“I now do this thing where I don’t use my iPhone on Tuesdays.”
Lucy Monkman – better known as Monki, the DJ, producer, label founder and broadcaster who has brought us some of the freshest and most innovative electronic sounds around – is revealing some of the small, unexpectedly quiet ways she has navigated this, the most difficult of years.
“Sometimes I find myself just scrolling and I don’t even know what I’m looking at,” says the Londoner. She’s been reflecting, reading, listening to a lot of podcasts, and she has also taken up meditation, which she credits to her girlfriend. “Wellbeing stuff. When you’re younger, you think it’s a bit wishy-washy. But it’s real.”
At 29, Monki may be an updated version of her younger self, but she’s lost none of the drive and ambition of that football-loving, music-obsessed teen. Having made her name with a BBC Radio 1 show, her own label, and countless international tours as a DJ, she’s also gaining a reputation on the football pitch – she plays in the fifth tier of the women’s game, for Dulwich Hamlet FC Ladies – and as a podcaster; her series on the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Football Inside Out, won the Best Sport category at the British Podcast Awards.
Monki has managed what most people don’t: she’s made all her teenage dreams come true. “It’s taken some time to work it out,” she says. “Now [my passions] have actually come together really well, and I’m so happy they did.”
Our interview takes place in a park near Leyton, east London, on a freezing but bright day. Monki’s look is casual and pared-down yet polished: jeans, trainers, bright white sports socks, a neat beanie. As she reminisces about her unlikely rise to fame, each word carefully considered, there’s an unmistakable energy bubbling beneath the calm surface. It’s a quality that has played a big part in her success.
Monki grew up in Kingston upon Thames on the outskirts of south-west London. At home, she was surrounded by electronic music – from The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and 808 State on her mum’s stereo, to the garage tunes her uncle spun, to the dubstep and grime she listened to on pirate radio.
“I really got into music because of radio,” Monki says, emphasising the importance of pirates such as Rinse FM and Deja Vu, which transmitted the beats and voices of the underground across city rooftops and into hungry young ears. “I remember tuning in late at night and hearing dance music that I’d never heard before.”
These stations were the training ground for UK pioneers including So Solid Crew and Wiley; the place where MCs such as Dizzee, Kano and Ghetts honed their rap skills; and a space in which homegrown sounds were given room to flex and develop, away from licence-fee payers, advertisers or regulators.
It was all really exciting – I was around DJs I looked up to and felt really inspired to be like at some point
Not content with being a fan, Monki decided to become part of this world. After hearing DJ Annie Mac play Skream’s ice-cold dubstep ‘Let’s Get Ravey’ remix of La Roux’s In For The Kill on the radio one evening, she quit school the next day. The 16-year-old managed to land an internship at Rinse during a pivotal time when the artists the station worked with were blowing up, and she was on champagne-buying duties when, in 2010, the station won an official licence and became legit. “It was all really exciting – I was around DJs I looked up to and felt really inspired to be like at some point,” Monki remembers. “Katy B [whose career was launched by Rinse] became a pop star when dubstep went global, Magnetic Man [a dubstep ‘supergroup’ comprising Rinse DJ/producers Skream, Benga and Artwork] became huge... all from a radio station in the East End.”
Like Rinse founder Geeneus – who set up his station at the age of 16, balancing decks on top of a homemade transmitter in an 18th-floor flat in Tower Hamlets – Monki has made it in music thanks not just to her keen ear, but also to a DIY attitude and inexhaustible work ethic. She used her time at the station to hone her engineering and mixing skills – “They gave me my first show, and the equipment, because I couldn’t afford my own” – and to forge vital industry connections.
One night after a shift, she recorded a 20-minute set and sent it to childhood hero Annie Mac, who she’d connected with years earlier via MySpace. As a result, Mac gave Monki her first-ever gig, at KOKO in Camden, north London. In addition to stints at iconic clubs Ministry of Sound and Fabric, this led to the fledgling DJ getting a show on BBC Radio 1Xtra and then, aged just 21, a coveted slot on BBC Radio 1. “When I’d quit education, there was a sense of ‘Well, I can’t fail’,” she says. “I had nothing to fall back on. So that was my mantra at that age – it was an ‘all or nothing’ sort of mindset. And it worked. Because you’re young, you just do it.”
That ‘just do it’ attitude has taken Monki to the top of her game in music. She’s now a major force in deep house and techno, and a deft selector when it comes to crafting crowd-pleasing sets. As well as playing everything from disco and soul to electronica and piano house on the airwaves and in clubs, Monki has produced and released her own music, putting out EPs featuring a rich mix of producers, MCs and vocalists. She released a live EP with Fabric while still a teenager, splicing together house, UK garage and grime. Monki also has her own label, ZOO Music, as an outlet for all the unreleased jams that fill her inbox. And she has taken this energy out on the road every year, playing all over the globe or at her own curated UK night, Monki & Friends.
When I quit school, there was a sense of ‘Well, now I can’t fail'
But then the pandemic hit. Monki describes the effect as being like a freight train slamming on its brakes: “I’d gone full pelt for ten years and then, all of a sudden, just a hard stop.” Clubs were closed, tours were suspended, and Monki found herself at home without much to do. “The plan was to come back for a week, but in that seven days everything changed," she says. For someone who’d always had a very clear vision of the future, even as a teen – “When I quit school I was like, ‘This is my 10-year plan, I want to be on Radio 1 by the time I’m 26’”– this was a severe shock to the system. “It’s the most I’ve ever been home in 10 years,” Monki says. “What all of us lost was a connection with people. It was a massive loss. I thought I might handle it better, but I was actually quite down.”
Monki’s aforementioned work ethic didn’t allow her to slow down for long, however. Football gave her another focus, somewhere to channel her energy. The beautiful game had, in fact, been part of her original career plan before she fell in love with music, but at 14 she discovered that – at the time – women weren’t paid for playing. “You could play for Arsenal or Chelsea, but it wasn’t your job,” she says. “At the time, [female]England players had to pay for their own kit! It broke my heart. So I fell out of love with it. If I can’t do it how I want to do it, then I don’t want to do it.”
It was in her mid-twenties, with her music career in full swing, that football crept back into Monki’s life. “It took a while,” she says, “but I realised I really missed playing sport.” After getting back into the game via casual five-a-side matches, Monki joined Dulwich Hamlet FC Ladies and began living a “double life”, as she describes it: “I kept football and sport separate [from music]. I didn’t hang out with my team – I just turned up, trained and played. I didn’t tell everyone what I did. I just wanted to play football. I wanted to be treated like everyone else. But, when they found out, they just treated me the same. Everyone is equal. That’s why I love sport – no one gives a crap what you do.”
These days, Monki is a linchpin of the club. “I’m so involved [with Dulwich Hamlet] – my girlfriend’s the captain, and we’re like ambassadors,” she says of her about-turn. “I work with them doing community stuff, and I run their social channels as a volunteer. I’m, like, all in.” Rebranded in 2019 after nine years as AFC Phoenix – a team that, for much of that time, didn’t even have matching kit – Dulwich Hamlet Ladies have found themselves on an upward trajectory, attracting larger crowds than many clubs further up the football food-chain. Last year, in their first season in the London & South East Premier Division, they were top of the table when – sadly – the league was abandoned because of the pandemic. The club is something of a family, too – players and supporters came together to raise more than £10,000 when beloved manager Farouk Menia passed away in 2019, and it provides vital LGBTQ support in the community.
I love broadcasting – podcasting was something I’d wanted to do anyway – but this was something else, not music
It was Monki’s lifelong love of sport that got her through lockdown. She used the time to reconnect with training and also to build on her new-found enthusiasm for sports broadcasting. This was boosted further when Football Inside Out won the British Podcast Award. “It opened my eyes,” she says of the realisation she could combine her two worlds. “I love broadcasting – podcasting was something I’d wanted to do anyway – but this was something else, not music.” It was really intense, but a great experience.” Never one to do anything but football matches by halves, Monki has since presented The Kick Off – a livestreaming UEFA Champions League party hosted by Heineken and Defected – and worked with sporting legend Peter Crouch on BT Sport.
What was at first an uncomfortable change of pace when the pandemic hit has now made Monki rethink her future. “I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that I do love playing shows, but I don’t want it to be my whole life,” she says. “This year has been very much about what I want to do beyond touring and being behind the decks. During the second lockdown, I teamed up with a bunch of others to work on ideas for a women’s sports platform, which will hopefully launch this year.”
The platform doesn’t yet have a name, but it does have a strong ethos: “There are some great football and sports content makers [out there], but what we want to do is concentrate less on any sport itself and more on encouraging women to move in any capacity.” Monkman quotes recent research by Sports England, which found that 39 per cent of women are not active enough, the most common reasons being a fear of judgement and lack of confidence. “Not everybody loves sports like I love football, but it’s so important to get exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk with your mates," she says.
It makes sense that Monki would apply her boundless energy to a project such as this, being someone who has visibly boosted female representation in several male-dominated fields. This includes success in the largely masculine world of electronic music, becoming the first-ever woman of East Asian heritage to host a BBC Radio 1 show – “I wasn’t aware of that until 2020, I didn’t see myself as that person at the time. I wish I’d celebrated it more” – and, of course, playing women’s football.
But, despite her plans to improve the health of countless women, and the fact that Asian girls have contacted Monki to tell her how much she’s inspired them, she doesn’t view herself as someone pushing for equality. Her boundary-breaking is more personal, centred purely around her tenacity to do what she loves, despite any risks or hurdles. Now, finding the space in the Venn diagram where her passions overlap has given her the tools to push through strange times – and even emerge stronger. “I feel like I’m being more ‘me’, living this way, with more integrity,” she says. “And that’s the goal, isn’t it? That is literally the goal.”