Chicago-raised and Montreal-based DJ and organizer mayalabae (AKA Maya Hassa) has seen a fast rise on the electronic music scene since starting out in 2020. What began as sharing decks with friends at underground events and experimenting with sounds like breaks, techno, and throwback pop edits, turned into a full-blown DJ career. With only a few years of performing under her belt, Maya has already mixed at major events like Igloofest and Piknic Électronik, the latter which she’ll be playing again in June 2023.
RAC caught up with the multi-faceted creative (did we mention she also hosts an n10.as radio show by night and works in climate finance by day?) to learn more about how she landed big opportunities and her exciting projects ahead.
RAC: Thanks for taking the time, Maya! How did you first get involved in music?
Maya: It started with writing about music. I was part of the high school newspaper and my teacher would buy me tickets to go to various concerts and music festivals to write reviews. I found it very gratifying, so when I moved to Montreal for university, I joined a publication called Graphite Publications and became head music editor. I would basically just go to events and write about cool underground electronic artists I’d see. Eventually, I made friends with people in the music scene and started promoting their albums.
In 2019, I linked up with Also Cool Mag right as it was launching and I wrote the first article they published – an interview with Regularfantasy right before for the Covid lockdown. It was the perfect time to start promoting friends’ music when we didn’t have the ability to go to shows and see it live – and a cool way to stay in touch with the music scene while being locked down.
RAC: How did starting out as a music writer and enthusiast lead to DJing?
Maya: After being a dancer and music enthusiast for many years, I always had that urge to play music myself. I’ve collected music for ages and one of my favourite things to do in my free time is to research music online. When Covid hit in 2020, my roommate offered me her CDJs since they were just gathering dust, and I jumped on the opportunity. I had the full club set-up in the living room during the pandemic and there was nothing better to do than to practice mixing, so that’s what I did.
Then we got our studio Le Château on Durocher. That’s where I played my first shows in front of an audience. We’d invite a bunch of friends over to jam and host free parties. It just felt like we needed a sanctuary for people to dance and keep a sense of community going.
RAC: How did you actually learn to DJ?
Maya: It was self-taught. During the lockdown I attended Zoom tutorials on how to organize rekordbox and learn basic CDJ functions. I also signed up for an online international DJ school but stopped after a while because my friends were much more enjoyable to practice mixing with than a random guy on YouTube.
Community was important from the start. I still do a better job DJing with others than alone because it’s more fun to bounce ideas around and mix different genres with someone else.
RAC: What led you to Montreal and what about the community made you want to settle here?
Maya: I moved here for school and did an environmental science degree, studying how moss breathes and can sequester methane. I thought I was going to do that as further studies, but I ended up getting a job at a climate venture capital firm and now work a corporate day job in sustainability.
I stayed in Montreal for the openness of the cultural scene, the fact that it’s really friendly and easy to get involved in, and because I felt like I built a community within the electronic music scene that I wanted to be a part of in every capacity. It has a very special place in my heart.
RAC: Can you tell us about your radio show and how you got into that medium?
Maya: My first show was on Frozen Section Radio based in Toronto. I got really into having an online radio persona – I would slap a ton of reverb and delay on my voice and speak in corporate babble, do market intel, and ask people how their investments were doing. Then I’d go into a diversified portfolio of various genres of music and just mix for an hour. That was during the lockdown and I had a lot of spare time to make radio shows out of my bedroom.
After that, I started a show on n10.as radio called Deal Flow with mayalabae in a similar theme, tying in my secret corporate side to the music side that most people know. That involved inviting friends into the studio to DJ back-to-back, and through that I got invited to play more shows.
RAC: How would you describe the music you most enjoy to DJ and your biggest influences?
Maya: I think there’s a big difference between what I enjoy most and what’s easiest to DJ. I really like footwork – it’s a difficult genre to listen to sometimes because it involves a lot of syncopated rhythms and repetition, but it can also be beautiful. I like to challenge myself to find footwork and juke to bring emotion to a party, and it’s nostalgic for me being from Chicago. There’s a whole crew like DJ Rashad, RP Boo, and DJ Manny. The music is very influenced by hip-hop and R&B, which I love, but you don’t often hear R&B at a rave in Montreal, so that’s a nice way to incorporate it.
I also like percussive music like breaks. I love bassy music and jungle – those kinds of tunes are great to play but difficult to mix depending on the instrumentation. I play a lot of hard techno because I like to have my soul pounded out of me on the dance floor, and to see other people going crazy to it. Then the pop edits come out ‘cause I just can’t help myself. I love mixing all these genres together.
RAC: How does sharing decks and going back-to-back with another DJ change a show?
Maya: It just mixes things up! It’s more fun to share music with people and hear what your friends are listening to. I enjoy the challenge of trying to match someone else’s music taste. It’s also a good music education – you get to see how other DJs mix tracks that you might not think of putting together.
RAC: You’ve only been doing shows since 2020 and you’ve already played huge Montreal electronic music fests like Piknic Électronik and Igloofest. How did you book those big opportunities?
Maya: Piknic Électronik in 2021 was the first really big performance I had. It came super fast, basically only a year after I started DJing regularly. The promoters just emailed Also Cool Mag out of the blue, which was awesome! After that, friends started inviting me to play various events.
I think releasing mixes online is helpful, because you create a digital footprint of your abilities. I played a Shift Radio set that was really good exposure, which is the purpose of that radio show: to give up-and-coming DJs an opportunity to play a filmed live set.
RAC: Any advice for emerging DJs, both on building your skillset and how to start booking shows?
Maya: I think it’s very important to reach out to people who are on the scene for advice on putting together parties and getting that organizational knowledge passed down to you. But also, don’t be afraid to throw a lineup together and just organize an event! It’s A) a great learning experience and B) good practice to just go and play at any club you can, even if the dance floor is empty.
Radio shows also keep you on your toes in terms of building your music catalogue, and give you the chance to mix for more people beyond your studio or bedroom.
RAC: After your next set at Piknic Életronik on June 11, do you have any other upcoming shows of note?
Maya: The ambient sleepover is my new big adventure. I did a first event in June 2022 with 10 hours of sets from various Montreal underground artists playing live ambient and drone music. It was at an intimate loft space that we decorated in the theme of a dream forest, with cotton ball clouds, papier-mâché trees, and lighting installations. It was beautiful. People stayed till late afternoon the next day and I made them all blueberry pancakes.
I want to keep that going so I’m doing another event this summer, but on a much larger scale. The name of the project is zZz, pronounced “shh” and it will be underwater-themed. We’re starting off with an ambient mix series, with a first mix coming out the first week of June on the zZz.club SoundCloud. After that, we’ll have some smaller daytime events leading up to the sleepover, which is likely taking place in August. I’m going to work with various artists on water installations incorporating all five senses. We’re all overstimulated and tired, so it will be a space for relaxation where you can just fall into a trance and fall asleep, but in the company of other people. I want it to be a beautiful, energetic, and sensory experience.
Details will be announced on the zZz Instagram page.
RAC: Do you plan on producing and/or releasing any of your own music?
Maya: Yes! I’ve been working on music for the past few years but haven’t felt proud enough to release anything yet. My goal and ultimate dream is to drop my own track while I’m mixing. I hope that will happen in the coming year, because I have a million unfinished projects on my desktop just waiting. I might release it under some secret moniker.
Written by Maryse Bernard
Illustration by Yihong Guo