In Conversation: Annie Mac

Discussing her Superstar DJs show, and more…

It’s simple, really: there’s not enough music on British TV. I don’t mean on the ads. Ads are full of music. Shazam them and win a prize! Or something. I mean shows dedicated to music – the performing of, and the investigation of how it came to be. True, there is an argument that, What With The Internet, there isn’t the need for such telly. But even from an online editor’s perspective: balls to that. I want more music on my television, thanks.

And, lo! Here some comes. Starting June 25th/26th (it airs at midnight) on Channel 4, Superstar DJs finds Radio 1 presenter and celebrated DJ in her own right Annie Mac getting deep under the skin of five high-profile players in the dance world: TiëstoDisclosureSeth TroxlerDiplo and Fatboy Slim, with a sixth episode focusing in on DJ culture.

Naturally, I got on the phone to Annie to see what this was all about…

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Annie Mac DJing live on Channel 4, New Year’s Eve 2012

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So, music on TV. Good stuff, we need more of that.
(Laughs). Yes! I’m really full of excited nerves, waiting to reveal this series to the world.

It’s called Superstar DJs. What, to you, makes someone a superstar DJ? Is it an innate skill for the mix, or can someone with a strong personality stand out beside quieter but more talented DJs?
I think that, like with anything, if you want to get really, really good at this, you have to practise, all the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re big on the underground or popular with the mainstream, if you’re going to make it then you need to have a relentless schedule. These people never stop. You look at some of these DJs, those on the show, and the amount of gigs that they have in a year. They might be playing on 340 nights of the year. It’s like, how? How do you do that? So these people dedicate their lives to it.

I think, in the last few years, social networking has helped increase a lot of DJ profiles. Their personality can come through that way. And personality is vital. A lot of DJs out there would admit that their personality is why they’re so successful. In the series, we speak to Jamie Jones, and he talks to us about Seth Troxler. He’s genuinely one of those people who’s so charismatic – and he’d admit that’s a factor in why he’s come so far. Jamie Jones is seen as a likeable, fun person – and if you present that personality to promoters, they’re going to want you back.

And production, too, is important. It’s massive. It’s been fascinating to watch how DJs have turned into producers, and producers into DJs. Disclosure were famous before they even knew how to DJ. They told us that they showed up to their first DJ gig without a clue how to beatmatch. They didn’t know what to do – and yet they were making their own, really good music. But what’s more important, these days? I think there is a case that you can do one without the other.

You’ve spoken out before about discrimination against female DJs, particularly in 2011 after DJ Mag’s top 100 list was an all-male affair. So why am I looking at a series that doesn’t feature a spotlight episode on a female DJ?
I mean, I was thinking long and hard about who to include. And if I could have included a woman, I would have. But I think that being tokenistic about it is actually detrimental to the series – I’d much rather be honest about it. And the fact of the matter is that there are very few women operating at this level, who I could have done an episode on.

We did narrow it down to two female DJs that we could have covered, but it didn’t work out. So we have made a point to get lots of women talking, and we’ve got people like NERVO and Magda involved throughout the series. Also, from my perspective, I wanted to make it clear that I am a DJ, too, not just a presenter. I’m a peer of these people, so right at the end of the series you get to see me in that role, as a DJ. I do want to make it quite clearly known that it’s normal for a girl to be a DJ.

And there are so many more girls coming through now, as DJs. And I think a reason for that is that there are more role models for them. Girls are seeing other girls on line-ups, and thinking that they can do that, too. Maya Jane Coles has already broken into the top tier, and is doing really well – she’s playing festivals all over the world. As I mentioned, NERVO are doing really well – they’re songwriters and producers as well as DJs, and they will reach the top level. So those two acts are at very different ends of the musical spectrum, but they’re both doing really well.

Being a DJ who gets that thrill of curating an experience for an audience, how much of a kick is it to still be on air at Radio 1, broadcasting your tastes, and great new music, to millions?
I’m still thrilled by it, 100%. That’s what it’s all about to me, and how it all began for me. Hopefully it’s what I’ll be doing when I’m 65 – although I don’t suppose I’ll be going out to DJ by then. The power of radio is this most powerful, magical thing – you can’t beat it. To be able to do what I do on a Friday, it’s just… I’m under no pretences: I wouldn’t be able to have the DJ career that I do without Radio 1 giving me this position, this platform, to play my favourite music to people all over the world. It’s crazy. Like, if you think about it a lot, it blows your mind. I try to get on with it, otherwise I’d get nervous.

We’ve just had Radio 1 in the press, with a lot of criticism directed at how social channels and web stats inform its daytime playlist. Now, this doesn’t affect your show at all, but do you think that some of the stick the station received was unfair? After all, it’s meant to play popular music.
I know that the playlisting process has been in the press, I saw that. But I saw, too, that George (Ergatoudis, Radio 1 head of music) presented a retort to the original article. And in that he really hammers home the importance of Radio 1’s specialist shows. I totally agree with him. It’s vital that Radio 1 has this specialist output. It’s the one thing that makes us stand out, that makes us shine above all the other stations in this country. From 7pm onwards, any day of the week, it’s the most incredible, unpredictable music on air. It’s bonkers, sometimes, brought to you by this motley crew of experts. It’s through that attitude that I fell in love with Radio 1, through John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs. It’s one of the most special things about Radio 1.

How do feel Mary Anne’s settled at 6 Music? I do enjoy her of a weekend morning. She’s a calming presence when the kids are going nuts.
Yes! I love it. Her show is like a hug. I’m up early with my kid, so I always tune in. I love her selection, its breadth and versatility. I find myself scribbling tracks down on pieces of paper as I’m listening.  

Just recently I spoke to Liam Howlett about ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ turning 20. I think back then a ‘proper’ dance album was something of an anomaly, although it grew throughout the 1990s. Today, with acts like Disclosure putting out their celebrated ‘Settle’ (review), do you feel there’s complete acceptance of dance artists making coherently structured album statements?
I think there was a golden era in the 1990s. Having Leftfield’s ‘Leftism’, Massive Attack’s ‘Protection’ and Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ all come out quite close to each other, that felt life changing. I think in the early ’00s that changed – there didn’t seem to be so many ‘artist’ albums. Dubstep got big but didn’t produce many albums. But it’s great now that Disclosure are seeing so much success. They’re musicians, first and foremost, and we see that in the show – they came to dance music after learning to play instruments and being in previous bands. It’s very important, for electronic music, that their album has done so well. It’s set a bit of a precedent for people coming after them, whose own albums might not have been taken so seriously if it wasn’t for Disclosure. They show that you can make a decent electronic album, for sure.

You mentioned nerves earlier. Do you still feel them, playing live? Can it take you a few tracks to settle into a set?
Definitely. It depends on the gig, and how big it is, and if it’s being live-streamed – which is becoming more of a thing. That’s a whole new thing. I get quite nervous with those gigs. I’m not like these bigger-name DJs who DJ every night of the week, because I have commitments – I have a career in broadcasting, and a family. So I DJ less, but those that I do play can be quite high profile. Which means I can get nervous. It can take me 10 or 15 minutes before I think: ‘I’ve got this.’

You’ve got your little boy. Has he already taken a shine to any music that you play at home?
Well, he’s not had a choice, as our house has music on all the time. He’s been exposed to some really good music. Even when he was born, that was to the sounds of Chilly Gonzales’ ‘Solo Piano’ album, which really helped me through my labour. He’s not shown a preference to any one kind of music, or genre, or artist, but he’s really into dancing. Which is quite a joy.

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Words: Mike Diver

Superstar DJs begins on Channel 4 on June 25th. Or June 26th. Whatever your listings reckons. Find out more about the show here, and catch up with Annie Mac online here.

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