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Heartbeat-matching: Ruby Savage’s uninhibited DJ sets will make you feel alive

Safi Bugel talks to NTS resident and "babe of all trades" Ruby Savage, who's dedicated to championing good vibes across dancefloors and the wider music industry

  • Words: Safi Bugel | Photography: Jake Denton & Marina Jakob
  • 21 September 2021

Ruby Savage always champions good vibes. Whether it’s through her body-contorting DJ sets or her commitment to making the dancefloor and creative industry a safer space, fun and comfort are at the centre.

Inspired by her mum’s record collection as a child, Ruby quickly developed a keen interest in music growing up in Amsterdam. She couldn’t go to sleep without the soothing sounds of Aretha Franklin or the Supremes blasting from the living room for her to hear. Unsurprisingly, then, music has played a major part in her life since. She’s channelled this passion through spinning tunes, working for record labels and founding Don’t Be a Creep — an initiative that aims to educate people on boundaries and creepy behaviour in the club.

Read this next: What to do if you get sexually harassed in a nightclub

Though most may know her as a selector, Ruby always saw herself as more of a dancefloor person. A new city and several years later, she began establishing herself as a radio host in the UK and further afield with her slot on Worldwide FM.

Now based in Margate, she hosts In Flames on NTS with her friend and fellow creative Jacc Artist, where they dive into the weird and wonderful depths of post-punk, funk, dub and proto-house. The connection to the music they play stretches beyond a penchant for the sound: they’re also inspired by the formidable women who dominated these genres— ESG, Bush Tetras, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Maximum Joy, etcetera — and the DIY spirit embedded throughout it all.

Like her musical ancestors, Ruby refuses to be kept in a box. And rightly so: as a touring DJ, radio host, campaigner and artist with a cross-genre output, she is indeed a self-proclaimed “babe of all trades.”

You grew up in Amsterdam before moving to London. How do the respective music scenes compare?

Growing up in Amsterdam was really amazing because you had all the big artists coming through in fairly small venues so you could see everyone each summer; I was like a hip hop kid, dancehall, reggae, etcetera. And it was super safe to go out: I could go out by myself, with friends, from the age of 14 or 15. I loved that and got a real good introduction to nightlife. But it was really divided, genre-wise. And I guess that created a bit of a racial divide. If you were into hip hop and reggae, that was your identity and you didn't cross over. That’s what made it so interesting when I came to London. I’m mixed, my identity is mixed, so I’ve never fit in anywhere. I kind of fit in everywhere, but not quite, and I found that was represented in music in London.

I knew about the London music scene before I got here and I'd come down to visit. I went to Notting Hill Carnival obviously, but then a friend of mine said “You need to check out this club called Plastic People!” Once I checked that out, I was like: it's done! At 23, I came and did my masters here and was straight away right into the music scene. It was the Plastic People heyday and styles got mixed up. People went out to dance… to really, really dance. It just massively influenced me.

I can’t speak for Amsterdam now because I’ve been away for so long but what I found was a huge difference between the two cities at the time was that, in London, I was suddenly in this environment, dancing with people who didn't just want to hear tunes they knew, they wanted to be surprised, like “Oh my god, what is this tune?!” That still inspires me. I guess I get bored pretty easily and if the goal is to make people dance to stuff that they might not know, that's just so dope. That for me was like really London.

You play a wealth of different genres across your live sets and radio shows. What sounds do you find most interesting?

I love music that has stood the test of time, like music that was made in the ‘80s and is still fresh. I find that extremely exciting. But there's new tunes that come out that are amazing too, I’m not anti-playing new music. I actually really, really enjoy it.

I like to mix it up as well. Like what I was saying about Plastic People, that inspired me so much because you could mix it up and that fits me, that makes sense to me. It’s not always the easiest way to DJ because it’s always a bit of a gamble with where it's gonna go but once you hit that sweet spot, it’s like magic to me. I guess it’s about being in the moment.

Read this next: 10 venues where genres were invented

You run your NTS radio show In Flames with your friend Josephine, aka Jacc Artist. What’s your approach to curating a show together?

Yeah, we're homies! I love to collaborate; it's really exciting because you never know what you're gonna get. We were doing In Flames at home before we did it on the radio because it just wasn't music we were hearing out in the club and at home we could just completely let loose. We were just contorting at home to these wild sounds, so we just continued with that! It’s definitely become a bit of a “I wanna surprise Josephine with this!” situation; we definitely like to surprise each other. She always blows my head off with her selections, they’re so sick, and I hope to do the same to her. It’s definitely the synergy that makes it exciting because we're actually just sparring with each other and its like: ah, let’s see how hot we can get this!

Despite the secret weapons, do you discuss what you're gonna play before?

In the beginning, radio was a lot newer to us. But now we just fully trust each other. We’ll just let it flow. I really love where it’s got with that. One of the rules is that there is no rules, it’s just supposed to be fun. We inherently understand the ethos and the sound we're putting out so whatever we do is gonna make sense, it doesn't matter. I think another element of it is that we're really just letting it be what it is and not trying to make this perfect show. It’s gotta be loose and a bit wild.

Read this next: An oral history of NTS Radio

The music you play— a mix of post-punk, dub, funk, leftfield disco— seems to lend itself well to that kind of approach. There’s not loads of room for beat-matching, which in itself can be quite restrictive.

How I would see it is: we're not beat-matching, we're heartbeat-matching. Heartbeats go up and down in tempo all the time; it’s the same with music. And that’s not just in In Flames, that's in all my sets. It's gotta be, because if you're steady it's like: what, are we in a coma?! I meditate a lot and that’s where I try to get my heartbeat to a certain level so I can chill out. But for a dance, you want it to be alive, you want to feel everything. So yeah, its definitely a heartbeat match.

You mentioned you loved collaborating— what does community and togetherness mean to you and how does it inform your practice?

Oh my god, it's eeeeverything to me! Like I said earlier, I grew up mixed race in Amsterdam and I guess didn't really fit in anywhere. For me, that's what the dancefloor opened up. There was so much space: a different kind of community that wasn't necessarily based on race, class or sexuality. It was based on heartbeat, you know? And then it connected me to my musical ancestors, because the music that was being played was mixed. I've always seen clubbing, nightlife, the music scene as a community because it's where I made my friends, where I made sense of the world, where I could release, where I get inspired. I really see it as a community that we're all part of. It's super important and my aim is also to keep nurturing it and make it better and more inclusive and supportive for one another.

With a background in both art and music, do your two crafts influence each other?

I did art direction and creative direction for record sleeves for a good part of my career and I studied set design, but I'm not doing a visual art practice at the moment.

But I think I always dance between the two. Music inspires visual for me, and usually visual inspires sound. There's definitely that synergy and I do hope that I can combine that into my practice as a DJ or as an artist. There's definitely underlying themes in both. For me, the theme is uplifting the culture. When I say that, I talk about Black culture, mixed culture, independent culture, independent minds. I think another theme that is really strong for me, and something that I'm exploring, is this concept of music as a healer in the wider sense. I think the obvious space is sound healing and New Age music but what I experienced on dancefloors was really music as a healer in the sense that it was a space where I could find bits of myself, release, shake the juju off, feel inspired, meet and connect with people. So there's definitely also that element. In my art, with everything I do, the thread does seem to be collaborating and creating those communities and connections. And supporting marginalised people, ultimately. Mainstream: there’s enough of that!

A few years ago you set up Don’t Be A Creep— what prompted the project and what do you want to achieve with it?

Don't Be A Creep kinda began as I was starting to DJ more. When I’m DJing, I’m also watching the dancefloor, seeing what's going on. I’m like: I’m here trying to get people to have a good time, these creeps are fucking it up! There's this amazing song by the Bush Tetras called 'Too Many Creeps’, it’s definitely inspired by that! I just made a bunch of T-shirts. I was just making a statement but I also wanted to start a conversation. I didn't want to just cancel people out. Obviously it’s part of a much wider societal issue and not just in music and nightlife but that’s where we're trying to just raise the conversation, to get people to check themselves and each other for creepy behaviour. It’s very personal: everyone has their own levels and it’s about that. It's about respecting people and their boundaries. Hopefully, it'll make dancefloors safe for everyone to enjoy. We've got big dreams!

We do see ourselves as a tiny part in a much bigger conversation that's happening and there's so many incredible players— initiatives, organisations, individuals— that are working in this area. Hopefully as we all are moving forward, we'll see change happen. For me, the goal is just giving a general sense of what's ok behaviour in nightlife. We work with clubs, promoters and festivals and create bespoke campaigns to raise the awareness among not just the partiers that come to their events, but also amongst security, venue managers — seeing it, again, as a community where everybody involved is a part of it. We wanna put the responsibility with individuals, so we are all responsible for this space— music and nightlife— that we love and need. And together we can actually make this a great space for everyone. That’s the dream goal.

Read this next: Nightclubs need to do more to protect women

Have you noticed any changes in the industry since you started it up?

I guess there is more space for dialogue, especially after the 2020 uprising across the globe. People realised we can't just ignore, brush it off or pretend it’s fine when you know it's not. Now, these conversations need to be had and something needs to be done. So it’s pushed for more action, but it’s gonna take a long time. But I’m cool with that. I mean, Angela Davis— I quote her all the time on this because she changed my life saying it: look, the change we wish and know is needed, that we're fighting for, is something we probably won't see in our lifetime. However, if we don't do what we can do right now, we're not taking the steps towards it. We're just a little step in the bigger picture. We're just doing our best to keep it moving forward.

You more recently set up the Artist Recovery Club, can you tell us more about that?

Artist Recovery Club was actually based on this book called the Artists' Way by Julia Cameron, a 12-week course in creative recovery. I did that book seven years ago and it’s kind of what made me pursue DJing more seriously. It’s like a huge part of how I pushed myself back into it because what the course does, and what the club does, is finding what actually gives you the most joy and creating time for doing that. When I started Artist Recovery Club, it was during the pandemic lockdown and I was very depressed that I couldn’t DJ because I had nowhere where I could be creative and play and that’s a really big part of anyone's joy. So I was reaching out to the book again. I dipped in and out, and was like: woah, this is powerful. So many people have the book and haven't done it so I was like: let’s do it as a group. I then realised, very quickly, that a lot of people were really craving this concept of creative recovery and finding what it is that gives them joy and finding the confidence and audacity to do it— which is all part of the course.

I’ve just promoted it through my network and it's been incredible with the people who have joined the course. I’m about to start the third round. Whether you're an artist, a creative, working in a creative industry or just interested in culture, it doesn't matter. Everyone is creative, ultimately. Shit, 2020 showed us! We're all creative— we had to be to survive, right?! So it very much spread from there and has brought incredible people into a space where we can support each others' growth. It’s very much about the fact we all have our own dreams but we can support each other in them and encourage each other.

Read this next: 4 artists share their tips for managing your mental health

What's the importance of looking after yourself and your peers as an artist?

Well, it’s essential. Even if it’s just for your own benefit, you will become a better artist if you are supportive of the artists around you. It amplifies what you're doing. You are literally tapping into a wider network. It’s limiting to think that you know everything: everything you need to do you, you have inside, but when you start connecting the dots, it just amplifies it.

I would say it’s a beautiful experience. Being an artist or a creative can be super isolating and really affect your mental health. The moment you share, you realise: oh, everyone fucking feels alone, blocked, discouraged and insecure. These are very normal feelings to have, especially as a creative. I think there's this idea that we have to be original so we can’t share because it’s like my idea. But actually, that’s not the case because you're gonna be original by default if you are you. And that’s what the course does: it just brings you back to you. From there, you literally become invincible because no one else can do what you do! And from that place, you can collaborate, you can connect. It’s just so powerful and it really, really helps with mental health within that creative space too.

Can you tell me about your Impact mix?

I wanted to make an impact! I guess I was inspired by dancefloors reopening and also Plastic People, you know, you can bring a whole bunch of music together and make it work. It’s inspired by a good old dance but also an uplifting element of energy— I definitely needed a release. I also managed to get a couple of unreleased tracks from old friends in there, so that's fun. One passed away a few years ago unfortunately, but this is like old tapes. It's my dream dance!

In Flames airs monthly on NTS, listen here

Safi Bugel is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

Tracklist:
Physical - Vivian Jones (Jamwax)
Turned Onto You - Eighties Ladies (Expansion)
Free Love - Chalin Bijou (unreleased)
At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up) - Rufus & Chaka Khan (ABC)
That’s Nice, Gimme A Couple More - Beat Per Bar (House Hold)
She’s Sexxxy - K.C. Flightt (RCA)
Break Free - Joaquin Joe Claussell (Raw Tones)
No More Distractions - Amy Dabbs (Lobster Theremin)
Shake - East Coast Love Affair (AOTN)
For Todd - Krewcial (Nervous)
Forever Together - Raven Maize
Bismarck Nite - LeRon Carson (Sound Signature)
Praise To The Vibe - Mr Fingers (Alleviated)

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