DJ Haram on the politics of the dancefloor and finding Grace
Before DJ Haram was crafting sparse, yet danceable, beats for a global audience, she cut her cloth in a space familiar to many of the principle architects on the margins of Philly’s underground music scenes: in the basement. Not settling for the crumb-like nature of opening for “it” DJ’s who occasionally grace our presence at the “it” clubs that barely have their finger on the pulse of the local scene, DJ Haram — like many LGBT POC genius artists in the city, from Moor Mother to DJ Delish — took matters into her own hands, scraped together resources, booked obscure acts that accented her sound, and hooked up amps and speakers at queerpunk houses and community centers throughout the city, eventually carving out space in an already crowded Philly DJ scene.
It helped that Haram’s music opens up its listeners to sounds that span internationally, as she blends music and ideas indigenous to her Islamic roots with dope basslines over the staccato rhythmic pulse of Jersey / Philly / Baltimore-club music. On Grace, DJ Haram’s debut solo effort released on legendary UK electronic music label Hyperdub, she pushes these ideas into even newer territory.
Spotted alongside her aforementioned partner in crime Moor Mother as 700 Bliss at last spring’s Break Free Fest — a celebration of POC folks in indie, punk and hardcore music — it’s apparent from the live show that Haram is an innovator on a cosmic level. Each track released at that performance opened vortexes, sonically navigating the strange realms her music exists in: danceable, throbbing beats, ethereal sounds spiked by gun shots, sirens and ghostly synth-lines. It may not be overly produced schlock the EDM festival circuit is ready for, but with its heady mix of the traditional and the futuristic, Grace may be exactly the world of dance music needs. We spoke with DJ Haram during a much needed, ultra-rare moment of down time to discuss the politics and mythologies of the dancefloor.
The Key: It’s been awhile since the two of us chatted! I wanted to ask, you’ve traveled quite a bit in the past couple years, how does it feel to be constantly on the road, especially as a Muslim femme navigating this Trump / Brexit landscape? Do you find audiences supportive with what you’re trying to bring, melding your cultural traditions with the Baltimore sound that seems to have become a global phenomena?
DJ Haram: Traveling constantly has its ups and downs, but I’m happy to be pretty regularly employed in an unstable time. Some audiences go wild for my signature sound, and some are pissed off that I’m not playing techno and request more palatable music. It really depends. Festivals bring more open-minded, music-loving crowds. Playing in clubs you are more likely to run into someone who just wants to drink and two-step for four hours.
TK: I could ask you a million questions about life on the road, but how important is it for you to connect with Muslim artists while you’re out there? Do you find that trying to bridge so many parts of yourself– artist, Muslim, queer femme, sick DJ– to be harder when you’re moving gig to gig?
DJH: Honestly no, not really, my faith is a pretty personal thing. I haven’t been in the habit of practicing religion in a community since I left home almost 10 years ago. I connect with people who are willing on a musical level, through the rhythms and vibrations on the dancefloor.
TK: Do you play a lot of your own tracks live? I’ve often been curious how that would go. Are you ever worried that a track doesn’t have the right volume or EQ-ing for certain clubs and soundsystems, especially if you’ve never played it out loud before?
DJH: I play a good handful per set, it depends on the context. Something old and noisy like “Big Girl” [Baltimore breaks classic by DJ Booman] gets very little play where things like “Cosmic Slop” or “Blessed” (from the Cairo Concepts compilation) or “No Idol Rmx” off Grace are pretty good for weaving into any club set. I get a little worried about playing tools or new ideas that I’ve mixed down and mastered quickly by myself, but since I’m okay with distortion, the gain knob is my friend.
TK: There seems to be an underlying theme of magic and myth in Grace. How do those aspects play into how you present yourself artistically? Was there some ritual or transformative practices involved in the making of Grace?
DJH: Instead of being depressed about the reality of 2019’s music industry where every individual has their aesthetic picked apart so each detail can be used to reassemble an artist as a brand or commodity, I chose to be a little more playful with building a myth, a whole universe really. I used to be into role-playing on message boards as a kid, the creatures on my EP cover are my canon characters and they all have a theme song on wax. When I made the songs, I was going through a transformative time for sure, just on the tail end of it now to be honest. Death and loss are jarring to put it in one word. I had to reassess what i think i know about myself, really.
TK: The sound design seems to draw a lot from the Middle East, particularly the song “Gemini Rising.” What about the minimalism of traditional Middle Eastern music marries well with club beats? As well, there is a sparser sound on the EP than what I know from your live performances and DJ gigs. Was this airiness intentional? It’s almost meditative in its approach but it doesn’t lack for dance-a-bility.
DJH: Club music already has syncopated rhythm as its core, adding more layers of rhythm just makes sense to me. I am surprised to hear you think it’s kinda sparse, i feel like it’s so much going on I was worried about things getting lost in the layers. There are moments where it dips in a very minimal instrumental for sure. I dunno, I like the drama of hearing EVERYTHING and then hearing almost nothing. Silence makes audiences more uncomfortable than screaming these days.
TK: What’s next for you, show-wise, tour-wise, or release-wise? What themes are you developing with regard to your new music?
DJH: I’m doing a short run of west coast dates — SF, LA, PDX, and Vancouver. I’m working on producing the next 700 Bliss project and recording that with Moor Mother. I’m also working on producing for other vocal artists. I’m very interested right now in refining my work and my workflow. I will always experiment but I want to concertize “my sound,” you know?