Bearcat immediately strikes me as someone who cares, “is this rain bothering you? do you want me to close the window?”, she asks, worried that the sound of the rain patter coming through the open window of her Philadelphia apartment might be annoying me as we talk over facetime. It is with this same kind of care and consideration that the Brixton-born, NYC and Philly-based DJ employes towards her sets. Conscious of her power to not only bring people together to enjoy themselves through her dynamic, high-energy sets which can touch anything from house, trap to more experimental stuff; Bearcat is also highly aware of her platform and the importance of her queer black femme visibility – often using it to bring to the fore realities faced by poc in America. “I'm just a vessel, I feel like a vessel or messenger”, she explains when I ask about using Sandra Bland spoken word samples on ‘Charged Up – Sandy speaks,’ “– and her words were just so profound that I was, like, this has to be put in some kind of clear form that people can hear in her honour.” It’s a harrowing but needed soundscape that thoughtfully recontextualises Sandra Blands words on racism.
And while it may be seen as a form of activism by some, activist is not a role that Bearcat feels able to credit to her already multi-hyphenated career, which spans from make-up artist, sound engineer, producer, composer, vocalist to now DJ. Beginning her music career as a backing vocalist and performing in punk bands Bearcat soon left to do her “own thing,” and turned to Djing as initially a replacement creative outlet to her performing, “I had gone from performing every weekend and having that therapeutic outlet to stopping and I was, like, I kind of still need this outlet to continue. So DJing for me was the next expression that felt immediate.” And it wasn’t long before others started noticing Bearcats unique ear for blending juxtaposing genres and layering sound which she explains stems back to her childhood and being exposed to a multitude of genres. Born to an Irish mother and Jamaican father, Bearcat states both sides as having a profound influence on her now expansive, genre-less style of Djing, “on my Irish side I grew up with a lot of drumming, and folk music. My mom was a young mom and so I would also listen to a lot of house, and trance because she would go raving,” she continues “my grandad would play a lot of classical music – a lot of the regulars like Beethoven, Mozart.” But it wasn’t until a watershed moment in primary school that changed her life, connecting Bearcat more to her Jamaican heritage. “I was just like what the fuck is that I could just feel it take over my whole body. And I was like that's me, that music is me,” she recalls of her first time listening to ragga.
These emotive responses Bearcat has to music have often acted as a blueprint to what she chooses to play, “everything you play, every song that you press cue and play out, it has to resonate with you – you have to feel the energy of the song”, she explains. Choosing to play tracks that she “feels” rather than what’s new has not only resulted in a decade-long DJ career as one of the most versatile and unpredictable DJs but also a great deal of respect and admiration among peers, brands and communities who value Bearcats authenticity. Since officially moving stateside in 2014 Bearcat joined NYC-based collective Discwoman, a community which she reflects has grown like an actual family ever since, “I’d rather deal with people that really give a shit about me fundamentally and who are still learning and growing the business, rather than someone who knows the business and doesn't give a shit.”
Fresh off touring we caught up with the Discwoman signee on what seems to be one of her first days off in a while. ”Today is the first day since I've sat in my little studio set up and even like thought about making music,” she tells me. Bearcat is nesting and recovering from one of her most hectic summers yet she’s already looking toward her next project as the excitement in her voice reveals when she talks about having this time to create new music. We reflect on her collaborations, past and present, her move stateside and the future Bearcat would like to see for club culture.
You’ve just collaborated with Gypsy Sport on a mixtape for their NYFW show – how was that?
You know, it was really beautiful and very personal. Rio and I have known each since I moved to New York, so for about 5 years. I've done makeup for them in the past, like, some of my work is on their site and then DJ’ed their afterparties for fashion week. So to do like a mix which is a little bit of a bigger thing as a musician was just really special. It was very much a family affair. I love Rio and I'm very proud of him.
Are there any other brands that you'd like to collaborate in that capacity?
I'm really obsessed with Iris Van Herpen. She is a designer that I would love to score music for a runway show. Not even create a mix, actually create the music. All the big fashion houses that we've looked up that are great. And it's cool because it's a better time in fashion, there's so much more diversity especially from what I saw growing up – so it makes it more of an exciting place. I would love to collaborate and do more fashion things.
Is your process very different when you're creating mixes for shows as a pose to sets?
It's completely different because when I'm playing a set, it's more in the moment and me reading the crowds energy, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Whereas with a fashion brand I’m serving in a different way – if I’m planning and working for weeks with a brand it’s way more calculated and my mixes have been curated in a very specific way. From working with Gypsy Sport and Chromat, you just go back and forth with the designer and find out what inspires and what influences them. And a lot of the brands that I'm fortunate enough to work with are in my community – so there are a lot of cool elements. Both of those two people have said to me, and they didn't need to say this to me, but just having more female-led vocals than mask vocals is really important – just little things like that – it broadens things up.
Is there a certain story you want to portray through your sets or is it just in the moment how you’re reading the crowd?
Yeah, I'll spend time going through an existing catalogue of music and creating a folder that I think will work for that specific crowd. And that will be the main premise – I might mix in with other folders, from other parties. And sometimes I do all that work and then play two songs because it just wasn't working or I can play the whole thing and it would be perfect. For me when I'm Djing it's very unpredictable and off the beaten track. It's changed from when I first started out when I would burn CD's – I didn't use USBs, I didn't even know anything about that. And with the growth of my skill and confidence, it's turned into something completely different that's more just like feeling the energy.
What was it like growing up in London and what kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I have learnt to love and appreciate London coming away from it. I see now how important it is to grow up in a diverse environment in comparison to somewhere where I've lived like Germany. You meet black people who are socialised in Germany and they have a completely different view – which is fine but I'm very grateful for growing up in such a melting pot. Growing up I lived with my grandparents, and my grandad would play a lot of classical music – a lot of the regulars Beethoven, Mozart. He would come home drunk and it would be like opera time, I could wake up and be like a ballerina. I didn't meet my Jamaican side of the family, but on my Irish side I grew up with a lot of drumming, and folk music. My mom was a young mom and so I would also listen to a lot of house, and trance because she would go raving. It wasn't until I went to primary school that I was really introduced to my culture. I mean, yeah, I grew up with other black kids but it was different from bonding with other Jamaican people. It was at school that I heard some ragga music that really changed my life. I was just like what the fuck is that I could just feel it take over my whole body. And I was like that's me, that music is me. I identify with that. So, yeah, a lot of different styles of music introduced at different times and stages.
That love for an array genre seems to have seeped through into your sets. And I feel that kind of benefits me and doesn't at the same time. I'm a DJ, I should be able to give you a genre that I play but I really can't because it's like a crossover of everything. I'll be playing a song that I grew up hearing my mom play mixed in with some kind of trap, mixed in with some kind of vogue. It's just my taste and what songs speak to me.
What made you want to move to America?
I haven't been to England – specifically London for a really really long time and I know that since I've left there are lots of progressive and cool things that are going on – which weren't happening when I was there, so I'm really happy to hear that. But I felt really frustrated being who I am and what I do and felt quite limited and unseens. And every time I came to America I wasn't like the only gay in the village anymore, I wasn't like the only black girl in the arts scene, I could find a thousand arty black girls – just because it's so much bigger. And that to me is empowering. And of course, America has its problems, no doubt – my life is at much more risk here then it would ever be at home in terms of racial politics and police especially. But then, on the other hand, I have a community here that would have been really hard for me to obtain back home, so it kind of balances out in this way.
Has America changed a lot musically since you moved?
Since I’ve moved here officially in 2014 I always find there's a switch that happens with all of America (including east and west coast) at the same time happening with say like London and Bristol, which has a big rave scene. There's this switch, where, English artists will start to do something like trap and then American artists will start to create something like garage and then the admiration is exchanged too. And rather it being about one is better than the other, people are becoming experimental and trying to recreate it. Recently I've been very much obsessed with like 808 bases and trap bases but the music that I actually make and comes out of me is very dark, ambient and almost like hip-hop sounding. It's something to embrace the exchange unless it becomes appropriation, which I haven't really felt that.
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
Grace Jones is definitely up there, but not just musically in so many ways possible. Grace Jones is amazing. Poly Styrene – I like a lot of queer black punks.
You’ve had numerous roles within the music and creative industries, what led you to stick with DJing?
It wasn't something that I had to sit down and figure it out, it was kind of like ok I can do this. And it became a replacement outlet for performing as a vocalist. And in the meantime, I guess I've just been working on other people's music and other projects and honestly just surviving and living life. It can be quite difficult to even think about creating music for myself because I'm literally surviving in this way. DJing is a creative outlet for me and a skill that I'm really blessed and fortunate to have, and it keeps me relevant while I'm making my own music, but my own music is not club music at all. It's like interesting, I wonder if like my DJing followers will even care about my music.
What’s it like?
It's grungy, experimental and very low – I feel like the music I play in the club is high energy and happy, but my music makes you feel in a different way, it's sad it's depressing. It's too opposite spectrums.
Is there a certain headspace you have to be in to create music?
Yeah, and it's really unfortunate and I'm really trying to work to not be so precious about the headspace I'm in and get on with it. But I also have to not be so hard on myself, because it's a lot. Giving myself a deadline is just, like, going on forever. It's not the best place for me to be in to get shit done.
How did your first Djing gig come about?
So, I remember – it was a really long time ago. I heard this genre of music called moombahton and it was a song by Dave Nada. Moombahton is a style of drum that's of a very low bpm and it had since become really saturated with crap because people would get a song and put it over this drum and call it a moombahton remix. But, anyway, before that happened, I heard Moombahton by Dave Nada. And it really had such an effect on me that I was like, that's what I want to play out. When I DJ that's what I want. I knew that I wanted to make mixtapes and I wanted to DJ but I wasn't sure what until I heard that style of music. And so I made these mixtapes on a computer programme and my friend, who threw parties at East Bloc was, like, ‘girl I got to have you play’. And I was, like, well I don't know how to play so can I come into the club 10 mins before you open and practice and he arranged it for me. I came with another friend who was a DJ at the time and he was just like, ‘this is called a CDj – you have another one here, there's a mixer here’. And that's me, I'm the kind of person that learns on the job, I don't have loads of opportunity to practise like that. I hadn't even seen a CDj before. I just had my friend breakdown for me and then after that night I was invited to do a residency and I just learnt every week to just practising but also performing at the same time.
Where have been your favourite places to DJ?
Most of the time it's in weird remote places like Ohio, where I'll get booked in like a museum or somewhere like that and there'll be 1% of the crowd that are the true freaks that are not exposed to people like me, whereas if you live in New York, you're constantly exposed to art and culture – it's almost like it's too much. But if you're a freak and you live in Ohio, there's really nothing for you there, and so it's those gigs where I know I'm going to like the middle of fucking nowhere, predominately white, and then I'll see black and brown weirdos at the front freaking out. Those are always the times where I feel really good about my job.
What’s being in the dance music industry like for you?
I think it’s really important that people can dance and be free, especially in this political climate and in America and I feel honoured to provide and be a part of that. But, with that, obviously comes highlighting everything. It's definitely a bittersweet kind of thing. And as much as I'm doing the work and my peers are doing the work I don't think in my lifetime we'll really see the changes that we want. I think that this is so corny, but, it really starts with the children. We need to raise a whole new generation for people to get it. It's bittersweet because you have this beautiful space that's really great and people can enjoy it but it's also like people are always at risk. And that's why I don't believe in safe spaces, I believe in working towards them, but I don't believe you can ever guarantee that. Working in this environment it's very real.
Do you have any advice for aspiring DJs?
I do, I would say you really have to like the music. Your job as a DJ is to translate sounds right? And if something isn't translating with you it's not going to translate to a crowd. Everything you play, every song that you press cue and play out has to resonate with you – you have to feel the energy of the song. That's really important. I mean, yeah whatever, there's a lot of successful top 40 DJs and people that play a lot of crap but if you want some integrity to what you're doing and longevity, you've got to really find your niche and your sound. And for me, I found that but it's my own thing like we said before – you can't really put me in a category or a genre but I'm playing what speaks to me. And you can always tell. I'm at this place now where I'm throwing a party and always scouting for talent, and I will go out now to just hear certain DJs to have them in mind to book them. And you know it's really important that you're playing stuff that you love and understand. It is really difficult at first, like anything, it's very worrisome. As artists, you're working from gig to gig and you don't know what's going to happen, but just don't give up – if it's truly what you want to do. The fees get bigger and things get better but you have to not give up. But at the same time, you can't really take crap from people, you have to ask questions like, if someone offers you a really low fee then you have to ask why? Well, how much is going on at that door? And have your wits about you too, because there are a lot of people that will take advantage of you and especially if you're a young DJ and I mean there are, young DJs who have to work for really low fees in the beginning just to get my name out there, but don't work for free, definitely don't work for free, unless it's for charity or there's no cover or something, because someone is getting paid, there is always a way to pay. And the thing is the more you work for free, the less you cheapen the economy. You've got to find a balance – yes, you want to get your name out there, yes, you want to do things, but no don't do things for free.
Have you got any shows coming up this month?
interview GERALDA CELA
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