Professor by day, DJ by night

On campus he is professor Ton Wilthagen, but on the decks he is DJ Hi-tone. We asked Tilburg University’s ‘party prof’ about the funky combination of research and raves, and about his recent contribution to a first-of-its-kind book on the rise of Dutch dance music.

When electronic music rapidly started gaining ground in the Dutch club scene in the 1980s, Ton Wilthagen was in his twenties. Still a grassy researcher at the University of Amsterdam, he lived and worked at the epicenter of the dance revolution.

At the time, Wilthagen was unaware that he was witnessing musical history. “When they first started playing house music at club RoXY in Amsterdam, I wasn’t immediately taken by it,” he recalls. “Although I was into music and I enjoyed different genres, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this.”

Superstar professor

Fast-forward thirty years, Ton Wilthagen is a prominent professor in labor market studies at Tilburg University. He is a go-to expert for media commentary on matters of the labor market and labor laws. But it’s not just his frequent appearances in the press that have made him into a superstar professor. In his spare time, Wilthagen is a seasoned amateur DJ with decades of experience playing electronic tunes to packed dance floors at parties and events across the country.

Wilthagen is now decidedly passionate about the electronic sounds he was hesitant to embrace when they first emerged from the speakers at club RoXY. “Similar to classical music, electronic music doesn’t obey the traditional sequence of a song with a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s what I like about it. It’s a continuous piece of music. A DJ set can go on and on for hours, non-stop, without becoming boring.”

“If anything demonstrates how widely embraced dance is in the Netherlands, it’s the King and Queen fist-pumping behind a turntable” 

Today, Wilthagen is back in Amsterdam for the book release of Dutch Dance: How The Netherlands took the lead in Electronic Music Culture, to which he contributed. The richly illustrated book, authored by Fontys lecturer Mark van Bergen and translated by Tilburg University English teacher Andrew Cartwright, is the first English-written history of the Dutch dance industry and its phenomenal international success.

Dance revolution

Wilthagen contributed to the book as an expert by experience, education and profession. Being a dance aficionado with a doctoral degree in sociology and a professorship in labor markets, Wilthagen helped answer the book’s most burning question: how to explain the enormous success of Dutch DJs and producers and the worldwide dominance of the Dutch dance industry? “To me, that was an extremely interesting question. Why did the dance revolution happen in the Netherlands?”

One reason the dance industry has been able to flourish in the Netherlands, Wilthagen says, is the liberal mindset and tolerant policies of the Dutch. “In other countries, the dance scene largely remained underground because festivals are not allowed, permits are not issued, and laws on drugs and illegal raves are harsh. In the Netherlands, you can have your drugs tested at festival sites. King Willem Alexander and Queen Máxima even got behind the DJ booth at a big dance and house music event in Chicago a few years ago. If anything demonstrates how widely embraced dance is in the Netherlands, it’s the King and Queen fist-pumping behind a turntable.”Ton Wilthagen will talk more on Dutch dance during a music-filled lecture on 8 November at Paradox, where he will be joined by Mark van Bergen and Andrew Cartwright. In addition, the public broadcasting company VPRO will air a (Dutch-spoken) miniseries documenting thirty years of dance in the Netherlands. If you just want to dance to the tunes of DJ Hi-tone and other Tilburg University professors, make sure you don’t miss out on the Night of the Profs on the 15th of November.

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