A Propa Interview with DJ Rap

World-renowned producer, actress, singer/songwriter and queen of the jungle are just a few of the ways that you might describe the endlessly talented Charissa Saverio aka DJ Rap. From her days playing the graveyard shifts on Fantasy FM to making music alongside the likes of Hans Zimmer and everything in between, DJ Rap takes the time to tell us all about her illustrious music career. 

Hi Charissa [DJ Rap] how’s it going?

Good thanks, hold on let me just go in the other room, I’ve just been having a little mix on the decks!

Nice! Bit of a warm-up ahead of Moondance on Saturday 16th June?

Yeah, something like that!

You just got back from London, what shows did you perform at?

Yeah, I’ve had a couple; Jungle Mania, Shelley’s reunion, and a boatload of great radio shows, so this is basically the pre-tour tour if that makes sense. It’s a press tour. This is just to let everyone know I’m back and then in June I’ll be back for a month for more shows and a lot of writing sessions, then the real touring starts end of this year -next year is going to be big!

So how long were you in London for?

Well, I was there for 3 weeks, which is nice because I wanted to spend some time there and catch up with people properly.  You know normally I just fly in and out and honestly it’s just not enough because as a producer I need to be there to listen to what’s going on with the tunes and just absorb London a little bit. If I want to make music then I have to get back into really listening as a raver and going out as a fan and just enjoying it, which is something I can’t really do if I just fly in and out for gigs. That’s something in my life I’ve decided I don’t want to do any more, I want to have a proper experience and have fun, which means staying places a little bit longer and absorbing the city or wherever you’re at instead of just being on this churn mill of in and out in and out and exhausting yourself! I don’t wanna do it anymore!

Makes sense! I guess you eventually get sick of life on the road as it were.

Yeah, I don’t do that anymore, I stopped a few years ago, it was just tearing me inside out, it was too exhausting. Plus it got boring! haha, I know it’s hard to believe, but if you do the same thing over and over no matter what it is, that will happen.

I can see that getting tiresome. So let’s rewind a little to before you became world-renowned produer DJ Rap. I know you were born in Singapore, but what age were you when you came to London?

Errrr… I’m not sure of the exact age but my step-father was English so we’ve been here on and off my whole life. I was born in Singapore but I was brought up in probably 10 different countries before I really settled down in England, but the whole time we were coming to England back and forth. It wasn’t until I would say ’79 that we made England permanent.

So what sort of music were you exposed to when you were growing up then?

Mainly classical music, you know Beethoven, stuff like that. I was mainly brought up in boarding schools and convents so I didn’t have a lot of access to music, to be honest with you, I had a pretty sheltered musical life, as well as the rest of it. I used to be jockey riding horses and that was about it haha. It was just school, horses, piano, that was pretty much my life. I was a classically trained pianist so my life was pretty much just day in day out Beethoven. 

Wow! Not exactly what I was expecting to hear.

Yeah, it wasn’t until I went to my first mixed school that I started to get into other music. The first records I was really in to, believe it or not, was stuff like Genesis and early Rock, you know Bowie, Prince, Quadrophenia all of that stuff. I was a mod so when I came to England I started to get into all those tunes. 

So what first brought you into the dance music scene then?

Well I left home very very young and I was trying to make ends meet, so my friend was like “hey we can get gigs dancing at raves and we could get into these raves free”, so I was basically introduced into the rave scene by three friends of mine and we were living in a squat at that time so we were very very broke. We just partied our arses off, that was basically it, so my friends just introduced me to the rave scene and I just fell in love with it right away. I mean in those days it was raves like Genesis, Sunrise, Energy; those iconic raves were the first ones that I would go to.

So I guess that was around the same time you started mixing as DJ Rap?

No, actually I was raving for probably 3 or 4 years before I got into anything like that.

I guess you were a bit broke to be buying tunes at that point!

Yeah exactly, I’d say I was probably raving about ’86 to ’88 and then in ’89 I made my first record and then I decided with the person that I made the record with, Jeff B, that we should go on separate pirate radio stations to promote the record. That’s how I ended up doing Rave FM and Fantasy FM, while he was on Centreforce. So initially I started off as a producer with that song Ambience – The Adored and I remember it got single of the week in Mixmag so we were just chuffed! 

A classic track indeed! So how did you get involved with the pirate radio stuff? Was it through that tune?

Well basically I’d been on Rave FM as Cool Hand Flex had introduced me to that station,  and then I met DJ Hype and he introduced me to Foxy on Fantasy because I wanted to get on a bigger station. There hadn’t really been many girls on that station so Hype kind of got me in through the front door of that one and that was pretty much it for DJ Rap really. He still swears I owe him 20% commission for all my success lol! I would get all the graveyard shifts and I would do a show with a girl called Stacey Tough; we’d go to Dungeons, having a great time and tripping our balls off and then we’d go do a show on air; you know I really did learn how to mix on air. That’s how I got my first gig as well was through Foxy and Fantasy, they did a gig in a pub, I can’t remember where the pub was now, but there were like 600 people in this tiny little pub and it was the first gig I ever had so it was pretty amazing!

Sounds like an intense first gig! It’s interesting that you say you came into the scene through production first, as I’d had the view that you were better known as a DJ.

Hmmm, I don’t agree with that at all! haha. I think anyone who knows what I’ve done, knows it was catapulted by all the hit records I produced like Roughest Gunark, Spiritual  Aura, I’m So, Hardstep etc. I think people may know me as a DJ, but ultimately it was those records that propelled me into that scene and got me recognition as a DJ.

Very interesting, perhaps my view is distorted by the fact that I wasn’t actually there haha.

Maybe hahaha. But I feel that the difference between these DJ’s and just a DJ playing in a bar is that every DJ is recognisable because they had a sound that was attached to it. I don’t know any DJ you could say that you wouldn’t be like “oh that DJ’s produced hits”. Like when you think of Slipmat you don’t think of Slipmat as a DJ, you think of all the hits he had as well as being a DJ, you think of Ram in the same way, you think of Hype in the same way. So I think the two are just internally locked together in a dance.

Good point, well made! So you also mentioned there weren’t many female DJ’s on Fantasy when you got involved, and in fact, there weren’t many female DJ’s in the scene at all at that time, which I’m sure has led you to play the part of a role model to many of the female DJ’s out there today. Was there anyone you saw as a female role model when you were starting out?

Thats a good question, but no is the true answer. There were some great female DJ’s about like Kemmy (Kemistry) and Storm, Tamsin,etc… but I think I was just the first one to demand to play on the main floor you know? I was the first DJ to say I’m not playing in just a strictly girls room, I didn’t care about gender and I expected to play on the main floor with the boys, I expected to get paid the same. That was what I did first. Then, of course, I was first to produce hits, first to start my own label and so once I was on a roll I just became the first to do everything. It wasn’t intentional I just felt I don’t wanna be in a room just playing with girls, it should be about talent, not segregation. I’m good enough to play on the main stage so that was my goal and in those days that was just unheard of. But let’s take nothing away from the great female DJ’s there were. To put it bluntly, I was just very spirited I think and I had the biggest mouth. It always got me into trouble but I just wasn’t gonna put up with it. You could say I was a scrapper from early on.

It certainly sounds like it.

I might have been brought up in a convent but by the time I got to England and I’d been bullied enough and I’d learned how to fight I was like right I’m not having it anymore hahaha.

Hahaha too right!

Yeah I don’t feel like I’ve ever really had any role models in my life, sad because we all need good role models. The best role model I had was my experience, but I wish that there was one, I wish there was stuff like all the schools that I’ve got going now. That’s why I started up my school Music Tech Collective so that women especially wouldn’t have to go through this. You’ve got loads of amazing female DJ’s now like Molly Collins and Vicky Dubz and all these great ladies doing their thing and that’s why I’m always pushing forward and hoping this next generation of female DJ’s won’t be so gun-shy to produce like the last, it’s important.

That brings us on nicely to your DJ school Music Tech Collective. Is this the reason you wanted to start it up?

I wanted to start a music school because firstly I don’t think you can DJ forever, I certainly don’t feel that I’ll DJ forever, especially as I just DJ now and then already. I like to keep it rare and special so that I’m excited, so that I’m on fire and so that it’s something to see rather than me just being there every week. Like today I spent the whole day producing an intro just for the show and producing and creating something that will be special. I just want to feel that fire and that passion and I want to feel excited about it. So for me, DJ’ing is one part of my career, I’m also a singer/songwriter, I write music for films, I score for movies, I write songs for other people, I mess around with other genres, you know I do all kinds of stuff. For me music is not just a one dimensional DJ career as ‘DJ Rap’, it’s a whole artists career, so one of the things I wanted to do was take my knowledge and set up a business where I can give something back to the scene that has given me so much, and also really leave a legacy behind. After all, music is my husband and my family.

I think, when I die, will people just see me as someone who made them dance or something more than that? And that’s my hope, for more, to have had some impact on this world, seeing as I’ve been assigned this role as the female matriarch by everybody! hahaha. I keep getting called queen this and queen that, which is quite weird but to be honest with you I do feel protective and motherly towards the new female DJ ’s. I feel like I can pass on my knowledge and make sure they don’t go through the same crap I went through, I want them versed in the business side of things so they don’t get ripped off like I did, so many times! I do not want them signing bad record deals or having the bad experiences that I had to endure. I feel It’s really important for me to fill those shoes and step up and say let me be a resource for you, and that’s why Music Tech Collective is there. It’s not just there for women, it’s there for men too because men are the ones that have shown me the way. I’ve had my fights with people, but the guys here are incredibly supportive and the female DJ’s need to appreciate that and not alienate themselves from the men. Yes, it can be a little bit of a boys club but ultimately that all goes away when you produce hit songs, so you know for me it’s all about unity, not us against them and all that bollocks. Let’s just be as good as the boys and strive to be as good as we can be and run a tight ship like they do.

So I launched the MTC online school last month and there is an Ableton course where you can learn how to produce from A to Z and there’s a business course where you can learn all the ups and downs of the business. More courses coming soon! Im working on the Advanced drum and bass course now as we speak. The goal is multiple courses eventually, I am building an army to help with content, I am always looking for new talent who may want to contribute and get paid. If you want to do an advanced drum & bass course, you can and if you want to do a trance course or a house course, you can. I want to put all my effort into getting other artists to do courses as well as myself, I mean the online school is expanding already and it’s only been launched 3 or 4 weeks. Its taken off! I have been teaching privately for over 2 years now so it’s great to know I am leaving a footprint in the dance community sand.

Sounds like a great opportunity for budding producers. It’s not all about dance music for you though is it? You also make music for films, how do the two compare?

Well I think as an artist, one of the things I’ve always been most frustrated about is being put in a box, so for me, having the opportunity to explore everything that’s in my mind musically and cross genres and work with some of the most talented people in the world in every genre has been an amazing privilege. One of the reasons that I moved to America was that I felt like I’d hit a glass ceiling here [London] and I just knew I had more in me and I wanted to do more in the sense of exploring music and combining sounds. That’s why Learning Curve happened; it was a synthesis of all these different genres put together and I’ve always wanted to do that. You can love me or hate me for it but that’s just something I feel like I do. People say they want to push things forward all the time and that they don’t wanna play old tunes, but for me I’m a people DJ, I love to play old tunes and new stuff, but I feel like I’ve pushed the envelope many times with the music I’ve done outside of Drum & Bass and now, 20 years later, everybody is doing that. You see DJ’s playing house tunes in their set, DJ’s making albums with vocals and all that, I was doing that 20 years ago! For me, that was where it was at then. At the time I felt like Drum & Bass went through a little bit of a technical phase and it didn’t interest me so much, it felt to me a bit vibeless. Now when you listen to the music it’s so amazing again and I’m in love with it again. I feel like Drum & Bass is kinda like a husband, you go through these stages where you’re in love, not so in love and then you go and cheat with another genre haha.

Haha! Slightly worrying sign for any potential future husbands.

Hahaha yeah maybe that wasn’t the best analogy, but my point is it’s a long relationship I’ve had with this music, and just like anyone I like to switch it up. So I’m really glad that I’ve been able to do that. When you walk into the studio and you see the London Philharmonic Orchestra or Jerry Bruckheimer or Mark Isham, it’s amazing to see how they conduct their business and how they do music. I’ve worked with people like Hans Zimmer and you get to sit there and explore music with these incredibly gifted world-class composers; who wouldn’t want to take that opportunity? It’s very humbling as well because you realize that you don’t know shit! It’s incredible to be able to make music of all these different genres but the main thing I love about it is that it’s different.

An incredible list for sure! So let’s talk a little more about your Drum & Bass career, what was it that led to you starting up your label Propa Talent?

Well, I started Propa Talent in 1990 because I was sick of not getting paid! I was making loads of hit records for everybody else and not getting paid, so I thought I’m fed up with this. I’ve gone through a lot with that label, with loads of great artists and some periods of just putting my own music on there. Right now what we’ve got forthcoming which I’m really excited about is Propa Dubz. Our first release is June 29th

Yes, we are very excited about that too! Could you tell us a little more about it?

Yeah, it’s gonna be great, we’ve got new music as well which is great but Propa Dubs is from the archives and it’s gonna be unreleased mixes of the classics! So the first one is gonna be ‘Hardstep’ and we’ve got two unreleased mixes of that on there that I made back in the day but never released. I was actually listening back to stuff and thought “these are really good why did I never release these” haha. So it’s stuff never heard before and we’re gonna be doing it on vinyl and I’m really excited to be printing stuff on vinyl after like 20 odd years.

Us too! We do love our vinyl here at In-Reach.

Yeah, I can’t wait to actually hold some vinyl in my hands, the artwork is so beautiful! I hope people love it as much as I do.

So what gave you the idea for this?

Well as I said I’ve sort of fallen back in love with drum & bass in the last 3 years like the old DJ Rap days, and I’m making tunes and all that again after taking a break and I just thought, I’ve got like 70 or 80 odd tunes that were never released. I was speaking to people about it and they were like “you should just release them on vinyl” and I thought well yeah why not. Then I thought well they’re all on dubplates so how about Propa Dubs and it just made sense. 


Perfect for the vinyl resurgence! So what about new music?

Yeah, I’ve been playing some of my new stuff on the radio shows since I’ve been over here. I’ve got a single called Play The Game coming out on which I’m teaming up with someone called Dimensional Drift, who’s a new artist that I’ve discovered in America. Then I’ve got stuff that I’m doing myself and I’m just working with different people right now and seeing what gels. 

Good Life was the last single you released right?

Yeah, Good Life was the last one under DJ Rap, but then you know you come to England and I realise the sound is quite different from where I’m at, so you’ve gotta be constantly working on your sound. Being in America, my sound was a bit more states side at the moment but after my visit to London it has started to shift.

You tend to have a lot of remixes from different artists when you release a new track. How do these come about?

Well, I like to pay it forward and discover new talent, so I get them to do a remix to give them a stage to show off their talent. A lot of students of mine who have come through the school are just looking to be able to get a record out at the end of it, so it’s really nice that I can teach them and also put their tracks out on the label. If someone is good enough, I like to give them a platform where at least they can start off which is cool.

A great way to provide opportunities that can be so hard to come by these days. And on that note, DJ Rap, I think I’ve kept you long enough. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, we’ll let you get back to the decks!

No problem! It’s been a pleasure. Bye!

Image Credit: Chelone Wolf