On a recent evening in a warm, wood-paneled auditorium at the Oakland Museum of California, DJ Platurn maintains a surprisingly low-key demeanor as he prepares to unveil his new LP, Breaking the Ice. The collection of rare, Icelandic music took Platurn 12 years to collect and mix; it's his most ambitious and personal project to date.
“There’s gonna be familiar stuff, but just enjoy the fact that you’ve never heard any of this music,” he says, pressing play on the 87-minute-long sonic tapestry he stitched together from roughly 70 songs spanning the mid-'60s through the mid'-80s. In a world that grants near-instant access to the previously unfamiliar, his invitation to simply get lost in the music feels romantically nostalgic.
As Platurn notes at the release party, familiar reference points pop up periodically throughout Breaking the Ice, released last month via San Jose's Needle to the Groove Records. There’s an Aretha Franklin cover, a “Jingle Bells” rendition that sounds like it was retouched by '70s-era Herbie Hancock, and a short segment of a cover of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaming.” During the post-mix Q&A, Platurn reveals that the Icelandic lyrics of the latter re-frame the tune as “Farm Boy’s Dream,” a tale of city kids' summertime excursions to the countryside, a rite of passage in Iceland.
This reimagining explains Breaking the Ice quite well — curiously familiar, yet oddly distant. The project can be compared to the immersive yet dissociative pastiche of Since I Left You by the Avalanches, or perhaps Madlib’s Shades of Blue, the famed producer’s curated, embellished glance through the Blue Note Records archives. Platurn’s eclectic mix visits psych, soul, hard rock, folk, folk rock, and elements of R&B. Soft melodies crash into heavy drum freakouts. Children’s songs sit in the mix with proto-rap.
With these eclectic pairings, Breaking the Ice pieces together a groovier side of Iceland, one that often recalls American funk and soul music. It's a fascinating exploration of the musical history of a formerly-isolated island country best known for rock — or in recent years, the eccentric artistry of Björk and Sigur Rós.
The project is also deeply personal for Platurn. “I wanted to do something that meant something for our little family that traveled here 35 years ago and brought all our records with us,” he says.
Unique Upbringing, Boundary-Pushing Musical Taste
A few fans at the listening party comment that Platurn may well be the only person on the planet who could’ve conceived Breaking the Ice. Indeed, his family’s extensive record collection provided him with the perfect archives to source these rare Icelandic tunes. In the '70s, a time in Iceland the liner notes describe as “painfully unadventurous,” his father, Magnus Thordarson, was a highly influential promoter and radio DJ that broke new sounds on the airwaves. (The stage name "Platurn” comes from plötusnúður, the Icelandic word for DJ or “plate turner.")
Platurn grew up an avid hip-hop fan in the East Bay in the '90s, and digging for drum breaks to sample inevitably prepared him for the decade-plus saga of “groove excavation” he refers to in the project’s mini-doc. As the mix reveals, his 20-plus years in the game have helped him develop a keen ear for a good groove.
Platurn spent his first seven years in the small fishing village of Stykkisólmur. That explains his culture shock when he first landed at JFK International Airport with his family in 1983.
“The juxtaposition from where we came from to coming here was massive,” he recalls. “I’d barely seen any movies, didn’t watch TV, anything like that. Everything was just massively new to me. All this culture is just swimming at you.”
Though Platurn didn’t have TV in Iceland, music was always important and apparent. There’s perhaps no better way to illustrate that than with his father’s decision to haul his 1000-plus record collection across the Atlantic to their new home in California.
“When I was old enough to stand on my feet, I was dancing around to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in my living room,” he adds. A recent photo on Instagram shows Platurn, bowl cut and all, sitting on a speaker with headphones on, blues legend Leadbelly spinning on the turntable.
Growing up immersed in hip-hop culture, inspired by the likes of Ice Cube, NWA, and the Native Tongues crew, Platurn's interests eventually led him to DJing. At 18, he purchased his own mixer and turntables through an ad in The Source magazine with money he saved from his summer job at the YMCA. As he began collecting vinyl more regularly, digging for samples naturally led him to the dirty drums in funk and soul music.
Platurn first gained notoriety as a founding member of East Bay DJ crew the Oakland Faders, which also includes Joe Quixx, the former host of The Wake Up Show on hip-hop station 106.1 KMEL. In 2010, during the rise of digital DJing, Platurn started the 45 Sessions, a recurring night at various Oakland clubs that had only one rule: no matter what the DJs played, it had to be on a seven-inch, 45 RPM record.
Now, at 42 years old, Platurn has been behind the decks for 24 years. That means he’s been chipping away at Breaking the Ice for half of his professional career, a labor of love that started as an extended musical conversation with his older cousin Sveimhugi, a former DJ who resides in Reykjavik. Their shared hobby turned into an obsession, and a funkier side of Iceland’s music scene began to reveal itself.
A Record Collection Tells a Personal Story
Platurn first teased the music in Breaking the Ice at a record swap in San Jose called Dig Dug, and the records instantly caught the attention of music writer David Ma, now an affiliate of Needle to the Groove Records and the author of the Breaking the Ice liner notes.
“It just kind of blew us away,” Ma recalls of the crowd reaction that night. The two emailed about the possibility of releasing the music, and they even previewed the Breaking the Ice concept in a three-part series on Ma’s music blog Nerdtorious starting in 2009. Back then, Platurn conceived of the project as a compilation; after encountering multiple roadblocks, they settled on releasing it as a mix to better to showcase Platurn’s DJing abilities and familiarity with his source material.
When conceptualizing the liner notes, both Ma and Platurn wanted to tie the story back to Platurn’s father. They sat with him one evening to hear him share at length about his time as an influential promoter and DJ. “His dad’s hilarious — very forthcoming and very analytical, so it was easy to extract the importance of Iceland’s musical heyday back then,” says Ma. “I think what we did was just try to understand the shortcomings of Icelandic [music] at the time.”
Although Breaking the Ice has informative, contextualizing liner notes, it does not have a tracklist, and that’s strictly by design. In similar cases, when compilations or mixes of ultra-rare music have gained traction, second-hand record prices have skyrocketed as a result, a phenomenon Platurn says he'd rather not contribute to.
Platurn's protectiveness also stems from the fact that tracklists are often seen as trade secrets in the DJ world. He doesn't leave the house with any of the records featured on the mix, and for good reason: at one point, he thought he lost several of them forever.
Five years ago, after a gig at 1015 Folsom, around 20 of the records featured on Breaking the Ice were stolen during a car break-in. Platurn put out a call on social media and even cruised the venue's neighborhood for weeks after the incident, offering cash to whomever might have a lead. Ten months later, a tip from a friend of a friend led him to a hard rock record shop in the Mission. Thanks to his father’s meticulous cataloging system, Platurn was able to verify that they were indeed his stolen records. Though he was prepared to pay anything, the owner only wanted what he’d paid for the stack: 100 bucks. Platurn gave him 300, thanked him profusely, and parted ways feeling much better about the state of kindness in the world.
“The uniqueness of all this is really high, because soul music is not supposed to come from a small island in the North Atlantic,” says Platurn. “None of it is actually 100 percent funk music or hip-hop or anything. It’s just vaguely reminiscent of it, and that’s what makes it so interesting and charming.”
Though he made the mix with the idea to showcase a funkier side of Icelandic music, Platurn warns that the collection of songs shouldn’t be considered any sort of definitive cultural statement. “This was my personality at play much more so than me trying to be some thorough archivist for a specific scene back then,” he notes.
Asked why he still chooses to collect analog records in an ever-more-digital world, he points to the nostalgia and narrative inevitably tied to one's record collection. “Every record has a story, and that’s rad,” he says. “Not just a story of the actual release itself, but you have a story — I have a ton of records I acquired traveling the planet, and that’s dope to me.”
DJ Platurn performs as part of the Souls of Mischief Birthday Bash Friday, April 27, at the Uptown in Oakland. More info here.