In Conversation: Monki

In Conversation: Monki

Influential DJ is making waves on the pitch and off...

Few musicians are able to cross over the borders between mediums, even fewer are able to do it with as much fluency as Monki. The Radio 1 DJ and label owner has made a name for herself as one of the foremost producers and tastemakers in the UK, and has since broken into the world of football content.

From playing for Dulwich Hamlet FC Ladies, to contributing towards COPA90’s Women’s World Cup podcast series in 2019, to presenting Heineken and Defected’s Champions League stream, the London-born producer has shown no fear in expanding what is an already expansive repertoire.

But in her professional development, she has given sharper focus to the relevance women now play in both music and football. From her early days at Rinse FM, to her current standing at Radio 1, she is becoming the example to future generations of female DJs that her now-colleague Annie Mac was to her back when her career first began.

Now with her new single, ‘Queen of Hearts,’ released earlier this month on her own &Friends label, Clash caught up with Monki to chat about making music in lockdown, her unconventional start in the industry and where next for the influential young producer.

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Congratulations on your new single. I was listening to it and I was getting quite an old school raver vibe to it, like 80s and 90s house and tech. Was that the sort of vibe you were going for?

LM: You know what it was funny. When I went in to record it I didn’t necessarily see it as a club track, it was more of a mood I went into the studio with. Have you watched the film Drive? It’s not like my favourite film, but when we started playing around with that synth line that sort of film came into my head. Plus I’ve been really into arpeggio bass lines recently and that kind of vibe or storyboard in my head stuck to that record. So when I was making the tune I wasn't even specifically making it for a club, which is quite nice actually to not make something that is for a club. And now that we’re not in clubs it kind of suits the time.

Like you say, we’re not going to clubs a lot because of lockdown, which is something that has made a lot of jobs particularly difficult to do. But how have you found the writing and recording process? Has it been different in lockdown when you were writing for clubs?

LM: Yeah, I had a really good conversation on a panel a few weeks ago about this and how the process has probably changed for a lot of people. About how in the past people would go to a club and see what works, come back and reiterate what works when they play to a crowd, but now there is no crowd to play to. So essentially you are off and you’re given more freedom in a way, and you’re going back to why you started making music in the first place, which was purely to have fun and experiment rather than have the pressure of essentially what the market likes or other people like. Because subconsciously that always acts on what you’re doing in the studio.

You can try your best for it not to, but I think it subconsciously does, especially the more time you spend DJing and stuff. So if anything it’s given people more freedom and it’s also given them more freedom to co-write with other people. We’ve really lent on technology to do that, and we’re still making tunes with people from around the world that we didn't think we could do over Zoom or Teams or whatever. But now we have so much time, more people are open to it.

There’s been this massive growth in digital festivals like the Defected one you did a couple of weeks ago. And then also that growth in collaborations in recent releases too. Do you think digital festivals will be more common going forward, and do you reckon streaming has got more of an important role to play as well?

LM: Yeah I think people do underestimate the revenue you can make from streaming. We’re in a position where we’re almost forced to because the main bread and butter for artists like myself is to make money off of touring, not really making money off streaming. So I think we underestimate the importance of it and the financial gain from it. So I think people will be more likely to spend more time in the studio making better music in a way, rather than throwaway stuff. And in terms of the festival streaming, I don't know if there’s going to be more of it once we go back into raves because everyone is just going to be dying to get back into a real life scenario. So I'm not sure.

But there’s definitely something to take from it, I'm just not quite sure what that it is. But it’s definitely helped people through a really shit time and they’ve done exactly what a normal festival would do - brings people together, provides a community, lifts peoples spirits - just in a very digital way. So yeah maybe there will be more of them in the future, especially now people know how to do them whereas before they didn’t. So brands have been forced to learn how to do this thing. But at the same time once we’re back into reality and real life club situations, I think it’s just going to be like pandemonium to be honest.

You say there’s a lot of money to be made off of streaming, but you also have companies like Spotify who are under a lot of pressure to pay their artists fairly. Do you think that is more of a long-term issue that the industry is going to have to grapple with because obviously streaming is everything right now.

LM: Yeah I don’t think it’s a quick fix, I think it’s a long term issue. I think it’s something that conversations are going to have to keep opening up around. Streaming is a relatively new thing when you look at the last 10 years, so I think in the beginning maybe it was a bit of an undiscovered territory and the companies that got in there first set the tone. So yeah I do think there are more conversations to have. But you also have to rely on algorithms and there is so much competition in terms of streams, because there is so much music now - which is a good thing as well.

But you’re right, it’s a conversation that needs to happen more often than not, but I think it’s going to have to be like constantly knocking on the door, it’s going to be a tired discussion that needs to happen over and over again. But you can see a lot of artists making song-based tunes, and for club producers it’s probably refreshing for them because they haven’t had the chance to do that. So it will also open up more doors and opportunities for them I’m sure.

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Your internship at Rinse was a different way to get into music rather than, for example, being discovered online. Do you think that journey has benefitted you in a particular way and given you an advantage over other artists?

LM: Yeah I think so. Rinse actually used to be a pirate radio station, and then a few months after I joined it got a community licence. So it was definitely a unique experience for someone my age, whereas before you would have heard of a lot of people going through pirate radio. Skream, Magnetic Man, all the grime guys, jungle guys, dubstep guys, garage guys, all the house guys, they’ve all sort of done it and that was the path essentially.

But I got on the backend of that and I was so thankful I did because it was just such a crazy thing to be a part of and really exciting as well, it was like a hub. I dropped out of sixth form, but Rinse back then was like a sixth form backroom. Joking around, eating nandos, playing music, it was really fun. And it did shape my experience of the music industry in a very unique way compared to some of my friends in the industry. And I do think it gave me a leg up because I met a lot of cool people. I got a lot of help with equipment and stuff like that. I couldn't afford decks so the station would let me play with their decks, and they gave me my first Serato box when I was on Serato for free.

So that all helped me learn my craft very well and then also broadcasting as well, I got my first show there. I used to do a bit of press for Katy B back in the day as well, I didn't know what I was doing, I was only 17 years old, but there were so many learning experiences. So definitely it gave me a leg up for sure, and it was just really fun. 

I was listening to your Blood on the Tracks podcast from last year and heard you speak about your time with Rise there. You said there was a mate of yours who you would constantly flit between stations with?

LM: Yeah so it was a friend who I actually met on a music course. So I Went to Point Blank for like three months on a radio production course, and I Met him on that course and he actually ended up working at Rinse with me, like six months after I joined. But yeah me and him used to go around doing community radio together, doing rinse, working at the club night, and work Fabric, and give out fliers and the sort of stuff you do at 15.

You’ve recently had your debut single out on Toolroom which was alongside DJ Rae, and alongside that we’ve seen a massive growth in the number of female DJs. What do you think the future holds for women in electronic music? Are we going to see more female DJs?

LM: Yeah definitely. When I first started listening to the radio, there weren’t many female DJs on the network. I know that at Rinse, when I started the show, there were 3 or 4 of us. There was Flyte, who was a jungle DJ, myself, a co-presenter who was on the breakfast show who’s now on Apple music now - Julie Adenuga. And on Radio 1 there was Annie Mac, Annie Nightingale and maybe one other - Heidi I think? So I think it’s gone from that to what you see now, and I know it’s been 10 years so maybe there should be more, but for me it’s all about making the women that are in the music industry at the forefront so that other young women can look at these women and think, ‘ah this could be an option for me.’

Because before I just wasn’t aware that there were any female DJs and it wasn’t until I listened to Annie on Radio 1 that I was like, ‘Oh yeah I could do that, that is a career path I could take.’ And it took that for a lightbulb to switch on in my head. So it’s all about putting those people in the spotlight and giving them the stage that they deserve, and once we carry on doing that - and we have to carry on doing that for a while - we’ll see more young women come through.

And there were a lot of them when I went to do that radio course, so it’s not like it was mostly men or boys, but there were a lot of women. And I don't know if you know, but they might have got discouraged along the way from the lack of support, and never followed through, who knows. But you see that sort of thing, like in sport as well.

That’s a good segue actually because I read that you play for Dulwich Hamlet. Is football always something that’s been important to you and has it always been something you want to do?

LM: Yeah, way before I wanted to be a broadcaster, I wanted to play football. I remember myself and my cousin, we got our first pair of boots from our Nan at christmas, and we went straight to the park and kicked a ball around. So I wanted to be a footballer all the way through school, maybe up until the age of 13, which was when I was playing at an academy, I’d been through the Chelsea academy and had quite a lot of scouts interested. But I basically found out at that age that it wasn’t a professional career.

Growing up I'd never seen many girls playing football, my heroes were all men like Thierry Henry, but I naively thought, ‘Oh i'll just play with the boys now and I’ll be the first one to play at Highbury, that’s no big deal.’ But as you get older you begin to realise what’s really going on. So I got really disheartened and it basically made me fall out of love with the game. It was like, ‘This is essentially something that you can’t do because you’re a woman, and there’s no place for you to play professionally.’ So I was a bit bitter as a teenager because it was like, ‘Ok so what’s the point, so let’s try something new,’ but then by the time I got to 21 I was like I really really missed it and the game in that short period of time in between had changed a lot.

So I went back to finding a team and then obviously in the last five years it’s changed massively. Like you can tell from things like the Women’s World Cup in France last year, which was such a massive event and the standard of football was so much better as well.

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You’ve also started to branch out into broadcasting around different forms of football content. How have you found that transition from playing football and presenting on radio, to then kind of combining the two?

LM: I sort of looked at it like in 2018 thinking, ‘You know what there’s something here that I can cross over, and I'd really enjoy it.’ And essentially for me, the more fun I'm having at work, the better I'll do. As soon as I stop enjoying something, I take a real look at it and I'm like, ‘Ok what is the real issue here?’ And I think, outside of music I've always loved sport, so I thought ‘Why don’t I do something here?’ I’m a broadcaster, I know how to present, and there is some crossover and there is always crossover between music and football culture.

So before the Women’s World Cup, I set the goal that I would be in France and I would be working on something during the competition. I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet, but I set that goal. I got to know the COPA90 guys and they invited me to be part of a podcast over the period of time that the competition was held. So it was like a five week competition and I had to live in France and we did a podcast every single day for like 33 days. And they had never produced a podcast before, obviously my background is in radio, so they hired me to do research and introduce them to a production team and be part of the production team. It was quite a big project and new for everyone so it was quite interesting and exciting, but a lot of work. I had to watch every game and sometimes there were like five games a day, and then we'd be in the studio until 1AM because we’d have to throw back to the day's matches.

So it was a progression that has come purely out of the love of the game rather than for making another facet of my company or myself. The progression has been really fun, and I've got to do loads of cool stuff that I'd never thought I’d be able to do. And it’s amazing that I’ve been able to link Defected record label which is close to my heart, and obviously I'm on their agency roster, with UEFA and the UCL - like what an amazing experience to bring those two realms together! So I was really happy to be a part of that and I'm really happy that those guys are expanding in that world too because there’s room for it and they’re cool projects.

Did you go to the final of the World Cup then?

LM: My partner is actually the captain of the football team I play for, but she is also American and she came with me to the whole thing. She’d never seen America in a World Cup before so we got to go to a lot of the US games which was really nice. And we sat behind the goal when we got knocked out by the US,so I was happy for her I guess!

What was the vibe like when you were there? I've been going to football games for a lot of my life which are all men’s games and the atmosphere has always been so partisan, which can be quite nasty at times. What was the vibe of the games when you went? Was it easy going or was there a bit of an edge?

LM: No it was so different. I’m like you, I grew up going to men’s football matches, and actually the first set of matches I went to consistently were Chelsea matches when I was 11. So when you compare that to what it was like in France, it was basically like a festival atmosphere. You know you get real key fans with drums and the majority would maybe like American fans, or Japanese fans, or English fans, but essentially the whole stadium is like this mix there’s no segregation because there’s just no need really! Everyone’s really happy, really friendly, everyone’s just there to celebrate women’s football and this amazing experience in this amazing setting.

There were lots of families and also lots of lads, which I didn't really expect to be honest. But also lots of little girls and lots of little boys which I thought was really amazing, because I think it’s really important to normalise this for little girls, but I think it’s just as important to normalise it for little boys as well because essentially that’s where a lot of sexism is going to come from in the future. I was actually in the park in first lockdown training and I was doing drills on my own, and there were three little lads in the park and I could see them watching me in the corner of my eye. They had a football and they came up to me and you could see they were all quite nervous, and they said, “excuse me, do you play for the US national team?”

And I was like one, I’m really flattered, that’s a massive compliment thanks. And two, it’s so funny that those little boys know the US national women’s football team. In fact, I never really got the experience of what it was like here in the UK for the world cup, but I heard it was on the TV the whole time and the viewers were in their millions, so that really resonated with little kids and it was just a massive celebration. I don't think I realised how historic the moment was until I got back.

And to close, what sort of stuff are you listening to at the minute?

LM: I'm actually listening to a lot of songs at the minute. Like albums. It’s funny because I'm listening to a lot of new music, but I'm also throwing back a lot. Like I'm just putting on my old records in the house and a lot of that stuff which is quite a nice break to be honest from listening to promos every single week - it can get a bit androginous I guess.

But yeah a lot of old albums, I've got quite a bit soul and jazz inspiration which is probably not what you’d expect to hear. And also im listening to a lot of defected records because I'm still doing their show bi-weekly and Glitterbox are putting out a lot of album based music at the moment - Glitterbox are the sister record to Defected - so yeah still putting my ear to the ground, but taking a lot of time to listen to a lot of old albums really.

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Words: Ben Miles

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