Interview: DJ Rap on the Realities of the Modern Music Business

DJ Rap, born Charissa Saverio, started spinning records and producing in the British rave underground of the late '80s and early '90s. By sampling hip-hop songs and mixing them with house and other forms of electronic music, she earned the moniker DJ Rap and found success with a crop of rising drum and bass artists. She founded a record label, Proper Talent, in 1993, which she still runs today.

Building a reputation with her mixing skills, she also produced her own music and that of other artists, like the track "Spiritual Aura" by Engineers Without Fears. In 1999, she released her major-label debut, Learning Curve, followed by Brave New World, a collaborative drum and bass album with Kenny Ken. Her next solo release, in 2003, was Touching Bass, which stepped away from the dance pop of Learning Curve and leaned back fully into drum and bass and breakbeats. Her latest single, "Run Dis Ting," made with Erb N Dub and featuring Scrufizzer, was released in November 2018.

At the Ableton Loop conference late last year, we got the chance to talk to her about her career, how she made the jump from early samplers like Ensoniq ASR-10 to Ableton Live, and how her artistic drive has changed throughout the years.

What does your approach to music production look like? What are some of the favorite software plugins and hardware devices that you like to use?

Well firstly, I spend a lot of time preparing so that I can work quickly and efficiently. In other words, my user library is stacked with audio effect racks, drum racks with 128 kicks, 128 snares, 128 hats, and so on. And then I have templates set up, and I've got MIDI set up, so if I want to pull in a whole bunch of drums and not have to do any programming it is all there set up for me to use.

Charissa Saverio (photo by Richard Grant)

I want to sketch ideas out right away without having to think about, How do I program? Oh, I have to program a straight drum and bass beat. No I don't, I'll just pull the MIDI in I've already got it set up. And then I'll put the drum rack in and flick through each of the 128 sounds that I've got and pick the right sounds afterwards—but just for sketching, that's the first thing I do.

For plugins, I mean, I am a huge Ableton fan, so I do a lot of work with Ableton, and then probably 70–80 percent of everything I use is [Ableton's built-in plugins]. For my basses I prefer Serum. I will Serum for that, I'll use Spire.

What are your favorite delays, compressors, or reverbs?

Well my reverb, I like [Ableton's] Convolution Reverb, definitely. I am a huge fan of that. Compressors—Waves CLA I love particularly.

I am a huge fan of that, because if you just put that on a vocal channel and just turn it on, it just changes the vocal immediately. It is like a great coloring tool as well, and there are some tools like that.

I'm a fan of [Ableton Live 10's] Echo delay. I just love it. I love the way it gives the old retro feel, and I like those kind of delays. Again it is to taste, right? I used to love the Logic delays, and I feel that they have kind of got that now. That was the one big thing that I missed about switching over—I really enjoyed the delays in Logic, but the Echo delays just captured that.

When did you switch over to Ableton?

I've been with Ableton for like 10 years now.

DJ Rap - "Detonate" (Official Music Video)

In regards to production and approaches to it, what are the most significant changes you've seen over the years?

Hardware to software, I guess. Analog to digital. I mean, my whole studio is right there in a backpack. The fact that I can make music anywhere in the world... I still feel that you can't beat coming into a studio and sitting next to a Neve desk and just hearing your music out, but it's the software. It's the plugins.

And what is different in my genre, certainly in drum and bass, is we are working with the limiters and compressors and mastering plugins all on already, so we are starting off working with them, rather than applying those devices and chains afterwards. We are writing with the limiters. Writing with the compressors. Writing in the sense of those things would be put on afterwards normally typically and saved for the mastering channel. So the main difference is that, it is that everyone is doing their own mastering and doing their own everything and you are working with iZotope on.

With that being said, I know that you have lived in a variety of places throughout your life. How have these different places and environments informed your work or shaped your creative perspective?

That is a really good question. I think when you get a good perspective of the world in a way everything is chiseled down into an easy path to see, because you're seeing the whole picture. So you can see how lucky you are where you live. You can see the different influences musically. You can see how music unites everybody, but at the same time the different cultures, so when you travel a lot you get a palate for different foods—it is the same thing with music. You develop a palate for different music. And I'm influenced by ethnic music, by all kinds of different flavors of music that I've heard that you wouldn't think would get into drum and bass, but it has influenced me somewhere in my subconscious and it is coming out.

When I have written tracks like "Tibetan Jungle" or Learning Curve, there are tracks on there that have influences from when I lived in Africa. Maybe only I can tell that, but I definitely know it has influenced me. I think it has just given me a global perspective of how lucky I am and fortunate. I think that traveling is just the bible of human life, you know what I mean? It's where you go to learn experiences.

DJ Rap - "Tibetan Jungle"

The main thing though is just having traveled so much and so young was that I was touring, as far as I was concerned, from very young—it makes you able to adapt to any type of person, any type of meeting, any type of situation, because you're always in these different situations. I find it very easy to just acclimate to whatever is happening to me.

It becomes a skill set right?

Yeah.

What's the most important skill that someone should posses when looking for a career in music? This can be more than one really.

OK, it will be more than one. I think drive is incredibly important. A realization of what you are good at and what you are bad at. Huge work ethic. And obviously the thing that has to drive it all—and it's not talent—it's passion. Actually very little of this in the music industry has to do with talent.

A lot of times it is about how driven that person is and how good they are at their social media and their marketing—and they have some talent, but what their real strengths are are putting it all together. There are huge artists out there that are not that talented, but you look at how hard they work.

Charissa Saverio (photo by Chelone Wolf)

Have you noticed that change over time? That aspect of?

I notice in myself that I have to be my own publicist, marketing person, business planner, tour manager—in the sense of I do everything myself. From creating the music, running the labels, putting the music out, negotiating deals, doing my own marketing constantly—that is the difference. Whereas before, when I signed a record deal with Sony, someone else did it all for you, and your job was just to make music and drink vodka, which was really nice. I miss those days. [Laughs.]

Now it's like a job right?

But it is a job, that is the difference. The main difference is now it is a slick business and everyone's wise to it, whereas before there were only a few players who really knew what was going on and the rest of us were just like, We are making records... Now every single person treats this like I do. It is a job. But a good job. Yeah, I wake up and I treat it like a business. I go to my office over at my labels. It is a job, it is a business, no doubt.

Speaking of the labels, you are just working two right now currently?

Yeah, I only have two. I have Proper Talent, which is my drum and bass label, and that's very active. And Improper Talent—I haven't done anything with that for a while, because I haven't done my techno moniker, or I have aliases where I do techno and house, and I just haven't had time.

I'm so focused on the drum and bass and what is happening right now, because that's where the action is for me. It's calling me, and the music has to call you. I've spent the last two years going back and forth to England and just absorbing myself in the rave scene again as a fan and, god, that music is just calling me. I'm just like, OK, I just want to do this again.

What are you working on right now?

Well currently I am very happy I have a track that is Top 10 at Beatport. It's called "Run Dis Ting," and it just came out this week and it's smashing it.

Congratulations.

I sure really appreciate that, because two years ago I was in a very different place. So it is not something that I take for granted. But I hooked up with Erb N Dub and Scrufizzer, who is a really great grime rapper, and we collaborated and created this record, which is really quite different from what is out there. I played it to a couple of my heroes, The Prototypes, and they signed it within half an hour.

So it 's on Get Hype Records, and that is what I am working on now. I am working six months in advance, so I am working on the next singles and the next releases for the label up until next March. I have got a record coming out, a Roni Size's album, which I did.

DJ Rap, Erb N Dub - "Run Dis Ting" (feat. Scrufizzer)

He's got another full length coming out soon?

He does.

I am a super huge Roni Size fan. That's great.

He's amazing. When I went into the studio with him I literally was blown away. Every single producer has a different process. Some are very technical, some are more on vibe and the technicality comes later, like myself, but he's just a genius. Then you've got the Prototypes. If you've ever heard their music, it's just, they make me want to give up they are so good. It's just not fair. And I just heard their new album last night and I'm just like, "I hate you guys."

Yeah, that is an interesting place to be.

It's a horrible place to be. [Laughs.]

Are these singles leading up to a full-length or are you just concentrating on singles?

See, the thing is I don't think anyone really does albums anymore. I much more prefer working with EP. For example, I am going in the studio next week and I am working on a vocal EP that I am doing, which is a full song, and then I will get people to remix that song and then I will put out EPs every three or four months. I think that is the way to go for me.

Charissa Saverio (photo by Chelone Wolf)

I like albums and people in England still do albums, but I just feel that... I honestly don't know. I will see what happens when the songs kind of come together. But I feel that three or four great singles a year will do more for your than just one album that just comes out and it is over in a blip and it is done and all the promotion is just over and you disappear again for like two years.

You mentioned about working with a grimes rapper—do you see a lot of crossover in that? Maybe the genre as a whole but in particular in England? Like a lot of older German bass artists and new grime type artists working together? Is there a lot of cross pollination happening there?

I think what I was doing 20 years ago is now more relevant than ever. At the time it was considered a no-no to do all this cross-pollinating, but now I think everyone is just looking for people to work with that no one's worked with before and do that. And the struggle is real to find these people. Oh, that person's kind of been rinsed out. We want to work with this person, because no one has ever heard of them, and they are really good. And not that no one has heard of them, but no one has heard of them in this genre.

Yeah, that context.

So, this is the first time Scrufizzer has ever worked on a drum and bass track. It was pretty cool, so I am all about that. When I first started doing this, I worked with BT and Hans Zimmer, Erick Morillo, all these people, and my whole thing was cross-pollinating. So for me, I don't think you can get enough of that. That is when amazing things happen.

This is just a general question, but, what are you listening to this week?

Actually I am a huge indie fan. So I love Kaleo. I love K.Flay. I am a huge fan of hers—that "Blood in the Cut" song is my favorite song ever. I'm still listening to Nine Inch Nails. I love them. There are just certain things that you never get sick of. But for me, I'll listen to Justin Timberlake—I really like what he's got going on right now. Yesterday I was listening to Alicia Keys' "A Woman's Worth." It just depends on what is going on everyday. But I am really into that indie sound.

DJ Rap - "Bad Girl" (Official Music Video)

Is what you are listening to in that realm kind of like an escape from your work? Or are you looking for inspiration through that for your work?

Both, I think. I don't listen to drum and bass when I'm not making it. In fact, I listen to everything else, but probably, that keeps me fresh. But it's what I enjoy listening as Charissa, not as DJ Rap, if that makes sense. But then of course I hear it and I get inspired and I go and pull a bunch of tracks like K.Flay or Kaleo and be like, I really like claps on this—everyone seems to have this particular style of clap going on with indie—and, What is going on there, how are they doing that? So yeah, definitely I'll draw inspiration, but the trick is to always to remember to listen and not steal.

Speaking of that, where does DJ Rap come from?

Because I was sampling hip-hop on my Ensoniq keyboard, which had four-second sampling time, and I would wear an NWA cap and "Fuck the Police" T-shirt.

ASR 10 I take it?

Yes, and then I would just basically be sampling hip-hop beats over house records, because drum and bass wasn't invented then and neither was jungle or any of that. This is 1988 or 1989, and people would be like, "There's Rappity Rap" and the name just kind of stuck. Then someone said to me, "You know, if you had a website that was DJ Rap it would probably be worth a lot of money one day if you ever wanted to sell it." But I was like, "That is a bloody good idea." But of course it made no sense whatsoever but then again neither do I so.

Ensoniq ASR-10 Sampling Keyboard

Well it is fitting then.

I really mean that musically I am schizophrenic—I am all over the place. I am all over the place in everything, so why should the name make sense? [Laughs.]

Obviously, you've been doing this for quite some time. I have been following your career since I was a younger kid, I'm not old but I am certainly not young.

Hey, you are as old as the woman you feel.

Since you started as a professional artist and DJ so long ago, how have you seen this environment change from being a woman inside the music industry?

For me in the beginning it was very easy, because I was a novelty and I was the first, so it was like, OK, you are the first to get paid the same as the boys. You are the first to play the main stage. I'm the first to get a label... So a lot of it was easy. I was in the DJ Mag Top 100 doing all that stuff. I don't see that anymore. I don't see that happening anymore for women and that is bad.

What I do see is the attitudes changing in companies like Ableton. What I do know is that music knows no gender. Like everyone is playing my record—no one is saying, "I'm not playing your record because you are a girl." In the drum and bass world, I have always been included. I have always been treated with nothing but respect, and they have been amazing. When I encountered #MeToo and all that stuff, it was when I moved to the States. It was when I got agents. That was when I was really like, Shit, sexism is alive and real. Because I'm not doing coke and going to strip clubs with my agent, this guy is getting the gigs instead of me. Or if I am not sleeping with this guy, that happens.

So you really noticed it when you moved into the American business side of the things.

Yeah, but I think that was also because: First off, I was in an underground scene in England. It wasn't a commercial, huge pop scene. By the time I got here it was commercial and I was a huge artist—it was a whole different thing. So I was operating a much smaller underground where everyone knew each other and we all grew up together. We all did pills and thrills together. We were all a family. We all experienced the same uprising at the same time. We went through the whole thing together, so there was just none of that weirdness, you know what I mean? It just wasn't like that.

Do I think sexism exists? Absolutely. Do I think it exists in the drum and bass world? I don't. I think they completely respect you if you produce and that has been my experience. So if it did I would certainly be calling it out and be like, "Yeah, they are a bunch of assholes," but they are not. It's not like that.

I experienced sexism and all that stuff here definitely, sad to say. Within the film industry, but again, I also think it is how you handle it. I also didn't care—it was like, whatever. I have met huge film producers who are like, "I can make your career, just sleep with me," and I'm like, "I don't need a career that badly, so I'm all right on my own, thanks—fuck off." So it is what it is. But I think the biggest problem that I have is women bitching about how sexist it is, but they are not doing what the boys are doing. I have a problem with that.

You are moaning that you are not in this award but what record have you made lately? Oh, you made one record, that's great—this guy has made 20 this year and they've all been hits. It is not about making one record—it is about being consistent, touring, and being successful consistently right? And constantly giving back to the scene. So I have a problem with people that bitch about not having a level playing field when they are not also putting in the same amount of work that people are putting in. Because the bar is high. So I don't expect to be getting the same as them unless I am doing the same as them.

Charissa Saverio

I'm sure these are a lot of lessons you learn from just, generally, pioneering. These were the bars and the barriers which you kind of broke through.

I just sat there and watched the top boys and went, "That is what they are doing?" I've got to do that and then some.

It was like, OK, you run a label, you do this, you put records out—that is what I want to do. How they are doing it, how they are branding it, and they helped me. They all showed me how it was done just by example—Jumping Jack Frost, Fabio—these guys would pull me aside and be like, "You know what, you need to do this." It is interesting the problems start when you become successful, because then you get people going, "Yeah, I'm not really sure I want to share my secrets anymore."

You are a contender now.

The problems started for me—when I did start to get some flak—was when I signed a multi-million dollar deal with Sony. That's when everyone just went, "Wait a minute, what's going on? She's making commercial music? She's selling out." Those problems came, but you know, that is what comes with the territory I think.

Sure.

Now I have a smug grin on my face when I look and say, "You're all doing the same now." In those days, and I can understand that no one wanted to see drum and bass on the Superbowl commercial or a Twix advert—I get it—but I always thought that the best things in life are shit.

DJ Rap - "I Am Ready" (Official Music Video)

I think that when someone becomes successful out of a group of people that thought something was their own...?

Yeah. That's my point.

This is just getting more exposure for something you all love and you know it is just not supposed to exist in this hideout forever.

Well, what I said is that if you really want to make underground music, go and make it, dig a hole in your garden, and bury it in the ground and it's underground. That's underground music. But ultimately every type of music gets popular, which is what pop is. When people like something and it is good, what, do you want no one to hear it? That's ridiculous.

What does it mean to you to be a contemporary musician in the world today? How has the purpose of what you are doing with your art right now changed?

It means everything. So in one sentence: It means everything. I hate to say it, but it is life and death for me, so it is if I am not doing this I would rather put a bullet in my head and I am probably not joking about that. That is so like this is all I want to do. It is everything. What I have to do to achieve that is something that keeps me excited every day, passionate about it. It is a lot of work, but just to be able to say I've got a record out and I'm back when people probably thought, she's done. I don't know man, it is everything.

It has to be good feeling, yeah?

It's amazing. It really is. And the game has really changed. So I had to do a lot of research and spend a lot of time there in England and relearn how to use everything, and it is like learning how to walk again, really. You have to know who all these producers—I didn't know these people. All this gear is different now. It is all digital and it is all different and I had to relearn everything. But there is that thing, where you just think—and I don't know if it is your ego or whatever it is—but you just go, I fucking have to crack this nut again. And it is just that constant self-masochistic that is what I love about drum and bass man. It never ends. The challenge is real.

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