KYRUH is healing trauma through techno - Music - Mixmag

Sensitivity, kindness and respect: KYRUH is healing trauma through techno

The bubbly Brooklyn DJ shares a driving mix and speaks to Annabel Ross about breaking with techno’s austere norms to facilitate safety and joy on the dancefloor and beyond

  • Words: Annabel Ross | Photos: Karla Del Orbe
  • 13 June 2023

It’s kind of wild that KYRUH didn’t have her first official DJ gig until the day the clubs reopened in New York, in June 2021. Two years later, she’s a star player in the Brooklyn techno scene and is attracting a strong following across the pond, recently playing Berlin club Renate and recording her first solo set for the city's HÖR station, as well as performing at Thuishaven and De Reactie festival in the Netherlands. Back home in the US, she’s been billed alongside heavy hitters such as DJ Stingray 313, DJ Pierre, DVS1, Jeff Mills, Hector Oaks and VTSS, and is something of a resident at New York’s hottest large techno venue, Basement, a testament to her talent and pulling power.

Her style is stormy and speedy, but with a distinctive fondness for groove and long blends, aiming to move hips and rinse minds at the same time. Equally refreshing is her presence, often at odds with the brooding music she plays. Invariably she’ll be dancing behind the decks radiating joy, even as she’s turning your brain inside out with woozy, walloping techno, as per her excellent Impact mix below.

Mixmag met with KYRUH on a sunny but chilly May afternoon in New York’s Bed Stuy. We spoke about her whirlwind journey from roving raver searching for meaning to flourishing DJ holding space for the traumatised.

You just got back from Berlin. How was it?

I played Renate and then I played a HÖR Berlin set. And then I went to Amsterdam to play at this club called Thuishaven and at a festival called De Reactie. It was incredible. That was my first time playing in Europe alone [last year she toured with WTCHCRFT, her bestie and frequent b2b partner as Madness Of], so that was really cool. I was there for three weeks, I’ve never travelled alone by myself for that long. I'm really happy I got to play at Renate. That was the first club I ever went to in Berlin, when I was like 19 or something. I remember being blown away by the architecture of the clubs there, and everything there was just amazing and it inspired so much of what I’m doing now. So it felt full circle to go back and play Renate’s big room and close it out. I was so happy I was giddy, like a little kid. It was brilliant to meet different people into the same things you're into from around the world. I feel like when you get older it's harder to make friends as an adult, but no matter where you go, because you have these scenes across the world, it's easier to connect with people who are on your level. So it was really great.

A lot of techno artists do the Berlin move at some point. Could you see yourself living there?

It’s an interesting question. Other artists there have talked to me about that because there's so much more infrastructure there for artists in terms of rents or grant-giving across different countries. Even with the scene here, whoever headlines here or gets the bigger gigs, it’s sort of based on your worth in Europe. I guess I never wanted to do it because I just love New York. I was born and raised here and it's my home and I love everything about it except how expensive it is. But after this trip — and this was the first trip where I actually had real friends to hang out with — I would consider it for a little while, maybe for a year or two, I think it would be great. Even if I don't get to live there, I would like to go more often than once a year just for my mental health. I think it makes me appreciate the New York scene more and I think they [Berlin and New York] go together so well. They have a lot of the traditional techno vibes there and how people club there, I think it’s really beautiful. No one's on their phones on the dancefloor and people are more quiet and take it a little more seriously. But then there’s a lot more diversity here…but people don’t know how to dance well, they’re bumping into each other [laughs]. The energy is different here and people are sort of learning the scene and what it’s going to look like…it feels more like a renaissance here. There are no door policies [here] yet. So I love different things about both places.

Read this next: How the fall of the Berlin Wall forged an anarchic techno scene

How old were you when you started DJing?

I think I was around 20, I was going to EDM raves at the time. I was always dancing about, I was a ballet dancer. At one point I was a hip hop dancer. So I was coming to music through just loving to dance. Any space that allowed for that was kind of where I went. I was going to a lot of Lower East Side clubs, EDM raves, a little bit of techno…I had my fake ID so that was going on through college. I found techno when I was around 20-21. The whole scene was just better. It was more fulfilling, more people were dancing and I wasn't getting harassed as a woman in these places as much. It [harassment] happens everywhere, but I just felt I could be more vulnerable. And I was able to go out alone and felt safe. Around that time, in 2018, I got a little controller and Newtown Radio used to have a program called Hone Social. They had free workshops, like one-on-one workshops with DJs. DJ Masha was actually one of the teachers. A lot of current New York DJs came out of that program, Kourtney was doing it at that time, Anthony [WTCHCRFT] was also doing it and we knew each other as teenagers, but that's how we reconnected, we just met up there. So I would start practicing at home and that’s kind of the genesis of it all.

What kind of music were you into when you were just starting out?

In the beginning it was more based on what was happening in Berlin, and I was into European minimal techno and Christian Morgensen and bigger mainstream techno artists. I don't dislike the music, I just think the scenes around it kind of suck, same thing with EDM, and even [American] dubstep — I like that music, but the scene around it is just not for me. The scene I'm a part of, the community, that's the biggest thing for me.

I was into a lot of house music as well. I remember some of the local DJs at the time, I was really into Dee Diggs, just a huge of hers at the time and now I’m like, I can't believe I’m in the same circle as her and we're cool now, and friends now. Over time and with just digging and digging and digging — because I would just be at my office job and sit there and not work and just go down rabbit holes of music — my taste kind of got harder, especially during the pandemic. You’re wanting something to just kind of hit you and spice it up. So it definitely transitioned from like, knowing nothing and starting with the biggest tracks and artists possible and it kind of got more underground from there.

Read this next: Harder, better, faster, stronger: Has dance music got harder and faster?

Did you have many DJ gigs prior to the pandemic?

No, in fact, my first gig ever was going to be March 17, 2020. I was going to be on a line-up at H0LO and Anthony [WTCHCRFT] curated the party. He was calling me like, everything's shutting down and I was like, fuck COVID, like I don't understand what you're saying. We have to do this. And everything just shut down. So I didn't have my first gig until after the pandemic — it's actually really funny admitting that — but the lockdown was also the perfect time to learn and practice.

Everything happened so quickly, because everything shut down and I was incredibly sad because I like dancing so much. I was really miserable. I had been going through so much and I was using dancefloors as sort of an escape at that point. I had a very tumultuous life right before the pandemic and I was going out to Bossa like every day, and it was just getting a little bit unhealthy. So everything shut down and I practiced more and put up a lot of mixes during that time, and there was no place to go so I got a lot of people actually listening to my mixes. I had a fan base before I even had my first gig because people were listening — I would post the mix and get like 1000 views, which is crazy to me. Then around the time people got vaccinated and there were house parties, I would pull up to a house party and my mix would be playing! Then I was just kind of playing rooftops until my first proper gig was at Mood Ring the day all the clubs reopened, on June 4, 2021. The line was around the corner and it’s still my best gig ever. The energy was so crazy.

Last year, you played Dweller with WTCHCRFT as Madness Of. What was it like to return to play a solo show this year?

That was incredible. I remember going to Dweller the year before the pandemic when it was at Nowadays and it was amazing. This city, I feel like all the venues having Black artists play…the music's better, the crowds are better, the crowds are so much more diverse. And just seeing more Black people in the crowd…I really care about what my fan base looks like. I want more women to feel comfortable and I want more Black people and people of colour to feel comfortable going to techno [events] because there have been so many times where I'm the only Black woman in the audience. And so I’m eternally grateful that I got to do Dweller and that I was asked to be a part of that movement and am recognised as part of that movement. I think what's bubbling in New York is so important and intensely beautiful and it's a sound that you don't hear everywhere else. To be recognized as someone contributing to that sound is really meaningful to me.

Where’s your favourite place to play in New York?

Techno is really big here, but I think the scene is still dominated by house music and more fun genres. The only places I feel comfortable to play whatever I want to play are Bossa Nova and Basement, and I think my favourite place is Basement. I'm really grateful they've taken such a supportive role in my career and have been investing in me as an artist from the very beginning. They let me play there so often and trust me to play whatever I want. Basement was a very important club to me pre-pandemic. I was going in those first few months that it opened and I met so many freaks and weirdos and outcasts — like myself at that point. I feel like every time I play it's like a big honour and it's a way of honouring that space. It feels important and so does the energy of the crowd, and people are specifically going there to see some solid techno sets so that’s a big privilege. Every time I get to play there and am behind those decks it feels like home. Also knowing that people aren't going to be on their phones — I don't mind when people take videos of me and stuff, but just knowing that people are going to dance to this set is a beautiful feeling.

I was thinking about how you came to dance music as a dancer, but that you used to dance to all different styles of music. What was it specifically about club music that appealed to you the most?

I think it was a couple of things, like it was the continuousness of it. I think as someone who grew up in like a tumultuous home, I kind of understand people that have trauma and I’ve worked with people who have trauma; I've worked with a lot vulnerable people and youths, and continuousness and consistency and routine is so important for getting out of that trauma and not being retriggered. So there's safety in the music because you feel in your body when the drop is going to happen. It’s very predictable and I feel like people who are vulnerable need predictability, and I think the rave, even though for some people it can come off as crazy, it also comes off as very comforting, like you're wearing the same sort of 'fit. I still wear the same jeans and T-shirts, it's like my uniform when I go out. And even if the DJs change, the music is still the same. There’s this comfort in the music. Also, since it's so rhythmic, it's so wonderful to dance to. Then also coming from this background and dealing with vulnerable people, having a space where you feel like there isn't this pressure to do or be anything…there are so many options at the rave if you don't want to dance. You can sit outside. If you don't want to talk to anybody, you don't have to talk to anybody. There was just so much comfort that I didn't feel in any other scene. And I think a lot of it has to do with this type of music and the tracks rolling into one another.

You mentioned that you were using clubbing as escapism before the pandemic. Do you feel comfortable expanding on that?

Yeah, I think DJing saved me in a way because I love the rave and I loved that feeling of comfort. I'm not ignoring the fact that this comfort can easily turn into something bad for a lot of people because there's lots of drug use and staying up late and alcohol use. Pre-pandemic, I was addicted to that comfort. I felt like I was living two lives. I had my day job and was working in the sciences, in public health and doing research. But I was waiting to be who I thought was my true self all day. Almost every night I was going to some party, and even if I wasn't I was waiting for Friday or Saturday when I could. I didn't necessarily have any drug issues, thankfully, but it was this addiction to being around people who didn't know who I was. I was addicted to talking to strangers, it was my favourite thing and I have this big love of humanity. A big part of that scene is being around humans of all different backgrounds and that just works well with my personality. But I lost sight of why I was going out, to the point where I didn't really know why I was there and I was searching for something, but I didn't really know what it was and I wasn't really finding it.

When I started DJing after the pandemic, I remembered why I went out in the first place and it was to dance, it was to create beautiful moments. And it was for the love of the music. DJing helped me turn something that was becoming unhealthy into something that was healthier, because now I kind of view myself as someone who has to guide the party. I take that very seriously with my DJing, it's more than just the music for me. I'm here to show people what it looks like to rave in a way that is positive. My public health background kind of moulds into this. It's about finding a healthy way to fit this into people's lives and it's not like an escapist journey anymore. When I go out it has such intentionality and my DJ sets are very intentional. Now, if I don’t feel good, I don't go out.

Whereas before it was more like, I just have to go out?

Yeah, now it’s like, if I don't feel I can bring a positive energy or if I can't accept the people around me then there's no reason for me to be there. Same with DJing, it doesn't start with the set for me. It starts before the set and it's after the set too. With most sets now, I have an intention. Sometimes it's about looking at the crowd and seeing what they're feeling, sometimes it's like, don't look at the crowd and see how you're feeling today. Or it’s like, play these five tracks and no matter where this is going, you want these five songs to tell the story. Or maybe the last track is what the set is kind of curated around. But it starts at home in my head and I'm trying to get myself in a good space. Then I try to go to the party before my set, I want to talk to the dancefloor, I want people to get ready, not just for my set but for their night, and I want to be this positive influence on people. Then playing the show, of course, is very important. Then after the show and just being part of the rave - I'm a raver first but I get to DJ now and to be a little bit more in the spotlight. My Mom always used to say, when she’d clean up she’d say, well, it's not perfect but it's better than it was before. So that’s how I think about the rave and me being in this position. I want to leave things better than I found them. And that's how I feel about the spaces I take up. I want to do good for the rave and do good for the party.

Read this next: WTCHCRFT's vocal-driven techno will put you under a spell

I know you’ve been dipping your toe into production lately. How’s it going?

I've been having more fun than I thought I was going to have with it because I think there was a huge pressure for me to produce which made me not want to do it. People are like, 'when are you going to produce and when are you putting something out?' There’s this pressure on DJs, especially if you're moving up. But now that I've dabbled in it, I really like it. I like learning new things. I remember when I first started DJing how frustrated I was when you’re just sitting there for hours and not able to get it. But that type of frustration when you learn something new is really fun and I’m kind of in that place right now. I don't really know where it's gonna go, and that’s exciting. When I first started DJing, I didn't think any of this was going to happen. I just wanted to play a couple of shows and I didn’t know where it was going to go, I just knew I was having fun. And here we are, and that’s kind of how I see the production thing. Like, let's have fun and let's see what happens.

Can you see yourself doing this - the electronic music thing — for the long haul?

I mean, I think I always want to be part of the scene in some capacity. And I'm really open for it to change, and as long as the scene will have me I'll be here. I do think I want that service work to come back into play as I get older. Whether that's doing workshops with young people in regards to music, or lectures or panel discussions…I have this trauma and I have what I call my trauma-informed approach to raving. We need to treat people with sensitivity, with kindness and respect, and you're dealing with traumatised individuals. So you're trying to alleviate that as much as possible. I love touring and I love playing shows and I want to keep doing that, but I would like to incorporate giving back to the community as I get older. I think that would be the most fulfilling way to wrap this up.

Any final thoughts?

I feel like the hard techno scene — even though I love it and it has captured me — I feel like the scene has always been about being cool and it’s about stoicism, and when I started DJing, I wanted to bring sensitivity and joy to it. You see people dancing to house music and fun music and they're smiling and happy and blissful. I wanted to bring that energy but play the music I like, which is a little scarier [laughs]. If I had like a goal for all of this it was to bring happiness to something that I think traditionally has this air of mystery and mystique. That was a big thing because I'm a pretty bubbly person. People come and talk to me after my sets and they’re like, 'oh, I didn’t think you would be like this'. And I’m like yeah, you can be both, you can play this music and still be happy.

How would you describe this Impact mix?

I wrote a poem to describe it. It’s all about the kick, the drive.

We are drum people

So when you see me

Roused and moved on the dancefloor

Spine bent and snapped

Discarding woes

Do not interrupt or imprint

Because I came for the kick

KYRUH is closing Basement’s main room for the first time on June 23, on a bill that includes LYDO, DAIYAH, Massimiliano Pagliara, Tama Sumo and Lakuti

Annabel Ross is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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