Taking a rare moment away from the DJ booth, BAMBII discusses the evolution of electronic music in Toronto, taking ‘JERK’ worldwide and consuming Kelela’s album as a fan.
In BAMBII’S world, there’s no time for rest. It’s a habit that, in our conversation, she claims to be kicking, but believing her is another story. Calling from Toronto, the pivotal producer-DJ is recovering after an extensive European tour. Just hours before the interview, she posts an elusive message to her Instagram story, readying fans for the announcement of another ‘JERK’ party; the infamous night she started to diversify Canada’s clubbing scene and provide a platform for her globe-trotting selection style. Just weeks later, she’s jetting off on a 25-hour flight to Australia for a string of shows and simultaneously promoting a forthcoming BBC Radio 1 Residency.
*And breathe. The life of a DJ isn’t for the faint-hearted. BAMBII knows this and it’s what she’s become accustomed to since breaking out of Toronto’s music scene many years ago. Inspired by local trailblazers like Nino Brown, who runs the essential queer party ‘Yes Yes Ya’ll’, she’s quickly harnessed an irrefutable reputation as one of the world’s most compelling selectors. Just ask Benji B, Mykki Blanco, Jamz Supernova or any other tastemaker singing her praises.
Since the pandemic, people’s propensity to lose themselves on the dancefloor has become even more palpable. It’s innate in all of us, if the right music is playing, and BAMBII’s genre-defying blends satisfy the severest clubbing itches. Over lockdown, she organically struck a relationship with superstar singer Kelela. Bonding over each other’s boredom, the duo shared music and their experiences during one of the world’s weirdest historical moments. Studio sessions followed, as did collaborations on Kelela’s critically acclaimed second album, ‘Raven’. Relating over a range of electronic music genres, from garage to Baltimore bounce, the kindred spirits revamped Kelela’s alluring presence around a heady blend of amen breaks and 4/4 rhythms. BAMBII’s influence is striking from start to finish.
The duality of a relentless touring schedule and finding time to write music is becoming difficult for BAMBII to balance. Her latest single, “One Touch”, exists at the intersection between jungle and dancehall, harnessing her Jamaican heritage over alien–like synths and chopped vocal samples. Releasing on a forthcoming EP, it’s a futuristic offering which displays an artist willing to evolve with the advice given to her.
Taking a rare moment away from the DJ booth, Bambii discusses the evolution of electronic music in Toronto, taking ‘JERK’ worldwide and consuming Kelela’s album as a fan.
How was the European tour? Did you get to see or do anything that you maybe haven’t done before?
DJ-wise, playing Printworks was something I didn’t think I was ever going to do, so that was really cool. It’s such a shame the venue’s shutting down, but it’s nice to be one of the last DJs they booked. Being part of a huge event is such a motivator.
And what about recreationally? Did you get to do anything?
Usually, when I’m on tour, I don’t see the light of day, I’m only out at sundown. But I did try to squeeze in some time with my friends. When I started, I was so work-oriented but I think it’s important to just sit in a park once in a while.
So when did you realise that people in Europe were starting to take wind of your DJ sets and productions?
Mykki Blanco brought me on my first European tour. As soon as I came on their tour, I had aspirations of doing my own. I got gigs through word of mouth. Some of them were through reaching out and being like, ‘Hey, I played this club with Mykki, can I play again?’. My sets fit North America because I play a lot of Caribbean music, and there are so many Caribbean people here. But Europe is the epicentre of electronic music, so I think there’s a pull to both regions.
You said previously in an interview that the Toronto music scene is slightly behind in regards to electronic music. Do you still stand by that comment, or is there less disparity now?
The underground rave scene has started bubbling up again and there’s been a resurgence of illegal parties since the pandemic. I saw people working together across social and cultural lines, throwing a party for the sake of it. That’s when I witnessed jungle, industrial and techno getting super popular for the average listener. I would say that electronic music has much more presence here; It’s being pushed by multiple entities and collectives. Now, it feels like there’s something cool happening in Toronto that’s ours.
A big part of the Toronto scene and your place within it is ‘JERK’. Do you have any plans to make it an international event?
That’s definitely my goal. This year, I’m trying for Paris, Berlin and London. It becomes a whole new thing wherever you bring it. These cities are not my backyard, where I know exactly who to book, who will be coming and the right venues. ‘JERK’ is my baby. It’s a big party, but it maintains an intimacy, so I don’t want to rush it and for it be misinterpreted. I’m being really careful and doing my research, so that the same message comes across.
You started DJing in retaliation to there being no selectors playing the music that you wanted to hear. Was there anyone you looked to early on?
I started DJing because I wanted to hear specific things and play them for my friends. In my city, there weren’t a lot of people I looked up to, but one of the first women I saw, called Nino Brown, is credited for starting the biggest queer party in Toronto, called ‘Yes, Yes, Y’All.’ I look up to M.I.A and Kelela but I’ve never really stanned anyone before. It’s hard for me to think about specific women in music, I’ve always been more attached to the sound than the person.
Kelela is someone that you’ve struck a close, collaborative partnership and friendship with. How and when did you start collaborating?
We started talking over Instagram during the pandemic, when everybody had loads of time and was really bored. And then we started FaceTiming and sharing music, talking about, you know, experiencing the weirdest historical event ever together. Eventually, I worked up the nerve to get her opinion on something specifically. Later, she asked me to work on her project. So it was pretty organic.
What was it like being so heavily involved with her new album, ‘Raven’?
I travelled from Toronto to New York, and worked on all the tracks simultaneously. I’m so proud of it. I think it’s such an iconic album. It was crazy to hear it all done. Even if I wasn’t a part of the project, I would still love the album. The familiarity definitely doesn’t make it boring for me.
As well as the Kelela album, this year you’ve released a few solo singles as well, “One Touch” being the latest. How do you tackle making tracks on your own compared to those made in the company of collaborators?
I think there’s a comfort with working on my music alone. I find working with people a little more difficult and nerve-wracking. However, it is like you’re existing in a vacuum or an echo chamber with yourself. This year, I’m wanting to foster the discipline it takes to finish tracks with or without someone. But I also want to challenge myself to lean more into collaboration.
Working with Kelela gave me an inside view into making a large body of work as not only a musician, but as a producer. She’s somebody who wears a lot of hats, and is deeply involved in every step of her work. It’s one thing to make a record, it’s a whole other to do all the narrative, marketing and engineering.
What’s next for you now you’re back from Europe?
I do ‘JERK’ twice a year, which is a pretty laborious event and I’m adding a third one. I’m coming back over in July for a couple of festivals. My work is like balancing two different muscles and two different lifestyles. I’m going to start on my second EP and that’s like sitting at your desk, really getting into a creative process, whereas DJing and festival season is about being out. I’ll be balancing both this summer, for sure.
What have you enjoyed playing out recently? Are there any genres or songs you could see blowing up for the rest of the year?
I feel like jungle’s having a comeback, which some people like and others find annoying. I like it, I think it’s really cool. There are some cities where I can tell certain genres work better than in others, but for me, it’s more about maintaining my identity. Techno and house always have an instant connection. But I’m here to complexify that and lean into more polyrhythmic and global sounds. I don’t care for singling out a genre.
And, being from Jamaica, why do you think such a small island has managed to have such a global impact musically?
It’s so hard to say. Caribbean people in general are very resilient, they have faced and continue to face a lot of hardship. And I think that music has been a catalyst to finding a type of catharsis, to communicating with each other from isolation to the rest of the world.
It’s really hard for Caribbean artists to travel out of Jamaica and to all these metropolitan areas like New York or London. Music is a pathway of communication and agency. If we’re looking at soundsystem culture, it’s about communities talking to each other. And I think they need to assert their existence, to say that they’re here, and find a way to be happy. People have a natural talent there, it’s like there’s something in the water.