often unknown artists, he finds ideas everywhere.
"I can’t watch a movie without constantly discovering sounds I want to use for a beat. My whole world is composed of beats. I’m doing something somewhere and think ‘this could be a nice high hat, this I could use as a bass (…)’
This is no hobby or job, it’s my profession. My drive is having success with my music, without losing my ideals (…) I would lie if I said ‘I don’t care how much I’m going to sell.‘ No, I do care. Tell me someone who isn’t happy about royalties or payouts! Anyone who suggests otherwise is lying, everyone is happy about money.
But I’m not putting the money before the music, that gets easily confused. It’s the other way round and that’s the most important thing. “
To make money, some artists are working in camps, pieced together by a label and following a default formula to produce the next hit. “You wouldn’t believe how many camps exist out there. Of course, it’s tempting, and you start to consider that with three day’s work could pay three month’s rent… but no! Perhaps under a different name, but if you’ve already made a name for yourself, you’re destroying it. “ Apart from monetary success, Brenks main drive always comes from inside. “There’s no perfect beat, it’s the chase after the beat that exists in my head.“ Perhaps that’s one of the main reasons he rarely listens to his productions straight after he has finished them. “When I listen to my songs on vinyl or another medium and I notice something that bothers me, if there’s something too loud or too quiet, I get mad. Incredibly mad! That’s why I seldom listen to my finished albums, because I’m sure I’ll find a fault somewhere. “