Artist of the Month: Nicole Moudaber is a Resilient Techno Force
Artist of the Month: Nicole Moudaber is a Resilient Techno ForceMarch 9, 2021
The first thing Nicole Moudaber did after her party sold out in Beirut was fill a garbage bag with money and dump it in her parents hallway. They’d cut her off when she told them she planned to work in music, and that garbage bag was her way of communicating in “a language they could understand.”
Defiance, resistance, passion — it’s a fitting representation of Nicole Moudaber’s career. Born to Nigerian and Lebanese parents, Moudaber spent her childhood in Lagos and moved to Beirut as a teen. There she found herself in “a conservative environment, a patriarchal society.” And from a young age, she says she felt the need to express herself “as a woman and, more importantly, as my own person.”
Nicole’s presence, even through Zoom, is as powerful as her story. Her hair is glorious — big and raven-black — and her eyes are dark and bright at the same time. Her voice is pure rock-star gravel and the words roll out in a French-Lebanese cadence, both sing-song and self-assured. She speaks from her central London living room, half of which is taken up by a home studio where she streams her In The MOOD radio show each week, live from lockdown.
The woman is a superstar. She’s shaped the way the world parties, but she turns up early for our call and is so warm and encouraging I immediately feel like she has my back; like Nicole Moudaber is my ally. “The key to success in this business is to be nice to people,” she says, rolling a cigarette. “Actually, not in business — in life. And it’s free!”
Nicole’s teenaged ambition to be her own person sounds like a reasonable request, but in context, it demonstrates great courage. From 1975 to 2005, Lebanon was submerged in conflict. They call it a Civil War, but the Lebanese prefer the term “proxy war.” Instead of a conflict between local factions, and the country was being used as a battleground for Syrian, Israeli and Palestinian forces.
When Nicole was growing up, Lebanon was under occupation and lived by the laws and societal standards of the Syrian regime. Detention centres were set up around the country to suppress deviance of any kind, and anyone who protested was either arrested, detained, brutally beaten, or all of the above. So Nicole’s determination to express herself was a stand against a much bigger force than her parents. But, as she likes to say, “Only dead fish go with the flow.”
As soon as she could, she moved to London to study social sciences with a minor in Women’s Studies at The American International University. Her parents hoped she’d work for Amnesty International or in the House of Commons, but unfortunately for them, she’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for London nightlife. Her weekends were a hedonistic whirlwind of dizzy nights in Shoreditch and hazy dawns in Vauxhall. She was a regular at Strawberry Sundae, “a full-on hard house night … the maddest, sweatiest, most thumping night in London in the mid-‘90s,” says the night’s inflatables designer.
The freedom Moudaber experienced in nightlife and music seeped through her skin and into her bones. She felt it was her earthly duty to share the UK’s almighty ‘90s vibe with her home city, but Moudaber’s parents didn’t agree. When she told them, they cut her off financially.
Unperturbed, Nicole threw her first party, Trashy Renaissance, in 1999. She chose a venue in the centre of Beirut that sat between a bombed out cathedral and a near-flattened mosque. “We had this space that could hold 1,000 people and stacks of speakers,” Nicole says. “I flew in DJs from Trade in London and dancers from Paris. It was a defining moment. We had all walks of life: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze. All of them came to dance under the stars.”
Nicole’s dance floor utopia didn’t last long. Undercover Syrian agents attended one of her Halloween parties and photos of her wild, free, and LGBTQ+ friendly rave were published in a national magazine the next day. “My party was on the cover with the headline: Homosexuality and perversion in Beirut.”
The police called Nicole into the station for questioning. “It was like Guantanamo Bay. It was so scary. Just as I arrived, people started running and screaming down the corridor. A 24-year-old had thrown himself out the fourth-floor window because he’d been caught with a tiny bit of weed.”
They attempted to hold Nicole for three days but her sister, who’s a lawyer, made some calls and got her out. “I was so lucky,” Nicole says. “But it put a really bad taste in my mouth. I was trying to promote culture and art and put the city back on the map. But it was too dangerous.”
So Nicole took her fire-breathing spirit to London. The combination of Lebanese energy and UK freedom led to an explosive night called Soundworx at Clerkenwell’s Turnmills venue. This is where you would find Nicole, every third Friday of the month, for six years. The party laid the foundation of her career; she booked and connected with hundreds of DJs. In fact, many of today’s global superstars played their first UK gig under Nicole’s wing.
Moudaber started tinkering with DJing and production in Beirut, but it was during the late 2000s that she started playing out. Already well-loved within the club community, it wasn’t long before her skills caught the attention of Carl Cox, who declared Nicole Moudaber dance music’s most underrated DJ in 2009.
Moudaber released her first LP, Believe, in 2013 on Adam Beyer’s mammoth Drumcode imprint, which launched her career into the stratosphere. She’s either been nominated for or won every single DJ and production award in the industry, and headlined nearly every major festival in dance music, and held a longstanding residency at Carl Cox’s Revolution night at Space Ibiza. She constantly defies expectations, teaming up with artists like Skin and Moby, collaborating with her inner crew of tastemakers, or releasing genre-spanning bangers with Carl Craig, Pan-Pot, Jamie Jones, and Eats Everything, amongst others.
And then there’s In The MOOD, her weekly radio show with an eight-figure listenership from countries as far-flung as Colombo, Phuket, and Barbados. The awards she wins tend to land in the techno category, but her selections and productions span far beyond any four-on-the-floor formula. You’ll find Nicole topping Beatport’s house, minimal, deep tech, electro, and even acid charts.
With such a thrilling life, perhaps it’s no surprise that Moudaber likes to race cars in her spare time. She finds the concentration needed to control a vehicle at high-speed cathartic, and feels that pushing her limits is the best way to understand herself. But until recently there was a direction in which her limits had not been pushed — inwards. So when lockdown happened, it floored her.
“For three months I was catatonic. My life was turned off,” she says. Nicole was unable to process the rising death toll along with the decimation of her beloved industry. But, she wonders aloud, whether this sharp and brutal crash came from an inability to escape. Without the smoke and lasers and screaming crowds, without the take-offs and landings and pounding, all-consuming music, all she had left were her thoughts.
“I was on the road for eight solid years,” she says. “I have many issues and I didn’t want to think about them. I just buried myself in work.” Nicole’s non-stop tour schedule began in 2013, a few months after her beloved father passed away. “You know, it took me seven years to get over the betrayal I felt in my mind. But the lesson is acceptance. When you resist, you will suffer. And I’m the type of person that resists everything.”
It’s this resistance that drove Nicole to stand up to occupation, to defy her family, to build a dance music empire. But 2020 helped her understand that in some cases, instead of resistance, therapy might make more sense. “I should have done it eight years ago, but I did it two months ago. That helped me get out of my head, view things in a different way. But it’s a constant battle, trying to understand myself.”
After three months lying on the couch, Nicole picked herself up and began making music in summer. She released “Pepper Shake” with Jamie Jones, an Ibiza day-party heater that doesn’t seem to reflect any sense of loss or despair at all, rather a big-bass care-free optimism.
Her latest release is a two-track EP with Alan T, a Miami-nightlife legend and an old friend of Moudaber’s. “Alan T is a very artistic, creative, funny guy,” Moudaber says. “He has inspired me since the day we crossed paths in Miami in early the 2000s. We vibe on the same things. We laugh at the same crazy things. He’s very special.”
For their first track, “The Volume,” the pair packaged their rage and frustration into an unapologetic techno pounder. “I have to say it was the longest project I ever worked on,” Nicole says. “I couldn’t focus as I used to be able to.” Alan T sent files of acapellas and Nicole “chopped them and sliced them and diced them” in Ableton Live. She describes her approach to programming as architecture, and feels that collaborations with artists as energising as Alan T truly expand her creative horizons.
Nicole’s particularly proud of the EP’s second track, “The Music Is Mine.” Her process usually starts and ends in Ableton. However, this time she mechanised Alan T’s vocals using Logic Pro. But the biggest change came with where she made the track. Normally Nicole spends her free time in airport lounges or on flights tinkering with production. But she found it ten times more difficult to produce music while static in her living room. But she worked through it, creating a track she wants to dance to with a person she adores, which makes it all the more rewarding.
Moudaber admits 2020 wasn’t all bad. She spent the end of the year in Lebanon, reconnecting with her home country and family in their olive grove in the north. “I got to rekindle my love affair for all the things I miss, after being away for so long.”
Last year her beloved Beirut went through trauma within trauma when a devastating explosion caused 207 deaths, 7,500 injuries, and 15 billion USD in property damage. 300,000 people were rendered homeless, and the city’s nightclubs were decimated. Nicole teamed up with Beatport to raising thousands of dollars in aid for the club community by live-streaming a two-part #togetherforbeirut 24 hour DJ marathon.
Now, she says, the club community is getting back on its feet. “They’re rebuilding. The resilience that we built throughout the years during the war — it’s in our DNA to just dust it off and carry on. Yes, the morale is down, but people want to stand up and move forward.”
It’s also in Moudaber’s DNA to use her power for good. In 2018 she launched a charity called ELEVEN to raise awareness and help prevent female genital mutilation, as well as support survivors. “I want to empower women and girls around the world,” Nicole says. “FGM is one of the harshest subjects I’ve ever delved into. This shit makes me boil. So we try to raise awareness, raise money, stop it happening.” She also works with Lower East Side Girls Club, a youth club in New York that helps young women facing adversity build bright futures. She tells me she’s sending a package of her own production equipment over to them next week.
Nicole dreams of living in a world where we no longer use the term “female DJ” — or “female” anything for that matter. “When more women are in positions of authority, like president, then we’ll be equal,” she says. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and it starts with changing perceptions of women. This education needs to start when kids are two or three years old. Parents need to teach their kids about equality.” She takes a drag of her cigarette, leans back in her chair, and smiles. “Because don’t forget, we give lives… And that means we’re God.”