Birdy Nam Nam: We wanted to prove that a turntable could be an instrument

French DJ dons talk turntables, EDM and Skrillex ahead of Yugong show

With plenty of easy-to-use software readily available, it’s almost too simple to become a DJ. That’s why there is a special level of respect given to those that can be called turntablists, a term for DJs that have mastered the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using turntables and a mixer. French DJ crew Birdy Nam Nam are one of the most notable acts in this elite class of turntablists; they use techniques such as beat mixing, juggling and scratching during their sets to go far beyond just creating smooth transitions between tracks.

In 2002, Birdy Nam Nam won the DMC Technics World Team Championship, the longest running and most prestigious DJ battle in the world – but it wasn’t until four years later that they released their self-titled debut album. By their second studio album, 2009’s Manual for Successful Rioting, they were collaborating with Justice and Yuksek, and in 2010 were awarded the Electronic or Dance Revelation of the Year award by Victoires de la Musique, given by the French Ministry of Culture to recognise outstanding achievements in the music industry.

Birdy Nam Nam gained international recognition after opening for Skrillex at a festival in Strasbourg in 2012. Impressed by their skill and sound, Skrillex remixed their track ‘Goin’ In’ and re-released their third album, Defiant Order, on his record label Owsla. Following a four-year hiatus and the loss of a member, Birdy Nam Nam are returning to Beijing for the first time since 2011, this time promoting new album Dance or Die. Time Out spoke to producer and driving creative force behind Birdy Nam Nam, Lil’ Mike about turntablism, Skrillex and adjusting to change.

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Going back to the beginning, you met your fellow group members through another collective, Scratch Action Hero. How did you form Birdy Nam Nam?
When I was a kid, around 18, I was in the scratch game and I was kind of a newcomer, but one of the guys from Scratch Action Hero came from the same hometown as me, so that’s how I came into this crew. We started to work, and we decided to keep working as Birdy Nam Nam with only a few of the members from Scratch Action Hero.

When you guys started out you were exclusively doing turntablism and scratching. Did you see that as a way of expressing yourself, perhaps the way a violinist would use a violin?
Yes, the same idea. We wanted to prove to ourselves that this turntable could be an instrument if it is well used. We wanted to prove it to ourselves and to the world, you know? And so that’s how we started to make music. It’s definitely how I learned all the rhythmical things that I keep using now when I’m producing beats or making music by myself on my computer.

Was there a point after your debut where the group decided to focus on a more dancefloor-orientated sound?
When we came to the second album we were more club-orientated because we’d been doing a lot of shows and we took this energy from the live show – it’s always been important for us to have some drops, to make the people dance. Since the beginning, from the DMC battle, we’ve had this kind of energy. Originally we were experimenting, using a lot of black music, jazz, so that’s why on the first album there is this kind of fusion between the genres. But on the fourth album we feel we are more into the real Birdy Nam Nam way.

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How was Skrillex to work with?
It was amazing. He’s a genius, an amazing producer, and on top of it all, he’s a great human. We really had a lot of fun with those guys. It was a great pleasure to be able to work with him.

Did that crossing of paths change things for the group?
I think it changed something yeah, because a lot of American people hadn’t really heard of us, so it opened the idea of the US. I think it’s been of great value – for so many reasons because he gave us love and great exposure. I can’t say it changed the band, because we are still doing our thing by ourselves.

What do you think about EDM DJs and the view that they aren’t as skilled as turntablists?
I would say they are talented [as they] make people talk about them. Getting people to talk about you is more powerful than anything else, so I don’t want to say they are not talented. There are many ways for people to express themselves.