Andrew Ryce travels to South LA to discuss the Nguzunguzu member's smooth and eclectic style of DJing.
Maroof started out at Wildness, the infamous LA party started by Total Freedom, Wu Tsang and others, remembered for its anything-goes musical policy, off-the-wall performances and general decadence. Since then she's toured the world with her peers from the label Fade To Mind, and even had a stint as M.I.A.'s tour DJ, but her priority remains at home in LA as part of a tight-knit scene that revolves around Mustache Mondays and other like-minded events.
Maroof's approach to club music is different to many of her counterparts in the Fade To Mind, Wildness and Mustache axis. The first time I saw this style was at an Nguzunguzu gig in Vancouver back in 2012—when she was still known as DJ MA—and I was struck by how careful, almost slow the duo's DJing felt. Where their peers cherished jarring transitions, noisy sound effects and a general feeling of chaos, Nguzunguzu mixed almost seamlessly. They were perfectly in control of rhythm, key and pitch, which isn't always easy to do when you're mixing so many vocal tracks together. They display these skills on Perfect Lullaby, their ongoing mix series, which has established Nguzunguzu as one of American club music's most distinctive DJ duos.
Though she's a master at back-to-back DJing from her time in Nguzunguzu—and frequent partnerships with GHE20G0TH1K's Venus X—in the last few years, Maroof has changed her alias to Asmara and struck out on her own, becoming the new weekly resident at Mustache in the process. She's established herself as one of LA's most quietly influential DJs, perfecting those smooth-as-silk Nguzunguzu blends aided by her own array of edits, which are as key to her DJing style as her technique. On an unseasonably hot October afternoon, I went to her South LA studio to talk about her transition to solo DJing, keeping things fresh and the beauty of fucking up.
You've been DJing solo a lot more recently, right? How did that happen?
It's just something that I wanted to do—when I first started DJing it was definitely more collective, community, which I still enjoy the most. I still get to DJ with my friends regardless of being solo, but I almost used it as a crutch sometimes.
Yeah, like DJing back-to-back, primarily with Daniel [Pineda, of Nguzunguzu]. I would only mix two or three tracks, and then I'd be done, and I wouldn't actually ever DJ for a full hour. And when you're first starting, an hour seems like forever. So [playing solo] was just something I wanted to do, to be a stronger force.
Has it changed the way you DJ or think about DJing at all?
Yes and no. Not as far as how I view DJing, but it really changed my relationship to playing, 'cause you get to dive deeper when you're doing it alone—it's more like your own little vision quest.
How do you dive deeper when you're playing? What does that mean for you?
I know that it's my time. It isn't about the conversation between two or three DJs, or however many, it's more like your own monologue. Not to get too deep on it, but it's like finding your own voice as far as what your sound is and what energy you bring to the table.
When did you become comfortable with it?
After I took up the residency at Mustache Mondays. Like Lil' Wayne said, "Repetition is the father of learning." [laughs] That always stuck with me, and it's very true—DJing every Monday actually just made me comfortable. I don't know what it was, because, honestly, I've been DJing for ten years and I still sometimes get up there and my mind goes blank and I kind of forget how to DJ. That feeling of uncertainty still haunts me. I've been doing this for so long, but there are some times I have the shittiest sets where I'm just like, "Oh my god! I suck! I don't know how to do this!"
But that's also what keeps it exciting. You wanna keep it fresh, not only for your listeners, but for yourself. You don't wanna be standing up there listening to the same damn songs you played two months ago, you wanna excite yourself as a listener as well—that's the beauty and the horror of DJing. I know some people do plan their sets and you know, I see the luxury in that, but personally it just doesn't light my fire.
As someone who plays at a pretty well-entrenched night every week in LA, do you still enjoy travelling to other places, and playing other places—or do you feel more comfortable in your zone in LA?
Well I still like travelling, I don't like to be too comfortable. I like to feel a little misplaced. I haven't been to Europe in a little bit and I'm missing it. That's the thing, sometimes overseas I feel like I can play my grime cuts a little more, music that maybe doesn't go off as much here. I still enjoy the repetition of being at home and doing what I do. But if I didn't leave, I'd be kind of upset.
What goes off at Mustache that doesn't go off anywhere else?
In Mustache I can play my cuts, and maybe I'm not trying to open that up to people that don't know me that well. I'll play "Circus" by Britney Spears, or Ariana Grande, you know, music that I'm not gonna play in Prague. The thing about America though is that Americans love to hear something they know, they wanna hear a track that they can sing along to. And sometimes you wanna be playing some shit that nobody knows, and I feel it more in Europe, that people are more open to that shit, hearing new things.
So how do you keep it fresh, playing every week at the same bar?
I try just by—I should do it more—keeping an ear out. Also making edits makes it fresh, and getting edits from your friends.
You make a lot of edits. What are you trying to do to a track when you edit it?
Sometimes you just want it to start on the one, as simple as that! Sometimes you love a track but you maybe don't like the beat, or maybe you love the track but it's played out and you want to make it new, so when people hear it it's not just the same old. Like "Work," by Rihanna—still such a great song to play, but you don't really wanna play the original anymore. There's so many remixes, there's so many edits, and they're really great and it keeps it exciting. You still want to surprise the listeners, so that's why edits are just an amazing tool for DJs.
And when you edit a track are you usually mashing it up with another track or making your your own sounds to go under it—what's your approach?
I do both. Usually I get a lot of ideas from mixing, and I'll be like, "Oh, this beat goes really well with this, I want them to exist together." 'Cause sometimes when the bass drops, maybe it doesn't go. I get a lot of ideas from just DJing, and then moving from there. And then sometimes it's like, "Oh, I love this R&B slow slow jam, but it's not really club-ready. It's my favourite song, maybe I just need to add a kick, a 4/4 kick and make it kind of cute."
Do you consider the edits that you make an extension of your DJing?
Yes. Definitely. They go hand-in-hand. I don't really know any producers that make edits that don't DJ.
I find in a lot of your mixes it can be hard to tell if it's creative DJing or if it's an edit, what's coming in where. And you play a lot more slowly than a lot people in the same sphere, like Venus X, or even Total Freedom, who play really hectic and jarring sounds.
Yeah that's really true. I don't know—I guess I'm just that kind of girl. I really like smooth, comforting, beautiful-sounding stuff. I also like jarring, noisy sounds, but maybe they don't come as natural for me, and that's just my aesthetic choice. See? You're teaching me about myself.
At this point in my career, I feel more connected to doing, like... easy listening, I hate saying "easy listening," that sounds strange, but [LA radio station] The WAVE 94.7, The WAVE, that's my dream. That's my life, I love that shit [laughs]. Just give me a show, 94.7 The WAVE, I will tear it up, y'all will be so happy with me!
I've discovered a lot of older songs I didn't know from The WAVE, it's great.
I know! Actually The WAVE made this edit of "Happy" by Pharrell, with fucking Keith Sweat. Keith Sweat! And it's the shit. I play that all the time, it's in my latest mix for Maroon. It's where I wanna live in my career, honestly.
Do you listen to the radio a lot in LA?
I do, I really enjoy the radio here. It's not the same for new hip-hop and R&B—like, I grew up in Maryland, and I learned so much from radio there, from K-Swift, one of the greatest radio DJs in Baltimore. I really looked up to her and that was the reason that I even understood that women could DJ. That helped shape my idea of hearing new music and being really open to that. But in LA it's all about throwbacks.
Do you like doing these kind of throwbacks in your sets when you're DJing?
Oh hell yeah. I take more risks with that at Mustache, and in LA 'cause I specifically feel like people get it. But you know, every now and then—"Ain't Nobody" by Chaka Khan can always make people happy.
There's a lot of value in dropping a really obvious track in and having a really good time—why not? Those songs are great, and they haven't stopped being great, right?
Yeah, I mean... I can drop it, a wedding DJ can drop it and kind of still get the same effect.
Do you find that Mustache is a pretty open-minded place to play?
Definitely. Well... now the rule is no house, so it's kind of funny. I'm not sure [the promoter] Nacho wants me to say that, sometimes if I drop an old-school house track that I love, I get a little side eye from Nacho [laughs]. But it's definitely open-minded, and I've been playing there even since before the residency, for years. It feels like home, it's an extension of home.
Do you have more freedom there than most other places you play?
Nah, I tend to play in places where I feel that freedom. We're doing GHE20G0TH1K on Tuesday and I feel super open there. It's funny, because even when people give you rules—even DJing the VMAs, they said to play Top 40 but, we didn't, we played Kelela... and they're amazing artists that aren't top 40, and people loved it. People can give you guidelines, but they're made to be broken.
So how do you DJ the VMAs—what does that mean?
Basically we just DJ'd the commercial breaks and performed when people were loading in, so it wasn't on air, it was just for the audience, to keep it live in there.
But you had freedom to play whatever you wanted?
No, they said Top 40. But we played what we wanted. I played a Total Freedom remix of "Bodak Yellow," by Cardi B, in front of Cardi B, which was kind of fab. And what was great about this is that the music supervisor—he likes our music and knows the deal—he was like, "I love that you guys play the tracks but subvert it in a way, and it's not just the straight-up song." He was really excited by that and we played a lot of edits of different artists that were in the room.
Well then, Top 40 edits is still kind of Top 40.
I mean, we followed it and didn't follow it.
In a way it's like getting the ultimate Top 40 DJs—because you're gonna be a lot more interesting than a regular radio DJ.
Yeah exactly, maybe that's what he was thinking.
You haven't always lived in LA. When and where did you start DJing?
First I played records, vinyl, just for fun, and then when Ashland and Daniel—Total Freedom and DJ NA—started a party called Wildness and I moved to LA, I played a set there, on vinyl. Then they asked me to be a resident there with them, so I started on CDs after that, 'cause I was like, "I am not carrying vinyl."
How did you end up in LA?
I followed the homies [laughs]. I was living in Chicago, and when I'd come and visit, I was like, "Wait, it's always sunny here? Okay."
Tell me about Wildness.
It started in 2007, we did it at the Silver Platter in MacArthur Park, and it was really just an amazing night where we always had performers, every Tuesday.
It was a Tuesday night party, but was it still pretty... wild?
Yes, it definitely was very wild, we would have everything from drag shows to performance art with people pulling pearls out of their assholes to book readings, to candlelight vigils, to punk shows, rap shows. We would definitely bring the wildness. I have nothing but amazing memories of that time, and just the excitement around music and the community, and the energy behind that, was super special and something that I still feel like feeds into now.
So when you became a resident there you switched from vinyl to CDs, right?
Vinyl was just home. I did my first set there on vinyl but after that I was like, "No, I should use CDs."
Did switching to CDs change the way you approach DJing?
My approach changed somewhat because I wasn't limited to the vinyl I had, which wasn't very many at that time. I was a college student, I remember I only had like 20 records. And of course at that time, Limewire and that shit was popping, so it definitely opened up possibilities for me as a DJ. CDs were great, that's another old thing—even just looking back though on how long I DJ'd on CDs, I'm like, "Whoa, how did I do that?" Just seeing in the dark, looking at your playlist. These new kids don't know about that.
Do you take advantage of the effects and looping on CDJs?
I try to, yeah. Those aren't there to sit idle, you know? They're important tools. How I feel creative when I DJ... you know a lot of times people think it's scratching, "Oh DJing, like—wooka wooka wooka [imitates vinyl scratching sound]." It's not like that for me. The way I see it, the loops are my wooka wooka.
What do you do with loops?
Loops are great for when you need to extend a song 'cause somebody's having technical difficulties and you need to have that little bit. Loops are great for vocals and tracks if you really wanna emphasize something—for instance, that "I'm A Thug" song by Trick Daddy, he says "motherfuck the po-po," and I love looping that. I remember looping that around the time that the Eric Garner case happened, hearing that and then just looping it. You can hear something and just immediately press a button and go back and loop. Not to say it's a perfect loop, sometimes it's fucked up. That's the other thing about DJing—don't think everything's perfect. It's gonna be fucked. You've gotta just have to accept the chaos. That's my philosophy. You'll have the worst anxiety if you don't accept the chaos, and we all have to do that in some ways, right?
A lot of times people don't even notice mistakes.
Yeah, and there's beauty in the mistakes. I think that's what makes people know it's real.
Sometimes a track ends by accident, but then it creates this dramatic moment.
Yeah, and then you can go anywhere from that point, which is kind of cool.
Before we leave the topic of Wildness, can you talk about The Table?
That was just when me, Ashland, Daniel and Ezra [Kingdom] would play together, we'd all have mixers and CDJs and we'd kind of make these calamities of sound. Of loops and drums. We wouldn't just have CDJs either. I had a sampler, Daniel had an MPC, Ashland had a drum machine and Ezra had a synth.
Electronic music can exist so much in the computer, and I think we all had that love for gear and wanted to feel like a band a little bit, so The Table was like our band moment. People forget that CDJs are an instrument. Some people just don't understand that. You can really get super experimental with it, it's not just finding mp3s off iTunes—it can be field recordings, it can be you talking to your mom recorded and going in reverse, or in a feedback loop. You can do so many amazing things. I think that's what that was, just experimenting with that but as a group, as a quote-unquote "band."
Were people into it?
I guess, I don't know. What's funny though is that you can, with CDJs, just get in your zone, where you're doing your jam and not really hearing everyone else, so you have to look at the person, like... "Can you stop?" Maybe we didn't practice those cues enough. We improvised the whole thing, and that's another element with back-to-back sometimes, if you're both playing at the same time you do have to look at the person and be like, "Alright, let it go! I got this, I got this!" Sometimes they don't see you, it's a dark club, and it's like, "Excuse me! I got this."
What do you like about playing back-to-back?
It just gets elevated in a way. Like playing with Venus at GHE20G0TH1K is so great. I see her going off, and I'm like, "Oh yeah, I'm gonna go off!" It's a battle and a conversation. You see the person going in, and you're like, "I'mma take it to the next level." Or even if they're just kind of like "meh" and not feeling it yet, then you wanna push them harder. You're not up there alone so it's not so much about ego anymore—it's about whoever is up there trying to make it popping for everybody.
When you say you want to "push them harder," what do you mean by that? How do you push them?
Even me sometimes, I'll go up there and just kind of be like, "Oh, I don't know what to play" or, especially playing with Total Freedom, he's just so good. And he'll push me in a way. It's very simple: to make you feel more comfortable, like, "You can do it!"
I guess it's not pushing them harder, it's more like making you feel like it's all good. I need that. I can't even smoke weed when I DJ, which is funny, 'cause I definitely smoke weed. And people are always like ,"Why aren't you smoking?" And I'm like ,"No, I cannot smoke weed when I DJ."
Even just playing one track, you'll psyche yourself out and be like, "Nobody likes it, I don't like it, what am I doing?" I start questioning everything, and then I can't even find shit sometimes. My file organisation skills, like... call me back, I don't even know [laughs].
How do you organise files on your CDJs?
I use rekordbox, which is nice, but it's just playlists that don't make any goddamn sense. I really have to figure that out. I have playlists called "I'm tired," "I'm weird," "What's going on," "Mustache 2017," "GHE20G0TH1K Halloween," and then sometimes, when I'm feeling a little more on my shit, I'll have "Sunset," or "Energy." It makes no goddamn sense, I'm sorry I can't help anyone with that. Someone help me with that, call me!
When you're playing back-to-back do you find that it's natural for you to create a flow or dialogue, or do you have to work at it?
I try, but there's no formula to creating the flow, it just happens. And sometimes you just can't create a flow and it's not popping. Then sometimes you really just got it going on, you're like, "Damn!" I don't know the formula to that—I wish I did, 'cause then maybe I'd always have good sets. But I think it's more something that happens unconsciously, at least for me. I don't really understand what that is. It's funny, driving here, I was thinking that, even with my production—I shouldn't even say this, it's kind of bad, but—sometimes I feel like shit just happens by accident. Like you just have to put yourself in that situation for the possibilities to come true. If I don't go in front of that machine, turn it on and start pressing buttons, if I don't do that then nothing's gonna happen. But if I do, then how many possibilities can occur?
You don't exactly need that technical skill all the time—you just need that drive to actually just go up to the thing and then just do the thing. That's what I try to tell people, and my friends, who are scared about production or DJing: just start pressing shit, it doesn't have to sound right. The fuck-ups might even be cool. Just start.
What do you do when you feel like it's not popping, especially if it's a back-to-back—what do you do in that situation?
Keep on. Keep on swimming. You just gotta keep going, because what else are you gonna do? You can't leave. Sometimes if it's my real homie, I'm like, "I don't got nothing, you gotta keep playing, I really don't have anything." And sometimes you just push through, you play a bad song and maybe people will leave, but that's OK. Then after that, you play another song. It's not that deep.