Radio DJ & Radio Producer
Reprezent / XL Recordings
"No one’s going to tell you no, as long as you’ve got a bit of skill or a bit of interest or passion to back it up. They only ever want to see more talent come through, there’s no doubt about that in my mind."
By Isabella Ford,
11th March 2018
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A-levels: Art, Drama, Spanish
University of Leeds
Degree: Art and Design
When did you realise that music was the industry you wanted to work in?
Well, I realised, not that I hated my degree, but I had enough of doing it. I’m not very good at taking orders from people regarding creative work. I didn’t want to work in any form of artistic industry with visuals because it’s my favourite thing to do; it was just making me sad, working really hard and having someone come in and tell me, ‘No.’
I’ve always listened to music whilst doing art, so I joined the student radio. I felt under-stimulated by my university degree and needed some more extracurricular stuff, because when I was at school, I was a bit of a maniac - I’ll do charity committee, I’ll do sport, I’ll do it all. And then I got to uni and just thought, you know what? I want to do student radio; I fancy it, I fancy the sound of my own voice, just a bit.
As soon as I started doing my radio show, I was enjoying it more than my degree, I was enjoying it more than anything I had been doing over the past two years.
Do you create any of your own music?
No, but I’ve made a few refixes, so remixes of old songs. I have a lot of friends who are musicians and all produce, fortunate for me, and make nice little remixes of what I want or they send me their music.
There’s this guy called Architect who is part of our collective called Prestige Pak and we’ve made a few remixes of songs but unfortunately I cannot make the tunes myself. I haven’t learnt how to produce but hopefully one day I’ll get there.
I think that right now - how ubiquitous music-making programs are - it has allowed for there to be more producers in the world than any point before, so that’s a good thing , but also maybe I don’t need to try and be one too.
Yeah, definitely something to look into.
Oh without a doubt. It would be sick purely because it’s a really good way of getting your own DJ name out there a bit more, make tracks that people can listen to and you can put in your sets.
How did you get involved with Reprezent Radio?
Well, it’s down the road from my house and I’d heard about them, I knew about them for ages, but it’s actually because of a very convenient happening.
I was working at a place called Pop Brixton, which is now where the station is based. I went back to university for my last year and my mum had been trying to chat to them like, ‘Oh, my daughter, give her a job, she does radio’.
By the time I finished, I was in my last year and I was leaving to go to work and ran into one of the presenters at Reprezent, who was really nice. We just got chatting and he gave me the station manager’s email.
Then I started finishing my dissertation and realised I was going to be graduating in two months and I was like what do I do? So I emailed Reprezent and said, “Look, I would love to come and work for you, I will volunteer, I’ll do anything”. They invited me to a meeting and the station manager asked what music I played on my show. So I said, “Oh, dancehall” and then I got a show because conveniently they needed a dancehall DJ.
That’s so exciting; right place, right time then.
It was literally perfect timing, the stars aligned.
So you can give me a little bit of a lesson in dancehall music…
Oh my god, amazing.
I am a little bit familiar, but not really familiar. So, what does dancehall mean to you?
Well, I’m half Jamaican and dancehall’s like a wider term for all Jamaican music made after reggae, if that makes sense. It’s like an umbrella term. So, contemporary dancehall, which is what I listen to mainly, is called bashment. A CD my friend gave me is called 100% Bashment, and I was like THAT is what my motto is.
But what does it mean to me? It’s quite close to my heart because I’m half Jamaican, but not like in a soppy way - "it makes me feel connected to my land". I went to my cousin’s wedding a few years ago and they were just banging out this dancehall music and it was amazing.
But the reason why I love dancehall music so much is a festival I went to about seven years ago which is in Spain and it’s a reggae and dancehall festival. To be honest, dancehall is the best thing to make a party happen, I’ve seen it so many times.
I started interning for Heatwave, which is a dancehall duo - they were playing their party called ‘hot wuk’ in Manchester and I somehow managed to convince them to do an interview and from there, we became associates of sorts, and quite pally.
So I said to the guy, could you teach me how to DJ? And he said, “No way, you’re just gonna have to watch me.” And from there I would stand behind the decks at everyone of their parties and saw the power of the dancehall from the other side of the party: everyone has so much fun.
So that’s what dancehall means to me. And playing it out at parties means that you’re part of creating a lot of fun for a lot of people. Also it means I get to share a bit, technically share a bit of my motherland, which quite a nice feeling
So this guy, would you say he was a mentor to you?
An unofficial one, yes, without a doubt. They’ve been a massive influence on me.
If you were going to introduce someone to dancehall that had never heard of it before, and you really wanted to sell it to them and for them to like it, who would be the artist that you would introduce them with?
I mean, there’s two answers to that, the politically correct answer and then there’s the real answer.
So the politically correct one is obviously just Sean Paul, because I’m pretty sure that anyone who was born in the 90’s will have heard a Sean Paul song, that is just that. He’s been making bangers for like 2 decades.
But the non-PC answer, and real answer, is an artist called Vybz Kartel, who literally is like a dancehall fairytale. This guy’s life, you couldn’t make it up. He’s now in prison for gang-related homicide, and he’s still releasing music. Everyone may have known that Vybz Kartel is criminally devious, but he’s also everything that epitomises the dancehall culture, in my eyes anyway. Some people very much disagree with that, but he is dancehall, everyone in the game respects Vybz Kartel and hypes him up.
So, the commercial artist answer is Sean Paul, but really Vybz Kartel.
So do you welcome or reject pop music’s adoption of Caribbean music such as dancehall and reggae?
Oh my god, this is the best question you could have asked me because all I do every single week on my radio show is essentially bring that up.
The only thing I really resent is the term tropical house, it’s actually offensive. It ties really closely into this whole idea of cultural appropriation, which pisses me off to the high heavens. It really irritates me because I’m mixed-race, so I can’t run around saying, “Dancehall’s mine, totally mine”, because half of my genetics are Italian. But cultural appropriation is really hot right now – a lot of people want to be like, “Why are there so many white people doing dancehall music?”
It’s not about that - in my head, music is about uniting people and bringing people together because music so many times in history has been pivotal in improving race relations, particularly England and. That’s what I did my dissertation on in the end; I wrote a massive wadge of essay about the fact that music and art have been instrumental in society in helping break down racial barriers, particularly sound system culture in England.
The 1940s and the 1950s saw significant proportion of caribbean people immigrate england to help rebuild post-war Britain - it's known as the windrush generation. At one point or another people, like my grandma, who were part of the windrush generation, would have experienced forms of racism and microaggressions related to their race.
Eventually, people started listening to similar music and were like, “Ooooooh this isn’t so bad… Can I come to the same party as you?” Eventually, people started dancing together... and then boom. Mixed race babies were made.
So music is instrumental in bringing people together, in every shape and form. Pop music using dancehall and dancehall beats is only going to benefit the dancehall scene by getting the sound out there, so people are more familiar with it.
The only thing that really, really grinds my gears, that pisses me off, is that the commercial success of these pop songs (like Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’) isn’t going to be fed back into the dancehall industry. That’s where I would draw my line, on people like Drake sometimes featuring dancehall artists but sometimes not featuring them in songs or the title. He brought Popcaan through on a global level - I was in McDonalds once and Popcaan came on, that’s mad, mad mainstream music. It’s amazing for me to hear one of my favourite artists out in a mainstream setting because it’ll bring more commercial money.
But it’s a very interesting relationship, it’s a dichotomy. There’s positives, there aren’t too many negatives, it’s money, it’s a money-related issue, because the dancehall scene needs a bit more money going through it. If only people were a bit more genuine with their interests rather than just wanting to appropriate it; don’t just borrow the sound for your financial gain.
That’s super interesting, I never really thought about it like that.
Yeah it drives me insane and it’s all I talk about - “URRRGH, DRAKE, STOP IT.” But he won’t, he just won’t. And Ed Sheeran releasing that dancehall tune – yeah that was it, that was the end. Ed Sheeran’s 'Shape of You' really takes the piss.
What tips would you give to any aspiring female DJs?
Just keep playing, never ever stop grinding. Never stop making mixes, going out to clubs to just befriend people because people are actually really, really positive and welcoming of female DJs. It’s a really positive thing; I think women who are in the audience, when they see a female DJ, they’re like, “Aaaah yes go on girl!”
That element of girlpower is really reinforced, but I also think that a lot of men in the industry are quite encouraging and want you to do well. Loads of people I know have given me opportunities because they want to see more female DJs in the game. There are inequality issues within the music industry for women, but there are spaces.
You should just go out and pursue it because if you’re really interested in it and passionate about it and show that, then they’ll accept you. That’s literally what happened with me and dancehall. The only reason why people started listening to me is because I care so much about it and listen to it constantly and will not stop fucking talking about Vybz Kartel or Sean Paul releasing a track with Sia.
But for women in the industry, and young girls, just fucking go out there and carpe diem and never, ever stop. No one’s going to tell you no, as long as you’ve got a bit of skill or a bit of interest or passion to back it up. They only ever want to see more talent come through, there’s no doubt about that in my mind.
That’s really good advice. My next question was going to ask whether you think women are underrepresented in the DJ industry, which you’ve touched upon there briefly - do you think it’s growing or changing in any way?
It is a bit of ‘Boys’ Club’. It massively varies genre to genre. I mean, if you look at Madam X, she’s an example I can think of who is penetrating what I’d say is boys’ stuff - the heavy bass lines, which are far more popular with male crowds. Annie Mac is the other obvious go-to example because she has absolutely infiltrated it from day one; she was really interested in it and it was fucking good, so people gave her a shot and said, “This girl can do it.”
So there is definitely an increase in the amount of women getting into DJing, there’s no doubt about that. I can give serious kudos to our station, who work very hard to make sure it’s 50/50 split girls and boys being involved in every aspect.
But I would say that there is still definitely less women involved in the organisational aspects of music, there isn’t a doubt about that in my mind.
What would you say is the best and worst thing about being a DJ?
The best thing about being a DJ is seeing people enjoying themselves to the music that you’ve picked. Nothing genuinely brings me more joy in the world than slamming on a song that everyone wants to listen to and it creates that kind of environment or vibe. The vibe, people think it’s quite a moist word to use but it does create a vibe.
Once you’ve procured that environment in the room and the crowd is happy, you can see it’s like ultimate hedonism. It’s like ultimate escapism. Hedonism and escapism. Get all your problems away. Look how horrible the world was in 2017: Donald Trump is about, everywhere is terrible, not even just Donald Trump, he’s the tip of the iceberg, there are so many awful things going on. So giving people a little breather of happiness, if I can contribute to that, that will make me very happy. It’s quite a selfish thing actually, but I’ll take it.
Worst thing? Probably having to say to people, “I’m a DJ” and they look at you like you’re some kind of fuckwit. You speak to some people and they’re like, “Oh, I’m a lawyer at Goldman Sachs” and I’ll be like, “Oh well, I go out to parties.”
Obviously you can reach a level in the industry which is really well-respected and hard earned, But from outside the industry, people just assume your life is just about going to clubs and getting waved and just living it up but really holding down over 5 radio shows a month, plus DJ sets every weekend -isn’t the party people think it's cracked up to be.
But anyone that’s a DJ, a really good one, must be a bit of a geek because that’s what it requires you to do: stay in your house for hours on end. To be a really good DJ, you’re there for the music, you’re not really there for the lifestyle, and you can tell pretty quickly if someone’s just there for the lifestyle.
So the extra connotations about being a DJ, perhaps that’s the worst thing. But it’s still not that bad, still get paid, can’t complain.
What sort of skills do you think are good if you want to be a DJ? So what sort of skills should you be looking at nurturing?
I mean, if you can count to 4, you’re probably good to go. That’s a start. I’m not even joking.
If you do look at decks, they do look really complicated and overwhelming. But now there’s a lot of DJ equipment that’s pretty inexpensive, like controllers you can get that are really cheap. I haven’t got a full set of decks, I started on a tiny controller because I just wanted to make my radio show really smooth.
Just an interest in music. That’s the only skill you need. Actually being interested in the music you want to play. Like Skepta – Skepta was a DJ! Before he was a rapper, he was primarily a DJ because he’s obviously really interested in music and can count to four… in time.
You really just need a pair of ears and then perseverance and commitment to practising a lot. I also think it’s quite difficult to be a DJ if you only listen to yourself as a reference. You need to go and see other people DJ, to listen to a load of radio shows. It’s about your level of interest; some people might have a natural knack for it or a natural flair, but at the end of the day it’s like a computer game. It’s just pressing a whole series of buttons at the right time.
Moving onto our final three questions, these are a bit more broad. So where do you see yourself in ten years?
Oh God, no don’t. As soon as I finished school, I literally had a five year plan but I threw it out the window when I went to university.
In ten years, ideally I would be working as a radio presenter on a popular network you may have heard of called the BBC? That would be the dream really. Maybe own my own car by then? Hopefully I’ll have a car in ten years. Hopefully I would have travelled a bit more. That’s it.
I don’t tend to think of the future too much because a lot of people say you can’t be a DJ forever because it’s a young person’s game. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I just want to see where it will take me. Art has always been important to me so working out how to incorporate that into what i’m doing now- ideally, I would have started directing some music videos and getting more involved in the visual aspect of the music industry.
That would be cool actually.
Or maybe working for a label, helping nurture talent. That’s something I’d like to do. But yeah, it’s cool. Hard question.
Yeah I knew I was throwing a curveball in there.
Tough interviewer – I like it.
Thanks. This one’s way easier, so you’re fine. If you were a cocktail, what would you be and why?
If I was a cocktail? Ooooh! Yeah Dark n Stormy all the way. Although technically, just a Rum n Ting. Appleton Rum, a little Ting, that’s me through and through. Because that’s the bread and butter of everything that you would want to consume in a dancehall rave. A little bit sweet, a little bit citrusy.
Sweet. Okay, final question: what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? It doesn’t have to be DJ-related.
Best piece of advice I’ve ever heard… arguably, don’t move out of London, despite all the pressures, despite all the rent, don’t. Don’t be tied to London, but also don’t leave. I feel very strongly about the South East of London.
Trust no one? Arguably? Trust no one. Probably something my mum said like Keep trying. Oh no, I do know the best piece of advice, something my mum told me: if you do something, do it properly or not at all.
Great - I’m still going to put ‘trust no one’ on the interview because it’s so dark and it came out of nowhere.
It’s so funny, my best friend - who has been pretty crucial to enabling my DJ career actually - we say it to each other kind of in a joking way. But also I think we have started to mean it the more we say it. It’s our one rule: Trust. NO one. Only people trust people who have earned it.