South African storytelling: Stay-C is exploring unique angles in drum 'n' bass
Aneesa Ahmed talks to Stay-C about South Africa's drum 'n' bass scene, sneaking backstage to give her tracks to London Elektricity, and winning Hospital Records' mentorship programme
Keen to bring the sound of South Africa to the global drum ‘n’ bass community, Johannesburg-based artist Stay-C, real name René King, has been successfully catching worldwide attention thanks to the versatility, experimentation and spirit flowing through her music.
René is classically trained in piano and guitar and started out making beats aged 12 on tech owned by her musical dad. He helped inspire her route into music, alongside her home nation and the South African house beats that were popular at the time she was growing up.
In 2019, Stay-C started her own drum 'n' bass events company, Onyx, with the tagline "for the outliers”. She wants people to feel most themselves in the presence of drum ‘n’ bass and describes drum ‘n’ bass parties and events as her form of church.
She’s been making drum ‘n’ bass music for around six years and constantly takes it upon herself to learn, improve and test her own limits. Her eclectic taste makes her mixes varied and enjoyable, as she takes listeners on a journey via a structured narrative.
Her musical inspirations include artists like Tom Misch and FKJ ("That one man band thing is incredible!"), and dating back to her earliest production experiments, she's always looking to find unique angles on the drum 'n' bass sound. "When I first started making drum ‘n’ bass, I didn't really I didn't really start trying to emulate anybody, which I think was beneficial," she says. As she's get more involved in the scene, cues from greats of the d'n'b sphere such as Break, Noisia, Halogenix, Hyroglifics and S.P.Y. are incorporated into her diverse output, which oscillates between the momentous sound of Hospital Records acts like Netsky and the grittier approach of labels like Critical.
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Her grit and hard work has not gone unnoticed as Stay-C became the first producer chosen for Hospital Records Women In Drum & Bass Mentorship scheme in 2020 and has spent the past year being taught the best tricks in the game from the likes of Whiney, Nu:Tone, and Chris Marigold.
Inspired by both drum ‘n’ bass global legends and South African icons such as Black Coffee, she is now ready to start making her own major strides in the industry. René's achievements are the result of years of tenacity, endless hours in the studio, and an unfiltered love for a diverse collection of music. Having released twice on one of the scene's most notable labels in the space of a few months, she’s making her younger self proud.
In the last few months of 2021 she’s released a gritty yet groovy remix of Nu: Logic’s 'New Technique', a project that she is very proud of due to its subtle confidence, and her own tune 'Russian Doll', a high-sonic, vivacious track that put her name firmly on the international drum ‘n’ bass roster.
René talks us through the South African music scene, her events company Onyx, sneaking backstage to give her tracks to London Elektricity, her complex relationship with social media and mental wellbeing, and how she’s ready to bring a flavour of South Africa to the global drum ‘n’ bass community. Check out her Impact mix and Q&A below.
How did you get into music and drum ‘n’ bass in particular, when did this process start?
I first started going to drum ‘n’ bass events when I was about 19 with my boyfriend and his older sister as they were into drum ‘n’ bass, and so they brought me along to some parties and I was like “what is this music!” and I fell in love straight away. I started making it after going to a couple of events. I've actually been producing music since I was 12 but just in a fun way - like I just had the software on my computer and I would just make house beats, trance, hip hop and basically whatever I could cook up at the time, but it wasn't technically very good. But I have had a lot of creativity from playing guitar or piano pretty much since I was a child, so that musical creativity made me play around and make beats from age 12. Eventually drum ‘n’ bass just had such a grip on me I would start making beats in my mind and I started making tracks properly around 2015.
So you made a lot of trap, trance and hip hop beats before you realised drum ‘n’ bass was your thing. What’s the thing that made you switch and made you realise this?
It's actually very strange because I studied classical piano and then I did jazz guitar. but somehow my ears somewhat had a liking for dissonance; maybe it's because of some of the South African genres like kwaito or house which are big here in South Africa, they are a bit more electronic sounding, and my parents kind of grew up doing business in that music. I had a lot of exposure to that, so my ears somehow prepped for, on the one hand, the more consonant sounds from liquid drum 'n' bass, but also the more dissonant sounds of the rollers from more techie drum 'n' bass.
Were any of your family members musical or was music making an independently discovered love - how did that drive to make sounds and music come about?
For me my big inspiration is my dad, I actually don't know anybody more musical than my dad. He grew up in Zimbabwe quite poor, he made his own guitar and he made his own musical instruments and learned to play by ear from a young age. He was just born with music in his bones. I grew up with music being around me all the time, and he actually bought the software I started making beats on, Cakewalk — back then it must have been the Sonar 5 edition! He had it on the table and I just grabbed it and put it on my own machine, I was like “I'm taking this” and then I taught myself how to use the programme and became familiar with making music, so I really owe it to my dad — to blame and to thank!
Did you also play with him back then, was it a social activity for the two of you? Do you still bond over music?
Very much so, I think he really pushed me in terms of getting my grade eight on piano and completing that. and it was very motivating. but he's also been just so supportive of the direction with drum ‘n’ bass. About a year ago I started to show my parents my music and they watched me on the Hospitality On The Beach stream and now they’re genuinely huge drum ‘n’ bass fans. They can watch a full 12 hour stream and my mom comes to drum ‘n’ bass parties now — they are in!
Can you tell us more about the drum ‘n’ bass scene in South Africa, is it very close knit? What is the community like over there?
The community here is absolutely amazing! It’s very integrated and close knit. The promoters, the DJs, the partygoers, the producers, everyone really gets along well and there’s a lot of interaction between people. My closest friends are people I met at drum ‘n’ bass parties, there's this full immersion into the community here. You’re listening to drum ‘n’ bass all the time, sharing songs all the time, seeing the same people every single weekend and these are all the people that you then invite to your wedding!
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That’s mad! Here in the UK drum ‘n’ bass is a big deal. How would you describe the scale of the scene in South Africa - is it still quite underground?
I would definitely say quite underground. I wouldn't put it in the top three electronic genres in South Africa, and I would say it's in the top three electronic music genres in the UK right now. It's definitely pretty small compared to London or you know, New Zealand, or something. In Johannesburg, which is definitely where drum ‘n’ bass is the biggest in the country, there is a pool of about maybe 1000 people that would come to an event. That would be if an event was huge and was really sold out. Then more realistically between 500 to 750 people if you had a great event, and then even more realistically under 500 is what you can expect at a really good event. And we have roughly 50 million people here in South Africa so it is definitely still very underground still.
You started your own drum ‘n’ bass events company in South Africa, Onyx, with the tagline “for the outliers”- tell us about that, how did it come about, what are you guys up to now?
It started because I recognized that there was a lack of females in promoting. There were a couple of drum ‘n’ bass parties but not many would be run by females. So as I started going to more parties, I was thinking about what I did and didn’t like about them, beyond just the music. I started realising that I want to do something different. I started planning it out and thinking about how I am going to make a difference. You focus on the artwork and you focus on the line-up curation, but then I figured that I want to create a space where people can come, no matter how “strange” they might feel, or if they go to work and feel like they have to act, a certain way to fit in, but then they can come here and be themselves. As long as you are not hurting anybody or making somebody else's time bad, you are welcome just as you are. That’s why I said “for the outliers”, because I wanted to be that relief. I want people to feel so themselves in this environment and to be able to connect with other people in the same way through music.
I had the first two events, I had Jam Thieves and then Monty performing and that was great. And then I started thinking about doing a home brewer event of having South African DJs , I wanted to give more exposure to them. That was our last event, that would have been February 2020. Obviously the pandemic has made it hard to plan things, we’ve had to book and cancel several times over. But I do want to do something by the end of this year! I’ve been exploring ideas of a different location or a different theme.
Will you continue to try and amplify South African sounds and talent in your upcoming events?
Definitely, definitely, definitely. It would be great to get one of my friends overseas to come and play because we’re huge fans of DJs overseas, but have a strong South African theme!
Who turns up to your events? Are there lots of women present and what’s the vibe like?
We’re so blessed here in South Africa, we live in a diverse nation and we’re very fortunate to have that reflected, even more as time goes on, in the bodies. There’s all ages and races. Good representation of women I think, still slightly more men but I never go and feel uncomfortable because there aren’t many women. I wish people from overseas could experience a South African event, a festival or a party — there's something different about it here.
I know these things are hard to quantify but do you feel a difference when with the music community in your hometown/home country than when you’re abroad?
Yeah, I think size plays a huge part. There’s thousands of people at somewhere like Hospitality In The Park whereas there’s maybe a few hundred at a drum ‘n’ bass stage in a South African festival, where everyone knows each other. Here the DJs will come out to the floor and rave with everyone for other people’s set, and I’m not saying it’s not like that elsewhere but in South Africa we have a proper community feeling to it. The artists here are very good storytellers, it’s not just a jukebox of tunes, I find that to be really unique. People really pull you in with a bit of what they’re about.
Moving on a bit from South Africa, you’re the first person to be part of Hospital Records’ ‘Women in DnB’ mentorship scheme which is crazy, congratulations! What was that process like and what’s the journey been like so far?
Wow, yeah. It’s still crazy when I think about it. It was the highlight of my 2020 for sure. It’s quite crazy because I got the email confirming that I won in November 2019 and I was in Leeds for a work conference. I remember getting the email and reading it and needing to double take it because I was literally shaking. I was like “is this really happening?” — It was an absolute dream come true and I honestly couldn’t even believe it!
The way that I found out about it is because one of my friends, who is also a DJ here in South Africa, sent it to me and was like ‘hey have you seen this opportunity?’. I registered while I was at conference in India, I travel quite a bit for my day job, and I was thinking let me just apply now as I had my laptop open, then a couple of weeks later I got the confirmation. I later heard that there were over 100 applicants, which is crazy. My first thought was actually 'Oh my god, there are over 100 female producers that I don’t know about'; at the time I was living under a rock, I didn’t know many other female producers. But there has been such a big effort which is paying off, through labels such as Hospital and so many others which are doing similar mentorship programmes, and it’s all come such a long way. I can’t even open Instagram without seeing a new release by a female producer and it makes me so happy! I’ve been on such a journey of discovery and I absolutely love seeing other female producers make great work.
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Has being in this female and women led mentorship program introduced you to other women in the business and have you made any friends this way or formed a community?
I think being a part of the programme has made me more sensitive towards thinking about diversity and its impact on music. I actually had a session with Chris Marigold, founder of Blu Mar Ten, who was head of bookings and was part of the mentorship and he really made me think about why diversity is important. Some of them were really obvious, such as the ethical implication and the fact that it is super boring to see the same thing all the time. But with diverse inputs you expect diverse outputs, such as if someone comes from a different country they bring something new to the scene. We see this with IYRE who is the Sri Lankan drum ‘n’ bass guy who is popping up and uses Sri Lankan influence and instruments, so it’s exciting because if you come from somewhere different you bring something different to the scene. If you have all the same races from the same region, songs generally are going to sound the same, so we want to diversify the input. I’ve managed to see this first hand with the community of female drum ‘n’ bass producers here.
That’s a really interesting point about diversifying input. How did you curate your own sound over time? I know you said you draw inspiration from a lot of places so how did you combine the jungle elements with the liquid elements to make the Stay-C sound?
I think that the way I started producing music was a big influencer, it served me well that I didn’t kick off making drum ‘n’ bass using tutorials and that I was comfortable making mistakes and not knowing what I’m doing. This allowed me to get some creative uniqueness, and this combined with my previous musical influences from childhood and my classical and jazz backgrounds. Generally having that discussion with Chris from Hospital about how I could take things that are unique about me and bring it into the music. Before, when I listened to a track and wanted to make new ones, I started to deviate from the weirdness of my music because I was rejected from labels. I thought that the way to get accepted was to align myself with everyone else and try sounding like everyone else. I was on a path towards trying to emulate others and at that time I was failing.
But through my mentorship I realised that I have to bring my own thing to the game and that even if I make 10 bad tunes, maybe one will be perfect. And rather than thinking too technically about how to go about making a track, I now think to myself 'does this track make me feel something and does it sound unique?', and that is how I’ve progressed when making music. The Hospital Records mentorship has really helped me reach this point.
What does your music making process entail in terms of tech - are you more of a hardware person or a software person?
I’m definitely within the software box, but that’s changing! I’m starting to buy new external synths and bring them in; right now I’m using external synths mainly for bassline. I’m always changing my process. I used to stick to a very standard way, drums and then bass and then instruments - it was very standard. I realised that my songs were starting to sound the same so now I love to mix things up. Whether I choose a different plug-in, right now I’m loving Phase Plant, I just want to see if for a few months at a time I can create something cool. Every time I start a tune I now start with a different part [of the track], so I’m constantly making myself not comfortable and can be dynamic in my approach. This leads to a lot of versatility in tracks and maybe isn’t the best approach if you’re trying to create a very specific sound, but I’m not trying to do that! I’m just making music that I want to play. I try to keep it versatile.
What inspired the shift from software to now experimenting with hardware?
I think because I know hardware, especially if you have a lot of analogue equipment, has a lot of a weightier and warmer sound and generally requires far less processing — you can get something really good with much less effort sometimes. Sometimes you’re processing so much and over processing can be a problem. I can be quite tactile and I’ve realised fiddling with knobs is more attractive to me than clicking.
Is your music making process very independent, do you often ask for a second opinion?
Oh my god, it is very independent! But this is something that I am trying to change. I guess I’m a bit of a lone ranger in life, I’m always doing my own thing in general. I was thinking about this the other day, I need to collaborate with people more! The only way I’ve really collaborated is if I give input in someone’s track and they want to acknowledge me, but I’m not good at exchanging the files. So I do have work to do, but if someone would like to educate me, hit me up!
I think it’s cool though that you know yourself and you know how you want something to sound. When you make music, do you know how you want something to sound before you’re making it or is that a decision that comes as you’re making it?
That’s a very good question because I’ve actually been working on this tune this week and I started it and I was like ‘how did this track come to be?’, and this track came with 70% of an idea and 30% raw experimentation. So 70% of the time I have a melody in my head and I take notes and record clips on my phone and I think about it while I’m driving along. When I get home I’ll lay something down. That’s generally how I go about making tunes, when I do that the results are more often than not pleasing. When I do have a start from nothing approach, sometimes it is something cool, but then you really do have to be comfortable with the fact that this may not be a tune you release, but it could just be part of a mix or a technique you’re learning.
You’re a huge advocate of mental wellbeing on Instagram; has music and music-making helped you and your journey with your own mental wellbeing and self-care?
Definitely. Although I think it can be quite a tricky one. With social media now the relationship with art can be affected. In a very organic way you're feeling a certain thing, let’s say you’re feeling down or upset about something in your life, you do the thing that comes most naturally to you, it could be painting or could be making music - and objectively that is very therapeutic. But now, there are so many other influences in one success and a lot of it comes to this portrayal of ourselves online. That can be a big influence in our success, obviously, along with the music itself, but now social media is playing a role. That can be a source of negativity and have a negative impact on mental health because of the comparison and wondering why this person is here and you’re not etcetera. If you’re someone who doesn't like putting yourself out there then it can be a hindrance.
Music can be a great source of help in terms of what happens in my life and having an outlet, but the social media side can threaten that. Music is an expression of who you are — any art form is your heart in a creative product. And now it’s put out there for reaction and it’s being compared to other people’s creative product in such a concentrated way. I think it is a real life skill to be able to separate that from your love and passion for music.
I think retaining a perspective of what is real is definitely a continuous challenge. That's part of why I tried to be really frank about the highs and lows. I try to post when I’m down and feeling low, because there’s not enough exposure of what life can be like when you’re having the downs because it’s not always sunshine and daisies! I want to contribute some realness to the fact that sometimes we don't always have to be good.
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And I admire the realness! On your Hospital Records Podcast episode you’ve spoken about feeling some real lows in the quarantine and drum ‘n’ bass helping you get through - what is your relationship like with music and media consumption, has it changed due to the lack of parties and in-person socialisation in the quarantine?
That’s a really good question. The effect of not having the social interactions at the parties and festivals for me was really massive. I know it sounds crazy, but those places - that is my form of church. Those spaces are almost spiritual for me; that's where I meet people from different walks of life, that's where I learned to empathize, that's where I learned that actually there's so many different ways that you can be and show up. It’s beautiful. For me, not having that, wow, I had to search deep to find other things that could bring me joy because that brought so much of it for me before.
With social media, there were definitely times in the last few months where use became excessive because of this longing to connect - if you can’t connect in person you end up looking online. And it’s great because I’ve now met friends from all over the world just because of a shared passion of music, and through social media hey listen to my music and I listen to theirs and we like it. So that's incredible - I've made friends all over the world through music, but then, on the other hand, there's that comparison and all of these other things that come with it. I’m trying to increase my self-awareness and tap in when using social media, and maybe take a day break if I need it. Breaks are essential and that's what I try to do every now and again, so I can come back with a fresh mind.
Agreed there, breaks are essential. You’ve also spoken on your Hospital Records Podcast episode about sneaking backstage at Hospitality in the Park 2017 where you met London Elektricity - tell us about that story and how you felt at the time, and how you feel in hindsight?
That story is really crazy! So I'd been making drum ‘n’ bass for two years - I thought that my music was now good enough, I was like “yes I’m ready!”. I made some tunes specifically and made a sort of ‘EP’. I burnt them onto discs and I went with five CDs in my backpack to the festival. In retrospect I should have had them on USBs. I was walking around and I gave one to Etherwood, I think I gave one to Fred V, and then eventually I was like “I am going to give one to London Elektricity”.
So we snuck into the back of the festival, I mean we didn't have to pull such deep moves but we got into the back and I gave him a CD and I think he was kind of between things so he didn’t really have time to register what was happening and obviously he was really busy, but he said that he would listen to it. But when I got home, I had one disk remaining so I put it in the computer and it didn’t play, like there was something wrong with the formatting. And my heart was absolutely broken, sometimes there’s just technical difficulties. I couldn't get it to play on anything so it broke my heart that the music wouldn’t have been able to get played by them even if they did take the time to listen to it. In retrospect, it certainly was not good enough then! I guess the biggest value from that was seeing how badly I wanted it and I saw my potential.
What a cool story! You’ve travelled a fair amount with your career and you have a lot of international influences, as evident in your Mixmag mix. Would you say you have any major international influences on your own sound?
It's probably a hybrid of everything if I'm being honest. I remember, for example, when I travelled to India a few years ago with some friends and was at a beach bar and was completely intoxicated by the music that was playing, and yet I didn’t know what genre it was. I tried to find the genre afterwards and still couldn’t find it, and I’m still craving to hear more music like that. And I've been going to so many festivals throughout my life and even some music events overseas - it might be a boring answer but it’s everything!
I’m trying to find more organic ways to bring more South African flavours into my music. I've got some ideas and some things that I'm working on at the moment about how to do that, in a way I’m returning myself so that other people can get a taste of the South African sound. I started off making South African music, with the house and stuff, it had a very South African and gqom sound. And then I deviated a bit when I started making the drum ‘n’ bass which has a slightly more British and Oceania style; now I find myself wanting to merge the two. I want to bring back the South African sound but in an organic way.
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What brought about the idea to bring the South African sound into your music?
I think just this year there’s been so many South African artists who have all been coming up and doing well in drum ‘n’ bass and production wise such as Krispy, Dopplershift and more. Then it just reminded me: I was like wow, not only are our people really talented in drum ‘n’ bass, but we have some great music. Think about people like Black Coffee and other artists who are travelling the world and performing their South African sounds. You know, people who were just making music on a kind of broken laptop are now travelling the world making music. So I’ve been listening to so much more South African music and just appreciating it so much more and thinking about how I can bring some more South African elements into my work. All I’m saying is watch this space!
To finish, tell us about your Mixmag Impact mix - what was going through your mind when you put it together and how do you feel about it?
I wanted to showcase different things: my own music, some classics, some sounds that are popular right now. I try to play versatile sets with a wide range of drum 'n' bass and you’ll be able to hear that, it has some jungle, some liquid, some jump up, and I’ve tried to make it as smooth as possible. I really tried to make it smooth and have that storytelling that I was telling you about - I just want to take everyone listening on a journey. I hope all the listeners enjoy it!
Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter
1 Strata - Stay-C
2 Roundabout - Sl8r
3 Trinity (Skeptical Remix) [ Alix Perez
4 Dub War (Myth Remix) [ Dance Conspiracy
5 Silent (feat. Krak In Dub & Troy Berkley) - Cecil Hotel
6 Datcha (Original Mix) - Namarone
7 Tell Me - Realist
8 Forget The World - En:vy
9 Deep - Simplification & Translate
10 Unpopular - Azifm
11 Dead - Budden
12 Sensory System (feat. LaMeduza) - Kutlo, LaMeduza & Sulex
13 Raised in the Jungle (feat. Haribo) [T>I Remix] - DJ Hybrid
14 Second Encounter - S.P.Y
15 Spez - QZB & Ihr
16 Motion Blur - Noisia
17 Your Loss - Workforce
18 Jazz Tone - Zero T
19 Return To Me - Flava D
20 Why Try (feat. Phoebe Freya) - Mr Joseph
21 Escape - Vektah
22 Diesel - Refracta
23 Hypnosis - Mappo & Adzzy
24 Your Lies - Monrroe
25 Gas Dem - Leks
26 A Living Nightmare - Nick The Lot
27 Your Body - Stay-C
28 Unleaded - Disrupta & J Select
29 A Car That Cranks - Posij
30 Ayo (feat. Redders) [Ivy Lab Remix] - Sam Binga
31 Sleaze - Shades & Ivy Lab
32 Katana (feat. Senso Zentinel) [Teej Remix] - Martial Taktics
33 ABR (Monty Remix) - Cesco
34 Make It Complex - Stay-C
35 Streatham Hill Sizzler (Original Mix) - Dan Structure
36 Playing Games - Profile & Sub Killaz
37 No Good - Whiney
38 Space Junkie - Kyrist
39 Bleach - Stay-C
40 Powertrip - KY
41 Hex - Jammez
42 Badman Nah Beg Fren - Turno
43 Up All Night (Harley D Remix) - John B