Real Talk: Rebekah on the Ego, the Self, and the Music
The UK techno selector explores the challenges of the ego in our artistic progression.
After catching her big break roughly five years ago, Rebekah has been a steady presence in the international techno community. The Birmingham-born selector began honing her art back in the late ‘90s, shortly after her first rave experiences in the UK city inspired her to pursue her own life in techno. Years of hard work and determination later, the Rebekah we know today is a highly accomplished musician.
As well as releasing her productions on high-calibre labels like Soma and CLR, she also heads up two of her own imprints, from her adopted home of Berlin—Decoy and Elements. You can catch her spinning her robust, metallic sounds at clubs across Europe and beyond most weekends, as well as offering a helping hand at Elements showcases across the UK. But, it’s not always been that straightforward. In this edition of Real Talk, Rebekah shares her thoughts on the relationship between the ego, the self and the music, as well as her personal experiences and troubles in that realm.
“…it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing”
Jump 20 years and my question is this: where did it all go wrong? Stories of DJs refusing to play without several bottles of vintage pink champagne, or bowls full of only blue M&Ms, or riders demanding copious amounts of cocaine, are not in short supply—but that isn’t the kind of ego that I want to discuss in my submission to the XLR8R Real Talk series. I want to discuss another ego—one that’s even more insidious; and one that can lead to burnout, depression, lack of creativity, anxiety, and low self-esteem. This is where it goes wrong for most of us. It is this ego that has me more concerned than any of the drug-related stories, because it’s something that we all must deal with; from the big artists to the bedroom producers. We all feel it at some point or another.
Flash back to that moment in time when you were in a club and for that split second you knew exactly what you wanted to do for the rest of your life. You saw the DJ playing records, holding the crowd in the palm of their hand, and heard that awe-inspiring track that gave you the goosebumps, making you look around at all the people sharing this beautiful moment with you. That split second decision is something so pure and almost ethereal but little did you know that it was going to be one hell of a ride.
The thing is, with any creative pursuit there comes the first step of actually practising and learning your craft. Few people, and I mean very few people, are actually born a creative genius. For most of us learning our craft means sweat, blood and tears. And this is also where you will meet your DJ ego for the first time. This kind of DJ ego is after perfection, so mistakes which are a natural part of the learning curve are frowned upon. And then that small voice of frustration becomes louder and louder, and eventually bellows at you that you are useless, talentless and can’t do anything right. The words may vary from one person’s DJ ego to another, but that ego is always there. If left unchallenged this is how the negative foundations become ingrained, during these formative years, as you learn your craft in the studio or on the decks.
“It wasn’t uncommon for me to have blackouts during my sets.”
I lived with this voice in my head for many years. As a result, I never really enjoyed my earlier years of gigging. In order to get through a set, I’d have to drink so much alcohol, just to get away from myself, and by the time I had mastered beat-matching I also had a nice little habit of having to drink loads every time I played. It goes without saying that this comes with a whole host of problems: not only do you think that you are better than you actually sound, but there are some obvious health implications too. It wasn’t uncommon for me to have blackouts during my sets. And sometimes alcohol just wasn’t enough, which opened up a whole bag of Class A candies for the taking. These would silence the DJ ego for the night but made it come back stronger later. Regularly dealing with this ego mid-week on a comedown is almost suicidal. With low self-esteem and taking drugs on a regular basis its hard to know if it’s the drugs or if you actually are having psychotic episodes. The lesson: if you let it control your behaviour, the DJ ego will always win; and with drugs, the odds are even higher in its favour, and the price will be your soul.
The creative process is something that must be cherished and nurtured because it doesn’t come easily for many. When it does flow it’s highly rewarding; but on the flip side is ‘the block’ or ‘the wall’. It’s that classic eight-hours-in-and-still-not-a-fucking-thing situation. Well, that’s not true: that synth sound that you have on loop sounded amazing an hour ago, but it now sounds like a whaling baby piglet being swung around by its legs. And now the migraine is setting in for the long haul. But still, you feel like you can’t leave yet, because it would feel like you’ve thrown in the towel. So you stay locked in your studio. “Let’s have a listen to some music for inspiration,” you decide. Huge mistake. The ego gets the measuring stick out and off it goes in your head once more, ridiculing your measly offering while declaring that the latest <insert big label> producer is the second messiah.
Trust me this really has happened. Basically, you’re totally lost, and far away from doing anything remotely creative; instead, the fear cripples you. If you’re lucky you walk out of your studio on your feet. Most of the time you crawl out on your hands and knees. Some days an SOS is needed to beckon a friend to grab you by the hair and give you a kick up the arse. When the DJ ego has its claws in this deep it is very difficult to get free. The flicker of hope that you might at least get some music finished, let alone actually signed to a decent label, is squashed by the, “you’re not good enough” mantras swirling inside your head.
So how do we overcome the DJ ego and all its nasty and self-destructive baggage? Do we just white-knuckle it and hope it will pass? Well, you know the old saying that “nothing changes if nothing changes?” In this case, it is true. Ignoring the DJ ego won’t make it go away. But how do we challenge it at this point, when we are so crippled with anxiety?
“We have to learn to let go of unrealistic expectations because the DJ ego loves to feed on them.”
It begins in our mind. To start with we need to accept that maybe we have a lot to learn. And that’s fine. We can still honour the journey of creativity and look at what we have already created and also cherish it. We need to accept that everyone has bad days and respect that creativity doesn’t always show up. And it’s the same for everybody— remember we only hear the product of those <insert big label> producers on their good days! Then, action-wise, knowledge is power, so get stuck into learning more and more. With each piece of music and with each practice session on the decks you get closer to realising your potential. We have to learn to let go of unrealistic expectations because the DJ ego loves to feed on them. Instead, we need to be in the moment. This is what pure creativity demands of us. We must be of total service to it because this is where the magic lies.
But be careful, it doesn’t end there. Moving forward, there comes a point in time when some recognition comes, whether it’s from DJing locally or getting your first EP signed to a label. At first, you’re walking on clouds, high on that feeling that something you did actually worked out, regardless of the lies your ego has been telling you. At this point, you may even actually believe you’ve won the fight. But let’s not be too hasty, for the fear will be following soon. Naively, when it happened to me, I thought things would actually become easier, but being signed to labels comes with even more pressure and expectations. Little did I know that this is where the real work begins and an even bigger battle for my peace of mind would then begin to take place.
As you are placed on a higher pedestal and thrown into the public eye, every piece of music and set becomes critiqued by your peers and by the followers of your specific genre. The pressure starts building—the pressure to produce better and better music, to be consistent when performing out, to smile more, to interact, to have charisma, to be better… to be perfect. Consequently, anxiety attacks are common in this business, especially before DJ sets. Even A-listers get them. And that’s understandable; we wouldn’t be human otherwise. The real danger comes later when you stress over a mediocre set or, worse, a total failure of a set—the DJ ego’s descriptions, not mine—for days or even weeks after. This is what the DJ ego thrives on. It’s the moment the ego has been waiting for. Finally, it has the evidence it has needed all along to show you that you are a total failure—that you are not worthy of this position you’ve risen to. “You never deserved this opportunity,” it shouts. “You’re a fraud!”
“It’s really funny how the ego can trick you, and hold your hand, while you sell yourself short. Make no mistake, if left to its devices the DJ ego will fuck you over every time.”
This “imposter syndrome” is a real thing, believe it or not. After being signed to CLR this properly kicked in for me. I was telling myself that I was only there to be the token female, not because Chris Liebing actually appreciated my music, that would have been too obvious an explanation. This feeling of not belonging sat with me for the first few months and ate away at my confidence, despite the signs all pointing to another reality altogether. It’s really funny how the ego can trick you, and hold your hand, while you sell yourself short. Make no mistake, if left to its devices the DJ ego will fuck you over every time.
The comparison game is also one the ego loves to play, and one it will always play when you are feeling especially rotten about yourself. It begins with a suggestion from the ego: let’s measure your success against that of other people. Where are they playing? How many likes do they have compared to you? Why are they playing on cooler lineups?
Two similar-sounding artists can actually have two different routes, where one plays certain venues and is supported by lots of press while the other does not. This is just a fact of the industry. Let’s try and be realistic: maybe you have not got much to promote, currently, so things are a little slower on the social media front. Maybe you’ve got fewer gigs this month, or perhaps none at all? That’s when the ego pipes in about this or that DJ, who is obviously “better” than you and is taking all of your gigs, which were meant for you.
As clichéd as it sounds, you have to remind yourself that you create your own success, and you have to believe the world expands to accommodate everybody. There is not a limit to what we can do and achieve. Given a chance, the ego will have you knocking at the wrong door, or focusing on the wrong things. So this is when that magical skill of thinking positive is essential, the knack of being grateful for those small things and allowing everyone else to have their space. Somebody else’s success is not your failure. It’s not easy to learn, believe me—but it’s simple. And essential.
And that brings us to the big one: social media. Social media is a tool through which fans of your music can connect with you, and for you to share your latest releases and music, and to announce gigs. It can be great. Unfortunately, the ego has other plans. It sees social media as a tool for its own gratification. How many “Likes” can your social media obtain by posting up a photo, announcement or video? It may deliver in the short term, but unfortunately, we cannot moderate the bad comments and interactions, so it’s a double-edged sword.
Now, to take all this back to the pressure of (a bit of) success, you’re in a place where that anxiety that has been building from the previous night’s set—”Am I worth it?”; “Should I have had that gig at all?”—can be offset when that first little good comment comes in. You hold your breath, waiting, the chest tightens; will this be another week of berating yourself or will you be able to go freely about your business? And that’s when you’ve set yourself up for a fall. The video of that “hands-in-the-air moment” (the “money shot”) is exactly what the ego wants you to look for. It can use it to its advantage, making a seemingly good night become the night of all nights.
The problem with this kind of feedback is that it’s always biased, and selective. The ego (and social media) is not interested in an analytical breakdown of the two hours you played—although it will always focus on those not-so-happy mistakes you made. The “self,” though, is rational: it knows it turned up and did the best it could, and it knows that sometimes there are other factors that can play a part in how you may have performed: tiredness, inferior booth monitoring, specific drugs that people are on, overall sound system, poor promotion or, worst case scenario, maybe you were just booked at the wrong venue. Again, social media and the ego couldn’t care less.
Should we come off social media altogether? It still works for some artists, old timers and some newcomers have gained a lot of success through their music alone; but possibly for the rest, we are not ready to take that leap of faith.
The question we need to ask is this: how can we be okay with ourselves without this constant affirmation? Self-confidence is hard to learn when you’ve dealt with the DJ ego for so many years. And self-love is too huge a step. So maybe we should start with acceptance? Start by getting clear that you “the artist” is not you. Playing records and producing music is just something you do, and you must stop letting it define you. Once your music, or set, is out there, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore anyway, and the truth is we all have different tastes and that’s what makes the world go round, so allow people to have their opinions. This doesn’t mean that they are right, it just means they perceive it differently.
So how do we take action now to avoid asking ourselves in 20 years where it went wrong. Well, until this point I have not even discussed the music and, let’s face it, that’s the most important part. It’s what brings us together; it’s our saving grace, and our lives would be so mundane without it. In the end, this is always what gets me through and what I constantly have to return to. The music is what keeps me grounded; and when my DJ ego is running the show I have to remember why I am doing this. And, always, my answer is to be of service to the music. No DJ will ever be bigger than the genre they are in. Some have tried, but music will always be the bigger entity, and will still be around long after we have all gone.
From this viewpoint, the world can open up. Freedom and peace of mind can follow, and just generally being humbled that you are lucky enough to be a cog in a huge wheel, keeping the genre going for the next generation. And if you are lucky you get to inspire them, like the DJs and producers that came before you did. In the end, it will soon be in the hands of that next artist. We are in this together, and how wonderful is music that it cuts through ethnicity and religion, generation after generation? Music won’t judge you for what your sexuality is or what clothes you wear, it really is for everyone, and to be part of that, even in the smallest way is majestic—and I am truly grateful to be part of it.