JJess is on the precipice of something huge

When she isn’t producing podcasts for Sampha and taking on escape rooms with PinkPantheress, the fast-ascending DJ is playing some of the coolest parties going. We caught up with her ahead of a performance at The North Face’s Climb Festival.

Like many of us who have ever dreamed of getting behind the decks, JJess’ interest in DJing was ignited by Boiler Room. It came out around the time I was in secondary school. That was my introduction to a lot of different types of sounds. But I didn’t actually touch decks until Uni,” she says over Zoom.

Now, it’s just a few weeks until she plays Climb Festival, a two-dayer from The North Face featuring the world’s best climbers soundtracked by some of London’s buzziest artists (Ross From Friends, Laurence Guy and Nine8 Collective all feature). Tickets are totally free if you want to eat, drink and spectate rather than take on the vertiginous 16-metre-high waterfront climbing wall yourself. But if you do, be prepared to faceplant the Thames.

JJess, real name Jess Ajose, first started jamming with the creator of cult Brighton student night Donuts. It felt like maths at first,” she laughs. Things only began to gel when she started working at local radio station Radar. My mind was blown by all the different genres the DJs played. I’d sit in the studio and watch them and then try to do it myself in the practice studios in the basement,” she remembers. Graduating and joining the BBC as a radio producer, JJess kept DJing on the side. I did weekends at the BBC, so I had to DJ at a big one on Friday night then roll into work on one hour’s sleep. Somehow it worked,” she says.

But unlike many of us who have ever dreamed of getting behind the decks, JJess actually ended up playing Boiler Room. While we’ll have to be content with headlining our living room with a borrowed DJ controller and an ironing board, the East London selector landed her first of many Boiler Room sets in 2018 alongside the likes of Unknown T and Headie One. It was so bizarre. I was like, what am I doing here? There weren’t as many female DJs then so it was an all-male lineup and I was really nervous. I used to get the shakes,” she laughs.

By this point, JJess was a full-time selector. It was always supposed to be a hobby. I’d never envisioned that I was going to be doing it as my job, right? I thought it was just an extra bit of money,” she says. After an NTS takeover and club nights across the capital, PinkPantheress’ manager slinked her way into JJess’ DMs. It was around the time she was blowing up. It aligned so well because I felt like the music I was playing – mixing jungle, drum-and-bass and R’n’B sounds – was similar,” she says.

No sooner was she heading off across Europe with her USB stick as Pantheress’ tour DJ. I learned a lot about how to be part of a show. I’d never DJed for another artist before so it was very new as the crowd doesn’t know you,” she says. Back home, she was playing parties for high fashion houses. People don’t always want to dance, but I like being dressed up,” she says.

She was also spinning a lot of other platters on the side. Her other projects included working with Sampha on his Apple Music show Wave Therapy (“It made me remember why I love radio”) and starting Insta archive Dancefloor Theory to explore the seismic and often unsung impact of Black artists in British dance music. I wanted to debunk the theory that Black people aren’t into dance music as a lot of it comes from Black communities. So it’s an ongoing research project flipping it back to the past and looking at the founders of the genres,” she says.

With Climb Festival now very much on the not-so-distant horizon, we asked JJess a few more questions about mixing Nigerian and British music, touring with PinkPantheress and whether she’ll take on Climb’s bouldering wall.

What should people expect from a Jjess set?

I like to tell a story about who I am and where I’m from as both Nigerian and British-born, so I was exposed to grime and jungle growing up but also afrobeats and fuji. They’re a lot more melodic and warm whereas the music in the UK is often hard-hitting and cold. So it’s about bridging the gap between the two. It’s why I love South African genres like gqom; I just love the drums.

How do you take listeners on a journey with your mixes?

The first song I play always sets the tone so that’s important to get right. Then you warm people up and get them two stepping and vibing. For the middle, I want people to be super hyped about what’s playing, with high energy sounds and hard-hitting drums. Then towards the end I’m winding you down a bit – by this point you might need to get some water and take a breather.

What’s the maddest venue you’ve ever played?

Vago, this little bar in Lisbon that only fits 100 people max. I went back to back with Steve Lacy. It was so impromptu but it was just two people who are really into music, no pretence or anything. It was so sick. I love having those kinds of moments with people.

What’s it like on tour with PinkPantheress?

People think tour is crazy but we kind of just hang out and get dinner or go to a theme park. Or go to an escape room, she [PinkPantheress] loves them. I’m terrible. I feel bad when I’m on her team. I’m the useless one in the back like: I found this thing!”

The North Face’s mantra is Never Stop Exploring. Does that hold true for DJing too?

It’s a form of exploration in the sense that it really does help me to learn about new music. But also playing to a different crowd every single time is a form of exploration, because you are learning different listening habits. You know, maybe there’s a niche somewhere that hasn’t really been tapped into, so you do some more research.

What do you rate about The North Face?

I love how functional their clothes are. When I was at the fitting there was a gilet with a pouch for climbing chalk which I thought was genius. And I appreciate how they have married athleticism and culture.

How are you feeling about playing Climb Festival?

I’m actually really excited. I like the idea of sound tracking someone’s excursion. Music plays a really big part in exercising for me; I have playlists for walking or being at the gym. I’m very particular about the kind of music I have for warming up and cooling down, so I think that’s how I’ll put my set together.

Are you going to attempt the wall?

I heard that you jump into the Thames. It looks insane. I don’t know if that bit’s for me but I’ll try one on the ground. I used to do it at school for PE but that was a long time ago and I don’t know if I have the skills!

The North Face’s Climb Festival takes place at Canary Wharf, London from Friday July 12 – Saturday July 13. Tickets are free for spectators and available here. If you want to compete as a climber, register here for £85. Bring on the wall!

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