Interview: DJ Rap - Out of the jungle
Former topless model DJ Rap is one of the few women to succeed in the macho world of drum 'n' bass. Hero Brown meets the woman behind the mouth; and into the spotlight
Sunday 13 September 1998
This situation could have been foreseen, of course. Armed and dangerous with her very own hair and make-up posse, DJ Rap is a former topless model called (wait for it) Charissa Saverio who, according to previous interviews, is aggressive/defensive (delete as appropriate) and sounds like Barbara Windsor on 40 a day. So what else did I expect? The entourage finally strides into the Independent on Sunday offices an hour-and-a-half late, informing me that DJ Rap can only do a short interview because she's got a cold. Frankly, we're not going to get along.
Only, we do. DJ Rap turns out to be much more than the sum of her parts. She's gorgeous, of course, and looks every inch the pop star, dressed sleekly in black street gear, fully made-up and coiffured. But she appears almost shy when we meet, a trait unrecognisable from the cocky, brassy cockney I've read about. Politely, we shake hands and I buy her a cup of tea in the canteen. Slowly it emerges that "Bad Girl", her surreal, breakbeat single which made the top 40 in July, is merely the tip of an iceberg which has seen DJ Rap come through a deeply troubled childhood, teenage squats, stalkers and death threats to make it into DJ-ing's premier league.
Describing herself, now nearing 30, as "very secure" and "balanced", DJ Rap's youth has nevertheless left obvious scars. A believer in fate, she rationalises her younger years as a vital stepping stone in her present success, yet there's an acerbity as she talks of the years when her stepfather ran luxury hotels in Indonesia. "He used to be general manager at all these posh hotels - Raffles, Shangri La." It sounds wonderful. "Not when you're a kid," she says bluntly. "It's very, very lonely and horrible, in fact I really hated it. I hate flying and travelling now and I've realised it's because I'm recreating my past. From the age of four I was going back and forth on planes on my own. Most of the time I was in boarding school in Indonesia, then I was in Malta in a convent, and I was pretty much out of the picture. I left home - soon as I could."
When her family moved to Southampton, it was the perfect opportunity to get away and DJ Rap ran off to London. "Completely out of control" at the tender age of 14, with nowhere to live, few friends and no money, DJ Rap posed topless for the Sun and the Sunday Sport. "It's all cool," she says wearily of her Page Three days. "I have some regrets about doing it, but I was very young, I was homeless, I was craving attention, I desperately wanted to be loved by everybody, to be famous."
The music press, despite having been wise for many years to her DJ credentials, has never let her forget her past, and now DJ Rap is steeling herself for the inevitable re-publication of the pictures. "I did it, can't say I didn't do it," she shrugs before exclaiming, "But if I had a daughter, tell you what, I'd chain her to the goddamn bed! She wouldn't do it, I'd lock her up 'til that little thing passed."
She doesn't mean it. It's the first of several occasions when DJ Rap has played the hard girl, only to admit otherwise afterwards; as if her self-proclaimed "mouthiness" is an act, part of her "9 to 9" existence as DJ Rap, but nothing to do with the eloquent, warm Charissa. "Yeah, I shouldn't say that," she ponders. "I'd say, `This is my experience, please don't do it, because it's just not going to help you later on if you want to be taken seriously.' That's the sad truth. I have to work doubly hard to be taken seriously and course I get angry, `'cos here I am - more than 10 years on - and the first question you get asked is, `So how was it when you got your tits out?'"
Choosing the ultra-macho world of drum 'n' bass for her career hasn't made the transition from model to artist any easier. DJ Rap is one of the few female drum 'n' bass DJs to make it big. She's been 10 years on the dance scene, having jacked in her job at a solicitor's after going to a rave. She moved into a squat and slowly learnt to DJ and make music, putting out house tracks such as 1990's "Ambience - the Adored" and later, developing the drum 'n' bass sound with the likes of Goldie and Fabio and becoming the first female DJ to play the front rooms at the major raves. Yet remarkably, when General Levy charted with the ragga-style breakbeats track "Incredible" in 1994, and a self-appointed "Jungle Committee" met to discuss keeping the integrity of drum 'n' bass intact, DJ Rap was conspicuously not invited to attend.
The idea of a Jungle Committee seems slightly ludicrous now, but it was a response to a gripe with Levy, who had been misquoted in a magazine as saying he invented the jungle sound. Egos were bruised and the committee decided that DJs should boycott his gigs and music. When DJ Rap was finally allowed to a meeting, she couldn't believe her ears. "Well it was a hit record, and a fantastic tune and I was gonna play it!" she explains excitedly. "I didn't agree with it at all. I fell out with everybody apart from Fabio, Jack Frost and Kenny Ken - everybody who's anyone. I thought, `Sod this, you don't pay my bills, I've heard what you've got to say, I don't agree with it. I'm going to do my own thing. Thank you very much and have a nice day.' And then I started getting death threats."
At this point, I'm beginning to feel rather impressed by DJ Rap. She tells the story of how, despite being promised a one-way ticket to the pearly gates if she played at General Levy's Soundcrash rave, she flew back from holiday and straight to the gig. It seems an incredibly brave move. Again, she suddenly drops the act. "If I'm honest, I didn't think for a minute that something would happen to me," she says, "`cos people who mouth off and tell you they're going to do you harm are generally full of crap anyway." DJ Rap obviously took the right decision, not only because she's still here to tell the tale, but because when she arrived at the party, half the jungle committee were DJ-ing there, apparently playing for triple the money she was earning. "So I ask you, was it about principle or money? I think it was about money and jealousy and stupidity."
This was in 1990. The scene has moved on and many of those who railed against commercialising the jungle sound are now attached to major labels. DJ Rap herself is signed to Higher Ground, along with highly respected stablemates Grooverider and Leftfield. For her, she says, money's not the issue. "Everyone I know who's done well has done well because they genuinely have a love of the music. We never got paid for years. DJs these days are like, `how much are we getting?' And it's like, yep, I know where you're coming from. It's quite sad, really. But it's still not about the money for me and that's the truth of it."
She still DJs every weekend and has her own label, Proper Talent. Nothing has changed much, she says. She still watches EastEnders, enjoys lazy Sundays with her long-term boyfriend, hangs out with her old friends. Even her stalker has been on the scene for years. "Yeah, I've got my own little stalker," she coos. "It's not frightening, he's been around for five years. He's a policeman, apparently, or he says he is. Probably someone who's dropped a bit too much acid, I think! He sort of followed me around for a while, told me what I was wearing, knows what sort of car I drive, would phone me out of the blue. He called me the other day where I live now (London's East End), but how he got my number I don't know." She seems genuinely unfazed, although she admits that she is getting slightly more paranoid the more famous she becomes.
This situation is unlikley to improve with the release of her first album, Learning Curve in the next few weeks. Being strongly pushed by Higher Ground, this could be the end of DJ Rap as the underground knows her. Yet she insists she's not selling out. Is she worried that her jungle supporters may think she is? DJ Rap-speak takes over.
"I care not!" she smiles, shaking her head firmly. "I don't care about what they think, I've never cared what they think. Of course you worry a bit and you hope people like it, but I'm doing what I really need to do and expressing myself musically. There's no greater joy than going into the studio thinking I can make what I want, how I want, no formula - and if people don't like it and think I'm selling out, my answer to them is f*** you! D'you know what I mean? You must be confusing me with someone who gives a f***!"
We share a laugh - she knows she's mouthing off. Then she gets serious. "The point is, you can't please everyone. You've got to do what makes you happy, and do it with a true heart. There's only one Roni Size, there's only one Goldie. And there's only one me."
The new single by DJ Rap, `Good to be Alive', is by Higher Ground on 28 September. Her debut album, `Learning Curve' is released on 12 October
IN HER OWN WORDS
On an unhappy childhood:
"It was very lonely and horrible. From the age of four I was going back and forth on planes on my own. I hate flying and travelling now and I realise it's because I'm recreating my past."
On her days as a Page 3 model:
"It's all cool. I have some regrets about doing it, but I was very young, I was homeless, I was craving attention, I desperately wanted to be loved by everybody, to be famous."
On what life has taught her:
"If I had a daughter, tell you what, I'd chain her to the goddamn bed!"
On dealing with death threats:
"If I'm honest, I didn't think for a moment that something would happen to me. `Cos people who mouth off and tell you they're going to do you harm are generally full of crap anyway."
On her own personal stalker:
"It's not frightening, he's been around for five years. He's a policeman, apparently, or he says he is. Probably someone who's dropped a bit too much acid I think! He sort of followed me around for a while, told me what I was wearing."
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