DJ KILLA JEWEL
Rising out of the icy cold of Montreal, Québec, Canada comes DJ Killa Jewel. She is known for playing some of hottest events worldwide, but when it comes to the turntables, she has zero chill. A 20+ year veteran of craft, she has traveled, battled, and produced music throughout the world. Well respected amongst her peers as a pioneer in turntablism, she was featured in a collaboration with Thud Rumble’s DJ Q-Bert in his ‘Do It Yourself Vol. 2’ DVD. Her music production has been featured in theater productions, video games, and TV shows. It has also provided an outlet for her own music releases and battle records. Amongst her many accomplishments, she has also taken the time to give back to the DJ Community through her Sunday Scratch Sessions in conjunction with DJ Manzo to provide a monthly outlet for the Montreal DJ scene. We recently caught up with her to find out more and she provided some great insights about DJing while opening up about some personal difficulties she has overcome…
-Touring the world with Robert Lepage in the Theater Production “Zulu Time” and “The Busker’s Opera”, singing opera, acting and scratching all at the same time!
-Playing for a crowd of 50,000 people with Rock Band Les Respectables and Okoume at the Quebec’s Summer Festival
-Getting flown to Japan to represent Canada at the World Vestax Extravaganza
-Being part of Thud Rumble’s release of their new Invader mixer and opening for the keynote with DJ Qbert at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in front of 3000 people.
-Showcasing with Mix Master Mike at the X-Games in Austin summer 2016!
(Photo Credit Ignacio Soltero)
What was your most memorable DJ Moment and Why?
It’s really hard to choose one moment because over a 20 year span there have so many. But the most recent for me was the Invisibl Skratch Piklz / Executioners Reunion show in NYC at the Highline Ballroom this past November, where DJ Perly and I went head to head in friendly DJ battle right before ISP took the stage to perform the release of their new album. Getting to scratch on stage with my greatest inspirations that night was not only a seriously humbling experience but definitely gave me pause as I realized how much had come full circle for me. I hadn’t seen many of these guys in at least 15 years and although history had demonstrated beef between some of those DJs in the past, there was only love that night.
You most recently competed in the Red Bull Thre3Style, how was the experience?
Red Bull for me was a journey that started more than 1 year before it ever happened. Back in 2014 after a long 5 year creative lull (and a couple of regular jobs in between), I realized there was nothing else that would make me as happy and fulfilled as making music. As soon as I dusted off my tables, that raw emotion for what had been a lengthy struggle slowly started the wheels turning again. The next thing I did was update my social media pages, created my Instagram account, and got way more active on Facebook and Twitter, with the simple intention of just letting people know what I was up to. As I spent more time at the computer developing my online presence and getting back on the cut, I started watching more youtube videos, which opened my eyes to a whole new generation of scratch DJs and party rockers. That’s really when the ideas started flowing again and inspiration started coming back. Once I found that spark again, I was lit.
A lot of things can change in 5 years. Red Bull was one of those things that caught my attention right from the get go. Seeing what other DJs were doing, I knew right away that I had the skill and experience behind me to get back in it no problem. The thing about Red Bull is that you don’t necessarily have to be the best scratcher, beat juggler or even mixing DJ for that matter to excel. You just have to be well-rounded, entertaining, have cool ideas, the ability to rock the crowd and most of all, the courage to get up there and go for it. But, there was really only one moment that sealed the deal for me, that was the week of the 2015 finals in Japan (it was the night after the first round had gone down). I was watching the competition live from my studio and seeing pictures from the event going up in real time and just feeling like I needed to be there, like I was missing out on an incredible inspirational experience. So that night, at 7pm, I lined up accommodations, passes to all the venues, and with the full support of my husband, bought myself a round trip ticket to Japan, which was scheduled to depart the next morning. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes you just have to listen to that voice inside you, and I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. Less than 24 hours later I was literally on the other side of the lens, and needless to say I surprised a lot of people when I showed up. That week, being there, watching how it all unfolded and finally understanding the impact this event could have on a DJ’s career really lit a fire under me. After 4 consecutive days of mingling and partying with some of the coolest up-and-coming DJs in the scene, talking with them and getting a sense of what this new form of battling really was, I returned home and the very next day went to work on my set.
Sometimes you need to do something drastic to invoke change. So when you ask how the experience was, I’ll tell you. Every day moving forward on that set was grueling, painstakingly long, rewarding, exciting, and a largely fulfilling learning experience. I realized I had more ideas than could fit into a 15-minute set, and didn’t know which one to work on first. I think we’d need another interview completely for me to fully be able to describe the process of coming up with a routine of that length and detail. You just need to grind, and what keeps you grinding is the adrenalin. What keeps the adrenalin pumping is the hunger for something more. You have to be ravenous.
Now as all DJs know, the greatest challenge is the ability to balance work and personal life, and I’m usually a very private person when it comes to mine. Not many people know this, but I had just found out 2 months prior to submitting my video that I was pregnant with twins, and at the time of filming the submission video, I was well on my way. Just that fact alone would have given most people reason to slow down. Finding out you’re pregnant then being told it’s twins is a real shock. And being that this time was probably a very unique experience for me let alone any other DJ with the pressure of having to perform at the level which I was pushing myself, this was a total mind-over-matter situation. So much was happening all at once. Focus was key, and that’s what I did.
When I found out that I was chosen as 1 of the 6 people to advance to the Canadian finals, I was over the moon, but I was also fighting some very conflicting thoughts in my mind. I probably would be too far along in my pregnancy to be able to fly to Calgary for finals. And the only thing at the back of my mind was how was I going to make it happen? There was talk of broadcasting live from my studio, but they hadn’t confirmed the date yet so there was so much still up in the air. I’d figure it out, whatever the case. Fast forward 3 months and at the start of my very busy season, I was travelling back and forth between Europe and the US with Thud, helping to promote their new Invader mixer, working hard and loving every moment. As spring rolled in I felt like I was flying high. I was doing it all, crushing it at Cross Fit, practicing the rest of the day, and just really feeling like a rock star. But by May, the unthinkable began to happen and complications took hold. I was literally in the hospital every couple of days, monitoring, then by June, every day between my travels. The stress and worries over the pregnancy became all-encompassing. But the moment I would get home and focus on that set, I would be transported away to a place of power and strength. It was an escape, and one I don’t know how I would have managed without. Because by mid June I went into labour early, and after all of the effort to get as far as I had come, I lost the pregnancy. It felt like I had physically been run over by a bulldozer, like the carpet was swept up from under me. But anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fighter, and the word ‘victim’ was something I erased from my vocabulary a long time ago. Although I had to cancel the rest of my shows for the month, starting in July I went on to play another 40 shows, that’s right, 40. Red Bull was just one of them, but it held the most weight for me due to the shear effort and time it took to prepare. It was tough having to let everyone know that I would definitely be attending the finals in person. But you just have to keep moving forward. There’s really no other choice.
Now, I respect you for not bringing up the female DJ question in this interview but for the first time in my life I feel like this is the most relevant place to mention it. As a woman I have always strived to be treated equally and fairly in the industry, and have always made it my personal mission to make sure it’s about skill, and skill alone. That’s the only way to garner the respect of your peers. If you think otherwise, you’re doing yourself and other ladies in the game a disservice. You see I’ve always had a lukewarm reaction to the gender question because gender shouldn’t have anything to do with being a DJ. But after going through what I did this past summer and living through it (thanks to modern medicine, I’m not exaggerating), I finally feel like I have a real answer to this question. A major difference exists as a female DJ, and it is that we must embody the kind of resilience that no man will ever truly understand or posses. With all due respect to all of my male friends and DJs whom I truly do love, to go through the physical and emotional ordeal of bringing another life into this world (or out of your body), let alone to have 2 and then lose them, and then the mental strength to get back on stage and perform your heart out is something that no man would be strong enough to endure. After going through 8 different turntables backstage before finally finding 2 that worked properly and the crowd waiting for you to finally get up there and perform a years worth of blood sweat and tears, then for the stage techs to look at you and go “don’t forget to smile”, you just have to laugh. Being a female DJ also sometimes sucks shit.
How did it compare to some of your other battle experiences?
None of my other experiences compared to Red Bull if you base it on the amount of work it takes to prep 15 straight minutes worth of material, and that’s just the first round. Most routines average 6 minutes and even that’s long. The most unbelievable amount of work, I should add, goes into the pre-editing of sounds and songs so that your performance sounds seamless live. So, you definitely need to have some knowledge of sound editing before getting into this. But to anyone who’s reading this I would not let that dissuade you from trying, because like any battle I’ve taken part in, each one is a learning experience and an invaluable one at that. I’ve always said, if anything, battling forces you to be better, because you have to be the very best you can be. It forces you to practice those things you wouldn’t otherwise spend time working on, because they’re hard to do. But after all is said and done, you’ll see a noticeable improvement.
As far as the results went, this time, I have no doubt I could have taken the title all the way. At a certain point, like any type of art-form whether it’s figure skating, synchronized swimming or gymnastics, there may be certain calculable benchmarks you need to reach, but beyond that, judging is completely arbitrary. I have the utmost respect for all the DJs up there that night, they all brought it. But also having been a judge myself at numerous battles in the past, I didn’t understand the results at all. Whether we want to admit it or not, politics and unspoken rules apply. Don’t fool yourselves.
How has competition helped your DJ career?
Above and beyond the bragging rights and the slick (promo) video you get to take home with you at the end of the night, the experience of putting together a set of this kind definitely helped build my confidence by forcing me to work on certain skills and techniques that I wasn’t as strong at. I got to sharpen my tools, work on my weaknesses, and strengthen my abilities as a DJ overall. It’s the most I could ask for, except of course, the title.
What made you want to start the Sunday Scratch Sessions?
A long time friend, DJ Manzo, and I, were having lunch one day when the topic of reigniting the Montreal turntablist scene came up. We both agreed that a place for turntablists to have a casual, public space to jam and meet other DJs was missing. I honestly couldn’t think of any other event since Tableturns in the late 90s that offered something similar, and even that was more of a showcase style night for DJs who were already somewhat established. As someone who was just starting out, it often felt pretty intimidating. Fast forward to present I was also teaching out of my personal studio and thought it would be equally important and beneficial for those students who were thinking of getting into DJing to have a place where they feel comfortable to hang, watch, and maybe even get up there and try. We wanted to create an environment that was more conducive to learning than a place to battle or showcase. Sunday afternoons just seemed like a perfect time to do it. The vast majority of our regular crew are already pretty experienced, but I love it when new people walk in, some of whom are new students from my friend Jon’s school, who might not feel confident enough to get up in front of other people just yet, but are curious enough to at least come and see what we’re all about.
How did you get involved in TV music production?
Before I started DJing, I took 10 years of classical piano. I always had a love of music and a passion for creating it, and I always knew that becoming a producer would be a natural progression for me. But as any creative person knows, you don’t punch into your creative clock at 9 and punch out a 5. There are always peaks and valleys. Every artist knows what it’s like to face what could potentially be months of a dry spell. So when DJing didn’t feel like a challenge any more, when I felt bored and uninspired, I decided to purchase an MPC2000 and taught myself how to use it. I was also doing a Bachelors of Arts in sound production at Concordia University at the time, which gave me a good knowledge of Pro Tools. Not long after, a producer for a TV show for kids that was being produced here in Montreal reached out to me because they needed an on-camera DJ. They also mentioned they were looking for composers to write the music, so I confidently told them I could also do it (Not that I had ever written music for a TV show, let alone even put out a record, but when you’re young you’re gutsy)! They somehow agreed that I would be the on-camera DJ as well as music composer! The rest is history.
What are your other recent music projects/ scratch music productions?
You can find my first record, Saudade, on my website www.killajewel.com or on bandcamp. If you enjoyed that one, I’m currently working on a new record and am really excited to see how it’s going to turn out! I’ve also got some other tracks up on Soundcloud you can check out, including a couple of remixes and random tracks that I made sample free, with the hopes of using them more for music placement and licensing. Over the last couple of years though, I’ve really focused more on my live show, but I promise more production is on the way.
You have been in the scene for over 20 years, what are some of the secrets to your longevity?
Perseverance – You will get a lot more “No’s” in life than you will get “Yes’s”, don’t let the rejections discourage you from pursuing your goals.
Balance – Find time to do other things that make you happy outside of your music career, as it is those very things that will help you find the inspiration in your music.
Staying true to myself – Along the way there will be people, family, friends or otherwise, that may cast their doubts over you and what you’re doing. Always know that what makes you happy is not necessarily what makes someone else happy and that’s okay.
Treating others as I wish to be treated – You never know what someone else is going through, so if you need to be firm, be professional, be respectful, and people will forever remember you for that.
Don’t burn bridges – Success is rarely obtained by you and you alone. There are always people along the way who will help guide you towards you goals, and you never know who that person might be in the future.
Enjoying the ride – Destination is like a mirage. The closer you get to one goal, the further away the next one becomes. There is always more, so don’t wait for the satisfaction of “making it” or “getting there” as you will never truly be satisfied, and will be more likely to give up. Live in the present and recognize how awesome things are in the moment!
Adopting the no pain no gain attitude – You’re not learning unless you’re feeling the discomfort of trying to figure out or understand something new for the first time. Learn to associate the difficulties of learning something new with progress. That’s the secret to success right there!
Give me 2 tips for upcoming DJs
You don’t need the most expensive equipment when you’re just starting out. Invest in some inexpensive gear at first, see if you even enjoy DJing and want to continue doing it seriously. These days there are so many entry-level options to choose from, it doesn’t have to be a huge financial investment.
Set small, attainable goals. If you have a day job or are going to school but want to get better at a particular skill, set aside 1 hour per day to practice and focus on it. If you are disciplined enough about it, you’ll get there!
Thank You to Killa Jewel for a great interview, if you want to learn more about her check out her links below