Planet Ultra in Belgrade

Feature Story

For the past fifteen years , whenever I’m in Serbia, I hear about the two shows the Dutch crossover-band Urban Dance Squad gave in Belgrade in 1996. On the eve of the major anti-Milošević protests of the winter of 1996-1997, “the Squad” played sets based on their album Planet Ultra, and apparently these two shows caused a huge sensation.

I decided to find out more about the story, and write it. What made those concerts so legendary? How did it happen that the world-famous funky demagogue struck a chord with an audience that had been suffering for years under the authoritarian reign of an increasingly ruthless communist-turned-nationalist despot?

By Guido van Hengel

I started my research in November 2018 in Belgrade, in the archive of the Studentski Kulturni Centar (SKC) on Kralja Milana street. It is – still – a magical place which for decades served as the home base for the Yugoslav pop avant-garde. World-acclaimed artist Marina Abramović held her first performances here. Famous Yugoslav New Wave bands played here. And it was here, in SKC, in November 1996 that the Urban Dance Squad took the stage.

SKC today (Wikipedia)

That November it was dark in the archive, all the lights were turned off. Outside it was sunny, the shutters were down. When I asked the staff whether they had some memories of the concert, there was very little response. One employee only remembered the concert in general terms (“the bass player had dreadlocks”), and instead began telling a bitter story about how things used to be better, in a tone similar to the mantra that “nobody loves Serbia”.

Pure coincidence

When I asked if there possibly was any connection between the two energetic Urban Dance Squad concerts and the 1996 demonstrations, the archivist replied that it was “pure coincidence” that the two events took place simultaneously. “We have never been a political stage”, he concluded, and so he ended the matter. An elderly lady brought out a folder of press clippings. She dusted it off and presented it to me.

The material was not impressive, but the yellowed clippings offered me some interesting glimpses of the concert. A local newspaper from Novi Sad reported: “The room was packed with people, 2000 tickets were sold”. Blic, a popular daily, wrote: “It was a furious concert. The audience got what they expected. There were many stage divers, especially during the songs No Kid and Fast Lane.” The daily Express spoke of an “extravagant energy”. These were, however, just press clippings. I thanked the lady, left SKC, walked down the Kralja Milana and went downtown, in the direction of the Belgrade Youth Center.

In 1996, the Squad arrived in Belgrade during a rather undefined, ambivalent chapter of the Yugoslav 1990s. One year earlier, in 1995, the leaders of Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims had signed a peace treaty in Dayton in the US, under the watchful eye of President Bill Clinton. In theory, it seemed as if the war was over. With the signing of the Dayton Treaty, Western sanctions against Serbia were lifted. There was a bit of hope. Would it all turn out better in the years to come? Nobody knew by then that another devastating war was about to come, in 1998 in Kosovo, followed by the heavy NATO-bombing of Serbia.

In-between space

Dragan Ambrozić, the current artistic programmer of the Dom Omladine (Youth Center), was an influential figure in Belgrade’s alternative music scene back then already. In 2018, I met him backstage, just in-between the sound check of a Turkish fusion band. He is more than willing to take me on a time-trip to the mid-nineties in Serbia, and he explains:

“Bands didn’t dare to come to Belgrade at the time. Many music agencies were afraid to send bands to Belgrade, and communication was difficult. We are talking about 1996 now, when there was no e-mail. Everything had to be organized by telephone or by fax. Most of the useful contacts were made via personal networks of DIY agents. For those and many other reasons, we were basically forced to somehow cooperate with the regime. For example, it was actually the Milošević minister of culture who helped us to bring the British dance-collective The Prodigy to Serbia in 1995. She [the minister] didn’t really know what kind of band that was, but that was to our advantage. Just because she didn’t really understand what it was all about, we could achieve more.”

The Prodigy played their song “Breathe” in Belgrade 1995 for the first time.

Ambrozić’ story made me think about the archivist’s remark (“We have never been a political venue”). What was the relationship between the regime and the alternative music scene of Serbia? I put the question to Ilija Duni, singer of the (now defunct) rockband Petrol and a familiar face in the Belgrade musical underground. “Alternative music was not only tolerated, but even facilitated,” he replies, “It was a kind of useful outlet to coordinate and control the energy of the young and restless. Take, for example, SKC: the regime had always financed that venue indirectly, during Tito’s time, and afterwards as well. Still, innovative bands came to play there. After all, SKC made a crucial contribution to Serbia’s music and culture, especially in the 1990s. It was an island, an island of free thought.”

That function as an “island of free thought” would determine the music of that time. Duni recalls how the atmosphere of isolation influenced the musical development in the city: “Due to international sanctions against Serbia during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, we could not go to the West, and at the same time there was Milošević, the leader we hated, but who sometimes facilitated us. We felt trapped between the West on the one hand, and the regime on the other hand. In that in-between space we created our own unique scene, in which all musical genres mixed. The pop music of that time was a unique hybrid, we had all kinds of crossovers between dub, jazz, rock, heavy metal, rap, hip hop and what not more. It also suited our position, as Yugoslavia, between the East and the West.”

This may explain why the Urban Dance Squad was very popular in the region. In 1991, the Squad’s second album Life’s Perspectives of a Genuine Crossover, was ranked number 8 in the end-of- year list of the influential dissident radio station B92. Ambrozić reflects too on the crossover of musical styles: “That crossover style of the Urban Dance Squad sounded fairly natural to us, because we had something similar in Serbia for quite some time. There had even been a Belgrade school of Drum ’n Bass mixed with other styles, around the pioneering band Disciplina Kičme. They had already released their first records in the early 1980s.”

Duni agrees, and tells how he experienced it as completely natural that the Squad came to play in Belgrade: “They played the perfect music for Serbia. They mixed all kinds of styles together, just like we did. Urban Dance Squad hence felt like “our band”, although they were from the Netherlands. Their musical mix fitted in with the dreams and feelings we had back then. We saw the Netherlands as a tolerant, free and open society. That definitely played a part in our admiration of the band. This culturally mixed band, it suited our image of a melting pot. I think that also contributed to their success in the United States, where they easily understand the multicultural vibe of the band”. Duni laughs: “So, actually, it was actually an American AND Serbian band, only they came from Holland.”

Raw energy

Duni’s observation is not nonsensical: Urban Dance Squad was indeed somehow a Fremdkörper in the Dutch musical landscape. In the 1980s, five completely different musicians with very different characters had come together in Utrecht for a jam session: A DJ/scratcher, a hip-hop rapper, a new-wave drummer, a Surinamese bass-player and an Indo guitar player. This very wild and therefore very successful jam session marked the beginning of the turbulent and wild life-story of the Urban Dance Squad, a lively and energetic cult-band that soon conquered the Dutch underground.

With the release of their debut album Mental Floss for the Globe in 1989, they reached out to a more international and even global audience. The Squad then produced some successful global hits, also in the US (Deeper Shade of Soul, Fastlane), and eventually the Utrecht-based formation inspired a whole generation of crossover bands, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine and Mano Negra.

The wild and sometimes even aggressive expression of rapper Rudeboy, guitarist Tres Manos, drummer Magic Sticks, bassist Sil and DJ DNA also had a downside. Raw energy, in fact, can turn into conflict. The first confrontations of the Squad with the outside world, such as the record companies and the media (“The Industry”, as Rudeboy often liked to call his amorphous enemy).

Soon the negative energy also struck inwards. Much of that tension can already be seen in the notorious documentary Five Years of Disorder made by Bram van Splunteren in 1991 for Dutch TV broadcaster VPRO. One fragment is very telling: rapper Rudeboy looks bitterly into the camera, while talking about the energy in and around the band: “Directly after the performance is finished, it is all gone. All the rest is baloney.”

DJ DNA left the band in 1993, in the middle of a French tour. The remaining band members decided to move on without the scratcher and hence released a raw and uncompromising rock-album: Persona Non Grata (1994). The single Demagogue was a crossover-classic, but, eventually, the band could not cash in on the artistic success they had had. Other comparable bands, such as Rage Against the Machine, subsequently did.

Photo: Srdjan Veljović

In the second half of the 1990s, the Urban Dance Squad went through some dark years. The Netherlands were by that time ruled by a consensus-driven social-democrat-conservative-left-and-right-liberal government, where every raw and loud expression of discontent was flattened and neutralized. The Squad’s frontman Rudeboy, on the other hand, rapped furiously about oppression, resistance, racism, violence and social and cultural alienation. The Dutch music press, in contrast, was mostly ironic and jolly and far from politically agitated. They made fun of Rudeboys commitments. Against whom he was fighting?

In 1996, the lukewarmly reviewed album Planet Ultra was released. The national music press was, with some exceptions here and there, totally unimpressed. Once, in the late 1980s, they had hailed this enigmatic Dutch rock-crossover combination as the future of Dutch rock music, but by 1996 all enthusiasm had faded away.

Troubled and traumatized

It was precisely during the Planet-Ultra-tour that Urban Dance Squad came to visit Belgrade, the capital city of a troubled and traumatized Serbia. It turned out that Serbia and the Urban Dance Squad would both get inspiration from the mutual encounter: the bitter mood of the Urban Dance Squad in 1996 resonated with that glimpse of hope of Serbian alternative rock audience. Apparently, they both yearned for another planet, a place where they could ultimately be free.

In an interview with the band for the Serbian alternative music magazine Ukus Nestanih, journalist Ana Davidović asks guitar player Tres Manos about it: “What does this Planet Ultra mean, actually? I think it’s a great title. It reminds me of Belgrade. What does this Planet Ultra actually mean to you, personally?” Tres Manos replies: “It’s about the possibility to escape somewhere, from all the misery.” In the same year, in a Dutch interview, Rudeboy says something similar: “Planet Ultra is about the imagination of the world in our head, when things get too boring, too dull and unbearable; it’s about things that transcend everyday life.”

The Story of the Stolen Elections

Planet Ultra’s message landed very well in Serbia. The widely felt dream to escape a suffocating reality was realized the same year. In the local elections earlier that month, the opposition parties had won in all major cities, including the capital city Belgrade, Niš, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, and so on. The citizens of Belgrade organized joyful demonstrations in the city center, embraced each other, and were convinced that the dark days of Slobodan Milošević were over.

“Slobo had lost”, Duni says, “but he refused to accept the outcome. He declared the elections void and within two days all kinds of voting papers had disappeared. The opposition, however, claimed victory. That winter, it had been five years since the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia. We decided that there was a good reason to protest against the manipulation.”

Ambrozić remembers how the resistance was mobilized by the radio. “Normally, Slobo would have the media on his side, and especially the local media. In 1996, that was no longer the case. Radio and television stations also started criticizing how he had “stolen” the local elections. Because of this, Milošević panicked.”

The commotion about the stolen elections coincided with the arrival of Urban Dance Squad. Still, bands from Western Europe rarely visited Serbia, so they got a lot of attention. In 1996, Srdjan Veljović was a photographer for the magazine XZ Zabava and was asked to be at the press conference and the concert itself. “Personally, I didn’t know the band, quite frankly, but I knew that it could turn out to be something special. It was really an event, and in those strange days, such events could really grow into something big.”

Photo: Srdjan Veljović

On 20 November the Urban Dance Squad played in the concert hall of SKC. The gig was sold out. As some kind of temporary replacement for DJ DNA, keyboard player U-Gene joined the Squad, to complement the violent guitar noise with some bubbling keyboard sounds. They opened with the cryptic rocksong Nonstarter, immediately followed by the haunting Inside-Outsider (“I want IN, not to be down with”). As a fourth song, they played the old hit-single No Kid, which made the audience transform into a swirling and whirling, massive crowd. As a photographer, Veljović stood in the front row: “The atmosphere was intense. This is often the case with the audience in Serbia, but I think it was even more intense than usual. I also remember that after the first concert I decided to go a second time. This was not just something.”

The second concert, on November 21, was even more lively, wild, and energetic. Duni: “The revolt about the “stolen elections” began in the south of the country, in Niš, and by the time the second concert was to take place, the movement had arrived in Belgrade. Outside SKC, the people were demonstrating, a revolution was in the air. Frustration was felt about how Slobo had stolen the elections. The Squad picked up the tense atmosphere, and they used the energy that was in the air, internalized it, and gave it back to us through their music.”

Photo: Srdjan Veljović

“A very special moment,” recalls pop journalist Davidović, who interviewed the band in 1996. “The interaction with the audience was so extreme that the band became emotional because of the sudden release of so much energy. I remember that Rudeboy had to wipe the tears from his face when he left the stage.”

Desire for resistance

The anti-Milošević demonstrations started outside SKC and lasted for a long time: from November 1996 to March 1997, for eighty-four days, the demonstrators occupied the city center, in all weather conditions. Tens of thousands of demonstrators grew to a mass of hundreds of thousands who roamed the streets. Besides being a political event, it was also a major theatrical event, in which pop music played an important role: drum bands, costumes, performances and dances went hand-in-hand with the resistance. In the demonstrations, for example, a herd of sheep walked along. The sheep wore a sign saying: “We support the party of Milošević.” The uprising against Milosevic then transformed into a social and cultural performance, in which the Serbs could share their misery, on the street, in the public space.

A coffin for Milošević’ Socialist Party Serbia | Photo: Srdjan Veljović

In March 1997, the demonstrations came to an end with a somewhat weak compromise between the opposition and the government. All energy was used up, and the opposition again fell apart in many different sections. In 1998, a new war broke out in the southernmost Serbian province of Kosovo. The warring factions, Serbian militias and paramilitary troops and Albanian guerrillas raged, thousands of people took refuge. In 1999, NATO would intervene with a bombing of more than seventy days on Belgrade and other Serbian cities. The memory of the peaceful resistance of 1996-1997, this remarkably theatrical performance of unity and ironic criticism of the “stolen elections”, faded away rapidly.

A very strange time

In 2019, Duni can no longer separate the memory of the concert from the memory of the time of the mid 1990s: “When I think about it, I see again the influence of the dissident radio station B92, that tried to bring democracy, and freedom. And on the other hand the student movement, OTPOR, which in 2000 tried to overthrow the Milošević regime. In the midst of all those developments, in that strange, very strange time, Urban Dance Squad came to Belgrade, and for me that concert is inextricably linked to that time. Urban Dance Squad not only made the musical connection with us as an audience, but also personally, as people who understood the same sensitivities. That is, I think, why it has become such a legendary concert, especially in the alternative, underground circles here of this city.”

Counter-Demonstration | Photo: Srdjan Veljović

The 1996-1997 uprising did not have the desired effect. It was ultimately the chaos that arose during and after the 1999 bombing that ended the Milošević regime. Back in the Netherlands, Urban Dance Squad reunited with DJ DNA and released a new album in 1999: Artantica. Although the album sounded fresh and innovative, it could not postpone nor prevent the end of the collaboration. In the same year guitarist Tres Manos left the band. The Squad fell apart.

The nineties, an era of freedom and cultural crossovers, came to an end. What followed was transition, and – for Serbia – accession to the twenty-first century liberal world order. Would this transition eventually give Serbia the taste of that tolerant, open and free society, they thought reflected in the music of the Urban Dance Squad?

Photo: Srdjan Veljović

Twenty years onwards, the pop scene has a completely different character. Duni explains how his life as a musician is, in contrast to how it used to be in the 1990s. Today, venues are much more interested in making money. The market is the reality.  On 1 May 2019, while a Labour Day demonstration is slowly crossing Kralja Milana Street, close to SKC, photographer Veljović tells me that he thinks that nowadays it is “much more difficult” in Serbia to book a socially critical band than in the 1990s.

“People here are terribly serious nowadays,” says Veljović. “People don’t play anymore: children don’t, and adults don’t either. In the 1996 demonstrations there may not have been much to laugh about, but there was a theatrical creativity that I dearly miss now. Look, nowadays we have here – as everywhere – a Western capitalist music industry that is there mainly for the sake of entertainment. But then, music had a sort of social function. It really meant something to the public, to the musicians, and to the society as a whole.”

This article is a revised version of the (Dutch) article “Vrijheid op Planeet Ultra: hoe Urban Dance Squad een rol kreeg in een Servische opstand”, published by FRONT.

Over Guido van Hengel 6 Artikelen
Dr. Guido van Hengel is historicus en schrijver van non-fictie. Tevens docent Europese Studies aan de Haagse Hogeschool. Hij was één van de oprichters van Platform Spartak en Tijdschrift Donau (de papieren versie). In 2018 verscheen zijn boek De zieners: toekomstvisioenen uit een verloren Europa (Ambo|Anthos).