Jaguar Skills interview: Full On Mask Hysteria

Jaguar Skills spoke to Marko Kutlesa about the personality associated with his trademark mask, his interest in movie soundtracks and an important formative clubbing experience in fabric.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 26th Oct 2016

Image: Jaguar Skills

The public story of the anonymous figure who is the focus of the following interview begins just after the turn of the millenium when he emerged in 2002 using the alias Jaguar Skills. The son of a radio producer and, in a former incarnation, a music journalist specialising in hip hop and black music, his obsession with b movie martial arts films informed his alias and his ninja logo.

Having been around hip hop music for many years, first as a schoolboy fan, later as a professional within the industry and also a friend to several high profile DJs, his decision to switch to a role behind the decks has reaped benefits.

First there was an invitation to produce a mixtape for fashion label Maharishi, then an invitation to become resident at Jade Jagger's international Jezebel nights. His profile in London was continuously growing as were the number of mixtapes he produced, which displayed a particularly strong personal style, very quick transitions between tracks, the use of acapellas and loops.

After producing 'We Love You' for Lupe Fiasco, Jaguar Skills issued the mixtape 1979-2006: A Hip-Hop Odyssey - 800 Tracks In 45 Minutes on which included each of the genre's key tracks, mixed chronologically. After only a month it had been downloaded over 1,000,000 times and was being championed by BBC Radio in the UK.

He followed this with similar styled efforts including for US labels Def Jam and Nervous Records and their hip hop catalogue, plus in alternate genres such as drum n' bass (for RAM Records), UK garage and house music, including one for Toolroom Knights. Having had some studio experience prior to becoming Jaguar Skills and having used studio standard techniques in his remixing and reconstruction of tracks for mixtapes, Jaguar Skills developed his persona to become a recording artist, particularly over the last half decade. He has released music using or fusing the genres of drum n' bass, hip hop reggae, house and UK bass music.

An incredibly popular, internationally touring club and festival DJ, like the logo he chose long ago, Jaguar Skills adopted the persona of a ninja over a decade ago and is famous for wearing a ninja face mask, obscuring his identity, in his public appearances. 

Prior to Jaguar Skills' upcoming gigs, Marko Kutlesa caught up with him at his home studio. Despite being in the middle of a plumbing crisis, Skills turned out to be a very funny guy. In between calls to and from the emergency plumber there was time to discuss hip hop, b movies, a fundamental rave experience at fabric, Jag's DJ style and masks.

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Alright mate...

Alright. Hold on a minute [pause]. Sorry about the delay. The sewage in my house and studio has just popped and the whole place has just filled up with shit. The whole place. So, I'm calling the guys and I'm expecting a call back from a plumber guy shortly. So, what we're going to do, we'll keep talking, but I've got to take this call, so I'll go and then we'll talk again when I've spoken to him, if that's alright?

I understand. Your dad had a big record collection. Under what circumstances would music be heard in the house? Did he have a music room or was the turntable in the living room? 

He had a record deck in the living room and then he had this big tape machine in his studio, where he would edit stuff on tape using a razor blade and stickers [phone rings]. Oh, here we go. I'm gonna call you back in five.

[a few minutes pass] Have you done with your call?

I have. He's seeing what he can do. I said to him, “Fucking make sure it's today, mate” [laughs] because my house smells like human shit. 

Haha! Going back to the home turntable. Were you and your mum allowed to put records on or was the turntable totally your dad's responsibility?

You know what it was like? He used to do that for his work. Mainly he was the one who would put music on, but he would be checking it for work rather than let's hang out and listen to a tune kind of thing. He was a radio producer so he was listening to loads of different stuff all the time, we didn't really jam out in the house. 

Sometimes when you work in music the last thing you want to do is listen to it in the house in your free time. Your ears get tired.

That's exactly right.

So, when he wasn't working, it was more like a regular household, with the TV on?

More films. Loads of films. I grew up watching loads of films and videos, loads of TV, loads of b movies, a tonne of shit. In fact I wanted to be a film director before anything. I still do, pretty much.

I went to film college and everything like that as well. So, I was a really big film dude, but then music took over when I was in my teenage years. It was like, wait a minute, some of these films have got crazy soundtracks, let me see if my pops has got them. Then I'd check out his tunes and, fuck, he has. Wicked.

What soundtracks did you really like? Which stayed with you?

Bruce Lee, Enter The Dragon, Star Wars. There was a movie called Revenge Of The Ninja, that was great. Rare to find B movie soundtracks on vinyl, Indian movies, weird stuff with funk style tunes.

Where did you get that interest in B movies? Was it also from the home?

I guess it was. My dad was really into UFOs, aliens, stuff like that. He really checked science fiction B movies. This was in the late 80s. Sorry, hold on a second...... Somebody's coming? [“half three”, says a voice in the background] Yeaahh! Fucking yes! 

Yeah, so, I guess picking weird videos out of the video store. I like Star Wars, I like kung fu movies, ninja movies. I liked the remakes of Star Wars movies, the really shitty ones. The music was what got me. A lot of these movies had really amazing tunes.

When you went to study film at college what kind of directors were you introduced to there?

I will still into crap ninja films and B movies. Everyone else was into really dark, brooding, depressive shit at film school and there was me wanting to make a comedy movie. Nobody respected that. I made one anyway, but didn't get in to any film schools afterwards. I was quite anti authoritarian at film school, I don't know if I was gonna stay there for much longer, to be honest.

How did you first encounter hip hop? Was it through the music? Or TV?

It was from school really. A couple of guys at school were into it and so I started to get into it. I was about 12, 13 and I became super obsessed with it. I wanted to collect everything. This was at the time of Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, LL Cool J and Beastie Boys. Especially the Beastie Boys, I loved them.

I wasn't a skateboarding kid but I was in that realm. All of that was really cool to me, skateboarders, graffiti, making skateboarding videos. Where I was from you either got into rock music or hip hop and I was into hip hop. I listened to loads of shit in our house when I was a kid, but it's not like I was really into it, I didn't really know what it was. 

Was it just the music that appealed or were you ever interested in being a b boy, a dancer or doing graffiti?

I was never interested in the dancing, a bit of graffiti but I wasn't really very good at it. It was more the DJing that I liked than MCing or anything else. I really liked that it was based on samples and then you could go and dig for the original records. It was quite cool to play the break and then the tune. I liked that idea of recycling.

Sampling is one strand of hip hop. Turntablism is another. Did you immediately become interested in that, the DJ's manipulation of the music, which is something you do now, or did that come later?

Well I was actually writing about hip hop before I was doing any of this. I was a journalist, writing about records and interviewing people, all kinds of shit and it was only after that I started to really DJ. It was maybe osmosis, maybe me hanging out with certain DJs all the time, judging DJ competitions and getting to the point where I thought, right, I'm gonna practice at this now. 

To what degree does modern technology allow you to do what you do? If you just had vinyl, two Technics decks and a mixer...

Jaguar Skills wouldn't exist, basically. The stuff I can do now on the laptop, using Serato, it's impossible to do with vinyl. It's just changed the game totally. The essential skills are there still, but it's just using a different platform and seeing how far you can push that. Why ride a penny farthing when you can drive a Ferrari?

After you'd discovered hip hop, which clubs or club nights were later more influential in introducing you to more uptempo dance music styles?

fabric. Without a doubt fabric. I was going to clubs before, more hip hop stuff, like The Hop, which was at The End, which was wicked, Scratch in King's Cross, a couple of things in the west end every now and then, Subterrania in Ladbroke Grove was wicked. And then I went to fabric. One of my hip hop DJ buddies went to DJ there. It was like, “Holy shit!” It was a real game changer, man. I was in the DJ booth with my mate, he plays this tune and the reaction to it... I got really high and then he played loads of techno.

I remember going into this other room and it was drum n' bass, maybe Roni Size was playing, and that moment of walking in there, it was just amazing. I was so fucked off my tits, it all came together somehow in an amazing moment. I went upstairs and there was a hip hop DJ on who played a song by the band Madness. The whole night felt like some next level shit. There were all types of people there, it wasn't like it was all hardcore, stone faced b boys. There were all types, it was so cool. 

You're pretty famous...

[laughs]

That's not the end of the question. You're pretty famous for fast transitions and playing a lot of tracks in your mixes. Do you think there's an expectation for you to keep to such stylings when you DJ at events and in clubs?

Interesting. An interesting thought, my friend. The thing is, it wasn't ever a gimmick. I'd seen hip hop DJs do that shit 20 years before. When you DJ hip hop it's fast, you really change the tunes a lot. Reggae DJing you change the tune a lot too. A lot of black music you change the music a lot and that was where I was coming from, a black music environment.

So, when I do electronic music I do it in the same way as I do hip hop. That's what I'm used to. Traditionally you play a house tune for a long time, you blend it in with the next one and it 'takes you on a journey'. I was more like, well, I like that part of that house record and I like that part of that house record, maybe I don't want to play the whole song and I just approached it like that. Hip hop techniques with dance music. 

In terms of do I feel pressure to play tunes for longer or change my shit around sometimes, I don't feel pressure, but sometimes I do it. But, if somebody's paid to come and see me and I go and play an eight minute record? I don't know. I don't know how they would feel about it. 

I ask because it's obviously two different mediums, sitting and listening to a mix which has to engage with your head and dancing in a club where people might want to stay on a groove for a bit longer. Maybe some people enjoy dancing to a groove for a bit longer?

Maybe they do, yeah, maybe they do. 

Also, in the club, as the DJ you have all this adrenaline pumping, maybe pushing you to make fast transitions. How do you weigh it up?

Well, it's sometimes hit and miss, isn't it? Hopefully I can hit most times. Hopefully I can read the crowd to a decent extent not to fuck them up too much. I've thought about this, because you do, and I've come to the conclusion that there's gonna be a DJ on after me that you might like and you might like the guy on before, but right now I'm just gonna do me, man.

I'm not pushing a gimmick, that's just me, that's my style. When it comes down to trying to fit in, to be more like someone else, I try not to be. I just try and play what I think I would like to hear at that time, that's all that you can do.

That's an honest approach.

Yeah it is. And it's the same thing when I make music. I'm into so many different kinds of music it's difficult to know what to put out. My only real requirement is can I play it in a gig? Would I draw for it at a gig? If I would, then I put it out. 

Why did you first decide to wear a mask?

Well I was DJing for years without one but my logo was this ninja. I didn't really think you were supposed to look like your logo. But then I did this gig for Radio 1 and they were like, "Hey man, are you gonna wear your mask?" I was like, "I don't wear a mask" then they said, "But your logo's a ninja, I thought you wore a mask, we thought you'd wear a mask."

They kept suggesting that I just try it. So, I put a mask on and DJ'd, it was a bit weird. Then I did another gig and I thought I'll throw this mask on. And then it was like, "Well, I'll just leave the mask on and really invest in the character." [laughs] 

Are there any particular mask wearers who you'd previously admired, either from music, movies or comic books? 

[laughs] Mask wearers. Of course you've got Spiderman. He's my first port of call. Batman too. I'm really into superheroes. You've got full mask wearers, you've got the ancient Japanese kabuki, who did like a masked dance. You've got warrior masks, African warrior masks are dope and the Japanese samurai ones too. Then, of course, the ninja ones. They're sleek, classic. Jason's mask (from Halloween) is pretty great, it's a hockey mask.

Sporting masks! They're pretty cool too. What other masks are there? DJ masks. This is what you have to realise; you're going to have to wear it all the way through. Maybe you've practised in your room and you can jump up and down for five minutes with it on. But in a room full of people, staring at you, there's a lot of different things that you're going to have to deal with. Three minutes in you might be thinking, "Holy shit, this was a bad idea." Do you take it off? I don't know.

So, it's a lot of endurance. I'm totally used to it now. In fact I can't now do a gig without one, which is weird. I can't look at anyone without the mask on, it's just fucking weird now, I tell you. If you do it for a job it can really freak your brain out.

How has the mask changed over the years in terms of design and materials used?

The shape hasn't really changed that much but the materials have. I'm fortunate enough to know this wicked clothes designer who does my shit for me and he sorts out some great materials. Now I've got this amazing super new material that fits to my face tight and doesn't get wet when I sweat in it. It's breathable too. It's amazing. I'm so happy with my new mask. This is probably version 15 or 16, maybe more.

Apart from the freedom of anonymity it gives, it also gives you the freedom to adopt a different personality. How different is your personality when you wear the mask compared to when you don't?

Very different. 

How so?

I guess Jaguar Skills... [laughs] It's weird talking about something you do in the third person. That sort of makes me sound mad. Jaguar Skills is like.... Jaguar Skills is a fucking ninja DJ [laughs]. It's very much like he's going to go to your dojo and he's going to beat your best student in front of your master. That's Jaguar Skills. He's going to smash it down, really focused and a lot of energy. Non stop action, like a b movie superhero. Me, on the other hand, I'm just not that. I'm not that dude. 

If you're ever playing at a festival or wherever do you have to travel there with the mask on, so nobody knows who you are or do you put in on backstage?

I can go up, on the front of the stage, set all my stuff up and nobody even knows it's me. I can go anywhere. I can even go onto the stage, duck down, put my mask on, stand up and then people will go, shit, how did he just get there? Ha! That's how mad it is, the perception.

So you've never been pulled by the police, driving to a gig wearing the mask?

No. No, man. Jaguar skills appears at just the right minute. There's no Jaguar Skills outside the club.

What have you got on the immediate horizon?

Lots of cool gigs, loads of great little clubs. I've got a few releases tentatively coming out. I've just had 'Reload That' remix out with Tempa T, Big Narstie and Example, which is really cool. I've got quite a big release coming in December too, lots of music on the go, at various stages and in various styles. We've got a couple of really cool drum n' bass things, a couple of hip hop things, some grime bits and we've kind of a northern soul tune as well.

Jaguar Skils performs at the following dates and tickets are available below for each.

Zombie Fest 2 at Mildenhall Stadium - Saturday 29th October

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£0.00
SOLD OUT

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Jaguar Skills Live at O2 Academy Oxford - Thursday 17th November

This event has been cancelled
Unforeseen circumstances

Codec presents - Jaguar Skills at SWX in Bristol - Saturday 19th November

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Jaguar Skills Live at XOYO London - Saturday 26th November 

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Viper Recordings at Camp and Furnace in Liverpool - Saturday 10th December

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Area Warehouse presents Jaguar Skills in Sheffield - Saturday 10th December

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