Sulta's rise to fame hasn't been an easy ride
From his ups and downs to the controversy and calamity - we analyse the career of the latest dream-living Glasgwegian to rocket to stardom.
Before it become a dirty word in the early 2000s, the term 'superstar DJ' was made for artists like Denis Sulta. The booth-manning big tune selector that every honeymoon raving bedroom DJ wants to be. The kind who shock and awe with their selections, who galvanise clubbers into becoming frenzied fans and who shift tickets like a force of nature. In Denis Sulta’s short time in the public eye, he’s written club hits, toured the world, ran aground with personal problems and bounced back to do it all over again. This is how.
Denis Sulta was born Hector Barbour and grew up in the Anniesland, a district on the west side of Glasgow. He came from a loving home, went to a good school and as a young raver he found himself in the orbit of three major Glaswegian institutions, Sub Club (where he played his first Boiler Room, a key moment in his rise to stardom), Jackmaster, the local legend who signed his biggest breakthrough track and Rubadub, the records and gear shop and Glaswegian institution where his Dad’s advice paid dividends.
Sulta’s disco loving Dad made sure his childhood was soundtracked by records by the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Chic or Oliver Cheatham. He cites his favourite song as George Dukes’ 1983 disco hit George Duke ‘Reach Out’ and told thebeijinger.com: “Disco was a big part of my childhood and there is a magic in it that just cannot be denied and really tugs at my heartstrings.” When he was unable to pick up his award at the Scottish Music Awards, his parents did the honours for him but probably the greatest help his parents gave him was this bit of crucial advice. “My dad always told me that If you want to be successful at something, you should surround yourself with the best, learn from people,” he told Mixmag in 2015. ”So I surrounded myself with the best.”
Before Sulta started work at Rubadub, he was a hip-hop fan and didn’t actually like house and techno. That soon changed once he started working Saturdays at the influential Glaswegian store at the age of eighteen under the careful charge of the shop’s manager Dan Lurinsky who also runs influential local vinyl label Dixon Avenue Basement Jams with his partner in the label, Kenny Grieve. Gangster rap soon made way from Moodymann and Underground Resistance as he found himself submerged in vinyl music. “It's the best place in the world,” he told Mixmag. “It’s just a bunch of people that are really into it for the music, and I started working there with a very shallow music taste. I was quickly brought round to the new shit and the foundation of my knowledge has been based on and influenced by Rubadub, 100 per cent. “
Working at Rubadub proved a great way to sneak his early productions onto the shop soundsystem. "I actually once remember asking, 'What's this shite that's on?' when he played an early track, only to be told, 'It's one of mine,' by Hector, much to my embarrassment!” Lurinsky told Resident Advisor in 2017. “Needless to say I grew to love pretty much everything he did not long after that." Dixon Avenue Basement Jams began in 2012, and distributed in-house at Rubadub, it attracted a loyal buy-on-sight following amongst vinyl house and techno fans from the beginning and is responsible for springboarding the career of another DABJ alumni, Marquis Hawkes.
Sulta’s first release ‘Sulta Selects Vol. 1’ was released in 2014. Unlike the breakthrough hits that were to follow later on in his career, they had more of a rough and raw lofi house sound and were unafraid to use big and brash bass hooks and vocals. All three tracks on the EP featured acapellas taken from late 1970s and early 1980s disco and Motown classics. He recorded another EP for the label in 2015, the L.A Ruffgarden E.p.’ and the track ‘Time 4 Prayer’ for the label’s ‘DABJ Allstars Vol. 2’ EP in 2016.
Although his record as Denis Sulta came out first, his second EP in 2015 landed on New York’s Mister Saturday Night and was born of his Atlus alias that had preceded the Denis Sulta alias. He had begun producing under the name in 2013 and again his position at Rubadub proved instrumental in aiding his career when he met Mister Saturday Night’s label manager Justin Carter in the shop. The Zopiclone EP displayed high production standards and a sonic aesthetic that belied his actual situation as a rookie producer making his first inroads into laptop production.
“Atlus was a project that was very focused on my mental state at the time. Dark, furious, and naive. The naivety still very much exists in me but now I'm a bit more of a positive person, or at least I try to be. This was the reason I moved away from Atlus, turned it on its head, and came out with Denis Sulta,” he told thebeijinger.com. Atlus backwards is Sulta and the name change proved to mark a catalyst in his life and a step towards a more positive life approach that would catapult him to stardom.
Jackmaster, photo by Dan Wilton.
Growing up on the scene in Glasgow, the local honeymoon ravers had many local legends to be inspired by but Jackmaster epitomised the dream for the kids on the dancefloor more than any of them. Like them, Jack had cut his rave teeth on the dancefloor at Sub Club and had gone on to become a globally touring star. “There aren’t that many records I own that weren’t in someway influenced by Jackmaster,” Sulta told Stamp the Wax in 2015. “I worked in a shoe shop for a while, they let us put our own tunes through the system during the day and when Jack’s Essential Mix came out, we had it on several times a day pretty much all week.”
"Unbeknownst to me until recently, Hector was this kid who used to come to the Rubadub warehouse (where I worked at the time), which was about 20 minutes outside of Glasgow, and offer me free lifts home so he could stick his demos on the car stereo, trying to get them noticed for Numbers,” Jackmaster told Resident Advisor. “It was pretty keen and shameless but I admired that. I didn't think much of it until he sent me an Atlus demo months later, looking to get something signed."
Sulta later contributed two tracks to Jackmaster's DJ Kicks compilation but it was his 'It's Only Real' track for the Glasgow label Numbers that Jackmaster ran with another Rubadub former worker Richard Charter that provided Sulta’s big hit. “I was sitting working on the drums for ages and I didn’t really know what to do with the track, I got really frustrated, and I was trying way too hard,” he told Four Four Mag. “At the end of the night, I was like ‘fuck this’. So I unplugged my laptop, sat in my bed, played a melody on the keyboard of my mac and listened through my laptop speakers. I then layered the melody and thought to myself, ‘this is fun, like a daft little thing’, but I think that kind of made it what it was. It’s not produced amazingly, it was just me. I wasn’t trying too hard, it was just me jamming in my bed.”
'It's Only Real' was the first track to nail the formula that would transmit Sulta’s sound to a global audience. It offset delicate arpeggiatting melodies with club rocking toms and kicks and he has replicated the combination several times since to great effect. The A1 track 'L.A Ruffgarden (Terrace Mix)' for his second EP for Dixon Avenue Basement Jams that preceded his Numbrs track in 2015 also used the same combination of elements. As did his tracks for his own label Sulta Selects 'Nein Fortiate' (pronounced Nine Forty Eight), 'Our World' and rework, 'Aur World.' If it ain’t broke?
When asked about how he came up with his distinctive sound he told Fourfour mag. “I only worked on a couple of instruments that I knew how to use and it just came naturally, I didn’t want to sound like anybody else, I wanted to sound like me. All of my songs are either based on a story or a feeling towards a person, or some sort of interaction. They are all little stories, that otherwise, I would not be able to articulate or express properly.”
Sulta with Pete Tong at Radio 1
Sulta sewed the seeds to his success in 2015 with his Numbers track and Dixon Avenue Basement Jams releases but in 2016 his production bore fruit in the shape of a marathon gig schedule and the acclaim of the dance music industry. He won Breakthrough Producer at the DJ Mag Awards and long jumped his way into RA’s Top 100 DJs Poll to number 26. Along the way he clocked up numerous milestone gigs at clubs like Space, Ibiza, Farr Festival and The Warehouse Project.
Stars look the part and their visual appeal is often crucial to their success. Sulta stands out from the crowd by tapping into the dance music general public’s love of another Scottish sub-culture legend, Trainspotting’s’ Sick Boy. The character from the 1996 cult film sported a bleach blonde haircut and launched a global trend that bubbled back into fashion again in 2016 and 2017. Like Sick Boy, Sulta’s on-stage persona is brash and confident and the DJ is unafraid to live the role of a laddish superstar DJ to the full. And as the KLF once noted in their book, The Manual, which laid out a blueprint on how to achieve commercial success in the music industry, the formula of something old and familiar combined with something new is key to winning over the public.
Sulta crowdsurfing at Sub Club.
His decision to move away from the dark and headsy alias Atlus towards the bight and brash Denis Sulta has proven to be Barbour’s biggest career gamechanger so far. As Sulta, Barbour taps into a long tradition of superstar DJs in the UK who play party music and a relentless slog of big tunes from one city to the next. In the 90s that mantle was carried by DJs like Jeremy Healy, Sasha and Judge Jules and in the 2010s it is carried on by the new school of crowd pleasing DJs such as Eats Everything, Jackmaster and of course Sulta. “It's important to feel the music you're playing and I really want people to get carried away with it,” he told Mixmag in 2016. “It's much more about the people and not about me. I just have fun and want the people to follow it.”
While his on stage persona oozes confidence, the real Hector Barbour is a little more quietly spoken. “Denis allows me to be confident and he allows me to be myself," he told Resident Advisor. "He gives me the stage to stand up and say, 'Right, I'm a leader, I'm in charge,' without seeming like I'm being a dick about it, you know? Because I want to be confident, I want to be good at what I do, and I want to share that with other people. Plus, if I don't look like I'm having fun, then how can anyone else have fun?
Like many stars that tear their way to the top, a little dash of controversy hasn’t hurt his ascent one bit. In 2017 he began dropping 1999 hard house track ‘Blow Ya Mind’ by Lock ‘N’ Load and divided the dance music social media channels. The kids loved it and videos of dancefloors turning into mosh pits surfaced on YouTube and clocked up tens of thousands of views. For others however it was a step too far. Regardless of which side of the debate you sat on, the conversation earned Sulta invaluable watercooler chat time that was to spread his name even further.
with Annie Mac
Behind the scenes, Sulta is managed by Locket Management, a company that also look after Annie Mac. Their most notable score has been crafting a successful brand around Sulta. Sulta Selects is the name of his label and also his brand of roving parties. In May the team will launch his Fly Open Air, Sulta’s own one day festival in a 17th century stately home near Edinburgh. Also key to his success is the DJ agent, Sandy Marris at influential bookings agency Coda, who also represents top UK acts like Ben UFO and Midland.
In between gigs on a heavy weekend of touring in 2017.
After a year of living his dreams, by the end of 2016, success was beginning to take its toll on Sulta. "I became a bit of a dick, basically,” he told Resident Advisor. “I wasn't treating myself or any of my friends or family with respect any more. I was kinda being like, 'Yeah, fuck you all, I'm doing it.' I became a bit of an arsehole. I just got caught up in it."
Not for the first time in his life, a period of depression followed. He told RA the first major bout had taken place shortly after dropping out of University. After moving in with a promoter friend, the pair partied most weekends from Friday to Monday and the inevitable relentless series of comedowns instigated a dark period in his life. "I got myself into a lot of trouble," he told RA. "And I mean that in a dark way, man. I got into some situations that I really haven't told that many people about. But you kinda need to know what the bottom's like in order to understand how good the top is." To get out of the hole, he sold some music equipment to survive but found salvation in locking himself away and making tracks.
When depression hit again at the end of 2016, this time it was helped along by the pressure to recreate the success of ‘It’s Only Real.’ “Once you make a record that is sort of popular, the pressure that you put on yourself to make a record that's better is so, so much. When you sit there at your computer and you're like, 'This has to be amazing, it has to be better than the last,' you lose a lot of faith in yourself."
The biog for his label Sulta Selects hints at the moment pulled him through. “I had a dream one night about this guy getting lost in the Amazon rainforest and it’s all about the story of him getting lost and how he finds his own way out,” he told Four Four Mag. “Basically he experiences something he could never ever share with anyone else.”
Sulta’s own label Sulta Selects provided the home for a barrage of tracks in 2017 that signalled to the outside world Barbour’s second period depression was over. Two tracks ‘Nein Fortiate’ and ‘Dubelle Oh XX’ carried on the signature melodic sound and proved to be two of the Summer’s biggest club hits. His third EP Sulta Selects Vol. 3 dropped in 2018 and returned his sound to the heavily disco sampling filter house vibe of his first Dixon Avenue Basement Jams EP.
Killing the crowd at Northern Ireland festival Ava is fast becoming a right of passage for dance music’s hottest DJs. Sulta’s biggest dancefloor moment recorded on film has proven to be his 2017 Boileroom mix recorded at the festival. The Boileroom video of his set on YouTube has had nearly 637 thousand views alone. “I’m going to be honest. I was losing a lot of sleep over it,” he told Four Four Mag. “It’s a huge opportunity and honour to not only be asked to play AVA, which I’ve wanted to play ever since it started, but also to do the Boiler Room stage, it was incredible. The support I’ve had in Belfast has been mind blowing, so I wanted to do everybody proud. Looked after myself, practiced loads for it. I just thought to myself, ‘everything is contextual’ – you could play a ‘cool’ underground set for an hour, by you know what, if I’m going to be at a festival, outdoors, on Saturday, the sun is out, everyone’s going mental, let’s have fucking fun today! It was bonkers man.”
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