If you are in desperate need of an inspirational story to pull yourself out of creative slump or to stop you from giving up at the first hurdle, then you may want to take a moment to read this interview with my friend Niyi. His story has all the elements needed for a really good coming of age story.
I first met Niyi back in early 2000 before the demise of London's after hours club scene, when the average night involved crashing a private event in Soho for the free booze. Then central-lining it east on the underground for a warehouse rave, followed by a mates club night in a disused toilet and ending it all at my place for a after party. Back then Niyi was a DJ, club promoter and rapper on the London scene. I was working in media during the day and at night I was one of the regular faces in the alternative club scene. Niyi didn’t always make it to the after party but when he did we would often spend the morning drinking cheap vodka and satirising art, culture, race, religion and putting the world to rights with a witty analogy.
Fast-forward 12 years, my clubbing days are just a collection of fractured memories and all those larger than life characters I use to spend all my free time with are now living very different lives, which are only known to me due to the occasional mention in my Facebook feed. My London life is almost a whole year behind me and country living is surprisingly not as boring as I thought it would be.
The other evening I was enjoying a collection of TED talks videos and who should pop up to do a short talk, but Niyi. I get a real buzz of excitement as I hastily adjust the screen and volume on my laptop. The last I had heard of Niyi he was enjoying a rather successful career in music, playing gigs at festivals, being responsible for Lady Gaga's first UK show, and playing on stage with Will.i.am. So imagine my surprise as I discover that he had given up a music career that would be the envy of most musicians, to be the first professional rapper ever to attend Cambridge University.
From a London-based rapper, musician, producer, and DJ to a Cambridge-based academic, educator studying for his MPhil in Education and soon to start a PhD. It felt really good to see him up on that TED talks stage, sharing his story with the audience and with the world. His TED Talks video was genuine, I felt an overwhelming urge to contact him and congratulate him on his recent achievements but felt a little apprehensive seeing as we hadn’t spoken for over twelve years. I wanted to inspire LSA readers by sharing Niyi's story in a blog, but wasn’t sure if he would be okay with me making such a request after all this time that had past between us. I needn;t worried though, to my relief Niyi was as happy to make a connection again and become the subject of my my next LSA blog post. These questions have been carefully selected for Niyi so he may share the very best of his experience and knowledge about making it as a DJ or musician and how you can make informed choices about your own education and career. We hope you find it useful!
Q: What was the catalyst behind your transformation from successful music career to Cambridge academic educator?
‘When I arrived, I felt as if I was in a period drama. Despite having a successful music career, recording my album with Tummy Touch Records — I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with the music industry. It had reached the point where I was performing or partying every night — the nights and days were all melting into one.’The idea of switching career for academia came about gradually, after a series of conversations with young fans at gigs. Young people seemed to lack the aspiration needed to achieve their hopes and goals and I thought that, perhaps, if I were in the education system, I could work to change that. I hope the combination of my music industry experience and my Cambridge degree will prove a winning formula for my students.'
Q: How do
you describe your DJ style? Do you have a sub-genre or scene that perfectly
'I've been really lucky (I believe) because I have never actually stuck to one genre; in fact, I have actively tried to switch from genre to genre as much as I can. I try to keep people on their toes but I also make sure they find it very difficult to leave the dance floor.'
Q: You experienced your first success fairly early on when you were signed at just 19 years old. What advice would you give to your past self in those early days of your DJ career?
'I would tell myself to make a plan, believe in it and stick to it! It might take a little longer than expected. It won't matter, but everyone will catch up with you eventually. People need to be lead from the front sometimes (laughs).'
Q: Which moments in your DJ career do you consider to be the most significant and transformation? (When, where, who was there, what changed, could it have turned out differently if…?
'When I was starting off I played Glastonbury, quite early in my career, I think it was 2008. It was the VIP tent — quite a cavernous space — and no one had come in yet really because it clashed with KT Tunstall or something. So I just put on a track that I didn’t particularly like, just so I could change my wellington boots. At that moment the BBC started filming and Zane Lowe was like “cool track bro” and I was just so embarrassed. It was the ultimate baptism of fire and I learnt such an important lesson: this is my art and every second counts, crowd or no crowd.'
Q: Describe the feelings you want to evoke in your audience when you DJ? When was the last time you experienced that magic moment where you felt a euphoric connection between you and your audience?
'I want to give people a spiritual experience and help them connect with the life force which like kinda runs through the universe. No I can explain this! (Laugh) I know this sounds lofty, but I reckon we all have moments when we experience this connection. Whether it's when we are in love, when we were drunk with our best friend, our first kiss, etc., and I think it is entirely possible to happen on the dance floor with complete strangers. It won't be from the DJ alone, but he or she can help facilitate this connection.'
Q: What is one mistake you see a lot of up and coming DJs making? What advice would you give to an aspiring DJ in order to avoid it?
'Trying to copy someone else. Most (good) DJs cut their teeth as it were, playing quite radical sets. By the time you see your favourite DJ touring the main stages during festival season, they have already changed a lot and developed their style. I would argue that they often hone and streamline their sets for crowds of that size. To copy something you hear on a main stage is a fools game. It won't get you anywhere.'
Q: Are you able to share any of your secret DJ hacks, tips or cheats?
'A lot of surf rock is the same BPM as drum and bass. I’ll just leave that right there (laughs). If you are at the very start of your career this is probably the only time you will be allowed to do absolutely anything. Be brave!'
Q: Do you remember the first time you thought to yourself ‘I want to be a professional DJ’? What/who were your early passions and influences?
'WELL I WAS playing with Adamski and watching him DJ and I had just finished a live set. He looked like he had so much control over the process of crafting his art. Now I know that vocalists have the ultimate control.. I mean I am using my voice to sing or rap or whatever? but I really liked the fact it was like man against [limited] machine. You have to really lean in and concentrate to craft something. Do you get what I’m saying? Like, instead of getting quite emotionally involved in the moment, like I do when I sing sometimes, and forgetting where you are, you concentrate, and focus that energy into the logistics instead?'
Q: Do you have anything that frustrates you about the DJ industry? How do you try to make a difference?
'Booking agents. I understand why an artist might need one eventually but too many artists have one way before It’s actually useful to have one (I was probably one of those people). Either give the 15% to the artist because, let's face it, they are probably need it at that point in their career. Or it would go to the club to pay for extra promo or something for the night.'
Q: If you had to be eternally be stuck in one music era/scene, which would it be and why?
'I would be eternally stuck on the gay scene the mid to late 80s; which, in my opinion, was the last time there was any good music being produced and played there.'
Q: Are DJ decks a type of instrument?
'Yes they are a type of instrument indeed. like playing other people's music in such a fashion as to draw people to a dance floor and keep them there is a skill as much as playing the trumpet is there was even a time when producing or production was a kind of subjugated knowledge in musicology that, thankfully, has completely changed, and the producer is seen as much as an artist as the 'artiste' is but i would argue that the same hasn’t happened for DJs yet. I think decks are certainly instruments, but I just wonder if DJs are staying creative enough for us as an industry to confidently use that description.
Q: What is one track that never gets old for you no matter how many times you hear it? What would be your dessert island vinyl?
'I’ve made a remix of Pinky and the Brain and everyone is always like “what the f**k!!!” When it starts. The mix is like 128bpm so I can mix it easily into whatever I want to start my set with ‘properly’ and after the confusion, people always go nuts for it.'
Q: Whom do you have a lot of respect for? What was the most significant thing they did or said that grabbed your attention?
'Erykah Badu; because she really doesn’t give a f**k. Her set on Boiler Room was f**king nuts. There were moments that made uncomfortable listening? That’s true punk & I love it man.'
Q: Tell me about your most embarrassing moment as a DJ? Maybe something going wrong during a set you've played? How do you recover or deal with a disaster?
It was New Year's Eve, but I can’t remember the year though ? [laughs] I think it was literally in between me playing Glastonbury and Reading Festival; basically, peak ego / big head [laughs]. I think this was the exact moment that I realised I wanted to be a “superstar DJ.” or whatever. Buster and Scottee hadn’t booked me for their NYE party which was basically the absolute night to be seen at that year, and I was livid. I got there about 2230 (which was really early for me !) and had ignored them for an hour or so, just pretending like I didn’t want to be at their party. Everyone was having so much fun around me, and there was me, sulking on a bench or something, trying my hardest not to get excited when Kylie cat walked in [laughs]. Mark, you don’t understand though — I remember it so well! I am still very very scared !!!! [laughs] Well anyway, I was having a shit night right ovs, then it comes to like four minutes to midnight, and they only f**king went and played my Countdown track. It was about to be released on Kitsune, so God knows how they managed to get a copy. Anyway, it was literally the sweetest most sincere gesture they could have done that night. I felt like such a f**king idiot! This probably isn't the answer you were hoping for — I guess because its so f**king corny — but wow, I learnt a life lesson that night: don’t ever get too big for your boots! Because if your head is stuck up your arse, you’ll miss your cue and all the f**king fun !!!!
Watch Niyi's TED talk here >