In Talks With Barrier-Breaking DJ & Host Ellie Prohan
12 Apr 2021
Representing both the LGBTQI+ and Middle Eastern community with her vibrant personality, feel-good energy and impeccable taste of music on national radio is Ellie Prohan. Best known for her show on Kiss FM, the distinguished voice on Apple Music 1 The List, not to mention her international DJ sets, the inspiring female figure over the years has become a force to be reckoned with – and rightfully so!
Hailing from West London, from a young age Ellie took it upon herself to do not what only made her happy but to change her life for the better. From juggling a successful business at the time to interviewing the likes of Ari Lennox, Princess Nokia, Waka Flocka, Stefflon Don, Shaggy, Snoh Aalegra and many more, her name and undisputed reputation has seen her cement herself as an integral name within the industry.
We caught up with Ellie Prohan over Zoom to discuss her journey thus far, representation for both LGBTQI+ and Middle Eastern community in the UK scene, her favourite artists at the moment and more. Tap in below to see what she had to say!
How have you been? How have you been navigating through this challenging time?
It’s definitely been odd and completely unexpected. The month of March 2020 will never leave my head because we had all our plans in place for last year. We were just about to travel to Texas to play at the SXSW (South by Southwest festival) before it got cancelled. It’s been crazy. At that point we decided to scramble, move everything around and re-jig our lives; basically, doing what we had originally planned but in different ways. It wasn’t a bad thing! It was a year of learning curves and personal growth because it was the first time that I had to sit with myself instead of running around like a headless chicken *laughs* I asked myself what I wanted, and I ended up going back to the music –
Music has kept us all going!
If we did not have music, I don’t know what we would have done! One thing that no one is really talking about in this pandemic is the mental health aspect. No one has spoken about what’s happened off the back of people losing their sets, losing their festivals, closing their businesses and being in debt etc. Most people in debt can’t really sleep that well at night in the best of times and now the majority of people who have businesses are in debt. Music has been a saviour and the artists have been doing the most! I want to thank the artists for not giving up and using their art to channel their frustrations because it has kept us sane!
I would love to take it back to the very beginning with you to your upbringing in West London! Tell us a bit more about this and how you were introduced to music?
I grew up on an estate in West London, my Mum came over here from Iran as an immigrant with two kids; myself and my older sister and she got put into a bedsit opposite Hyde Park. I grew up in a pretty nice area for the first year and a half of my life here and they ended up re-housing my Mum and moving us into the estate. Growing up on an estate comes with its own challenges, when I started to see things change which was around puberty, I stayed home more because it had a different energy about it. My Mum is a single parent, which made me always want to help my family out, and stay focused, meanwhile music became my life. I grew up on Hip-Hop when I was younger, the beats, the fashion, the vibe and the music videos – it was such an iconic time in music! I loved it! UK music wasn’t really there, it was more around the start of Garage, but I was very much into American music!
I feel like that was the same for a lot of people growing up in regard to listening to American music…
Yeah! It’s funny because I was in a meeting the other day a lot of places and people are resting on UK music now. It’s become so worldwide, and our artists are smashing it and influencing a lot of international scenes. It just wasn’t like that when we were growing up and in the last few years American artists have started to look at what we’re doing.
How did you get into DJ’ing and presenting then? What were the early stages like for you?
I wanted to have a better life from living off the estate, I really focused on what my culture said I should do which is going to University, getting a degree, becoming a businesswoman or a doctor – most Persian parents dream! Initially I wanted to become a computer programmer and that went out the window very quickly when I saw the module! *laughs*
I took on the role of father figure in my family at quite a young age so I felt that my choices in life really impacted the destiny of where we went as a unit. I took care of my siblings and helped my Mum out. It got to the stage where I went to University and did all the things that were right by my culture and by that time, I finished Uni I had started my own business which went on to become really successful for a number of years. I got to an age where I was like “I’ve done everything for everybody now, I’ve set everyone up, my Mum is in a great place, we’ve changed our stars in life from when we had started out”, and I just want to do something for me. I went back and forth to Dubai one summer and attended a few house parties with my friends; there was a particular party where someone was DJ’ing, and I asked them “How does this work?”, he showed me, and I sort of got it, so I tried it and almost did it in the first go!
When I went home, I told my friends I wanted to become a DJ and we went to a club night and a woman was DJ’ing and we ended up speaking after the set. She started me off with the DJ’ing and I had some valuable items that I sold and bought my first set of second-hand decks with. I practiced to the bone! After 4 months of practicing, I got my first set and that set turned into a residency; this thing that became a hobby then became a career and it developed really quickly.
When you spoke about practicing in your bedroom, was there ever one DJ in particular that you used to look up to or used to watch?
I wouldn’t say there was anyone in particular but when I got my first residency I would always stay behind and watch the next DJ, I would watch how they worked and what they did, and I used to take in quite a lot. I watched how DJs interacted with the crowd and I would pick bits that I thought was missing as a listener and a clubber – I did everything that I wanted to see at a club, so I became the DJ that I would want to jam to!
Along the way you have become more and more comfortable with your sexuality. What has your experience been like as a gay woman in the industry?
Growing up it was completely taboo and not something you could openly explore – not in my culture anyway – even though I knew from when I was younger, I had several inklings. I got sick of living a lie and after a few really tough years of being very unhappy, I went on my journey. That was around the same time as my DJ career kicked off. I struggled quite a lot back and forth with my sexuality over time but when DJ’d I developed this “No fucks given” attitude which then rubbed off on my personal life.
I always get told “I don’t look gay” and I will never understand that because what does being straight look like? It doesn’t look like anything. I mostly DJ’d in heterosexual clubs, and on the few occasions where I would go to a gay night I didn’t feel like the music was right for me. That’s when I started to think that there needs to be a night for people like me, I started ‘Glo’ which ended up being really successful! It’s a night where you’re not bound by your sexuality, gender or stereo types, you come as you are and enjoy the sickest music!
With my job in radio, I talk a lot about being gay and I’m very open about it on social media because I feel that it is important for there to be representation as a Middle Eastern gay girl who loves Drill and Rap! My sexuality does not rule or govern the music that I listen to or promote and I have great relationships with artists who really respect that.
How important is it for you to embrace this and empower the younger generation? Do you feel like you need to be a representative for people who many feel the same and are coming up?
I don’t see any representation of gay middle eastern DJ’s and presenters doing their thing, i feel like its important to pave the way. It’s so hard for young people nowadays with social media and having the battle worrying about what someone else may say or think about you. Even down to pushing independent, I’ve had so many messages from artists whose songs I’ve played on my show saying that their mum was in tears when they heard their track on national radio because she is constantly telling me that this isn’t the life for me and only started believing me when she heard that – that’s deep!
Over the years you have achieved amazing things and of course played at some incredible events and places! Is there a show that has stood out to you to this day?
There has just been so many sets in my life! I would probably have to go with some of the most recent ones from the summer before last – 2019 was mad! I refused to cut off my festival bands, I wanted to do a year of back-to-back festivals! Lovebox has to be the best memory ever, I started off fully clothed and it was so hot that I ended up in my bikini! The crowd was mad, Giggs was on at the same time so I didn’t think anyone would be in the tent because we all know what he’s like when he performs, but it went from 0-100 and the energy was mad! Reading Festival was good, I ended that year at the Sunburn Festival in India in front of thousands and thousands of people playing more EDM music – it’s fascinating playing in another country because even if people don’t know the lyrics everyone will go off of a drumbeat and that is the nicest thing!
As well as playing at some top-notch shows you also have your own show on Kiss FM! How did this come about? Had you done something for Kiss prior?
One thing I can say about that whole journey is timing! Every single time in my life, especially in my DJ career where I have tried to force something, it’s just not happened, and I have tried to go about it in loads of different ways – one thing about me, when I want something I will try and get it! When I do try and do that, every single avenue would be a roadblock, I would give up, but something would always happen. With Kiss, I demo’d for them around 3 years ago for the first time and I remember the producer asking me at the time “Who are you? What do you want to do?” and I couldn’t fully answer the question. If you asked me that now, I am a DJ who wants to push and promote underrepresented artists in the music industry who don’t have labels, a team behind them, who are sick at what they do and who deserve to be on national radio.
I’m so grateful to be in the position that I am right now, I’m grateful that Kiss put me on such a big national platform as a gay Middle Eastern woman who loves Rap, Drill and Hip-Hop. Every single week I showcase around 25-28 artists who have never had a Kiss first play before.
What advice would you give to aspiring DJ’s and presenters that want to follow in your footsteps?
I would recommend taking your time, it’s never too late to get into something that you enjoy doing! Don’t do it for the wrong reasons and the wrong reasons are because someone else is doing it, or you think you will be rich off the back of it – in most cases, you will probably need to have two jobs until you get to a point where you are really earning out of your dream one. For me it’s important that I contribute to the scene because there is no point coming and being another person – What can you give? What is it that you are here to do?
Who have you been listening to recently? Are there any artists that you’re feeling?
Through my ‘15 Seconds Deep’ battles I have met so many incredible artists and one of the battles we had recently was between Ka’reema and Zee Yorick – as a female rapper I think Ka’reema is going to kill the game! She has an attitude and energy about her that you can’t hate because you want to be her friend. I’m very excited about her!
There is a whole selection of Albanian drillers who are so cold at what they do! The energy behind it makes you want to throw your phone at the wall, you don’t care if it’s insured or not! *laughs* There is a 15-year-old rapper called N10, I would play anything that this guy sends me! Trills is insane, there’s VG, he is always the loudest in the room! Nino is another 15-year-old, he has real young Dave vibes – I don’t like to compare people, but I think he speaks to the youth in the way that they need to hear it. A young 17 year old rapper P3lz has dropped a few freestyles and I’m just really excited for her journey. You’ll be hearing a lot from drillers Sin Squad and Kaede is a sick rapper. This is not fair! *laughs* I can keep going forever!! I feel bad because people are going to say “You didn’t mention me” but I wanted to!
What else can we expect to see from you this coming year?
More artists, more battles and more fun! DJ sets and hopefully a bit of travel this year if lockdown lifts, loads and loads of new music!