Interview: DJ Yoda
I was drunk and messy and slobbering over my poor boyfriend. But I did notice the above with bleary eyes and I'm super happy that people liked the DJs wot I picked (Doc Daneeka, Greenmoney, CNTRST/SDUK and Heavenly Jukebox were all rather smashing too) and lost their shit and lost half their body weight with sweating so much.
Anyway, I interviewed the lovely DJ Yoda (aka Duncan Beiny) before the show. You can read the short and sweet version in Time Out (Issue 2072), but you can read the full –and ohmygodyouresuchanicemanyoda– interview after the jump. Or, if you click on the jump. Or jump on the jump.
When it comes to mashing up hip hop’s various bastard genres, DJ Yoda is the capital’s ultimate party-starter. The North Finchley-born turntablist and audiovisual innovator can fire up his decks in front of 20,000 people and get every single one pogoing to ’80s theme tunes, and, at the same time, rock an intimate basement with fresh native sounds from across the urban spectrum. At least that's what he'll be doing at our first club night of the year, Nite Sessions at East Village, where he'll be unveiling – or, rather, unleashing – a specially made-for-Time-Out clubbing through the decades set in the basement rave space.
Oh, and he's also one of the nicest men in clubland, one of the most versatile, and he owns a dog whose breed that I really can't pronounce.
Hi Yoda, how are you? ‘I’m having a printer nightmare, I’m about to throw it out the window. It’s unbelievable: I can operate all this complicated musical technology but I can’t print out a piece of paper!’
A day on Hampstead Heath [where Yoda had his Time Out photoshoot] should calm you down?! ‘Yeah, I know the heath really well because I live right by it and I walk the dog by it every day. It is a very nice, grounding thing to do – especially when you’re in and out of flights and ferries and trains all the time.’ What kind of dog have you got? ‘She is a very complicated breed called a Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen. She’s basically just a basset-hound, but French and hairy’.
How has growing up there, in north London, influenced your musical tastes? ‘Quite a lot! The most important thing about being in London [at that time] were all the pirate radio stations, like Energy Fm, because so many of the genres of music that I play started out there. I remember hearing drum ’n’ bass and dubstep and grime all for the first time, and even dancehall stuff for the first time too. I’m really proud of it in London – you don’t really get there anywhere else.’
I was talking to Sinden last week and he had discovered that there are pockets of kids in Paris who tune in to Rinse Fm and have been making dubstep and garage as a result. It has such a huge effect on people. ‘Yeah, it’s crazy isn’t it? London really does come up with the dance music that influences the rest of the world. I remember when dubstep first started and I was playing in Asia… playing dubstep to kids in Singapore! You could see on their faces that they’d never heard anything like it. It was like confusion, followed by “this is cool” – just getting to see that on people’s faces amazed me.’
Have you had any other defining musical moments in the city? ‘Carnival has been important. My Carnival memories mainly involve my mates getting mugged while I was trying to watch the Wu Tang Clan! But I remember hearing some music for the first time at there and wanting to discover more. My first clubbing experiences were in London too: the crucial place for me was the Blue Note for the Metalheadz and the Ninja Tune nights. I watched Coldcut have pizza delivered to them, while they were playing, there and I just remember thinking: “That’s what I want to do for a living when I grow up”.’
Did you ever keep it local? ‘Oh yeah! The first time I ever DJed in public was in the shittest club of all time: in Golder’s Green next to a pizza restaurant. It’s really tacky inside. You know how some places are so bad that they’re good? This is just so bad that it’s bad.’
How is your set at East Village going to differ from your usual themed sets? ‘It really works in my favour because I’m known for playing every kind of music, so it means I can be really wide with my choice of tracks for this London-themed set. I’m going to play some British hip hop, as that’s what I grew up on, but I might go a bit deeper than that and find some influential funk and jazz. And then newer stuff, like funky and other dance sounds that are being made here.’
Is there anything that you do, or are going to do, that people don’t expect you to like or expect you to play? ‘Well, I don’t know. My philosophy behind what I play is really simple: I’m not trying to be controversial or ironic, I just genuinely like to have a laugh. So if I like a song, no matter what kind of music it is, if I think people will enjoy it, then I’ll play it. Like I said, it’s got to the point where people aren’t surprised if I play a theme tune to a TV programme, or if I play some like mental 160bpm soca, or one heavy metal track. I hope people trust me and can see that there’s some merit in it, whatever it is.’
What London sounds are inspiring you most at the moment? ‘For the past year it has definitely been dubstep, but some of that stuff is getting a bit formulaic now – and the same with a lot of the electro stuff that I’m being sent. I do play some electro stuff and a lot of that’s made in London, but there’s hardly anything new or interesting that is coming out apart from the odd one or two things.’
It has splintered too: you’ve got the full-frontal tracks and then the downtempo stuff. ‘Exactly the same thing happened with drum ’n’ bass: it reached the point where it could be either club music or home music. I wonder whether people try and get too clever with it and it takes away from what was really good about it in the first place. The same happens with a lot of genres and it takes a real genius to do something new with it.’
I find a lot of new dance music that’s hailed as exciting actually quite dark, serious and even “blokey”. Is your music an antidote to that? ‘It can be. I think a lot of DJs forget about the fact that, ultimately, people are out to party and have fun. It’s so basic that it seems ridiculous to say it! Comedy is a really important part of music too, because music should be entertaining. I like it when you’re DJing and you can see people laughing. I’d rather it was like that than with people’s ‘screw faces’ the whole time.’
How do you balance your tongue-in-cheek, quick-fire style with artistic integrity? ‘I don’t think it’s that hard because I just play stuff that I like. I would never play a song that I don’t like just because it’s popular. I know that there’s stuff that I play that DJs I’m friends with would be too embarrassed to play. But maybe because I’ve been doing this a while now I’ve got confidence in my own taste.’
Do you think it would ever be a good idea to let people get more into a tune? ‘It depends what music you’re playing. All the hip hop DJs that I looked up to when I was starting off DJ'ed like that. It’s more about displaying skills when you’re performing: if you’re just going to let a song play for five minutes and slowly mix in another, there’s software that can do that for you! I think it’s really important that, if you’re people are paying to come and watch you, you display some unique talent that no one else can do.’
Is there anything you do differently in a smaller club environment? ‘Yeah, definitely. I think in a smaller venue like East Village you get much more interaction with the crowd; you can see the whites of people’s eyes and relate to them a lot easier. It’s actually really weird playing on a stage in front of thousands of people because you sometimes feel a bit like you’re DJing to yourself as there’s no physical connection. And people aren’t coming up to you, shoving phones in your face with texts on them saying “please play this”. I get a lot of requests!’ It’d be quite awesome to have those texts projected on one of your AV screens and then play the track. ‘Yeah! I’d love to do a freestyle set where I don’t come with anything planned and people just text up to the screen and I just play that live. That would be awesome. It’s a very good idea – I’ll write that down. I think it’d be really easy – I’ve played at places before where people can text onto a screen. ’ Talking about AV stuff and visual stuff, your audiovisual show is hailed as one of the best in the world. How long does it take for you to put something like that together? ‘Ages! I keep half my shows DJ and half of them AV because you’ve got to get into such different mindsets to do either of them. The DJ thing is very spontaneous and you can take it as it comes, see what the crowd are into, go more down that direction, and decide how you feel on the night. While the AV show is like a show. I wouldn’t say it’s 100 per cent set in stone – it’s a little bit flexible – but it’s more or less a show that I perform and I come up with a new one every time I tour it. Because of the amount of technology involved to perform it live, it takes a lot of rehearsal and a lot of editing beforehand – and burning of DVDs and working out the order of music and everything – so the process of putting it together is extremely long. But it’s worth it, because I think at the end I come up with something which is unique.’ How did the last one go at The Forum? ‘It was amazing. I’m in this weird transition period at the moment between the old show and the new show. The new show will be ready in the summer for festivals, but I’m just testing out new material at the moment. So at the show at The Forum in April I threw in a whole bunch of new stuff without having totally rehearsed it loads. It was a bit more spontaneous than it normally is. I was checking out what people were thinking of all this new stuff and it was very interesting.’
Your DJ sets have equal amounts of skill and bangers, but also humour. Would you say those were the ingredients for an ultimate party DJ? ‘Yeah, I try and keep a balance between those. I keep in mind that, wherever you play, there will be people in the crowd that don’t care about what the DJ is doing specifically, they just come out to party and have a good time and dance. So I want to make sure that [despite] whatever I’m doing, there’s enough flow in the music and enough interesting sounds that those people could party and ignore that. But at the same time, for the people that are interested in DJ skills and want to watch what I’m doing carefully, I try not to leave them dissatisfied either.’ How do you balance all of that with artistic integrity? ‘I don’t think that that’s that hard, actually, because, like I said, I just play stuff that I like. I would never play a song that I don’t like because I think it’s popular. So I don’t think there’s ever a problem with artistic integrity. I know that there’s stuff that I play that DJs I’m friends with would be too embarrassed to play. And maybe I’ve just been doing this awhile now, so I’ve got that confidence in my own taste, that if anyone was ever to challenge me, I’d be just like ‘This is wicked. You’re mad’. Does being cutting-edge and cool bother you? ‘That’s a difficult question to answer, because I only play what I think is cool. When I toured in Australia in January with my AV show, I ended it with that song ‘You’re The Voice’ by John Farnham, which is a cheesy ’80s song that was massive in Australia. But I love it. And I know that other DJs might feel that’s too cheesy, but I just like the song and I can see the reaction that it works. So no, I wouldn’t be worried about what other people think is cool, I just worry about what I think is cool. I’m only conscious of trying to come up with interesting stuff. If interesting music is coming out, then I’m keeping an eye out for it. But not just for the sake of it – I mean, I wouldn’t play new stuff just because it’s new, I’d only play new stuff if it was interesting.’ You’ve released plenty of themed mixtapes. What genres are you planning to tackle next? ‘At the moment I’m trying to get my second artist album finished, so that is prioritising itself over a new ‘Cut and Paste’ mix, although I’ve got a queue of ideas for next few! But I want to get this album finished first before I return to them. I don’t want to tell you what they are though.’
No fair! ‘I’m formulating ideas in my head, but I don’t want to put it out there because other people will start to put the idea together before I can! Suffice to say: it’s unexpected.’ We wouldn’t expect anything less1
‘I think a lot of people that are into what I do won’t think the next mix is for them, but I don’t expect everyone to like them. If you’re open-minded, you’ll like them, or if you’ve got an interest in that kind of thing, then you’ll like them.’
Would you ever release anything actually on tape T?here’s a trend coming back now, apparently. ‘Oh that’s cool! All the first things that I did were on tape. Before the ‘Cut and Paste’ mixes I had a bunch of [my own] mixtapes on cassette and that’s how I got my first record deal. I was selling those and copying them up myself and we were getting them copied illegally and doing like 5,000 of them and stuff. At that point I did the first ‘Cut and Paste’ mix and that was my first ever mix CD. So I definitely come from that background of mixtapes. All the DJs that I used to look up to when I started were all doing cassette mixes. So I would love to return to that format, yeah. Quite a lot of people have rubbish car stereos with cassette players in them still, don’t they?’ Erol Alkan does! ‘I think there’s quite a lot of people that have still got that situation going. And I actually like shit quality stuff! In all seriousness, I like shit quality, I don’t like good quality. Like the tapes that I grew up listening to were copies of tapes, that were copies of tapes, that were copies of tapes. And I think that gives it a quality – I like it.’ You once said in an old interview that you thought electroclash was contrived. Are there any new genres that mash up old genres that you feel the same way about now? ‘It’s a good question. A lot of the new genres that I like are doing that, and I really like them. Like, probably my favourite genre at the moment is this bounce music from New Orleans. Which is kinda party-style hip hop. It’s a bit like Baltimore Club, but slower. A lot of [the artists] are gay: it’s like a gay hip-hop scene in New Orleans, weirdly. There’s one guy called Sissy Knobby, who is pretty good, and then there’s another guy called Polo T who I like.’
That’s really interesting. ‘Yeah, Baltimore Club was my music of last year because it encapsulated everything that I’m trying to do in music: taking stuff that you know, and putting a hip hop, clubby spin on it. And this New Orleans bounce stuff is doing that for me.’ So even though you tackle all these different genres, does it always come back to hip hop for you? ‘Yeah. The style that I play all of this stuff in, whether it’s house music, or drum ’n’ bass, or dubstep, or funky, or dancehall, the style that I’m playing it in is hip hop. I might not even play one rap song the whole night, but it’ll be a hip hop DJ set.’ Have you ever been tempted to shift the base of everything into house or… ‘No! I’ve just got no desire to do that. It bores me’ there’s not enough happening.’ What’s always fresh about hip hop? ‘The idea of hip hop is that you take all your different influences and mix them up and come up with something brand new and fresh. I couldn’t better that as an idea. I think a lot of people forget that that’s what hip hop’s about. Somewhere along the line it became about money and pop music and 50 Cent having his top off on the cover of albums and gold and drugs. And the idea of it in the beginning was: you take a rock song, you take a funk song, you take a country song, take a kids TV theme, you take some classical music, and you mix it all together and you make it a party. And that’s the basis of everything that I do – it’s to try and go along with that original idea of what hip hop should be.’ Do you still write about hip hop for magazines? ‘I did, yeah. They’ve all stopped now actually. Hip Hop Connection was the one that I wrote a column in every month for years and that stopped about a year ago. And I used to write the hip hop reviews in IDJ magazine as well, but then hip hop started getting really bad and I was just reviewing everything terribly!’ Have you got any desire to start that up again? ‘I’d like to, but there’s too much going on at the moment. I’m trying to record, trying to travel. Maybe once I calm the travelling down, when I’m older. [I like the idea of] being an old journalist and reminiscing about old dance music’. Speaking of alternative occupations, I read that you tried to break into the film industry at one point. What was that about? ‘Well, you know, my second thing great love after music is film. And in fact, when I left university, I reached this point where I needed to decide if music was going to be my work or my hobby, and I thought to myself originally that maybe it would ruin the fun of it for me. Like, I should always keep music as a hobby and that way I’ll always enjoy it. I was working at the London Film Commission actually, which was helping people find locations and film in London, which was really interesting. But then the DJing was taking off and there were points when I was going off to DJ in Manchester on a Wednesday night and then trying to get in to work on a Thursday morning! It was like “This is just stupid”, you know? I was born to do this for my occupation, so I should give up on the film idea. And I’ve managed to include the film stuff in what I do some how anyway!’ When I read that I had this vision of you, I don’t know, gate-crashing some film premieres and stuff. ‘I did a bit of that as well actually!’ What do people always get wrong about you? ‘A lot of people think I’m American. I don’t know why that is. And I don’t want anyone ever to make the joke ‘I thought you’d be small and green…’ again. I don’t believe that you still get that. ‘I actually still get that. And I’ve always hated my DJ name, so it just riles me up every time.’ Do you ever record under any pseudonyms? ‘I have done, yeah. I did a whole bunch of R&B mixes with another guy, which you can find on the Internet, under the name ‘Sparkle Motion’ One’s all ’80s R&B intros and the other is ’90s New Jack Swing.' Well hey, R&B is back in fashion these days – especially in Shoreditch! ‘I grew up on it; I’m definitely a big R&B fan. I’m going to carry on doing Sparkle Motion. I’ve got plans for another pseudonym, but it’s just not the time to do everything that I want to do.’ You mentioned your classical music side project and your artist-album. Is there anything else that’s coming out? ‘Um, the classical thing, the artist album, the new AV tour and a shitload of travelling! That’s pretty much all I’m gonna cram into this year, I reckon.’
You’re pretty adept at keeping things varied, which is a good thing for a DJ! ‘I do a bit of everything, I really try to keep a balance. I played a gig in Australian in January to about 20,000 people and in the same week I played a sweaty, tiny, 80-capacity club. And I do everything in between. I also play to different types of crowds, like free gigs for disadvantaged youths to stuff in Kensington members’ clubs. I like to make sure don’t get pigeonholed. And it keeps it interesting: that’s why I do all my video AV stuff and I’ve always got some other project going on. At the moment, I’m putting together a show with a deaf classical percussionist called Dame Evelyn Glennie. It’s like an avant-garde classical music thing – way out of my territory! But I like to constantly do that, because once you get too comfortable doing the same thing, you just stagnate.’
How do you stay so down-to-earth? ‘I don’t see how I could do this any other way. Last week I was in seven countries in eight days!’ The only way you can do that amount of gigging and touring is by basically being organised and not going crazy.
And lastly, if you could go back to any London era, which would it be? ‘You know what, it’s quite predictable, because I just had a mix out of 1930s music. But I would definitely pick the ’20s or ’30s because I like the whole [idea of] bowties, posh people, champagne and jazz music. It sounds decadent and like there was a lot of fun to be had – and a lot of not caring about other stuff. I think I would’ve been a rich eccentric person with a mansion, who put on unpredictable parties.’
[Apologies for the many grammatical errors in this, but there's a lot of text and my eyes hurt]