Interview by Kimber Monroe
Art Direction by Taylor Mew/Photography by Mankastleman
Kyrsten Bates (she/her) isn’t just your average musician. She is a Musician, DJ, Model, Singer, Dancer and Event Curator. Yes, she really does it all. I met Kyrsten over the fall, and have had the opportunity to witness her in action behind her turntable. She is a force to be reckoned with, in short. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the New York native (over the phone of course) and talking to her about everything from our hometown to musical inspiration to breaking genre barriers.
Can I ask what your racial background/cultural background is?
I’m African-American, Caucasian, Native American & Chinese.
So, what was your first introduction to music?
My dad. He was a big CD/Cassette tape collector, and definitely listened to a bunch of music from all around the world. What I can remember as one of the first records introduced to me was Brazilian music, like Astrud Gilberto and a lot of hip hop from the 80s and 90s, as well as jazz and Jimi Hendrix & Rolling Stones.
And how many instruments do you learn how to play?
Guitar is my main instrument, I play a lot of acoustic guitar and electric, and during the pandemic I was more focused on the electric guitar. In school, I was always playing an instrument of some type. So from about age 7 to around 10, I was playing the violin. And then when I was 10 to 12, I was playing the recorder. And then I picked up guitar when I was about 12 and from there on, I kinda just stuck to the guitar. I was also learning piano during that time as well. When I got to high school, I was a vocal major so we had piano lessons. Piano was something I loved but it didn’t call to me the way the guitar did.
That’s crazy that you guys had to learn the piano in high school!
It’s really good as a vocalist to know the piano because it helps you stay on key and helps you understand how to sing things better. And of course, at the time I hated it but looking back, I am so grateful to have learned those things because I just inherently have an understanding of how to sing on key now.
So how did you transition into DJing?
When I was 16, I hung out with this group of friends who all happened to be producers. They showed me how to produce music, so I began to make beats and then I was doing a lot of sampling on virtual DJ. And I never DJ’ed before but I transferred my knowledge of making beats to DJing. I also knew a bunch of underground artists & rappers & event curators so I started reaching out to be a part of the events. Some of my friends were rappers, so they would ask the event person if I could play their music. And honestly, I didn’t even know what a DJ set necessarily was at first. People would be like “Oh just play some music in the meantime” and I didn’t really get what that meant or how to do it. As time went on, I figured it out on my own. Shortly after, I started meeting a bunch of other DJs and began to realize how much I loved it. I realized like “Wow this could be my job”. And so I’ve been doing it for the last 8-9 years.
How do you incorporate your musical background into your mixes?
I mean, I think – it’s kind of a hard thing to explain because as a DJ you have to be able to cover so many different genres. If you really want to appreciate the craft, and find out different ways of DJing whether it be vinyl or having your own set-up, there’s a couple things you gotta do. You definitely have to find out what your sound is and you also have to match the tone of the event and the venue. A lot of it is about reading the room. To answer your question, I think the best way to do that is to be really updated on new music. It’s also important to have your own understanding of what your vibe is, how to make it individual and unique in that way. There are so many DJs that just stick to one genre, and that’s not necessarily bad… but for example, when you’re DJing for a huge party, it’s so easy for people to get bored if you’re sticking to one thing. You learn over time how to build up momentum, how to keep people dancing and how to read the room. The many genres I’ve learned and collected over time have really helped me with that.
That’s such a huge responsibility. Like as a DJ, you’re solely responsible for setting the vibe. That can’t be easy.
For sure. You know, the music is the biggest part of an event. So it definitely is a really big responsibility and just making sure that you’re not just DJing because you want to hear music that you like. Like you really have to let go of that personal shit and just be open. You have to be open to testing things out and observing what people respond to the most, what people are vibing with the most and then sticking to that.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
Hmmm… there’s a lot. It goes from like Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones to like, Lana Del Rey and Beyonce, Solange to a lot of underground artists like Rejjie Snow, Quasimoto, Flying Lotus. And then I also really love MGMT. I kinda really go all around the spectrum.
That’s so cool, cause you’re not just like one type of artist. It seems like your taste connects and interweaves so that must really influence the music you make.
Definitely. The music I make myself that I haven’t dropped yet but will be soon is a combination of rap and indie music and… I don’t wanna say pop. But I’m kind of just creating my own genre in a way and when I do drop my music, I don’t really want to stick to one thing. I don’t want people to know me as a “soft indie artist” or a “rapper”. I don’t want to be confined to a box when it comes to my music. One of my main reasons for making music is to come out and be able to stretch all along the spectrum and do different things.
I think that’s really inspirational because we live in this brand new time where you don’t have to confine yourself to one genre. I mean, we are witnessing these musicians and artists that have established themselves in the music industry as one thing, all of a sudden do a 180 and bring something completely different into the music world.
It’s just been like that for so long, especially when it comes to promoting artists and what labels want you to do. Drake was one of the first artists to really come out and be like “I can do this, and I can do that”. And people don’t fuck with him for that but at the end of the day, he’s so dynamic. It’s really what makes him so big.
What do you love about being a New Yorker?
What I like about it the most is that it’s just such a melting pot and you meet so many different kinds of people. One thing I also love about New York, specifically compared to LA for example, is the fact that everything is so untouched here in a way. LA is very new-age and they’re always about what’s next, the newest thing. New York is so old and so original in that way. I think growing up in New York with all these people definitely gives you such a background and understanding of different cultures and spaces. And it’s also just a great place to reinvent yourself over and over again.
How has COVID-19 impacted your music career? What adjustments have you had to make, and what did you discover during the pandemic?
I spent a lot of time alone and a lot of time with musicians. It was nice because I’ve been non-stop working for years and always doing something. I’m still always doing something but it was good to pull back and relax. And I think in that way it just helped me relate back to my music in a way that’s just like… “Okay how does what I’m creating relate to me as a person right now? That doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else?” And I wasn’t comparing my music or my sound or what I want to release with anyone else. It became personal for me once more, and I was able to begin to understand it better. I think when you’re just in the mix with everyone all the time, and like you’re hearing the same type of music over and over again, or the artist coming out with something that sounds similar to somebody else it can be tough to not compare. The pandemic was a real challenge of musicians and artists to once again bring out their individuality and really understand it.
What challenges have you faced as a WOC DJ?
When I started out, there weren’t that many DJs. The “model-DJ” thing didn’t exist yet. So it was challenging because I was in a lot of misogynist spaces or spaces that were heavily focused around hip-hop. People would come up to me and be like “Oh you’re a female DJ?”. It seemed to shock a lot of people, and it’s not like there weren’t any female DJs before that, but it wasn’t really a cool known thing when I started out.
I was mostly working with men who booked me and they wouldn’t want to pay me the same that they would pay an artist. DJs don’t have that much protection over what they’re doing or their work. Even though it’s such an important job, it’s a lot for a DJ just to ensure that they’re getting paid. And on top of that, being a woman and being a woman of color is ESPECIALLY hard because we get forgotten and unpaid the most, really. I came into a lot of challenges with that because I have big alpha energy, and a lot of masculine energy too. And in those times, I didn’t really understand what I needed to put into place to protect myself legally. I didn’t know I needed to get DJ insurance, and I didn’t know I needed representation as a DJ. There are so many resources and tools that actually protect DJs that I didn’t know about at that time. I would do a show and then after the booker would be like, “oh I can’t pay you right now, I need to pay you later.” I’ve had to go after people who hadn’t paid me.
I’ve been the only female DJ at events and other male DJs wouldn’t want me to start my set on time. They’d go over their time on my set because they weren’t intimidated by me and wanted to play longer. From dealing with these situations, it set me up with this demeanor when I DJ now. I’m in full professional, serious mode. When many of my friends talk to me about this, I barely realize it myself but I turn on this thing in my head where I just get very serious and very professional. I make sure that everything is put in place so that nobody fucks with me. I’m grateful to have gone through those experiences of being taken advantage of because they helped me understand how I need to carry myself this day and age as a female DJ.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a DJ or musician?
Be open to learning about other people’s journeys. Whenever you are in a space or at an event, and you have the opportunity to be around another artist or DJ, really take the time to ask questions and understand their journeys and how they got to where they are. Really take that in! Also just know, even if you are heavily inspired by someone else, the way that YOU are going to move forward is doing your own thing. Whether it’s finding your own sound, creating your own event or putting together a group of people that support you.. make sure you understand your own individuality and don’t be afraid to let that show. There’s going to be so many people in the music industry that you meet that are going to try to make you compromise yourself so that they can get money off of you. And you have to be able to ignore those things. It’s one thing to sign to a label or with a manager and have to make some compromises here or there, but if you feel that deep within yourself you are compromising who you are as a person or an artist, just know that you can say no.
Follow Kyrsten on Instagram and listen to her mixes on Soundcloud!