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Gabrielle Kwarteng: sonic shift

After moving to Berlin, Refuge Worldwide and The Lot Radio resident and Panorama Bar regular Gabrielle Kwarteng found her musical tastes expanding. Ria Hylton meets her to learn how eclectic radio shows, her hometown of New York, and life in Europe have influenced her DJing

It’s the week after ADE and Gabrielle Kwarteng is back in Berlin, that poor but sexy metropolis where scores of artists flock, only to find themselves swamped by the capital’s many talents — and temptations.

Not Kwarteng though. This New York native, the daughter of Ghanian immigrants, has carved out an unlikely career in the three years since landing in a city not wanting for selectors. Regular slots at Berghain’s Panorama Bar and bookings abroad have grown Kwarteng’s audience — and collection — in unexpected ways. She’s always been known for her sonic range, but the continental move has shifted her sound.

“I find myself shaking off the need to... not that I feel like I’ve been playing for or catering my sound to anyone, or maybe it’s also hitting my 30s and just being like, ‘I’m doing what I want’, playing more techno for instance,” she tells DJ Mag. “In New York, I definitely wasn’t getting booked for that.”

Kwarteng is a deep digger with a wide-lens approach. You hear this in her early radio sets, where neo-soul and French boogie sit easily alongside Italo and Afro disco. Her club sets bang, tending to lean heavy on the percussion and stomping four-four, and often boast saturated and stabby mid-sections (see her Boiler Room set for a solid primer). In person, she’s warm, upbeat and a fast talker, with one thought overruling the other before the first is complete.

We speak with Kwarteng on two occasions, the first in a backroom at Amsterdam’s Lovelee club, and we cover a lot of territory: family, studies, musical influences. But the conversation, held an hour before Kwarteng’s first (of five) ADE sets, is hurried, and it’s been playing on her mind. “You definitely caught me in an overzealous moment,” she shares early on in our second interview. “I just hope I was coherent enough for you — the Cancer in me was like, ‘Oh Lord, I’m gonna regret all of that later.’” 

Gabrielle Kwarteng DJing under a DJ Mag at the Lovelee club in Amsterdam

Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, Kwarteng grew up in a household where highlife, Afrobeat and disco permeated the everyday. Her mum played music while at work with the house chores and in the evenings, without fail, her dad would turn on the smooth jazz station. Outside the home, she absorbed the hip-hop, funk, soul, bachata and reggaeton sounds of her borough. She was also raised on that other Bronx genre, freestyle, a Puerto-Rican sound subsumed by hip-hop in the early ’90s.

These distinctly New York sounds contrasted with summer stays in the UK with extended family. Kwarteng has a particular memory of seeing the Vengaboys’ ‘Boom Boom Boom Boom’ music video on the TV, something she couldn’t imagine back home. She notes the differences in the European and US electronic music scenes a number of times in our conversations, both in terms of mainstream consumption and pirate vs commercial radio culture.

“I’ve noticed, returning to Europe and living in Berlin, that a lot of people, whether they work in music or not, grew up with dance music,” she tells DJ Mag back at the club. “I have friends that are often like, ‘Oh yeah, I grew up with this song’. I’m like, ‘Damn, I didn’t discover that until like eight years ago.’”

It was while studying at Skidmore, a private liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, New York, that Kwarteng began her radio career. She was considering a major in medicine when a year abroad in London brought her into closer contact with a nightlife she’d yet to experience back home. Nights out at Cargo, XOYO and Heaven got Kwarteng thinking about the long-term possibilities of music, so she decided to specialise in English. Back at Skidmore, she took to the college radio airwaves, finally landing on a concept that would form the road map of her DJ career.

“Every week, we would choose a country or city around the world and highlight artists of various genres, eras and decades,” she says, following up quickly with another thought. “It’s funny saying that out loud now, I’m kind of like, ‘I was already laying the blueprint for my work as a DJ’. But yeah, it was just really for fun.” The radio show ran for one year and became the informal hangout spot for students on a Friday afternoon, just as the week’s classes were finishing up.

By 2017, Kwarteng was a regular on The Lot Radio, where she won the Mixcloud award for best eclectic online radio show. The win came as a surprise — she didn’t have a residency, and was appearing ad hoc for the best part of a year. “I was like, ‘How are people even catching my shows?’ There was no schedule.”

It hadn’t occurred to her that her music was travelling as far away as London, where Mixcloud is based, or that listeners might be following her show in particular. “I thought it was just Lot Radio, and people who tune in, in the chatroom — that was a pivotal moment just for myself, just recognising how far my music was reaching.”

Gabrielle Kwarteng standing amongst a bunch of green plants

Kwarteng was coming out of a long-term break-up when a friend invited her to join him on location at Men’s Fashion Week in Paris. A change of scenery was just what she needed. “He was like, ‘Girl, come here and stay with me’,” she recounts jokingly. “So very spontaneously, as I do — Sagittarius-rising — I booked a flight.” By early January, 2019, Kwarteng was outside her friend’s Airbnb in Paris, waiting on a locksmith.

A filmmaker making a short documentary about Kwarteng had arranged a shoot with their European videographer that day, but the Airbnb door wouldn’t close. Kwarteng was delayed by some 90 minutes, which is why she was able to spot and strike up a conversation with long-term hero Gilles Peterson at Superdry Records, the shoot location.

“I was like, ‘I’m just gonna go tell him that he’s truly been very instrumental and someone that I’ve admired for a really long time’.” Peterson gave her his email and she sent him a link to her show, following up a few weeks later — he replied.

“He said, ‘Are you going to be in Europe this summer? I curate this festival called Worldwide and I’d love to book you.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I need to be in Europe this summer’.” Inspired by that booking alone, Kwarteng began reaching out to festivals across Europe, landing three more bookings: Field Maneuvers, Westival and Lost Village. She decided to base herself in Berlin. That chance encounter and invitation were just what the doctor ordered. After years playing out in NYC, Kwarteng was starting to feel at odds with the time slots and bookings on offer. “I had so many sonic interests, and I found myself being pigeon-holed.” 

The DJ had always had an eye on Europe, and felt that maybe she’d need to leave home and start afresh in a city with no history of her, no expectations. Fast-forward three years, and the bookings are coming in thick and fast. 

Those early New York sounds, deep and sensual grooves, are still there, but in Kwarteng’s later mixes, you hear the dirty kick-drums and stab-like chords of UK rave and the abstract techno riffs of her new home town. Has she noticed any changes in her style? “I love playing a bit harder,” she tells DJ Mag. “And it’s been really great to incorporate techno a bit more, having time slots where I can just bang it out if I want to, but then still bring it back — that’s what I love to do.”

Want more? Check out Gabrielle Kwarteng's contribution to DJ Mag's Selections series here 

Ria Hylton is DJ Mag's album reviews editor. Follow them on Twitter @ria_hylton

Photography: Mike Portlock