WHP FEATURE 024
none of them start with introducing a war torn country to the concept of rave, before being forced to flee said country’s corrupt police force and morally outraged public. This was, however, exactly how Nicole Moudaber’s career kicked off.
In 2016 there are several routes to DJ fame. You might post a couple of tracks on Soundcloud, watch one of them blow up, and quickly find yourself headlining Vegas for a cool half a million a show. Or you might make your name by running a string of hyped parties in Berlin, learning your craft in front of one of the most discerning dance crowds in the world, before going on to be picked up by a global booking agent. Maybe you’ll be given a break by Red Bull Music Academy. Maybe you’ll score a tune in a Nissan advert. The point is, in 2016 there are several fairly well travelled routes to DJ fame; almost none of them start with introducing a war torn country to the concept of rave, before being forced to flee said country’s corrupt police force and morally outraged public. This was, however, exactly how Nicole Moudaber’s career kicked off.
“My first party was in Beirut…” Moudaber is speaking from her flat in London. She’s just touched down after spending 24 hours flying from one gig to another in South America. This sort of double-ended-candle-burning takes its toll on the best of us, and today Moudaber’s voice – husky at normal times – is sounding like Eartha Kitt after smoking three packs of Marlboro Reds. She accentuates this with the faux-dramatic delivery of a golden age Hollywood starlet, peppering her talk with scandalous laughter and plenty of ‘darlings’, all of which makes her immensely more entertaining to interview than your standard tech house plodder. After some talk about her intense touring schedule (“I think I must have toured the world three times this year…”), she’s slipped into contemplating the distance between dance culture today and the scene she started out in -and, to be fair, started up- in in the mid to late 90s.
we could put on events in the middle of the city in bombed places. It was crazy.”
“Compared to how things are now…? You can’t compare the scenes. It was cowboy land when I first played in Beirut. After the war it was tough- but it also was easy because the city was ready to be rebuilt and they wanted to put it back on the map. We had a lot of help from the city and the generals at the time; they opened every door for us and facilitated all the licenses so we could put on events in the middle of the city in bombed places. It was crazy.”
This was when Lebanon had come out of a 15 year war that had seen Muslims and Christians battle in a conflict that split Russia and Western world powers. It was a mess that left the country divided, poor, and sick of conflict. And while the West had been embracing the exploding dance culture of the 80s and 90s, Moudaber was trying to bring electronic music into a country where, cut off from musical innovation by constant warfare, it had almost no foundation – even to the point where the technology the DJs used seemed weirdly out of date…
“At the time the people weren’t used to this kind of music at all. When the DJs came with their vinyl, people were laughing; they didn’t know vinyl still existed. They were probably used to their parent’s vinyl, but they hadn’t seen DJs playing off it. They were just listening to cassettes. So they were saying, ‘oh they came with vinyl? What is this?’”
“I had to source the radio stations with radio shows. I remember I got the Ministry of Sound radio show over there to play this kind of music to get people used to it, because it was totally new. And developing this music in a new territory, really developing it, is pretty hard. It’s challenging. At the time I had to bring the records that were kind of charting back then, and getting those acts to come over and perform them, so we had Sash playing Encore Une Foir – they performed it live and everybody recognised it. That was an easy way to introduce the rest of it.”
Unsurprisingly in a country riven by religious conflict, post war Lebanon had a number of opposing notions on what was and wasn’t an acceptable pursuit for young people. As Lebanese youth started to enjoy freedoms that had been unheard of in the previous 15 years, there was also the rise of an official ‘moral police force’ determined to keep perceived liberalism in check. Inevitably parties that encouraged hedonism and blurry sexual boundaries, soundtracked by music long linked to decadent Western drug taking, were always going to raise a red flag in the more prurient corners of power. Moudaber explains how she knew – in no uncertain terms- that her time was up.
“After a couple of years, around 2000, Lebanon was booming again, tourism was booming again, but at the time the Syrians were still very present in our country, and their values were completely different to ours. There were a lot of restrictions and there were a lot of undercover cops. One night I threw a party around Halloween. It’s an opportunity for gays to dress up, so they all arrived in flamboyant outfits, expressing themselves artistically, wanting to be themselves. At that party there was undercover press who published a story five months later in the equivalent of Cosmopolitan Magazine for the Middle East. The cover title was ‘Perversion and Homosexuality in Beirut’. You opened that page and it had a 5 page spread about my party and how I’m creating perverted ideas in there…”
She has a satisfied chortle at this, before turning far more serious.
“Being a promoter taught me a lot about how to build a night musically. When I play my long sets – sometimes 11 or 12 hours – I just get locked in for hours and hours.
“Back then it was kind of shocking to do this sort of party. I got asked to come down and give a deposition in the moral police station which was part of all this sleazy shit. They wanted to hold me for the weekend. If I’d been held up in there they would have made an example out of me, luckily and thank God, my sister was a lawyer and she knew the magistrates and the judges. I got away with it and got out in a few hours. After that point I decided to come to London and fuck Beirut basically. That was it for me.”
This started her onto an international track. She went from trying to physically kick start a scene in Beirut to dropping straight into the heart of London’s thriving house and techno community. Having made it in a far more hostile environment, promoting in London was a comparative pleasure, and Moudaber took the opportunity to do more than just make do; she excelled. Running parties at the much missed Turnmills venue, she honed her own sound, a blend of deep house and melodic techno that weaves between hard and soft, spacious and intense – and learnt some lessons that have since proved handy- particularly now she’s taken to playing eye-wateringly long sets. After recalling all the things she hated about promoting (and it’s a typical list; the lack of money, the stress, the balls ups), she gets round to what she loved about it;
“Being a promoter taught me a lot about how to build a night musically. When I play my long sets – sometimes 11 or 12 hours – I just get locked in for hours and hours. I love being really creative, building the sets and telling a story. I don’t want to be in a club where the music is very disjointed, where the music is up and down without any flow to it. It takes a lot of time to learn how to warm up then take it one notch up, then another notch up – you rely on your ear, your gut and the music that you have. It’s like building good architecture. You build the base and go up from there.”
Moudaber’s drive, along with her ability to read a crowd and build these intricate, crafted sets, has been a huge factor in her explosion in popularity. A few years back, Carl Cox was tipping her as the world’s most underrated DJ –and we can assume he’s a man who knows a thing or two – and Moudaber has been jetting around the world since. Her style isn’t a million miles apart from Cox’s; both are happy to draw from all corners of house and techno whilst keeping their sets aimed squarely at the big room. There is, however, one major difference; unlike Cox, whose forays into production have always been seen as a poor cousin to his inarguably top tier deck skills, Moudaber teams the ability to pick a peak time anthem with the ability to create peak time anthems of her own. Best known is her elongated remix of Alcatraz’s Giv Me Luv. A master class in minimal bass and precise vocals creating tension and release, the remix dominated progressive and techno dancefloors in 2015, scored her her first Beatport techno chart number #1, and went on to be one of the site’s Top 20 tracks of the year. Fans will be happy to hear that, despite her non-stop gig schedule, she’s hoping to repeat this feat a few more times yet.
“I have a new track with Skin from Skunk Anansie that’s coming out at the end of the year,” she enthuses. “That’s killing it every time I play it. I also finished a remix of Gregor Tresher that is quite deep and melodic. I’m planning to get back in the studio and do an album next year. I’m going to make something a bit more electronic, but my hectic schedule is stopping me getting my head together to make music, especially with my weekly radio show, working out what new music to play on that is taking a lot of time, but I will put something together.”
The dance album is a milestone that has sunk many an artist. As has often been noted, techno is by and large best heard on 12” single or in the mix. Now an increasingly confident Moudaber, whose first album for Drumcode was a fairly traditional ‘straight’ techno record, is planning on leveraging her higher profile to allow her to make a stranger, deeper record, pushing herself past the trap of bundling together a string of dance floor cuts and calling it an album.
“I could have got more creative on my first album,” she admits, “but as a new and upcoming artist you have to stick to what you’re known for. Once that is established you can do other things and that will be more acceptable. So I’m thinking of doing something on the ambient, chill-out, trip hop side of things. That’s the music I love to listen to when I’m chilling. I like trippy music, and I want to go into that direction with it and see what comes up. So we’ll see.”
As she says this, she’s sounding increasingly knackered, sleep being something of a distant memory to this globetrotting DJ who seems to have pulled herself to the top on strength of will alone. Is she even going to chill out enough to record this chill out record? She laughs at this.
“YES! I’m stopping travelling the world mid-January to mid-March. I haven’t stopped for two years, so I’m stopping, I’m going to Bali. I’ll get inspiration there, I’m saying fuck you all, I’m outta here!” And she laughs again, before excusing herself, off to snatch some much needed sleep before boarding one more plane to play one more show in one more country.