Having warmed up for the likes of Ben UFO, Machinedrum and San Soda, Access student Ali Hibbs is already well acquainted with the electronic music industry. Since laying to rest her residency at Vietnam’s premier techno club, she’s now exploring the foundations of electronic music production.
One of the things that makes dBs such an exciting place to be is its diverse student community. In addition to our vibrant body of BTEC and university-age students, every year we also welcome a number of established artists and sound industry professionals into the fold. These may be people who are looking to push their audio specialism, formalise their knowledge or expand their skill set into other areas. One of these students is Ali Hibbs, a DJ with 17 years of international gigging under her belt who joined our Access to Higher Education Music Production course this September. We sat down with Ali to discuss her rise to prominence in the Vietnamese music scene, and why after 7 years in Asia, she decided to move to Bristol to study at dBs.
How did you first become exposed to electronic music?
“I started when I was quite young. When I was about 15 my sister introduced me to drum and bass and I got into the whole tape pack culture. Then I got some decks and started mixing. I think that's where my love for collecting vinyl came about. At that time, CDJs weren't really very common and there was no Traktor, so wax was the only way. I loved it, and then as I got older, my tastes changed. I went to Berlin for a summer and came back a techno fan, and yeah, that was it really!”
You established yourself as a DJ whilst living in Vietnam. What was that experience like?
“Going to Hanoi was a massive thing for me. I went over when I was 23 and at that time, the electronic music scene was still in its infancy. A friend of mine was out there already and he rang me up and was like, ‘Get out here, there aren’t many DJs and everyone's playing music from 10 years ago’.
“I was really into the post-dubstep scene at that time and the emergence of all these genres that were blending together. So I went over and met this small group of people who were setting up parties and doing everything DIY. Going out on mopeds, finding spots and then negotiating a price and throwing a party there. It was just incredible.”
It sounds like you really witnessed the birth of a scene?
“Yeah, it was insane. Someone recently encouraged me to read Tim Lawrence’s ‘Love Saves The Day’ which tells the story of the dance music movement in New York in the 70s, with The Loft and Studio 54. He said the scene in Hanoi really reminds him of that. And it’s true.
“When I got out there, it would be mainly expats and rough travellers at parties. It was a weird scene but still quite fun and then after a while, more Vietnamese would be coming out. By the time I left, some nights would just be a club full of Vietnamese people dancing away and it was so fantastic. The community is so strong, and they're always inviting and encouraging people to join in, so it’s a really exciting place to be at the moment.”
What was it like coming up as a DJ in Vietnam?
“I really was lucky to get to Hanoi in the early days as I wasn’t very polished as a DJ at the time and that was good because no-one had any DJ equipment. It was hard to practice and so it was common for people to play out their tunes for the first time in a club.
“I had had a few gigs in Bristol and Brighton before I left, but because I didn’t have much experience playing in front of a crowd, my mixing was never as tight as it would be in my bedroom. Hanoi was the complete opposite. I wouldn't have such a pristine, practised set, but I had confidence because I was playing pretty often in front of people so I got used to doing it on the fly and trusting my instincts.
“So yeah, I guess over the years, my mixing got tighter. And then by the time Savage opened in 2016, they had the best club. They had Funktion-ones, CDJ 2000s, Technics – everything, and you could go there and practise any day of the week. It was great to have that community base. We would go down there together and play all this music we were making on their huge speakers.”
You ended up becoming a resident DJ at Savage. How did you find yourself in this position?
"When I first came to Vietnam, booking international artists was still really new. The year I arrived, there was only one club - Hanoi Rock City - which booked Kode 9, its first international artist that year.
"And then Madake opened and I guess that was the first techno club. My friend Maggie was the promoter and we became the resident DJs there. She started booking international artists once a month, working through an Asian agency called Cliché records, which was owned by a French collective based in Hong Kong.
"Long story short, we booked San Soda to play one of our parties and then Cliché invited us over to Hong Kong to play for them. So we went and just got a relationship going. Then one weekend, one of the guys from the collective came over to Hanoi was like ‘I'm going to open a club here’ and he did. He came back the next summer and started building Savage and the rest is history."
You’ve warmed up for some pretty big names. Can you tell us about some of the highlights?
"Warming up for Objekt was great. It was nerve-wracking as I was playing after him but he had gotten there really early that day and moved all the speakers around and did a really thorough soundcheck. As a result, it was the easiest I've ever mixed in a club. I don't know what he did, but the way he set it up, it was just like mixing in your bedroom. So I got on and was like ‘Whoa!’. There was no feedback, no delay in the room. It was perfect."
Given how much you’ve achieved as a DJ, what inspired you to return to the UK and begin studying again?
"After 7 years in Vietnam, I wanted to get a bit better at production. I also felt like coming back would be a new challenge, because the scene in Europe is way more saturated and a lot tougher, but a great place to go and hone your skills and get experience."
Does DJing inform your approach to music production?
"When I first got into producing, I started pretty much straight away by playing live techno at one of my friend’s events, and I was kind of treating it like a DJ set. So I would literally just have a kick drum and a hi-hat going and just experiment. I was bringing it up and down and at first, I felt like it was going really smoothly, but then as my production got a bit better, and I was trying to be more experimental, it just got a bit tough."
"Ideally I’d like to create tracks I could play in my own sets but I feel like there's a few things missing from my productions at the moment to keep the ear interested for long enough. Hopefully dBs is going to help me get there."
You’re currently on the Access to Higher Education Music Production course. How are you finding it so far?
"It's been fantastic, so far, really great. I don't know if it's just because I'm on an access course with mature students, but everyone's super passionate about the course. So are the tutors, and I feel like I'm learning a lot. It's polishing everything that I knew before and giving me a reason - a why - behind a lot of things that I'm doing. It’s just speeding up my workflow, which is great.
"It’s been really nice to push myself to do things that I usually wouldn't do as well. For example, I probably wouldn't spend three hours just learning how to compress different sounds. Now that I have, it’s given me the ability to make decisions a lot faster and know what I'm doing a lot quicker."
How are you finding being part of the dBs Community?
"A lot of people on my course are into trap and neuro-funk and drum and bass, which is a bit different to me, but their tunes are great. I feel like the calibre of music coming out is really high, which is really good for me, because it makes me feel like I need to do a bit more. As in, I can't sit back because I don't want my tune to play out and know that I could have done better. And everyone's really improving. So I feel like that's good.
"Even though we’re on different musical paths, I feel like the level of respect between everyone is there, and everyone likes to share different techniques. Some of the guys in the class will even ask me to send them some tunes, and then they'll try and make some stuff that I'm into. They always end up doing it really well, it’s mad."
Follow Ali on Soundcloud.