Unsung Pioneers: Yen Sung

Unsung Pioneers speaks to the artists who’ve helped shape dance music as we know it, but haven’t received the credit they deserve. April Clare Welsh sits down with one of Portugal’s most important and historic DJs, who broke several barriers to get where she is today.

11 min
Unsung Pioneers Yen Sung Beatportal Cover
Nov 25, 2021
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By
April Clare Welsh

“I’m a Leo, so I was just like; ‘this is what I’m going to do!’” quips Lisbon club legend Yen Sung on her laser-focused foray into DJing some thirty years ago.

A tenacious go-getter widely considered to be one of the country’s first-ever female DJs – if not the first – it seems only fitting that Portugal’s First Lady of Dance Music should be a fun-loving fire sign ruled by the sun. Spirited Leos are natural leaders associated with traits like ambition, energy and determination, and Sung has certainly needed bags of the above on her way to the top.

However, her journey getting there wasn’t an easy one, and she had to carve her own path. “When you are the first at something you have to push a lot of doors open yourself, and I encountered a lot of obstacles along the way,” she recalls. “But on the other hand, I was a unique thing. I managed to carry on doing it because I was something different. I was young and managed to do my thing. But I was doing it all on my own.”

When Sung first got behind the decks in the early ‘90s, female role models were thin on the ground. “There were maybe two other female DJs, but they were essentially doing it as a hobby, not as a career,” she recalls. “That’s why a lot of people say I was the first, because I was the first to make a career out of DJing.” Sung went on to become a font of all house and techno knowledge, building a faithful audience over the decades through her long-standing residency at Lisbon’s premier nightclub Lux Frágil, her hip-hop night Chocolate City and occasional radio mix shows like her slot for Lux on SBSR.FM.

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Yen Sung was born in Beira, a coastal city in Mozambique, to parents with Portuguese and Chinese heritage. She grew up listening to her father’s records, a mix of “very soulful stuff” like Shirley Bassey, Marvin Gaye, Brazilian artists like Gilberto Gil and African artists like Bonga. She relocated to Lisbon in 1977 and began developing a taste for dancing and clubbing at afternoon parties in the city. “Back then, I would listen to pop, a lot of soul and African music like kizomba and funana, because I used to go to this African club in Alfama, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore,” she says.

After becoming a regular punter at Frágil – the precursor to Lisbon superclub, Lux Frágil, of which Sung is now one of 11 resident DJs – a fortuitous meeting with the club’s beloved late owner, Manuel Reis, helped kick her DJ career into gear. “He was the first person who gave me a chance,” she says. Learning on the fly, armed with passion and drive, Sung soon went from strength to strength, dazzling crowds with her warm selections and also finding a niche as a hip-hop specialist. “No one else was playing hip hop at the time,” she remembers. Her evolution as a hip hop DJ began in the ‘90s with Lisbon rap crew Da Weasel and rapper Ithaka, and carried on until 2019, when she threw the last of her Chocolate City club nights at Lux.

Her passion for playing new hip hop may have waned in recent years, but as a professional DJ she’s always on the lookout for local gems. She namechecks Dino d’Santiago — a Portuguese singer of Cape Verdean descent who’s become the poster boy of the new Lisbon sound, or “Nova Lisboa” — as an artist currently on her radar. “He comes from the hip hop scene, and I like that he’s singing kriolu,” she says. “He’s been around for a while. His music has roots and you can identify very quickly with particular cultures. But also he’s just so good, he’s a great singer, he’s a great vocalist; he’s got it all.”

The Lux Frágil that stands today opened its doors in 1998, and Sung has been around since the beginning. It’s where we meet for our interview, sitting upstairs in the riverfront bar on a sunny Thursday afternoon in mid-November. I joke that the last time I was here (on Halloween), the atmosphere was decidedly less serene; I stayed until the sun came up and the space was still packed to the rafters with swirling, swaying revellers up for a good time.

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“I like the atmosphere up here… the lights and the space, it’s an easier floor and you can play whatever. It’s much more fun,” she says of our interview location. “But of course, I prefer downstairs. The crowd that goes downstairs, they go just for the music, and you really can feel that, so it’s more satisfying.”

Sung’s sleek sets are cool, calm and collected club-focused trips steered by a DJ who clearly understands a dancefloor. Effortlessly weaving house masters like Chez Damier and Kerri Chandler with face-melting acid and driving, metallic techno, Sung deals out the soul-drenched bangers that get people moving, but never compromises her own vision.

Sung carries a lot of clout as a local hero. Lisbon-based DJ CC:DISCO!, who recently played on the lineup with Sung at Lux, calls her a ‘national treasure.’ “Since Portugal opened back up just over a month ago, I’ve managed to see her play three very different sets, those being at Lux Fragil, Moga and Festival Iminente,” she explains. “From 7 am in the morning in a dark club to playing on the beach at sunset in Costa de caparica, she’s just got this effortless vibe of controlling a crowd and keeping them interested. Her recent set at Moga Festival was my standout, it was on the beach with the sun setting and she just had everyone smiling and grooving. Five stars baby, five stars.”

While Lux was closed during the pandemic (it opened its doors again in October, along with the rest of the nightlife in Portugal), like a lot of DJs, Sung suddenly found herself with more spare time. “I was very anxious in the beginning so I decided to do something about it and went back to producing.” She hadn’t produced anything for 20 years, but staying true to her Leo roots, decided to give it a whirl nonetheless. Her last release came in 2001, a track called “Do You,” which was released on Atlantic Jaxx (the publisher of Basement Jaxx) in 2001, while in 2002 she also turned in an Ennio Morricone remix.

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How did it feel getting back in the saddle after all that time? “At the beginning, it was a little bit daunting. I stopped in the first place because I thought it wasn’t for me. But back then, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. This time around it felt different,” she explains. Her first release in 20 years is a collaboration with Lisbon DJ and producer, Photonz; “a joint effort by two of Lisbon’s most dedicated dancefloor servants from two different generations of DJs,” they say. A rave stab-fueled blast of ‘90s-scented house featuring an uplifting ‘80s vocal sample, “Still” marks the launch of the pair’s new label, Alphabet Street (named after the Prince song, with the late icon having famously played at Lux back in 1998).

More Alphabet Street releases have since followed, drawing on Black consciousness and radical politics. There’s the PushingEP from rising, Lisbon-based DJ Cláudio Alexandre (aka KAKAF), who mixes edifying kicks with hypnotic house and a Nina Simone sample on the EP title track, the tumbling, techno-communism of Violet’s Sickle and HammerEP, and most recently, another collaboration from Photonz and Sung, their Angel RightsEP.

As a cherished veteran of Portuguese clubland and an inspiration to throngs of younger, POC clubgoers, what does Sung think of Portugal’s new generation of music fans and makers? “They are definitely more politicised,” she offers. “In a social sense, young people need to make statements and they want to be seen and heard. Of course, they are also more informed. I think it’s important, and when I was that age, when I was younger, I would also go to places where not so many people were going; it’s part of the evolution of things, and it’s great.”

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