horoscopes, la drives, and the perfect club: a conversation with asmara
After 10 years of collaboration, LA club queen Asmara is going solo.
Asmara, AKA Asma Maroof, is the self-described "first lady" of Fade To Mind — the US collective responsible for incubating a dark new wave of club music. As one half of Nguzunguzu, and more recently, one quarter of production supergroup Future Brown, Asmara's influence on the sound of the electronic underground can't be overstated.
The LA-based DJ and producer has an unparalleled ear for recombining the outer reaches of global club and hip hop into her own lush world. Her edits and mixes are at once playful and thoughtful; whether an inspired blend of Kelela and OG grime producer Iron Soul or a fiery live solo set. But catching Asmara solo is rare: she's always kept a slightly lower profile than her label mates. As her CV suggests, she prefers to work collaboratively (Daniel Pineda, the other half of Nguzunguzu, is her partner).
Then, late last year, solo production credits begun to appear. Her handle changed from MA DJ to Asmara, and she took over resident duties at legendary LA club night Mustache Mondays. After 10 years as a musician, was Asmara gearing up to go solo? We hoped so, and soon, our hunch proved true. There's an EP due out later this year.
i-D caught up with Asmara during the Melbourne leg of her Australian tour to talk the new name, the even newer EP and why it can be hard for a Cancer to come out of their shell.
You recently changed your moniker from MA to Asmara. Why?
I started using MA after Daniel starting using NA for his solo work. MA was my nickname in high school and it kept us related in a cute way. But MA is so hard to find on Google, the same way NA is. On top of that, people were always getting us confused. When Kelela's Gomenesai came out, a lot of people were saying it was produced by NA. It was getting a little tricky.
So Asmara signals a shift, you and Daniel separating your projects a bit more?
It does help with that. The confusion around Gomenesai was annoying at first: I was trying to distinguish myself solo, but everyone thought it was done by Daniel. But it ended up being cute 'cause when people on YouTube would comment "Oh yeah, it's produced by NA," my fans were like "No! It's actually MA, this is her!" It's been hard for Daniel and I as we each try to do our own thing, because we're similar in many ways. At the same time, getting mixed up for Daniel isn't the worst thing in the world.
Was there a reason you went with a variation on Asma, your own name?
I knew whatever name I chose, I wanted to have my name in it. Like Fantasma, or like — Tasmania? [laughs] I like Asmara: it's my name, just adding "ra" like "rarr!" I also love Sun Ra, and Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. It just works.
NA's Cellar EP is quite brooding and dark, whereas your production on Gomenesai kind of sparkles, does that hint at —
— my new sound? Yeah, kind of. When you listen back to Nguzu after my EP comes out, you might even be able to hear what Daniel and I both brought to the project. I like sounds that are transcendent, otherworldly, wondrous. I'm attracted to that kind of palette. There are less samples on my EP than usual, but there's still a lot 'cause it's what I like to do. It's funny, on Gomenesai, the person saying "gomenesai" is a sample within the sample that I sampled! I didn't even notice it really, until Kelela was like "oh god, 'gomenesai' — that means 'I'm sorry, I'm not sorry!'" I didn't even hear that shit initially, it was just kinda like, a sound.
Does this upcoming solo EP feel like you're getting ready to step out on your own?
I got into making music because of other people: I never even knew that I could even really get into this world — I made visual art before — until I met people that inspired me, and that I collaborated with. Collaboration has always been inspiration for my music-making in general. So when I started DJing by myself I didn't like it, I hated it. When I had to DJ Mustache Mondays, in the beginning, it was really hard. But through repetition, and almost being forced into it, I started loving it. I figured out, "you know, I can do this by myself."
But still with the support of friends?
Yeah! I'm still like, with the homies, still hitting people up for help. I don't want to feel alone: that was always the scary part of working solo. Because you get insecure when you're listening to something on loop. After a while you start hearing nothing, and then you're left thinking, "what the fuck's going on?" Ask a friend for help: that's fine, that's what's up! That was something I had to learn. Even though this EP is my solo project, I still want to collaborate and get features. I don't quite want to say it's me stepping out on my own. Just a little more like "this is me."
I get the sense you've always been fairly happy to stay a bit more low key than a lot of other producers.
Yeah, for sure. I'm still like that, that's just what I like. I'm a Cancer but my moon is in Aries, so I do like a little bit of attention, but I don't like the all-seeing-eye. With my Cancer side, I'm a crab: I want to go into my little burrow, make music and not see anybody. As with anyone who becomes a DJ in this club world, I'm not trying to be watched the whole time. But I have a duality where I like getting cute and having people notice my outfit, or having people say like "oh yeah, you worked on that thing" or "you did that thing, you did that girl," then I'm like "yeahhh!" In that sense, I am excited to put out solo work, so people learn more about me.
What's your vision of the perfect club? What does it look like?
My perfect club is like stacks of subs on the beach, at night. Waves crashing, the subs vibrating, stars shining. The moonlight poppin', hips swangin' [laughs].
Are you playing?
I'm like everywhere at once. Total Freedom is definitely DJing, maybe I'm about to play, I'm itching to play a track with him, and he's like "okay, Asma, you can do it." I'd probably play a Kelela acapella.
Your upcoming material, is it for the club? Where do you imagine it exists?
I haven't really felt like it's for the club and I've been battling with that. It sucks as a DJ when you can't really play the stuff you make when you're out. My ideal place to listen, and I've felt like this with Nguzunguzu too, is in the car. I really like that space for ingesting music. You're stuck in one place, but you're also moving, seeing new areas, old areas, familiar areas, unfamiliar areas, you're travelling. Maybe it's because I live in LA, or maybe just because I enjoy being in the car — I know a lot of people don't. Sometimes I even like sitting in traffic. You're not wearing headphones, there's surround sound. If you have the window down, there's the sound of the engine. I picture my music there when I make it, for reasons I don't even get.
Maybe because it's a good balance between the inner and the outer world?
Yeah, I like that. Kind of in your own shell, but travelling through the world.
A bit like you?
Asmara played Blacklist last weekend at Dark Mofo and it was incredible. Check out the full program continuing this weekend here.
Photography JT De Mallory