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Behind the Decks: NikNak

Meg sat down with Nicole Raymond (NikNak) at Hyde Park Book Club to chat about collectives in Leeds, the art of saying no and her journey to becoming an established DJ and turntablist.

Whenever NikNak steps up to the decks you know you’re in for a treat. Her sets, which weave through a wide array of genres with effortless fluidity, are peppered with intuitive scratching and mixing techniques that flaunt NikNak’s wealth of knowledge and experience. Seconds into her set and you’ll be making that face you make when an absolute tune is on, stuck between the magnetic pull of NikNak and the urge to run and tell all your mates about your new favourite Leeds DJ.

Since moving here from Leicester two years ago for her Masters, London-born NikNak has quickly become a staple in the Leeds DJ scene. From supporting the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Princess Nokia and Cakes Da Killa, to working with important local initiatives such as Slut Drop, Girls That Gig and MAP, NikNak has certainly established herself as a resident of Leeds.

This experience has culminated in NikNak hosting the new BBC Radio Leeds Backstage show on Wednesday evenings. Asking her about it as we sat down for an early evening coffee at Hyde Park Book Club, NikNak’s smile was irrepressible: “It’s amazing,” she beams. “I can’t even say it properly, I stutter when I even try and say ‘the BBC’. You grow up with them, and I never thought of potentially working there. I was at my day job when I got the email saying I’d got it and I started crying, I just had to call my mum.”

It’s certainly a deserved slot for NikNak, who has been mixing, scratching, producing and DJing since she was 13. Her career started with the most important meal of the day - breakfast: “There was this promotional thing in cereal boxes where you could get DJ and music production software, and we got a bunch of them. Me, my aunt and my sister would make a ton of these really weird garage-y tunes, and then make our own radio shows at the kitchen table.”

Moving on from Kellogg’s promotions, NikNak honed her production and mixing skills throughout her school days, opening the floodgates for a future of turntablism and mastering the decks as an instrument. “It was only until I got to Uni when I got into DJing,” reflects NikNak. “I wasn’t happy with the beats I was making anymore, so I just thought I’d like to have a go. I was working at this bar and I had some friends - Dan and Nadia - who DJed there, so asked to do a set with them. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I was having fun, and Dan asked me to be part of the collective. It was a collective called Bug Out and they all scratched and could do amazing stuff on turntables, and I wanted to do that.”

Now, you can find NikNak scratching wonders behind the decks or teaching others how to do it themselves. Working with initiatives such as the charity MAP - who provide creative training, qualifications, guidance and a nurturing space for young people who are struggling in mainstream education - and DJ School, NikNak uses her skills and knowledge to teach and inspire others: “I volunteered with MAP pretty much when I first got here. They’re really sound people and it was really cool to be involved with them,” says NikNak. “The government are trying to say that music lessons and the arts aren’t needed, and that’s total bullshit, because if you’re not able to express yourself in some sort of creative way and don’t have the opportunity to learn the basics, then you’re being stifled. To be able to help out in some way and nudge people towards whatever direction they want to go in, then that’s incredibly helpful. Everyone is a sponge; it’s never too late, and it’s very important to just give back and show people it can be done. Plus, you don’t see - or at least I didn’t see - many women of colour teaching these things, so for me to be able to be like ‘I’ve done it, there’s nothing stopping you’ is really important for me.”

Leeds is a great place if you’re someone who wants to learn. The DIY scene is refreshingly accessible and welcoming; after sending an Instagram message to the right people, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a community of like-minded people who are learning from each other. DJ Collectives like Slut Drop and Equaliser are tackling the homogeneity of the DJ scene, creating a more inclusive space for aspiring female, trans and non-binary DJs and proving there’s no shortage of women who can master the turntables. “There is a big need for that kind of thing, and luckily there are groups of diverse and awesome people encouraging you to come through and learn,” explains NikNak. “It’s very crucial to have that because I didn’t have that growing up. For people to be there to help you figure it out in a safe environment where that anxious gremlin won’t creep up on you is good. There’s no need to be anxious about it, and that stigma is slowly going because of collectives like Slut Drop and Equaliser.”

“When you step up to that equipment, you are showing people through the tunes you play who you are. It’s just bricks and mortar; you can build whatever you want from it. There’s becoming more of a relaxed approach to just playing music live. Overall, it’s easing, but there’s still work to be done.”

As we chat, I find myself inspired by NikNak’s capacity for growth and the way she takes time to care for herself. When you’ve got a lot going on, it’s hard to take a day for yourself without feeling bad, but NikNak has learnt by error and highly recommends curling up in your duvet and binge-watching Netflix: “It’s taken me a while for me to get to a point where I can say No. I’m very thankful for that. As crazy millennials, we think we have to be doing everything all at once in order to succeed. If you’re not out there hustling you’re seen as lazy and not on top of it, but you can be on top of it and also take a day to binge-watch Cowboy Bepop in bed. You’re a human being.”

NikNak’s outlook on life is refreshing, especially in a world where we are constantly pressured to achieve young. It’s important to remember that we can only try our best and that we’re bound to make mistakes - mistakes that other people will barely notice. “I’m happy knowing that every set that I do - whether it’s 6 hours of half an hour - I play the best that I can,” says NikNak. “I’m better than I was last year, and I’m more confident with my scratching now. Every set I play I’m tired afterwards, so that means I’ve done the best I can. Whether there’s mistakes in there or not, which there will be because I’m human.”

Next time you see NikNak on a lineup, make sure you get down for a boogie with her. The joy and intuition that comes through in her sets is something special, and her eclectic mixes will melt away any Winter blues.

Meg Firth

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