A mere three days into 2020 and only 24 hours before she performed at London’s Standard Hotel, at a party marking Carhartt WIP’s collaboration with A.P.C., we met up with Canadian DJ and producer Bambii, with photographer Joseph Marshall on hand to capture her in pieces from the Spring/Summer 20 collection. As she told writer Romany Williams the following week over the telephone, she had only just released her debut single, and envisioned some well-earned downtime in the coming months. This, presumably, was not what she had in mind. Together, they discussed Bambii’s party series JERK, feeling confined by identity politics, and dishing out edibles for party guests.
DJ Bambii sees better in the dark. It’s the night after her first rendition of SILK, a new party that she started, and she’s on the phone with me apologizing for being so sleepy. But an exhausted Bambii, aka Kirsten Azan, is still more animated and compelling than the average person on their best day. After touring on and off for the last three years – both independently and with rapper Mykki Blanco – the Toronto-based DJ aims to stay put for a while and focus on producing new, original music. Her aptly titled debut single “Nitevision” – released in late 2019 under the label Innovative Leisure and featuring Jamaican artist Pamputtae – is a testament to the way she blossoms and thrives when the lights go out. The track and its music video serve as undeniable examples of her capabilities as not just a producer, but an immersive storyteller.
After spending three years on tour, Azan decided to recover with a recent trip to Jamaica. It’s suiting, given the unavoidable Caribbean influence in Toronto, a city that’s home to approximately 75 percent of Jamaican-born immigrants in Canada. This environment and her own Caribbean-Canadian background supply Azan with the unique ability to fuse Caribbean sounds with a hardcore, punk edge, creating her self-described “future dancehall” energy. “I used to wish that I was from other cities,” says Azan of Toronto. “But instead of seeing it that way, I’m trying to use it and reference what’s unique and cool here that I know isn’t in other cities.” There’s a sense of purpose to her sound. Every original mix has a message, and every song choice is strategic. She’ll chill you out with an ambient afrobeat rhythm you’ve never heard before, then hit you with a pulsing siren that commands you to bruk off.
Case in point, JERK. Azan’s first original party, which started in 2015, has gone on to become a sold-out function touching down in New York and Montreal, among other cities. In her own words, JERK is about celebrating the freedom of Caribbean culture, exploring global dance music, and most importantly, providing a women-owned space. She derives just as much energy from her fans as they do from her work. Her parties are equally politically and spiritually motivated. It’s not a stretch to consider her work philanthropic: Azan is committed to creating inclusive events and pushing creative boundaries in the music space at a time when most major cities are focused on tearing down beloved venues and integral community gathering spots in favor of million-dollar condos. She hopes that the joy and release she provides with her 3am DJ sets will save us all, and her growing fan base is a testament to the fact that she’s really on to something.
We stayed up late to talk about what motivates her to keep throwing parties, her music-making process, and how she’s translating online engagement into offline experiences. It’s easy to see why she’s the final boss.
You’re known for your independent parties like JERK, and you just started another one called SILK. Tell me more about that.
That was just something I was trying, it had a way different pace and intention than the other events that I do. There are other R&B parties, but they’re like, grown and sexy. Nobody wants to go to those ones except your uncle.
So what’s the not-grown Bambii version of an R&B party?
Well first, I gave out edibles to like 60 people so that completely changed the vibe [laughs]. We got enough for 60 people and maybe 2 out of the 60 people said no. It kind of concerned me how easily people said yes [laughs]. We built an installation and made the stage look like a bedroom and had a live act. I’d love to do more set design – creating spaces that cause social acupuncture and changing the way that people engage with club spaces. I love JERK, it’s such a turn-up, but there’s also so many other genres that I love and want to give people the chance to participate in socially. People will usually listen to R&B at home alone or in small groups, so it was really just an experiment to see what it would be like to have a dance space like that. I’ve been trying to bring as many ideas as possible from online to offline. There are all of these online spaces where we create our ideas or show enthusiasm for the arts that don’t translate into real life. I want to try to get people to pay attention as much as they think they pay attention online.
Do you think that people are losing the confidence to express themselves in real-life situations because of our reliance on online communication?
People express all sorts of emotional attachment, excitement, or attentiveness for things online, whether it’s an idea, a picture, or a song, but in real life, it’s hard to get that engagement from them. I think that’s scary. People used to rely on real-life spaces to connect with each other in a way that they don’t anymore.
Is that what drives you to keep throwing parties?
I’m not going to encounter the space that I want, so I just have to make it myself. I feel very confined by identity politics and how that frames what I do. It can be suffocating sometimes. There’s such a good intention there, but I noticed this year that the majority of articles I read that spoke about artists that fell outside the margins didn’t have a way of speaking about them without the use of identity politics. There’s no effort to delve into that person's artistic practise, or other things that would be focused on for other artists, and I don’t think that’s good.
DJing is such an energetic process, not just mentally but physically. Have you always been a night owl?
In my early twenties, I had a lot of extra energy. Before I started DJing, I loved parties, which I think helps me DJ. You have to be a certain type of person, it’s definitely not for everybody. It’s a really particular lifestyle that’s paradoxical. You’ll be around lots of people, super social, but it can also be extremely lonely. You have way different hours than everybody, so you’re kind of removed from real life.
When do you have time to listen to music yourself, to discover new sounds?
I think I’m always listening for music. When I’m alone is when I’ll sit down, explore the internet, and see what’s going on. I follow a lot of other DJs and producers. The main people in my feed are music people and my friends. I try not to follow stupid shit because Instagram is terrible.
It’s almost an imperative now for artists to have social media. How do you approach the mandatory self-promotion that comes with it?
I think Instagram is fucked up. It’s so detrimental to how we perceive ourselves and what we think is valuable and what isn’t. People lack a [certain] literacy around it. I don’t think people have the ability to recognize what’s real and what’s not. Because of that, they’re aspiring to things that are made up or altered. Especially when we’re talking about body image and self-esteem – I think that Instagram gives people dysmorphia and warps their perceptions of themselves. The most minute imperfections aren’t visible anymore and we’re consuming that perfection constantly. Being an artist in that atmosphere specifically, I’m very aware of that. I try to find a middle ground, a way that I can express myself that feels authentic and fun to me. Sometimes, it feels like in order to get people to pay attention to things happening in my career, I have to communicate it with a photo of myself because that will get more engagement. That can be frustrating, but I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.
The party photos that you post from JERK are the perfect antidote to the hyper-curated, edited pictures we often see on Instagram.
That’s why I like to post them. I’ll do an intense zoom-in because I want to show what real people look like, they’re so beautiful.
When it comes to producing as opposed to DJing, what’s your process?
I’m still new to it, so I don’t know if I have a process. It’s really intuitive. Making music takes a lot of solitude and discipline. When I made “Nitevision” in my apartment, my partner at the time said it was “whatever.” He was like: “Move on to something else.” But I liked it so much I was like: “I’m finishing this track” [laughs]. I thought about what I wanted the music video to look like, I thought about specific people I know dancing to it. I knew what I wanted it to sound like.
It’s about creating a world or a moment, not just a collection of sounds.
Music is so cinematic. When I hear things, I think of situations or memories.
You talk a lot about the culture of people expecting to exclusively hear hits when they go out, only songs that they already know, and you make a point to do the opposite, to push people out of their comfort zone. What’s your thinking behind that?
There are some cities where obscurity is more valued than others. But there are different kinds of DJs, too. Being in nightlife, for example, is not the same as being in music spaces. They can cross over, but they can also be separate spaces. I try to be in music spaces and stay away from nightlife, corporate, and fashion spaces because I don’t think those are about the music. At the end of the day, I’m only interested in music spaces. In the underground, there can be a level of pretension and exclusion, too. Even calling people “basic” – I use the term too, but sometimes, it can be problematic because the lines it draws are about class, culture, or race. I don’t want to feel like I’m somehow advanced because of my interests or inclinations. I want to create a space where people can feel comfortable not knowing.