“Let your instinct lead the process,” says dancer-turned-producer DJ Karaba
The Montreal-based French Congolese DJ and producer talks about her many influences, her music production process and her favourite gear.
DJ Karaba in her studio. Image: Courtesy of DJ Karaba
DJ Karaba’s route into dance music was not straightforward. The Montreal-based DJ/producer was once a dancer for the likes of Drake, Camilla Cabello and Selena Gomez. She pivoted to becoming a DJ in 2016, then a producer in 2020, with her acute sense of rhythm helping shape a blend of afrobeat, UK funky and house that draws on her Congolese roots.
Her EP Souvenirs, released in August 2023, brings summer to an end in style, boasting four springy dance jams with influences spanning jazz, soul, reggae, and more.
We speak with DJ Karaba about her background and transition from dancer to DJ/producer, her influences from her multicultural heritage on her music, recommended Congolese artists, her music production process and favourite gear.
Coming from a dance background, when did you switch to being a DJ/producer, and how does your dance experience help you as a musician/DJ?
I started pivoting in 2016. I was on tour as a dancer, and that tour was suddenly cancelled. It got me thinking about my plan B after dancing or if I would ever get injured. I sat down with a friend of mine, and we talked about the possibility of becoming a DJ. I enrolled in one semester at the DJ Scratch Academy in Los Angeles to learn the basics. Then, I bought my first controller, the Pioneer DDJ SX20.
I started producing four years later, during the pandemic in 2020. I wanted to make sure I felt very comfortable with DJ skills before starting to produce. That time during the pandemic was the best time to do it because there were no more gigs for DJs. I got introduced to my mentor, Stephen Ramsay (Young Galaxy), and he helped me with everything related to Ableton Live.
I definitely think that being a dancer has helped me with my music and DJ sets. My approach always has one goal: to make people move. So when I create, I always look at the rhythm of things and make sure it makes me want to move. If it does, then I know I’m on the right track.
Your sound is a mashup of different genres. Who inspires you across different music genres that influence your sound?
That’s a great question because that’s exactly what I want people to say about my sound. First of all, being of mixed Congolese/French & Italian heritage has had a huge impact on the music I listened to as a kid. My dad would always play ndombolo, Congolese rumba, soukous, etc. My mom was a huge fan of Motown music (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, etc.). So that alone has shaped the way I look at music, and there is definitely an influence of all those genres in my music. Also, when I was a teenager, I was really inspired by French house with Daft Punk, Cassius, Justice & Bob Sinclar. So I believe my music is inspired by this background of being a music lover of many genres.
Can you recommend artists from your Congolese heritage that music enthusiasts should listen to?
Definitely the two leading Congolese artists I grew up listening to would be Papa Wemba & Koffi Olomide. Also, another one from my generation is Fally Ipupa. I would also recommend this specific album called Racines by the group Bisso Na Bisso. This album is a masterpiece and was released in 1999, but I still go back to it.
Any recent track that’s been a hit with your fans?
Yewena by Afro Exotiq. No lyrics, just straight amazing production skills and an insane groove.
Where and when do you find inspiration for creating music?
I mostly make my music in my home studio in Los Angeles. I’d say I am most inspired when I’m in a mood, to be honest – most likely annoyed by something or someone or when I feel super vulnerable.
How does percussion factor into your music?
I believe it’s the essence of my music. I always start my production with percussion because, for me, I’ve got to have a groove before anything else. So percussion plays a huge role in my music. It’s definitely the leading element.
What’s your top production advice?
Don’t go into a production session with too much expectation. For me, I don’t want to restrain myself, and because I’m such a music lover of all genres, I prefer to lead the process with a feeling or emotion. Therefore, I just ask myself, “How do I feel today and how can I translate that into music?” From that point, I think that’s when you get the best results because you really let your instinct lead the process – that’s what music is all about.
Liking what you’re hearing? Keep up to date with all things DJ Karaba via djkaraba.com.
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