Interviews

Escape your comfort zone with DJ Marcelle

Words by Rachel Hahn
Photos by DJ Marcelle

Ahead of her set at DICE’s SónarPark stage, the Dutch DJ sheds light on her punk roots and uncompromising approach to mixing.

According to DJ Marcelle, if you go to her house in Amsterdam for dinner, she'll try to make you feel as comfortable as possible (we had to take her word for it as we met over Zoom). But when it comes to her DJing approach, the opposite holds true – Marcelle is boldly unconcerned with the audience’s expectations, a conviction that goes back to her punk roots. “I don’t like when everyone is in their comfort zone,” she says. “When I went to gigs and saw The Slits or The Specials for the first time, they were so exciting in a way that got you out of your comfort zone, or made you think, ‘What is happening now? Do I even like this?’” 

Playing on three turntables at once, Marcelle layers leftfield electronic club music, dub, techno, African music and avant-garde without much regard for beatmatching. She doesn’t lean into the self-seriousness of many contemporary DJs – her website is decorated with illustrated flowers and pictures of her eating soup, and some of her original songs have titles including ‘Respect My Snack Foods’ and ‘Too Late For the Beach?’. Recently, when a record got stuck in a groove by mistake, she let it play out for 10 minutes rather than scrambling to fix it. Sometimes, she’ll play a cowbell over a booming bass track, or start a set with a sample of someone screaming “help” for a few minutes longer than you might expect.

At a Marcelle set, you’ll feel surprised and confused – it’s not how you’d want your dinner guests to feel at the end of the night, but it’s how good art should make you feel. And she uses this uncompromising approach to mixing whether she’s playing a massive festival stage at Sónar or a squat near her house. Here, we delve into her idiosyncratic craft, and learn about her early punk days and why she put a slice of cake on her turntables.

DICE: How did your love of music develop? 

Marcelle: I first got into music in the early ’70s when I was 12 or 13 – then punk arrived in ’76 or ’77, when I was 14 years old. I was totally attracted to this new generation of musicians who were my own age – like the singer of The Slits, Ari Up. I liked punk music in the beginning, but it was also about the political side of it – that you have to go forwards and experiment, that you don’t have to have a musical education to make music, which are all things I still believe in. But then I started to find punk too musically limiting, and I got into dub and industrial. I’ve always had very rhythmic tastes, so more Public Image Limited than Sex Pistols. I also became an orphan in 1977. So it was a very difficult time, but that music saved my life.

I
liked
punk
music
in
the
beginning,
but
it
was
also
about
the
political
side
of
it
that
you
have
to
go
forwards
and
experiment

DICE: When did you start DJing and honing your signature mixing style?

Marcelle: I DJ’d when I was young, playing the latest punk records mixed with dub, but I never had the ambition to be professional, because I think there’s so much shit in the music industry – it’s very commercial and capitalistic, even in alternative circles, and very male dominated – but I organically grew into it. I always followed the latest developments in music, and I still do, but I don’t want to stand still, and I always go my own way. I’m more about ideas and people trying out new things rather than one particular genre. 

The way I DJ, you can’t pigeonhole what style of music it is – it’s about freedom, and putting music in a different context. I think it makes it sound more interesting to layer it, too. I want to be ahead of the audience: I never want people to guess what’s next. I think that sets me apart from a lot of other DJs. They might be good, but you know you’re getting two hours of techno, and with me, you don’t know what you’re getting. And that makes it interesting for me, because I play so much, and I always want to surprise myself. That’s maybe one of the reasons why I’m still doing it in my late fifties. And I have a very young audience – the people that come to see me are usually 20 to 30 years younger, which makes me very happy.

I
always
followed
the
latest
developments
in
music,
and
I
still
do,
but
I
don’t
want
to
stand
still,
and
I
always
go
my
own
way

DICE: And in terms of your audience, did you meet any resistance from them when you started to get booked at bigger venues?

Marcelle: In the beginning, maybe. Always male resistance. Men would come up to me and say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t DJ like this,’ or even say that I couldn’t DJ. Because if you don’t do beatmatching, it’s a no-go for some people – it still is. And I have no idea why, because if you compare it to other forms of art, like painting, I wouldn’t say that you can’t put red next to yellow. It’s a very conservative way of thinking, when DJs want to please the audience. And things are going very well for me, but at the same time, I’m not pleasing the audience. I do care, but in a way I don’t care. I’ll never have the audience decide what I do. 

DJ Marcelle at Nyege Nyege Festival in Jinja, Uganda, 2017.

DICE: How do you approach playing a big stage like SónarPark?

Marcelle: There’s absolutely no difference for me between playing Sónar or playing in a squat round the corner. If it’s more of an institutionalised event, I try to be just as radical.

I
never
want
people
to
guess
what’s
next.
I
think
that
sets
me
apart
from
a
lot
of
other
DJs

DICE: How did you get the courage not to care what other people think?

Marcelle: I think it’s because I came from a world where you had great female bands like The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5 and X-Ray Spex, which was very revolutionary at the time and very inspirational. So, I had these attitudes already within me. Lots of young women come up to me and say, ‘I feel so free when I see you,’ which is a very nice compliment. They tell me they feel totally liberated because there’s this old woman on stage doing funny things. And of course, it makes me happy that I’ve been making a living at this for a long time, but at the same time, I feel like I can stop at any moment if it’s not fun anymore. 

Lots
of
young
women
come
up
to
me
and
say,
‘I
feel
so
free
when
I
see
you’

DICE: Do you think this feeling that you can stop at any moment has something to do with your more organic career in DJing – that it’s less tied to your ego?

Marcelle: I mean, we all have our egos. But DJing has become such a massive thing. Everyone can be a DJ now, but you can’t download creativity, and you can’t download authenticity. DJing might be glamorous, but I’m not interested in that aspect of it. I played in Belgium a few weeks ago, and there was some local cake there that I really like. Someone gave it to me prior to my gig and then when I was mixing I just put the cake on the turntable instead of a record. So in a way, it’s self-irony. It’s funny, but it’s also saying you can DJ any way you want – you can even DJ with a cake.

Everyone
can
be
a
DJ
now,
but
you
can’t
download
creativity,
and
you
can’t
download
authenticity

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