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Escape Velocity

Ring The Alarm: DJ Haram Interviewed
Kristen Gallerneaux , June 28th, 2018 08:37

Ahead of an appearance at Wysing Arts Centre's annual day festival in September, Discwoman's DJ Haram speaks to Kristen Gallerneaux and Bernie Brooks about the scene in her base of Philadelphia and linking up with Moor Mother and the Discwoman collective

"I can definitely ignore so much. It's one of my talents that I am so proud of." We're talking to DJ Haram, born Zubeyda Muzeyyen, immediately following her workshop at Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina. Focused mostly on bridging the realms of the DIY and professional, the loose conversational tone of the workshop drifted toward community building and making room for the underrepresented, which wasn't a surprise.

For at least a little while, Haram, a member of the Discwoman collective, was as well-known for her zine, Bros Fall Back ("kill the bro in yr head"), as she was for her DJ mixes and inclusive parties like (f)LAWLESS. So, it seems natural that when asked about reactionary responses to Moogfest's all-femme, trans and non-binary initial lineup, she was quick with a response, continuing, "I could ignore it if I want to, and to a degree, I feel like the idea of someone being upset about a festival's inclusive politic is something that I just do want to ignore, because I feel like I'm beyond having my opinion built upon an opinion like that, or being in conversation with that kind of opinion."

We chat off the record for a few minutes before she adds, "I would like to say to any brands or projects, any crews who care about gender inclusion, number one: you need to care about white supremacy and racism as much as - if not more than - you care about gender. These things are necessarily related. The other thing I want to say is that many people don't have the material access to what they need to get on the same level [as those with access]. So, if you're a brand that cares about this, give femmes gear and book us and curate us and make us relevant. Let us play with our peers. If you're a club and you care about that stuff, work with the right people and get the right people paid, so they can do what they do, to continue to empower more people and provide an inspiring example for more people."

It'd be hard to deny that Haram is one of those inspiring examples, but that's not why we're here. Not entirely. We're here because of the way her practice crosses disciplines seemingly effortlessly, how her DJ mixes draw threads between diasporic music and booty bounce and noise and seemingly a million other things, and not least of all her devastating recent tape of noise-rap with Moor Mother as 700 Bliss, Spa 700. Surprisingly, Haram considers the roughly fourteen-minute cassette her first official release. "Before that, I've only put out singles - self-released - given music to compilations, and done remixes or commissions."

She continues, "I'm kind of still new to being a producer." Based on Spa 700, you'd never know it. DJ Haram's serrated productions deftly compliment Moor Mother's unique flow, their sharp edges and concussive beats made somehow more brutal by melodic, sometimes delicate touches fostered by Haram's keen ear for detail. It makes the prospect of the "couple EPs worth of solo music" she's working out what to do with even more alluring.

Haram is keen to point out that the different aspects of her output take up distinctly different head spaces. "As a DJ, there's just a certain vibe that isn't reflected in my production. I'm really inspired by the setting and energy of a street festival or house party when I'm DJing or doing DJ mixes. Exciting, fun stuff that inspires people to have the endurance to dance, but also moves quickly enough to keep them guessing. When I'm in production mode, I have to be in a mindset - because I use Ableton primarily - where I'm down to have a more calculated approach to creating something. But when I'm on my sound design shit," Haram concludes, "I have to be in a space where I'm just listening to a sound, like an oscillator going for however long, just changing a little bit, recording everything and processing it later. It's more durational - I want to say spiritual. The way some people use music during worship. Just letting it guide me."

You're from New Jersey, right? What was your childhood like?

DJ Haram (Zubeyda Muzeyyen): Yeah, I was raised in New Jersey. I was born in Southern California to immigrant parents who wanted to live the American Dream for a while, but they realised, 'We have babies now, and our parents are in Jersey.' So, they went back. I'm from North Jersey, in Passaic County. Growing up there was OK. I moved around a lot when I was younger. Different cities in North Jersey, because my parents were in that income bracket of renters. I always shared a room with, at least, my sister. I don't know, I feel like so many movies and TV shows are set in Jersey - besides The Jersey Shore! [laughs] We're not talking about The Jersey Shore! - that the experience growing up in New Jersey is pretty well documented, to be honest. It feels pretty average. American. Pretty suburban, and all the cities are pretty small. But yeah, it was chill. That was Jersey.

How did you get into DJing and production? What came first?

ZM: So, I'm a DJ, producer, and sound designer. I see all three of those as separate things. I think what came first was sound design. I grew up listening to a lot of different music. Like pop and hip-hop that I was exposed to on the radio, and different things from the Middle Eastern diaspora that my parents introduced me to. But one of the first genres that I really found on my own was noise-rock. When I was a teen, I found a Sonic Youth CD in that store that everyone used to get their CDs at. You know, at a strip mall in New Jersey. But I thought that was super cool, and I was like, 'Oh, experimental music!' Like, 'Oh, improv - what's that?' [laughs] So that was something I was always interested in. Growing up, I would try to go to noise shows and stuff like that that I found happening in New York.

When I started making music, I approached it very experimentally, because what I learned from my interest in noise and those scenes is that you don't have to be a professional. You don't have to be classically trained to express yourself. And I was like, 'Yeah, I just have this synth in front of me that I have no idea how to play. I don't play piano. I have no idea how to use this attack-decay bullshit, but I'm gonna design sounds.'

So, that was my beginning, but I did want to make 'tracks', so I started DJing to help myself refine my understanding of sound design, and how sounds that you design can become music. And how music should be structured. Then from there, I started making little edits to DJ out, got asked to do some remixes, and then started producing full tracks myself.

So, I also grew up during the rise of the internet age. Getting on bulletin board systems and just trying to find out about music and what is out there in the world. And now it's so easy. The hunt isn't there. So, you have that experience of finding that Sonic Youth CD in a mall, and it's like, 'Oh my god. This is going to lock me into something different.'

ZM: Right!

So, this is a really broad question, but what do you think about music in the age of the internet? Like, how people are exposed to music and -

ZM: That's deep! [laughs] No, that's so interesting that you bring that up, and that you understand where I'm coming from - being exposed to whole worlds and whole new ways of thinking just by happening to find a CD. Like, that doesn't happen anymore. You can Wikipedia everything. You can look up every damn thing.

But that feeling is something that I like to refer to when I make my own music. That feeling of being like, 'There's only so much content, and I'm looking for the stuff that I can relate to, and when I find it I just want to listen to it over and over again.' That's the thing I remember from being a young person. I would love for my music to feel like that for people still. Even if they do find it on Bandcamp. That they're like, 'Wow, I'm lucky to find this, because this is hard to find, and I just want to enjoy every second of it.' That's my goal.

But music in the internet age - I don't know. One thing I like about the internet is that it's an access point for people without money or connections or who don't live in big cities. I think that's awesome. But it also requires you to do so much more work as an artist. There's so much maintenance of your online brand and social media and content to be done in addition to just being a musician and playing gigs. Endless work.

So, you're in Philly now. How'd you end up in Philly? What's the scene like there?

ZM: I moved to Philly in 2012. I already had some friends that live there, who happened to be DJs. I've just always been around musicians, even before I discovered that's what I was all about.

The scene in Philly is lit. There are so many artists who excel and are comparable to the best in the world, as far as dance music, hip-hop, hardcore, noise. Unfortunately, the cultural and artistic capital that exists in Philly isn't reflected by the capital and spaces that we have access to. There are very few venues that are open to underground artists. There's this trend in the DJ and dance party scene where it's like, 'We're only playing Migos tonight.' Those are fun and stuff, but they're eliminating the role of the DJ, the role of a curator, and just making it more about consuming the mainstream culture - not caring about the intention and art that goes into selecting for a dancefloor. So, we have forces working against us, but Philly is a really resilient and passionate city, and there are tonnes of artists based in Philly that act low-key - they just live their regular Philly life - but are just changing the game.

It seems like there's this interesting mash-up of the noise scene, hip-hop, and dance in Philly. I mean, you've got this thing going on with Moor Mother, 700 Bliss. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about your collab?

ZM: Moor Mother and I met in Philly probably less than a year into my living there. She had already been there for a while, making music, doing her thing. This was when I was starting out as a DJ. We initially linked up on the collaborative tip through my being her DJ at shows that she was rapping at. So, she would give me some tracks to play, and just be like, 'Yeah, play a couple other bangers, get people hype.' Then, I made some beats for her, and then we had tracks - our tracks. We would get billed as 'Moor Mother featuring DJ Haram', or if it happened to be my show, me featuring her. Kind of this thing where she would join me in the club or party setting, and I would join her in the live setting.

On top of that DJ/MC dynamic, we both are noise, improv nerds. So we jammed endlessly without recording anything. Like, for years. Just kind of vibing and exchanging sound energy. It's been almost a solid four, five years of collaboration between us. We just released our debut tape, and honestly, I'm excited to just keep doing more. I'm really interested in making beats that Moor Mother can make better. She just makes everything better.

How did you end up hooking up with the Discwoman collective?

ZM: Discwoman did their second showcase ever in Philadelphia. They did an all-female, femme, gender-nonconforming artist showcase at this big after-hours club. They did this in like 2013 or something like that, and I was just starting out. I was a laptop DJ still. I got asked to do it, and I was honestly shocked, because I didn't think I was worth it or whatever. And I was also being a hater. [laughs] I was like, 'Oh, Discwoman! Oh, this big club! Oh, y'all fuckin' with me now!' [laughs] I'm just hella the underdog. It's like I can't stop being a hater. [laughs] But obviously I was like, 'Hell yeah, I want to play on that soundsystem!' Like I said, there's not very many venues in Philly. So, I'm playing in basements and people's living rooms. Rarely a club.

So, I said yes, and I got booked for the opening set where literally no one was there for the entire thing. No one. It was maybe 9:00 - 10:00 PM. And I was playing on my controller and my computer and my soundcard, and literally all three of them were broken. At one point my controller shut off, and all my sounds shut off. Then my soundcard shut off, and all my sounds shut off. And I could feel [Discwoman founders] Frankie [Decaiza Hutchinson] and Christine [McCharen-Tran]'s eyes on me from the merch table. Like, 'There's no one in the room. All we can do is pay attention to how much you're messing up.' [laughs] I was so embarrassed. But then they emailed me a couple weeks later. Like, 'You wanna join?' And I was like, 'Whaaat?'

I never really asked them, 'Why me?' I guess they just liked what I was putting out. It all makes sense now, because we work well together. I've seen my career go from something that was really casual to me taking myself seriously, and playing some really high-profile gigs because of them. But in those initial days, I was just like, 'How did y'all know?' You know what I mean? Because some people get opportunities and kind of coast, but with them we're like, 'Next up, next up, next up.'

DJ Haram plays the Moor Mother and Paul Purgas-curated Wysing Polyphonic festival at Cambridgeshire's Wysing Arts Centre on September 1. For more information and tickets, head here