The Sick Girls are an institution in Berlin when it comes to a global, bass-heavy sound that makes you wiggle on the dancefloor. They are active as DJs for a couple of years know and well known for their party series Revolution N°5 which brought some of the most interesting artists in contemporary Urban Bass Music to Berlin over the past years (e.g. Kano, Radioclit, Dizzee Rascal, Matt Shadetek, Goldielocks, Mumdance, Mitchell Brothers, Wiley, Spankrock….). On the occasion of their recent mixtape-release on BBE (also including their debut production “V Skank”) I had a little talk with Alex & Johanna about Berlin, ass-kicking music and diversity of styles…
You started with the Sick Girls in 2004, but at this point you were already pretty active in Berlin’s music scene, like as bookers and journalists. How come you started this DJ project?
Johanna: Music was boring. The thing that we were involved in, which was mainly Techno, had just been around for so long. And I don’t know, all of a sudden there was all this exciting stuff coming over from the UK. When I heard Grime for the first time I was like: “What’s that?”
There is always this point when you think, nothing is ever gonna change, you know, the music stagnates and stands still and blablabla – but it didn’t. There was this new, rough energy coming and I don’t know, we had to listen to it! And then Alex took over I think…
Alex: Yes, for me it was basically the same, but it was really strange because I never ever thought that I would be a DJ. I was working with DJs for such a long time, since 1990, and I never had the urge to be a DJ myself. I could have started right away, you know, I could have been retired by now, like Monika Kruse for example, just from the timing. But I never thought I could do this, and I was too much involved with other things, and I didn’t even think about it. But then at this point, I don’t know, it was as Johanna said, I had been everywhere and I had listened to every Techno music then, but it was really boring. And then this friend of mine introduced me to Grime, and for me it was like at the beginning of Techno, when I was really excited, like “Wooh, something is happening”. It is that kind of body reaction, for me music is always about body reaction. If my body, all my nerves, react to a kind of rough beat or whatever, then I know that’s something I have to listen to.
Beside this friend who introduced me to Grime I hardly knew anyone who was listening to or making this music. Then I met Johanna, we already knew each other, but not really close, like you know each other in a scene. We started talking and… [turns to Johanna] How did we actually find out that we like the same music?
J: Was it at a Grime Time maybe?
A: I can’t remember, I can only remember that we said oh, great, we have to play together, but I can’t remember the initial talk.
J: Did we actually talk about it?
A [laughs]: We had to!
J: I think we didn’t. I think Alex invited me to play at the Bar of Tresor, and then it just turned out that we liked the same things. I think we just played stuff that we liked and then it was exactly the same kind of music.
A: That is this saga we always tell, but it really happened like that. It was really this kind of crazy night, and we were really like little children at a kindergarten who show their toys to each other. We were totally excited and it was really cool.
It’s quite funny that your first gig was at Tresor, as it’s THE institution for Berlin Techno, but you are now one of the forces working against those minimal straight Berlin sound. Furthermore, I totally associate you with this whole Berlin thing – for example the clubs where your parties take place are a constituent part of Berlin Mitte’s clubbing scene. With you it’s not with many other Global Bass people here, who are in contrast to you seem to act more from the outside, who are not that much able to attract the typical Berlin clubber.
J: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that the way we are playing is very special and carries a certain kind of energy. And I think many people who would never have thought that they might like this music or would consider this as kind of cool are like “wooah” when they see us.
But you not only manage quite well to carry away folks in Berlin-Mitte. Since four years you also have a stage at Splash Festival [Germany’s biggest Hip Hop festival] with really exciting bookings so far. Quite amazing, as German Hip Hop heads are not known for being that open-minded. How is the feedback there?
J: We scored very early in the Hip Hop scene. Because they totally dig two women playing such crass music. It’s really funny, but when we play Splash, we always have a full tent, even when at the same time an act is playing that’s 10 times bigger than us. It’s quite weird, exactly as you always think, they are not a bit open-minded…
A: Like “hey, you can’t spin with 5 arms DMC way…”. But they really don’t care. We always have a full tent of dudes who party hard. And look at Juice for example [most important Hip Hop print magazine in Germany]: they started quite early to cover other genres and styles because Hip Hop itself diminishes and needs to incorporate other stuff to stay alive.
J: Think about what Hip Hop itself does, for example Timberland who very early started to work with 2Step beats, or the Black Eyed Peas who did a Fidget track.
Sure, but there is a difference between what producers are doing and what the average listener likes.
J: Yes, but it comes through the backdoor, the people have heard something like that already. Next step is incorporation in the mainstream, what you might not always like, but that’s the way it goes. Mostly it doesn’t remain underground too long […]. Apart from that the days of monocultural Hip Hop are over. The kids growing up today have another way of access to music, because through the internet everything is in reach. This total identification with one scene is no longer, it’s a broader approach.
A: Furthermore all this has something to do with Hip Hop, and that’s the main point. There will be rapped, there will be spoken over broken beats, that’s Hip Hop. Actually everything is Hip Hop [laughing].
And with your own party in Berlin ( called Revolution N° 5), which is also around for a while now (5 years to be exactly)? Do you think it has changed over the years how the people receive this music?
A: Yes, totally! Ok, when we started Grime and Baile Funk had a hype, what meant a totally different kind of medial interest for these two musical styles. It really got pushed, and it was really new. As always when you deal with something „new“ people from various scenes come to see what’s going on. And the energy was different. And there wasn’t a ready audience, the whole style was not born yet: there was no particular way to dress, or particular signals, all that was not born yet. It was rather a motley crew, Hip Hop and Techno people, hipsters… I think that really changed, now you have those kinds of scenes again.
As you said, the last years, actually almost exactly since you started, saw the emergence of a more or less closed scene of music which is moving away from a variety of local styles to a more global sound.
A: Actually, I think it’s a pity. Because I actually prefer mixture and openess in music. Now you often realise that you can’t play what you like anymore, the people know the ropes, they have expectations, they expect certain hits…
Which means today you have to meet certain expectations, and that definitely influenced our style of playing which is totally different than 5 years ago. This has various reasons, one is that we are getting more bookings today, also international. Then you are somewhere for 2 hours and can’t just drop a random eclectic set, I don’t know… The people want 2 hours in ya face music, and you just have to do that then.
Even though I have the impression you always had a certain UK focus – different styles, be it Funky, Dubstep, Grime, whatever, Bassline, but still UK.
J: I don’t know, I think we have always picked up a lot of American stuff too. In the beginning we played a lot of Dirty South, which will be back soon the way I see it (laughs). And of course Bmore and Juke and Bounce and all this, so I wouldn’t narrow it on UK. I feel like it always gets this perception because this is in the medias’ focus. Actually I would not say that we have a UK thing running. For us everything new is interesting, no matter where. If that would be Argentina, cool either.
A: It’s definitely America and England, that’s right. We rather play Baile Funk anymore, one awesome track here and there, but… I for my part didn’t participate in this whole Cumbia thing, because I don’t like it, same with Guarachero. Occasionally we also played a lot of African stuff, but we started with a focus on Grime plus many US styles. Through Diplo’s work (which we discovered as we always wanted to discover Hip Hop-based music), we started to play Bmore at a very early point. Johanna might have actually played the first Bmore tracks in Berlin.
[…]Needless to say, when we started I first had to figure out where to buy records – basically I only knew Techno shops like Hardwax. Then someone pointed me to HHV, I went there and bought like everything. They most likely thought „what’s wrong with her?“ Old stuff, new stuff, this and that and that, Gangster Rap and Alternative, do you have something from the UK – I literally snatched up everything what I liked…
Thus a „digger“-mentality? What you think is cool or discover is what you play when you think it will rock?
A: Yes totally. We still do it like that.
J: Sometimes we develop in different directions and first need to get comfortable with what the other one just digs. But actually that’s what totally cuts it. That’s what constitutes our work, we don’t play homogenous sets but what we like. And not what matches perfectly or what the others play, that’s totally irrelevant. […]
That goes with the fact that your debut production is kind of hidden in your just released mixtape (Revolution N°5 – Sick Tricks & Urban Bass, out on BBE). I instantly recognized this as I think it’s quite uncommon.
A: Yes, we hid it pretty well, that’s right.
J: And it’s only the end of the track on the mixtape.
Yes, even worse! [laughing]
But in this regard the release is also a „DJ turned producer“ thing – you show what you like and your own production is embedded in this. But you plan to do more own productions in the future? In which direction are you heading?
A: Well, that’s rather open, […] we always try to expand that field. And actually we always like new music, new new new, that’s very important, but it has to have a certain kind of energy that attracts us. And with the tracks we are going to make it will be the same – a certain kind of energy, of squirrelly restlessness that makes you shake your booty. I would not say we consider a genre now and then we do that, that’s not how it works. That’s also one of the most interesting aspects of working in the studio for me: you start with a certain idea but get a totally different track in the end. Because you develop with the sound, Johanna comes up with something, I come up with something. In the end it’s an independent product with an independent character and you think “Oh hello, what do you do here?”. What I enjoyed most so far was doing a remix for Ezra Bang & Hot Machine, which will be released in November – that really rocked. We did it at Johanna’s home on her grandpa’s speakers, and luckily just had gotten Native Instruments’ Maschine – lots of new sounds, which were all very very nice and modern. And out of nothing with really few elements we transformed the original track into something completely new, which was great. Within a week – it was like wow […]. And we are still in the process of generating our own personal Sick Girls sound.
Your recent production “V Skank” is also hard to relate to a particular genre but what you would call „Global Bass“ rather than anything else. Do you see yourself as part of this scene?
A: Yes. Anyway it’s hard to name the child. Being asked what you play you hum and haw and then say 10 words…
J: I think it’s always difficult. Nobody wants to admit making Pop or something like that. It’s like that: I do something completely different than anybody else…
A: Or when you ask a DJ, who evidentially plays UK Funky the whole night, what he usually plays, he will answer by no means he plays UK Funky.
J: Or a Minimal DJ would never say he is playing Minimal.
A: As someone who looks at music or deals with it as a journalist I always need a genre, because I am in need of naming. But for explaining what I actually do the term Global Bass works for me. Basically that’s what it is.
J: Moreover we always want to surprise. And that can be hard when you are bound to a certain genre. It’s not that we would start with totally different music, but nevertheless it’s always about this expansion of sound. And when you feel like you have to stick to a certain way this becomes difficult.
A: A good example is Witch House, that indie-esque new music from the US. Partial corny, partial awesome and intersecting with the music we like. I would never call this Global Bass, not a bit. But nonetheless you can integrate it in your set and see how you can translate it in your kind of music. I think that’s the point we want to maintain: not being bound to one genre, but always have options at hand. When I think about the music I used to listen to in the past 30 years, how many different genres that were and that there is just one important feature: it has to kick me. Nothing else matters. Maybe in 2 years there will be some dark Harmonica Skank kicking me, but I will like it anyways. Because it is new, and because I like putting pieces together – new stuff, old stuff…
Your dream collaboration for future productions?
A: Missy? Not at all! Noo, I don’t know with whom. In the meantime we are going to make an album next year.
You are doing an album? That’s safe?
A: Sure, we are doing an album. Or not?
J: We will make an album, yes.
A: You have to do that! [laughing]
J: And there will be ballads on it. And we sing.
A: There will be ballads on the album? No way, I will not sing – at best chopped & screwed. But it’s fine if there are ballads on it… [laughing]
Revolution N°5 – Sick Tricks and Urban Bass is already out on BBE and available at all major sound providers. The mix features names like Sticky, Natalie Storm, Shunda K, Mumdance and LA Diamond and comes with unmixed track selection as a little bonus.