New East Digital Archive

Pitch control: enter the fearless world of Nina Kraviz, the Siberian DJ who swept the world

Pitch control: enter the fearless world of Nina Kraviz, the Siberian DJ who swept the world
Nina Kraviz in Amsterdam

Originally from Siberia and having once trained as a dentist, legendary DJ Nina Kraviz is a person of many curious talents. With talk of a long-awaited second album in the works and ahead of a full summer line-up, Kraviz opens up about Russia in the 2000s, #MeToo, and her drive to keep going

You never know what you’re going to hear when Nina Kraviz is on the decks. As one of the world’s most in-demand DJs, Kraviz has somehow found time over the last four years to cultivate her taste for obscure records with her imprint трип (trip), which just celebrated its 20th release, and its younger psychedelic sister-label, GALAXIID. Talking to her about records is reliably surprising, as the conversation swings from Detroit techno to Edward Artemiev’s heart-wrenching film score for Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris (which she plays me from her phone).

A little later, the conversation lands on an artist little known outside of the Russian-speaking world. Detsl first appeared on the country’s TV screens in 1999; fresh-faced at only 17, he became the face of homegrown rap. It’s not as incongruous as it might seem for one of the world’s biggest techno DJs and acid aficionados to dwell on the excruciating early years of Russian hip-hop. In one of Detsl’s early tracks from 2000, he asks, with the wisdom of someone twice his age: what have you done for hip-hop in all your years? Something in that line still resonates with Kraviz, scares her even. She repeats it with an urgent curiosity that suggests this is more than just a fleeting reference for her. To spend time with Kraviz is to know that she is haunted by the question: “what have you done for electronic music?”

That Kraviz holds herself to high standards is obvious: she has a sleepless tour schedule, she still doesn’t have a manager, and also managing a label on her own. Earlier this year she even became the first international DJ to play an official set on the Great Wall of China. “I think I’m just not destined to sleep. I’ve been running on a lack of sleep since the beginning,” she tells me matter-of-factly close to midnight one Sunday in London: her only break at a time when the rest of the city is winding down. In the last 24 hours she has played two back-to-back day and night parties in London and Bristol for Junction 2 festival. As she pours boiling water over two tea bags, she comments how her hotel room in east London — equipped with its own kitchen, oven and stove — makes her feel at home. Yet, this is as close as home gets for “Nina, world-citizen”, as she describes herself.

“It’s funny, when someone tells me that I work hard, I don’t feel like I’m working hard enough,” she says with genuine regret. It’s hard to imagine Kraviz, who was voted Mixmag’s DJ of 2017 and is booked to play every major festival this summer, as a procrastinator. It’s clear that what constitutes hard work for her isn’t racking up hundreds of thousands of air miles flying from show to show and keeping the crowd going, it’s making something that will count 15, 30 or 50 years from now. “Exactly, like in that Detsl song,” she adds.

It’s what brings her back to Moscow when she’s not touring or in her adopted city of Berlin. “No matter how far I stray from home, it’s a crucial part of me. With every year it fastens tighter and tighter.” Her voice is soothing, her pace considered. Kraviz has a tendency to speak in a way that is simultaneously down-to-earth and mystical. She chooses Moscow, not her hometown of Irkutsk in Siberia, because the capital keeps her in shape: “You cannot relax in Moscow as you can in Berlin. It can be dangerous for artists, people who are working for themselves and who struggle with discipline. If you’re weak, you’re just not going to make it in Moscow. It’s a 24-hour city. You have to move with the inertia of the city itself.” Yet Kraviz has always marched to her own beat, even before she started making music.

Kraviz arrived in Moscow in the early noughties where she had finished her medical studies and become a dentist, all the while juggling writing for music magazines, working for various event agencies and DJing in small clubs and bars. She recalls wanting to get an international passport for one reason: so she could get an American visa to visit Detroit — the home of iconic techno label Underground Resistance. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Siberia and not from a wealthy family, but I knew if I wasn’t going to do it for myself, no one would do it for me. I always knew it was my own responsibility to get to where I want to be,” she declares sharply.

She remembers arriving at the office of the era-defining Russian magazine Ptyutch in the early 00s — she’d read it obsessively back home in Irkutsk — to ask the founding editor, Igor Shulinsky, for a job. “When he asked why, I remember saying, point blank, ‘because I know everything about electronic music’. Even he thought that was a bold statement and sent me off on a test.” She interviewed everyone from Jeff Mills to Grace Jones during this period with a self-discipline she credits to medical school and dentistry. Her early forays into music taught her to bounce back from failure and that you don’t land on success — you have to earn it.

Did she ever come close to burnout, living these multiple lives? “I don’t like to do one thing,” she says playfully, with a hint of a smile. “It’s my character. There should be something that you bounce from, some kind of edge. I always needed this strange counterpoint.”

As for Moscow nightlife, it was easy to get swept up in the euphoria of an emerging club culture. As Artemy Troitsky wrote in The Calvert Journal, the 90s ushered in a sea-change, from “everything is forbidden” to “nothing is off limits”. “It was like volcano erupting,” is how Kraviz herself describes Moscow in the early 00s, with a sense of disbelief more akin to the recalling a recent dream. “Nightlife was just flourishing. You wouldn’t have to pay an entry fee because all the events at clubs were sponsored. The only obstacle was face control. There was no guarantee of entry but at least you didn’t have to pay,” she says. “You would have eight DJs of the same calibre performing on the same night. The appreciation for all those stars was not like it is now. Imagine if you got everything for free? There was an endless number of gigs and parties. I never slept.”

When I ask her how much Russia’s era of freedom and excess informed her later career, she frowns and corrects me: “You’re speaking about freedom in a past tense, when actually it didn’t go anywhere.” With the way Kraviz carries that unfettered energy around the world, along with her vinyl collection, it’s easy to see her point.

That feeling of pure intoxication encapsulated her first years of making music, from her debut track Pain in the Ass in 2009 to her eponymous debut album in 2012. This was the first time she’d made music solo, having previously fronted a three-piece electronic band called MySpaceRocket. “I was so overwhelmed by the fact that I was making music by myself. It was not even that I was making it with a purpose in mind. It was like breathing: I didn’t have a choice, it was just flowing out of me,” she says. She only realised years later how much unreleased music she had gathered over that short period, living “as in a dream” until 2014. “My music was being released, that was the most important thing.” She finds it strange when she meets younger artists who are tactical about their music, who know what record they want to produce and which label they will sign to. Running off a creative high, however, has its pros and cons: “I was like a headless chicken running around. I even signed the wrong contracts, giving my own music away forever.”

For all of her humility, Kraviz believes her album was underappreciated at the time. “I realise now after relistening to it with my parents after so many years, that I really like it. I’m not afraid to say that I appreciate my work because I didn’t for all those years.”

It’s possible that Kraviz sets the bar so high for herself because of the pressures she’s faced in the industry. As one of the first women in electronic music to reach this level of worldwide recognition, she has paved the way for many female artists. Her rise was not without sexist backlashes and media scandals, however. “When I got successful, it was a completely different time for women. Just by being a woman and putting your face on an album was something suspicious. The scene is very different now but during that time, people were very suspicious about everything. They thought it was a plan or a tricky management idea. It was nothing of the kind. It was just my music, which I recorded entirely on my own. I even financed the videos myself.”

How does it feel to be not just an ambassador for Russia, but for women in electronic music more broadly, I ask her. “I don’t think about it to be honest. I think of myself an artist, first and foremost.” Her usual affable tone shifts and becomes heavy. “I’ve witnessed a lot of reactions and specifics of the business — the policies of double standards. Normally you have someone to back you up, like a manager,” she says, a reference to a 2013 scandal sparked when Resident Advisor released a short clip of the DJ in her hotel bath, among other behind-the-scenes moments of her life on tour. Though RA was called out for their questionable intentions, unsurprisingly enough it was Kraviz who bore the brunt of criticism from other (male) DJs.

It might be humdrum to bring up the topic of gender — five years ago Kraviz herself asked “are you not bored about this 10 times dead topic about females in the industry” — were it not for the #MeToo movement. At times like this it’s important to reflect on sexism in any industry and ask whether the situation has changed. Though Kraviz is reluctant to comment on #MeToo from the perspective of a “female DJ”, she does question whether the media simultaneously battles and propagates sexism. Moreover, she rejects any implication that sexism has worked in her favour. “I heard someone say: ‘sexism is horrible, unless it’s Nina Kraviz’. It’s like I’m not a human being sometimes, just because I’m Nina.”

One of the things her early career afforded her was anonymity. “People would ask ‘what are you doing after work?’ she says, clearly revelling in her Clark Kent double life. “Really, nobody knows what you do. The very same thing happened in bars: people also had no idea what I did as my day job.” She hints that she still releases music anonymously, something she originally began doing in 2008 under the alias Damela Ayer because she “just wanted to make music and see the objective reaction to it.”

Kraviz hasn’t felt the need to reinvent herself or bring out a “comeback” record since her debut. It’s a record that almost sounds like a pre-emptive “revenge” record now, from the brooding Walking In The Night to the badass Ghetto Kraviz to the musically bare and emotionally raw Fire, which ends the record like a phoenix rising out of the ashes. Instead, Kraviz threw herself into her label. With трип she was able to narrow down her vision and connect it with her proclivity to visuals, something she’d always wanted to pursue. Yet the label was always set up to have its own life and there was a freedom attached to moving beyond the monolith of “Nina Kraviz”.

Kraviz has several professions, multiple labels and possibly countless secret monikers behind her. Looking ahead to her second album, which she plans to record in Moscow, she now has to find a way to keep up with herself. “You know that quote in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: ‘it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’? That’s how I feel.” Even with her inexhaustible will for self improvement, one thing is certain: Kraviz’s main principle remains to be true to herself. “My basic values haven’t changed. I’m the same person in a way. Probably always will be. That is the most challenging thing.”