Zaida Zane wasn’t built in a day: the Atlanta artist on production, patience & self-belief
Zaida Zane is really and truly doing her.
A couple of years ago the Atlanta-based artist popped up on my radar through a focus piece we commissioned on the flourishing underground dance music scene in the city. Amidst the club spaces, parties and artists named was Zaida – in fact she appeared on the lips of two of the article’s contributors.
I spent some time with her mixes and soon after extended an invitation to her to do one for Ransom Note.
It wasn’t just her DJing that I liked though, I really respected the way she approached this whole music thing; the way she spoke about it; the way she chose to participate in it and her commitment to realising the full Zaida Zane vision – in her own time and on her own terms.
In an age of dwindling attention spans, fleeting trends and social media content overloads, it’s easy to move at a pace that panders to the climate around you, but Zaida’s done the opposite, choosing to spend time refining her skills and sharpening her tools before unleashing her debut EP into the world.
Released last month, Boys Eyes is the sonic embodiment of her as an artist, and a testament to the work that she’s put in to get to this point. Engineered with precision, the three tracks blend infectious reggaeton-inspired rhythms with tittering percussion and warm bass grooves, not forgetting those not-so-subtle nods to the RnB sounds that permeated her youth. But sonic aesthetics aside, each track channels one of the moods and feelings that Zaida constantly seeks to capture and bottle with her music – the feeling of romance or freedom, of joy or defiance.
The EP finds a home on Night Slugs, the acclaimed UK imprint run by Bok Bok, who are about to celebrate a whole 15 years in the label game. Atlanta may be a bop away from London but the Night Slugs connection with the city was already strong. Zaida’s introduction to them came through friends on home turf, namely Helix and Leonce who’ve both released music with the label in the past. But it was Bok Bok stumbling across her remix package Soft Touch that sowed the seeds for a musical collaboration.
Boys Eyes is just the beginning of this relationship though, with talks about a follow up already in motion, and Zaida flying over to play at Night Slug’s club nights in London and Berlin next month. Before this mini NS15 tour gets underway we caught up about her transition into the role of producer, the uplifting experience of working with Night Slugs and how she’s grasping every opportunity that comes her way, with both hands.
Atlanta is your home, and it’s through our focus piece on the city a few years ago that we first got tipped off on you. How is the scene growing there? Any tips for artists we should be watching out for?
Some people lost their entire early 20’s to the pandemic, so yeah everyone wants to dance. That said, our scene was so strong prior to Covid, I would argue we were on our way to being a bonafide desirable stop for EDM artists, but of course the pandemic paused that momentum.
Since the clubs have opened back up, the sheer variety is world-class. You can go out here, club hop and get all of your musical food groups: dembo, amapiano (shout out Girls Love Ama! One of my favorite parties), open format (Morph) and weekly techno fixtures with late night programming around the city.
This is why I say that Atlanta is currently hosting the birth of a black electronic music renaissance. Club Morph is leading that charge in terms of proper releases and extremely well-produced events. Our DIY/underground scene is muscling up on every front and I am loving it.
Speaking of Morph, one artist you should absolutely be checking for is my Club Morph fam, JSPORT. They just released a killer project on Morph Trax and it’s gracing every big room set at the moment–people are loving the release!
It sounds like there’s tons happening. In terms of your personal musical journey, you initially started out as a DJ and are now fully in production mode, how did you find that transition?
It’s been gritty but rewarding. There is so much to learn, so many frequencies one must train their ears to hear. I will say it has greatly altered my relationship with the music I play and listen to. Every song becomes something I dissect, and my ear is the scalpel. I can still enjoy music in a superficial sense but the skills and knowledge I’ve gained while honing in on my sound are something I can’t imagine myself without – at least at this point. It hasn’t made enjoying music any harder, but it has made it more meaningful. I hear potential in some of the most hideous sounds now, don’t think that would have happened had I never taken the plunge. If anything, I embrace the challenges of varying genres way more than I previously did.
“Every song becomes something I dissect, and my ear is the scalpel.”
Can you tell us a bit about the influences behind your music? Are your productions very much an extension of your work as a DJ?
My influences are a collection of artists, albums, and big ideas that I’ve always wanted to see someone take on. That said, I would absolutely say my productions are an extension of my DJ personality and work. You see, the Zaida Zane project has pushed me to consider the possibility that one may not need their face melted every time they stand in front of a massive sound system. There are so many emotions you can elicit from people with the right selections, and I definitely aim to bring them out on the floor every single time I play.
In terms of sonic inspirations, I think they are a tad obvious in the Boy Eyes project: reggaeton drum patterns, saccharine nylon guitar strings, grooves your hips can’t ignore. Many contemporary producers are inspired by the R&B eras that define 90-2010, and that is definitely present in my sound. That said, I don’t explore nostalgia or opine for sounds that no longer feel fresh. Instead I use my influences and references to help me realize the big ideas and feelings I want to inject into my music: romance, closeness, freedom, defiance, and joy.
You’ve recently released your first EP into the world and it was a long time in the making. How did this differ from the process of creating music before with it being a full body of work? What did you take away from the process?
I really earned this EP and the biggest difference between this project and my previous remix packs, is that I had some sort of guiding grace.
Also, not to be a huge dweeb but writing this EP was like playing Elden Ring. In that game, players have to explore if they want to know what’s going on, but they always have the guidance of this in-game force known as “Grace”. Bok Bok was my Grace, and they never accepted my attempts to throw the towel in and have this sincere belief in my sound. That’s something I really appreciate.
Of course, Boy Eyes project was on a completely different level, at least compared to what I’d put out previously. The standards were higher and the engineering needed to be absolutely correct. So there were a lot of long nights and frustrated episodes for these three little songs. While working with me, Bok never volunteered to or even tolerated the idea of mixing my records down their-self. While I know it’s not necessary, I’ve always admired producers with an engineer’s ear. I have no issues referring to myself as a sound engineer this early in the game. This project also proved to me that I had what it takes to put something entirely myself out there – to essentially tear myself open and let everyone see. I’m just happy most people enjoyed the view! You don’t get that kind of confidence from remixing other people’s songs, you just don’t.
Did you feel pressure with your debut EP? What’s your advice to producers who are still waiting for that moment to put out their first release?
ABSOLUTELY. My advice is simple: unless you’re absolutely terrible and should not be making music, most of that pressure comes from within. Sure listeners and heads remember a debut, but in the grand scheme of things you’re really the sum of everything you’ve ever done. Do your due diligence, take the difficult feedback, apply it, and drop–everyone is waiting to hear new shit! Always!
Tell us about the relationship with Night Slugs. How did it come about and how has it been working with them on your EP?
The Night Slugs rapport is something that occurred naturally via my relationships back in Atlanta. I learned to DJ from Leonce, Helix, and JSPORT. One night, I just messaged Leonce, who I knew from my local scene and I noticed we talked about music a ton with each other. He was just so easy to be friends with. Those three did not have to take me under their wing, but they did and when I learned of their connection to club music it kind of blew my mind.
Funnily enough, I was relatively ignorant to Night Slugs prior to meeting them, even though I’d definitely heard the music during my early clubbing days! It blew my mind to know I just walked into the lives of such insanely visionary and creative people. Helix and Leonce pushed me to start producing again (I hadn’t done it since high school), because I guess they saw the potential I did not see. When I put my first remix pack out Soft Touch Vol. 1 I garnered the attention of Bok Bok. They heard my remix of Queen Naijia’s Butterflies Pt. 2 and immediately started to support my sound. I heard them play that track on Rinse FM one day and that’s when I thought “Oh yeah, I gotta release something on Night Slugs”. I didn’t push it though, because we still didn’t know each other! Then one day, an email showed up asking me to put something out. It was extremely affirming, and well, here we are!
Working with NS has been incredible! I’m kind of an ugly American in the way that I never had a passport before I started DJing and making music, so to have a label that is willing to risk flying you out to world-class cities so you can play music to people is dreamy. I can’t think of many relationships that were as uplifting as the one I have with the NS family–its real support and real belief. You can feel that.
“I’m not letting any moment or opportunity slip me by, because I truly think the world would benefit from what I have to say and I have a LOT to say.”
Your EP makes up part of their NS15 campaign – a run of releases and parties to celebrate the label turning 15 this year – how does it feel to be a part of such a huge milestone?
It feels right! I’m not in my 20s you know, I’m in my early 30s and while I’m relatively new to music, I’m not new to night life at all. I used to be a drag queen prior to doing what I do now, so I know how hard it can be to keep anything, let alone a uniquely influential music brand, going. Fifteen years of pushing sounds that push the envelope, and NS is still here. I’ve always described the NS catalog as “music you never knew you always wanted to hear”- its just such a unique collective body of work the label has. My sound and everything about it can’t be replicated, so to be here with them? Yeah, it makes sense!
Are there any plans to work together again in the future?
There are! We’ve already discussed working on a follow-up to Boy Eyes with a particular focus on the sound pushed by my lead track “Fly By”- for some reason that is all anyone wants to hear from me haha. I’ll of course continue to release on my own and maybe even with different labels (Hyperdub and Sorry are on my mood board btw), but Night Slugs is absolutely home base.
What’s next for Zaida Zane? Any plans to come back to the UK?
So much! My home studio is being built out, so there will be more tunes from me to come. I will be returning to the UK, May 7th for leg 1 of the NS 15 party series, then Berlin May 27th at RSO. I am already working on new music and refining the Zaida Zane sound and project even more–this is the only thing I want to do with my life and it took me until my early 30s to really get serious about it. I’m not letting any moment or opportunity slip me by, because I truly think the world would benefit from what I have to say and I have a LOT to say.
Photos: Jamie Hopper. Styling: Miss He.