Celebrating Old Skool Music, Culture and Legacy
Charissa Saverio (or DJ Rap as she’s better known) has been at the forefront of the jungle/drum & bass scene for over 25 years and been responsible for many genre-defining tunes including Hardstep, Rhythm and the jungle anthem Spiritual Aura – a tune that still gives me goosebumps 24 years on!
However, Rap’s legacy as a DJ and producer is just the tip of the iceberg; these are merely two areas of her multi-faceted life as artist/entrepeneur. Aside from running two successful record labels (Propa Talent and Impropa Talent), she also acts, scores movies, provides vocals (for her own and other people’s productions), and delivers tuition – both online and in person – to aspiring artists. To be DJ Rap is to be busy.
And so it was, that following the launch of her online school Music Tech Collective (or MTC) I contacted Rap in a bid to find out more. Over the course of several phonecalls, punctuated by poor signal, I found Charissa Saverio to be warm and welcoming, confident and professional, and at all times passionate about the music and her work.
You recently spent a few weeks in the UK – how was your trip?
It was amazing. It was very invigorating, inspiring, but also emotional because there was so much support. It was overwhelming, in a good way, so a really beautiful experience. While I was there I had just 18 hours off over three weeks so I was very, very busy, but no complaints. It was so good I’m back on June 6th till July 6th! Check my website [www.djrap.com] for new dates, there’s lots of fun shows happening!
Sounds good! You played at JungleMania recently – how was it?
All the gigs were great. Shelly’s was amazing, Jungle Mania was amazing… It was a pre-tour to let everyone know that I’m back and coming again in June for more shows, so I’m looking forward to it. I did lots of catching up but at the same time there was a lot of business and interviews and that kind of thing, as well as press and photo-shoots. I was meeting lots of producers and working on new stuff.
Speaking of which, I saw the photo you posted in the studio with Mollie Collins – how was that?
We were just trying something out in the studio to see what happens. I’m all about working with women, and pushing production with women, which is why I started the school. It was because of my own experience that I felt it was very important to help men and women in terms of production; to make it affordable, and simple to follow. Because when someone leaves a tutorial on YouTube it can often leave gaps or is so poorly presented. I also teach one-on-one privately and I design all my online tutorials to make sure no parameter is left unturned.
In your view, how has the industry changed over the years?
That’s a really good question – it’s changed in a lot of ways. I feel it’s a lot harder for women in some ways now. It’s hard to answer that question because everyone’s perspective is different. I feel that on one hand, because of the “me too” movement men are much more aware of the need to close the gender gap, and a lot more guys are being supportive on that. Also there are a lot of people seeing it as a business opportunity and there’s a lot of people who really care about fixing the equilibrium, but at the same time it’s still very much a boys club. In my scene, in drum and bass in England, it’s amazing. To me it’s probably the least sexist and the most supportive, and I see that and I love that. It’s so supportive, it’s incredible.
In a recent blog post you said that the industry in general was “less sexist back in the day”…
Again, the reason it’s so difficult for me to answer this question is because everyone’s experience was different. For me it was very easy to break through but there were other female DJs where this wasn’t the case. And even if I was booked as a novelty initially this soon wore off when they saw what I could do y’know?
Back in the day if you looked at the DJ 100 polls in the magazines they were littered with women, but if you look at the top 100 now, in any magazine or poll, it just seems to be very, very, boy orientated. It’s not that I never experienced sexism. I mean, as a woman, I’ve got plenty of “me too” moments, but as a DJ what happened with me was that I think I was initially booked because maybe I looked cute, but then they saw what I could do on the decks and it was a whole different thing. Then I produced hit songs and it was like “whoa”. To this day there are people out there that think I don’t produce my own music – they can’t get their tiny brains around it. I wasn’t the first female DJ but I was the first to play the main stage and be paid the same as the boys, and I refused to play in an all-girls room, I just wouldn’t do it. So yeah, there was definitely some novelty, but again, once doors open you just walk through. I didn’t experience any sexism in the industry until I got to America, I just experienced a lot of support in England. I think as a girl, outside of the DJing, that’s when I experienced sexism the most.
Are your early experiences part of the inspiration for MTC?
Something that I always say is that the reason I broke through so quickly is because I was a producer and I could make music. I didn’t just rely on being a DJ, do you know what I mean? So for me it was like: I sold 3 million records, got a record deal with Sony, produced hits in the drum and bass world… I mean, I couldn’t perceive not breaking through. I think the biggest challenge that female DJ’s face is that they need to produce hits, and then the gender just falls away. Because no one really gives a shit then – in fact it’s an added string to your bow when you’re a triple threat.
The reason I started the school was sometimes you have a great idea and you have to wait until the next day to hire a studio and hire an engineer, or there were times where I felt musically impotent, like I couldn’t grasp the technology. Remember, back in our day there were no tutorials, no YouTube nobody showing you how to do this. You just had to figure it out, and it was all analogue and a really difficult process to learn. It’s not like that now but I just found it frustrating that I had to wait and depend on people. So I made the choice to learn how to do everything on my own, so I became self reliant, how to produce, how to run a label etc….As technology got more affordable and available I thought why don’t I pass my knowledge on? I also experienced people not wanting to share their knowledge and some people that were like “this is my method” and not willing to share. I just felt that attitude was stupid so I became determined to learn everything I could, became a Jedi at Ableton and decided to pass that knowledge on in an affordable way. I’ve developed an Ableton course which is a head-to-toe of learning just Ableton which took me 7 months to create and is made up of 45 videos with over 9 hours of learning. There is also a business course covering every topic you need to be a fully knowledgeable artiste about the music industry. From how to send a demo and get signed, to running your own label, to getting paid sync, licensing, it’s all there.
I launched MTC Online just two months ago and it’s just taken off and been great. I’ve also launched a business course because I think one of the biggest problems that we face is that people don’t really understand publishing, licensing, how to protect yourself, how to get paid, how to approach labels, how to send demos and all that stuff. These are things I’ve learnt the painful and hard way. Back then there were plenty of people that helped me and supported me, but also you learn some valuable lessons when you get ripped off. That course contains everything you need to know and is based on my own personal experience and what I’ve learned over the course of my career.
The next course will be an Advanced Drum and Bass course that will be launched soon probably August with sample packs and templates, and I’m really excited about that. I’m just going to keep putting out the content, see what happens and continue to do the best I can. So those are my reasons for developing the school. I’d been teaching privately for 4 years – and I still do that – but there’s only one of me and I just can’t be in a million places at once.
MTC offers several ways of engaging with tuition. It’s interesting to see that you still offer the one-to-one tuition. How does that work?
Basically I use GoToMeeting – it’s like a very high-end Skype. It’s incredibly clear and you can take control of someone’s screen to demonstrate how to do something. I can see their screen, they can see mine, it’s like I am right there in the room with you, you see me and I see you! You can view up to 200 people at any one time or just one person. So if you wanted to have a private lesson with me we’d arrange a time and we’d meet online twice a week. If I’m in LA and someone wants face-to-face tuition then obviously I have an initial meeting with them to see if they’re somebody I’d want to work with, because not everybody is a perfect candidate for private tuition. My time is precious so I only want to work with people who are motivated and committed to learning and not people who just think it’s cool. If I’m actually going to let people into my home I wanna make sure it’s a good fit for both of us because there’s a lot of homework involved. So, if I’m going to invest three months of my life into a student I want to make sure that they really care about it for the right reasons. You can work out someone’s work ethic within the first hour y’know? What I don’t want to do is to work with someone that I have to nag to complete homework because I want all of my students to do well.
So, with GoToMeeting we meet twice a week online where we can talk and interact over the course of the lesson. We also record the lesson as a video, they get notes and a professional video detailing that lesson. We go through everything – I show them how to do something then it’s like “your turn”. If they’ve not quite grasped it I’ll take control of their screen and show them until they’ve got it. We don’t move on to the next thing until they’ve mastered that lesson. Then, we have two days in-between where they repeat the lesson at home – that’s the homework. I insist on two days in between each lesson so they can digest the information they’ve learnt.
Your life sounds pretty full-on! Do you ever rest?!
No, not really! I mean, I get 8 hours sleep a day – I love to sleep – but I run my world with military precision. I get up early to go to the gym before I do anything else, then at 9 o’clock I sit down and prepare content for the day. I post all my content on social media at lunch time between 11:30 and 1:30 so it hits Britain when people are coming home from work and it hits the US when people are having their lunch. Then I just deal with emails, office stuff and creating content all day. Then, in the evening, that’s when I get creative and make music.
The weekends I tend to leave for myself. I try not to work the weekends because I don’t gig all the time – I’d rather do strategic tours than be on the road constantly. I wanna make sure I have a balance in life and I have time to see friends and enjoy my life. But otherwise, most people who know me will probably tell you I’m a workaholic and I love what I do. I’m incredibly passionate about what I do and I wake up excited to get at it. I think you have to be in love with what you doing to view it as passion rather than work. I see what I do now as an opportunity to give back to a scene that’s given me so much. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.
Your first release, “The Adored”, was a vocal house tune, then you had a succession of huge jungle and drum and bass tunes. You’ve spanned numerous genres ever since, so if genre is unimportant what quality do you aspire to achieve in your productions?
That’s a really good question and I appreciate this interview because not once have you asked me the generic boring questions that you can research yourself. One of the things I like about great interviewers is that they give thought to what they wanna say. If you think about the number of times I’ve been interviewed all over the world and I still get asked where I’m from… you can just Google me! What I view as being very important in every track is what’s going to be memorable – what’s going to last and stand the test of time. I don’t care about being put in a box – I fought against it my whole life. I’m schizophrenic musically and I make whatever I please and whatever I feel is calling me. When I make a track I listen to it back and think will it sound great in five years, does it have a vibe, is this something that people are going to say “you know what was really interesting”. Or is it just going to be a track that’s flavor of the month? I’m not interested in that – I’m interested in making music that’s timeless. I’m not saying I succeed every time but so far I think a lot of my body of work stands the test of time, and that’s what’s important to me.
In a recent blog post on making it in the industry you said that in order to make it these days you need to be artist, publicist and marketer. Being among the first wave of artists to have access to social media was this a steep learning curve?
I think you have to go with the flow. When you’re a huge artist basically everybody is there to do everything for you. One of the biggest life-lessons I learnt was that I trusted all the people that were the biggest managers, the biggest publishers… not all of them were bad, but we are human, mistakes were made. So while you’re busy being a rock star, touring the world, you’re not really aware of what’s going on with your business, because all these other people are so-called managing it but actually they’re really fucking it up. So I learnt a very painful lesson and I lost a lot of money – and my house at one point – so you really have to take control of your own shit. No-one is going to care about your career more than you and being lazy is just not an option. It’s not an excuse for not understanding how the business works and I was guilty of that for many, many years as I was busy touring. I trusted everyone and let them sail my ship. So now I’m extremely knowledgeable about business and I know what I’m doing but it came at a price.
I would say that if you are a huge artist that has major record deals, managers and all that, you still have to know what’s going on and you still have to be the driving force of that whole army that you’re constructing. It’s got to be your vision… trust your gut. I’m an advocate for doing everything yourself but equally if you have a great team around you listen to them, be respectful of them, but understand that it was your gut that got you there in the first place.
Is it easy to lose control?
Very, very easy to lose control of it. I certainly did so. Again I learnt that lesson the hard way and it took me years to recover. I lost my house and I lost my fortune two or three times over. But one thing I’ve learnt that I’ll never forget – and it’s something Richard Branson told me because I played on his Island a few times – it’s that when you’ve been successful once you’ll be successful many times over. The talent doesn’t go away. Successful people aren’t successful once. You have to have faith in your talent. It’s never been about the money for me – it’s been about the driving ambition I’ve had and the love of the music. So I don’t expect drum and bass, or the industry, to owe me a living – I expect to do that myself. I was doing this when I was dragging my records around not getting paid for five or six years. A lot of the stuff I do is a labour of love, I didn’t make any money from it for the longest time. I just spent three weeks in London doing press – you don’t get paid for that. Yes it’s a means to an end but if I didn’t enjoy it it would be a nightmare. I love every second of what I do and because of that it’s a blessing.
In the last few years there’s been a real resurgence in interest in the old skool scene. What do you think it is about the early 90’s rave scene that endures?
I think it was our Woodstock. It changed everybody. It got black and white people talking together. For me it was a step in the battle of racism. In so many ways it brought people together who were uncomfortable talking to each other. You’d go to a rave and sit down and be talking to twenty people and you’d have twenty friends every single night. It was such a powerful medium and conduit for getting people together. I just feel it was special and magical in millions and millions of ways. It gave me a family, it gave me a reason to live, it was my religion, and I feel that it impacted on so many people and still does – look, I still make a living off this and have an incredible life from the impact of it.
In fact we’re releasing some vinyl too. “Propa Dubs Volume 1” is coming on June 29th and exactly for this reason – there is a resurgence and I’m excited about it. I’ve got a lot of unreleased material from back in the day so the first release from Propa Dubs will be never-before-heard mixes of Hardstep from 1996 as well as the original. I’m really excited to release Propa Dubs Vol 1 so we’ll see what happens.
Do you get asked to play many old skool sets?
I play a few but I play a lot more modern gigs than I do old skool, so while I’m certainly more interested in new music I’m also happy to play older sets now and then! I’m a people DJ so I’ll play whatever, but if someone said to me would you be happy just playing old skool sets? Then no. As an artist my job is to push the boundaries and explore everything I want to explore, so I’m happy to play old skool sets a couple of times a year but most of the time, like anybody, I’m interested in what’s new and what’s happening and that’s very important to me.
You’ve done several movie and commercial scores – is that something you would like to do more of in the future?
Definitely, and I am going to be doing some more of that but I’m not sure if I if I can talk about it right now! Let’s just say wait “watch this space”…
Intriguing! So what else does the future hold?
Well right now I’m focussing on the Propa Dubs Vol 1 release and a bunch of new music as well. It’s nice to have some of your old stuff to introduce new fans to what made you famous and all that, but at the same time I’m really focused on the new sound which is very important to me. I’m also looking forward to coming back in June for Moondance and a bunch of other gigs as well. I’m just very, very grateful that there are a lot of good things coming my way…
So there you go… While there are people like Rap prepared to push boundaries, and willing to take risks, the scene will be in safe hands.
When you’re a fan of someone’s music there’s always a sense of trepidation when you come to interview them. What if they’re impatient? What if they’re aloof? Your positive associations with their music could easily be tainted simply by catching them on an off day. In this case however, given the hectic day she was having, Charissa couldn’t have been more obliging – the interview not once felt rushed or an inconvenience.
Fortunately my Spiritual Aura goosebumps can remain intact!
DJ Rap is back in the UK in June playing a host of gigs – be sure to check out her website for further info.
If you’re curious about production or the music business, or would like to take your own productions to the next level, be sure to check out Music Tech Collective.