Some of SHERELLE’s earliest memories are of the walls literally coming down. A child of demolition like so much of London at the mercy of social housing, she watched her estate fall to wrecking balls at a young age. It was an early lesson in understanding the precarity and importance of space to call your own.
By the time she, and her mum and sister, had moved to another council estate in Walthamstow, she had understood two things: one, was reverence for care, thanks to what she calls “a dynamic of support, where there was a massive need to help each other”.
The other, was the importance of making something for herself, which she quickly got to work with, finding her sanctuary in a “tiny box room which might have been for storage” and transforming it into something beautiful: filled with “Black Barbies, Blazin’ Squad posters and loads of Arsenal posters”, (she’s a child of the Invincibles era – when Arsenal went a whole league season without defeat in 2003/04, which might explain some of her youthful confidence).
Today, SHERELLE, the DJ, producer and label head has this same bop of optimism as she bounces down the capital’s Dalston High Street. She’s donning a big blue puffer jacket that conceals how small she really is, and her trademark smile. She rocks up at Escuado De Cuba, a Cuban restaurant that transforms from day to night. Today, it’s dark inside, but at night the surroundings are bathed in red light, with up-tempo music and after-hours dance, fitting for SHERELLE, whose body is also finely tuned for night-time transfigurations.
The location is sandwiched somewhere between her past and present. As she excitedly talks about the near future – an upcoming US tour, more summer bookings, radio slots, she also gestures with a frown towards the road behind her, where her early DJ sets took place including the infamous, but now defunct, Birthdays which closed in 2016. In fact, at only 28, many of the clubs where she trained her ear for mixing and selecting are now relegated to the archives.
SHERELLE is no stranger to change. While the soundtrack to those early years was her mum’s ear for dancehall and reggae which filled the house – a connection to her family’s roots in Clarendon, Jamaica – she was expressing her musical love through her bedroom walls. By the time she was a teenager she had grown out of boy bands (“It felt wrong… because I was gay” she laughs) and she cleared the way for Janelle Monáe pictures ripped out of fashion magazines and a limited edition Daft Punk 3D cover of Dazed & Confused, “which came with glasses”. It was in that space she spent many moments gazing at the electronic French duo coming alive in her tiny room as she listened to Mary Anne Hobbs and Annie Mac on the radio.
Outside the house, she was making space for her personal passions. Her first dream, of being a footballer, came crashing down after an early collision with structural barriers. “The girls training ground was in Hertfordshire, which was just too far, we couldn’t afford to travel to it,” she recalls. “Ironically, I lived so close to the men’s Arsenal training ground, so I remember I called them up and I was like: ‘Hello, do you have any space? Can the girls try out here as well?’ They said no.”
When that didn’t work out (though the practice hours allowed her to listen to “Kano, Roll Deep, Friendly Fires and a lot of drum’n’bass tunes on my iPod” so it wasn’t all bad), she got a job at River Island. This taught her how music can help you squeeze some joy from the tedium of life because she “hated it with a passion” not least, because of its soundtrack, which was a rolling cast of caustic pop hits.
Her ears filtered the songs she liked, “(Chicago DJ) Traxman, Azari & III”, between the indie-pop glut. Her saving grace, she remembers, was discovering, then listening religiously, to the SBTRKT album on the 275 bus journey from Woodford station to her job in Stratford and back again. “That saved me!” she grins.
Partly as a reaction to the River Island playlist, she was set free after learning that you could curate soundtracks on your own terms, for yourself, by downloading music from the internet. “I spent hours at the computer on LimeWire downloading everything and anything,” she says. “I would find a load of jungle records, all terrible quality, ripped from pirate radio but listen again and again anyway.”
It was when the frenetic bloom of Chicago house travelled through her laptop speakers one day in 2012 that she really fell in love, as Barbara Tucker’s vocal entered the auditory cortex of her brain, travelled through her body and dilated her pupils.
“I downloaded someone’s Strictly Rhythm compilation by accident,” she says. “It was where I discovered Chicago house. I was like, okay, fuck, this is the kind of sound I’m into.” Soon after, she came across a Machinedrum mix. “I didn’t know that I was listening to footwork at that time.”
It led her to footwork pioneers like DJ Spinn and RP Boo, the Teklife crew and others who make up the underground music phenomenon born out of 90s Chicago. The genre, generally at a high speed of 160 bpm, borrows from drum’n’bass with its double-time clave triplets, syncopated toms and huge sub-bass. It was born from the corners of Chicago, in tiny, wood-panelled homes and makeshift spaces where people jerked to juke, flailing limbs in all directions in reverent submission to the music.
It was around this time that she downloaded the DJ software VirtualDJ which allowed her practice hours to beatmatch, scratch, and create mixes. An enthusiast to the end and limited by nothing, SHERELLE tested her mixes in spaces which don’t exactly spring to mind when you think about UK future garage and R’n’B sets.
“I played for my friend’s 16th birthday party once,” she says with her characteristic liveliness between bites of cheese and jalapeño-topped tacos. “It was in this random warehouse somewhere in Walthamstow. I even did a jungle section where I went really fast and people were like: ‘Oh my gosh.’ Yeah… I really went in on that.”
The sets that followed retained this dual sense of energy and liberation. SHERELLE taking the Black Queer euphoria of house’s history, injecting it with UK jungle’s beating heart, with the aim of making those listening lose their minds.
She is careful, though, to make a crucial distinction between being a purist and a specialist – a specialist she explains, has passion, opens up the genre, and rejects the exclusionary nature of purist approaches. If SHERELLE wants anything, it’s to build the music scene up bigger, always allowing the bodies left outside, in. She understands that while it might make for a neat classification to call her a jungle and footwork DJ, she is, of course, a product of years of diverse iPod playlists.
“You can, like, represent other things as well,” she says.
It was discovering how the internet made it possible to build something from the ground up that inspired SHERELLE’s next era in music. She did what most fans did at the time and exploited the mid-2000s landscape of DIY music reporting that blogs afforded. Her contribution to the online ether was a blog called Influxxx. This gave her access to artists via reviewing gigs, interviews, attending clubs for free, crowbarring herself in to what had been for a long time largely gate-kept music spaces.
She reels off a list of people she was able to access at the time: Andy C, SBTKRT, Chase & Status. “I’d be standing in these crowds and be like, wow, they’ve managed to like produce this music,” she recalls. “They’re now DJing it. And then everyone’s going mental. It was a huge influence for me.”
If the internet gave SHERELLE an online musical home, then Reprezent gave her a physical one. She joined the now infamous south London community radio station when she was 20 and beams every time she talks about it.
“Reprezent is one of those like magical places,” she says. “It’s like, you don’t understand how much confidence you get from that. It almost like makes you wanna like, like scream and cry. Cause you’re just like, finally fuck! And the generations come in waves.”
“I lived so close to the men’s Arsenal training ground, so I remember I called them up and I was like: ‘Hello, do you have any space? Can the girls try out here as well?’ They said no.”
It’s an inspiring approach to think of it this way, waves that roll on, rather than bemoaning the glory days of a golden era long gone and it’s a useful reminder that excellence and support comes in waves, and tides continue to persist – if they’re allowed to.
The station, which gained its FM licence in 2011, but has been broadcasting since 2009 is beloved for being a place where young DJs, presenters and broadcasters play great music across the board and are as likely to chat about exclusive grime performances as station collaborations with The xx or the local Chicken Cottage’s Ramadan special between songs. The roster is diverse musically – everything from indie sleaze throwbacks, to trap specials, and journeys into Detroit house. SHERELLE was among the first Reprezent generation to move from the brick contours of Queens Road Peckham to the steel shipping containers of POP! Brixton in 2017 and used it to finesse her ear for jungle, footwork and a spectrum of dance sounds, namely thrilling ‘160 edits’ of lovers rock songs or Kaytranada reworks.
The talent from Reprezent has filled some of the gaping holes in the music industry, breaking comedians like Munya Chawawa, alongside A&Rs who went on to work with XL, producers poached by Beats and selectors who found homes at 6 Music, 1Xtra and beyond. It’s worth noting that Reprezent (107.3 on the FM dial, or a website away if you want to listen online) broadcasts with the same energy and continued to produce talent and jubilation throughout the lockdown in living rooms across the city (sometimes interrupted by mums passing through).
The permission to just exist in peace felt radical. “There’s a fuckload of people within the music scene at the moment that wouldn’t exist without it,” explains SHERELLE. “We were given time to just do whatever the fuck we wanted. We sat on a beanbag and did fuck all and chatted with a friend.”
In a climate where youth spaces have been almost completely decimated by 12-long years of Tory governance, sometimes all you need is a shipping container, some speakers, and some mates to change your life.
In 2015, the station, a social enterprise funded largely by local authorities, was under threat of closure thanks to cuts from central government which had a devastating effect on the station’s finances. The closeness of Reprezent’s precarious economy politicised the issue for those who used the station as a lifeline. For SHERELLE, it illustrated something razor sharp, and between sips of a beer she summarises what it felt like to consider that the walls might come down.
“We’ve got a government that couldn’t give a fuck about young people. And especially about young people of colour,” she sighs. And she should know – she’s a product of political governance which has sent this message for as long as she’s been DJing clubs. Over the decade between 2011-12 and 2021-22, over £36 million has been cut from annual youth service budgets in the capital: a fall of 44%.
Thankfully, the tidal wave of talent from SHERELLE’s era was more inspirational than the bleak political moment. “I used to play for a couple of groups, one called 160 feet deep (a reference to the general BPM of Chicago footwork). They used to put on loads of footwork nights, and a night called We Buy Gold in London. I was really influenced by it. It made me step my pussy game up to kind of, be like, okay, cool. I need to go do this myself.” So mighty was its impact she began taking DJing in clubs seriously, finding another place to just be, to find her footing, and turn crowds inside out.
In 2019, SHERELLE showed us exactly what she could do to a crowd. Boiler Room invited her to share in what she calls “a watershed moment in my DJ life”. The now legendary set is a frenetically-paced masterclass in joy, and a speed-through UK dance music history. There are plenty of electric moments that sent the crowd into raptures – from mixing 90s trance track ‘Toca’s Miracle’ by Fragma into deep jungle, or Teklife bounces that spring off the walls. The set went viral internationally, (currently at almost half a million views) and was the moment that cemented Sherelle Camille Thomas as a mighty mononym in the scene.
SHERELLE’s offering showed what many who have been cutting shapes in the corners of raves where womxn (a term to describe the intersectional inclusion of all femme identities ignored by the mainstream) are centred already know: a really good club connection can grant us transcendental moments. She talks about it with almost religious devotion.
“The day after I can’t quite quantify how I felt ‘cause of the fact that it felt so divinely… right. And the level of joy that I got, like, it’s this warm, very warm, rush.”
For SHERELLE, time is often compartmentalised in music – if in 2011, she was in her 275 bus-SBTRKT-era, by 2019, she was deep in her DJ Rashad one. This cemented her confidence in her own understanding of the genre and how to make people feel something. She says that Paul Johnson’s ‘Get Get Down’, helped her make a connection between her world in Walthamstow and the sounds coming out of Midwest America. “I used to hear that song at birthday parties!” she laughs.
In fact, her mixes take the history of how Chicago house and footwork have seeped into UK electronic music, as represented by UK labels like Hyperdub and Planet Mu. In 2010, Hyperdub teamed up with Rashad’s Teklife crew (formerly GhettoTeknitianz) to throw footwork parties in London and Bristol. These explosions of dubstep, grime, hip hop, and funky are all represented every time SHERELLE touches the decks. Her recent – and acclaimed – Fabric compilation is testament to this, breakbeat in breakneck speed designed to make you sweat.
“I downloaded someone’s Strictly Rhythm compilation by accident. It was where I discovered Chicago house. I was like, okay, fuck, this is the kind of sound I’m into.”
The Boiler Room set and opportunities that followed amplified SHERELLE’s profile. Even today, as she talks, she pulls her black beanie over her ears and she attracts a few looks from passers-by – of admiration, certainly, but also what are presumably various strands of recognition, perhaps from her Radio 1 residency slots and frequent 6 Music features, her viral Boiler Room sets, club nights, or beaming from the covers of numerous magazine profiles. Maybe you just bumped into her at one point in life and never forgot it. After all, as her sets attest, if there’s anything SHERELLE is definitely not in short supply of, it’s charisma.
The flurry of bookings, projects, tours following ‘The Set’ turned into ideas on how she might use her influence to disrupt the oppressive whiteness and lack of access in the scene. Then, of course, it all came to a grinding halt after the world went into lockdown. For someone used to a life of outlandish basslines, the world quietened down.
In 2020, at the height of some of the tightest of restrictive lockdown measures in Britain, and a historic reimagining of how to amplify the joy of Black life after tragedy, I interviewed SHERELLE over Zoom from her home, reflecting on how we reconnect in a future music world. In that moment of liminal space, it seemed impossible to imagine. How do you rebuild something that felt like it was demolished?
“It makes me sad” she said at the time, talking about some of the most vulnerable clubbers amongst us, “...to think that a lot of people usually in these crowds… are struggling from not seeing themselves, being stuck at home or with family members they’re not out to, in places where they can’t be their authentic selves.”
The brutality of the pandemic on an industry which had already felt the bite of austerity can’t be underestimated. In October 2020, SHERELLE appeared on ‘Newsnight’ on a programme following the winter economic plan of chancellor Rishi Sunak that failed to adequately support the culture sector, in the midst of crisis. Circumstances that make activists of us all.
“The whole industry, live music, is in complete dire straits” she said. “It’s very stressful for us all. I’ve got friends on Universal Credit and they’re unable to either choose between paying rent or paying for food and basic amenities.”
Two years on, and SHERELLE has imagined something better. I think about this quote by writer Audre Lorde in her 1988 ‘A Burst of Light: Essays’: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
For SHERELLE, this care takes place on the dancefloor, it is in the dancing, in the curating of a home for her peers, and it is an opportunity to care for each other.
“Some of us don’t have space” she explains. “Some of us don’t have ownership of certain things”.
At Goldsmiths, as a student SHERELLE was taught by feminist scholar and thinker Sara Ahmed. It’s where she first came across academic ideas of decolonialism, and the insidiousness of structural racism.
“I’d always leave her lessons being like: ‘Fucking hell, no wonder this has happened to me in the past.’ But her lessons gave me strength,” she recalls. Making environments welcoming to marginalised communities is now paramount, having spent much of her time in crowds that weren’t always friendly. She explains that once, her USB was stolen from her laptop mid set. The whole vibe shifted. “Suddenly the room didn’t feel like we were all in this moment together.”
Her point is these ecosystems are fragile and sometimes that’s all it takes to feel like the crowd outnumber you, that you’re not, all, children of Barbara Tucker’s Beautiful People.
“And that as a Black woman I’m not always afforded the luxury of anger,” she says, rubbing her beanie against her ear. “But I think back to Sara. Now, if someone’s being a dickhead, I’ll just call them a dickhead.”
SHERELLE’s new project, the aptly named BEAUTIFUL, builds on what she’s learned from seeing things rise from the ashes. It provides the very thing a generation of would-be artists are looking for – a place to metaphorically and figuratively, call their own. But alongside logistical offerings like free studio space (“because it’s fucking expensive!”), SHERELLE is clear about its existence being a reaction and disruption to a music scene in bondage to its own structural privileges.
She aims to curate and put on exhibitions, a record label centring Black artists (she has experience in this, having headed up label Hooversound recordings with Apple Music presenter, fellow DJ and Reprezent alumni NAINA since 2021) and also provide DJ and music business workshops as a way to demystify the process. One of the offerings she’s most excited about is a syllabus that teaches musical and political histories.
“I feel that the electronic music scene has been whitewashed,” she says, which she sees as an opportunity. “Festivals and others need to do better in order to book more people of colour. The platform’s gonna be basically something that addresses influence, space and ownership.”
It also insists on writing the joy of Black artists as curators, creators and practitioners into the past, present and future of the electronic music scene. To make a point about erasure she retells a recent story about arguing with someone on Twitter about Kraftwerk. She tells the story quickly which can be summarised in a single final sentence that makes her laugh so incredulously she splutters as she takes a long sip of her beer: “Kraftwerk were not dance music until Black people in Detroit were dancing to them!”
This point builds on the idea that ‘decolonising’ is an active word that lives in the world beyond academia. Put simply, it describes that most of our cultural, social and political lives have been whitewashed, centring whiteness and erasing the contribution of marginalised communities, particularly Black, Queer ones. This branch of thinking suggests that it is our collective responsibility to continue to add and rewrite these histories back in tenfold, bringing us closer to truth and a deeper understanding of the world we live in. In the context of dance music, it might just be asking questions of disco and house archive footage which show only white, affluent kids dancing in the Manhattan clubs. These speak little to the Queer Black or Latinx dancers taking up space in Harlem in a climate of hate, stretching their limbs in clubs and commanding the power of the music to help empower them in life.
“I feel that the electronic music scene has been whitewashed. Festivals and others need to do better in order to book more people of colour. The platform’s gonna be basically something that addresses influence, space and ownership.”
With this in mind, talk turns to the role of the dancer. Her answer is both logical and poetic: “The role of the dancer is important because they represent freedom.”
She continues. “Freedom of expression is something which we don’t have enough of in the world, and we’re not able to have enough of, so the dancers - especially the Queer gen - they could have it in the club, if they weren’t being beaten the fuck out of by police or being heckled in the street.”
She mentions learning how the club creates celestial moments from listening to 90s Detroit techno pioneers Underground Resistance: “It’s like a lot of gospel-led things where you can just feel like… the pain floating away.”
In 2021, Sherelle offered something that took from this idea of “a softer, emotive side to the world” with the release of her sensitive, thoughtful and thrilling two-track EP, ‘160 Down The A406’. She says the tracks are “supposed to be warm and forgiving”, and they are – airy vocals over gentle bass clips that give you a chance to catch your breath as she calls you to dance in your own way, at your own pace.
She takes this knowledge of the dancers and DJs who have come before her as the foundation for BEAUTIFUL. “I’ve noticed a lot more Queer people getting into footwork, juke, jungle, d’n’b,” she says. “People who might not always have been so open to kiss or to dance or be themselves fully.”
Her thinking is that post-pandemic, people want speed rather than a gentle way back in the club. If that’s true then she’s the person for the job. Talking about footwork, she muses that: “I think the music and how fast and crazy and sporadic it is has actually lent itself well to people being able to do whatever – whatever dances you wanna do, whatever you wanna wear, the tongue-in-cheek nature of it all. Sexual liberation and sexual openness is always really good, and I think the speed of the music enables one big clusterfuck of explosion and expression.”
It’s true that to call the music fun is an understatement – it is at times instructional: “Bounce that Booty’ (DJ Deeon) asks what some may say are urgent questions, ‘What’s the use of having that ass if you ain’t gonna throw it? (DJ Rashad) and sometimes, provides crucial advice for life: ‘DON’T JUST STAND THERE’ (DJ Spinn).
In the midst of a political and social moment where communal spaces are fighting for their lives (between 2005 and 2015 it was reported that over 1400 clubs were shut in the UK, many thanks to rising rents) SHERELLE sees herself as inspired by other DJ collectives and communities who have unearthed light in the midst of political darkness.
She namechecks Discwoman (A New York collective platforming women and non-binary electronic artists) BBZ (a London-based Black Queer art and DJ collective) Unorthodox (who put on a Queer drum’n’bass night), all the time making the point that there are people working to build something even as things fall down.
For those working class young people for whom studio space is the difference between making music or not, for those LGBTQIA+ communities of colour looking to find home, or those artists for whom seeing themselves as part of the past can empower their present. For anyone looking for a place to feel beautiful, SHERELLE aims to make it so.
Her education, learned from the confines of her tiny box room, to the training grounds just for boys, to sprawling inclusive online spaces, to being in command of crowds and airwaves, has taught her that making something for yourself is good but sharing it is even better.
Before she leaves – she needs to rest her body before a US tour in a few days’ time – she makes a final, enduring point as she begins to zip up her puffer jacket. “I’m part of an ecosystem that already exists. I’m just adding to something that allows the next person to come through, and then the next group, and then the next wave of people to come through, building something together. All while highlighting how beautiful and delightful the Black music scene is.”
Buy the SHERELLE cover of Disco Pogo issue 1 now.