These challenges shaped Tijana Todorović, who found a calling in music as a pushback to a bleak national backdrop. She would call up station B92 to ask for track IDs as the programming flitted between rock music and news reports to counter state propaganda. She scraped together pennies on the street to afford tickets for The Prodigy's groundbreaking 1995 performance in Belgrade, but then was too sick to attend. Burning torrented files onto CD-Rs became a way to circumvent the paucity of available records in stores. It was a paradoxical time: the national borders were closed, but her horizons were open.
Tijana's career began immediately after the fall of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in 2000. At 19, she became one of the country's most prominent faces in the media as a video jockey on channel Studio B—although she was eventually kicked off air for playing a raunchy video by experimental synth outfit Add N To (X). As well as writing columns and working on TV productions for B92, Tijana worked for EXIT, by far the region's largest festival, as an in-house interviewer and, later, stage curator. A period in the mid-'00s touring as a singer alongside electronic musician Abe Duque sharpened her understanding of the live arena. She began taking on all-night-long residencies in Belgrade as another way to present the sounds she loved, rising from thankless Monday evenings in front of moneyed crowds to extended sets at the cherished boat Klub 20/44 and at Drugstore, the city's biggest club.
I meet Tijana in her Belgrade apartment, a stone's throw from the city's bohemian Skadarlija district. Laurent Garnier's Electrochoc and Cosey Fanni Tutti's Art Sex Music rest atop weathered editions of Das Kapital and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a series of comics that detail the psychological aftershocks that come with living through revolution. A few days prior, Wally Badarou had told me during a live Exchange that if you "can't have the support of your local scene, you can't have total fulfilment." I had those words in mind. Though Serbia's biggest contemporary DJ, Tijana still had to take a circuitous route to local acceptance, weathering years of bitterness and vile abuse in the scene.
Is all this personal and political history translatable to audiences who just want to get loose and have a good time? Tijana parlays her memories into vivid performances, which have theatricality, flair and an evident enjoyment at being present in the moment. Taking her upbringing into account, you can see why she still says yes to the majority of opportunities, even with a tour schedule that would make most wince. As her all-time hero Björk once sang, "to get involved in the exchange of human emotion is ever so, ever so satisfying."
What's the first thing on your mind when you're walking into the booth?
Before walking into the booth, I'm always questioning if I'm even able to DJ at all. I get a strong hit of imposter syndrome, which really doesn't help. Some insecurities are not easily cured. Then when I'm in the booth, I'm first checking the CDJ and mixer functions, then the monitor levels, trying to make sure the volume isn't so loud it will destroy my ears. Once the technicals look good and it's set up the way I prefer, I like to stare at the crowd for a few minutes, just to see where the energy level is at, what I want to do about it, and what I can do about it.
Once I'm in the moment, the fear has almost entirely vanished. Sometimes, when I'm stepping up for a show after who knows how many flights and two days without sleep, I feel like I'm going to die. But once I'm in the booth, it's a different zone, a different set of parameters altogether. I'm present, and I'm focusing on the music—much more than I'm focusing on the crowd, actually. I go full introvert at the beginning of my set. After that quick first check, for about 15 or 20 minutes I am completely engaged with the music. No looking up.
I'm not always ready to just look in the eyes of thousands of people. I need to get adapted to the situation. I can prepare as much as I can. I can meditate, I can visualise, I can decide on what the first or the first three tracks would be, but once you're there, you can never really predict how you'll feel and what the situation will be. I guess I need these 15 minutes to somehow just fully assimilate with the overall energy of the situation, to gauge the correct moves.
Kind of like laying a welcome mat for yourself.
Exactly. I will always let the person before me wrap up in whatever mode, style or mood they would like. They can play the hits, or the most flamboyant finisher of all time, and let it ride until the end, the very last bar—so that I can start with a fresh beginning. If I'm thinking about mixing in on what the other person is playing, that inevitably affects where I can go. Especially in the last two years, if I would play techno parties, the DJ before me will be hammering it really fast, much faster than I would ever play. I can't always start with an ambient track by Rex Ilusivii at 89 BPM, but I do have to start with something that utilises a long intro, so that when I introduce my lower BPM, it doesn't...
... jar the crowd?
Yeah. Trying to ride whatever the DJ before me is doing creates a dependency, and often some tension between the two people in the booth. It's best avoided.
Does appreciating a hard start and a hard end come from your entry into music? Your apartment is stacked with mix CDs, from Meredith Monk to R&B party classics, with ordered tracklists and handmade jewel covers. There are flyers dating back 15 years, stickers of labels that no longer exist and various trinkets from travels. A lot of people shed their skin when entering a new era, but you seem to snowball it all together.
Whatever happened in the past is what shaped me in the present, and whatever I do in the present is going to shape my future. So I don't want to dismiss any parts of my life, especially if it's musical experiences. Artefacts that are truly resonant in my life—such as that Meredith Monk, which was a gift from a close friend—I kept. But then, I don't have anything to show for ten years of my journalist career. I conducted over a thousand interviews and I don't have a single tape at home. And there's also a lot of beautiful rave flyers that I never held onto. There were times when I was more careless, at a time in life when I had this anarchist, punk spirit.
What has never left was the way of seeing and creating different kinds of media formats relating to music. Be it a VJ show, radio or interview, these CDs, the medium would always have sort of clear message. That's just the way I think and express myself, and that also translates to my DJ sets as well. I'm not one of those DJs who would insist on telling a story. You can tell many stories, but that doesn't necessarily mean that people who are listening to that story will perceive it the way you do. I have to see it as presenting frequencies for people to relate to on a physical level, rather than dictating the narrative. When I approach my sets, I think about what will be the first track and what the last track will be. Then the rest is actually never really planned. Whatever happens in between, happens on the spot.
I couldn't help but notice you have hundreds of USB playlists, tailored for more or less every gig, every radio show, every studio mix, every month. And they are all overflowing. How are you making sense of all that on the night—isn't it chaos?
It's completely chaotic. I have a really good memory, and that is about all I can say to explain how it works. Watching Avalon's videos gave me so much anxiety [laughs]. Then I saw the others and I realised, it's just her way of doing things. She comes from programming, she has this precise mind and method. My approach is a bit more, as she would say, vibey. There's not enough time in your life to listen to all the music that's out there, or to own all the music that's out there. I had to break the stigma of needing it all, right away. Whatever music comes my way, that music belongs to me. If it doesn't find its way to me, that's not for me. If it finds its way to me five years later, then that's the right moment when I should play it. I've been DJing for 15 years, with so much music already and I listen to about 70 percent of the promos I receive week to week to refresh the collection, so I'm quite convinced that I have enough music to deliver. It's fine.
So this is why I have hundreds and hundreds of playlists. The playlists are titled after certain parties, which I'm playing every week, or festivals, or radio shows. It doesn't necessarily mean that an Afterlife playlist will only consist of trancey, epic tracks that I'm supposed to play at Afterlife. First of all, Afterlife does not book me to play the music that they play. They book me because I'm not playing the kind of music that Tale of Us or Dixon would play. This gets lost so often—I am not there to imitate them, but bring something of my own. So, that Afterlife playlist is just what I found on the week and I know exactly when I bought something, or even put it on my USB. It's the same with my records at home, they are organised by eras when I purchased them, rather than genre or style.
Like an iTunes playlist, where you're listing it by "Date Added," but in real life?
It's just how my mind works. I guess it's unlike what most DJs are doing, but I really thrive in this chaos, and that's why sometimes I have unexpected transitions in my sets. If my folders were organised by "Techno," "House," "Peak Time," "Intro," "Beepy," "Ravey," whatever, maybe I would miss out something that just appears as I'm scrolling through my jumbled folders. When I browse, I'm like, "Oh, fuck, I forgot about this one, I can play it now." If I would just search through what I think I need at the moment, the sets would feel functional more than anything else.
When playing, are you actively trying to avoid being functional or predictable?
When I started, I DJ'd in a very spontaneous, joyful, playful way. I am completely self-taught in how to mix. YouTube tutorials and easily accessible instructions were not around, and equipment was out of my financial range. I was practising in clubs, at parties, sometimes on my own and sometimes with friends, yet always with the audience present. You need to be brave enough to try that transition you have never tried before, in order to grow into the technique. There was no reference point, and this still echoes in my doubts over if what I am doing is "right." I assembled a way of understanding DJing through harmonies and structures that cause and give joy, rather than utilising six turntables and numerous crossfader tricks.
But negativity came into it very early. The story is long but it boils down to jealous, bitter and inflammatory groups of guys in Belgrade. They were writing ugly shit. There was jealousy that I could travel with Abe Duque and get records they were not privy to while at home, a fear that the few girl DJs and TV presenters in town would be stealing their piece of cake. They were pushing a story that I was "tearing my knees" for records and shows. I had to develop a coping mechanism to be able to laugh it off. Like, "Yeah right. So I enter the club through the line for blowjobs, next to the ticket and guestlist queues? I have 100 gigs per year—where do I find the time to suck dick for that many promoters? What a sex life that would be!"
Because of this bullying, I'm now focused on not fucking up. It's not easy to neutralise that fear. It's made me also think carefully about how character comes across on stage. I never really managed to detach my DJ persona from myself. No acting, no crazy clothes. All I've really done in that respect is kept my hair recognizably ginger [laughs]. For some it's so scary to be on stage and exposed publicly in that way, that they get into character, or dress up their usual selves in some way. And it works! The person on stage is protected and feels less vulnerable, and the audience gets a show. The ultimate advice I would give here, to veterans and newcomers alike, is to bear in mind why you are DJing in the first place. Why are you there, exposed to all those people, blasting your selection through the speakers? If you have an answer to that, everything else falls into place. The style, the persona, the moves—it can all make sense. Somewhere I realised there is no right or wrong. Music is so personal. It's your own very individual frequency.
But when it comes to your playlists, navigating that glut of colours, labels and choices is somehow intuitive?
In a supermarket, ultimately it doesn't matter what type of milk I buy. But when DJing, the decision-making is vital. All art is in the decision-making; it's a series of decisions you make and they ultimately lead to something that you create. What I heard many times from DJs I used to interview was that playing the right track at the right time is one of the hardest things to master. It sounds so simple, yet takes so much experience to arrive at that point. I think of pro athletes and the extent of their training for this to become like a natural reflex. It's a game of intuition and decision.
Choice is a complicated thing. If I stuck to one genre, hemmed in my interest in social troubles and books as much as club music, perhaps I could be a more digestible prospect on the market. You see Richie Hawtin––and he's an intellectual with so much musical history––but the way he presents himself is very translatable. The haircut, the black clothes: that's Richie. If you see techno as a business, you need to apply the same rules to yourself as you would to a product. But if you take the road less travelled, I think the reward is much deeper in a way.
Honestly, I also believe that the more things explode in the mainstream or pop area, it creates more space for underground things, because it's a natural reaction. If you're frustrated with something that's popular, then that inspires creation and a breakaway scene. I see that all around right now. If techno giants occupy the space where EDM was, then super-dedicated, deep-digging types move into headline slots and get the 100 gigs a year vacated by the departing techno superstar. Component parts move around but everything grows together.
That luxury—of leaving home, let alone taking 100 gigs a year—was not always available to you. To this day you still get shut out at some borders. Your relationship with the notion of success seems to be rooted in breaking out of where you came from.
I really wanted to become an international DJ, and to have an international career for some time. Coming from a country that doesn't belong to the Western world is difficult. There's not too many Serbian DJs travelling around the world, nor musicians, or actors or artists. For me, this path and this struggle was a long one. One of the friends who believed in me gave me a little note for my birthday, I think in 2015, saying: "Great success and nothing less." She also told me about a few psychological tricks that I could use to overcome anxiety. This little motivational present rests on my mixer, just to get a boost when I'm down. Coincidentally, it was exactly the year when I found my agent, and the year when things actually started happening.
There was so much negativity around, we were living in sadness. As a teenager, there were years when we had nothing to eat. There was no food on the table. I decided not to live that life forever. I just don't want to be this, I don't want to be the stereotype of this poor, struggling artist, or this miserable Eastern European. I guess that's why I don't believe success is a bad thing. Success is also a relative thing. I wouldn't consider success as a sister of vanity. For me, it was about the fight.
You've mentioned the name Bogomir Doringer before, as someone who has helped your understanding about the necessity of dancing in spaces undergoing communal trauma. Tell me about him.
Bogomir is a good friend. We met each other at the turn of the century. We were part of the same rave tribe back then but soon after he moved to Holland to become an artist and a curator. In recent years his field of ongoing artistic research is the politics of dancing, or more precisely asking: "why do we dance?" This research focuses on the dance floor from a bird's-eye perspective. Rave choreography and communication depends so heavily on social, political, cultural and economic circumstances. We both come from the time where going to raves was the only way to maintain sanity. During my teenagehood, reality collapsed. There was war, sanctions, extreme poverty, hunger, electricity cuts and finally bombings. For my generation, a way from home to school was dangerous as there was always a possibility that some other teenager will pull out a knife or a gun and take off your sneakers and jackets. I was lucky to be so poor that nobody would even want my clothes.
In the midst of all that, young people wanted to keep a visage of the same lifestyle they had before the war broke out. Partying was our way to create a parallel culture: we were living in the night, hiding from the grim daily life. Raving was individual as much as it was collective, the music was abstract enough to give space for individual interpretation and introspection and it was repetitive enough to create collective hypnosis. It was a proper tribal healing experience. It served this purpose. And a few other purposes. Men would escape being dragged to battlefield by never being at home at night. All this obviously adds up to a very different purpose than pure hedonistic weekend escape from a nine-to-five job.
Bogomir extended his research to dance floors across the globe—Brazil, US, Georgia, Portugal, Germany, Palestine, plus Holland and Serbia. The way we in Serbia rave is much closer to someone from Detroit or Chicago in the '80s than to someone in Belgium. I guess it's the same story with Berlin in the '90s, and what is happening in Georgia these days. It's more of a necessity than anything else, with an attitude that if the apocalypse is on our doorstep, let's enjoy 200 percent of life now. Bogomir coined a new term for this, the "dance of urgency." He invited me to give talks at several conferences where he presented his project and made me think about why I ended up at raves and how I became a professional DJ. I had to rewind my whole life and dissect historical and political circumstances in certain periods and connect them with my own perception of parties in order to give these talks. I discovered interesting social and historical patterns threaded everywhere. More importantly, it made me define that this collective transformative experience is one of my driving forces. In the mad world of mutating, inhumane capitalism, a proper rave experience is still the closest way for people in urban environments to get some sort of collective awareness through which they can accept others as part of the same universe and create a bit more of a loving attitude towards each other.