“I’m my best self when DJing”: DJ Priya plays like her life depends on it - Music - Mixmag

“I’m my best self when DJing”: DJ Priya plays like her life depends on it

DJ Priya shares a typically high-energy set and speaks to Aneesa Ahmed about connecting with herself through music and how DJing saved her from the lowest point in her life

  • Words: Aneesa Ahmed | Photography: Jojo Jones, Aiyush Pachnanda
  • 25 November 2021

DJ Priya throws herself into every project she undertakes with fun, dynamism and versatility at the forefront of her mind. Acclaimed for her varied mixes that keep the energy high and the bass heavy, the Brighton-based DJ knows how to get people moving.

Her style is unclassifiable, the only standout feature is that it “must” be high-energy. Priya is a lover of all types of music - from classical Indian to reggaeton to UK funky to breaks - and all of these influences combine in the mixes she creates. Priya's skills have seen her land slots on several radio shows, as well as being a Foundation FM and BBC Asian Network regular. In the latter half of 2021 alone, DJ Priya has played at landmark festivals such as Body Movements, been invited to play for organisations such as Diet Paratha and Adidas, and threw down a killer set at Mixmag's very own Lab LDN.

DJ Priya is influenced heavily by the classical and contemporary South Asian sounds that she was raised on, and always centres key parts of her identity and self in her mixes. She started DJing in 2018 when she was in her very early twenties and fell in love with the way the decks made her feel. It was “like nothing I'd ever felt before,” she describes. After a lifetime of trialing different hobbies and career paths, DJing is what gave her a “new lease of life” — a feeling that she hopes to pass on to other budding young women who are interested in music.

Read this next: 37 South Asian artists share what music means to them

Priya was trained by none other than Jyoty Singh at one of Jyoty’s series of workshops for women of colour hoping to break into the industry: “I took what I learnt and I ran with it.” Her determination, talent and grit did not go unnoticed, as she then opened for Jyoty at Alchemy Festival, an event celebrating South Asian talent in London’s Southbank Centre, a mere five weeks after touching decks for the very first time.

She now spends a lot of time mentoring a new generation of people interested in DJing and music, running free workshops for young people from marginalised groups who don’t necessarily have a safe space to learn and to create. “I want to provide a safe space for them, I want to be a breath of fresh air and show that there are really lovely people in the music industry,” she eagerly explains. Anyone interested in finding out more about how to learn from her can find information on her Instagram account.

We spoke to DJ Priya about growing up as an alternative Desi kid, the importance of her dance music-forged friendships and how music helped her make it into her 20s. Check out her Impact mix and Q&A below.

What are some early and teenage memories of music?

Growing up, there was always music playing in my house. It was more B4U Music, BBC Asian Network, Sunrise Radio and Bhangra. There was literally always music playing. and I’ve always loved high-energy music in particular. If you look back at family videos, I’m always doing something sporadic and always dancing around! There’s a video of me dancing at my brother's birthday and I'm in front of the camera giving it my all, my brother was crying because I’d stolen his birthday! I’ve always loved music, but when I started going to shows as a teenager that's when I realised that there’s this whole other side to music.

I went to a predominantly South Asian school and nobody really understood why I was going to [rock] shows and why I had streaks of red in my hair. These were rock and punk shows - like Paramore, Enter Shikari and that type of thing. I discovered this music through the internet in the early 2010s and Tumblr, I was like “this music really expresses how I feel”, every hairstyle Hayley Williams had, I had! At the time I felt quite lonely, because as a teenager no one else was like me. But now in my 20s, I’ve met so many other alternative South Asians. I remember first seeing Gracie T on a Zoom call with her dyed hair and thinking “I want her to be my friend”. Through getting into alternative music in my teens I started doing doors at local shows and then eventually I started DJing.

Musically, how did you make the transition from liking more alternative and rock to electronic music?

I was scrolling through TikTok one day and I saw a video of this dance group and they were playing a ‘Rude Boy’ remix and I was like “this is incredible, I’ve never heard music like this before”. It was by somebody who goes by Klean, he’s a 19 year old in Brazil, and through this I started listening to his mixes, then other mixes. What’s funny is that he and I are actually friends now. It was through him, and through people like Manuka Honey and Manara. These are all people that have influenced the sound that I like to play, and I like to think that I’ve taken bits from everything and have made it my own. So I found electronic music through TikTok, and kind of ended up going down a rabbit hole.

Read this next: How emerging DJs are using TikTok to reach millions

In what other ways have your friends and family influenced the music you mix? I know you use a lot of classical and contemporary South Asian sounds.

I guess being a DJ is a tough pill for your parents to swallow, especially in our community. I wanted to make music that my mum could also listen to, and while she might not know every song there are samples that she recognises. I wanted to make it as palatable for as many people as I could; I still wanted to include my family and my friends. I just wanted to merge as many things as I could. I wanted to breathe almost like a new life to the songs that we know and love, because they are classics but they just need a little bit of an oomph. My good friend Jayhaan is an incredible example of this, he’s one of the first people to bring Desi Jersey Club to India. People like Manara, Gracie T, Yung Singh and myself all play him. He’s such a great inspiration because he’s shown me the way to go about doing it and we're actually talking about collaborating together! I remember, I heard his ‘Amplifier’ remix and I just thought “that’s it, I’ve heard the best thing I’m ever going to hear”, it really motivated me to want to include more things like this. I realised I wanted to include my parents in my mixes.

One really important person is Manara. I had a lot of time in lockdown and was listening to her show, properly listening to it, she has that recurring sample from Pooja, What Is This Behaviour which is “you’re asking for it, you’re dying for it” - and I was like “hold on, we can actually do this? I’ve been trying to do something like this for a hot minute.” Seeing someone like her do this and do it so well made me realise that I needed to be doing stuff like that too. It was a light switch moment, I realised I really can take what is in my head and make it a reality, she has been one of my biggest inspirations. I also genuinely look up to Gracie T, I’m so grateful that I get to be friends with her because she is actually such an inspiration to me. I love to find inspiration in the people that I know.

There’s so many songs that are so special to me because I listened to them growing up. I want to share them with other people. My younger brother, he’s just turned 18 and it’s so nice to me that he listens to my mixes, and my mum listens to my mixes too. These mixes all include songs that we grew up to.

How did your family first react when you said that you were DJing? It’s still an unconventional route in South Asian families.

I think because it first started out as just a hobby, my mum was just happy that I was interested in something! Once I said that I wanted to do this full time, she was like “okay, but this is on you”. It’s only now that I think she’s seen the full scale of it - especially after the Mixmag Lab LDN show. She was showing her friends, and actually understood the scale. She’d always listen to me on the radio but I think she thought I only really stuck to pirate or community radio - and probably even thought that I was just streaming from my laptop - so she’s definitely realised the impact of it since the Mixmag show. Obviously she’s super proud of me. In fact, I think she’s starting to take credit and is telling people that it was her idea that I got into this profession all along, because she used to play the radio to me while growing up!

Read this next: What Do Your Parents Think?: 4 South Asian DJs share their family's reception to a music career

Classic Desi mums! But when you told her that it’s something you wanted to do full time, how did you come to that decision yourself?

Normally people say “I was so musically talented in school” and a lot of the time it was written for them — but that’s not the case for me! I had no idea what I wanted to do, I was going down the business route and studying for that. I took a workshop with Jyoty and the first time I got on the decks something in me just changed. Honestly it was like being reborn, that’s the only way I can describe it. I’d never clicked with anything, I’ve done bar work, I was training to be a veterinary nurse, I did business - I tried everything! But after touching the decks, something just unleashed in me. After six weekly evening sessions, and only 10 hours on the decks, I played a festival supporting Jyoty! I remember just dancing around, and she said to me "do the blend first and then dance!" But I’ve been the same since the very start of my career, no matter how I’m feeling or doing — I'm my best, most high-energy self behind the decks. At these workshops, I realised that this feeling is something really, really special and I wanted to take this as far as I could. I was actually playing b2b with Gracie T at 180 The Strand for Dazed recently and Jyoty was giving a talk on the floor below, she stopped her talk to tell people that “one of her mentees is playing upstairs”. That meant a lot to me. Playing became an addiction, I will play your birthday, play in your bathroom, I will even play at Lidl — I just always want to be behind the decks. I've really never had this feeling before.

Moving onto your music itself, your sets and mixes are so varied — describe your creative process to us. How would you normally put together a mix?

This is going to sound so chaotic! I work better at night, there's a huge amount of hours that go into a mix that people don’t see, I’ll spend so much time mixing and matching and trying to find a blend or something that works. I’m getting so much better at it now, before a one hour mix would take me around 10 hours to record. For a one hour mix, there’s sometimes 60 or so hours of pure experimentation behind it where I figure out what works. I’m very experimental as well, like sometimes I’ll have an idea in my head and I’ll think of taking the vocals out of something, playing it off beat, putting in a different bassline, and I end up with a really eclectic blend that works.

I’m really lucky that I like the music that I mix. I am my favourite DJ, I play the music that I want to listen to. I’m always listening to my mixes and thinking of ways to change it. I'll be in ASDA listening to mixes and I'll think “oh, this would work really well with this blend” and I’ll run home, try it out and then save it aside for a different mix.

Just through DJing, you listen to music differently. Because I listened to a lot of bands growing up, I’d always listen to a different element each time, whether it's the percussion or the bass or whatever. Every time my focus was different, and this has really helped me when dissecting songs for DJing, I hear songs in a way in which somebody else might not hear.

Read this next: How clubbing is helping young British South Asians explore their creativity and identity

Talk us through your actual mixing process, where do you make your music- what equipment do you use?

I’m a proper bedroom DJ, I make everything in my room with a controller that I pair with my laptop.

A bit off topic but something I always tell people is to not let their lack of equipment deter them. One of the best mixes I ever heard was by my friend, CloudKlaus. He smashed it. It was so technical and so fun to listen to, it even had spin backs! He told me later that he did it on a computer with his mouse and his keyboard. I was so shocked, and I was like “but you had reloads and everything” and he said that he used his keyboard to line things up and spun the mouse, he showed me how he did it. I was blown away. There’s all sorts of equipment but so much of it is talent. I couldn’t do what my friend did perfectly without my controller because I've always been a hands-on person - I learned through hands-on experience.

In your time as a DJ you’ve been collaborating with a lot of people, I know you started getting the DJ Priya name out through your appearance on foundation.fm - what was that like?

I remember guesting on their specialist show with Sita and Rani and I was like, “this is incredible, there's so many other female South Asian DJs!” The stuff that we play is so varied and also very heavy. Sita plays a lot of techno, which is cool and I loved to see that because it’s still predominantly played on radio by a lot of white men. Getting to collaborate with her on that was crazy, especially on an all female station like foundation.fm, I was on cloud 9!

I know you’ve forged lots of friendships and connections through electronic music, social media and DJing- what’s that been like?

I’m very lucky that I live in a day and age where social media is a thing, especially in the lockdowns. 10 or 20 years ago, I may not have been able to do this. I count my blessings, because the right people found my music. I can really connect with people because of the music and I feel lucky that people from all over the world can find my mixes. After that Mixmag set went viral I got a bit more of a following outside of the UK, like India, for example. I have a lot of people that listen to me out there. And I’m lucky that I get to interact with these people around the world because of the internet.

Social media connects us in so many ways, it’s actually ridiculous. Not even just as platforms of connections - but me and Gracie communicate in TikTok references, or sometimes we just send each other funny TikToks and that’s our conversation. I think it is easier to make deeper connections and have deeper friendships.

I’ve met so many people I know now because of the electronic music community and have managed to stay close and connected to them with the help of social media - such as Gracie, Jayhaan, our friend Tina Khatri (who is also our makeup artist), so many people!

Read this next: Kölsch: "I truly believe social media has saved electronic music"

How are these friendships evolving IRL, got any b2bs or collabs planned, anything you can reveal?

I’ll definitely be going b2b with Gracie more, she’s incredible. I remember we realised after our first b2b session that our duo really works. The way that the music industry is, it’s not very friendly at times - meeting someone like Gracie is like a breath of fresh air. After our Body Movements b2b, we literally sat in the hotel room and we were like “what just happened today, was that even real?”, we couldn’t believe how well we meshed and how well we complemented each other. We’re playing b2b again soon, people are already noticing that we play incredibly well together. I learn so much by going b2b with people, especially Gracie — it’s like brain training! I’m always on the spot and thinking about what I can mix, I’m making my own style more versatile.

So I’m guessing going b2b and DJing to an audience is new to you because of the lockdowns- what have you learnt about your own abilities by performing and performing with other people?

I've learnt to trust myself a lot more. I never really had that much confidence because I've only ever done radio stuff during lockdown. If you look at my Instagram, it's only been up for just over a year - a lot of things are still very new to me. I started with recording mixes for the radio, where obviously if something goes wrong, I can stop recording and start again. But when it’s live or to an audience, I'm still learning how to handle it. You can see in my Lab LDN where I made a mistake and I put my hands up and had to take a moment to figure out what to do. I get quite anxious in crowds and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle people actually coming to see me DJ because I get very shy.

Post-lockdown it’s all still very new, I’m still learning and adjusting to it. I had a gig recently and when I got home I put on my fluffy dressing gown and just sat on the floor and reflected on everything. because it genuinely is a lot for me to process, being filmed, being interviewed, people actually coming to my shows — it can be overwhelming sometimes.

I've learnt to push the imposter syndrome to the side when it comes to the music industry because I deserve a space here. They've booked me for a reason. I'm good at what I do. It's been a lot of reassuring and a lot of self-love, a lot of talking to my inner child and a lot of learning. I have a big b2b coming up with Chandé soon! I’ve never gone b2b with him, and again, it’s gonna be in a crowd so I need to get myself ready so I’m not too overwhelmed.

After I play a set I disappear for a while. I get a drink like a Coca Cola and I sit by myself for a bit and I process things. After my Lab set I ran off camera and cried. That was my first time being on camera and being with a crowd like that, my partner was in the greenroom with me and I was just so relieved and so happy that it went well, I was so proud of myself that I'd done something like that.

Read this next: How to B2B: Six DJs share wisdom on the art of sharing the decks

You’re a very high-energy performer, you match your music! Is that also what you’re like outside of performing and just as a person and raver?

Absolutely it is! At my Soho House show I was DJing and then when Gracie came on I was jumping back onto the dancefloor. I was sore for days after because on the other side of the decks, I'm the exact same. Gun fingers, jumping - this is exactly me.

You recently played at Adidas! You’ve said on Instagram how it was a big milestone for you, can you explain why for us?

I literally screamed out of excitement. My family didn’t have loads of money while I was growing up, my shoes were always from Shoezone. I saved up all of my EMA, which was really hard to do. It took me a few months of saving to get my first pair of Adidas trainers, I was so gassed! Here I am 10 years later playing for them. It was so fun, I can’t believe I got that email. They said they needed a three hour set on short notice and I was determined to make it happen. I locked myself away for nine hours and sorted out a mix and it went down so incredibly well..

The past few months have definitely proven to younger you that this whole whirlwind journey has been worth it! What would you from the past think of you now?

Wow, I’m going to try and not get emotional with this! I never thought I’d see my 20s, literally ever. So to be in my 20s now and thriving, it’s a great feeling. Baby Pri, Pri from four years ago, Pri from Mixmag Lab, and even Pri from last week — they’d all be so proud. I keep making myself proud and I'm always trying to be the best person that they ever wanted to see. I’m trying to embrace the journey and be as lovely and as authentic as I can to help people.

I started DJing at the lowest point of my life. I had moved back into my mum’s house and couldn’t be left alone. I was at that point — and DJing gave me a whole new lease of life and a new love for it too. I've never been asked that question before, so thank you because it's definitely an important one for me.

I love to see you thriving! How has the process of mixing and making music helped you connect with yourself?

It’s helped me connect with myself in ways that nothing else ever could. There’s so much freedom and expression, nothing else has given me that. I’m taking things from my brain and making it into reality. I’ve never had that with art or drawing. But with mixing and music I can take exactly what I want and make it happen.

With mixing, because I lock myself away for hours on end to play around with the different songs and work on new ideas - I’ve started to love my own company and I’ve made peace with myself. I've learned to love myself as well, like my company is my favourite company and it's through music! It's a really nice change that has happened because I hated being alone before. Now I want to be left alone to make things!

Read this next: 10 South Asian diaspora dance music collectives you need t

What’s next for you?

I'm going to try and be bigger and better. Loads of people have said to me that they can't believe how my journey has unfolded over the past year-and-a-half. I really want to make people happy and proud of me. I really want to play abroad! I also want to help people where I can, I do a lot of mentoring and I want to see my girls, I call them my girls and my babies, do similar things to me. I want to give them more opportunities and have them play real life shows with me.

I also want to explore production. I’ve got some bits, they’re very rough at the minute, but I would like to release them and get everyone’s opinions on them. I’m going to start uploading them as exclusives during my sets, so keep an ear out for that! You’ll know when you hear them. I’m keen to get into the production side of things, not just in my bedroom but getting my own music up online and getting it out there. I’d love for other people to play my music - that would be the dopest thing!

To finish up, tell us about this mix and how it makes you feel and what some inspirations are?

Every time I play a show or put out a mix it's like wrapping up a piece of my heart and giving it to the listener as a gift. I always give 110% and really portray myself through music. You'll always get a super high-energy, fun, bouncy, funky mix from me that I hope will inspire whoever is listening to be their best, badass self. I listen to my music all the time! At parties, whilst cleaning, when I need to motivate myself and when I need that extra oomph, I know that this is the case for a lot of my listeners also, it's a really fun experience that I get to share with everyone and I'm always trying to top the last mix or last show I've done! That's what motivates me, the thought of getting other people pumped and sharing with them just how happy music makes me.

Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

Taal freak - Jayhaan ft Prasad
Wannabe - RVB
Mek it bunx up - Deewun
On fleek - whyneed
Panyn - M3B8 (unreleased)
Onfleek -whyneed (unreleased M3B8 touch)
Get right riddim - M3B8
Up x bestfriend - Karyo
Desi sol - Desi sub culture
Gibber rani - Jayhaan ft Prasad
420 - Whysoserious ft miss Baas
T5 - Swet Shop Boys
Work - Boston Chery
Montero - Progressivu
Xyla - Champion and Mina
Toast - Baysik edit
Rosalia drum dub - Ahadadream
Rebota - Buckdodgers (unreleased)
Act up - M3B8 touch (unreleased)
Kuku - Omar
Ay Chika - Klean
Saiyaan Ji - Jayhaan + Hammer
Cartier - Omar Duro
Levanta Riddim - Klean + M3B8
I miss the rage - Hyalyte
Lipgloss - Lo5ive (Kultura collective)
Silky - Neuropunk
Runnerz - Dismantle
Body drop - Ase Manual
New position - Shakti
La Romana - Baysik edit
Baule funk - Jayhaan
Rock the party - Jayhaan (unreleased)
Big booty - Jayhaan
To the floor -??? (unreleased)
Pani puri pirates - Chandé + Yourboykiran

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