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An Interview with Throwing Shade

We sat down with the British DJ and producer while she's in Australia.

by Xiaoran Shi
02 December 2016, 4:21am

From a small studio in a city crumbling under the weight of Britain's impending departure from the EU, and the blur of commercial overdevelopment threatening to colonise not only the slums but also the sky, Nabihah Iqal, the woman behind the moniker Throwing Shade, has been steadily crafting a formidable body of gem-encrusted ambient pop since 2013. The debut of her first single on Kassem Mosse's Leipzig imprint Ominira heralded a new voice in experimental electronica unafraid to weave abstract textures with infectious pop hooks.

Since then, Iqbal has averaged two releases a year, alongside curating a cult NTS show that journeys to the furthest reaches of ethnomusicology as well as frequent headline stints overseas. Her impressive output and work ethic is perhaps unsurprising to those familiar with her background as a karate black belt and former barrister. But having now turned her attentions to music full-time, Iqbal shows no signs of winding down her ambitions. Back on Australian shores for the second time this year, she opened up about her love/hate relationship with the internet, why women have to be practically nude to make it in music, and what we can look forward to in her new album.

Thump: You recently did a video series with i-D about different cultural hubs on the continent.

Throwing Shade: Yeah, it was pre-Brexit as well! Little did we know what was going to happen a year later. But, I don't think I can ever leave London forever because I'm just too much of a Londoner. My friends are moving away and there's loads of shit going on—London is changing really fast in this inorganic way—but I still think it's the best place to live.

Tell me more about how London is changing, especially in the aftermath of Brexit.

All the places I used to hang out in are gone because parts of central London are being sold off to property developers; they're knocking old buildings down and getting rid of good shops and cafes and replacing them with Starbucks. Obviously in a big city change is always happening, but right now it's more like, let's sell these parts of town because we'll make loads of money and councillors are obviously getting under the table payments of £1 million or something.

For example, Soho is the only part of central London that still has a lot of independent shops and restaurants, but there's a movement by the property owners to "rejuvenate" the area and get rid of so many historic and culturally important places. There's a lot of social housing around there and they moved out all those people to turn it into a hotel. There have been loads of petitions, protests and people speaking up, but it's frustrating because it doesn't make any difference.

Do you live in a part of London heavily affected by this current wave of gentrification?

I've lived around different parts, but a few months ago, I moved back to the area in central London where I grew up. I didn't want to live in east London. Every time I have to go there for a radio show or a gig, I'm like, "Get me out of here." It's too poser-y and 99% of the people who live in Shoreditch and Dalston just have rich parents outside the city who buy them a flat there because it's cool. The hipsters live side by side with the local people, but there's zero interaction between the two social groups. Where I live, I'm probably the only hipster. I live in St John's Wood, which is quite posh, but it's got a lot of history, especially musical history as I live right behind Abbey Road studios.

How would you say being a Londoner influences your music?
I'm from London born and bred, and I'm making music reflecting my experiences. Of all the musical subcultures in London, grime seems to be getting the most traction, but it's not the only thing going on. There are millions of people in this city with so many different experiences—I'm just representing another part of that. There are definitely sounds unique to London, but I get a bit sad when people homogenise it and say, "This is the London sound" when they're just referring to grime or PC Music.

Speaking of PC Music, 'hashtag IRL' from your latest EP House of Silk is reminiscent of a lot of producers on that label both musically and in its exploration of how technology complicates human relationships. How do you relate to the virtual world?

There's no escaping it. It is having a negative, homogenising impact when it comes to subcultures and movements, but it also allows you to connect with people and discover music from all around the world. If it wasn't for the internet, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. But also, I fall into that bracket where my outlook is different because I remember not having a smartphone or the internet. I straddle those two eras, so I really love the internet, but I'm also wary of getting sucked in too much.

Kids now like my younger brothers and sisters don't know any different. I'm so glad I didn't have Instagram and Facebook when I was at school because it would have made everything way worse. When school ends at four o'clock, you're out, but now with social media, it just doesn't stop. I look at my little sister and she's constantly Facetiming and on Instagram and everything's competitive in terms of how many likes you get and how many comments you have saying, "You're really gorgeous."

Yeah, the internet can be such a toxic place for a young girl to grow up in. Were you making music in your pre-internet days too?

Music has always been my favourite thing. I used to go to music school every Saturday and then mess around on the computer by myself making music. I was also in a noise/drone band because I was really into that stuff in 2006. There were two of us: me and this guy Julian. I played guitar with a lot of effects, sometimes even flute. Our band was called Of For, but I'd be surprised if there's anything on the internet about us.

Going back to PC Music, how did your collaboration with Sophie come about?

Sophie is one of my really good mates. Now he lives in LA, but we used to hang out quite a lot in his studio and do music stuff. The first time he asked me to record the 'Lemonade' vocal was probably 2013 or earlier; the song was in the making for a while. He was always like, "What do you think about this song? I don't know about it." But I was always saying, "It's going to be a banger."

What can we expect from your new album and when can we expect it?

It'll hopefully be out in the first half of next year. It's not finished though so I can't say anything for sure. It's really different from my old stuff, but you can still tell it's me. I've been trying to make more structured songs and use my voice more, which is totally out of my comfort zone. I'm playing a lot of guitar this time around too. I wanted to move away from working solely with MIDI tracks and the whole process of doing everything electronically, where it doesn't matter if you make a mistake or play out of time because you can just go back and fix it afterwards. When you're actually playing an instrument, you can't do that. You have to play it right.

Was it scary leaving behind a steady career in law to pursue music full-time?

It didn't feel scary. It just felt like the right thing to do, but my parents were still like, "What the hell are you doing?" They've calmed down now because they can see I'm making progress, but it's annoying when I'm trying so hard and all I hear is, "You need to get a proper job." They're kind of into the music thing now, but they won't be totally chilled until I make loads of money.

What gets you going on the dancefloor when you're at the club?

In terms of having a real good dance, I do prefer funk, soul and disco, but I also really like '90s pop stuff like Mariah Carey and R&B. There are some really amazing house tunes too. When I go out to parties and someone's playing the same kind of music the whole time, it makes me bored. I would never play an hour's worth of house or techno.

In previous interviews, you've talked about how women in the music industry aren't entirely acting out of free choice and are caught in the "whole semiotic structure" of having to appeal to the male gaze in order to make money. Can you elaborate on that?

I find it really depressing women in pop music now have to be three-quarters naked. Even if we go back to the early '90s, women were just wearing whatever they wanted. It wasn't about getting your tits out or your bum out. I don't know when that seachange happened, but I really admire MIA because she doesn't do that. She wears amazing outfits and always looks so good, but she's not about getting her body out.

That's how it should be because when you look at our male counterparts, they don't have to take their tops off. I think it cheapens women. Like Nicki Minaj—she's a really talented rapper, but she needs to put some clothes on. She says she wants to be like that, but I don't think she needs to be like that. Maybe she should try a different approach.

How do you think we can resist or overcome the objectification of women in music?

We should flip it and have loads of naked men everywhere! No, I think if people in the spotlight actually think about it and say, maybe I shouldn't wear a bikini all the time on stage, that's the only way things will change. Right now, it would be more scandalous to see Beyoncé do a performance wearing jeans and a T-shirt than in a leotard.

If a few people started challenging the stereotypes, it would make other people notice and think about the issues more. I mean, people can do what they want. If they want to be naked, be naked, but they're also pandering to this male objectified view of a woman. When you look at older people like Sade, Kate Bush, or Lauryn Hill, their look wasn't about being semi-naked.

I see a lot of girls on Instagram trying to brand themselves as DJs and they just post loads of booty pics. That's going to get you likes and followers because people are going to perv on you, but it totally undermines what you're trying to be. Does Snoop Dogg or Eminem or Drake think about their body when they're making or releasing a track? No way. As a female, just concentrate on your work. If you're doing something of substance, the support and followership will come. You don't have to increase your reach by ...

Sexualising yourself.

Yeah, exactly. You don't need to do it. You don't even need to think about it. Just focus on your music, that's it.

Throwing Shade plays 24 Moons in Melbourne tonight, with support from Jennifer Loveless, Sebastian Libelle, Pjenne, Colette, Martin King, and DJ Grip. More on that here.

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