Isis Salam reinvents herself in Berlin’s underground electronic scene

May 13, 2014

It’s been a moment since we’ve last heard from emcee, singer, and producer Isis Salam. After parting ways with Thunderheist, the Toronto/Montreal electro-rap duo that put her eclectic sound on the map, her MSTRKRFT collaboration and high-profile performances (Jimmy Kimmel Live with Noreaga, and Perez Hilton’s SXSW Showcase supporting Kanye West) affirmed that, solo, Salam was her own one-woman army.

Following her 2010 ’80s-inspired gem “The Avenue,” Salam left Toronto for Berlin. Now she’s back with the ’90s hip-hop/house-infused single “Let Go,” released on the German label ExploitedRecords. AUX caught up with Salam during her fast and furious Toronto visit to talk new music, the challenges of being a woman in the music industry, and Toronto’s very own gift that keeps on giving, good ol’ Rob Ford.

AUX: How was your last-minute Wrong Bar show in town?

Isis Salam: The show was great. To be honest it turned out to be a very much needed reunion of old and new friends. I got a chance to see people I’ve missed, and I was able to share music I’ve been working on.

Do you notice a difference between European fans and Canadian ones?

I think it all depends on where exactly in Europe you are. Swedish fans are a lot like Canadians but Berliners are a class of their own. I think people who are fans of my music tend to be people who also don’t care much for labels, so as far as differences are concerned I don’t think there’s plenty, but that’s what makes every city and scene unique.

In a2010 interview you were asked if you could move anywhere where would it be, and you said, “I’d go to Berlin just because parties that start at5 a.m.is the place you want to be.” Had you already connected with ExploitedRecords at that time?

[Laughs] I think that quote is just a testament to the kind of person I am — when I want something I go for it. I fell in love with Berlin the first time we played there. I heard of the label, and shared many mutual friends [on it], but the deal came together organically.

For the past few years you’ve been wearing many hats—singer, rapper, and producer. How do you balance all those roles? And are you interested in producing other artists?

I would very much like to produce other artists, mainly because it’s the only way for people to make the distinction. It’s easier for them to get that I’m producing if it’s not also me singing and rapping on the track. As for balancing, well, I have no idea. I spend a lot of time alone these days, in my own head working on music—I guess I consider all those identities fluid. I don’t care to think too much about it—I hate to complicate art. I just do what I do.

There was a point in your career when you said that you were more into singing than rapping, and with your newest single, “Let Go,” you’re back to rapping. How do you determine which way to go and can we expect a balance of both on the upcoming singles?

I couldn’t stop rapping if I tried. There would be a Kickstarter campaign started the second I decided to retire. What I would like is for people to be a bit more opened minded when it comes to female artists. I hate the idea that there can only ever be one female emcee at a time, and I hate the fact that when you rap well, heads just want to hear that. Or that women are [treated as] one-dimensional characters. I don’t really spend much time thinking about it. Most of the time when I’m writing it starts as just me freestyling over something and if I like what I’ve done I will build on it. So I tend to let the music and vibe dictate the medium.

On the topic of female emcees, for a minute the term femcees was constantly used to describe them, what are your thoughts on that term?

“A dope MC is a dope MC.” KRS-One.

What was some of the musical inspiration behind your latest stuff?

Frankie Knuckles, rest in peace. [I’m] listening to a lot of Tyree Cooper as of late, essentially all the songs that were played at my 9th birthday party — see my mother for playlist. I’m obsessed with a certain kind of high hat right now, I think as you listen to more of my music it’s pretty obvious.

I know Frankie Knuckles was a big influence for you. What are your thoughts on his passing?

Sad. I released a single on Nervous, which was the label that Frankie was also on. That was the closest I got to him. But through his music we’ve always been close. The world is a bit less awesome without him.

I heard “Nasty Girl” playing in the background of your eNtR Berlin video, it sounds great.

I’m really glad you like it. My good friends Kruse & Nuernbergworked on the beat for that one, and it’s scheduled to be released in the next few months, I think.

“Let Go” is out, “Nasty Girl” is coming soon,how about the single? I heard you mention “House for All” on the eNtR Berlin clip.

Plenty of stuff to come. A few more remixes, a podcast, singles. I’ve been heavily influenced by a lot of that future garage stuff and the Berlin deep house scene so you can expect more of that.

Speaking of “Nasty Girl,”naughty is one of your trademarks that fans love. Have you had any awkward fan experiences because of it?

I like to think my fans respect me enough to know that as a feminist who embraces her sexuality there are lines that are best left uncrossed. But really I can’t think of an awkward moment…when I’m in that zone I just want everyone to be happy. You only live once, right? So while we are here together let’s just make the best of it.

You’ve also got a lot ofbraggadocioin your style, are you drawn to hip-hop and disco and house music as an outlet for that side of yourself, or has it brought that out in you?

The ego is a scary thing. [Laughs]. But that’s what hip-hop is for, right.

You mentioned in that eNtR clip the infamous Miley Cyrus, and said, “The music I make, the kind of person I am, I just want people to have a good time. ‘Cause there’s a lot of fucked up shit in the world. A lot of things like Miley Cyrus to be depressed about. And I feel like in a world filled with Miley’s, my purpose is just to bring love and happiness to people.” I’m assuming you’re not a Miley fan.

I’m team Miley all day! I have no hate for nobody especially women in this industry because I know firsthand all the nuances and extra hoops one has to deal with. I don’t slut shame and I cannot twerk—these two things are facts.

Will we ever hear more of your Nigerian background in your sound?

I’m Yoruba and I would definitely like to include more of my culture in my music. I’m sitting on a pretty large 1970 Nigerian afro beat psychedelic rock sample folder. Stay tuned.

The music world can be fickle—you’re hot one moment than you’re not then you are again, how do you handle that?

“Those who matter don’t care,and those who care don’t matter.” I tell myself that as often as needed.

Do you ever foresee a Thunderheist reunion?

Only if Beyoncé opens for us.

Finally, I have to ask…four years ago you were discussing Toronto and the one drawback you mentioned wasRob Ford, saying, “Guys, you really messed up on that. Like, really. Whose idea was that?” What do you think of all theshenanigansthat have since followed?

It’s like a really weird bad dream and you think you’re going to wake up, but you never do.

[magazine month=”May” year=”2014″]

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