Monki spoke to Becca Frankland about nurturing new talent, the importance of specialist radio stations and dropping competitive bangers in B2B sets with Melé.
Last updated: 13th Apr 2016
Lucy Monkman, better known as DJ Monki, started her career in music at a work experience placement with pirate station Radio Jackie before landing an internship at one of the underground's leading broadcasters, Rinse FM, where founder Geeneus offered her a Thursday morning slot.
From there Monki earned her stripes as an engaging presenter and talented selector and was soon promoted to the Saturday evening position. It's the dream transition for any budding radio DJ, but it was when she was snapped up by Radio 1’s In New DJs We Trust that things really changed.
Now more than ever, Monki is dedicated to presenting the best new music to listeners during her Radio 1 and 1Xtra shows, and her selections have landed her countless clubs and festival gigs, securing her reputation as a DJ as well as a quality broadcaster (check out her set with B.Traits below).
With a solid relationship with Red Bull Studios and a digital record label Zoo Records to her name, she's continuously championing new, fresh artists through her Monki & Friends EPs and tours of the same name.
We caught up with Monki following the release of the latest EP to find out a bit more about how her career began, her NRG Flash concept with boyfriend Melé and her work with Red Bull.
The last time we spoke to you you'd just released your Monki & Friends EP in 2014, and now you've just realised another one with Red Bull Studios and sorted a tour. How have things developed since then with the EPs and your relationship with the brand?
In terms of progression it's still based around new producers, but now and again we get a bit of an older don to fill a slot. I think on the 2014 one we had Joe Goddard. But then last year's one and this year's one, we've sort of gone back to brand new vocalists and producers.
It's exciting because after each EP, I've watched the people who took part in it go from where they started to where they are now and they have all gone on to do really well. I mean, I think they would have done that regardless but it's nice to see that.
This year is again the same, new artists who I'm looking forward to hearing music from in the next 12 months or so. Plus we're doing the Red Bull tour, the last tour we did wasn't with Red Bull, I just did it myself with local producers, so the relationship with them has got stronger in that sense too. Next year will be [EP] number five so they can't say no to that.
You've said previously that no brand in the world does things like Red Bull. Why do you think the brand is so crucial to the development of new music?
I think the good thing about Red Bull is that not everyone can afford to get studio time in their space which is so well-equipped. They provide an engineer and Red Bull don't ask for anything, they just love being part of something which they think is cool, which I'm sure makes their brand look cool too.
In regards to the people that work in the office and stuff, they just want to get involved with something they're really excited about, and they have the facilities to provide people with stuff that on a day-to-day basis that we wouldn't be able to get for nothing.
It is really important because they record albums there, like Jessie Ware's album and the Julio Bashmore stuff, people like Hudson Mohawke have worked in their studios. So even people who are well established, they provide them with studio space as well, musically it's really important to the UK music scene.
What have the studios been like when you've been there? I can imagine it's a really good atmosphere.
Yeah, it's a funny office because it doesn't seem like anyone works, I just see people playing ping-pong or FIFA [laughs] It's a really fun office, I've always said if I have to work in an office, which I hope I don't, I wouldn't mind working there, it's really fun. Even down the receptionists and stuff, everyone has a good laugh. They have pizza Fridays, and they watch films as well.
I will be mentioning that to the Skiddle bosses. Back to the tour which you talked about earlier, you've got a lot of cool names joining you, is it a mix of people on EP and artists you rate at the moment?
Yeah it's a bit of a mixed bunch. Some people are on the EP, some people have been on previous EPs and some people haven't been on the EPs at all. I try to sort of go for all three really because I didn't want to put it in a box where I only picked people that I worked with.
We've got people like Melé who was in the EP on 2013, and we've got Wookie who isn't on the EP and then NVOY, Cadenza and DieMantle who are on the EP.
I consider you and Melé to be a bit of a power couple, what's it like when you go B2B?
Well recently we started NRG Flash together because we went on tour with Annie Mac last year and did a B2B. It was supposed to be a one-off because we were asked to go on tour together, separately at first, but then there wasn't enough slots so they asked if we would go B2B for the whole tour.
We were a bit like, "Ugh do we wanna do this?" because we're a couple and people might think it's a bit lame, so we made more of a concept thing out of it where we play a set that we wouldn't normally play on our own.
Before that it was all on a whim, it wasn't planned, it was just party vibes, so we've tried to bring that to NRG Flash. I don't think there's too much competition, there's always a bit of friendly competition, if he plays a banger then I'm just like, "Shit, I need to step my game up." We don't try and out-do each other on the decks, luckily there has been no tiffs.
It's definitely a good idea creating a concept, it takes the pressure off. Sometimes when I watch a couple DJ it can seem a little contrived...
Yeah, we tried to make it as fun as possible, we don't want to take it too seriously. We've been asked to play Sonar this year so we've gone and said yeah so we'll do that and see what happens.
The NRG Flash name, was that anything to do with the hard house/NRG genre?
The name actually stems from the old rave tune 'Energy Flash'. We wanted to give it a concept name but we weren't quite sure how to go about it and we were playing that record in our B2B sets anyway. It sort of made sense because it was all about fun and that club classic approach, but with our own edits.
I read that you had a sudden change of heart when it came to career paths when you were younger, and that you quit college quite drastically. How did you get started from that point? Was it a daunting prospect?
A career path has always been a bit of a weird one for me. I used to play football for Chelsea when I was younger so I was originally into sport, but because women's football wasn't that big when I was younger it never seemed like a real career, you couldn't really do it as a job.
I went to school and I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. My mum's in law so I took that just for that reason. I studied that at AS level and I was just thinking, "This is fucking shit, I don't actually want to do this." At that point I had already stopped playing football because I was injured. I was a bit lost to be honest.
I started listening to a lot of radio, a lot of pirate radio and a lot of specialists show. I listened to Annie Mac's show when she was on late on a Friday after Pete Tong and I remember thinking, "These people get to do what they love for a job and they get paid, which is pretty sick," and then I thought, "You know what, fuck it, if I don't try now then I don't know what I'll do."
At one point I was going to join the army, that was my scapegoat. I just didn't know what else to do, thank fuck I didn't do that [laughs].
Swapped guns for gun fingers?
Exactly [laughs], it was the only option I had to do something I love so I had to make it work otherwise I'd be doing something I hated. I didn't really have a choice. It was good that I thought like that because I went into it pretty naively, it's a lot harder than that but it paid off.
You're still really young in the grand scheme of things at 24, but do you work with younger artists now though helping them take those steps?
The guys off my label, I help them, I sort of A&R the music. A lot of the time when we go in the studio together I'll help them finish the tracks in terms of what direction to take them in or little things like taking certain vocals out of a certain part, stuff like arrangement.
Some of them guys are younger than me, some of them are actually older than me but it's weird because I still feel like I'm 18, but then I'll work with people and they've literally just turned 18 which makes me feel a bit old.
On the last EP we had SG Lewis and Fable do a track and they weren't even 20 yet and they were so talented, so naturally talented as well. I just thought, "Fucking hell." I felt like I was hitting my mid-twenties at that point. I was having a midlife crisis in the studio [laughs].
And the thing is people are getting younger and younger because music is so accessible, you can just sit in your bedroom and make it, you don't have to have a studio anymore. I think XO and Salute are the youngest we had on this one, they're about 20. People are getting younger and I am getting older.
If you're all into the same thing though the age gap never seems as big.
Exactly, but then again saying that, some of my mates are ten years older than me and I don't look at them any different. Thank god.
You were saying artists seem to be getting younger, but I was curious to know if you're seeing more and more girls come through when you're doing stuff?
Yeah I think there are definitely more women coming through. When I started listening to radio there was only Annie Nightingale, Annie Mac and Mary Anne Hobbs in terms of specialist music on Radio 1. On Rinse, the only female DJ I can think of was Flight who's an old school drum n bass DJ.
But now if you look at the Radio 1 and 1Xtra roster and Rinse's as well there's so many more women, and that's happened within about four or five years so it's not even been that long. On Friday nights from 7pm which is probably the biggest dance slot on Radio 1, two out of the three DJs are female and Annie's got the biggest dance show in the world pretty much.
It's definitely evening out, it will continue with time. A few years ago there wasn't many of us to look up to and now there's a bunch of us. It's just going to become more attractive to younger girls.
How involved do you get in the actual production side of things?
I started the EPs on the basis that people a few years ago were always asking me if I was ever going to start producing my own stuff, but it never really came naturally to me. I got into this because I wanted to be a broadcaster and a DJ.
I did actually make a couple of tracks about five years ago and I sent them to a few DJ mates and they were like, "It's actually a really good start." But I didn't really enjoy the process of it, I would have been doing it because people told me to. Whereas when I'm in the studio, I'm not exactly manning the desk but I give my opinion on certain bits of the track.
It's more sort of an A&R role. I can work my way around Ableton and Logic but I don't know it as well as those guys. I give more of a direction than pressing buttons.
If you're just a DJ and a selector then you're going to be a good one, I think it's always a treat to see someone perform when they're not a producer, because DJing is all they do. Sometimes producers don't really like to DJ and it shows when they play.
Yeah that's very true actually, there's a lot of producers that just want to make music and that's where their mindset is but there's plenty of producers that really love to DJ.
You started at Rinse and on a pirate radio station. How important you think these sort of specialist stations are, ones like NTS?
Hold on one second, can you hear that really loud thumping?
Yeah what is it?
It's my rabbit, I'm going to go into the other room away from him. Sorry what was I saying? Oh yeah, I think they are really important. I mean there's not many pirate stations left because of online radio, there's no real need to be running around the rooftops when you can put a free station up online and not get nicked.
They are the breeding ground for people who may eventually end up on Radio 1 or the bigger stations. I think online specialist radio and pirate stations are almost like student radios for specialists DJ because a lot of the daytime DJs will have come from student stations. We need a place to sort of hone our broadcasting skills.
There's Rinse and NTS and my mate set up Radar Radio in London as well. He used to work at Rinse and he's got a Boy Better Know show, he's doing really well. These places are really important for younger broadcasters, and I mean there's only so many slots on the BBC and everyone wants their chance. The online stations won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
Monki plays at Hidden in Manchester on Thursday 14th April as part of the Red Bull Studios tour. Tickets available from the box below.