Words by:
Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Set Design: Kenechi Amamgbo
Project Manager: Daniel Falodun
Styling: Korede Alabi
Hair and Makeup: Blessing Kambanga
Editor: Tshepo Mokoena

On a quiet Friday afternoon, Mali Larrington-Nelson walks through the warehouse district bridging Tottenham Hale and Seven Sisters and remembers the ghosts of club nights past. This part of north London holds a trove of memories for the longtime DJ and producer.

She stops in front of the old site of Five Miles – a victim of London’s relentless venue closures alongside another local institution the Cause – and shares her experiences of partying and playing in them both, slightly hazy now after years on the club circuit. Five Miles’ facade is the same, but looks different in the daylight and is now home to the offshoot of Peckham’s listening bar Jumbi. She’s been meaning to check it out: it’s co-run by her friend, the DJ Bradley Zero, and catered by her old housemate’s sibling, with sound engineering by her cousin.

SHY ONE wears: Jumper: Carhartt, Trousers: Bianca Saunders, Shoes: Birkenstock

It’s clear how deeply embedded Larrington-Nelson is in the capital’s nightlife. We’re far away from where she grew up in northwest London, and where she now lives in the south, but it could almost be mistaken for her own ends: throughout our lunch in the area, she spots around five people she knows and stops to catch up. “That’s so weird, I was literally just listening to your show!” one laughs.

This familiarity makes sense for someone who’s been plugged into various pockets of London’s music scene for the past 20 years. Larrington-Nelson plays in clubs around the city and further afield almost every weekend, and has released on renowned underground labels including Scratcha’s DVA Music and Alexander Nut’s Eglo Records. Each week, she reaches thousands of listeners through her radio shows on NTS and Balamii, which span from meditative soul and jazz to grime and peak-time club music. But her status as a club music luminary has been a long time in the making. “I’ve basically only been full-time in music since last July,” she says, frankly. “It’s still mad recent.”

Larrington-Nelson grew up on the outskirts of London, in Harrow, and sought solace from “the sticks” by listening to pirate radio at home. Her mum, a seasoned raver, introduced her to everything from neo-soul and hip-hop to jungle, UK funky and garage; she remembers her first time hearing brokenbeat around the age of ten via mix CDs from family friends who were immersed in that world. These early encounters granted her a taste beyond her years, something you can still trace through her output as a DJ and producer. “I was too young to go to places like Co-op, but I was exposed to the music at the same time,” she says, breezily. “Instead of hearing it in the club, my mum was just playing me the stuff in her car while we were driving around the city. I loved it.”

SHY ONE wears: Hat: Universal Works, Jumper: YMC, T-shirt: Nicholas Daley, Trousers: Dickies, Boots: Dr. Martens

With little for young people to do in the area, she enrolled on to a six-week DJ course at the youth centre her mum worked near Mozart Estate, learning how to mix records under the tutelage of DMC champion DJ Blakey aged 13. “He was a scratch wizard, beat juggling and all of that stuff behind the back,” she says, reaching away from the table to impersonate his technique. “It was sick.”

She began pooling together her pocket money to buy records of her own, collecting releases by the likes of Wiley, Musical Mob, DaVinci and Boss Man from spots in Soho. “My dad would give me £5 a week, so I would save it up and just buy a bunch in bulk,” she says, smiling as she recalls those early trips to Uptown, Dark and Cold and the now-defunct Black Market. “They would be like £6.99 if you got the cheapest, so I could get a few and that would be me sorted.” By 14, she was DJing with a grime crew who would meet in a West Kensington studio that belonged to street soul cult hero Rick Clarke. Even by her standards today, it was pretty serious stuff; she reckons it was probably full of the hardware she’s interested in buying now.

As she outlines a typical day from the time, she adopts a cadence that almost tricks you into thinking it was just yesterday. “I’d lug my whole record bag from south Harrow – and I was little. My boy would pick me up from the station on his BMX, I’d get on the front, hold the record bag, and then he’d ride us to the studio.” They’d mix for hours on end, with breaks for “chatting shit and eating chips”.

SHY ONE wears: Jumper: Carhartt, Trousers: Bianca Saunders, Shoes: Birkenstock

Aside from her early visits to the Kiss FM studios as a toddler where her dad – British DJ and radio personality Trevor Nelson – had a show, Larrington-Nelson’s first hands-on experience of broadcasting was through the youth club community radio, which reached local areas. “They’d get a temporary licence that would only broadcast within a mile or two radius. It might not have even stretched to Ladbroke Grove,” she says, smiling. It sparked a lasting affinity with the medium: she moved to pirate radio aged 16, and would go on to host on stations including Radar, Nasty FM and BBC Radio 1.

When I ask if she had an alias at the time, she bursts out laughing. She tells me how after scanning the dictionary for words related to her birth name, she settled on DJ Malicious. “In grime, you know, you want it Devilish, Lady Killa, you want a scary name,” she says with a mock swagger, before smirking: “Malicious was mine.”

The Shy One pseudonym followed shortly after when she started making beats on Fruity Loops. She thought releasing music under an anonymous, gender-neutral name would get people to take her seriously. It was supposed to be temporary, but it stuck. “I wanted honest opinions, not all the, ‘It’s good for a girl’s stuff,” she says, before describing her early output. “I call it grime, but it wasn’t straightforward grime. And not in a way that it’s all avant-garde and different,” she continues, adopting an airy fairy voice. “I just think it wasn’t good.” After sending beats to MCs over MSN, they eventually caught the attention of Scratcha DVA, who released her first EP and album in 2011 and 2012 respectively; a few years later, she was invited to co-host the DVA Music Show on NTS.

SHY ONE wears: Hat: Universal Works, Jumper: YMC, T-shirt: Nicholas Daley, Trousers: Dickies, Boots: Dr. Martens

Now aged 33, she hosts Soup to Nuts on the station every Wednesday from 11 a.m., getting people’s days going with dreamy soothers and light pumpers paired with the familiar, informal patter you’d expect from an old mate. Although it’s her first time helming such an early slot, it’s here where her expertise and pirate roots shine. “The way I host is definitely more pirate than national radio,” she says, with a warranted confidence. “That means prioritising the music being good, but also having this standard of mixing music which you’re not gonna hear on national radio. And of course, the interactivity, acknowledging your listeners and having some sort of line of communication between you.”

Aside from the opportunity to present a different side to herself than the one many see in the club, and the healthy pressure to keep digging, she most enjoys the daytime show’s active chat room. “I really love that part because when I was listening to pirate as a kid, you’d text in or you’d do your missed call to get the wheel up, and they might even shout the last three digits of your number, it was sick,” she says, animatedly. “You feel like you’re a part of something. I love how intimate it is.”

“Ignorance is the best thing for creativity. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re free”

When not on the airwaves or in the booth, Larrington-Nelson spends her time in the studio. Connecting the dots between jazz, R&B, piano house, bass and much more, her music is sometimes calming, sometimes raucous, but “always soulful”, she notes. Perhaps surprisingly, she says her background in grime still resonates, even in the soft, squelchy textures of her most recent EP, last year’s From the Floor to the Booth. “It’s the BPM, firstly. One of the tracks is 138 or something, and grime is 140, that’s the marker. And then it’s the way I’ve sampled, chopping up stuff, hip-hop style,” she tells me in a no-nonsense manner. “It’s also the sounds I’ve used. What I love about grime is you’re not trying to make people dance, you’re making beats. I realised that I make music more from the point of view of a listener, not a dancer: I don’t make shit thinking, ‘Yeah, this drop’s gonna get them going, it’s gonna get their hands up.’ When I’m not trying to force something for the dancefloor, that’s always the best.”

After a busy summer of festivals, international gigs and remix deadlines, she’s excited to get back into the studio to work on her long-awaited second album; to “create freely” without the input of others, and without overthinking. “As a kid, I could churn out multiple beats a night. It’s like, ‘Wow, what did I have then that I don’t have now?’” she says, plaintively. “Man, ignorance is the best thing for creativity. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s when you’re free.”

SHY ONE wears: Hat: Universal Works, Jumper: YMC, T-shirt: Nicholas Daley, Trousers: Dickies, Boots: Dr. Martens

Across her long stint as both a punter and an artist, Larrington-Nelson has seen London nightlife change a lot, most notably due to the closure of small capacity DIY venues and the subsequent ascendancy of high-production superclubs. “DJing didn’t feel as performative before, with all the lights and stages,” she says, sighing. “We’ve lost a shitload of clubs, especially the cool, smaller ones, and I think maybe that’s why. Because that shit doesn’t run in there. There seems to be a shift in what’s really valued and what’s promoted.” It’s a shift she’s determined to resist: “I’m not gonna jump up and down, I’m not gonna make you clap your hands, I’m not doing fucking choreo. I’m just playing other people’s music.”

She reflects on the lost parties too, particularly those organised by Black queer collective BBZ between 2015 and 2020. The events provided “a brave space for that particular community to embrace each other, [and] embrace themselves,” co-founder Tia Simon-Campbell told Crack in 2017. That same year, Larrington-Nelson was brought on board as resident DJ, putting a firm emphasis on top-tier music, from R&B and hip-hop edits to Afrobeats. “I was like, ‘Can we please focus on having good quality sounds and DJs who can play well, rather than just booking people because they’re queer?’” she says, matter-of-factly. “Not to throw shade, but I don’t think that’s valued in a lot of other queer nights.” She also respected BBZ’s commitment to keeping things “hush” by regularly switching up the venues and operating a strict door policy, complete with a password. “It was so fucking necessary. Man, nothing has ever filled that hole,” she tells me, clearly still stung. “I don’t know if anything will.”

SHY ONE wears: Hat: Universal Works, Jumper: YMC, T-shirt: Nicholas Daley, Trousers: Dickies, Boots: Dr. Martens

Earlier this year, she launched Private World with her girlfriend, DJ and radio host Ruby Savage, at Brixton’s beloved DIY space Spanners. Playing b2b all night long, it’s a breather from the usual club slots the pair are assigned, allowing them room to play whatever they want, whenever they want. They’ll flit between post-punk and techno, R&B and jazz-funk, reggae and house, always guided by instinct rather than BPM.

“We’re so comfortable with each other, so we can be honest and communicate freely,” Larrington-Nelson tells me, breaking into yet another smile. “But then there’s also that joy. Because maybe Ruby will play something for me, and she’ll be like, ‘I know you’re gonna love this one.’ It’s like a little dedication.” The event draws on their genre-defying radio shows as well as their memorable experiences raving in London’s iconic – and since shuttered – venues. “We want a small intimate space where we can have more freedom, musically. No frills, none of that other BS. It may sound a bit cliche but it’s just a night for the heads, for the steppers, for the lovers.”

“We’ve lost a shitload of clubs, especially the cool, smaller ones. There seems to be a shift in what’s really valued and what’s promoted”

Though it’s attracted a devoted crowd over just two events so far, Private World is run for love rather than money. They’re lucky if they break even, Larrington-Nelson says. Her candour about making it work in the music industry is refreshing; she’s always been vocal on social media about her history of retail and other low-paid jobs, in a bid to be transparent to other young DJs. Today, she speaks openly about how her twenties were clouded by mental health issues and tells me that this is her first year of not being broke.

“I had this really unrealistic expectation. I thought that everyone was living off music. But then I was like, ‘Oh, no, you all secretly have nine-to-five jobs, or you secretly have jobs in the industry,’” she says, eyes widening. “I cut myself a bunch of slack about not rising so quick, or having this big come up because if you’ve only ever had shit jobs, you don’t have this behind-the-scenes insight or the connections.” She continues: “That’s why I was always very open about going to work, and that no, music is not my bread and butter.”

After a long grind, Larrington-Nelson says she feels she’s now in a decent position: she’s doing what she loves and is finally being “very fairly compensated” for it. It’s a relief, but she’s far from settling. “Making music, doing radio, playing out in clubs: it all nourishes me in different ways,” she says earnestly as our chat draws to a close. “I want to keep doing it all.”

From the Floor to the Booth is out now via Eglo Records