Name: Desiree
Occupation: DJ, producer, activist
Nationality: South African
Recent event: Desiree will perform at Sonus Festival in Croatia on Wednesday 24th August 2022.
Recommendations: Takadame by Robert Battle (dance choreography); Default by Atoms for Peace (music)

If you enjoyed this interview with Desiree and would like to find out more about her work and DJ activities, visit her official Instagram account.

DESIREE (RSA) · BBC Radio 1 Sound System with Jeremiah Asiamah Mix

Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for DJing? Which DJs, clubs or experiences captured your imagination in the beginning?

I have a very specific taste in music, not just club music, but music in general.

As a music lover that loves to rave, I have found myself getting bored or annoyed sometimes when I’m out listening to some sets because I have an extensive collection of music and wanted to hear some sounds which I found to be genius. I think that’s where my fascination with being a selector came from.

I really love eclectic sets so South African DJs like Jullian Gomes, Kid Fonque and China really captured my imagination as an avid raver prior to me Djing. I also really love Henrik Schwarz. He’s amazing!

What made it appealing to you to DJ yourself? What was it that you wanted to express and what did you feel, did you have to add artistically?

I have always been a music lover and have always collected a bunch of music. Prior to discovering house music, I loved alternative rock and I would always introduce some of the songs to friends and family who knew nothing about that kind of music. My 70 year old African grandmother is thus a lover of Thom Yorke.

So me being a selector is essentially me just trying to share my taste in music which I think is not too bad. That’s why Djing is appealing for me. I just want to introduce incredible music to people who know nothing about it. That really gives me joy.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to DJing? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or lineage?

I love songs with a groove that make you want to bounce and sway your hips  and I think that’s why South African house music is special. South African producers have a way with using percussion in a unique manner that creates the craziest grooves.

I also like pretty chord progressions. So groovy and pretty music are my things.

When I Dj, I always like to tell a story. I’m not the kind of DJ to play banger after banger in my set. Sometimes people might seem bored or a bit chilled during my sets because I like to give the ear a break from time to time. It’s important for the raver to catch their breathe so that the next banger I play is more impactful … if you know what I mean. That’s why I’m not a fan of short set times. 2 hours minimum is good. More is even better. So my sets usually start of quite slow and chilled then build up slowly.

When I started playing, I used to define my sound as Afro house. But as I’ve been playing over the years, I’ve realised that I hate boxing myself. I love different types of music, so long as they move me. So my sets are eclectic and in fact, they’ve always been. I can start you off with downtempo, then end with techno. What’s important is to do it in a seamless way.

Clubs are still the natural home for DJing. What makes the club experience unique? Which clubs you've played or danced at are perfect for realising your vision – and why?

The club experience is unique because it provides a space where the music is at the centre and is DJ focused. Where would DJs be without clubs? Would DJs even exist ?

I really enjoyed playing at Bar Americas in Guadalajara Mexico. I really like clubs that are always full regardless of who’s on the line up. I love clubs where people are hungry for good music and hungry to dance. That was the energy I got there. It’s really amazing.

I haven’t been to Berghain/Panorama bar - tried to but my friend and I got rejected (laughs). But from what I’ve heard from DJ friends, I think Panorama bar has that same energy which I love to play in. Maybe my first time going there will be to play, who knows?

There is a long tradition of cross-pollination between DJing and producing. Can you talk a bit about how this manifests itself in your own work?

I started off as a DJ knowing nothing about production. I think the two are really not linked at all. A great producer does not necessarily equate to a great DJ. These are two different skills.

As I have grown in my Djing, I have ventured into production. I did this because I’m creative and I have ideas for melodies I find cute but could never put them across to the audiences I play for, but sometimes I don’t want to play my tracks in my sets. Sometimes they’re not fitting the vibe. Does that mean I should play them even if they do not make sense in my set at that specific point in time? I think not.

What role does digging for music still play for your work as a DJ?

As I said, I am a DJ before I am a producer so digging for music is integral to my creative process.

I really do not have a formula though. I know if a song is right for my sets within the first minute of listening to it. All the music I play is exciting for me then I hope it will excite the audience. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t and that’s okay. I cannot make everyone happy. That is a utopian ideal.

I've always wondered: How is it possible for DJs to memorise so many tracks? How do you store tracks in your mind – traditionally as grooves + melodies + harmonies or as colours, energy levels, shapes?

This is tricky. (laughs)

I think because I love the music that I play so much, I always remember it and that’s why it is important for me to not play music solely for the purpose of pleasing a crowd. I need to enjoy it first and that translates  to the audience and gives off a good energy.

I am not an expert, but that is my philosophy.

Using your very latest DJ set as an example, what does your approach look like, from selecting the material and preparing for and opening a set? What were some of the transitions that really worked looking back?

I have hundreds of songs on my USB sticks so in recent times I’ve cut down from adding new music weekly to bi-monthly or monthly. I think it’s sad how music is being consumed these days. A producer can make an amazing song today, people play it for 2 months then discard it.

So I’m currently revisiting my archives and even buying songs from 10 years ago that I didn’t know of until now. I think it’s not about how much new music you’re playing or playing exclusive music, but it’s about the set holistically and the quality of your track selection.

On the note of transitions … a magician never tells its tricks! (laughs)

How does the decision making process work during a gig with regards to wanting to play certain records, the next transition and where you want the set to go? How far do you tend to plan ahead during a set?

I usually use two CDJs for my tracks and a third one for accapellas and other Dj tools. So I decide which song to play as I make each transition. That keeps me on my toes and gives me the opportunity to play according to the energy of the room.

As a DJ, you can compose a set of many short tracks or play them out in full, get involved with mixing or keep the tunes as the producer intended them, create fluent seagues or tension. Tell me about your personal preferences in this regard, please.

I love playing around with loops. Some songs have beautiful melodies but not a groove I’m into at that point in time. I then loop a song with a nice groove and add it onto the melodic song.

Accapellas of house classics are something I love to use but sparingly. Otherwise the set starts to become too busy for my liking.

Pieces can sound entirely different as part of a DJ set compared to playing them on their own. How do you explain this? Which tracks from your collection don't seem like much outside of a DJ set but are incredibly effective and versatile on a gig?

The use of loops and effects is the reason behind that. Some DJs also make edits of songs and add their own flavour to make the track more suited to their taste.

In terms of the overall architecture of a DJ set, how do you work with energy levels, peaks and troughs and the experience of time?

I do not play high energy music the entire time. If I’m playing for 3 hours, it’s important for me to pace myself and the crowd.

Online DJ mixes, created in the studio as a solitary event, have become ubiquitous. From your experience with the format, what changes when it comes to the way you DJ – and to the experience as a whole - when you subtract the audience?

I think every DJ tries to have their online mixes as seamless as possible. People listen to the sets whilst they’re working, studying etc so it needs to be a smoother ride and the power of technology ensures that we can achieve this through use of softwares, effects and many other features. I make use of these features.

Advances in AI-supported DJing look set to transform the trade. For the future, where do you see the role of humans in DJing versus that of technology?

I think AI can never replace the ability to read the crowd and track selection. In my opinion, humans will always be integral to the craft or at least in my generation!

Let's imagine you lost all your music for one night and all there is left at the venue is a crate of records containing a random selection of music. How would you approach this set?

Headphones work so I can always listen first as I’m playing then transition.

But I wouldn’t be too happy about this scenario because an important aspect of Djing is knowing your music and selecting it accordingly.