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CRACK

5 DJs and producers on adapting to the work-from-home era

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On an individual level, the pandemic has changed the way we go about our day-to-day lives, shifting routines and behaviours.

For artists, particularly those who rely on tours, gigs and an appetite for club-driven material, there’s been a pressure to adapt practices, reconsider output and channel creativity in new ways. From finding the time to listen closer, setting up broadcasts from the kitchen and making the most of vital artist initiatives – it’s been a marked period of change.

We caught up with five producers and DJs, some with catalogues of material and others who are just starting out, to find out how they’ve been staying inspired. We also got guided tours round their home setups complete with Pioneer DJ HDJ-CUE1 headphones. Here’s what they’ve been working on while staying in.

Yazzus

London-based DJ and producer drawn to rave, hardcore, ghetto tech and other ‘scream if you want to go faster’ sounds. She’s part of 6 Figure Gang, the six-piece collective that includes SHERELLE, FAUZIA, Jossy Mitsu, Dobby and LCY. 

In some ways, lockdown has been fruitful for Yazzus. Prior to this year, she had a rather compact catalogue of work that included an EP on Mad Decent sub-label Good Enuff and a stack of self-releases. Work commitments as a DJ and production tutor plus a busy gig schedule meant production was never something she had the time to fully focus on. Now though, after a successful Bandcamp Friday [a fee-waiving initiative/day launched to give direct-to-artist profits on a monthly basis] back in May, she’s been inspired to write more music and has been busy working on solo projects as well as remixes and compilation contributions. “The workflow has been there, so I’m just using the opportunities around me; things that could have only happened with Covid, like Bandcamp Friday,” she says. 

She lives in a warehouse with other producers, so in their communal space you can often find them mixing on their home set-up or on their laptops working into the early hours. Seeing as she’s spending more time at home with her set-up, it’s only natural she’s been researching what to add to it next. Right now, the Roland MC-505 is pretty high on her shopping list.

As someone who listens to music “24/7”, headphones are essential in both her personal and professional life, too. “I’ve always grown up with some sort of iPod or MP3, so headphones are like a body part. I have to have them for general listening, like if I’m on the bus, when I’m DJing, of course, and if I’m testing out my production or even using them as production,” she says.

Cooking up tunes (and watching anime) has helped her maintain her creativity levels. Sometimes though, she needs to find other ways to stay inspired. Active listening is one of her favourite methods (“I’m really just listening like, what has this producer done? Why do I love this song so much? Ok, it’s the synth, for example”) alongside off-loading on fellow creatives and remembering why she’s drawn to music in the first place. “For me, the reason why I don’t really get stressed is because I’m like, ‘Music is my shit’. This is my passion. Whatever I’m doing, it’s always music. I want to travel the world and I want to play out, that’s my constant goal. I never lose sight of that.”

@yazzus__

Otik

Bristol native who’s gone from rising star to established DJ and producer with a clear sonic signature and a weighty back catalogue with releases on labels like Gobstopper, Keysound and DEXT Recordings. During lockdown Otik has recorded mixes for Lobster Theremin, Reprezent Radio, OpenLab Radio and more.

Otik, sparked by an obvious influx in alone time, furlough from his non-music job and a new house, spent a lot of time alone in those first few months which allowed him to work on music in a way he never has before. “I’m putting a lot less pressure on myself now and just work on things when I get the pang for it instead of forcing myself to do it when I don’t really feel inspired or up for it,” he says. “I’ve learned to not force it now and make stuff when I really feel like I want to, otherwise you just feel like you’re wasting a lot of time.”

Before Covid, he was juggling his music career on one hand and a pretty much full-time day job on the other. In some respects, the time at home and away from his usual day-to-day routine has been a blessing for him. It’s given him an opportunity to solely focus on music – be it mixes or personal projects – for the first time, but perhaps not the last. “In a way, it’s made me realise that I could probably just not go back to work and go full-time with this and take the risk, because I think I could probably do it,” he says.

In terms of his set-up, Otik isn’t one to move things around too much. For the most part, it all stays in one location. Sometimes though he enjoys working from bed on his laptop before going to sleep. That’s when headphones come in handy – aside from when he’s travelling – as he can mix down without monitors. 

He’s also taken more risks with his sound and pushed his boundaries a little more, simply as he has the time to experiment and explore various genres and BPMs. Some of his lockdown mixes, for example, coming in between 80 and 100 BPM, a move away from his standard breaksy 120/30. His new place has been inspiring a shift in his output too. It’s proximity to a park, and the warm weather the UK experienced for much of the lockdown, leading to increased levels of positivity in his music.

@ot1k

Leo Mandella

Fashion circuit favourite who turned his attention to DJ-ing and radio presenting during lockdown. He launched Kitchen Radio, a live-streamed radio show with guests like Annie Mac, Mike Skinner and Conducta.

For those into fashion, streetwear and influencer culture Leo Mandella is a name you’ll recognise. Though his musical ventures may not be quite so familiar. Behind the scenes and away from Instagram, Leo’s been quietly learning the ropes as a DJ. It’s something he first tried out around five years ago and has led to bookings across the world.

During lockdown he’s found a new way to practice DJ-ing and introduce his loyal audience to another one of his creative passions: Kitchen Radio, a radio show based out of, well, his kitchen. What started out as Leo and his brother playing around with their set-up and mixing while bored at home eventually evolved into the weekly show. The DIY vibe of Kitchen Radio, coupled with a blockbuster line-up of guests (J Balvin, Lil Yachty, Mike Skinner, Conducta, Annie Mac and more) made it an instant hit with thousands tuning in each week.

 

Annie Mac’s enduring status as a broadcaster, curator and public figure makes her a bit of an inspiration for Leo. “When I interviewed Annie she said: ‘This is a really good stepping stone for you because it shows that you’re serious about DJing, it shows your radio voice, it shows you’re capable of keeping people interested for two hours.” 

That’s not to say music is solely a professional thing for Leo though. He needs music at all times, he says, even if he’s consuming it via Tik Tok or Instagram, at home or on the go. And when it comes to DJ-ing: “Having a good pair of headphones is probably on the same level as having a good track selection.”

“With certain people like DJ-wise, I didn’t really have a lot to talk to them about before this because they didn’t know that I was serious about DJ-ing. Now I can chat to them about this and have actual in-depth industry conversations, which I can never have about clothes because it’s completely different.”

Follow Leo here

Elkka

London-based DJ, producer and label boss. Back in 2016 Elkka founded collective and imprint femme culture with DJ and artist manager Ludo. She’s released her own work via the label, projects from names like Ehua and Ariel Zetina, alongside an annual UN Women Compilation.

In July Elkka released her ‘I. Miss. Raving.’ EP. The title track in particular is something she never would have made prior to lockdown. Not that she intended to document her emotions via her music. Rather, it simply poured out of her in subconscious fashion in only a couple of hours. Her typically warm, enchanting sound loaded with anger, concern and a hint of nostalgia. “When I used to be a songwriter, my thoughts and feelings would come out organically through lyrics. But with music, it’s less traceable in some ways. That track was just, ‘This is how I’m feeling’. It’s really true to what that moment was,” she says.

Her desire to create during lockdown has come and gone in waves. At the beginning, she was making the most of the time. Relatably though, there came a point when it was important to focus energy elsewhere. During those periods, Elkka tried to be productive in ways that didn’t rely on meeting goals, or adding extra pressure onto an already stressful situation. “I was pressuring myself to be like, ‘Right, here’s the album. This is the time to sit down and write,” she admits. “It hasn’t worked out that way but I’ve managed to get quite a lot done. I just want to come away from this time feeling like it wasn’t wasted, but that can be measured in a number of ways.”

She’s also spent more time on YouTube watching various production tutorials. “I’ve really enjoyed being a bit of a YouTube geek and watching all these tutorials for plug-ins that I use and things that I never knew I could utilise,” she says. “[Before] I would just kind of grab what I needed in the moment when I was writing and then stick to my comfort zone so much.” 

Elsewhere, she’s been reading loads and prioritised her interests in fitness. Activities that feed and nurture the soul just as important right now as her creative endeavours. Headphones play a role too. Elkka listens for pleasure while walking around London, going to meetings and heading to gigs – pre-Covid. Taking the time to be a fan, as she puts it. They are equally important in the studio. “I pivot constantly between speakers and headphones to get an understanding of how the music is sounding in different contexts,” she says. “It really matters to me how people hear it when they’re also walking about on the street. You can get lost in that, but I think it’s really important.”

@elkkamusic


New World Ray

New World Ray is a London-based hip hop artist whose music falls on the more alternative, outskirts of the genre. With lyrics and beats that lend themselves to an introspective listening experience, lockdown led to Ray embarking on a deeper period of self-reflection and inspiration sourcing. The result? A whole new album. 

For some, lockdown led to unexpected self discoveries, habit changes and mood swings. For New World Ray, though, he found himself acknowledging and strengthening character traits he’s always had. For example, he’s always been the type to prioritise creativity in whatever way he can and on a daily basis. He continued doing this during lockdown, the prospects of a new album adding an additional focus area. 

“Being on my own, I really tapped into a new creative side for me,” he says. “I think I made some of the best music I’ve ever made in my life.” The album, titled ‘SPACEBOY!’, was in the works prior to lockdown. But of late, he’s found himself going back through the project in order to tap into the exact sound and type of production that he wants. He’s also reached out to potential collaborators and established new connections. 

Ray realised just how much he enjoys working in a home studio. He kind of knew this before, he explains, simply as it’s how he started out making music, anyway. The ease and access that comes from a home set-up essential if he’s to record every day as he’d like to. “You know, there’s always some kind of new energy you feel when you wake up. And if you record every day, you can express that new energy that you have,” he explains. He consumes music on the daily, too, largely via his headphones. 

Making music at home also presents more opportunities to be spontaneous, and a chance to be a little less rigid when it comes to scheduling and planning. “Sometimes during quarantine I’d wake up early, like 6am, and start recording,” he says. His bedroom set-up made this super easy. The time taken for Ray to roll out of bed in the morning and sit down at his desk only a matter of minutes. When he feels like a change of scenery, he’ll move everything to his living room. It’s a process he repeats whenever he’s seeking inspiration. It’s something he’d recommend to others with writer’s block or in a creative drought. Any other advice? “It’s okay to take a little break and focus on other things. That way, you can come back with fresh ideas and redefine your passion for it.”

@newworldray

Creative: Michelle Helena Janssen

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