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Drum & bass MC Tali is taking control of her future

Tali was the first female drum & bass MC to feature on DJ Mag’s cover in 2004, coinciding with the release of her debut album ‘Lyric On My Lip’ on Full Cycle. Nearly 18 years on from that trailblazing release, Jake Hirst connects with the artist to discuss her self-produced eighth studio album, ‘Future Dwellers’, and the journey of self-worth that lead to it

“I was so busy and stressed back then, but I was having the time of my life,” Tali says, sitting back in her chair with a gleam in her eyes. “I look at that cover from 2004 with real nostalgia and love for that time in my life.”

We’re sat on a video call talking about the early days of Tali’s career, as a woman in her mid-twenties who flew over from New Zealand and flipped the UK d&b scene on its head with her debut album ‘Lyric On My Lip’. It’s not surprising Tali feels emotional thinking about that time. As the first female d&b MC to feature on the cover of DJ Mag, she was breaking new ground, following in the footsteps of other pioneers like Kemistry, Storm, Rap, MC Chickaboo and Flight, and continuing to pave the way for women in the genre.

Nearly 18 years on, Tali is back causing waves with her eighth studio album, ‘Future Dwellers’. It completes a new chapter for her. She’s produced the entire album herself — another first for a female vocalist in d&b, and an achievement she has only just clocked. “Oh don’t mind me, just blazing trails again!” she jokes. “I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in life, and it’s exactly what’s meant to be happening musically.”

This isn’t the first time Tali has shown her production ability, which is maybe why she’s exuding confidence right now. Alongside remixes and productions for other artists, she produced her 2015 electro-pop album ‘Wolves’. But it becomes apparent Tali has been feeling “scared and apprehensive” about ‘Future Dwellers’, as the album features the first self-produced d&b works she has released.

It’s surprising to hear an artist who’s been in the industry for over 20 years, and is on their eighth album, is feeling scared about their new release. But Tali highlights the “underlying insecurities telling me to prepare for people talking shit because I’m a girl or an MC doing something different”.

Imposter syndrome has plagued artists forever, but when combined with having to deal with sexism in the industry, it can be particularly debilitating. Women have been subjected to horrific attitudes in the music business, like being accused of working with ghost producers, or sleeping their way to the top, or as Tali remembers, being told she has a “magic vagina” — a memory she can’t help but laugh at. The fear of being “fraudulent” initially held Tali back from pursuing ‘Future Dwellers’. 

It wasn’t until Dynamite MC stayed at Tali’s in 2021 that she finally shared her productions with someone who wasn’t her partner. Tali tells the story: “Dynamite was on his bed reading, and I came in and started playing d&b. He was like, ‘This is cool T, what’s this?’ When I said it was me, he jumped off the bed and said ‘This is fucking mean!’ Then he began MCing over the top. Dynamite has been my sensei since Full Cycle, so his encouragement helped me to believe in myself.”

Tali DJ Mag cover 2004

As Tali opens up about the journey leading to her new album, it becomes clear the reason why she was hesitant to share her productions wasn’t solely a fear of people criticising her for being a woman or an MC doing something unfamiliar. It was also because ‘Future Dwellers’ represents 11 of the most “liberating” and “personal” tracks Tali has written — from complete instrumentals like ‘Mansion’ placing her production abilities in the spotlight, to tracks telling personal stories like ‘Firecircle’, which is “a love song for someone who will never be born”, and ‘Cause & Effect’ featuring INF, which recounts Tali’s experiences of people trying to use her upbringing on a farm as a way of tearing her down.

It’s a vulnerability we’re not used to seeing from the same bold character who tirelessly battled for recognition at a time when there weren’t many role models for women in the scene. An artist who was challenged by Roni Size to jump on stage without preparation and take the mic from Dynamite in order to show Full Cycle, and everyone else, what she was capable of.

“A lot of that confidence was a front,” Tali admits. “When you’re a girl in a male-dominated world, you’ve got to have thick skin. The only way to prevent getting accosted in some back room was by having a ‘don’t fuck with me’ attitude. Even though I still have that same attitude, I’m less worried about showing my sensitive side now, because it’s an important part of me.”

Allowing her emotions to flood through in such a cinematic fashion on ‘Future Dwellers’ has been prompted by Tali’s delve into composing for film and TV. After connecting with Karyn Rachtman — the music supervisor behind films including Romeo & Juliet and Pulp Fiction — at a writing camp in Auckland, Tali began scoring for film. It gave her “the confidence to jump into d&b as a producer”.

With newfound belief in her art, Tali has adopted a fresh mindset towards her career. Instead of releasing on another label, ‘Future Dwellers’ is on her own imprint, Reign Recordings, and it serendipitously coincides with the artist taking back ownership of her music catalogue. Apart from her 2018 ‘Love & Migration’ album, she now owns her entire catalogue stretching back to the Full Cycle days.

“I have control over everything. And why shouldn’t I?” Tali says. “Everything is back in my house. I’m on my throne made of wicker and cushions, and I’ve got my music around me. This album is an overarching demonstration of that — this is my way of doing things.” t’s an empowering feeling for Tali.

Tali in a blue coat in front of a row of crisp packets

On the surface, her career may look like one wild ride of enjoyment, but in reality, she’s spent most of her career playing to the narrative of others — from times being pushed to breaking point with the weight of expectation Full Cycle demanded, to spending two years in a toxic relationship which caused her to briefly give up MCing after being gaslit by her ex-partner. While the latter of those narratives has been particularly damaging, it’s also a motivation behind Tali taking control of her future.

“I gave up MCing for over a year and lost a big part of who I was,” Tali remembers. “After he dumped me, it left me in the abyss and I hit my lowest point. I remember returning to New Zealand, crying to my bandmates over here, and they said ‘Where’s the girl who smashed ceilings and paved the way for other women? You need to go back and do music for yourself, not for others’. I began finding myself again after that.”

After several years and albums rediscovering her self-worth — the last of which, ‘Love & Migration’, saw Tali become the first woman in over a decade to win the Vodafone New Zealand Music Award for Best Electronic Artist in 2019 — for the first time in Tali’s career she feels in control of her own narrative. “And that’s why I’m so proud of ‘Future Dwellers’,” she reveals. “I’ve gone from a place of being strong and confident down to a massive low, and I’ve slowly built myself back up over the last decade to a point where I’m feeling on a high again.”

But Tali is keen to explain why it’s a “different high” to the one she experienced with Full Cycle. “I feel like I’ve been surfing big waves all these years — white- knuckle riding with my teeth clenched. But now, I’m on a beautiful beach in the Caribbean riding gentle waves, feeling content with life. I’m steering my ship for the first time in over 20 years and I’m excited for the future.”

Read DJ Mag's recent cover feature with jungle/d&b crew Rupture's founders, Mantra and Double O

Jake Hirst is a freelance writer. You can find him on Instagram

Lead photo credit: Jamie Lees