[Photograph by Wee Dub Festival]
So, who is Nem and when did she start DJing?
It started at university in Carlisle when I was 18, it think, or 19. About 20 years ago! DJing in a cocktail bar with my then boyfriend Ben. He encouraged me – as I already collected records, he encouraged me to come and DJ with him. So I was playing records at the wrong speed and doing all sorts of ridiculous things, and was all scared (laugh). And he was just saying “it’s ok, everyone is drunk, no one cares”. And that gave me the confidence to do it again.
Were you DJing reggae at the time, or were you into other genres then?
Yeah there was reggae in there, but it was more hip hop and funk, soul and other kinds of stuff. But I always loved reggae and dub.
Did you keep on DJing for the last 20 years? I have only really known you as DJ since you have been up in Scotland, but before that had you kept doing it?
So after Uni I went home in Colchester for a bit and started putting on my own nights at a hip-hop bar, and I used to do a reggae and hip-hop night.
What was the night called?
… I don’t know if it had a name [laugh]. Well yeah, “Rum and Pineapple”. And then I did some gigs down there, opening for Dillinger, Damian Marley… I was a support DJ for gigs at the arts centre down there. And then when I moved to Scotland, I came to Edinburgh to do an MA in Art Psychotherapy, I started putting on “Rum and Pineapple” nights there.
When was that?
I think around 9 years ago.
Did you have a different experience or notice a difference between the scene in England and the scene in Scotland – especially regarding reggae, but maybe also more in general, about the nightlife culture?
I think the scene is different, but you will always find similarities also. There will always be a group of people or section of society within all cultures, that wants to gather and party, collectively listen to music, and dance. That gives me hope.
When I was growing up, I was into drum and bass. Essex at that time had allot of that music: jungle, the Prodigy and all that. I was going to the illegal raves down there. They happened all the times on farms and private land. When I moved north to Cumbria for Uni and again later to Edinburgh, I guess I noticed a difference. In terms of the reggae scene I have found more of that in Scotland, only because I sought it out. It must have been happening down in Essex when I was there, I was just into the raving more.
[Photograph by Bartosz Madejski]
There is a difference in people’s stamina for parties! Whenever mates from down south have come up north and come to an event with me, they are always blown away by it, maybe that’s why they don’t come up and visit often!! [laugh]
How was the Carlisle scene when you were there? I’ve been down recently and have met a few of the people doing some reggae and bass nights, but it seems to be fairly quiet when compared to other cities around it.
It is. I mean they test products in Carlisle – and if it sells in Carlisle then they take the products to other cities. You know, it’s a weird place, and if you want to do stuff there you do it yourself. So Ben and I ran nights at the Front Page and at the Brickyard. We started putting on nights there with bands that we would go and see in Newcastle, and we do the DJing. Ben did that for years, he created a lot of nights from being a student there. And people still put on nights there but it’s very homegrown.
Yeah, I’ve been down a few times and it seems there are small things happening but there isn’t a scene yet?
No, there isn’t really. It’s more like walkabout pubs and going to Wetherspoons.
Have you always only DJ’d, or was the singing a regular part of it?
No that’s totally new, I don’t know why I’m doing it at this age in life [laugh]. I’ve always wanted to do it, never had the courage… and yeah, it just sort of happened.
You released the ‘Purest Force‘ tune with Mighty Oak. Are there any new projects coming up?
Yeah, I’ve just recorded a draft for a new tune with Somah.
He’s from Carlisle, isn’t he?
He’s from West Cumbria. He’s slightly younger than me so we missed each other in terms of the scene. He’s with Unity Sessions who are an up and coming crew.
Would that be a dubstep tune? He released a tune on Scrub a Dub label recently didn’t he?
It’s totally sparse, sort of downbeat dubstep, yeah. Which is scary for me as I’ve never sung on something like that yet!
But Ben DJ’d at Knockengorroch Festival and it went down really well, even though it was unmastered, so…
The confidence thing is important, but like you said, when people are at gigs or festivals, they tend to be happy as long as there is music, unless it’s really terrible.
Yeah, I mean I think what’s happened is that I’ve always had musicians in my life as friends. Especially in Edinburgh I lived with singers. When I was DJing in the Jazz bar, I lived with a girl called Donna who was Tom Spirals’ teacher. This was a while back now, around 7 years ago. Donna and I moved in together – randomly, a friend of hers knew me and knew that she was moving back and put us in touch – she’d been a musician in London and was moving back to Scotland. She’s an incredible singer and songwriter, one of my best pals. So I always surrounded myself with those people, and I guess I just looked up at them and was inspired. And she got me on stage a few times, but I guess now it’s my time to try it.
It’s never really too late. And as you say, all those years before were just a way of building confidence towards this moment.
Yeah. And we always messed about, me and her. There were four musicians in the house. Later on when Tom said, “I think you know my teacher”, I was like “oh my god, you are going to love her and learning from her”.
Did she teach you some things or a few techniques or anything when you were living together?
No not really. I mean we just messed about. When I wrote my first song, I took it to Donna and she helped me re-write it. I never released that song.
And she’s now in a band called Camera Obscura, who are quite a well know Glasgow pop-indie band and has been doing a lot of work in prisons. I think she is now going to release her own album too, which will be amazing. Because for a long time she has helped other people but now she is focusing on herself, doing her own thing.
So, I guess I’ve looked at all my mates in wonder and seen them doing it and asked myself, how can I do something like that?
And it scared the crap out of me.
“Purest Force” is a great tune and has had great feedback!
I know, it’s unbelievable.
Something else I wanted to ask you, especially as you have been DJing for a while now: particularly in reggae, there seem to be a lot more women stepping up as DJs recently – which while maybe not new, is starting to be a lot more visible. And I was interested in hearing what your experience may have been regarding this, and if you have noticed a change – or if it hasn’t really been a particular issue for you?
It’s a funny old thing to be in. Because of DJing and having a sound system, being up there doing it, there is a lot of male bravado around – whether that’s in reggae, or drum and bass, grime… I don’t know if it’s across all music genres… But it is intimidating – I find it intimidating. Whether men want to come across that way or not, as a woman it does feel a bit much sometimes. And if there are other women around, you feel like “ok, this a bit more balanced”.
Like anything creative you are in a vulnerable position when you are expressing yourself – whether it’s singing, dancing, poetry. DJing is ok because you can hide behind the decks a bit, and you are playing other people’s music, so you are maybe not as vulnerable. It’s still nerve racking. But you’ve just got to do it. And it is nice to see women up there doing it.
At Wee Dub Festival for example, one session had Kaya, Sister Emma and myself on Mighty Oak Sound System and it felt lovely. It had such a nice vibe, I felt safe. Not saying that I would feel unsafe if I was just playing with guys, but if it’s all males and just you that’s when it’s unbalanced and you feel a bit, “oh I’m the only girl here” and I don’t like that. I would rather that it’s just balanced.
That’s why I’ve been a bit controversial sometimes on Facebook or social media when I say “I don’t like it when there’s a ‘girl takeover night’, or ‘ladies night’, or ’empress day’…” because it doesn’t solve the issue. I think it’s great that people want to support women artists, but I don’t think it should be marketed as ‘we are letting the girls have a go’. Because actually, in my experience, a lot of the time a girl will get on the decks, read the room, get the feel of the crowd and play the tunes that people want to hear. I’m not saying the men don’t do that as much, but girls are good at doing that.
Probably also because it’s something women have to do it a lot more just in everyday life, in terms of having to navigate other people’s expectations more than men?
I guess. There is all this thing of “men and women are the same”, “men and women are equal”. We ARE equal, but we are different. We are very different in our make-up, and what makes us male and what makes us female is different. And there are qualities for both. And whether it’s the sensitivity or the emotional thing of women – obviously there are sensitive and emotional men – but I do think there is a sensitivity when women are doing something like that (DJing) – it’s not just about getting your dick out and flinging it around, basically [laugh]. Metaphorically speaking.
[Photograph by Stevie Power / ReCompose]
On the bills, a lot of women tend to generally be singers or MCs, and in reggae there are a lot of women MCs. But there seem to be a lot more women DJs and selectors. And I’m only talking about reggae because this is what I am most familiar with.
I mean you know, when you look at the scene there are less women DJing, that is a fact. And it is culture as well. In Jamaica you don’t get as many females selectors because back then when it started it was mainly men.
Jamaican dancehall did bring more women up to the front, even if it was again mainly as singers and performers.
Yeah. A while ago – I was going to say back in the day but that makes me feel old. When I was going out raving, when I was 17, especially in drum and bass it was all male. And there were Kemestry and Storm who were two female DJs and they stood out. Because there weren’t that many female DJs, and when Kemestry died it was awful. I remember being so sad about that, she was one of my favourite DJs.
They were incredible. They basically met Goldie and started Metalheadz together, and I never knew that at the start.
And at that time, one of my really close mates from Essex – Amanda – was a drum and bass DJ. She was DJing before I was and we would go to parties, raves, nights in Nottingham. Back then Nottingham was really hedonistic, there was a lot of drum and bass going on, really good club nights. And because she was very tall, very slim, very beautiful, and when she would DJ she was technically very good – and she would wipe the floor with most of them. But the guys just didn’t know what to do with themselves – like they couldn’t understand that she was good looking and a good DJ. They just couldn’t believe what was happening. It was just bizarre…
Yeah, I forgot how much that had influenced me. I used to be behind the decks with her a lot. The guys were always a bit like “oh, I don’t know if she should play…”. She would have to fight her way in there in sense: she would have to fight her way on the decks – and the minute she was on they were like “oh, ok she’s good, she can do it”. She really had to prove it. And that aspect really annoyed me.
Yeah, it seems DJs especially are quite open to female MC to come on and take the mic, but as soon as it’s a female DJ then they always try to interfere, like lean in and constantly try and tweak things while they are playing.
Oh they are forever leaning in front of you, fiddling around with the mixer – it drives me mad! It’s just like, why are you suddenly bothering with this now! But yeah [laugh].
Ok so let’s talk about North Fire Sound. Was there always an idea to start a sound system or was this more a spur of the moment type of thing?
Well, I’ve been friends with Ben (Nema Kuta) for a long time now, fifteen years or something. He’s always had it in his head that he would do it at some point. I’d never even dreamt that I would be able to afford it. And then I was friends with Jerome, Ben got word that he was wanting to sell Bass Alliance Sound System, and I just very naively said “yeah I can put a bit of money in”. I had a bit of cash at the time, so I sort of put in not knowing what was going to happen. And now I’m involved (laugh).
So yeah, I didn’t really know what it entailed – even though I had been in the scene for so long, it’s weird. You don’t really know how it is going to be until it’s in your life.
And it’s been a challenge.
[Photograph by North Fire Sound]
Has it been a good experience overall?
Yeah, amazing! Really good. But you know, working with any one of your friends is hard, and me and Ben are getting there. We communicate really well, we talk about everything, and that’s the key. And Sam is now involved – we have two Sams on the team now. Sam was always a silent partner, because he has kids and he has his career. But he wanted to put money into something like this.
And the other Sam is from Unity Sessions and he is going to be working with us. So he’s going to be using the sound to go gigs that he wants to do as well.
We are not pinning our style, playing just dub and reggae, or just drum and bass. We want it to be open to start and as we go along if we carve our path in a specific direction then t will happen naturally. We are just building it at the moment, getting the gigs, getting the finance side of it a bit more level. Currently none of us are getting paid. But we paid it off within a year, so we’ve done really well.
I guess now the hard part is to get the word out there and let people know what you can offer.
Yeah, and the sound itself is such good quality that we can’t really go wrong. We hit ground running. If we’d faffed around for years trying to build our own system, it would have been a nightmare. And none of us are that way inclined really – I mean Sam could probably build it, but none of us know the technical science behind it. That’s not our passion. Our passion is going out there, providing the tunes, and getting a community together. That’s what our passion is.
The name North Fire Sound I think you had said was because it was to be based in Cumbria and bridge between England and Scotland?
It’s based here in Edinburgh at the moment. But obviously there’s strong links with Cumbria – that’s where I went to Uni and lived for a while, it’s where Ben is from and the two Sams live there… – so it was stored at the puppet theatre that Ben’s family own. But now it’s in Edinburgh.
The name… It’s about keeping the fire burning, post-apocalyptic kind of world, you’d know that if you looked at a map there would be the northern stronghold – well that’s how I see it anyway (laugh)
I guess last question, what is an all-time tune or your current record that you could keep on playing and not get tired of.
Well, we had a really special gig at the woods in Cumbria. This was before we had the sound system and Sam was a big fan of Mighty Oak, and me and Joe were working on the tune at the time. So I asked if Mighty Oak would come and play for the coppice cooperative. Like they have a little party to celebrate the fact that they have lots of work ahead. I also asked if Earl Gateshead would come and play on Mighty Oak sound system. There were maybe 50 people there, but it covered the costs. I forked out everything, paid for everyone, and then made the cash back with a bucket going around.
And Earl Gateshead played Crucial Time by Sizzla on a special 12” that he had – obviously [laugh] – and yeah, I had a bit of a moment. I just thought it was such a beautiful tune.
Lewis then bought a copy of it, and I steal it off of him to play it because I love it so much. I don’t actually have my own copy yet. But it’s a really important tune, I just love it. And it does feel like we are living in a crucial time at the moment. And I feel it’s a really amazing, positive tune. I just love it.
A massive thanks to NEM for taking the time to speak to me.
NEM also makes artwork as “NEMATODE”. For more info: Nematode Art
Text by Afinto