Cover Story: Sherelle is Ready to Conquer the World

In just a few years, Sherelle has established herself as one of the most exciting names in club music, with a ferocious style encompassing footwork, drum & bass and more. With her rapidly accelerating life now on pause, she sits down with Danielle Koku in London to talk about her history, that infamous Boiler Room set, Black Lives Matter, and proving the haters wrong.

12 min
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Sept 22, 2020
Danielle Koku

The fast-paced cuts of native Londoner Sherelle precede her, but she’s got equally as much to say as she does to play. With a strong team of collaborators galvanising her rise, 2019 saw her burst onto the European electronic scene and its American footwork counterpart like a tsunami. Packed into a demure frame with eyes more akin to Bambi than the predator mentality her 160 BPM specialism coaxes, she’s faster to offer me a cup of tea and tell me about her new plants than she is to start letting it rip. Once we get into it though, it becomes clear that there’s much more to this rascal aficionado than her wool-blend beanies and printed button downs let on, and the hammer rests just below the surface.

Humble beginnings lure most DJs into understating their origins. At first, Sherelle played the same game. That lasted all of ten minutes before the real juice hit — and with it came an outpouring of memories, aspirations, laughs and honesty. All on-the-record with zero reservations, what follows is a conversation with one of the hottest DJs this side of the Atlantic in which, true to her style, she refused to let up.

Confronting the elephant in the room meant mourning pre- and post-coronavirus lockdown before anything else. In Europe, the United Kingdom has been one of the worst hit countries, with our sad set of groundhog days culminating in more than 340,000 cases, £900M in losses across the domestic music and live events industry, and 82% of venues at immediate risk of closure after a flimsy four-month lockdown period. As such, asking a DJ — whose lifestyle and income revolve around being in crowded spaces — what they’ve been doing with their newfound free time is sure to garner a strong response. “How are you?” and “What have you been up to?” now refers much less to enquiring after recent venues they’ve played. Instead, the question probes far deeper. Sherelle’s response — that “it was meant to be a much bigger year than it has been” — becomes an even bigger understatement upon reflection.

Negative preconceptions are a killer. For Sherelle, they’re the worst. Approaching the last quarter of 2019, she was amped to prove herself to the minority of hostile, headsy techno fans who dismissed her sound as tacky. Cruel comments about her sound followed her online and in person, and the now-cancelled Amsterdam Dekmantel Festival was her chance to offer “a massive fuck you with regards to what you expected of me, of the set, of my DJ skills and prowess.” She never made the event of course; no one did in the wake of its cancellation. Instead, she ripped through 80 minutes of explosive UK club music for the 285th episode of Dekmantel’s podcast, proving her detractors wrong twice: few ever thought she’d even reach the Dutch festival’s stage, but she not only came, she came harder than even her biggest fans expected her to. No middle-of-the-road, try-to-please-everyone fodder here.

Despite the success, it’s not exactly as gratifying as the real thing. But she’s glad to have her health and to be able to reflect. “I’d be out from Thursday to Monday, standard,” she says about her pre-COVID touring schedule. “Some days you’re doing three sets in a row. Once you’re into the third, the energy just isn’t there. Going from London to Paris to Amsterdam, it takes a toll on you, there wasn’t much time for me to think and adjust.”

Now settled into her own personal rhythm, she reflects on the pandemic as a blessing in disguise. “It’s a shame to think that if COVID-19 didn’t happen, I might have found myself in a robot state of going to gigs, playing, coming back home, and again.” Not stunned by the fast-paced lifestyle alone, she’s been able to reinvest that same time into what really matters — friends and family.

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Sherelle was born and raised in Walthamstow, East London, and spent plenty of time hanging around in nearby Woodford, Essex. Her musical childhood was filled with everything from indie to grime, Ice Cube to the Beastie Boys. As a teen, her sister introduced her to Limewire downloads of Aaliyah-style R&B before she found footwork mixes online in 2012. First, they were a way to pass the time at work. She wasn’t even aware what genre they fell under. But eventually a Machinedrum mix sealed the deal, and she started hunting for track IDs, finding DJ Nate’s Hatas Our Motivation and Cajmere’s “Brighter Days” along the way. She refers to these as her “stimuli,” as they featured the sampling style she recognised from her sister’s taste, and began filling the library of her iPod classic with anything they resembled.

In 2016, there came a much heavier intoxication with the genre, starting with founding father DJ Rashad. “I recognised his name from a Machinedrum tracklist from 2012,” says Sherelle. “Eight minutes in, the remix of “Brighter Days” by DJ Rashad (called “Brighter Dayz”) comes on.” And that’s the moment the penny dropped so perfectly for her. Unable to contain her excitement at the desk of her Shazam internship, she went home and downloaded every single footwork track she could find. In the process, she discovered the DJs and producers who would become her OGs — Rp Boo, DJ Clent and of course, DJ Rashad himself. (Heavily inspired by DJ Rashad, who died in 2014, Sherelle retains the present-tense frame of “is” as opposed to “was,” maintaining a respect and awe that is humbling.)

That same year, she switched out house and garage for footwork on her SoundCloud before approaching the station manager at Brixton’s Reprezent Radio with an idea for a footwork show. Surprisingly, backing for her specialist show came from her distant mutual friend Naina, who vouched for her despite knowing little about Sherelle at the time. And so, footwork and jungle became Sherelle’s steeze, and she’s been doing it ever since. “I just wanted to play music I loved,” she says.

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Sherelle’s tsunami moment, however, came in February 2019, when she played the now infamous Bass & Percs Special for Boiler Room. She opened her now-infamous set with “Brighter Dayz,” and for the next 50 minutes, the heaving throngs of bodies that filled the room didn’t pause for breath. Her eyes shine when she recalls that day. But she reveals that she almost turned it down. I just didn’t think I was ready.” Thankfully, she ploughed ahead anyway.

During hours of preparation, she combed through her tracklist over and over, mulling thoughts like “this is a good blend, this is a shit blend” until the set began to take shape. Then she treated herself to some new garms — a black and pink Champion tracksuit, to be specific. In the cab on the way to their sets with her girlfriend and producer/DJ LCY, they both shared the same anxiety, but “it felt like you weren’t going in alone,” she says. When they arrived, it was a room of familiar faces and kind energy. The one thing London’s underground nightlife has maintained despite the last decade of hardships is a fragile community of familiar faces. In essence, “that Boiler Room is the perfect embodiment of under-underground club culture” itself, Sherelle says. Slightly nervous to start on after Jossy Mitsu, who similarly shakes up rooms, Sherelle confesses to gulping down her Magnum before throwing it under the table, plugging her headphones in and getting on with it.

It was the next morning when she realised what she’d pulled off. Curious, but not understanding the full ramifications of the set, she initially shrugged it off. When the growing flood of notifications nearly broke her phone, what really happened began dawning on her. “My Instagram went from 1K to 7K within a week,” she says. Hungover and stumbling into work kebab-in-hand to screams and chants from her colleagues, she was “super fucking gassed. The set changed my life, to be honest with you.”

As bookings picked up, Sherelle gave up her job and began spending more time on the road. Her first international gig was at Annie Mac’s Lost & Found Festival in Malta, and her most memorable was the former Parisian techno palace Concrete, which was set on a three-storey boat on the Seine river. Playing from 6AM to 9AM — the last on a lineup of heavyweights including Midland, Galcher Lustwerk and Jane Fitz — she felt she had a lot to prove. But “once I did it, and I knew I could do it — I knew it was game over.” Closing the club was a turning point for her and LCY. They realised there was nothing they couldn’t do together thereafter.

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Fortunately, Sherelle is not haunted by imposter syndrome. There’s a neat, self-assured ease to her voice as she rattles off more mad nights followed by sick mornings. She’s clearly in it for the long haul. What she does seem to take personally though, is not being taken seriously for what she does. Knowing what she’s capable of and wanting to be respected for it means she’s not treading water, and enjoys being put under pressure.

Unsurprisingly, her collaborators are equally spirited. Alongside Dobby, Fauzia, Jossy Mitsu, LCY and Yazzus, this year she helped birth the mighty 6 Figure Gang, a no-frills club music crew dedicated to showing up and showing out. Their 2020 launch saw them slightly stalled by the pandemic, but heavy whispers of anticipation follow the group’s every move. And whatever function they pull up to once the air clears is sure to be as wild as they come.

Likewise, the Hooversound Recordings label Sherelle runs with London-based Apple presenter Naina has been on a roll since its launch earlier this year. Its first release was BS6, a five-track EP by Surrey ally Hyroglifics and Detroit-originator Sinistarr that featured a remix by Scratch DVA. That was followed by the BURNA EP by Deft’s and HØST’s SURVIVE, which features a remix from Om Unit. Big stuff, with plenty more promised.

Understanding Sherelle as a person (and as a “brand”, as the commercially minded might say), means recognising the steadfast loyalty from her nearest and dearest. Callum, her manager, and LCY, her girlfriend, are two of these pillars. They’ve been there from the beginning, and throughout they refer to her by nickname only, sharing the kind of small in-jokes that make any third party feel warm enough to observe genuine bonds that don’t revolve around clout or money. Together, her team functions as a buffer to the harsh, abrasive, uncaring world of nightlife in which many have lost themselves. Most of all, Sherelle’s compassionate approach to music is reflected in them, and her support network really comes through for her.

In an industry where the red herring of political correctness governs heavily PR-engineered responses to controversial questions, Sherelle breaks the mould by readily engaging in tougher conversations. It’s no secret that 2020 has been rough — images of Black death have littered our screens, with videos of police brutality exposing the raw underbelly of white supremacy.

Whilst celebrities have filled their Instagram feeds with superficial Black squares and admittedly more impactful fundraisers, Black creatives have had to watch their people decimated, over and over again. Our cultural capital as entertainers and critics does little to insulate us from the cold reality of industries built off the capitalisation and co-option of our labour. “In those weeks where everything was happening, it was good to see people mad,” Sherelle says. “It was good to see, ‘You’re mad too? Yeah, sick.’ But it got to a point where a lot of people who weren’t Black or POC may not have realised that by resharing videos of violent brutality, they were only re-traumatising us.”

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When the outside world intersects with the realities of experiencing the music industry through the lens of Black Queer Womanhood, it is not visible Blackness alone that frames her experience. When I ask her what it’s like to create with this in mind, and in this climate, she answers plainly: “One of the saddest things you could really ever do, is put out a mix where it’s meant to be happy, but you’re not happy.” For her, the personal is very much political. The week she recorded her powerful Dekmantel mix, she’d been in and out of the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the capitol. “It’s really hard to create a mix when maybe, every so often, you have a flashback of watching a video of someone being shot. It’s a bit fucked. The worst thing is that as a Black woman, it’s not the first one I’ve seen. Obviously, myself as a fucking Black queer woman, it’s always there.” Filled with both rage and the pressing need to do something, the mix became an outpouring of everything she felt and wanted to retell. How an individual’s rage can become another person’s enjoyment whilst their own people are collectively mourning is only one of the disconnects between Black creators navigating white spaces. Our pain is intrinsically tied to our labour, which makes it profitable in a tragic way.

Retelling the story of DJ Flight, one of the few Black women of Metalheadz who, with Kemistry, are veteran drum & bass figures, Sherelle narrates a recent name mixup involving Flight and another younger DJ named DJ Flite. When the dispute went public on Twitter, it became apparent that a lot of so-called die-hard drum & bass fans had no idea who DJ Flight was. They even began disrespecting her long-standing contributions to the scene. “For me, it’s quite easy to find out about DJ Flight because she’s attached to Metalheadz. But is it easy for me because I’m a Black woman? Maybe I’m already searching and looking for other women who look like me in the scene,” Shrelle wonders. The whitewashing of Black histories threatens to rob Black DJs of their legacies altogether, which is why for Sherelle, “research is key.” Without it, “a lot of Black stories end up whitewashed.”

The parameters of Black music can be confining for any of us who don’t bump commercial trap and rap. It manifests in the easy dismissal of house music as not being “Black” because it replaces soul with repetitive, machine-made sounds that relegate it to being cast aside as “oonts oonts music”. Sherelle openly states that, “In actual fact, electronic music is Black music.” The history of rave culture is as equally Black as any other genre, and she finds it a shame that isn’t common knowledge for some. The Chicago Godfather of House, DJ Frankie Knuckles, garage, jungle, even hardcore and hip-hop — it’s all intertwined for her. “My expectations are very much on the floor, only because I think our electronic music scene has been built by Black, Queer people. The reflection you see via lineups, in clubs, who you’re booked with however, is not there. You would think it’s the other way round.”

I ask her what progress looks like for people who want to create genuine change more than they want to write Twitter threads. “It goes beyond looking at a Wikipedia page,” she says. “It’s potentially reading books about it, books that go further. Everyone knows about [the book] Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race, but realistically we should be reading Black activists like Frantz Fanon, Bell Hooks and Angela Davis, from a theoretical standpoint. I just hope people keep reading.”

When I ask her what more she has in store for us in the future, she’s just as excited as I am, musing, “I’m just building this massive collection of heavy hitters, I’m ready to go.” I jokingly ask if world domination is on the list, and she quickfires back with a casual “Oh, yeah,” gingering that her future plans are glaringly ambitious. Turning her focus inwards, however, she says, “I’ve been given a chance to essentially change some of the landscape, so why not fucking do it? There’s a lot to do, but I’m ready to do it now, I’m ready to get shit done.” By focusing on altering the immediate reality of the electronic music scene through campaigning for fair payment for DJs, representative lineups and real access for POC beyond tokenism, there is no doubt that Sherelle has set her sights high in changing not only the sonic landscape of electronic music, but the people within it. And her belief that the “community-level will always prevail” is promising.

If first impressions count for anything, Sherelle is more than any single livestream lets on. Taking me across the world and back in and under two hours, all of it is Sherelle’s right now.

Danielle Koku is a freelance journalist living in London. Find her on Twitter.

Isaac Lamb is a freelance photographer living in London. Find him on Instagram.

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