White Dragon Tattoo sits on Botanic Avenue in south Belfast, home to the renowned tattoo artist Chris Crooks, and where Richie Blacker has a studio. It’s a sunny Wednesday in June when DJ Mag takes the two-hour train journey from Dublin to meet Richie, a couple of days after the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. In the cab, we zip past Turkish barber shops, an Asian supermarket and a string of budget hotels. A few houses have Jubilee posters facing from their windows out to the road, with a younger version of the Queen smiling at passers-by.
The streets in Belfast have a blend of Irish tricolours and Union Jacks on poles, but as we reach Botanic Avenue, the presence of Nationalist and Unionist symbols peters out as cafes, pubs and restaurants line the street. Greeting us warmly from the side door of White Dragon Tattoo, Richie Blacker shows no sign of a holiday comedown — he’s back from Mykonos, where he spent the weekend with friends, and he’s got the tan to prove it. Tall, broad-shouldered, and wearing a crisp white T-shirt, grey shorts and Nike Air Max, he cuts a striking figure on the street before bringing DJ Mag upstairs through an incense-filled landing.
Up in the attic-shaped, sunlit studio, complete with a Yamaha CS1x synthesiser, several drum machines and multi-dynamic mixers for music production, Richie speaks highly of Chris Crooks. The award-winning, Neo Japanese-style tattoo artist has customers flying in from all over the world to get their skin inked, with some even travelling from Japan itself. The pair are close friends, and in November last year, Chris offered Richie the space for free on the condition he’d have to clear it out. Richie jumped at the chance.
“I wanted to get somewhere in the city centre so I could treat it like a job because, at the same time, I was actually still working as a plumber, and still working in construction up until November or October in 2021,” he says in a mellow Belfast accent. “Because if I’m gonna treat this like a job, like a full-time producing job, I’m gonna be here every day.”
A few months after Richie moved into the studio, Atlantic Records’ sub-label Signal >> Supply released his collaboration with Crystal Waters, called ‘Never Enough’. But signing with the major label wasn’t a fluke. Before the release, Richie nabbed a Beatport No.1 spot in August 2020 with his ‘Summer Of Rave’ EP. It’s a poolside-appropriate four-tracker on Skream’s Of Unsound Mind label, and displays Richie’s penchant for uplifting chords, orchestral vocals and trancey hooks.
Richie’s follow-up EP ‘Ecstasy Jesus’ reached No.2, and because of numerous plays by Skream and Danny Howard, the latter listed Richie as BBC Radio 1’s Future Fire Artist 2021. “I am incredibly passionate about my music career, and it is a lifestyle that I have devoted 12 years of my life to,” Richie wrote on Instagram at the time. “An outstanding achievement in my career, and I am immensely grateful for the recognition and appreciation of my work.”
Shortly after, Anjunadeep signed Richie’s evocative single ‘2 Late 4 Love’. If there is a tune to mark the moment the sun sets on a sandy beach on the White Isle, this is it. Balearic and balmy vibes run deep through Richie’s back catalogue, on proggy rhythms like ‘Ketamine Dreams’ on Limbo Records and the piano-driven ‘Big Time Charlie’ on Stress Records. There’s an album in the works too, and while the concept is percolating, Richie is determined to see it out on a label from his bucket list — Ninja Tune. “What I like about Ninja Tune is that they release albums — they release singles as well — but they do focus on a lot of albums, and that’s why I want to sign to them, because I know they’ll put in the effort,” he says. “The album is definitely going to be a bit more personal than some of the stuff I’ve been making.”
Now, it feels like Richie is on the brink of a new chapter. Bookings in London, Manchester, Sligo, Dhërmi in Albania and an upcoming tour of India have cropped up in his schedule, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. The recent passing of his mother from cancer meant a re-jig of his priorities. “Around about Christmas time and up until maybe six weeks ago, it was round-the-clock care, looking after my mum with my dad at home,” he says. “Then it got to the stage where we sat up with her through the night. So even though I moved in [to the studio] in November, I’ve only really been back down here full time for the past six weeks because, before that, I was just trying to get down when I could.”
Family is central to Richie’s life, and it’s how he got into dance music. At age eight, Richie would hang out in his older brothers Paul and Ciaran’s room, before they’d go to The Art College and Ulster Hall to see Carl Cox and Orbital. Richie grew intrigued by the sounds of 808 State and Sasha blasting in their bedroom. “I used to sit on the bed and watch them play the decks and listen to their rave tapes as they were getting ready to go out,” he says, smiling. “If they weren’t in, I’d sneak up to the room and listen and all, and I’d be dancing by myself!”
When friends of Paul and Ciaran brought decks round to the Blacker household at weekends, Richie taught himself how to mix and later attended open-deck BBQs at Yello, which at the time was “bringing all the biggest house DJs to Belfast, like Mark Knight”. Having impressed the promoters at the open-deck sessions, Richie landed a residency at the club in 2009, and his age wasn’t something to note back then. “Say nothin’,” he chuckles. “I don’t think they knew I was 17.”
Richie and his mates would run their own “fucking mayhem” illegal raves too, mainly in abandoned skateparks and any unused space they could find, but the more Richie played in Yello, the less he DJed at under-the-radar parties. “I think you need to have your finger in a lot of different pies when you’re starting,” he says. “You need to see the whole promoter side of things from your own point of view. It’s a learning curve. It’s all a learning curve, to be honest.”
Richie remained a resident for Yello for the next four years, but once it shut down due to “a load of complaints about being open until six in the morning”, Richie bounced to Ibiza. “The first year out there, I actually ended up working for Hed Kandi,” he explains. “Not that Hed Kandi was my music at all; I used to fuckin’ hate it!” Between going to Cocoon and Enter parties, Richie sold tickets to events and played gigs in the West End. While he admits it was fun at the time, his party-centric life on the White Isle was a distraction from the primary goal.
“I knew I needed to start making music and getting signed to record labels to help progress,” he says. “So I had to bite the bullet and stop doing the seasons and come back to Belfast, and it was the best thing I ever did, because that’s where it really started to take off.”
Having dabbled with Cubase since his teens, Richie went into full-on production mode in Belfast, later teaching himself how to make music on Logic. Working as a plumber alongside his brother Paul, who has his own plumbing and heating business, Richie continued to learn production, but with a demanding day job, his creative flow wasn’t quite fluid. “If you’re working on a day job, that process takes longer,” he says. “But I did have to do that for a long time, and if I didn’t have to do that, I wouldn’t be at where I am now.”
The turning point came when Skream signed Richie’s first major release — the driving ‘Poltergeist’ EP — on Of Unsound Mind in 2016, and the Croydon-born producer has remained a mentor ever since. “I have a lot to thank Skream and Danny Howard for, I really do. Because they’ve just single-handedly helped keep us afloat really, and current and relevant.”
“Us” refers to Richie and his manager Marty, who is another key supporter and joins us in the studio before we stroll to LUX, the former site of Yello and current home to a bougie bar and nightclub. A full-time videographer and artist manager, Marty filmed Richie’s Anjunadeep livestream — Cercle style — from the Grianan of Aileach, a giant fort in “the back arse of Donegal”, last year. “We’re so like-minded, it’s actually got to the stage now where he can answer things for me because we both think alike,” Richie says matter-of-factly. “So if he’s talking to a label or he’s talking to a promoter or a booker, he’ll know what my answer will be before he even asks me, and it’s because we have the same vision. We’re on the same trajectory together, and we want to make it happen.”
At LUX, we head inside to find out if they’re serving food. Richie chats with the staff, whom he knows, only to discover that the kitchen isn’t open yet. We head to Thompsons instead, not for food, but to have a look inside one of Belfast’s most celebrated clubs. On the way, a middle-aged man walking parallel to us asks, “Are you Richie Blacker?” Richie bursts out laughing and says he is, and the pair chat about tunes, including Richie’s remix of Breeder’s prog-house classic ‘Sputnik (New York FM Mix)’. “I swear I didn’t plan that,” laughs Richie, as we wind through the cobbled streets.
We arrive at Thompsons, just two minutes from Belfast City Hall. The club’s entrance lies down an alleyway, and because the previous mural of Carl Cox no longer exists, the muted grey walls make the venue look almost unremarkable. While Marty snaps a few shots of Richie outside Thompsons, a young chef in white overalls pops his head out and looks on with curiosity from the back door of the Italian deli opposite. Even in the tucked-away backstreets of Belfast, there’s a sense of friendly interest, the same kind from the staff who greeted DJ Mag at the train station and inside LUX. Between seasons in Ibiza, Richie would play guest slots at Thompsons’ weekly house and techno night, Misfit. Yello had closed, but Richie wasn’t keen on securing a residency elsewhere.
“I knew Belfast wasn’t the be-all and end-all,” he says. “Yes, it’s an amazing city, and it has an amazing scene, but I knew I didn’t want to be known as a resident from Belfast. I wanted to play all over the world, and I knew I needed to focus on the music rather than the DJing at the later stage of my career to kind of get those gigs further afield — and it’s worked!”
It’s reached a socially acceptable time in the afternoon for a drink, so we walk to Kelly’s Cellars, one of Richie’s favourite pubs. Over a perfectly pulled pint of Guinness, we sit outside while indie and traditional Irish music emanate from the speakers at different points. Our conversation turns to health; mental and physical. “I’ve been training with my PT Dan for eight years on and off,” he says fondly. “I’ve grown up with Dan. I know his brothers and his whole family, I even know his mum and all.”
Gym sessions with Dan, and Richie’s practice of mindfulness, keep him focused. During the Ibiza years, a spiritually-inclined friend introduced Richie to meditation, while his cousin Caítlín — “she’s like my wee sister” — lent a copy of The Secret during a period of self-doubt a few years ago. “It helps keep you focused,” he says, speaking of manifestation, the core subject in Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book. “Because you have no one else to help get you focused apart from yourself, so you need to be in that right headspace to do it.”
Richie isn’t the first artist to share the power of meditation with DJ Mag, and he’s not surprised to hear it. “I think that’s why a lot of people in music and this sort of industry would do things like that — meditation, self-help and manifesting,” he says thoughtfully. “Because you need to, you have no choice. If you’re not focused, you’re not gonna be on form with it and on point with it, and you need to keep yourself focused. That’s the best way to do it.”
The last stop of the Belfast tour is Bootleggers, a bar-come-restaurant nestled on the corner of Church Lane, and a five-minute jaunt from the pub. It’s a popular spot, with a soundsystem that doles out a heady mix of classic house and disco tunes, with an equally enticing menu of tacos and burgers. When our generously topped tacos arrive, talk turns to family and Richie’s nieces and nephews.
“They’re getting old enough that they don’t want to go to the cinema or bowling anymore, which is sad, because I love doing that stuff,” he says. “Because I’m like a big kid myself. Even in Mykonos, my friends would be like, ‘Where’s the child?’ — they’d be talking about me!”
Richie wants to settle down eventually, but for now, he’s focused on reaching his goals — living between Ibiza and Belfast, pitstops in Panorama Bar and DC-10, and releasing his album on the aforementioned London and LA-based record label.
Although it can be easy for any artist on the cusp of exploding to lose the run of themselves, Richie Blacker has everything he needs to remain grounded — a supportive and fiercely close family, a tightly-knit group of friends, and his trusty six-minute diary.
“I write in it every morning — intentions, what I’m thankful for, and what I wanna manifest,” he says. “Because you’re putting it out into the universe, it’s not a magic thing. It’s not like, ‘I’m gonna win a million pounds’. I’m just focusing everything I have on music. I wake up, and it’s about music until I go to bed again. It’s 24-7 with me, and I want it so bad that I know I will get there.”