Merrissa Campbell, better known by her stage name Cooly G, is a steadily rising star out of Brixton, south London. She’s established a distinct profile in the electronic music world over the last few years with a handful of EPs and 12-inches, mostly on London-based record label Hyperdub. On her recently released debut full-length, Playin Me, Campbell sidesteps the driving 2-step garage and grimey tribal sounds of her earlier work for a more intimate effort that’s carefully composed and emotionally intense. The bare-bones elements of her sound are still there; she just allowed the music to be deep and understated enough to allow the richness of her slow-burn compositions to take center stage.
Campbell DJs regularly as Cooly G in addition to creating original music. She’s proven herself capable of achieving many different sounds and insists the tone heard on Playin Me is by no means the only direction she’s heading as an artist. She discusses the source of her inspiration with Tiny Mix Tapes.
How did you originally get started DJing and creating music?
I’ve been DJing since I was seven. My dad had a little studio, and they had a sound system as well. I was just daddy’s little girl so I was around the music and everything, and that’s what got me into it. My mom used to sing as well and listen to a lot of acid house and things like that. It was just the whole vibe of getting to hear that sound at a young age and being obsessed with it.
What was the first record that you liked to play when you were young and started DJing?
Maybe one of my jungle hits compilation vinyls. It had 16 tracks on it or 10 tracks on it, you know what I mean? A double-sided jungle-mania kind of vinyl — they were cool to play out. And loads of reggae hits, I liked to play. I’ve got vinyl from DMX, Missy Elliot, Timbaland, Donell Jones, R Kelly… I’ve got vinyls galore that I’ve been collecting. And I’ve got all my dad’s vinyls from his old sound system, which were given to me.
When did you first start putting original material out under the Cooly G name?
Wait, how old am I now? [Laughs] I’ve been releasing music under the name Cooly G for 15 years now. It’s been a journey. I’ve done rap, I’ve done R&B, I’ve done slow jams, I’ve featured rappers on tracks where I’m singing little tunes, I’ve done garage … you name it, mate, I’ve done it. I haven’t done rock music yet. I might go do some rock.
I’ve been releasing it [all as] Cooly G since I was 15, 16. I’ve just found all the old stuff and I’m [going to bring it out] to like chill out and listen to it and catch some jokes and listen to me as a little girl laughing and stuff.
It’s quite simple — I come back home and I’m mom 24/7, then I go off and do shows. If I’m making tunes I’m making tunes with a baby on my lap or when they’re in bed. So I’m getting to do it. I don’t know, I just manage to do it.
Did it make it difficult to find an audience at first because you tackled so many genres at once?
Definitely. I used to rap, and I was one of the few good female rappers [around at the time], doing my thing. But it was harder to get out of there because I didn’t know what to do. All I was doing was make tunes and go on little shows around the country and just perform, and I was satisfied with that at that time. I used to dance as well so we’d even have a dance crew, and I’d sing and dance my tracks on stage and support other artists.
I was doing all this stuff and thinking, “I wanna make it,” but I wasn’t even comfortable with what I was actually doing until I had my son and started making this deep [house] music, with the reggae dub and the acid-house kind of stuff mixed together, which is the kind of stuff I do now. It’s like my mom and dad’s music [I heard] while growing up and I feel more comfortable making that kind of music. So before it was hard because I was doing it for pleasure, like going onstage and rapping and dancing and shit. I was gonna, like, give up music when I had my first child, but then something made me make these tracks, and I went and tested them out in the clubs and it was, “Oh my days, I’m gonna do this shit!” And then the EPs came, and Hyperdub came, and it was just all dramatic.
I understand you have a history playing semi-pro football as well?
I used to, but I haven’t been to football for a year-and-a-half or something. I might go back again just to keep fit. Playing football is just like music to me. I have to do it, it’s so fun. I love it.
Was it hard to get up and train after being out all night DJing at a club?
Yeah, that’s what made me stop doing the football because I was doing three-times-a-week training plus doing shows all over the place. I became exhausted and kept having anxiety and going to the hospital and shit because I was just so rundown and broken, you know what I mean? Just a mess. So I stopped doing it because I wanted to keep the energy up for me being a single mom and DJing. I just decided not to go back to football and have more energy for music. At that point I only had one little boy, so I was just, “I’m just going to look after my baby and do music.” And my kid comes first, you know what I mean? Now I’ve [also] got a little girl, and she’s amazing, mate.
How do you juggle your music and your children? It must be a lot.
It is, but the only thing that’s hard about it is going out there and missing them. But I’m doing it for them as well. My dad helps me. He’s always looking after them when I go to do shows and stuff like that. It’s quite simple — I come back home and I’m mom 24/7, then I go off and do shows. If I’m making tunes I’m making tunes with a baby on my lap or when they’re in bed. So I’m getting to do it. I don’t know, I just manage to do it.
Are your children old enough to be curious about the music you’re making and the equipment you’re using?
Yeah, my son is very into the Logic software, and I taught him how to insert vocals and stuff like that. He knows how to use it. He helped me on the last part of the album, when I was heavy pregnant.
And the little baby now, she just wants to sit on my lap. If she’s up and I get a vibe, she wants to sit on my lap and watch every trick I’m doing. I let her touch the keyboard and Kaoss Pad and everything. She loves it.
Kids seem to really love Kaoss Pads.
[Laughs] It’s so funny!
Playin Me seems so subdued, intricate, and lyrically-focused compared to some of your earlier tracks. Where did that change come from?
It was purely what I was going through. It just ended up like that. I wasn’t like, “Oh, this is going to be a certain style.” I was just going through all these emotions and thinking about loads of things and while I was going through that I was doing the album.
[On] the track, “Trying,” I was angry one night and I was crying and that tune came out. So it was that kind of vibe.
Ah, I see. How do you make it work during live shows, running your music from your computer while singing at the same time?
I’ve just got all the tracks separated, every single detail, like every single kick, everything separated. I just rearrange it [on my computer] onstage and grab the mic and start singing. Then I go back to the computer and start messing around with filters and effects and all that.
I’m building up my live set at the moment. I just started to bring a live drummer in, but he’s practicing my drums at the moment so we’ll see how that goes.
I’ve done rap, I’ve done R&B, I’ve done slow jams, I’ve featured rappers on tracks where I’m singing little tunes, I’ve done garage … you name it, mate, I’ve done it. I haven’t done rock music yet. I might go do some rock.
I hear you’re working on a book too?
I haven’t arranged for it to come out, but I have been writing it. I haven’t spoken with any publishers yet but it is something I do want to do. It’s just about me from the age of 15 to now. It’s just a little journey — people who’ve used me, people who’ve lied… when I was trying to do my music. You know, just really bad stuff and good stuff and fun stuff and whatever, everything. And it’s basically [meant to inspire] girls to listen to their parents when they’re young. I just want to give advice to some young girls about the decisions they might want to make. I would prefer them to listen to their parents, basically. If I could help one person listen to their parents about some sort of dramatic decision, then I’d be happy.
Are you already working on new music for upcoming releases?
What I’ve been doing now is more dance-floor, more proper club tunes. I haven’t done any broken beats or anything like that. I’ve been trying to make some tunes that are just dance-floor house tunes. [Playin Me] was more for people to listen to and stuff like that, but now I need to have my new tunes out that are more clubby, that I can do a proper music video to.
Have you had the chance to come to the United States yet?
I have! In 2010 I was there for about three weeks, I think. I went from L.A. to New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco… and I had a fuckin’ whale of a time, mate. I’ve been thinking I have to go back there, it’s so sick. I thought I was gonna have a hard time playing the music that I play, the deep house, minimal, kind of tribal set. But I actually smashed every single set that I did over there. I was doing a tour with Jamie xx of that band the xx. It was heavy.
I want to come back to America, definitely. I think it’s gonna be next year, to be honest. I’m gonna try to do more of America and Australia and Japan.
What effect do you think that your roots in South London’s scene have had on how you’ve developed?
I’m like a star in the hood [laughs] if you want to call it that. I’ve been a star in the hood just because I’m into fashion and stuff like that. I’ve been someone quite popular just because of the clothes I wear, the trainers I wear, and the beats I make for the rappers I love. And helping other people learn how to produce tracks. I’m like a little icon to them basically. It’s quite good.
I’ve been that little Cooly G girl, innit, like everyone knows who I am. A lot of people love me and there’s a few little haters, but they still love me because they follow everything I bloody do.