Politics of Makin’ Magick: An Interview with DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ — part I

DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ, the wigician, the mathmagician, the OG leader of the house position. Behind a hilarious moniker lies one of the biggest enigmas and the most prolific artists of the underground house music scene, someone (or several someones) who is known for their grand releases, unique sound, subversive politics and complete anonymity. In the last six years, Sabrina has released nine albums (the shortest of which is an hour and a half behemoth nevertheless) and developed a cult following. We had a chance to talk to her about her recent release, Destiny, as well as the current state of music industry and streaming services, her views on sampling, radically queer joy of her sound and the importance of LGBT+ spaces in dance music. The first part of this interview is intended to provide an introduction to this unique artist’s opus, and the second to expand on her politics and specificities of her sound.

Sabrina’s latest release, Destiny (source: instagram @djsabrinatheteenagedj)

The existence of DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ has been tightly related to the digital space ever since Makin’ Magick, her 2017 debut and an outsider house modern classic. “Tightly related” might be an understatement, since DJ Sabrina remains, to this day, completely anonymous, existing solely in the online world, visually represented through digital avatars. Hiding under pseudonyms is a practice as old as art itself, and various online theories have attempted to attribute Sabrina’s music to everyone from Richard Davis James (Aphex Twin) to Taylor Swift. Rarely any musicians who has tried to retain anonymity, however, has been as online and prolific as DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ. In a relatively recent interview with The Guardian, some informations have been made known, but with no definite identity pinpoints: Sabrina is London based, works part time in retail, and is aided in music creation and management by her sibling, Salem (of course).

In the span of six years, Sabrina has released nine full-length LPs and more than twenty DJ mixes of various sorts, in addition to managing all of her social media, creating music videos and all visual material, writing an accompanying novelization to one of her releases, and designing various merchandise. It is an extremely prolific rhythm for (seemingly) two people who manage the project, even without taking into account the length and eclecticism of Sabrina’s releases. The first “pentalogy” of her albums culminated in 2020’s Charmed, a three-hour odyssey that gained her significant buzz online and became an underground pandemic hit. The second pentalogy currently sits at its fourth release, Destiny, released this August, an even bigger, bolder and brighter project that spans four hours of plunderphonics-based house music and has helped Sabrina get coverage in mainstream music journalism from the likes of Stereogum and Pitchfork. On top of her regular releases, Sabrina accompanies every album with Singles and Promo versions (without segues that connect the tracks), encouraging listeners to create their own playlists and incorporate tracks in their own potential DJ mixes.

Since streaming and social media became the leading principles of contemporary music industry, the forms we listen to have changed accordingly. Of course, commodification of music in capitalism is a given, but it is interesting to see how it takes place within an industry that nowadays favors the digital realm, where many potential limits of physical formats become obsolete. Regardless, songs today have significantly reduced in length, even in comparison to common three-or-four-minutes radio edits that were popular barely ten years ago. The influence of social media has led to further shortening of tracks, resulting in an explosion of 2-ish-minutes tracks that should be capable of creating viral moments and catching the scroller’s attention before they have a chance to skip on to the next clip. In the streaming age, Sabrina’s ten-minute tracks might seem counterintuitive, or even downright subversive. They also remain loyal to the tradition of house music, where emphasis has always been on immersion, continuity and communal spirit rather than profitability and palatability. In a similar way that queer BIPOC music scenes inaugurated house and techno as legitimate genres in the later 20th century in direct opposition to largely white and heteronormative mainstream music practices, Sabrina’s queer plunderphonics resists the dictate of today’s social media and music commodification by requiring more active forms of participation and listenership.

DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ – Honey, taken from the album Destiny.

When one discusses “house” or “plunderphonics” in the context of DJ Sabrina, the labels should be understood only tentatively, as the opus of this enigmatic figure covers many genres and subgenres, spanning from lo-fi house to nu-disco, often flirting with elements of jazz, pop, soul, electro, French house, hip-hop and more. The music is sample-based, incorporating elements from TV shows, speeches, interviews, deep cuts and major pop hits alike, to create a unique sound that blends nostalgic and euphoric qualities of 80s/90s/early 00s media. In a flood of reboots, rehashes and callbacks to “simpler times” of millennial generations, Sabrina’s music is rather symptomatic of its time, yet still sounds radically different to mainstream attempts to cash in on nostalgia. It is relentlessly queer, joyful and genuine, it fearlessly embraces clichés and cheesiness of its building blocks. It doesn’t invoke nostalgia, but rather evoke a specific kind of it, creating kaleidoscopic simulacra that lure the listeners in with their familiarity, but make them stay because of their singularity. In Sabrina’s words, the aesthetics she tries to convey is that of a “warped TV movie that makes you cry in a way no mainstream movie would be able to”. With many tracks pushing past the 8-minute mark, the music challenges the recipients instead of offering them easily digestible and tailor-made “content”. The challenge lies not in the difficulty of the material, but rather in the listener’s willingness and tenacity to stay within its magic world. Sabrina’s titanic releases pose a question: how long can one keep pushing forward by being hopeful, joyful and romantic in the face of adversity? How long can one sustain an elevated optimism in today’s sociopolitical landscape and their own personal hardships? Sabrina’s sprawling, ever-growing catalogue presents an answer in itself.

First of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview! How have you been since the release of Destiny?

DJSTTDJ: Very busy, hehe! It was extremely crunchy towards the end of mixing and mastering the album – a couple of twelve hour days in a row, no breaks, non-stop listening and checking the whole album over (twice in halves, and a final time all in one go) – and I wanted a break as soon as I’d put it up but I still had to make the cassette edits. Then, there was some interest for CD so I had to make CD edits… then there was interest for vinyl so I had to make vinyl edits, and the Singles release, then the Mixtape release and the Abridged version and it’s just been a continuous stream of things for the last two months lol! I honestly didn’t know if this album was going to be very successful or if anyone was going to like it that much so I only intended to release a cassette and digital at first, you never know!

What would you say makes Destiny a typical DJSTTD album and what makes it a novelty in your discography? What’s the story behind it and what’s the narrative inside of it, in the context of your second pentalogy?

DJSTTDJ: Well, I wanted to make the longest album yet because everyone seemed to prefer the long albums to the short albums (my shortest albums have actually been my least popular, haha). I also wanted to try and knock Charmed off its perch with an even longer album with (hopefully) even more consistency, or at least that was what I was trying to do! It’s typical in that The Other Realm wasn’t “typical” and it’s possibly my least loved album (even though I really like it and think it’s one of the most consistent!), whereas Destiny might appeal to you more if you like Enchanted, Charmed, Makin’ Magick II, etc. It would have been nice to have been the fifth album in Pentalogy II to match Charmed being the fifth, but the original plan to release three albums last year kinda changed and the final piece will have to come next year to finish the installment.

The Other Realm, by by DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ, taken from Bandcamp.

I second The Other Realm being one of your most consistent efforts! A lot of people complain about the length of your releases, but I think that’s one of their best traits because of how immersive it gets. I most often listen to Destiny front to back, sometimes without even planning it – it just pulls me in. Did you intend it to be listened to in one sitting? If not, how would you suggest dividing it (into acts, for example)?

DJSTTDJ: It was definitely intended to be listened to in one sitting if possible, even the few harsh stops (the end of Vibrations into Destiny FM, for instance) are intended to be heard without stopping, but the Singles and Mixtape versions are great if you want to break it up, listen to just one or two tracks, make your own playlist, etc. I actually always listen to Prince’s S/T album with a slightly different ordering that’s become canon to me over the years so I encourage people to enjoy Destiny however they wish! I think the CD versions are quite nicely divided up into three acts, or the cassette version is divided up into 4 acts, those would probably be the best way of splitting it up into 60 or 80 minute sessions!

In today’s music industry, it’s become almost an anomaly to find sprawling releases of 2-4 hours like yours – despite streaming seemingly being a perfect medium for it. Are longer forms part of a conscious strategy of challenging listeners or is it more about immersion? In other words, apart from sonic world-building, is there a political or psychological aspect in creating longer tracks?

DJSTTDJ: I just always saw streaming as a perfect format for long listening without any breaks imposed by physical media (a relative first in the history of released music). I find it ridiculous that songs are charged for per track on places like iTunes, but then the entire album download itself isn’t much cheaper than if the whole thing had to be pressed or cut or recorded, shipped across the planet and sold in brick and mortar stores. This doesn’t even have much dependency on the length (a 24 minute album can cost the same as a 240 minute album on iTunes) which is why I like to sell the digital on Bandcamp (formally property of Epic Megagames, now property of SongTrdr) for £5, which can be four hours of pleasure for a relatively inexpensive price for most places in the world. If people want to download it for free or just stream it, they will, and really I just want as many people to hear my stuff as possible! I don’t think any director has ever said, “This movie needs to be less than 2 hours so it can fit on a VHS and still look good so we don’t have to record on LP mode or release an enormously expensive and cumbersome two tape set!” or “This needs to be cut down so we can keep the bitrate high and good looking on DVD and BluRay without splitting it up into two discs!” – they just make the movie they need to make to tell the story and immerse the audience as best they can. I think having the predominant format being streaming currently should challenge artists to think if their work should and could be longer, maybe it shouldn’t always be, but it certainly seems to work for me (as I said, my shorter albums are my less popular!).

As someone whose work relies heavily on sampling and re-contextualization, how do you feel about the state of music industry in regards to samples? There have been many controversies with popular artists and uncleared samples, talks of intellectual property and who owns the music… what is your take on that?

DJSTTDJ: It’s an incredibly dated system that’s built off the backs of thousands of lawsuits that have badly shaped a situation that goes directly against the way art is meant to be: free. Sampling is an art form like anything else, imagine if someone copyrighted the sound of the E string of a Fender electric guitar originally? And everyone else had to pay a license fee or wait until the patent expired (if it didn’t get lobbied to extension hell) before they could record an E string again? What if a voice-style was trademarked and no-one else could sing like that? What if an 808 sound was copyright and you had to pay Roland each time you used an 808 kick from one of their devices, and using a similar but derivative drum-machine was still subject to royalties (albeit, reduced)? This is the system that’s in place. I figure you could get sued any minute for doing absolutely nothing and having no intention whatsoever of plagiarising anyone (George Harrison, Michael Bolton, Sam Smith, Olivia Rodrigo, Ed Sheeran), especially in the internet age where, “because anything can be heard by anyone at any time, you must have heard it and ripped it off”.

One of my favorite things about your music is how you approach nostalgia. So much of contemporary pop culture utilizes nostalgia to make profit: sequels, reboots, references… and it often seems rather superficial and reduced to its face value. In your music there is such a sense of genuine emotion and honesty; nostalgic references never come across as empty or performative, but rather as celebratory and immersive, like a time warp to a childhood memory. I think that’s a big part of why so many fans would describe it as magical. Is it your intention or does the magic just happen?

DJSTTDJ: I just mostly listen to music that could be considered nostalgic, so it doesn’t really come across as nostalgic to me cause I’m used to it! I’m never too sure what is nostalgic, maybe the synths or chord changes? And all the reboots and remakes are insane, when was there even a brand-new IP in the last 15 years? I actually called The Makin’ Magick II album as a joke to albums like Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, that idea of reigniting the original spark with your fans as the most efficient and effective way to have a more popular release (Charmed had completely occluded Makin’ Magick 1‘s success, so it was funny to try and remind everyone that it was the original success after the fact).

DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ – Next To Me, taken from the album Charmed.

Find DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ on Bandcamp.

In the second part of our interview with DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ we will discuss the difficulties of addressing political issues in music, as well as the importance of maintaining inclusive spaces on the dancefloor. You can find it here.

Mislav Živković

Tekst je financiran sredstvima Fonda za poticanje pluralizma i raznovrsnosti elektroničkih medija Agencije za elektroničke medije za 2023. godinu.

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