Anita Awbi meets international DJ, producer and label boss Nina Kraviz as she straps herself in for her biggest year yet…
Sunrise sets at Sonar Festival, superclub sessions with dance music’s biggest icons, Mixmag’s DJ of the Year accolade – there’s no question 2017 was huge for Russian rebel rouser Nina Kraviz. Alongside the unrelenting DJ schedule, her record label Trip redefined the dancefloor with a barrage of wonkiness from Aleksi Perälä, PTU and Deniro. Throw in her own slab of shifty techno, the ace Pochuvstvui EP, and it all adds up to a formidable sonic onslaught.
In an age of unanchored electronics and global dance parties, Nina has emerged as a true trailblazer. Irkutsk in Siberia may be a long way from pretty much everywhere, but last year, its most celebrated export implanted the city’s coordinates into electronic music minds across the planet.
The story of Nina Kraviz may be well known – her journey from dentist to dance music superstar is now legendary – but what’s less understood is the next-level nerdiness that has pushed her through. It’s true the label head, composer and crate digger regularly sparks conversation (and controversy) around her uncensored, approach to life in the limelight. But online chatter is ephemeral – and sometimes misogynistic – and does little to accurately define her first decade of fame.
What’s often missing from the online equation is Nina’s wild passion for beats and bass of every hue – and her drive to spread the love. ‘I understand that people will follow me,’ she says when we meet. ‘And that’s why I’m always honest in my musical choices – I connect with people through them.
‘I get that, for over 30 years now, DJs are like popstars. And why not? It’s an important role, because without an idol or leader, you can’t create a following for the genre. Knowing that makes me feel very responsible about what I’m doing.’
Nina’s love of the kick drum dates back to the nineties, when a late-night, 808-heavy radio encounter with Chicago legend Armando jolted her imagination. The era’s melting pot of deep house, minimal techno and squiggly acid has since gone on to shape the tastes she wears so openly on her DJing sleeve today.
‘I don’t want to sound like an old fart,’ she smiles in her gently accented English, ‘but I have an inexhaustible love of music from back then. It was a golden era for house and techno, and there’s nothing I can do about that! I love everything about it; the business, the ethos, the way it was played out, the message behind it, the way it was performed, the way it sounded.’
Nina doesn’t come up for air as she delves into the nuts and bolts of electronic music-making, explaining in intricate detail how the old masters – people like Jeff Mills, Blake Baxter, Larry Heard – compressed their tracks differently, played them at different decibels and sold their cuts on a scale unfathomable in today’s streaming economy.
‘The music was not as loud as it is now,’ she explains. ‘Today, music is so much more effective. It’s been mastered to play on quality sound systems. Everything is super clean, like high definition television, where you hear things as though they’re under some kind of sonic microscope! I don’t want this. Seriously, it makes me anxious! This type of noise shouts in my ears.’
The penny drops. Nina’s DJ sets are always painstakingly old school; she mixes everything live, shuns effects boxes and EQ, cartwheels through the decades and dials up the weird. It’s a formula that has turned her into one of the world’s top paid, most influential selectors, with a tour of duty this year already including the biggest festivals from Barcelona to Brazil.
Nina continues on her train of thought: ‘I have special interest in music that is unfinished, unpolished, unbrushed, that you can do whatever you want with, that you can blend. I don’t like this polished soundscape with almost no personal touch. It’s already too perfect. But maybe that’s what’s suitable nowadays?
‘It’s so funny, people continue to criticise me and ask why I don’t sync everything, but I just don’t want to,’ she’s laughing now.
Playing other people’s tracks is only part of the picture. Nina originally found her musical calling in Moscow outfit MySpaceRocket, composing and performing material that ended up on UK DJ and producer Greg Wilson’s B77 label.
Her first proper electronic break came shortly after, when the Underground Quality imprint picked up her Voices RMX Project and First Time EP in 2008. In the following years, she was tagged as ‘one to watch’ thanks to a string of singles, and finally an album, via another UK label, Rekids.
Alongside her deep love for nineties house and techno, she is also openly in thrall to esoteric British label Warp Records. Both have massively influenced her over the years; see the jacking early track Ghetto Kraviz for evidence of the former and her new experimental label GALAXIID for the latter. Completing the circle, Warp is soon to drop a remix Nina did for electronic duo Mount Kimbie.
‘I’ve always done everything by myself, from the production side to the composing and songwriting,’ she says of her adventures on wax. ‘In all the copyright systems I’m always the only person who gets the money, it’s really nice. But I didn’t know about any of that until I finally registered with PRS recently.’
This year will also see her start work on a new album – but what will it sound like? ‘It’s very simple. My music is a reflection of my inner world. It’s my way of communicating to the outside. There’s a membrane – a biological shield – that protects one world from another, but through music I am able to overcome that.’
Nina’s composing sessions are frenetic and uncensored – ‘a fast, emotional reaction’ – as she works alone at home, mining a revolving cast of hardware for ideas. She revels in the speed of the recording process, a ‘polaroid snapshot of thoughts and emotions’ that is impossible to recreate – and it’s this almost whimsical approach that has delivered the heady cuts we know her for. But output is often sporadic.
‘I never felt more prolific than in the first years of music-making,’ she explains. ‘How the muse arrives to you, as an artist, is completely unexpected and unplanned – it requires absolutely no pressure. What I’ve learned is that you have nothing to tell if you haven’t collected enough of the emotions that have been brewing inside you.’
Labels of love
Through Trip and now GALAXIID, Nina’s desires to advance new electronic artists and genres have been realised. Producers including Bjarki, Nikita Zabelin and Roma Zuckerman have all benefited from her helping hand, with Bjarki’s crossover hit I Wanna Go Bang back in 2015 officially cementing Nina’s curative powers.
This year, although she is plotting a stack of releases for both imprints, she feels like the labels are ‘becoming forces in their own right’. And, in the small clearing that’s emerging, her own personal creativity is shifting up the agenda.
‘I wanted to grow a family and plant a seed until its heart starts beating and its soul emerges. Although Trip was created as my enterprise, it somehow exists on its own now,’ she says.
‘I’m excited I can once again focus on my own production, because without it, I cannot exist. It all goes hand in hand for me,’ she explains. ‘I’m not solely a DJ and I’m not solely a music-maker. I’m an artist, composer, performer – it has to be together. It’s where I thrive and it’s where I find my muse.’
World watch out: things are about to get a whole lot weirder and wilder for our favourite Siberian selector…
Nina’s upcoming UK DJ appearances:
31 March – Maximum Pressure x Easter 2018, SWG3, Glasgow
31 March – Cultivate Warehouse Party, Aberdeen
2 June – Shine, Telegraph Building, Belfast
9 June – Junction 2 Festival, London
9 June – Parklife Festival, Manchester
This feature appears in the latest edition of M magazine.
Picture credit: Paola Kudacki