A couple of weeks a go I had the pleasure of meeting Florence Otedola AKA DJ Cuppy. I met with her and her manager Liz for breakfast at the Serpentine Sackler on what was supposed to be a sunny Saturday morning… but then the sun disappeared and we were subjected to the London’s usual grey skies. Florence or Cuppy as she calls herself is only 21, she’s studying music business at the NYU and she’s been DJ’ing and producing for the last 2 years. Today we chat about her journey so far, Dj’ing as a craft and the challenges faced being a female DJ on the rise.
Have to ask… Why Cuppy?
Yeah… people always ask me that, it’s a funny story… I love cupcakes.
They’ve always been around but they only really became a trend in the last 5 years, I’m just slightly obsessed. I’d go to friend’s houses and always bring a box, so people started to call me cupcakes or Cup… or Cuppy! So when it came to picking my DJ name I ended up going with cupcake. Which I didn’t even choose, it just happened, my friends would just call me Cupcake at gigs *Laughs*
So as I started to grow as a DJ and also as a producer I found Cupcake to be a little constraining, I knew it would give a certain impression and I didn’t want to be put in a box… *Pause*. Also I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be called Cupcake as a DJ when I’m thirty ha! So I went for Cuppy.
I can see how Cupcake might have become a problem! What inspired you to become a DJ?
I was born in Nigeria, I grew up listening to music, Lagos is a very cultural city and it’s full of a lot of creative expressions, which is really evident in Nigerian history. I used to listen to a lot of Fela Kuti because my dad loved it. I soaked in a lot of that kind of music and I always knew I loved music. At school I was always the one who knew what was happening in the music industry, I knew the latest songs. I always had a music player of some sort, a CD player then an iPod (which I BEGGED my parents for).
For me it was almost an escape route, I love Nigeria but I felt like there was a whole other world to explore. My friends would talk about London, New York etc so I kind of used different kinds of music as my way of experiencing these places - so I did fall in love with music at an early age but I never thought it might become a career.
As a teenager I was trying to find myself like everyone else and for me music is very powerful in that case. I always knew I was a creative person but I hadn’t honed my skill yet and my school was very good at developing students outside of academia – I remember doing plays and always being the one doing the sound!
I moved to London and did my A levels here and that’s when I started going out to clubs. I loved the music but I liked the DJ’s more, I was always fascinated by what they were doing… pretty sure I got thrown out once because they thought I was stalking the DJ or something haha. DJ’s always got me thinking about how to experiment with tracks, and thanks to youtube I could watch so many videos about that. I bought some second hand decks and essentially I taught myself how to DJ. So it’s a journey that has always been rooted in my love for music, but like I said, it was a gradual discovery… I like to sing but I don’t have a great voice! I even rap but that’s quite clearly not my thing J
I started to try my hand at making my own music with instruments before I even had any real equipment.
How did your parents take it when you said you wanted to become a DJ? Being Ghanaian I know that would have raised a few eyebrows in my family.
African parents can put children in a box and decide for them what “type” they are. But I have different sides, as well as music I’m very passionate about my education that why I’m doing a masters and I’m hoping to do a PHD. It’s hard to understand someone who has so many sides, so I would say they were very surprised. They panicked for a second like “does this mean she’s not going to school?” but I ensured them I was going to do both – so then they were quite supportive – my Dad always said to me “whatever you’re doing, just make sure you’re the best at it”. I am lucky because a lot of African parents don’t understand that creativity can really add to a person, mentally as well.
And actually even better for me because when my studies get stressful I can take it out on the dance floor… if DJ’ing gets stressful I’ll just you know… read a book!
It’s refreshing to hear that kind of reaction. So how do you prepare yourself for a set, you must have a ritual by now?
It’s hard to prepare for a set because you have to be really flexible as it’s quite an unpredictable job. It would be great to be really organized as a DJ but you don’t want to be too organized or your set won’t feel organic and you lose the feel good aspect. For example, I might throw in a random song during a set like the Macarena *nervous laugh* sometimes it works… sometimes it doesn’t.
In the past I would prepare literally every song and mix it, I’d get there with an idea of who I’m playing for and actually it’s the opposite! So now I have a very wide catalogue and I’ve learnt to react and act quickly, however being the OCD person I am, I still prepare in other ways. Like last week I had a gig in the Middle East, which prompted me to do loads of research into Middle Eastern music.
I also love exploring other cultures so I make sure I have something that will please everyone – if I’m playing in another country I’ll make sure I have some local records too. I spend the first 15 minutes of a set warming up the crowd and just seeing what kind of tracks work, then I’ll take it from there – but like I said I have a very big library… thank God for modern technology.
And what do you think makes a strong set?
I think over a year ago I probably would have said something like, clean transitions, an overall balanced sound etc. But now I would say… an unpredictable set.
A strong set is definitely one that people will remember was different. There is nothing better than a DJ throwing in a song that you haven’t heard in 10 years and being surprised by it. I think now because people go out so much and there is music everywhere from iPods to clubs, people get bored of hearing the same thing to the point where they know what the DJ is going to play next. For me, coming from Nigeria I will throw in some Afrobeats and I love adding drum patterns to my set. Sometimes people look around for the DJ booth because they’re enjoying it, then they’re like… oh God it’s a girl!
Actually that brings me to another question – DJ’ing is heavily dominated by men, you must have faced a few challenges being a female on the rise in the same field as some people still think women can’t DJ as well as men.
Well the reputation is that as women, we are better at multi-tasking… DJ’ing requires a lot of that *laughs*.
Yes it has its challenges for sure and it is something that has been changing over time because the challenges I faced couple of years ago are different to the ones I face now. They’re still based on the assumptions that woman can’t DJ as well as a man… I’ve heard “someone prepared the mix for her” or “She only got booked because she’s a girl”. I’ve also had male DJ’s not be very supportive when I’ve played the same gig with them.
But to be honest, these are things that women struggle with outside of DJ’ing, women face these challenges everyday in the workplace and it’s an issue with society. It’s almost nice that I have this problem because it normalizes my job… I can have conversations with other woman even in other types of jobs and understand how they feel and the struggles they face.
My work speaks for itself. People do come up to me and openly say to me “wow I didn’t think you could actually DJ”. So it feels like I’m constantly trying to prove myself, I’m already quite hard on myself, I am my worst critic and Liz my manager will tell you that I’m not great to be around when I’ve had a bad set *Liz smiles tellingly*. I feel like I represent a lot of women especially African woman and I want to be able to have a voice for them through what I do.
Not everyone realizes how much skill is required to be a DJ – do you think people are starting to appreciate the technical aspect more?
I think people are beginning to appreciate the actual craft of DJ’ing. It takes a lot of creativity and thinking. There’s also the technical aspect, you have to be able to do a lot of things at once with your hands plus you’re listening to one song whilst playing another – it’s actually made me much better at multi-tasking!
People argue that DJ’ing is easy, now there are buttons that you can press that will automatically mix for you, there are even apps for this! It’s great but it also makes it more of a challenge because with this kind of technology, creativity suffers. People start sounding the same and you loose the organic aspect of the craft. I’m inspired by a lot of old school DJ’s because they still use records, they stay away from the new technology because they won’t be creatively challenged.
I use my laptop because I need my whole catalogue and I’m not going to carry 10 boxes of records to every gig! I also use CDJ’s but I still use them on vinyl mode… I know I’m getting technical here *laughs*. So obviously during a set I can’t go anywhere, so if I need to use the toilet…. But some of my friends who are DJ’s use their iPad and they’ll be scratching away from the toilet!! I personally won’t do that but I appreciate the fact that technology has made it much easier for us and also much more accessible for others to become DJ’s
How do you find the balance between giving the crowd what they want and educating them with something new?
That’s a struggle for every DJ, you don’t want to end up not giving the crowd what they want – an empty dance floor is literally a DJ’s worst nightmare. It’s all about how you feed in the music. Like I said, I like afro beats but if I’m playing in Malta, I won’t start my set with some Nigerian song that no one there probably has heard of… but I will give it to them in doses and mix it in with other tracks. Sometimes I’ll mix some afro beats tracks with tribal house because of the similar drum patterns, and that makes it much easier to please the crowd.
It’s good to understand that your favourite song isn’t everyone’s favourite song and I think that comes with growth… I remember playing hard hip-hop at a really corporate event once! You have to be open minded as a DJ, it’s great to specialize in an area of music but at the same time it’s good to be open to other music styles as it helps you improve.
What do you love most about your career?
I would say it‘s an amazing job but it doesn’t feel like a job, I get to celebrate with people for a living… it doesn’t get better than that.
The best part of it all is seeing people react to the music, I can’t really describe it but it’s very powerful. They’re using the music to let go of things, all their troubles. Everyone has things that they’re dealing with but at this point, even for a split second they let go of it. I keep saying this but music is very powerful, it is!
What are some of your favourite gigs you’ve played?
I LOVE travelling, it changes your views on things, it opens your mind and it reminds you how insignificant your are to the world – it’s a very humbling experience. So my most exciting gigs will be the ones that I’ve gone out of town for. I’m inspired by so many things outside of music like food and fashion; all the things that make up a community – these things influence music. I also love travelling to London for work, it has such a mixed vibe when it comes to music and it seems everyone is very open-minded. Everytime I come here, there is a new music trend. But I would say one of my favourite gigs would be when I went to Mexico to DJ for the Financial Times Summit last year because I was able to discover more South American music, which I loved.
And your producing skills? What have you worked on in the past?
I did start off as a producer, when I was a kid playing around with pianos and drums back in Nigeria. DJ’ing has made me a better producer, I feel like they go hand in hand. Most DJ’s will naturally have an insight into production because you’re mixing music; you’re taking different sounds and creating a new one. Naturally it makes you someone that is capable of creating music.
2 years ago, I created a record called “I Love My Country” sampling an old Nigerian song with an afro beats spin. It was a really powerful song and it did well in Nigeria. The older generator remembered the song and loved the fact it had been revived, and the younger crowd who didn’t really know the song we’re hooked on the beat. Sometimes I play it at gigs because even though it’s about Nigeria, it’s just a powerful patriotic song that can be about anyone’s country.
What’s next for Cuppy? Do you have plans to produce more and work for/with other artists?
I’ve not done anything for other artists but it’s something I am definitely venturing. I’m opening a studio in London in the next few months; I’ll have my own production house to sign producers. I want to get young creatives together to get inspired by each other – and create different sounds.
Last year I put out “House of Cuppy”, it’s a mixtape featuring popular Nigerian artists. But I take their music and I rework it into something that can be digestible for the western world, perhaps by infusing it with a house beat like I mentioned before. I’ll be releasing another one this year but I plan to include more of a variety of artists form different styles and countries.
Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure chatting to you.