Photo Credit: Isaac Campbel
DJ Niara Sterling on Crafting the Perfect New York City Vibe
We chatted with DJ Niara Sterling about Usher being a roller skate enthusiast, her incense brand, and curating timeless DJ sets.
DJ Niara Sterling is bringing multiculturalism back to the party. The Brooklyn by way of Virginia transplant is one-half of Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace residency Coastin’, which will be throwing an inaugural Okayplayer Presents edition on Saturday (August 26) at the Rockefeller Center. Alongside Harlem native, DJ AQ, Sterling’s DJ ambitions turn global sounds on their head, with Flipper’s guests grooving to the African diaspora sonics of afrobeat and amapiano, in addition to traditional hip-hop and soul.
There’s no limit to the range that both ladies can explore, which Sterling also speaks to in her near-spiritual connection to various genres. Sterling contextualizes all of her musical experiences with ease, namely her DMV origins, which developed her skills as a turntablist.
“When I got to New York, I was ready to play a multi-generational set because I just felt like I knew so much, and I learned about samples, and then playing on turntables and hip-hop, you can get deep into that,” Sterling told Okayplayer. “I just think that the DMV nurtured that so much, and I hadn't really realized it until I started DJing and realizing, ‘Oh, I know a lot of stuff already,’ and I'm still open to learning about more music. The DMV definitely left a beautiful imprint on me, and it still guides me. It's my North Star when I'm searching for music.”
Okayplayer chatted with Sterling about Usher being a roller skate enthusiast, her incense brand, and curating timeless DJ sets.
How was the vibe last summer when you first got started? Do you have any memorable moments from that time?
Yeah, the first one was amazing. Usher was the guest host, and everybody knows that he's a skater, so it was just amazing to see him perform and skate. It was so packed, the music was amazing, and there were just so many people there who knew how to skate. You saw all these professionals just doing all these tricks and flips, things that people normally see on TikTok. So it was really nice seeing that in person, because I'm used to roller skating and I'm just trying to get across the rink safely. I'm not used to jumping up and down and whatnot. So it was just really exciting to just see that, and it was really, really, really fun. So that was a great memory, especially with that being the first one.
Another great memory I had was when I DJ'ed with Mary J. Blige. She did something similar where she hosted, and then there was a lineup of DJs there that night as well. So it was really fun switching up the music and catering to more of an R&B soulful vibe and crowd. Everybody just always looks really cute with their outfits and their personalized skates. It's just a different level of joy listening to music and skating and being around your friends.
I'm glad that you mentioned Usher, because he's such a musical icon and now he is pushing the roller skating agenda later in his career. So what is it like to see him not only be involved with Flipper's, but also incorporating roller skating in his performances too?
It humanized him a little bit. This is something that you can tell is just a part of his culture, being from Atlanta, we all know that that's the culture in the South. But seeing him be able to go across the country and take that in linking with other skaters, and then for them to be able to connect with Usher on that level on top of the music, it was just really nice to just see him just experiencing another one of his passions and being able to inform the other one that we all know him for. It was also inspiring, because I too have other hobbies and interests that I love, and I try to merge them with my career and music, as well.
I also saw that he went and did it in LA as well, and it really felt like he wanted to be there. He really enjoyed being down to collaborate with Flipper's, and then seeing him include it in his performances, it's just all encompassing. That night, there were other people in music that were there like Jermaine Dupri and Meek Mill. I'm just looking at them, like, I did not know they could skate. I'm looking at Meek Mill, who's got to be at least 6 '4, he's on skates, even taller, jumping up, flipping with Floyd Mayweather. It was a little bizarre, I'm not going to lie, because I'm just looking at them in one way and seeing that Black Boy Joy. I just think that's the beauty of having the residency and incorporating more artists of color, because it is so essential to a lot of our upbringing.
What are some components of your hobbies that you try to immerse in your DJ sets?
I have my own incense brand, Kusudi. When I first started making incense, they would be party favors. After people left or started to leave, I would just give them out because they would also be burning while we were all dancing and enjoying ourselves, and it really added to the ambience. It would be this nice amber scent. So it wasn't super strong, but you could smell it, and I just felt like it would bring an ease and a sexiness, or more of a sensuousness to the experience of being at the club versus just the smoke machine going off and there's alcohol. Sometimes the vibe can be off, and I feel like the incense helped bring it in, and so I would give them out as favors, and now I've actually turned it into a small business. That's one of the ways I've been able to inform my music with another thing that makes me happy that I just enjoy doing.
There was one time during COVID[-19] where I created a special scent, and then I did a live Twitch, and I was like, "Look, I'm going to sell the incense three to four weeks out before Valentine's Day. Purchase the incense so by the time Valentine's Day comes, you'll have the incense and then you can live tune in live to Twitch and I'll play a set." So it was just having this way of connecting with people even though I can't always be with them. That was a major thing for me during COVID because it was just so hard for me to just DJ on a screen and not see my folks, or being able to recognize people; that's also very important to me when I'm DJing. So being able to have the incense just was a gift because I was like, ‘Oh, this is another way where I can connect with them and on the backend support myself during this time where I'm not able to be on the dance floor and we can't be touching or being around each other.’
Now I feel like people know me for not only being a DJ, but they're also like, ‘Yo, she's got this fire incense line.’ I like that because it's very much a part of my upbringing. I grew up on probably the strongest incense on Earth, because I feel like my mom just loved the strongest incense ever. For me to find something that I liked that fit my vibe was my way of connecting with how I was raised, but reimagining it for myself. If I have my parties, I'll gift them to my guest DJs.
New York is just one of those places where everyone can just have this universal experience when it comes to the party. What do you think makes the nightlife scene of New York different from other cities where you've DJ’ed?
I'll speak to why I came to New York, because I'm not from here. I felt that New York was different because it was welcoming to people who might consider themselves niche or eclectic. Or maybe there's just a certain pocket that you want to explore, I feel like New York has that, and say you evolve and your sound changes and you want to start doing something else, or whatever you're evolving into, I just feel like when it comes to work ethic, survival, building tribe, feeling inspired, being a part of community, New York nurtures that in its own unique way. It's not easy, but it is there, and I'm a testament [to] that, because I've been here for seven years, and I'm from Virginia, I'm from the DMV area, I have no family up here.
With DJing, it can be very uncertain sometimes. Sometimes one month you have a whole bunch of great gigs, and then there's some months where maybe it's a little bit more quiet, but I feel like New York always just has that ebb and flow that I can always rely on. I know that it's not always going to be great, but I also know that it will always be great. Musically, it's just so diverse, everybody wants to come to New York to play a set. We have venues here that people overseas are like, ‘Oh my God, one day I want to be there. I want to hear this DJ.’ We also have this community of DJs in New York – I feel like there's a lot of transplants, but then there's a lot of people who are from here, and there's a lot of history about a lot of the genres that I love.
Photo Credit: Esther Faciane
Let's talk about some of the sounds that you'll be bringing to Coastin'. Can you give us a sneak peek?
As far as Coastin', it's a residency with myself and DJ AQ, who's South African, and the theme of it is just about bridging the gap between African-American music and our culture with the diaspora. So to your point about go-go, there's also JB music, which is what skaters listen to, and it's like a slowed down beat, and it's a little bit more down tempo so that the skaters can actually dance to it and do moves to it. When you have a song that's 120 BPM, they can't really keep up with it. If they do, they can't keep up with it for long. So the beauty about not only bridging the gap between the sounds is also having this connection with the skaters of making sure that they can enjoy themselves.
From that, AQ and I can really explore a lot of music from Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor, to Kelvin Momo, to James Brown and Kaytranada, and all these other artists that we all enjoy that fall in that 80 to 115 BPM where it's just mostly about grooves, it's about feeling, it's about sound. That's typically how we get down. We do play a lot of beautiful amapiano, very soulful, ancestral, but then I'm also going to play some breakbeats, I'm also going to play some dope beats like Tall Black Guy or Stuart Elliot who also fall under the line of that JB sound or the Go-go, the funk vibe of it.
I love it because it helps me be very particular. In my mind it makes sense, because I know who's producing what and how I'm mixing it and blending it, but I think it's more satisfying just looking at the skating rink and seeing everybody just have a great time. And we get a lot of tourists because it's Rockefeller Center, so it's also cool throwing in other classics that other people know and bringing some unity into the space. It's not always easy, but I feel like AQ and I are really great at doing that. I'm looking forward to seeing how the sounds turn out for this coming up Coastin'. But it's essentially just about bridging that gap of music and just maintaining some unity and joy on the skating rink.
There's also been discussions about music of the Afro diaspora having more popularity than hip-hop in modern times. So what's your opinion on this?
I think that everything has its moment, and I just love that Afro and amapiano is having their moment, because I can't think of another time where it ever did. I do remember when I first started listening to Afrobeats and identifying what the name of the genre was, and it was not that long ago. I'm only saying that to just put things in perspective, hip-hop has truly transformed the world from just the culture alone: the way that we speak, the way that we dress, how we listen to music, the way we represent ourselves, friendships. It is a culture in itself, and I feel like it will always be there. I don't think that there's any other genre dimming that light at all. I think it's just about Afrobeats and anything with just Afro attached to it is just truly having their moment, as they should.
And I think it's wonderful and it doesn't outshine hip-hop for me. Again, I think it's about who's representing us in hip hop, how do we feel about these artists, how do we feel about their morals and their lifestyle, is it contributing to this hip-hop lifestyle? I think when it comes to the Afro music, there is a beauty and seeing Burna Boy get so much of his flavor from a Fela Kuti and being able to reimagine it and have his own twist on it and it feeling very contemporary, but also feeling just not necessarily ancestral, but it feels familiar. But then also in that same breath, because I know he recently got heat about some of the things he said, but he's been sampling hip-hop records that we all know. I think that they coexist pretty well, and I've been seeing hip-hop and Afro artists work together. So I think it's just having its moment and I'm fine with that.
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