With the producer's heavily sampled beats and their secretive identity, they managed to charm listeners - a spell that looks set to last.
Emerging suddenly from “the other realm” in 2017 with her critically acclaimed genre-defining lo-fi house cult hit “All The Beautiful Things U Do,” DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ has been making consistent psychedelic magic ever since. From her aforementioned debut, “Makin’ Magick,” to her magnum opuses “Charmed” and “The Makin’ Magick II Album,” to her seemingly endless slew of brilliant mixtape-style remix releases (aptly titled the “Combinisions”) to dozens of self-produced videos, images, Instagram and Twitter memes and posts and a flamboyant array of merchandise including a novelization, the artist has amassed hours and hours of music and media in a career spanning just 6 years now.
DJ Sabrina’s dizzying prolific output in a matter of only a few years rivals the entire multi-decade careers of many of her predecessors in terms of both quality and quantity, something to which her extremely vocal internet fanbase loudly attests.
Even with the glittering and slick nighttime house vibes on “Spellbound!,” the lo-fi house charms of “Makin’ Magick,” and “Witchkraft,” and the many ways in which “Enchanted” is a production predecessor to DJ Sabrina’s breakthrough album “Charmed,” it was not until the release of “Charmed” that DJ Sabrina’s legacy as a producer of notability was cemented. “Charmed,” an almost relentlessly positive three-hour psychedelic journey through the deep catacombs of modern music and culture (both obscure and mainstream), blended together into a synaesthetic concoction of pure psychedelia and intoxicatingly contagious positivity set to four-on-the-floor house beats is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.
The year 2022 saw DJ Sabrina achieving a bit of mainstream crossover, collaborating with The 1975 on their hit single, “Happiness,” along with the release of several singles, the “Call You/Under Your Spell” EP, and the magnificent full-length album “Bewitched!”.
DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ – Bewitched! “Bewitched!” showcases the artist at the top of her game, boasting the colossal singles “A Part Of Me,” “Call You,” and “You Never Know,” which are undoubtedly career highlights. Alongside her recent dance-pop banger “Brave,” the brilliant and truly trippy single “All I Can Feel” is infectious, psychedelic, and genre-bending all at once, and has managed to swoop in at the last moment and top my list of best songs of 2022, remaining on consistent repeat since its Christmas release date.
So how exactly does she do it? Where does all of this inspiration come from? What is DJ Sabrina currently working on? What would DJ Sabrina like to be working on, and with whom?
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask DJ Sabrina these questions, and am thrilled to be able to share those responses with you. A major thanks to DJ Sabrina for taking the time to answer these questions. I thought her responses were as fun and thrilling as her music has been:
NICHOLAS SHANKIN: Your music is so evocative to many listeners like myself of the psychedelic experience. The way that the musical samples are blended with snippets of conversations and other external sounds is so reminiscent of intense psychedelic experiences I’ve had in the past, where sounds blended together into whole new combinations. Whether it’s the authentic retro rave energy of “The Other Realm” (which literally sounds channeled from a rave at 4AM somewhere in 1999) or the synesthetic sound collages of “Love Is The Purest Thing There Is,” “Next To Me,” or “Under Your Spell,” in what ways would you say that the psychedelic experience has contributed to your music? This could be in terms of other artists’ influence on your music, your own experiences with psychedelics or psychedelic and rave culture, or in whatever context you’d like to speak to that?
DJ SABRINA THE TEENAGE DJ: Thank you! Well, I'm a huge fan (as you know) of The Avalanches, Basement Jaxx, Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and others, but The Beatles are one of the most influential bands in terms of arrangements, production, song-writing. When I was young, I used to read the Alan Pollack essays which taught me a lot about music function. It was really interesting to compare how 90's/00's artists were doing psychedelic music vs. how it was done back in the origins of the sound. I find a lot of the dialogue [used in my songs] fills in those gaps in your mind where things feel empty in arrangements, and a lot of them are musical synonyms for feelings of depression and euphoria, listening to people talk while you're just drifting through the existence, the juxtaposing sounds and experiences are dramatically moving in many ways.
NS: In terms of the music itself, what are some of your favorite psychedelic production effects you like to use, and what inspires you about them? (i.e. phasers, EQ filters, delay, reverb, scratching, etc.) What are some songs that you heard that used these psychedelic sound elements which inspired you?
DJSTTDJ: I love the old effects because no-one uses them anymore! I hate that an effect can become “dated?” A fuzz guitar never becomes dated, so why should a flanger? Scratching was one of the greatest inventions in music back from the original hip-hop and rap, but it got left behind and forgotten about entirely (I always liked that kind of Wiseguys/DJ Shadow reverb on scratching–gave it an ambient vibe). Listening to the original psychedelic sounds of the 60's/70's is just as charming as listening to them during the revival of psychedelia in the 90's, using effects as musical instruments.
NS: The final track of “The Makin’ Magick II Album,” “Music,” has a quote about not knowing where to start in terms of the musical process. What can you say to speak to that in terms of your process as a producer? Is there generally an element of the song you start with, or do you set out to combine certain songs, or where would you say you start with songs?
DJSTTDJ: It was a kind of ironic quote because I never have that problem! Although I would probably sound really, really–even more–repetitive if I didn't have samples to guide the way a lot of the time. Songs can start with almost anything, from a music sample or a chord sequence or a vocal sample or even an organic melody. It depends on where the idea comes from, some tracks even come from testing out new synthesizers and programming in a test chord sequence.
NS: How long would you say each song takes you to produce?
DJSTTDJ: Maybe a few hours (2-4) over a few days (2-4) then mixed and mastered (2-4) so probably between 2-4 * 3 = 6-12 hours? Some days of mixing can be 8-12 hours (though very, very rarely).
NS: It’s fascinating to me how when I look at the artists other fans of yours are listening to, there tends to be such a wide range, although most of it verges toward the obscure (vaporwave, chillwave, house). And yet, so much of the music that you have sampled throughout your albums and your “Combinisions” remix releases is in fact quite mainstream in origin. Would you say your own listening taste tends more toward the mainstream, or the obscure, or both? Do you think there’s even a difference in the post-FM radio internet age?
DJSTTDJ: I probably don't put as much variety in my “Combinisions” as I listen to; I think the mixes have a certain sound that works as a whole and some types of music wouldn't work there. I love a lot of very modern music as I do very old classic music, but sometimes I'd listen to a track more so than an artist. I think if a Netflix show can make one of the greatest alternative pop singles (from one of the greatest alternative pop albums) of all time have another #1 on the charts, there's probably not much separation between eras anymore.
NS: You’ve spoken of artists like The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, and The Avalanches being huge influences on you. What are some other artists that you personally feel your music might not have existed without? When did you start to get into electronic music, yourself?
DJSTTDJ: All of those and more! I can still remember how the songs made me feel and the sounds I wanted to emulate when I was a kid. When I was super, super young I listened to mostly pop and whatever second-hand records I could find. I gave up with electronic music for many years and listened to pre-millennium non-electronic music almost exclusively for that time, but I got back into electronic music and it was like I'd never left. I think both scenes are equally important to me and influence me in different ways and kind of left me totally agnostic towards genres.
NS: How much of your music is based on hardware equipment? What are some pieces of equipment or digital plug-ins which are indispensable to your music making process?
DJSTTDJ: I find hardware is a sound to aspire to, but ITB (that's really cool industry speak for “in-the-box,” all the really cool engineers use that acronym) conforms a lot easier to the 3 R's of mixing… replicate, refine and reproduce. Trying to get a specific sound (replicate) in software is going to be a lot easier in 2023 than trying to hunt down a bunch of boxes; trying to tweak this sound (refine) to be a perfect replication is going to be a lot harder and would possibly wear out the equipment before you were done; and doing this 100s of times (reproduce) is going to be expensive and again, probably break down before you're done. I listed a bunch of hardware in the Pentalogy compendium available from all good bookstores, it has the (inspired) equipment names used (roughly) on the albums.
NS: It seems as if from the start, you’ve been a consistently polished and brilliant producer. Is there lots of early unreleased material that hasn’t been heard by the world? How long would you say it took you to find your stride as a producer and, dare I say, as a songwriter?
DJSTTDJ: So, so much stuff that hasn't been heard from over the years, but I've only got two hands for mixing and mastering! Actually, songwriter is really complimentary! And thank you! I think the earlier albums were more lo-fi as a way of “fitting in”, but I always intended to make them more “mid-fi”, which is how they sound to me now (since “Spellbound!”, really). Thankfully, most people are very patient with the album lengths, or there'd be even more unheard music!
NS: You’ve been such a trailblazer in so many ways in terms of both your prolificacy and the fact that literally everything you do is self-released, from your music and the physical copies of your music, to your merchandise and music videos. What has your experience been like as a completely self-released artist? Do you have any advice for those interested in starting out making music? Would you do it the same way all over again?
DJSTTDJ: Well, much of that is out of necessity! No-one's gonna come and give you success (apparently?), you have to make success happen for yourself (apparently?). This is the dumb advice I've heard and been given, so I just do what I'm reasonably capable of, really. One of the big bottlenecks is mixing and mastering. It's costly and time consuming if you have to rely on someone else to do it, whereas self-mixing and mastering takes out that little obstacle. I still always think I suck at it–and I think I'm right–but at least I can get the sound I want…and for free! Artwork? Can self do… Graphic design? Can self-do… Uploading things to distribution services and merchandise companies? Can do. Organize my own tour? Can't do. It's not an issue of “won't tour,” it's an issue of “no-one's going to come and give you [a tour], [so] you have to make [other stuff] happen for yourself.”
NS: You’ve alluded to “the other realm” when asked where some of your musical and vocal contributions come from. Would you care to elaborate on this? Are some of the sounds we’re hearing part of a larger collaboration base than you’ve previously discussed in interviews?
DJSTTDJ: I think all of the albums have vocals from witches and friends from the other realm…Certainly after the first two albums. I wanted to have ‘feat. MC Dreama' on a couple of The Other Realm's tracks but I kind of forgot or maybe having “Feat.” didn't look aesthetically interesting on the artwork (probably one of those, “where do I stop with feat mentions?” situations). Yeah, there's sometimes vocalists, dialogue, musicians, etc. It's just me trying to make these albums feel bigger than they might be? It would be cool one day to go through and list everything but uhhh…
NS: Is there anything you’d like people to know about your next release, to which you’ve alluded will be released sometime in early-ish 2023?
DJSTTDJ: Yeah, hopefully spring-time! I originally wanted three albums to come out simultaneously, but it was 40c or something and there was just too much to do, so I'm trying to get those other two albums finished this year. I also (as you know) had to remaster “The Makin’ Magick II Album” and “The Other Realm,” as the original versions were just total first drafts that were not originally intended for release, but I was so exhausted and didn't want to spend December 2021 mixing any more music so I kind of put them out as is. I re-listened to them over 2022 a few times, took notes and spent 6 weeks finishing them exactly as I would have done originally if I'd had more time (not sure if anyone else cares, noticed or even likes the remasters, but they're the ‘word of god' I guess, lol!).
NS: What are some of your favorite current artists, and is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with?
DJSTTDJ: I always wanted to collaborate with Jai Paul, he has a unique talent and sound that will never be replaced and inspired so much of what I do. HAIM–the Judie Tzuke sound in her singing is just as heartbreaking [as Tsuke’s] and they have some of the most consistent albums of recent times. Mike Kinsella [of American Football] would be great, I think he has a musical beauty that could work with “the Sabrina sound”?
NS: So many of your songs include samples from old television shows like “Just Shoot Me,” or movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Coming To America,” and others, yet I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sample from “Sabrina The Teenage Witch.” What are some of your other favorite shows, whether to sample or to watch, and what makes a sample jump out at you as something you want to use for your music? Do you keep a list somewhere or something and jot things down as you watch or listen to them, or have you just developed the habit of collecting samples you want to use later, or do you have some kind of wild internal database of pop culture, or what exactly is happening there?
DJSTTDJ: You're actually the first person to notice that I've never used a “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” sample! I actually used a bit from the German re-dub of “Sabrina In Rome” in one of the early Combinisions (“Summer Social?” “Homeshake?” Maybe “New Atlantic?”) but I've made it a habit to actually *not* sample that–never really made much musical sense to, lol!
NS: In your recent interview in The Guardian, you talked about working part-time in retail. Given how prolific you’ve been in the past few years, and the fact that you take the time to reply to every single comment on every single one of your posts, what would you say your work-life balance is like? Could you describe a day in the life of DJ Sabrina to some extent?
DJSTTDJ: It's changed a bit over the years but… Working a crummy job, working on promoting songs at my crummy job, working on mixing/mastering, work on songs, working on answering comments throughout the day (at crummy job), working on interviews if there's no particular songs to work on, working on songs some more…It's a system that's held together by witches brew, but it seems to work!
NS: Is there anything else that you’d like all of your fans to know?
DJSTTDJ: Yeah, I'm putting out a vinyl EP very, very soon (finished the final mix of one of the tracks today) and a glass-mastered CD mix with an obi-strip that I worked on over December, please buy them or I'll be very cross! (Not really!) Also, one of the tracks on the EP is a complextro parody kind of thing. It should be easy to tell which!