Jun 13, 2023
9 min read
When Sam Blacky dials into our video call, she's looking as cool as ever, chunky pink-rimmed shades on as the sun streams into the back seat of a car in Mexico City. It's another packed weekend of crisscrossing time zones for the San Diego-born DJ and producer. As she explains why Mexico City is her favorite place in the world, it becomes clear how a lifetime spent traveling the world has contributed to her freshly evolving globally inspired sound.
"I'm a beach girl. So it's weird. You wouldn't think that I would love this place as much as I do. But I almost moved here three times," she says with an excited smile. "The people, the food, the restaurants, the music for sure. The music is number one. The clubs are incredible. And it's super green, and beautiful."
As she moves from car to the beautifully appointed home of her "Mexican parents" —the owners of the club she's performing that night—she tells me how her Aussie band-loving, travel-obsessed parents helped form the foundation for a multi-disciplinary career that has taken her around the world.
"I'm dying to make a remix of INXS," she says with a sparkle. "My dad and mom were hardcore INXS." The iconic 80s new wave band (and fellow Aussie rockers AC/DC) was at the forefront of her musical memories from childhood. And while she name-checks Michael Bolton, Kiss, and ZZ Top, she's sure to dial home that INXS was the onramp to her musical highway.
Her parents passed on their love for impossibly cool music, making it easy for her to fall in love with dance music. After a less-than-perfect semester at UC Santa Barbara, she moved to UCLA, where she made friends that would go on to be music industry stars. In the pre-EDM blog house era, when punk rock and dance music's DIY spirits converged to spawn what would soon be a global phenomenon, cohorts like Jonah Berry, co-founder (with Skrillex) of the sadly shuttered NestHQ and graphic designer and DJ Trevor Bones introduced her to Ghostland Observatory, Boys Noize, Zircon, and her first EDC.
Ever restless and searching for adventure, she moved to Australia to finish a marketing degree on the Gold Coast. Sam was habitually in the right place at the right time, whether through kismet or sheer power of will.
"A week into being there. I met [a] hilarious, outlandish guy who was my best friend, still is to this day, and we lived together almost the whole six years. He was so funny, Sammy Prosser. Just a legend. He ran a bunch of nightclubs in Melbourne, and was just like a wild party boy player." Prosser gave her a taste of her future life behind the booth, taking her in a limo to her first Aussie festival Sterosonic an hour north in Brisbane.
While she says she never intended to be in the music industry, an ongoing series of fortunate events kept leading her forward. After graduating, she worked at a marketing agency on an activation at Stereosonic for Chupa Chups, the Australian answer to Blow Pops. She managed to masterfully marry the two worlds she lived in. When asked to develop a marketing plan for a product primarily consumed by children, she ingeniously suggested that ravers were the best consumers.
"Everyone is rolling at festivals. Everyone wants lollipops," she explains casually of the value proposition. The idea became a boon for the company and got her into the events she loved to attend. "We ended up doing all these insane activations, the most absurd things. I had a giant balloon microphone that was a Chupa Chup and I interviewed all the DJs backstage."
The activation put her front and center with some of the world's biggest DJs, whom she ended up partying with. On her last run with the festival, she stayed in Melbourne to keep the afters going while her co-workers returned to the office, and by the time she got home, she'd lost her job.
As one door closed, another opened, and a good friend got her a gig at Concrete Agency, where she helped manage tours for Will Sparks, Laidback Luke, and deadmau5, among others.
She also further enmeshed herself in dance music and picked up DJing. She tells me it was an organic progression that came about when her best friend Sammy encouraged her to foster her innately acute musical ear, and paid for DJ lessons. Her first gig? Opening for the one-and-only Eric Prydz. "I didn't know what the fuck I was doing opening for Eric Prydz. It was ridiculous." A trial by fire experience where she says she mangled her beat matching on every song.
She thought that after moving back to the States, she would continue to pursue working on the industry's back end, but something changed after a year of spinning for fun in Australia. Once again, leaning on her ability to make friends and influence people, Scott Russo, lead singer of pop-punk band Unwritten Law pointed her to his daughter Cailin who instead told Sam to pursue modeling, insisting that she could make her way into DJing that way.
She'd accidentally fallen into yet another career path at 25. Her beachy California girl aesthetic made her the perfect choice for brands like Abercrombie and Sketchers. Despite feeling a little out of place modeling with 16-year-olds, she crushed it, becoming a go-to model for swimwear. And because she already had the skills, she played double duty at events where a DJ was needed. Yet, despite word slowly spreading about Sam's top-tier Dj skills, she didn't love the bookings.
"In terms of the shows I was playing, they were like model DJ gigs. I hated them. They're friggin awful. I was DJing in stores and like, you know, as background music. I really just used it as practice to perfect the craft."
She struggled to redefine herself as an artist as she transitioned into club gigs. Her first management deal with industry titan Ayita (home to Chris Lake, FISHER, Cloonee, and Camden Cox) came with the caveat that she erase her modeling career from existence. Yet even with their assistance, she still struggled with the transition. Even some of her industry friends didn't take her seriously until she clawed her way to legitimacy.
It was equally difficult to accept that she needed to become a producer to level up. Despite everyone telling her it was necessary, she felt she'd already arrived.
"I was just naive and dumb. I was arrogant. I guess because I already had 120 shows a year and I was making great money. I was like, 'no, I'm chill. I don't need to make music.' I did!"
Things had always come fairly easily for Sam, a straight-A student, and a quick study. Yet even after multiple attempts to commit, Ableton was frustratingly confounding. "It was like Chinese to me," she explains. She put off learning it for as long as she could. "Which I definitely regret, but, you know, timing is everything, and maybe I wasn't ready and it wasn't meant to be."
After a string of rejections from labels, she released her first single, "Too Late," on her own Stabby Records imprint in 2021. It was a leap of faith, as it put the onus of success on her. However, ultimately it was the most rewarding because it proved to the industry that she was viable, led to signings with Repopulate Mars and Thrive, and allowed her to hone in on what her sonic identity could be.
"I feel like most artists spend a lot of their life and their time with the craft, mastering their sound and then coming out as artists," she says with a note of quiet introspection. "I did the opposite. I'm doing it as I go. I don't think it's necessarily the better route at all, but it's what I've done, cuz I wanted to put music out."
Her music has taken on notes from years of travel. While her first release, "Too Late," brimmed with mainstage tech house energy, "Colombiana" (her recent release on Repopulate Mars) breathes with the Latin flavor of her favorite destinations. And "Bogota" leans further into a softer, more lilting sound without letting up on the energy.
"in the beginning, to be honest, I was just trying to make stuff that was popular. And you know, that never works. That's never the right thing to do. My two loves were tech house and like Afro tribal, like Tuluminati, for lack of a better word. And it just wasn't that popular."
When her agents pressed her to define her sound early on, she said (much to their frustration) she could play with Calvin Harris or Black Coffee. The disparity between the worlds of dance music made it difficult to find her footing. More recently, she's comfortable saying her sound may lie closer to one side. And after spending so much time in far-flung locales where music tastes are more refined, and playing with people like Francis Mercier, she can safely say that she's performing for crowds that respect her direction.
Sam Blacky's winding journey has taken her from dancefloor queen to DJ to reluctant label owner, producer, and now releases on top-tier labels and being named one of the most influential producers of the year by 1001 Tracklists in 2022. It's quite a trajectory. So when I ask her what it all says about her ultimate belief in herself, she thanks me humbly and answers about as honestly as any artist could.
"Internally and naturally, I'm a confident person. I'm outgoing. I'm outspoken," she explains. "On the inside, you know, I'm a Cancer. I don't know if you guys are into all that. But yeah, I'm a Cancer: very sensitive. I'm an artist. I'm very insecure and fragile, and scared. I worry. I've got anxiety. You know, I've dealt with a lot of anxiety and stress and depression in the past. And so it definitely gave me confidence and really helped me to be like, 'Okay, I can do this.'"