As clubs have been reopening and shows have been resuming across the country after a year-and-a-half-long COVID-19 pandemic pause on the live music industry, Billboard is asking club and touring DJs about their experience fading between spinning at home to performing back outside.
Identical twin sisters Angel + Dren have provided delicious blends of Caribbean, R&B, hip-hop, reggae and Afrobeats music for years during their DJ sets in their native New York. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the two DJs/producers/artists continued whipping up their mixes for virtual audiences — and even opened up a juice bar in Harlem last October, to nourish the community with their homemade fruity blends.
Fans still thirsted for music as lockdown abruptly halted the live music scene, and Angel + Dren continued to deliver, even by releasing their first single “Nirvana” in July from their debut EP Dark Summer, which is out Friday (Sept. 17).
Billboard caught up with Angel + Dren to talk about their first DJ gig following the return of live music events, and how they wove their pandemic musical diets and new original tunes into their latest sets.
Pre-pandemic, where were you spinning usually?
Dren: We did have some regular spots: Café Erzulie and Pianos in Brooklyn and certain hotels, SoHo House, SIXTY Hotel. But I would say we were doing a lot of travel before the pandemic for gigs, whether it would be Coachella or Art Basel.
Angel: We were on tour with an artist [SAINt JHN] that took us to a lot of places, like Europe and the U.S. So it was cool getting to see what triggers people musically in different places. It was good for us to learn and see how it also connects people in different places.
What music were you listening to a lot during quarantine?
Dren: I went back in time. I don’t feel like over the pandemic I listened to a lot of current music. I felt like the albums I’ve loved for a long time, those were the same projects and artists that I revisited.
Angel: I was heavy on SoundCloud — I feel like I was listening to a lot of R&B, which always calms me down. I feel like my playlist from that time, the things I was listening to, were a little more calm and introspective.
Did you perform at any virtual events within the last year and a half?
Angel: I remember we did a FADER Fort virtually. We did the Roots Picnic virtually. We DJed with boohoo and another clothing brand. And then we DJed just on our own a lot, which was nice, because people couldn’t go to parties. So it was nice to just get off the couch and literally do a set and then go back on the couch.
Dren: It was therapeutic for me. I was sweating it out every night for no reason. And I was in the house, really feeling like I was at a party. We’d have a drink, go DJ. I felt like I knew people who were on our [Instagram] Live, I started to recognize people. You don’t realize how when you’re in a venue and there’s a capacity of maybe 150 people, it’s never gonna be as many people as you can possibly reach on the internet. So it felt cool to be able to play for someone in Chicago or South Africa who might never get to hear my set live. And I didn’t realize how limiting being in a specific space at a specific time can be.
Angel: I think even some of our family members heard us DJ for the first time during the pandemic.
Speaking of family, how have your roots/upbringing shaped the music you like to listen to and play live?
Angel: I feel like growing up, there are so many reggae and dancehall songs that I just knew. I can’t tell you where I learned it. I feel like that music was always around, and I feel appreciative that it’s one of the first genres of music I got to know because I feel like it’s so heavily rhythmic, it has so much soul to it. It just keeps me connected to my roots and my upbringing.
So I love reggae, I love dancehall, and I love world music, now seeing Afrobeats and how big it is. Even reggaetón and stuff like that. I feel like they’re all so closely connected, too, and I feel like I have a special place in my heart for world music and just the influence of Jamaican culture and music.
What was the first live music event after quarantine that you attended as a fan?
Dren: I really don’t think that we have. This is blowing my mind right now.
Angel: I think it might be time to pull up somewhere.
What was the first live music event after quarantine that you performed at as a DJ?
Angel: I think La Esquina and SoHo House was actually the first place we did coming out of the pandemic.
Dren: And people were ready to go out was the feeling that I felt. I was actually shocked — I thought it was going to be a light, chill vibe, but people were leaving it all out on the floor. [Laughs.]
Are there any songs you were listening to/spinning at home that you were excited to play for a live audience?
Angel: I think the WizKid album [Made in Lagos] definitely needed to get its love. And it definitely carried over.
Dren: Because it did drop during the pandemic, and we didn’t get to enjoy it together.
Angel: I would say, more recently, having the influx of Donda [by Kanye West] and Certified Lover Boy [by Drake], I feel like people were excited to hear those drop outside. It’s interesting to hear a lot of TikTok songs being played out, too, and people actually kind of wanting to participate in things like that outside. That happened more so during the pandemic.
Dren: Or finding their music there and then expecting to hear it back out.
Did you have any worries that certain songs or albums might be considered “too old” because it came out during the pandemic?
Dren: I’m still navigating that, because I think there are some projects that are undeniably like, It needs a moment, we need to shine a light on this project. But I think some of the other stuff, if it didn’t cut through in a major way, I feel like we just have to go through what’s new right now. So I’m still finding out like what stuff do we need to go back and be like, “No, this was good. We didn’t have a moment to celebrate together.”
Angel: It’s fun when you actually get the chance to test the records — or if someone comes up and if it’s older, people are like, “What is that?” Or if it’s newer, people are like, “What is it? I like it.” Or if you test it, and you’re like, “The energy is not what I thought” or it exceeds, I think that’s part of the fun of being a DJ too — you trust your instincts and you go out there.
Dren: Like Migos dropped a project. And I don’t know that we got through all of those songs. But I’ve been testing a lot of them, and it’s cool just to see which songs hit — which songs people are like, “Oh, I know this,” or “I want to know this.”
What are some of the newer songs or albums that came out after lockdown ended that you’ve been hyped to play?
Angel: Doja Cat’s album [Planet Her] is really good. I liked it, I think it has a lot of different vibes. And I was surprised she has some Afrobeats-type vibes in there, which is cool. I listened to Popcaan [Fixtape] during lockdown, and we actually played it on Live while we were doing our virtual sets — and I think that was a good album that didn’t necessarily get as played as much. So I come back to it all the time.
Dren: I’m excited to see more from artists like Willow Smith. I like the direction she’s going in.
Angel: Honestly, I was on my Caribbean thing during COVID, Skillibeng’s “Crocodile Teeth” and all of that. I was deep in it.
What are you looking forward to during your future sets? Where do you want to perform next?
Dren: I think I’m more excited to take the energy that I feel like we had on Live during our sets and putting it into our own event, more so than a specific venue. I think what I learned over COVID, as a lot of venues closed permanently, is that I think what’s more important than the space is the energy that’s cultivated in them. And at some point, if we can do that with the music that we love — Afrobeats, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, dancehall — then I’ll be in a space where it’s like, it could be anywhere, and it would still be what it’s supposed to be.
Angel: And to be honest, I’m excited to put our own music into sets. I think it starts to be cool when you can drop your own things, and I’m looking forward to producing more and more sets that tie in our own DNA and that we can actually really own the music that we’re making, the sound that we’re working on and working with.
You dropped your first single “Nirvana” in July. Have you played that song live in one of your DJ sets? What was that feeling like?
Angel: I get so excited when I play it, ’cause I feel like it mixes really well, for any DJ who wants to know. [Laughs.] I feel like that’s the fun part of being a DJ. You spend so much time mixing other people’s music to actually mixing your own and feel that feeling and see how people react live, not just hearing about people listening in their headphones.
Dren: If I could watch everybody listen to it, that’d be my dream. This is the closest I can get to being with everybody as they listen.
Angel: But also mixing it in as part of a larger vibe is just so cool when we get to see it. It’s so gratifying, especially when you work so much on music behind the scenes. To actually be on the other side of it and experience it, it’s really gratifying.
Dren: The last part of it is — during COVID, I guess a lot of platforms had streaming rights issues come up. So with dropping our original music, it’s almost necessary just because there’s nowhere really a DJ type of art form can live longer than your set online. So I’m happy in the place that we are in, making our own music, just because if I want it to live a little longer, and people to be able to revisit some of it, then it’s almost necessary.
Do you produce your own music while consciously thinking about how it’s going to blend in with your sets? Or do you view your songs as standalone projects and then think about the bigger picture of “How do I build a set around this?”
Angel: I think I look at it as a standalone. But I actually feel like the instincts that you develop DJing and actually being at a party, and being sensitive to timing and a certain vibe, I actually think some of those skills inform a lot of the things we do. And I can’t actually separate it innately. So I actually feel really grateful. So I actually feel really grateful when we’re making something, we’ll be like, “Is it just a little bit off on the beat? Is it just a little too slow?” We’re really, really listening.
When did you know you wanted to make that jump from DJs to musicians?
Dren: We actually started making our own music a little over two, three years ago. I think it took this whole time to kind of identify a sound that felt like us. So I’m actually happy at the time that we started. And we never really shared any of it just because I think for a long time, it was really for us to understand what do I like? What do I feel authentically represents me sonically?
Angel: For a while, it was just expression — just like how DJing was in the beginning. I think it was just a way to get things out. And I think for a while, being able to do that, you start to come to certain sounds, you start to make certain songs. And I think eventually, it was building itself and we got excited about it. And it’s a fun thing to do together, too, and just being able to collaborate with each other. That’s what makes music — DJing and like original music — fun for us, just the collaboration process and being able to feed off of ideas.
How has that transition been impacted by the pandemic?
Dren: I think it definitely confirmed to us where we were already headed. I think I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to lean into our own original music, especially because I feel like all the effort and energy that we put into our sound in the last three years, we went from only having some production knowledge to figuring out song structure and writing music, which takes time to even hone in on and feel comfortable with — vocally, lyrically and production wise.
Over COVID, we were just like, “Let’s shoot some videos. Let’s dot our I’s, cross our T’s.” Because this is who I want to be. I feel like a lot of people took time over COVID to be like, “Am I doing what I want to do? Am I who I want to be? Is this making me happy? Does this energize me? Where do I see myself?” And the answer to all those questions always led me to: You’ll always love DJing. And that will always be something that you have. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t explore other avenues that are also, at this time, giving me energy.
“Nirvana” came out before your debut EP Dark Summer, which is out Friday. How did you come up with that title?
Angel: I think it was a collaborative thing. I feel like it was an idea that maybe I feel like I came out with it, and we both agreed that it was fitting for just a time we had and a vibe that we experienced. And I feel like when you think of a dark summer, there’s a lot of different things that would probably come to mind. I feel like the way that we lived a couple summers in a row, it was ups and downs — and it gave us a lot of nostalgia, and gave us a lot of fuel to be able to write a lot of things and come up with this music.
You also own the juice bar Mad Juicy in Harlem. You nourish audiences all the time with an insatiable thirst for music, but what made you want to nourish people physically?
Dren: So we have a juicer at home, and we drink a fresh juice almost every day. On Instagram, we just showed ourselves making a juice and people were like, “Where can I buy this juice?” And it was really no answer. It’s like, “I’m making juice at home, so it’s not for sale.” And then I just was thinking, “Why couldn’t we do this?”
Angel: The way things happen between us is like…. She’ll be like, “We should just make a juice bar.” And I’d be like, “I mean, I made an LLC.” And then she’ll be like, “Well, I got the rights.” And she’ll be like, “Let’s go check out this spot tomorrow.” And then it’s like, “Do we have a juice bar?” [Laughs.] Literally just one by one, we’ll up the ante. That’s actually how DJing started. I was like, “I DJed for the first time yesterday. I think you’d love it.” She’s like, “I bet I would love it. Why don’t we just buy some equipment next week?” And I’m like, “I think you should.”
Dren: But it’s been really gratifying. It was born during COVID. We had the idea in August, and we opened at the end of October. So it was a really quick turnaround. And honestly, I’m still learning, because we have no experience in food and beverage industry whatsoever. Large learning curve.
Angel: But it’s really cool. It’s in Harlem. I feel like there could definitely be more healthy options in Harlem. We worked in our juice bar for the first couple of months, so just getting able to connect with everybody who lives in that neighborhood.
Dren: We always have music playing.