My life as a DJ: The Last Skeptik
Life is one endless party. Touring the world spinning tunes for a living, all the free booze you can stomach, beautiful women, hanging out with celebs – gaining access all areas to some of the greatest clubs on the planet, sounds like a dream right? But what’s life really like for a superstar DJ? Coping with sleep deprivation, constantly travelling, living out of a suitcase, dealing with axe wielding, gun toting maniacs! We caught up with DJ and producer The Last Skeptik to get the low down on his world and talk about his deeply personal upcoming record This Is Where It Gets Good.
The MALESTROM: Tell us about your lifestyle as a DJ?
The Last Skeptik: In between getting smashed and just enjoying myself… I guess being a DJ is a lot of fun and it’s a privilege apart from anything else. You know, being able to play music I love in an environment that is surrounded by the people that love the same music is an extreme privilege. I think a lot of people forget when they do that as a job. So going into a club I always make sure I get there an hour before my set, always. I want to listen to what the DJ before is playing so I make sure I’m not playing the same stuff. Also, to kind of see the vibe of the crowd, because things can go very wrong if you turn up two minutes before your set. You can kind of just show up and end up playing the same songs that were playing ten minutes before and it all goes very fucking wrong. It’s pretty wonderful; I’ve been lucky enough to play all over the world in amazing venues alongside some incredible acts. So yea, juggling that and the music production is definitely a privilege.
TM: How’s the travelling? Obviously it tends to go hand in hand with the job but does it ever become a bit of a slog all the journeying about?
TLS: Only health wise. I’m going to go really boring here, but you have to look after yourself, and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, the job is fucking wonderful, but you have to look after your health. I’ve seen lots of people go down with exhaustion, and it can hit them hard if they drink too much or go at it too much. I’ve had friends where it’s been a nightmare for them. But it’s an incredible thing to be travelling round, you never get bored of it, it never gets old. Getting on a plane, going somewhere where you know your not going to be just doing some tourist stuff, and there’s going to be a crowd of people on the other side of the world waiting, ready to hear you play music, that is an incredible feeling.
TM: How do crowds differ around the world?
TLS: Mostly the same. Except… there are certain places where they’re a bit quieter, that’s how they show their appreciation. Like I DJ’d in Japan and everyone loved it, but they were a lot quieter (laughs), that’s the way it is. I’ve heard that from a lot of bands that played there, where people in Japan wait patiently then clap at the end, I guess it’s a different way of showing appreciation for the music. I’ve done gigs in Scandinavia, some people there go absolutely fucking mental, where as some people will just stand and appreciate it in that sense. I played a show in Damascus, Syria, if people don’t know much about Syria they might not expect it to be a crazy hip hop rave, but it was just fucking insane.
TM: Where’s the toughest place you’ve played?
TLS: It’s always the big cities where they think they’ve seen it all. So it’s between London and New York. I’ve had the best shows in both cities, but I’ve also had some really tough ones where you just try and play everything (laughs), and everyone can see the beads of sweat dripping off me, and I’m playing like thirty seconds of funk, then going ‘shit that’s not working.’ You always have to watch the crowd, always. So you try some funk, you try some grime, you try hip-hop, you think fuck it I’ll play some commercial hip-hop that I’d only play at weddings, maybe this will work (laughs). And whatever you do the crowd are quite what we call stush you know. Not up for it.
TM: Have you got a go to tune if things are going downhill?
TLS: Yeah. There are definitely songs that I’m reluctant to play; they’re there in case of emergency, like my hammer on the glass. One of them is definitely Pharoahe Monch ‘Simon Says.’ I hate playing that song, cause I don’t love it. I mean it was a great song when it came out, a banger, but it’s almost too obvious, too easy. If you play that at least you know everyone’s going to get up. You can play that at any club in the world, that and Dead Prez ‘Hip Hop.’ There’s a list of played out songs that always get the crowd moving…
TM: That you hate…
TLS: (laughs) I mean they’re sick songs. I bought Dead Prez ‘Hip Hop’ on 12 (inch) the day it came out before their album came out and it was super underground, I’d heard nothing like it, the baseline was incredible, the video I saw on MTV Rap was sick, but now it’s been played to death. Uber played out.
TM: How do you go about curating your set? Is there a typical process or do you like to work on the fly?
TLS: I’d say 95% I do on the fly. I won’t plan anything, then I’ll walk in early, see what the ground is and work it from there. I’ll always have a first song in my head from about ten/twenty minutes before I go on, and then that always changes depending on what the DJ before is playing and the reaction they’re getting. So I might have it in my head that I’m going to play TuPac ‘How Do You Want It’ for the first song, so I know that might open up the older section of the crowd right here, or I might play Aaliyah to make sure the girls are dancing, something like that. And that will change two minutes before I go on. That always informs the next half an hour of what I’m playing, cause I’ll start there and move on. There’s definitely a science to it, you have to always think on your toes and that’s the most exciting thing about it. With DJing you always have to look at the room and work out what’s going on, and also if something isn’t working to have the next two songs ready to quickly mix out.
TM: How do you prepare for your gigs? Is there any mental preparation? Or is it just get in there and get on with it?
TLS: It definitely depends on the gig. If it’s a big festival gig, or I’m supporting someone on tour, then I’ll definitely got nervous and have to mentally prepare. I go really quiet, I don’t get outwardly nervous, just super quiet (laughs), or really tired and want to sleep, and that’ll be it for the hour beforehand, I think it’s my body preparing that adrenaline to go on stage.
TM: Is there any time you’ve felt particularly pressured?
TLS: When I opened up for 2Chainz, that was definitely a pressure gig. It was sold out at the Electric in Brixton and it was just me and 2Chainz in the line up. I think there was some another grime act that I ended up having to DJ for as well. It always happens if you’re spinning then the promoter hasn’t sorted a DJ so you have to do it, it’s all-good. So when it was just me up there and for a big U.S. act and super last minute, I definitely had to take a deep breath, put my chest out and go, ‘fuck it, I got this.’ When I toured America a few years ago I was supporting Charlie XCX. I did twenty shows and it was fine every night, then the twenty first show, it was in L.A. in a big theatre and for some reason I don’t know why but I had a huge panic attack before I went on. I literally stood at the side of the stage, I’d done this twenty times before, but I was like ‘fuck!’ Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason for why things freak you out. A lot of the time it’s not about the crowd size, when I do my full band shows which is like me with a ten piece band, performing my own songs and rather than DJing I’m playing keys and triggering songs, they’re smaller crowds, like two hundred people, but they’re the most nerve wracking cause you can see them there and they’re all looking at you. If you do seven thousand and you get 50% you’re good, if you’re playing to a hundred and you get 50% that’s a quiet room you know. If only half have your back then you know about it.
TM: How do you keep your energy up? What gets you through the late nights?
TLS: It’s a mixture of adrenaline and vodka. That’s my magic formula. You have no choice but to do that, you just treat it like you’re going out to battle (laughs), you psych yourself up like it’s war, it’s not the same but you need to hype it up.
TM: What’s the craziest stuff you’ve seen when DJing?
TLS: I remember once… this was years ago, I did a show in Brixton back in the day when Brixton was pretty rough. I was quite young, like 17/18 and I was on stage just playing away, I think it was a launch for one of my early singles. All of a sudden I see everyone in the crowd just ducking and screaming, I had no idea what was going on. Then I see this guy walking through the crowd with an axe and gun! And I’m thinking why’s he got an axe and a gun? It was so weird. In those moments you think it’ll be like on TV where it all goes silent, but I didn’t know what to do so I literally crouched down and carried on playing (laughs). I’m like kneeling down and trying to scratch from really low. I think he was looking for someone and couldn’t find them and then left the venue, so it was fine. That was pretty funny. There’s been all sorts of things like power cuts, moments on stage when the engineer has accidentally turned me off and I’ve got a thousand people booing me cause they think it’s me doing it.
TM: Is there anyone who influenced you and made you follow this career?
TLS: I’d always grown up listening to and vibing off music, it was always therapy to me since I was a kid. I grew up around my Dad playing prog rock, my Mum playing folk and then there was my brother playing hip-hop, that was when I was like eight-years-old so I really got into that. I started making beats when I was about ten. And the rapper Sway taught me how to produce when I went to school with him. It was just such a natural love, I can’t even tell you where it started. It just became default therapy for me, through the teen angst, other people had Nirvana, I had TuPac, he made me feel better. It felt so normal to make music, even though I was terrible at it for many years. The natural progression was to begin DJing. I could never afford two turntables, so I had one belt drive from my Dad that I used to practice scratching on. I had my first gig before I had turntables, so I effectively learned how to DJ whilst on stage. I still never practice, I just learned on the job. Did loads of gigs, looked around to see if anyone knew I was faking it and just carried on. DJing is all trial and error, that’s why I’d never discourage any young person or anyone to DJ, at the base of it you really have to love it and really understand why other people love it. The best DJs I know are always looking up at the crowd, every few seconds. Looking at pockets over there, those guys aren’t dancing, how can I get them moving? Yet I want to keep these guys who are up dancing. It’s like proper mathematics, you need to do these equations at all times. That’s why I’ve never understood DJs posing for photos behind decks, like how do you get time to do that? I’m mixing shit every twenty seconds. It’s the same way that most of the time I don’t fuck with requests, I’m like no!
TM: Does the request thing get annoying?
TLS: It’s mostly to do with pride, because you think if someone is asking for a request you’re not doing your job well enough. I remember one time I was DJing a New Years Eve party and it was sick, everyone was going mad, I was playing all the bangers you want to hear and then this guy comes up to me in a suit and says, ‘can you play something that people know?’ I looked over and at this point I was playing ’99 Problems’ by JayZ (laughs). I mean this is a really obvious song, everyone was dancing and there’s this guy really disappointed in me. I knew at that point there’s no pleasing everyone. If I’d have played something specifically for him everyone else would have been disappointed. I sort of see if it like you have someone working in their desk job doing a spreadsheet, or doing an important report for a meeting and I was sat next to them in the office saying, ‘I see what you’re doing and it’s cool, but could you write it in this way instead’? (laughs). It’s the same shit.
TM: You talked about learning producing before. Which do you prefer DJing or producing?
TLS: They both inform each other. It’s important to me to do both, I mean there’s times where I’m sick of both, or sick of one and not the other and then they’ll revitalise each other. There was a point recently with the new album coming out where I didn’t want to make music, cause I was kind of pregnant with this one album, I can’t really get pregnant again with another album. DJing has been so much fun you’re still getting that inspiration, that energy from music, the vibe you want, but without making it. There might be a point in the next couple of weeks where I get my head straight back into production and that’s all I think about, then I might not want to go out and gig. So they both tick different boxes, but are equally important. You need to know when your making music, not just what to play in a packed club, but also what sounds good on big speakers, then you can really get a feel for the sound. Yea, they’re definitely as important as each other.
TM: Lets talk about your new record. What was the inspiration behind it?
TLS: To be super candid about it, the whole record is a journey through the depression and anxiety that I’ve struggled with previously. I really use my music as a therapeutic force, a cathartic thing. I wrote songs with rappers and singers that go along that path. There’s a lot on there that while I might not necessarily be doing it through lyrics the music sort of expresses this deep cinematic journey through the twisted emotions we all deal with day to day that we should never be scared of confronting and speaking about, because it’s so natural. It’s almost as natural as being happy, if not more. The album definitely has been a journey, navigating my way through this career in music that’s had so many ups and downs and the life that’s gone alongside it. For many years one of the best parts of what I do has been when people tell me that my music has helped them, and instrumental music at that, how they go for a walk or a run and it really helps them work through what’s going on in their heads, taps into what they’re feeling and that makes me happy because that’s what I put into my music, intense cinematic emotion. There’s a song called ‘Death’ on there. It’s the first song, it’s the favourite I’ve ever made. It came from a really dark place. It’s not about death, but new beginnings, change and a failed relationship. This album is all about recognising being super down, depressed, anxious and making the most of it, turning that around, seeing that as part of the collage of what makes us who we are. It’s a very positive thing for me.
TM: The album’s called This Is Where It Gets Good. What does the title mean to you?
TLS: There were a lot of different titles for this album. I’ve had sarcastic, sardonic titles in my last releases, my label’s called Thanks for trying, I had an E.P. called I don’t even like you, all of this stuff that’s quite sarky. But I decided I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted people to take the, at points sadness, at some points happiness of the album and realise that it’s all part of the journey and that it does get good. It does change and everything gets better, so it’s a positive message. My brother asked me is it because you didn’t rate your music before (laughs). I was like, as a musician you never rate your music you’ve done before, even the stuff your making now, some days you hate it, some days you love it. This record I love right now, it’s about coming through some shit and the positivity knowing that it’ll always get good in the end.
TM: It’s an independent release. How important is the freedom that gives you?
TLS: It’s so, so important, just to have that freedom to do what you want. A lot of industry people through the years would say, you can’t do a rap record and an electronic record and a grime record, you have to be one thing. You used to be UK rap so you need to change your name and do something new with this shit. It’s nonsense. There is no prescribed career path, or notion of what we should be or what we should create. If I want to make a record with a rap song on and one that has a singer that sounds like Bjork, and a poppy sounding song, then fuck it, I’m going to do it because It’s all cohesive and it’s all emotion. The beauty of doing it all independently is also my OCD, I love being in charge of every angle of it. I love knowing that I can set a release date, I can do the artwork, I can get my boy Turkish to mix it in my house. I decide the final track listing. I listen to people like Turkish or Doc (Brown) who I trust, that are around me, who say look this is really good, or do you know what, you have a better song than this because I’ve heard it. Being fully independent is the only way that I’ll do it. I hate having a boss, I hate people telling me what to do, especially when it’s creative, there’s no rules to this shit.
TM: How much do critics affect you?
TLS: I’d love to say it makes no difference at all but I think even the biggest of people will say if they see it they’ll still be effected. I used to take reviews very personally, when I was younger I’d get super angry and be like ok, I’m going to get that journalists name and find them (laughs). I think now I’m more philosophical about it, everyone is fully entitled to their opinion. It’s more when people get personal about it. I try just not to read those ones. It’s that difficult thing with any creative endeavour, you put your heart and soul into, it sounds so wishy washy, but it’s true, you put everything into a record and then someone turns around and goes, this is boring. What do you mean it’s boring! This was a year of my life! (laughs). But it’s the same as DJing, you just can’t please everyone, as long as my Mum likes it, and my mates like it I’m pretty happy.
TM: Is there a piece of wisdom or advice that’s stuck with you?
TLS: There’s a couple. The serious one is always persevere. Perseverance is the key to success. You have to keep going. My career has gotten really good and It’s taken a long time to do so and I know the longer I do stuff it’s just going to keep getting better. I mentor young people just starting out and I say mate, just persevere, don’t even think about releasing a record, make music, love it and carry on. By carrying on your already better than 50% of people out there that give up after a couple of years, who get a job, do something else. The other one is one my mate Ed said, it’s the best advice ever, this can apply to anyone in any situation, you don’t have to be an international DJ. It’s in times of need, or if you’re panicking or worrying, he said ‘check your arsehole’ (laughs). What’s it doing? If you’re tightened up, just relax, take a deep breath and then carry on. And it’s so fucking true because anytime I’m going on stage, I’m like shit, what am I doing? I’m tense. Ok deep breath, relax and your whole body relaxes. That is a great piece of advice.