Skip to main content
Credit: @danreidphoto

Sam Divine: the Queen of Defected takes Ibiza

Sam Divine is the Queen of Defected, and she’s helming the UK house music brand’s first season at Ushuaïa Ibiza this season as its weekly resident and key figurehead. For the the first of DJ Mag's 2024 Ibiza cover stories, Divine speaks candidly about her difficult upbringing, falling in love with house music, lifestyle changes, and her enduring passion for DJing around the world

Sam Divine’s life should be a movie. It’s had the humble beginnings, the setbacks and the dark times, and now the feel-good resolution comes against the odds: headlining her beloved Defected’s residency at Ushuaïa all summer long. In fact, the house DJ’s story follows such a perfect three-act narrative it’s almost too good to be true. “This is what I’ve always dreamed of,” beams Sam who, once upon a time, was Defected’s first ever street team girl in Ibiza. “If you cut me open, I’d bleed Defected. It’s played such a huge part in my life.”

Ushuaïa also means a lot to her. It’s a club she hasn't played since she was a resident in its first two summers back in 2010 and 2011. “There was nothing else like it on the island,” she says. “Such an amazing family vibe, such a good atmosphere, and unbelievable production. I always said when I left that residency, I left a bit of my heart in the booth because it was such a beautiful time in my Ibiza career.”

When we speak, Sam is just days out from returning for the Defected residency, where she’ll play the chief support slot every Tuesday night. “Playing outdoors just hits different. It's more uplifting, more vocal, more Balearic in style,” she says, before admitting she lost it when the residency was confirmed last October. “I screamed with joy, I was so happy to be going back to a place I’ve always called home.” That same day, Sam started a playlist of tunes she knew she wanted to play come summer. “Then about three months ago I started prepping my outfits,” she laughs, “'cause I’m OCD about my outfits!”

In her early days growing up near Weston-super-Mare by the Bristol Channel, Sam was all about hard house, breaks and drum & bass. Like in many satellite towns around the UK, those were the most popular local sounds. She was a girl racer who pimped up her Vauxhall Corsa with wheels that were too big and a sound system that cost a fortune. She'd cruise about pumping tunes, meeting fellow petrol heads in McDonald's car parks, and had already been going out raving every weekend from her early teens — meeting up in motorway service stations and then heading to raves in a convoy of cars. Hard house DJs Lisa Lashes and Lisa Pin-Up were her heroines, but soon that would change.

Sam Divine DJing outside in the sunshine

“I had my decks in front of the mirror and I used to stand in front of it with my headphones on and pretend I was playing to thousands of people.”

One afternoon in her early days of DJing, her promoter mate rang. His headliner had dropped out and he wanted Sam to step up and do a warm-up set. “I was like, ‘Well, I don't have any house records’.” He said he had a box full that he’d drop off at her house. “I had a quick practice at home but I played everything really, really fast because I was so used to playing hard house. I was playing soulful house at 135bpm, so all the vocals sounded really sped up. It was enough for Sam to have an epiphany. “I was like, oh my god, the instrumentals and the percussion, actually having vocals and the drums was a game changer. I instantly fell in love, and never played hard house ever again.” 

Defected, which is 25 this year, was a label that kept coming up time and again as Sam feverishly sourced as many of these new house sounds as she could. It was the one she grew to love the most. Decades on, she is the Queen of Defected and now her throne at Ushuaïa awaits.

Sam is so full of positive energy she can barely sit still, and you get the impression she’s always like this. As soon as she appeared on our video call, she had to excuse herself to take delivery of some food for her dog. Moments after she reappeared, an incoming call from her doctor meant we were put on mute. She returned again, apologetic but unflustered, bubbling with enthusiasm. This microcosm of controlled chaos seems to reflect Sam’s life at large, which is what makes her story all the more remarkable.

If this were a movie script, the opening scene would be set in Sam’s childhood bedroom. “I had my decks in front of the mirror and I used to stand in front of it with my headphones on and pretend I was playing to thousands of people,” she remembers. “In my heart, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I could see my name in lights on stage, even though I didn’t know how I was going to get there.”

Sam Divine wearing a black leather coat

Sam poured everything into a career in music. She admits she “obsessed” over it. Her family and friends would worry and tell her to take a break, but she never did, even if it meant she had to miss a family gathering or an important birthday. She was so hell-bent on making it that she would drive anywhere for any sort of gig, sometimes just for petrol money to get her name out there. She spent summers in Ibiza’s West End handing out mix CDs. She and her friend would borrow gear from college and do pirate radio broadcasts from her bedroom, after three years of being banished to the bottom of the garden, in her mum’s shed, where she had her decks set up. She wasn’t allowed to play inside because “my mum hated my music.”

Her motivation to make it, she thought at the time, was controlling people’s emotions with sound. “I just thought it would feel so special that you could actually have thousands of people and they're all dancing to your music and feeling at one and connected,” she says. Decades on, she's realised that playing music was actually just as much about her own escape.

At this point, our movie might cut to the young Sam who has just passed her driving test and is about to go and visit her younger brother in prison. He was in and out for stealing cars from a young age, and there were aggressive knocks regularly on the family door from police, or cars set ablaze outside. Her mum suffered from mental health and nervous breakdowns all her life. “It was tough, but it’s probably one of the reasons why I actually started DJing, just to have my release, and to kind of forget about everything that was going on at home,” she tells DJ Mag. And forget she did, recognising years later that an innate coping mechanism kicked in, so she has limited recollections of life between the ages of 15 and 25.

Just days before our Zoom, Sam attended her mother’s funeral. It “absolutely floored” her, and is why she was speaking to her doctor about something to help her sleep. “It came to the point where she just had enough, and I respect her so much for that. She’d wake up most days, not wanting to be alive or to get through the day, but she did it because she loved her kids so much and she showed so much strength. Her struggles with mental health is what took her in the end. I think she was waiting for me to get into a place where she knew that I was happy and secure.”

sam Divine DJing

The final piece of that puzzle was Sam getting engaged last summer. It happened, fittingly enough, during her own DVINE Sounds boat party at Defected’s festival in Croatia. She and her partner, Matt, celebrated properly earlier this year by transforming their entire house into a party hotspot, with an inflatable club in the garden and a surprise guest PA from garage great Kele Le Roc. “Every room in our house, we had music playing, in the cinema room, that was our Boiler Room session. Then in the boom room, which is where we do all my live streams, we had lasers and a smoke machine. It felt like a nightclub with three different rooms of music, something for every one of our 70 guests.”

“All I ever wanted to do was to make mum proud. She didn’t come to any of my shows because eventually she couldn't leave the house, but she would watch every single YouTube live-stream. And she was just so proud. She always posted them all over Facebook.” Like Sam, who quickly became one of house music’s most prominent female DJs a long time before the #MeToo movement triggered a redressing of dance music’s gender imbalance, her mother also bucked patriarchal trends as a lorry driver. “That’s where I get my strength from, you know. She always told me, ‘Sam, go for your dreams.’ And that’s what I did.”

After sacking off a job in a Vodafone shop, she went on to work at Spin Central record store in Weston-super-Mare, and then Chemical Records in Bristol. “It all escalated very quickly from there,” she says. Mindful of her infectious enthusiasm, she adds in her gentle West Country lilt that “the boys in the record shop would say to people, 'Don’t look her in the eyes ‘cause you'll end up buying whatever she’s selling’.”

Thousands of hours of DJ sets and even more miles of traveling later, Sam eventually hit a wall during Covid. The partying got too much, some of the joy had gone. She made a change, called in a life coach, and began searching for a better balance. “The turning point was like, ‘God, if I want another 10 years in the industry, I really have to make some changes’, so I made a conscious decision to go sober at all my DJ shows, and I’m just about to celebrate three years sober DJing. It was the best decision of my life.”

Sam Divine in sunglasses

“The high that I get when I come off the decks now sober, if I could just bottle that and keep that forever. That’s priceless. It’s better than any drug on the planet.”

It was difficult in the beginning. Being around drunk people can be not that much fun when you're stone-cold sober. “I have a rule,” says Sam. “As soon as someone repeats themselves three times, I back door it.” There are also lots of expectations on guest DJs to be the life and soul of the party, but Sam has now fully adjusted. Not only did she move out of London to the more sleepy Cheshire countryside, but she started driving to all of her UK shows.

“I like to be at home on a Sunday and make a roast dinner and sit around with the family,” she says. “Those things are much more important to me because for so long I put work before everything, before family, before friends. You know, I've missed my best friend's kids growing up. I've missed christenings, birthdays, weddings, and after my mum passed, I've just had a lot of reflection. It’s been a wake-up call. We aren't here for long and we've just got to make the best out of what we have. Just live every day to the fullest and appreciate that just waking up is a blessing.”

Having made these changes, Sam says she is happier than ever. She meditates, takes time for self-care, something she never dreamed of doing before. She stays extra nights with her fiancé in the cities she plays in so that she can explore, eats local food, and allows herself to enjoy the benefits of the lifestyle she's earned. “I feel like the stars are aligning for me now. I've been doing this for 23 years. Considering the recent situation that I've been in with my mum, I feel like I'm physically and mentally in a really, really good spot.”

Ironically, having given a little more time to things outside of music, Sam has “fallen in love with DJing all over again since going sober at shows”. She’s listening to music and feeling it more than she has in years. She’s more connected with crowds, “just like when I first started. I feel like I’m going right back to basics again in terms of just being more in tune with the dancefloor and being more experimental, challenging myself and pushing my mixes. I’m really thinking about it more, whereas in the past I'd be drunk and maybe just car crash something that didn't work and not really think twice about it. The high that I get when I come off the decks now sober, if I could just bottle that and keep that forever. That’s priceless. It’s better than any drug on the planet.”

Sam Divine

As much as Sam loves Defected, Defected loves Sam. Dance music is a throwaway culture obsessed with what’s next. Quick to make a star but even quicker to move on to the next one. But this legendary label has always stuck by her and invested in her. Founder Simon Dunmore quickly moved her up through the ranks, from handing out vinyl and CDs in Ibiza to playing the parties and then making her Events Manager in 2009, even though the most she had done up to that point was a couple of low-key parties with her mates. Defected also gave Sam her first international gig — in Colombia many years ago.

“I’m forever grateful to Simon,” says Sam. “He was a great mentor to me for many, many years and taught me the integrity of DJing, which I still carry with me and try to pass on to all the young up-and-coming DJs. Wez Saunders, now CEO of Defected, has really got behind me to fulfil my producer dream — he gave me a record deal, put me in writing camps, and he's really been in my corner. I’ve felt supported my whole journey with Defected. They put me at the forefront and I fly the flag all around the world, and I do that with pride and honour.”

The writing camps have paid off. Her latest track ‘Saved By The Record’, featuring Josh Barry, is already a hit. The title references the role music has played throughout Sam’s life, and the vocals pay tribute to all the classic house sounds that course through Sam's veins. It’s a chunky, feel-good and timeless sound with a fat bassline and catchy top lines drenched in sun. Already popular on the radio, it’s got summer anthem written all over it. Earlier in the year, Sam kicked off Defected’s 25th anniversary ‘Together’ series — which pairs label stars past and future — with ‘Cruel Intentions’, a tune alongside fellow regulars Hannah Wants and Jem Cooke.

As well as being the face of Defected, Sam’s own label DVINE Sounds is nine this year. It’s rooted in the house sound of Defected but with its own twist, and is mostly about Sam looking to platform young talent she thinks deserves a chance. After something of an enforced hiatus because she was “too busy to give it the attention it deserves”, the label is now back with a vengeance. It just put out a Miami sampler with a bunch of new artists and will be hosting stages at One Out Festival, Hideout and Defected Croatia again this summer.

Sam DIvine

“You’ve got to be so thick-skinned in this industry and try not to take things too much to heart, because you will have doors slammed in your face. But I’m lucky, I’m strong and I get that from my mum.”

Sam has also just collaborated on a range of summer swimwear with DELARAswim, and has a documentary coming which she has been filming for eight years, Married To The Music, in collaboration with Repel Republic Films. She’s about to head on tour to Australia, will play Glastonbury this summer, and is also working on a new album.

“All I want to do now is leave a legacy behind,” says Sam. “It’s not an ego thing. I just want to be able to retire and know I’ve shown people of all ages that the sky is the limit and that if you put your heart and passion into something, anything is possible. Growing up, we didn’t have much, I was on free school meals, we had to go to food banks, but now I’m in a position where I don’t look at price tags. You’ve got to be so thick-skinned in this industry and try not to take things too much to heart, because you will have doors slammed in your face. But I’m lucky, I’m strong and I get that from my mum. If I want something, I’m going to go and get it — and I’m not gonna take no for an answer.”

And so we come to the final scene of our movie, a bird’s eye view of Ushuaïa Ibiza. The crowd is a sea of hands lost in clouds fired out from the CO2 cannons. Fiery jets looking like NASA rockets are launching from either side of the stage, except here it’s the dancefloor that is taking off as Sam drops ‘Saved By The Record’, and thousands sing it back to her. “There will be tears,” she says now, visualising the moment with glee.

Soon the sun will set and the party will be over. But only till next week, because this isn’t the end of the Sam Divine story, it’s just the start of the next chapter. 

Sam Divine plays Defected at Ushuaïa Ibiza every Tuesday until October 1st.

In loving memory of Jilly Puddy — 22.5.1954 - 14.03.2024

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s June UK cover feature with Sammy Virji here

Kristan J Caryl is a freelance music writer. Follow him on X @kristanjcaryl

Pics: Dan Reid (@danreidphoto)
Live pics: Louise Nesbitt (@louisnesbitt)