Annie Mac has the midas touch when it comes to new music. She muses on representation and the music that means most to her.
Annie Mac is BBC Radio 1’s current tastemaker-in-chief. Her weeknight evening show attracts over one million listeners, and she has the power to give new acts their big break. She’s done sell-out tours in the UK and US, plays to global dance audiences from Creamfields to Coachella and is set to host a four-day festival in London later this month.
She is a superstar DJ in every respect, except one: she does not go in for any of this largin’ it business. “Punching the air, making heart signs… I don’t know if I’m made for it,” the Dublin-born DJ laughs. “I’m self-conscious. I’d like it if everyone turned their backs to me and enjoyed the music. I’m just pushing buttons.”
She’s clearly not just ‘pushing buttons’. Being a great DJ is a combination of technique, passion, taste and communicating with your audience. In person too, Mac (short for MacManus) is a great talker. Enthusiastic and open, she has the gift particular to the Irish of saying ‘pub’ in a way that makes you instantly want to be there, with her. We meet in her local, close to the home she shares with her husband (fellow Radio 1 DJ Toddla T) and their two children.
When given an audience with Mac, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk through some of her major musical intersections, to reflect on the tracks that have meant something important to her. The conversation flows informally, with brief pauses as she thinks deeply about a good track to recommend (she won’t just palm me off with any old rubbish) and I wonder how soon before I can ask her to put my Spotify playlists into fresh, presentable order.
It turns out she is also adept at recommendations beyond her 9 to 5 (though as a DJ and evening radio host, she doesn’t exactly keep conventional working hours). She makes Jon Ronson’s The Last Days Of August my next podcast binge (“It’s a murder mystery set in LA,” she enthuses. “It’s incredible”).
An English literature graduate who got into clubbing at university before doing a postgraduate course in radio, she always has three books on the go. “I’ve just read Unless by Carol Shields,” she says. “I’ve never experienced anything like the writing. It is just next level. It makes me think why am I even bothering?”
But she is – Mac is currently aiming to write a book: “I’m 30,000 words in, it’s a mountain to climb,” she muses. “Half of it is learning how to write. Half is where do I eke out time for myself to be totally indulgent? If I have a spare 30 minutes I’m typing furiously.”
She is also heading up a new Smirnoff campaign on gender equality in music and organizing AMP London, which will showcase new and emerging talent, stage parties (there’s a rave, naturally) and hold talks on button-pushing topics such as sexual harassment and female representation in rap.
Mac approached the talk element of the endeavour as she does music. “It’s always not trying to do what people will like but trying to do what you are genuinely excited about. One is about whether the music industry can cancel out a person like R Kelly or Ryan Adams because of what they’ve done or been accused of doing. I still haven’t figured out my view, which is why I’m excited to explore.”
Then there is her talk on feminism and rap, which leads us, as smoothly as a superstar DJ, into the eight songs that have made the biggest impression on her since she started her career…
Missy Elliott, The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)
“I’m a mad rap fan. But there’s so little music that speaks for me in that world. It’s one of the discussions we’re having at AMP, looking at a woman’s place in rap, at the cliches in the lyrics, the objectification of women, how women are used as an accessory to men rapping about bitches and cars and chains. Missy Elliott did all that self-aggrandisement but it was a woman doing it on her own terms, like on The Rain. Most of the dancers were females as well. There were people like Roxanne Shante before her but Missy was the one that reached the same level as the male rappers.”
Chilly Gonzales, Solo Piano
“Chilly Gonzales is an insanely talented, unique guy. He’s a Canadian rapper and a virtuoso pianist. He makes these albums Solo Piano I, II and III where it’s just him sat at the piano – there’s no singing, literally just piano. They’re lovely to have on at home because they are really different from anything me or my husband do; it feels like a separate place. I like to listen to them to really relax. But I listened to this when giving birth so now, sometimes, we have to turn it off because it gets too much. It brings back memories.”
Krystal Klear, Neutron Dance
“This song makes me think of big sunny parties. I headlined the Lost & Found festival in Malta last year and this was a big track. It’s a holiday for me, because I don’t bring the kids. I stay out late and see people. It’s too fun to call work. As soon as I had kids, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to be doing Australian or American DJing tours any more. I’ve a full-time job at the BBC, the only holidays I get, I’m going on tour. That’s not amenable to being a parent. My DJ career’s suffered greatly. That’s a choice I’ve made.”
Denis Sulta, DKY (But I do)
“Being in front of big crowds has never been easy. I always found it a little absurd. I’d much rather be in the studio with a couple of people whom I trust and love, being able to be my complete self. When I DJ, I like to be in the corner. In my 20s, I didn’t even think about it because I was hammered most of the time. I always had a couple of vodka tonics during a DJ set. Recently I’ve stopped [drinking] as I really feel alcohol now when I drink. It’s just being on show I find hard. Everything else about it is incredible, when a record clicks and you see this palatable surge in the crowd. I had that with Denis Sulta’s DKY all last summer. It’s a big gospel-sampled disco track and it exudes joy.”
Robyn, Missing U
“Robyn is like [her] music, she’s raw and unfettered in what she gives. There’s no wall, there’s no distance between you and her. This was one of our Hottest Records and it was such a moment. It was all born out of a clearly emotional time for her and she was hearing it on the radio [for the first time] and she nearly cried in the studio. You can really hear the cracks in her voice. That’s what I want – that authentic, honest exchange. You normally find the best people are like that, like Kendrick Lamar.”
High Contrast, Racing Green
“This was the track I played on my first Radio 1 show [in 2004]. It’s so joyous and happy. A really nice string-laden drum ’n’ bass track. I remember sitting beforehand surrounded by vinyl and CDs, trying to find the right one. When I took over from Zane [Lowe], we played more female artists because that’s what I listened to. My producer is female and we have always been aware that women should be represented. It is never an obligation. There’s just an awareness. It’s a joy because there is so much amazing female talent.”
Little Simz, Selfish
“Little Simz is an example of someone who is really exciting and independent. She does hip-hop on her own terms, not through the male gaze. She’s on her third album and she’s not out to please anyone, just doing it and smashing it and it’s lovely to see an artist reach that point. Selfish is her new track and it’s so unique. The Smirnoff Equalising Music campaign is about asking questions. If you’re an artist, can you work with a female producer? If you’re a label, will you look for an artist who is female to sign? It’s still about finding the best of the best but it’s about knowing that the best can be female.”
Les Rythmes Digitales, Music Makes You Lose Control
“It hadn’t occurred to me to get into specialist radio until I heard Mary Anne Hobbs and I was like, maybe I can do this. Mary Anne played a lot of breakbeat back in the late Nineties. And I loved Les Rythmes Digitales especially, which was the moniker of Stuart Price – now a huge producer for the likes of Madonna and The Killers. The one song I really loved from him is Music Makes You Lose Control. [Like Mary Anne], Cardi B and Nicki Minaj have changed the game because they are showing people you can succeed as a female rapper. Those people are so important because you’re going to get a whole generation of young girl rappers looking up to them, thinking, ‘If you can do that, I can too.’
AMP London runs from 27-30 March. For tickets and info, visit anniemacpresents.com/London