DJ Rap is one of the perennial figures in drum and bass and electronic music at large. She’s been in the industry for three decades and by most counts she hasn’t stopped producing or touring since. To the casual observer, DJ Rap, real name Charissa Saverio, looks to be as busy as ever. Her four-mix EP of the track “Detonate” released last month and was on numerous Beatport and Trackitdown top five lists. She’s also got appearances at Burning Man and London’s Moondance festival lined up, a tour at the end of the year, a full-length movie coming out and an online music production school launching.
From her own perspective, however, one of the hardest working DJs in electronic music has been slowing down. In 2011, DJ Rap took a break and a hard look at her life to make some changes that sound like they’re not only good for her, but for the electronic music community at large. She sat down with Your EDM recently to explain the evolution of her career as well as the evolution of drum and bass and EDM as a whole.
So the video for “Detonate” released about three weeks ago, with the single itself on June 2. The single has a definite lyrical theme, and then the video is a vampire theme. Did you have an idea that you wanted to do that style for the video when you were writing the track?
No! Both the song and the video are for a movie that I’m going to be the lead actress in called “Seeker Friendly”. I wrote the song for the movie. So Mike Sullivan is the writer on the movie project, and 6 Digits is the production company that produced my last two videos, “Freefalling” and “Satisfied”, and I actually put the team together because I’m also one of the producers on this movie. So the video is basically a trailer for the film and then I also wrote “Detonate” for the movie. I probably would have done something very different if it was just a music video, but this was all for the movie.
So it’s different than your usual process generally?
Well I wrote “Detonate” two years ago and then I just fine-tuned it for the movie. I always have lots and lots of songs lying around and I’ve just started to get back into producing. I took a long break to focus on other things, and I mean I’ve been touring since I was 16. So in 2011 I just decided I needed a break. I was suffering from serious burnout. So now I just do a few gigs here and there and then one major tour a year.
That sounds a lot more manageable.
Yeah I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, but if you do the same thing over and over again eventually you get tired of it. I always said that the moment I get up there (performing) and I get bored, then I’m done. That eventually happened, and I made the decision to go into what I call three-quarter retirement where I’m still writing, but I’m not really out there as much.
Kind of like a tennis player then.
(Laughs) Yeah I’ve got DJ elbow! You know I think the biggest thing was the travelling. The constant flying and being away from friends and family. It’s an isolating job. People often think that DJs and musicians who tour always have fans and a big entourage around them, but that’s really only the super DJs. Most DJs are just on their own the whole time. I think I’m very good at being alone, but it got to me eventually. It takes up so much time and I want a life! So that’s why I decided to just stay in LA and work on these other projects.
One of those other projects, aside from the movie of course, is MusicTech Collective. Can you explain a bit about that?
So when I was making all these decisions in terms of what I wanted to focus on, I got offered a job at Dubspot (the electronic music school in LA as a teacher) and I just fell in love with teaching, and I found that I was good at it. It felt really good to give back. It was a great school, but when they closed I decided to open my own music teaching business, and so that’s what MusicTech is. It’s actually doing really well. We’re booked through the end of the year right now for private students which is why I’m developing an online course. The flagship course I teach is Ableton, as well as how to navigate your way through the music industry with manager, agents, sync and licensing to give some examples. Right now it’s private tuition, one on one. Today I’m actually celebrating though, because I have just finished designing an Ableton course that will be put on the website that people can purchase who can’t get in with my privately. I created 45 videos for Ableton from head to toe! It was a huge project. I’ve been editing ten hours a day since March, so today’s the last video.
That sounds really comprehensive. There’s not much like that on Ableton yet. When will that launch?
Probably the beginning of August. It’s going to be incredibly affordable, so especially since I can’t take on any more private students, I just had this idea to give back and hopefully give more people the ability to make music. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s mainly Ableton like I said on the online course at the moment, but I’ll be putting up tips and tricks on my YouTube channel, and just all that stuff I’ve amassed over a whole career for people to find in one place.
Back to “Detonate” for a moment, there are a few collabs on the remixes. How did those get going? Are you collaborating with anyone on future projects?
I actually love collaborating. There’s four versions of “Detonate” that have different collaborations. There’s a trap mix and a breakbeat mix…the original radio edit I co-produced it with a producer called Matt Becks. The song part of it I co-wrote with Julian Shah Tayler, and then the trap mix I wrote with my partner Kevin, Eat Glitter and Shine. On this single I’m not sure who I’ll work with on it. It’s called “Good Life” and it’s definitely more song-based. You know I love drum and bass but that’s not my only lane. I don’t just want to stay in one lane. I’ll be looking to collaborate with some people soon…I’ve been talking to Simon Bassline Smith and a couple of others, but it’s about finding the right person for the right single. I’m in this for the long haul so I’m never in a hurry. Music is my whole life and the rest of my life so why rush it? I put singles out when it’s right and when it feels good and I’ll collab when it feels right.
And when you say “lanes” are you also referring to music genres? It was quite surprising to hear you had a trap remix on the “Detonate” EP.
Yeah that was actually Kevin all the way. I’ve been working with him from Eat Glitter and Shine for, gosh almost 10 years? He just put it all together and I really liked what he did. I just had to do a little arranging for it. I mean I’ve always liked doing different versions of tracks for myself, but it’s also helpful in business. “Detonate” was in the top five on multiple charts for three weeks for every genre. We were in the dubstep charts and drum and bass and breaks. It did really really well. So that’s another reason I don’t like to stay in my lane as well. I’m an artist and I make music, period, so however that looks I’m open to it. And I love remixing myself. (Laughs)
It’s nice to see someone like you who’s been making tracks for so long still chugging along and being open to all genres and continuing to innovate. People who can’t change at least a little bit with the times will eventually get left behind.
Yeah, I mean that’s one of the reasons I left London. Hard as that was, I was offered more opportunities to grow as a producer (in LA). I didn’t just want to be this jungle producer stuck in the 80s. I wanted to produce many kinds of music. If you look at all my albums from that period like “Learning Curve” and “Synthesis” along through the ten or so albums I’ve done, every single one is completely different. To me it’s never been about making just one thing. And of course back then (with “Learning Curve”), it wasn’t accepted to have such a vocal-heavy album and it wasn’t accepted to mix genres like that. But that’s partly why I got such a big break, because of that record and diversifying what I did. Now everyone’s doing that and it’s accepted and it’s great. I’m glad more DJs are moving forward with mixed genres.
So along that line in terms of the evolution of drum and bass and EDM and how they’ve changed over the years, how do you see all that in general as well as with your own experience?
You know, in terms of the general scene and musically, I sort of feel that drum and bass has grown so much with respect to sound design but not as much in terms of integrating with other genres. Of course that is what it is, in its own unique sound. Sound design-wise, it’s the best music in the world. It’s the most difficult music to make, and it’s just getting crazy with what these producers can do. With other genres, the technical side is still growing but I think some of those producers a lot more open to integrating with each other. For example we all got a shock when we saw that Skrillex could get out of a dubstep framework, and then the stuff like Paleo or K-Flay and all these different indie artists with what they’re doing with electronic music. I find it really interesting how electronic music has permeated different scenes, but I don’t know if drum and bass will ever go there in that way just because it’s so technically glued to its own lane but that’s what I’m working on. For me there’s so many other amazing things being done, as an artist and a musician as much as I love dnb I feel I have to explore those other things in order to grow myself so I am incorporating that into my drum and bass tracks.
There are some people pushing the envelope and trying to integrate drum and bass with other genres, but you’re right. It’s technically very tricky.
Yeah definitely, but I wouldn’t want to compromise its heart. A great example would be Drumsound and Bassline’s “Gone”. I would love to see more of that. To me that song is one of the most perfect drum and bass songs. Those are the ones that will last. It’s not all about who can get the most technical all the time.
So is that your aim with the drum and bass you make going forward?
That’s what I was looking at for “Detonate”, to make something that was DJ friendly and had a vocal in it but it was also hard bass-wise. What happens in drum and bass is if you put a vocal in it, especially female, it immediately becomes a liquid track. Suddenly it’s pretty. I wanted something that was balls to the wall that I could DJ, but also was a song. It’s hard to incorporate though, even as one artist. I was getting annoyed even with myself because the stuff that I made wasn’t the stuff that I played. So how do I make a song that I really like that I can still use as a DJ? That was my mission with this track. For the first time in my life, I’m playing what I’m making. I want people to recognize it on the dancefloor. I mean I’ve never made anything light, really. All my stuff has big drops and heavy bass, but I want to now incorporate melody into that. I kind of almost thought about it as an industrial track, like Nine Inch Nails. I wanted it to have a beautiful melody but I wanted it to be Nine Inch Nails dark. (Laughs)
Doesn’t sound like an easy job, given like you said how technically tough drum and bass is.
Oh, I’ve got so many mixes of “Detonate”, it’s ridiculous. Like I said it took me two years to finish that song. I could have put out a whole album just on the one single. It took me a long time to narrow it down and I kept changing my mind. I had the drum and bass community in mind as well, so that’s why there’s an instrumental version on the EP because I figure if they don’t like the vocal then we still have that, and I feel that track (the instrumental mix) can stand on its own.
It is still kind of tough in drum and bass with vocal tracks, and again to integrate that harder sound with it. To have an anthem, as you put it, that’s also respected on the beat and sound design side of things by the community at large.
(Laughs) well they’re a picky bunch, but rightfully so. But again it’s the hardest music to make and drum and bass producers are probably the best producers in the world in sound design. To take it to the next level, though…that song I mentioned by Drumsound and Bassline, “Gone” – it was my opening song in my sets for months. If you get it right with the vocals and a drum and bass beat…it’s just perfection. It got me every time. It’s beautiful.
Do you have any more music or show dates coming up?
I’m always making music, so there’s a single coming up that…I don’t know exactly when that’s coming out. I think I want to try to coordinate it with Moondance (festival) on August 6, so maybe the second or third week in August. I do want to make sure I’m happy with it though. Oh and I’m so excited because I’m going to Burning Man! I’m really looking forward to DJing out there and I’m going with a great crew called the Ice Pirates. I’ve never been before, and I’m ready to get sand in every part of me! (Laughs)
The other thing I want to do this year is put a series of EPs out that aren’t just based on drum and bass. That’s what I’m trying to do now, so we’ll see what happens there. The Ableton course is also coming out so yeah that’s another lane, and yeah I think that’s kind of enough with the acting. I’m also going on tour towards the end of the year for six weeks in England and Australia. I’m actually still booking for that tour…(laughs) I guess I really should put my agent’s information on my website! If people email him on [email protected] we’ll get it sorted. (Laughs again) That’s going to be a really fun tour. I’m going with a whole group of people so that’ll sort of combat the being alone issue I had before. I’m actually really excited about touring again.
“Detonate” by DJ Rap is out now on her label Propa Talent, and all of its remixes are on Beatport. Check out her website for tour dates and news on upcoming releases, and check out MusicTechCollective.com for the release of her new Ableton online video series. The movie she will appear in will be out toward the end of 2018.