Skip to main content
 

DJ Mag’s artists to watch in 2022

Introducing the artists set to make waves this year: From Jersey club, Afrotech, and hardcore to UK rap, Brazilian grime, Ghanain asakaa and beyond, these are the DJs, producers and MCs pushing tomorrow’s sounds today

SJAYY
SJAYY

The hyper-kinetic pulse of Jersey club is taking over the world, and one of its most prolific young talents is New Jersey polymath, SJAYY, whose determination to introduce new sonic elements and maximise his own creativity knows no bounds

Jersey club Queen UNIIQU3’s ‘Heartbeats’ EP was one of 2021’s best dance music releases. But while you might be most familiar with lead single ‘Microdosing’, the fourth track on the record, ‘Drown’, featured another star of Jersey club: Ugandan-American producer SJAYY. With steamy vocals (“pussy so wet you’ll drown in it”), rap horns and a killer trap beat, ‘Drown’ was an exciting and playful offering. “The dancefloor is a tangible asset again,” SJAYY tells DJ Mag, “and now Jersey club is more global than ever.”

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, SJAYY is intensely creative, turning his hand to production, DJing, photography, fashion, and creative direction. In recent years he’s been particularly prolific on the music front — there have been three SJAYY albums since 2019 (‘A Big Jersey Club Album’ in 2019, ‘So Far So Good’ in 2020, and ‘Constant Dedication’ in 2021) — and is fast gaining notoriety as one of the scene’s most exhilarating artists. SJAYY has always been a tastemaker; at school, his friends relied on him for the best new Jersey club tunes, taking turns with his MP4 player each day on the bus. He recalls some of the first CDs he owned: Drake’s ‘So Far Gone’, Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’, Soulja Boy’s 2007 debut, ‘Souljaboytellem. com’. He was already interested in art and design back then too, he says: “I’d go through the albums back and forth, trying to redesign the CD covers with my sharpie.”

At 13 years old, SJAYY got a place at Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies (PAAAS), where he studied stage acting. Around the same time, he started experimenting with production on a hand-me-down Compaq laptop his mum had found for him. Later in his teens, he and his friends would throw block parties, direct music videos and make tunes together.

“My mother’s side is the soul,” SJAYY says of his upbringing. “My dad’s side holds the music, the faith and love that I carry within me.” When he was younger, on trips to Uganda to see his mother’s family, he struggled with his identity; experiencing an entirely different way of living to his life in Plainfield. But those trips proved instrumental, he says. “I’d come back to my hometown with all these musical ideas because I wouldn’t touch the internet [while I was there], I’d just listen.”

Listen to SJAYY’s mix for DJ Mag’s Radio 1 Dance residency here.

SJAYY’s music is most informed by Jersey club, hip-hop and drill, but there are myriad other influences in there too. Big kick-drums, staccato rhythms and chopped-up samples are often brightened by R&B-leaning melodies and vocals. There’s a reason for this variety, he says — wanting to “give the people something new each time. I’m infusing what I know with what I like.”

Speaking of what he likes, SJAYY sees great potential in his friends and peers, naming artists like Dvsn, Jay Versace and Pink Siifu specifically. He’d “collaborate on a whole project” with Sam Gellaitry if he had the chance, and is keeping an interested eye on Vivid The Producer. “[She] gives me hope for good Jersey club music,” he says. “These artists excite me and aren’t afraid to break barriers in music.”

Lockdown was a strange time for us all, but for SJAYY, it gave him time to, as he puts it, face himself. The time for reset has also allowed him to sustain a healthier lifestyle, as well as learning new instruments (he wants to include more acoustic elements on his records), and delving into dance, clothing design and 3-D skills. “Four walls made a Vincent van Gogh out of me,” he says.

Looking forward — and it’s clear SJAYY only looks forward — the sky’s the limit. “I’m gearing up for [2022],” he says, “finding new limits to push.” Most of all he wants to make people dance. “If nobody’s grooving, is it really a party?” Katie Thomas

NikNak
NikNak

NikNak is an award-winning turntablist, producer and presenter based in Leeds, who is just at home mixing funk and hip-hop as she is dubstep and d&b, and as comfortable putting together experimental ambient works as she is interviewing icons for her The Narrative podcast; she’s on the rise and doing it her way

We first sighted Nicole Raymond, aka NikNak, at last year’s We Out Here festival, rounding out the Eves’ Drop Collective‘s takeover of The Sanctuary stage. As her funk-filled set came to an end, she loaded up Cameo classic ‘Candy’, slid out from behind the DJ booth and began to lead the crowd in the Electric Slide. It was the perfect segue into the festival’s first full evening of events, but this was far from a typical NikNak set. In fact, there’s very little typical about the artist. From her genre-defying mixes and leftfield collaborations to her ambient compositions and bespoke turntablism style, this Oram Award winner is in a proverbial league of her own.

A Londoner born and raised, NikNak left the capital in 2010, moving progressively north over the years. She’s currently based in Leeds and, though there have been familial calls for her return, has no desire to move. “There are still a lot of things I want to explore, artistically and creatively, without the pressure of being in London,” she tells DJ Mag. “There’s a general expectation, once you hit a certain point, to move — and to London in particular — but you don’t really have to. I haven’t felt the need.”

It was while making her first beat in her early teens that NikNak realised her love for experimentation and sound, or as she jokingly puts it “pressing buttons”. She pursued this love throughout her studies, first on a three-year music course and later at university. In 2016, she decided to take things further and moved to Leeds for a masters in electronic and computer music. Her first social port-of-call, however, was a KRS-One show where she made friends, landing her a gig at Unity Festival some 20 days later. A billing alongside Cakes Da Killa soon followed.

Since moving to the northern city, NikNak has supported the likes of Princess Nokia, Children Of Zeus and Grandmaster Flash, and for two years hosted a weekly show on BBC Radio Leeds, interviewing hip- hop legend Talib Kweli, Benjamin Zephaniah, and the award-winning turntablist, DJ Yoda. She’s also been fully embraced by the city’s experimental music scene and is resident turntablist in both The Belgrave House Band and TC & The Groove Family. “I’m just out here doing weird things,” she says, smiling wide. “I love how varied my career is.”

In the years following her move to Leeds, NikNak was fielding a steady stream of work, but by 2019 she was starting to sense the signs of a burnout. “When you’re DJing, you’re around a lot of people, especially when you’re gunning it for gigs,” she explains. “I was running around crazily. I think that contributed to my fogginess.” She soon left for Turkey and while there, began taping the sounds around her. A few months later she was back home, chopping, delaying and reverbing the recordings at Leeds International Festival, the result of which was ‘Bashi’, her debut ambient improv album. ‘Bashi X2’, a live edit and remix album, came a year later.

The opportunities continue to flow today and NikNak is a born collaborator, but she’s trying a more strategic approach, a stint in hospital having refocused her priorities. When asked, she offers an impressive list of upcoming projects, most of which she’s not quite ready to share, but there is one thing she’s keen to make clear. “You really don’t have to be in London to have a successful career. If I get to a point where I feel like I’ve hit some kind of a ceiling, then I’ll look at moving — but I’ve not felt that yet. Leeds continues to surprise me.” Ria Hylton

Listen to NikNak’s mix for DJ Mag’s Radio 1 Dance residency here.

Photo: Sophie Jouvenaar

Kasango
Kasango

South Africa’s Kasango has landed smash hits in his home country’s charts, as well as in underground parties around the world in 2021. With his star on the rise, Kasango is on a mission to connect people through house music

Traversing an ever-growing scene that straddles both the underground and the mainstream, South Africa’s Kasmario Thulani Ike Fankis goes by Kasango — as well as other monikers he’s donned in his decade-spanning career as a studio engineer and ghost-producer. In the past couple of years, he’s taken the first steps on a new production journey, beginning with the Jamie Fallon Smith-featuring ‘One Night’ in March 2020, and going on to take the once-sidelined sonics of Afrotech to heights that rival South Africa’s pop staples with his multi-million streaming production ‘Osama’ featuring Zakes Bantwini. Becoming the No.1 track in the country on major radio stations and charts, ‘Osama’ went on to hold its place there for 12 consecutive weeks. 

Meanwhile, his solo production ‘Closer’ dominated in the underground, making its way into the hands of Kitty Amor, Pete Tong and Black Coffee, and setting a new standard for a genre that was for a long time considered too niche to convert new ears. Kasango himself has quickly become one of the most in-demand producers around, emerging from the doldrums of the pandemic with a newfound love for the unifying power of house music.

Born to a Liberian-American father and a South African mother, Kasango’s early days were steeped in the sounds of hip-hop, R&B and soul. His father, who passed away when he was very young, played the guitar and spoke multiple languages, travelling the world as a skydiver. Kasango exhibited similar thrill-seeking tendencies, chasing the highs he felt listening to mixes by pioneering Soweto house artist, DJ Kent. By the age of 16 he had managed to build his own record collection.

“Deep house was very big around 2004 to 2007, and compilations were ‘the thing’, so we’d import a lot of the house classics, Quentin Harris, etc,” recalls Kasango. “But what [early South African house trio] Kentphonik did here at home was mixing pop vocals with house songs, which was rare at the time; I’d listen to songs and try to reverse-engineer them. DJ Kent is the reason why I decided to go into production. He stood out, he was different and he represented a new sound that I loved.”

All DJ/producers know the best way to hone a sound is to road test it, which means playing out. One of the places Kasango has found most inspiration doing that is The Summit Grill & Sky Bar in Menlyn, Pretoria. Tucked between a hotel and a highway, the venue pierces the city’s skyline, boasting a mixed crowd with one thing in common: a love for all varieties of house. From Thursday to Sunday, evenings there are filled with jazzy ‘private school’ amapiano, sweaty deep house classics, or festival-inspired varieties of techno that carry clubgoers off into the exposed night sky above. For Kasango, it’s the space he feels most liberated in.

“It’s one of the places I enjoy the most, because the crowd is there to enjoy everything, from deep to progressive to techno to Afro,” he tells us. “The beautiful thing about being in South Africa is that we have a variety of sounds that people are accustomed to, and can tap into. At some point it was seen as an international sound, but even with the likes of ‘Osama’ you have scenes here at home that now enjoy Afrotech in a new way that feels less underground.”

Due to the way the music industry and media in South Africa favour celebrity status and popular genres, such as pop and amapiano, Kasango never anticipated how well ‘Osama’ would do. When he was ready to release the final version of the track, his only thought was “This is a nice song... let’s see what it does.” But like his favourite club, the track revealed a widespread willingness to embrace his sound, striking a chord with audiences who were in desperate need of comfort during South Africa’s year-long club closure.

“I never create music anticipating that it’ll be a hit. I make music based on how I feel,” he says. “I already know that the next song I plan to release will carry a different feeling to ‘Osama’... I also know that it will capture people in the right way.” If his first few tracks are anything to go by, Kasango’s potential, and that of the Afrotech sound, looks to be limitless in 2022. Shiba Melissa Mazaza 

Listen to Kasango's mix for DJ Mag’s Radio 1 Dance residency here.

Black Cadmium
Black Cadmium

Inspired by the sprawling history of Black electronic music, Rotterdam duo Black Cadmium are ready to take 2022 by storm with their fresh take on the club-ready sounds of house, electro and breaks

Whether they’re making brisk Detroit techno, UK breakbeat rollers or mystical electro, Black Cadmium’s tracks are always on-point. In just a couple of years, the Rotterdam duo, composed of Joginda Macnack and Mike Richards, have become a hot underground name. They’ve released EPs on Naïve, Vault Wax, Ovum and Transient Nature, and tracks for United Identities and Sticky Tapes, all imbued with decades of club music evolution and a precision-tooled sense of what it takes to move a dancefloor. 

‘Sexy Acid’, from 2020’s ‘Chemistry’ EP, was a strobe-lit, 303 breakbeat burner, while ‘Our Legacy’ moved on tight drum machine beats and a squidgy electro bassline; most impressive of all was 2021’s ‘Gold’, which had the feel of prime Infiniti or Underground Resistance in its kinetic techno-soul groove. “Everything we make gets released. If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of time,” Macnack tells us over Zoom. “Sometimes big DJs say to us, ‘I make so many tracks, but only one of them gets released’, and I’m like, ‘How?’”

As well as Detroit originals such as Carl Craig and Jeff Mills, and current trailblazers like Funkineven, Ben UFO and Carista, in a larger sense, it’s the rich history of Black musical innovation that drives the duo. “It’s Black music, in the broadest spectrum that you can imagine, that’s really what’s inspired us,” Macnack says. “If you look at the Detroit sound, or jungle, where those came from, they’ve got so much soul,” Richards adds. “I think this music is supposed to bring everybody together, but let’s also not forget where it came from. Credit where credit is due.”

The duo met around 2000, introduced by mutual friends, and bonded over music. Both were big ravers and used to party in the Rotterdam club scene. Nowadays, Richards says, “the relationship we have is more than musical, it’s a real brotherhood. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up, and we’ve been through the good times; we shared the bad times. I think that’s also something you can hear in our sound — when we create music, it’s just who we are.”
 

When they work on tracks now, whether in person or remotely, their different personalities help the composition process. “The way we work, I think it’s really special, because we complement each other’s minds,” Richards says. “The way he [Macnack] thinks is more directional with a bigger overview, and that’s a quality I don’t always pick up on.” One of the duo’s earliest releases, 2019’s ‘The Nasty’, made with Kevin Ney, was released on DJ Pierre’s Afro Deep label.  They connected with Beyun when she worked there, and she’s since released two Black Cadmium EPs on her own Vault Wax imprint.

“We just feel like Vault Wax is our home base,” Richards says. “Joe and I and Beyun are really close friends. Now she lives in Rotterdam, she moved from the States over here, and we’re part of each other’s lives, so we just got to know each other on a deeper level.”

Looking ahead to the new year, Black Cadmium have lots of new music coming, with a split EP on Naïve with Violet, an EP on Jensen Interceptor’s International Chrome, and an appearance on a Nous’klaer compilation. “A lot is lined up, a lot of options, and things are going to happen in 2022,” says Macnack. Ben Murphy 

Listen to Black Cadmium’s mix for DJ Mag’s Radio 1 Dance residency here.

Photo: Brendan Reterink

Mixtress
Mixtress

With multiple London radio residencies and regular appearances at clubs and on live streams like Keep Hush, Mixtress translates her deep knowledge of high-speed dance music into adrenaline-pumping dancefloor moments, while striving to combat inequalities in the industry

New Delhi-born Mixtress — first name Rini — grew up in Amsterdam, before settling in London, aged 18, to study design engineering. A Joy Orbison all-dayer at Village Underground during Freshers Week got her excited for the city’s club scene, but music had been her passion for years, starting with the records that were being played at home. “I had what I would consider ‘a Bristolian dad’s’ music background,” Mixtress explains over Zoom. “There was a lot of prog rock, there was a lot of trip-hop, Massive Attack and Morcheeba and Air,” she says. Her signature high-energy DJing style, which favours 160bpm genres but takes in everything from jazz to drill, has its roots in her childhood, she explains. “I spent a lot of time digging and making playlists way before Spotify was even a thing.” 

Squat raves were where Mixtress discovered her passion for hardcore and jungle. “That was my first taste of UK rave,” she recalls with a smile. Her first foray into DJing was within the spheres of techno and EBM, however, inspired by the kinds of events she was going to at the time. But the scene — which she describes as “cis, het, white” — around the time (2018), was one where she was continually getting disrespected as the only woman and the only person of colour. 

Eventually, the atmosphere compelled her to quit. “I realised the music I played harboured a very toxic environment, and the environment was just not good for my mental health,” she explains. Mixtress re-emerged a year and a half later, with a more carefree attitude to DJing, but at the same time, a clearer understanding of the kinds of genres she wanted to play.

“Going back to it with a fresh set of eyes, where I had no expectations, no monetary expectations, was like, I just like music, and even if I’m playing in front of people, I never want to take myself that seriously,” she says. 

This isn’t to say that Mixtress is no longer passionate about the issues which made her quit DJing. She joined the Sisu crew, who work to showcase aspiring women and non-binary DJs and producers, precisely because she’s committed to tackling the imbalances that still pervade the music industry. “I’ve always just been a huge fan of seeing real community efforts, to target and change those spaces that I think people of marginalised communities find intimidating and difficult and toxic sometimes,” she says of her involvement in Sisu.
 
Part of her role in 2022 will involve mentoring up-and-coming DJs, which Mixtress says is important for helping emerging acts with issues such as imposter syndrome, which she herself experienced. “If you are a person of colour, if you are queer, if you’re not a straight, white guy, there is so much more to how you will feel in that space performing.
 
How people of different backgrounds feel at events is also on her mind when it comes to the make-up of audiences, and factors in her plans for the next phase of her career. She particularly wants to find a way for old-school fans of hardcore and jungle to co-exist happily with younger clubbers, who are just discovering these genres now. “Hardcore raves back then were inherently political, were done in protest, and they were extremely diverse for a dance crowd of the early ‘90s, where other genres were not, necessarily,” she says.

A move into promoting events, and fostering a welcoming atmosphere for people of all backgrounds and ages, is how she envisages replicating that mood. “I keep talking about the safe space that I would like to see at these events, but now I want to be able to create that myself.” Kamila Rymajdo

Tune into Mixtress’ mix for DJ Mag’s Radio 1 Dance residency on Saturday 29th January at 2 AM here or via the BBC Sounds App.

Lex Amor
Lex Amor

Having set the bar high with the intricate and honest lyricism of her 2020 debut, London rapper Lex Amor is ready to make 2022 her own

For Lex Amor, music is archival; a carefully curated record of her own life story. Her work presents a collection of sharp, kitchen-sink vignettes set against the bricks and mortar of working- class North London. The rapper’s debut record, 2020’s ‘Government Tropicana’, was only the opening chapter, yet her voice — unmistakeable in its soulful, feline stretches laid over sombre beats — sounded as if she’d lived a thousand lives before.

But now, in 2022, she is ready to turn the page. “[Government Tropicana] was a way for me to archive my recent history: my past, my ideals and my patterns,” says Amor. “It gave a lot of context to my life at 25 and under, and it helped me navigate how I move forward from 25, into my thirties and forties: what patterns do I want to continue, and what patterns do I want to drop? It allowed me to see things myself that I might not have been able to see without it.”

Amor’s love affair with music is rooted in community. As a teenager, she gravitated toward the drum kit at her parents’ Ilford church, taking up the sticks when their drummer was absent. “I felt a pull towards the instrument, and I felt, instinctively, that my body understood rhythms. It knew what it wanted to do, and without lessons or anything like that, I was just able to play,” she remembers.

From then on, Amor’s creative scope only broadened in range and ambition. She’s since woven herself into London’s sonic tapestry, collaborating alongside Brixton firebrand Wu-Lu, future-thinking jazz vocalist Ego Ella May and the inimitable Kojey Radical. “I think that a lot of what I’ve been able to do has been a direct result of community and word-of-mouth. I think there’s a beautiful community that I’m part of,” Amor acknowledges. “My career is inextricably linked to that community, and I’m 100% indebted to those people.

Amor’s music is soaked in observations on the world around her, she the omniscient narrator who grants us the occasional glimpse into her own inner world too. While so many of her lyrics are almost a documentation, Amor admits that her love of music is still founded on a need for escape. “I think for me, it represents the ideal,” she explains. “Music allowed me to dream of big things. You’re given the artistic licence to explore those dreams and ideals and become your highest self. The music and the writing space are absolutely places where I can be who I want to be.”

For 2022, Lex Amor’s music is evolving and changing shape as she does. In April, she will be embarking on a UK tour, including a performance at London’s Village Underground. But beyond that, Amor has designs for a second record to continue the telling of her story. “I’m living, I’m experiencing things and I’m making my mistakes,” she says. “Something I’ve always been interested in is sharing both the human experience and the human process.”

The conversation she will open in her upcoming project will be about reconciling Alexis with Lex; the person who she feels she should be, and who she actually is. To be able to explore that, in all its depth, Amor already feels that she has attained success. “It’s about feeling like I can adequately express what’s in my heart, what’s in my spirit. Music is a language, and it’s a language I want to speak fluently. If I could jump on a piano and capture what I want to express, that would be beautiful to me. That’s really what I want.” Sophie Walker

Photo: Caleb Femi

diniBoy
diniBoy

The Brazilian grime scene has been bubbling away for a few years and recently started to make waves overseas too. DJ, producer and co-founder of the nation’s top grime YouTube channel, diniBoy is one of the sound’s most passionate advocates

“Doing an interview with DJ Mag is a dream come true,” says diniBoy, audibly grinning on a WhatsApp call from Rio de Janeiro. The producer and DJ has been a reader of these pages since discovering DJ Mag’s YouTube channel around 2015. Having recently started learning how to DJ, he was scouring the internet for sources of bass-driven club music that he could play at parties in Brazil.

“It was at those parties that I found out what grime is,” he says. “So I started to study the artists — Grandmixxer, Spooky, Sir Spyro, Wiley... then JME, Skepta, Ghetts, President T...” Thanks to artists like diniBoy, those parties soon birthed what is now known as the Brazilian grime scene. In 2018, he founded the Brasil Grime Show, a YouTube- based platform featuring sets from a range of local talent, alongside ANTCONSTANTINO, Yvie Oliveira, Rennan Guerra, Lucas Sá and Mateus Diniz. Listen to any of diniBoy’s sets and you’ll hear Wiley beats mixed with UK drill, American trap, and productions from his own growing catalogue.

But diniBoy’s relationship with grime dates back a lot further. As he grew up in the 2000s, his older brother would watch MTV, recording his favourite songs — including Dizzee Rascal’s foundational grime single ‘I Luv U’. “I didn’t know that it was grime,” says diniBoy. “Then 10 years later when I started to DJ, I discovered grime, dubstep, UK garage, UK funky...”

Like most Brazilian grime artists, diniBoy touts the importance of the Playstation 2 game FIFA Street, the British version of which featured commentary from So Solid Crew’s MC Harvey. Dizzee Rascal and Brazil’s DJ Marky and DJ Patife appeared on the soundtrack. 

Football and music played a crucial role in diniBoy’s childhood, as they did for millions of Brazilians. But growing up in Rio is not easy. “My childhood was a little bit messy,” says diniBoy. “I was a messy child. I didn’t fit with working in a suit, working as a lawyer, working as an accountant...” He remembers going to play football with friends one day and finding a dead body on the pitch. He often heard gunshots from his house. “We have a lot of stories like this — robbery, shooting, people close to you dying.”

Like British grime in early 2000s London, the Brazilian grime scene emerged from difficult social and political circumstances. diniBoy likens the incumbent Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to Donald Trump. “Like how the grime scene shows the UK streets, here in Brazil we can show our reality through music as well,” he says. 

“Here in Brazil there’s a lot of potential for grime to mix with culture,” he adds, mentioning the similarities between grime rhythms and Brazilian sounds like baile funk. Brazilian grime parties have taken on an air of resistance against the establishment. diniBoy even says that dropping certain tracks in a rave prompts similar responses to those that once greeted Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’ in England (the track was banned in certain clubs due to its tendency to cause voracious moshpits).

diniBoy’s own music is made for the club. His 2020 EP ‘World Dini War’ is a work of powerful grime, featuring bars from Brazilian MCs D r o p e and N.I.N.A. Even better are his instrumentals. See his Bandcamp for a grime flip of Biggie’s ‘Hypnotize’, and last year’s ‘Killahmanjaro’ EP for the unbelievable ‘Smash’, a grime beat that needs no MC, just a vocal sample twisted in a mesmeric loop, set to a gunfire drum beat — rave heaven. He promises ‘World Dini War 2’ in 2022 and predicts that grime will continue to spread throughout Brazilian culture. The world is next. Sam Davies

DJ Iche
DJ Iche

A DJ, producer and vocalist, Kenya’s DJ Iche uses music to explore their inner self and connect with their community, while helping to build a platform for women and queer artists in the process

With the release of their excellent ‘Nai Yetu’ mixtape in December, Mombasa-based multi-hyphenate, DJ Iche, blasted a firestorm across the African continent and beyond, alerting listeners to Kenya’s rising young drillers and gengetone specialists (think a rap, dancehall and reggaeton fusion on a pulsing Nairobi dancefloor).

‘Nai Yetu’ means ‘our Nairobi’, and is the result of DJ Iche seeking ways to reconnect with the city after moving from there to the coast in 2019 and distancing from the scene for a year. They fell down a drill and gengetone rabbit hole on YouTube. “I wanted to be a part of it somehow,” they tell DJ Mag “I wanted to honour their music and their artistry and just do something. The artists who feature, they all personally sent me their music actually, to create the mix. I reached out to them. And they responded. It was this really wonderful, communal experience.”

DJ Iche began their life in music as a vocalist, and only began producing and DJing in late 2020. The two mediums fulfil parallel therapeutic purposes for them, after experiencing what they describe as “my fair share of trauma” while working in the music industry. “When I’m producing, it’s very individualistic, I’m only thinking about myself and my ideas and what I want. I use music production as a way to explore myself,” they explain. “And DJing is to explore the people around me. It’s communion, with music being the thing that’s keeping us together. It’s healing to feel like I’m a part of something bigger than me. I’m not religious, but music is spiritual.”

The energy of ‘Nai Yetu’ is fierce, thumping and relentless. DJ Iche says this raucous vibe is typical of their live sets too. “I usually try not to start too fast, but then I jump to the higher BPMs really quickly and just keep it going,” they laugh. “I like it to be fun — so I’m gonna drop lots of African dance bangers. I try to make the entire set high energy because I don’t want people to stop dancing at any point. So it’s maybe an intro track or two, and then it’s bangers all the way to the end.”

DJ Iche is a queer artist, and they feel a responsbility to show their community that queerness is not a barrier. “I’m not doing this with a role model from my immediate environment in mind. After accepting yourself as a queer person, the next step is accepting what you can do,” they explain. “By doing what I’m doing, I hope I’m showing that in being queer, our ambitions and dreams are still valid.”

They feel that while discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is defintely an issue in Kenya, it’s underpinned by misogyny. And that has been their biggest obstacle while working in music. “I think that being a woman in the industry is worse than being queer. People actually don’t care about it [sexual orientation] that much. They don’t. But being a woman: that’s a different thing. Queerphobia is there, yes. But it stems from patriarchy. It’s a branch of it.”

Perhaps in response to this, ‘Nai Yetu’ is stacked with scene-stealing features by women — including Tulia, Nah Eto, Monski and Dyana Cods. In the context of the misogyny they've faced and the trauma they've alluded to, DJ Iche’s platforming of women rappers adds a revolutionary layer to one of 2021’s most exciting releases. With a self-produced album scheduled for early summer, she has placed herself firmly on our radar. Rob Kazandjian

Aquarelle
Aquarelle

Though still in her early twenties, a decade of experience and unrivalled work ethic have made Aquarelle one of London’s most impressive rising rap producers

It’s said that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master a discipline, be it football, chess or music production. At just 23 years old, Islington-based beatsmith Aquarelle has already got more than 10 years of experience on the buttons, after she began experimenting with FL Studio before she’d even finished primary school. “I come from a really musical family,” she tells DJ Mag, “and my dad is a DJ. He used to play everything from old school R&B, to Biggie and Tupac, to Abba as well. We listened to a lot of Abba, especially at Christmas time.”

Growing up surrounded by music inspired Aquarelle. She took to the family computer and hasn’t looked back since. “Fruity Loops was the first software I ever used. I was just messing around on there. It was something exciting for me to do,” she continues. “When I was like 13, I did a music workshop in school and used Logic. It felt familiar to me. That’s when I really got into production, like how to use midi software and seriously learn about recording techniques.”

Before she’d finished secondary school, she’d understood she could forge a career for herself and continued studying her craft in college. The commitment and hard work paid off in 2019, when she landed a placement on D-Block Europe’s woozy trap wave masterclass ‘Home Alone’, producing the mixtape’s closer ‘Gold’. Young Adz and LB must have been impressed, because they recruited Aquarelle again for follow-up project ‘PTSD’, building the beat for the K-Trap assisted ‘The Bag’. It’s an airy, twinkling production — if sipping lean beneath a purple sky was a sound, it would be this.

She says if she had to choose one word to describe her production style it would be “colourful”, and that she prefers to work in the studio with artists. “Because that way, I can get the jist of what they want. And we can come up with ideas together in real time, organically,” she explains. “I start by working with the melody, and then from there, I work my way through the drum sounds.”

As a listener Aquarelle is open to anything, and feels her open-mindedness informs her production style. Tyler, the Creator is on heavy rotation when she speaks to DJ Mag, and she cites him as one of her inspirations. “If you suggest an artist to me, I’ll listen to them. Listening to a bit of everything gives me more inspiration and different ideas about what might sound cool. It’s like, how can I evoke what I’ve heard in my own sound?”

In December, she took on the Mixtape Madness ‘Beat The Clock’ challenge. With just a sample and a 10-minute time-frame she built a beat that feels like samurai riding horseback across a mountain range. It’s excellent, but Aquarelle is pretty chilled about it.

“It was a minor,” she laughs. “It was a fun experience. I really enjoyed myself. And it’s funny because I like to work quickly, so for me that was something I’m used to doing. Especially if it’s a loop that I like, I already have a tonne of ideas. It’s like the beat is already done in my head and I just need to bring it to life.

Aquarelle is “putting in work” and hoping to land some big placements in 2022, but she doesn’t sound overawed by the prospect of her reputation growing and is taking it all in her stride, with the calmness of a veteran. “I’m just a very relaxed, very chill person,” she says. To be fair, she is over a decade deep in the game. Rob Kazandjian
 

ChicoGod
ChicoGod

Ghanaian asakaa continues to be one of the world’s most exciting growing rap scenes, and with his superb debut mixtape kicking off 2022, Kumasi-based ChicoGod is ready to take it to the next level

ChicoGod started generating a buzz around Kumasi in December 2020 with the release of his single ‘10 Toes’. Its title summarises the lifestyle necessary for anyone pursuing a career as a rapper where he comes from. “‘10 toes’ means you’re staying down, you’re on your tippy-toes,” ChicoGod says on the phone. “You’re grinding hard, you’re not folding, you’re not bending, you just need to ride with the bros. And the bros you are riding with, you are riding ’til death.”

He has a knack for poetic lines, whether he’s improvising responses to interview questions or rapping on a mic. ‘10 Toes’ is a contagious drill tune featuring City Boy and O’Kenneth, Ghanaian MCs who, along with ChicoGod and others like Yaw Tog, Reggie and Jay Bahd, make up the Life Living collective. Ghanaian drill artists started popping up around 2019, influenced by the growling vocal style of Pop Smoke and often using beats made by UK producers. It’s now its own thing, with members of the Kumasi scene referring to their sound under the name asakaa.

“Asakaa is a lifestyle,” says ChicoGod, “for people on the street, tryna make ends meet by setting their own rules and making it happen.” When ChicoGod was 10 his dad was killed, and his mum left Ghana “in search of greener pastures” when he was still young, leaving the aspiring rapper in the care of his grandma. After being introduced to hip-hop by his older brother, ChicoGod used to record Lil Wayne verses on a laptop using VirtualDJ. He was soon rapping in front of his classmates at school.

“For some funny reason I never wanted to wake up at 7am and go to work,” he says. Before his 18th birthday he was going to clubs around Kumasi with “big Gs”, older friends who began financially supporting his musical ambitions. “We were doing one-two things that we can’t really speak on, but we found music as a vision. This is my nine-to-five. And I do overtime.”

ChicoGod says music is beginning to change the reputation of his hometown. “Kumasi, I would say right now, is more of a music city than a violent city,” he says. “We’ve been known for the violence and the gangs and all that, but I think right now it’s a beautiful city. People are beginning to realise that they can make something out of life, out of music.”

Now 26, ChicoGod puts much of his early success down to the help of the Life Living crew, set up by rapper Sean Lifer and producer Rabby Jones in 2019. With studio time prohibitively expensive for most young musicians in Ghana, Jones and Lifer built a studio in their own home, offering it to artists like ChicoGod as a place to record their ideas. “Life Living is a family,” says ChicoGod. In December 2021, he and his cohorts played their first shows, selling out the Kumasi Sports Stadium. “It was massive. The fans came out, showed love, sang all the lyrics word for word. It was a great feeling, I can’t lie.”

He begins 2022 with his brilliant debut mixtape ‘Kwadaso District’, a collection of impossibly danceable drill that borders on feelgood. But ChicoGod keeps a level head. “We tryna be calm and easy on it, but don’t think it’s sweet here. You gotta stay on 10 toes and keep our eyes wide, ‘cause it’s crazy.” Sam Davies