Interview: DJ Khalab (March 2017)

As sometimes happens to music industry personalities, Raffaele Costantino also felt the need to create a character and wear the clothes of a “superhero”. At one point in a career spent as one of the most renowned Italian radio hosts, producers, writers and artistic directors, instead of wearing a mask, costume or cape, he simply changed his name to DJ Khalab and focussed his attention and creativity towards African music.

That’s how DJ Khalab was born and started to spread his love for Afro-electro sound with an urban and Mediterranean perspective all over the world. Today, Khalab is an up-and-coming name when it comes to global beats. He recently started his collaboration with UK-based electro labels Black Acre and On the Corner Records, released an EP (Khalab & Baba), ready to publish a remix record (Khalab & Baba Remixes on the 24th of March) with Malian Baba Sissoko for Wonderwheel Recordings, and will soon give life to his first full-length album hosting some remarkable guests.

In a few days’ time, he’ll support afrobeat legend Dele Sosimi at CLF Art Cafe. So we thought there would rarely be a better occasion to have a chat with and understand a bit more about his musical superpowers.

How and why did Raffaele Costantino evolve into DJ Khalab?

“The transformation was slow, because I started to use the name ‘DJ Khalab’ simply as a pseudonym for a music series I was doing in Rome. The events were called Afrodisia and everything started with two friends of mine more or less ten years ago. We were organising gigs involving some remarkable African musicians like Mulatu Astatke, Peter Solo and Baba Sissoko. We were starting to think that the Italian music future was becoming more and more African-oriented. So, after the musicians’ sets, we needed someone who was able to wrap up the night and who was up for playing some records too: in a few words, we needed a DJ. Since I was already DJing, also working for the radio [Italian Radio 2], my friends convinced me to do that.

However, my real name was becoming more and more hackneyed, so I accepted the role but I decided to change my name in DJ Khalab. After a few years, I decided to quit being a resident DJ, even though I really liked that experience because it allowed me to mix African music samples with electronic beats using turntables and CDJs.

Then, it happened that I had an identity-crisis. I closed myself in a studio for four months because I felt the need to find myself. After those months, I came out of the studio with the first of DJ Khalab’s works. From the tracks recorded with Clap Clap, to Black Acre’s EP and tunes I’ve sent to Baba Sissoko for our collaboration. So in those four months I gave vent to my frustration and I left DJing behind. Everything happened more or less three years ago. I began to tidy up my ideas and decided to make DJ Khalab a proper project, which would allow me to research and create new music and sounds.”

Among the many collaborations that you’ve done since then, there’s a significant one with Baba Sissoko. How did it start?

“My experience with Baba Sissoko started after some time. I was already touring, playing some now and then as DJ Khalab, so the Rome Europa Festival (a cultural event happening in Rome every year) commissioned me a special show, that was going to happen during the inauguration in a theatre. So I decided to contact Baba and propose a live project. We played together during the inauguration and everybody was enthusiastic. So we decided to keep on with our collaboration and we just released our first album together.”

As well as Baba Sissoko, DJ Khalab has collaborated with many other important musicians. Such as another Italian DJ/producer: Clap Clap, then Mo Kolours…and so on. What can you tell us about them?

“With Clap Clap, it is more than a collaboration; it is something like a company: We are close friends and we constantly exchange ideas, samples, files, info… At times he works on my tracks and other times, I’m the one who’s working on his. We do this every time, even without adding our names to the credits. So, it’s a collaboration that goes beyond a professional perspective. In one way or another, we started this journey together and now he’s doing it full-time, this has become his job. While for me, this is part of my career. Then there’s the fact that he’s a genius, while I’m not.”

Well…you’re not bad either…

“Thank you, but he’s a natural!

Anyway, I have to say that collaborations are quite a delicate subject. I’ve also found it productive working with Mo Kolours and Ninos Du Brazil. Then, I’ve recently started collaborating with many other musicians, because of my new album. Another collaboration that brings back really good memories is the one I had with Raiz, who’s the band leader of an influential Italian band called Almamegretta. They were really meaningful in the Italian scene in the past years, because they were the first ones who tried to boost the Mediterranean character of Italian tradition and blend it with a more urban sound with dub and electronic arrangements. So I felt the need to recover it and bring back to life that approach. Then, they also collaborated with great artists like Massive Attack and produced their works on a global scale. So I really wanted to pay tribute to their sound also because when I was 18 or 19, I was listening to their music and that triggered my interest in those sounds.”

You just mentioned all the collaborations related to your new album. What can you tell us about its concept and when will it be ready?

“The album is almost ready; I just need to finish two tracks. One is with a South African artist and communications are really problematic. While the second track is with a London-based musician and I’m waiting for the edited files. Anyway, apart from those tracks, all the rest is ready and I’m planning to produce it in April. I also need to decide with which label.  

I can say that it’s a work that blends two musical approaches together. The first one is the beat-maker and the second is the band-leader. On the one hand, there are samples because I’ve been contacted by the Royal Museum of Central Africa and they entrusted to me a series of traditional music samples. I didn’t want to be the one who raided and stole sounds and tunes, so I was more than happy to seize the opportunity they gave me and include those samples in my project. So if on the one hand there’s this approach, on the other hand, I’ve tried to let those sounds interact with a series of musicians I hold in esteem, and whom I thought it was great to work with. Some of them are African and play traditional music, while others have a more contemporary and innovative vision and come from Italy or Europe. For these reasons, the project will be a combination of two visions.”

Being a musician, event organiser and working for a popular radio station, you have a privileged and in-depth perspective over the Italian music scene. What do you feel about it and how is it developing?

“There’s no doubt that the music scene in Italy is evolving and better working than years ago. There are plenty of new projects and producers who try to deal and relate with different genres and styles. Unfortunately, the outcome is never too original. It’s really hard that someone can come out with a new style or language. The last time it happened, it was in the 1990s or even before, when Italian dance and techno DJs and producers really created something new and authentic. I’m thinking about artists like Marco Passarani or Lori D. 

While today, the only scene that really works in Italy is the indie-rock one. But it has a national character, it appeals to a local audience and hardly becomes known abroad.”

In a few days’ time, you are going to be on stage in London with Dele Sosimi. What does that mean for you and how can you introduce the event?

“The London music scene has always been a reference for me. Since I started playing, but also listening to music, 80% of my inspiration comes from there. I played many times in London, but I’ve always done it on tiptoes: You’re in one of the temples of music, so I’ve always had full respect of the scene there.

In this occasion, at CLF, it will be different and more difficult. It’s always hard to play after a legend like Dele Sosimi. I don’t know, I’ll do my best, bringing some records that I like to listen to. But, as I said, when you play after a great musician, you can’t recreate or recall his sound. Once his gig is over, it’s over! It was a unique and exclusive situation in which people lose themselves in. So, it’ll be useless to imitate that sound or it’ll be like mocking it. That’s why I won’t go on playing afrobeat or anything near that. I’ll try to bring my point of view, giving a different perspective over that language and using electronica as an instrument.”

We understood about your musical vision and inspiration. But, in a few words, who is DJ Khalab?

“The idea behind Khalab is visionary, almost oneiric, I often compare it to shamanism. Those four months, the ones I spent in the recording studio, I really started an inner journey. I was really stressed, with thousand things to do and projects to care about. I started to suffer panic attacks and feel too much pressure on me. So I abstracted myself from my everyday life and that’s how Khalab became for me a proper transformation, another person. Through Khalab I’m able to express and create things that I’m not able to show elsewhere: it’s my alternate reality. I hope that everyone who listens to my works as DJ Khalab can feel that they are the outcome of something really intimate and personal. I don’t look or seek for the current hype or coolest beats around; I don’t even want to surprise my listeners. DJ Khalab’s sound is full of loops, repetitions, cadenced rhythms. It is a metaphor of the journey itself”.

What do you have in store for the future?

“Plenty of projects and ideas, next to my London gig; I’m finishing a couple of remixes, like the one with Mop Mop. Then I’m organising a really, really interesting and meaningful project with an international NGO named Intersos. They asked me to help them in the creation and production of a tour in small camps they organise around Africa (like Mauritania, Cameroon, Nigeria and Congo). So, when I finish my album, I’ll join them, in those camps to meet people living there, interview them, play with them and record some tracks. I also want to document my experience with photos and videos. And I think that the final outcome will be a documentary or even an album. I’m really looking forward to this project because I deeply feel that it’ll help to raise awareness and sensitise the international community towards what’s happening in those camps and people living there. I’m also looking for the support of media and their help. Every kind of coverage is more than welcome and will help to boost and make the message louder.”