Some DJs make a name for themselves by staying put — and NgoKien is testament to that. Founder and resident selector at 1900 Le Théâtre in Hanoi, NgoKien is one of Vietnam’s best keep secrets. But he’s no secret to locals, he’s known as the DJ who has always been one step ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to music.
NgoKien represents the new generation of Vietnam: a growing population of youths with a vested interest in western culture. This has translated into a burgeoning dance music scene that NgoKien has been helping shape since the early days. Prior to opening 1900 five years ago, much of Vietnam was high on Vinahouse (a brash style of very high tempo and continuous dance music with a simple structure) and he missioned to change that. It didn’t take long for him to establish himself and his club at the forefront of Vietnam’s dance music uprising and his current full fleet of talent at 1900 is widely known from consistently staying ahead of the market, bringing in some of the biggest names to ever play in the country, like Diplo, Dillon Francis, Mark Kight, Tchami and more.
Today, his journey is veering further and further underground, a sound that is echoed by northern Vietnam's music scene. His recent mixtapes have paved the way for a more exploratory sound to take centre stage at 1900 this year. A natural leader, a musical influencer and a resident DJ bar none, NgoKien is your gateway into Asia's youngest and most exciting music market — get to know him in 20 questions.
What’s the best thing about living in Hanoi?
"For me, the best thing about Hanoi is that 1900 is here."
And the worst?
"The worst may be the winter weather. I get sick easily when it’s winter in Hanoi."
Take us out in Hanoi — from dinner, drinks, party to afterparty?
"We would have bún ngan for dinner then chè for dessert. After that, of course, we’d head to 1900 for the main party and end the night at some smaller pubs around the Old Quarter."
Bun cha vs pho
"Both. Why not? Believe me you’ve always got room for both."
Vietnam is one of the slower countries in Asia to follow western trends. What kind of music did you grow up on and how did you first become exposed to electronic music?
“I grew up listening to hip-hop and R'n'B because that was trendy at the time. Around 10 or more years ago, I accidentally discovered some DJ performances on the internet which immediately got me into dance music and made me dig for more. It also ignited my desire for DJing. Then I learned to DJ by watching friends play and taking advice from them.”
As a veteran of Hanoi’s music scene, how have you seen the music scene evolve from a relatively unknown one to one with a bit of a global buzz? And to what do you credit this growth?
“Just 6-7 years ago, there wasn't much of a scene in Hanoi. Everything just revolved around Vinahouse (very high tempo dance music with a simple structure). Gradually, DJ and producers got more exposure to the global scene via the internet and they started playing, making music following global trends. Then festivals and bigger venues started appearing which facilitated the growth of the mainstream. That all contributed to the introduction of mainstream dance music to Vietnam’s audience. From that foundation, the audience became more and more educated, and artists were more willing to take risks to experiment and create more through their productions. Clubs and small venues also joined in booking international artists, all together pushing the scene forward.
I’m a huge music fan at heart. I listen to and collect music a lot daily so I’m always up to date with musical trends from around the world. But I don’t want to just keep it for myself. For me, good music is meant to be shared and I want to bring joy to as many people as possible with my music. I also keep my eyes open for new talents out there and try to support them as much as I can. All thanks to 1900, I have a home to make all my wishes come reality. A place to share my music and to look out for the next generations of artists."
Was there much of a scene in the days before 1900?
"Five years ago, before 1900, there were only small venues, pubs and bars or some Vinahouse clubs. There were no leading venues where music trends were updated regularly. The places that did exist didn't care about the general growth of the music scene and solely focused on their business. Only when the global EDM storm hit the Asia market and festivals started to bloom did it have a significant impact on the dance music scene in Vietnam. I witnessed several changes and initial steps toward globalisation over a few years. When 1900 opened, now the biggest nightclub in Vietnam, new trends have been introduced frequently and festival-styled music is played. The audience was exposed to new music more and became more educated as a result. Following the success of 1900, more big venues around the country started to open and contributed to the growth of the scene."
Vietnam is a larger country than people think. How do the music communities in the north differ from the south?
"This would be the preference in music and clubbing style. In the south, hip-hop and EDM are still huge while house, bass music and tech house are dominating in the north at the moment. When it comes to clubbing, people in the south tend to care more about the overall atmosphere and services of the venue rather than music and affordability like ones in the north."
And how do you feel the roles of underground music vs mainstream unfold in Hanoi?
"I think like anywhere else in the world, the mainstream and the underground in Hanoi also coexists and have their own audience. The mainstream can reach a bigger audience since it’s more accessible and catchier to the majority. The underground is likely to be appealing to more academic listeners and experts like artists and people working in the music scene. Together, they make the scene diverse and sustainable like yin and yang. In the end regardless of the label of mainstream or underground, you listen to what you like and that’s your personal taste."
COVID-19 will obviously change music communities for ever. What’s the forecast looking like for Hanoi specifically?
"Fortunately, our government took very early and proactive actions to deal with the epidemic. Therefore, we only closed for two and a half months. We were also aware of the severity of COVID-19 from its early stages and were very responsible for the safety of everyone. That’s why we closed before and re-opened after the governmental official announcements. Even after our re-opening when there were already nearly 60 days without any new locally-infected cases, we still took safety measures very seriously.
My prediction for the entertainment scene in Hanoi is that the service sector will continue to see a downfall since everything is on hold and people are spending money more selectively and tend to save more. Hopefully, there will be COVID-19 cure and vaccine soon so people from everywhere in the world can unite and dance together again."
How about your role as Music Director at 1900. What’s your artistic agenda like?
"My role at 1900 is more like a bridge between the board of directors and the DJ team. Our team is a family in which we exchange ideas and music daily. I’m in charge of connecting our DJ members and making sure everyone knows their jobs and brings their best into play. Before each big event, we always sit down to discuss and plan the musical agenda carefully together. I think what I mentioned above form a strong bonding between us and make a family out of our team."
Your own personal style and sound is hard to define — with many of your mixes running the gamut through genres. What style of dance music do you feel closest too and how do find a balance between selling tickets at such a big club and staying true to your sound?
"I listen to good music regardless of genres. It sometimes depends on specific periods of my life at which I seek particular kinds of music that suits my mood. Although I love updating trends and playing new music, I think house music is still the fundamental genre of my style. The genre that got me into dance music and DJing.
When it comes to balancing the business side and artistic side of my job at 1900, I feel super lucky that 1900 got a very unique, educated and open-minded crowd — they are always ready to experiment with new trends. I also love diversity and I’m kinda versatile when playing. The tracklists for my sets usually vary and cross between genres so I don't really find it hard to make this balance."
Who inspires you?
"My biggest inspirations are DJ Dustee, the CEO of 1900 and 1900 team. Dustee is like a big brother to me who inspires me every day with his visionary ideas, his genuine energy and his strong work ethics. He’s so great both as an artist and a person. He’s not only an excellent leader but also a wonderful friend to me and many others. Team 1900 consists of different people with their own expertise and personalities. We work very closely and support each other for the mutual aims of delivering an outstanding experience to the audience. I’m proud to say that 1900 has the biggest and most high-skilled DJ team in Vietnam.
What do you wish people knew about you that they don’t?
"I used to work in the office of a governmental Ministry before I changed my career path to become a DJ. I think not so many people except my family and close friends know this. Like most people, the path to my dream job has obstacles along the way too and isn't as smooth as people may see — so don't give up your dreams so easily. Strive for it, take risks and it all will be rewarding and worth your effort."
What is one great story from the club that will you never get bored of telling?
"To me, the greatest story from 1900 that will excite me forever is that we have the most unique and greatest crowd, literally. After five years of companionship with 1900, I’ve never seen the same crowd twice. Every night, it’s a different audience on the dancefloor and at the VIP area with different demographics. Maybe it varies a little bit in size but the restless energy stays the same. Massive thanks to everyone for your constant love and support for the past five years."
As a veteran in the Vietnamese music scene, what young artists should we keep our ears open for?
"The DJ team of 1900 including some of the names like Get Looze, Kodeine, Duy Tuan, Mya, GLG, DSmall and more are definitely the ones you should check out when you want to learn about both 1900’s musical style and Vietnam’s dance music scene in general. You should look out for Hot Panda Collective as well, a group comprised of rising talents like Steji, Monotape, Tenkitsune, Beep Beep Child and Quanium. Some of them have sealed the deals with big labels like Warner, Spinnin’, etc. at a very young age."
If you could give one piece of advice to a younger you, what would it be?
"I would tell my younger self to listen to music as much as I can because it will accumulate and become your own resource. Moreover, the music never disappoints and always finds a way to resonate with yourself."
What three songs could you play in your DJ sets forever?
"That’s a very tough choice. Can I choose 30 instead of 3 lol?"
What’s on the horizon for you in 2020?
"I’m really into the underground scene right now. I’m going to spend more time researching it and hopefully I’ll have enough material to release more music by the end of this year."
And if the world were ending, what’s the last track you would play?
"Basto ‘Again and Again’ because this track has an important place in my heart and recalls good memories with my wife."