Belgrade's foremost techno DJ steps up.
At the end of last year, Electronic Beats asked a slew of DJs to talk about their favourite Richie Hawtin records. The most interesting answer by far came from Tijana Todorovic, AKA Tijana T, a DJ and vocalist at the center of the club scene in Belgrade, Serbia. She chose "Minus Orange," which got a lot of play in Belgrade in the late '90s, when the city was routinely bombed by NATO. "It was a surreal situation," she said, "and also a time of intense partying. The legendary Belgrade techno club Industrija was open during the day, and since schools and universities were closed, we would go there instead. 'Minus Orange' is an anthem of that era, and my whole generation feels very connected to this track."
Todorovic has been devoted to dance music in one way or another since then—first as a TV presenter, then as a local DJ. Today she's an essential figure in Belgrade's club scene, with residencies at key clubs like the intimate 20/44 and the colossal "techno cathedral," Drugstore. Her music taste is broad and her style behind the decks is flexible, but on RA.533 she gives us an unadulterated dose of the sound so essential to her and her scene: ravey, exhilarating, warehouse techno.
Next week, Tijana will be playing at Sonus Festival at Pag Island in Croatia.
What have you been up to recently?
2016 has been an intense year, I had more international DJ gigs than ever so it was mainly about traveling and showcasing my DJ abilities to the world and learning how to live this new life. I have to say, phenomenal things have happened! Some of my professional wishes came true, I played clubs and festivals I always dreamed of playing and saw places I was fantasizing about while reading history and architecture books. When I'm at home I'm religiously taking singing classes as it heals my soul, keeps me focused and helps a lot in the process of making music. I'm just trying to be the best I can in what I do and respect these fantastic new opportunities.
How and where was the mix recorded?
It was recorded in Berlin at my friend's place using three CDJs, a mixer and a recorder. I had a tight deadline in the midst of constant travelling so there was a bit of stress surrounding this mix. I tried out a couple of versions in Belgrade then had to fly to Berlin to play, and record it there. I ripped some of my favourite records so it would be easier to record anywhere on the go. I wanted to make a super-polished mix, so I was recording many takes in one day only to realise the recorder was picking up all external sounds and not line-in. Then I came back on the day of the deadline and did it in one take. That's how I always record my mixes, so in the end this one is not any different.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
The idea was to make a mix that will translate the vibe of my all-nighters at 20/44 club in Belgrade. These all-night sets are something I'm doing regularly in the last five or six years, and it has a huge impact on my DJing style. 20/44 is an important venue in Belgrade, it's a boat parked on the river and overlooking the old part of the city with the most beautiful sunrise. It's quite small and parties can be very intense. I never really know what I'm going to play there and sets are at least seven hours long. Lately I was starting these nights with resurfaced recordings of Rex Ilusivii on Offen Music, same as I did in this mix. It sets the tone and defines where I come from. During these nights I usually go from ambient to house and disco and then acid and techno and back. Sometimes I play tracks I know people generally do not enjoy to create tension and discomfort so that when the musical relief comes the positive reaction is even stronger. Surprises are what I'm excited about the most in DJing. Mornings at 20/44 are always leading me to trippy territories mixed with a lot of classics and even pop. I hope I managed to recreate a bit of the vibe I described in this podcast.
I also wanted to include music of the people who played at my parties and with whom I have a personal connection, so there is Vakula, Gary Martin, my early collaboration with Abe Duque and the lovely Kim Ann Foxman, who gave me her track super-exclusively at the time the mix was recorded.
For those that are new to you, tell us a bit about yourself and your path to becoming a DJ. You were a TV presenter and a music journalist first, is that right?
My path is a wild one. Many "coincidences" and stories that seem surreal. I never wanted to work on TV and never had an ambition to become a DJ, it all somehow just happened and I played along. I was studying Spanish language and philosophy and my only ambition in life was to become a professor and share knowledge. I was looking for a job to support myself as my family couldn't anymore. The first offer I got was to work on TV on music reports. I thought, 'It's a job, I know about music and I'm well educated, I can do it!' So I started and progressed very quickly to creating several music shows a week. I was never really a TV presenter, I was more a control freak presenting my own content. I literally did everything on my own except for holding the camera.
My most popular shows were the ones where I would just select music videos for an hour or so, like back in the day on MTV. And it was very influential too! I managed to play all the weirdest stuff on public TV and even make it popular. At the time in Serbia media offered much more freedom, so I was able to play stuff like Einstürzende Neubauten and Autechre, integral versions, like 10 minutes of total noise on TV and nobody complained. I did get fired in the end for playing the video for Add N To X's "Plug Me In," which has naked girls playing with dildos.
After that I started creating TV shows on national TV together with Exit Festival, then I did another show dedicated just to the Serbian scene, all very popular and quite uncompromising, but after ten years or so the media environment in Serbia has changed a lot and I was confronted with commercial demands that required compromises in content. There was no discussion about it, I just stopped doing it. The same as during my studies, my only motivation to even be on TV was to reveal something new and tell the untold stories to the general audience, and after I was not allowed to do that I was not interested in the job at all.
Then there's another story that actually led me to where I am now. I met Abe Duque when he played in Belgrade in 2005. My job was to fix some interviews for him and he was talking about his ambition to become the new Quincy Jones and he was looking for his Michael Jackson. After the interview he asked me to sing during his live set that night. It sounded exciting and terrifying. I didn't know much of his music, and I was only singing in choirs and in my singing classes. During the night he just told me he left one more mic on the stage so I can go up and sing whenever I want to. After two glasses of champagne handed by his agents I grabbed the mic and improvised and everyone flipped! So he offered that I should come to Berlin and we record something. Couple of months later I took my very first flight in life and found myself at Tegel airport where Abe and his agent told me we're travelling to Offenbach first thing in the morning to play at Robert Johnson for Groove's birthday party. Again, all improvisation and great success. Eventually all our recordings and releases were just studio jams where I was learning how to use the equipment. As a live duo we toured for a few years with decent success. It was an era just before social networks and smartphones so there's not much recorded proof of the whole experience.
While I was making several TV shows a week and touring the world and learning how to produce I also started a Monday night party with another friend of mine. It was not ambitious at all, just two girls playing whatever they liked. But after a while I really wanted to learn how to mix and do it properly, and I got hooked on it. So, I tried harder and took every opportunity where I could play. As working on TV in Serbia doesn't actually bring you money, I had no equipment at home for a long, long time, so I was learning how to mix in front of full clubs. I embarrassed myself so much; luckily the good selections were what kept people coming back to the parties. Slowly I became more professional and after I stopped working with Abe and stopped working on TV I had to ask myself, what is it that makes me feel really, really happy? And it was DJing. I could do whatever I wanted and all on my own. I held no responsibility whatsoever except for being true to myself. I started taking myself seriously as a DJ, and after some years of persistence it's now finally working out.
You've spoken before about raving during NATO raids. Generally speaking, how did the conflicts of the '90s shape Belgrade's club scene? Would you say those events had a lasting effect on the scene?
It's a very tough subject. Of course if the country is devastated by wars and bombing it has an impact on each segment of life. 1999 NATO raids and parties at these times are just a tiny detail in the absolutely insane circumstances we all grew up with. Yes, we partied while the country was being bombed, the infrastructure destroyed and innocent people got killed. I actually feel bad about it now, but at that time as a teenager it really seemed as the only reasonable thing to do. It's actually quite hard to describe what was going on, but let's say people tried to live a regular urban lifestyle despite all the '90s mess. The crew around radio B92 and their DJs was doing a lot of parties and as everywhere else in Europe at that time we also had warehouse raves. I was in my early teens so I tend to romanticize that period a lot. The fact was that parties served a certain social purpose, youngsters needed to get away from the horrors of everyday life, and for some it was a way to hide from going to the army and subsequently war. Being a DJ at that time was the highest form of rebellion—in a country under sanctions, with no music distribution, where no one is allowed to travel abroad and the inflation rate leads to an average salary of €3 per month, to find records, throw a party and have thousands of people raving to it—that was fucking magic!
Whatever was happening back then certainly laid a foundation for today's scene and some things did not change. Serbia is still super poor and we just don't have equal opportunities as our peers around Europe. There is still not one record shop where you can buy recent dance music releases (there are a few epic second hand stores, though) and now we have €300 per-month average salary and costs of living higher than in Berlin. Going out at weekends is still considered an obligation and not mere leisure, for many young people it's the only escape from total depression. What actually saved the whole scene and many young lives in terms of music is illegal music sharing. It sounds controversial from the western point of view, but we would have never had a chance to find out about a lot of underground music or even international music in general if there was no access to the internet. And the scene totally exploded once anyone could afford to download software and become a DJ or producer. Now people can travel and some things are easier, like paying online, so the scene is developing, we have more clubs and parties than ever and quite a variety of styles present. Thank you internet!
What are you up to next?
I'm continuing to tour. Next up is Rakete in Nürnberg then Sonus Festival in Croatia, then Afterlife in Ibiza, then my first trip to Mexico and so on. In the meantime, I am trying to focus on shaping up a bunch of vocal recordings into something that could be an EP. I'm also doing my best not to lose touch with people dear to me because life is not worth much if you don't have time for your friends and family.