What So Not Talks Climate Change, Australian Roots, & His Best Advice for DJs
By Shirley Ju for BPM Supreme
Cover image courtesy of Hagop Kalaidjian
What So Not remains a staple in the dance music scene. What began as a project between Emoh Instead and Flume has now culminated to just the first of the duo: real name Christopher Emerson. If you’re at a festival, you’ll probably see What So Not tearing down the house with their timeless hits such as “Gemini” (featuring George Maple), “High You Are,” “Jaguar,” and many more.
His sound is a mixture of hip-hop, trap, bass, experimental, futuristic, out-of-the-box… you get the drift. It was the moment What So Not released the explosive remix of “Get Free” by Major Lazer that gained the attention of music-lovers all across the world. Seven years later, Emerson continues to tour and shut down stages internationally.
But Emerson is far more than just a DJ and producer. The Sydney, Australia native yields an advocacy for any effort towards saving what was lost from the tragic wildfires in his hometown. Described as “the size of Manhattan,” these megafires left over 10 million hectares burnt, destroyed 2,000 buildings, took 12 human lives, and laid one billion animals to rest.
In late January, Emerson was involved with a massive fundraiser for Australia, “Make It Rain,” which took over the Academy LA in Hollywood. The event donated all profits to three bushfire relief initiatives: Red Cross Australia, GivIt, and NSW Wildlife Council (NWC) and raised over $75,000.
We caught up with Emerson just after the event to discuss everything from his Aussie roots to climate change to his future plans.
What does it mean to perform at the charity event, “Make it Rain,” for Australian bushfire relief?
I was in Australia when the fires were starting to go down. In a music industry sense, we’ve lost three major festivals to the fires this year. Hopefully, insurance is covering a lot of that or they might not exist anymore. We’re already under a lot of pressure there from government regulations around events and festivals, the policing of it. The whole music industry in general has been sort of under attack for the last 5 years with regulation.
Apart from that, I’ve never seen my country so distraught. Collectively feeling so defeated, but then also really uniting to try and work out how this is happening and what they can do about it.
How have you been involved in terms of the fires?
I’ve done a few small events in Australia but couldn’t really get things happening as they should. We ended up working on this one in LA which I’m really excited about. I’m really excited to bring awareness out of Australia. I was glad when I got back to the States after 3 months of being away and seeing how everybody was. It’s important. They’re saying it’s one of the biggest natural disasters that’s ever happened in the world, 7 times bigger than the Amazon fires. It’s great to come and see so much support from the industry here, see so much support from other artists. Everyone comes together. Even friends or DJs are like “I want to buy tickets, I don’t want to just be on the guest list.” I really respect when people do that.
How many people hit you up like “Yo! Can you get us in the show?”
Not really anyone. Everyone’s like “hey, I want to buy a ticket.” I’ll put them on the list if it sells out or if we can’t take anymore. But even still, people donate. It’s been really good.
“It’s such a complex issue, I hope everyone stops bickering about it online and starts working out solutions.”
What are your thoughts on climate change and what needs to happen?
Oh boy. [laughs] One of the hardest things in this current day and age is finding correct information. There’s so much assuming different agendas with different publications, different demographics. They don’t want things to get out. They’re pushing too hard on one side of things. You wonder what the true cause of a lot of these problems are. Is it over-population? What resources are being given to mining companies and not being used on the land? Are they drying out? All kinds of things come into play. It’s such a complex issue, I hope everyone stops bickering about it online and starts working out solutions.
The most important thing to take from the term ‘climate change’ is can we at least all agree on pollution? Australia is 90% existing population-wise on the coast. We see rubbish on the ground, we pick it up and put it in the bin. I don’t see that in every country, but it’s a thing there because we know where it goes. We see it every day!
Go into more touristy city area beaches, you see this rubbish a lot more. Then you go more into the suburbs beaches, no rubbish. Everyone cleans up everything because we know where it all goes. It’s really tricky, even things like recycling. Certain plants aren’t able to recycle certain materials we’ve developed, because of certain contaminants. It’s a huge, huge thing to tackle and we need to start tackling it properly. Stop bickering about different people’s perspectives, that shouldn’t even be in the equation or conversation.
How does music scene compare to Australia to here?
It was really incredible. [chuckles] It’s still amazing, but it’s different now. We have an amazing electronic club scene, festival scene flourish from that. It’s reverted more back to bands and pub music, that was definitely because of the regulation that came in. For a lot of people in our industry, we fought very hard to keep Sydney open. Other organizations protesting, etc.
A lot of us as young musicians had our eyes opened to how quickly a media monopoly can sweep through, have an agenda, change everything. Put information out that’s totally false and everything suddenly changes. You see people on ground zero of a situation like “this isn’t what’s happening. This isn’t what it’s like. Why’s this what’s being said?” Then public opinion transforms to something that’s very not true. That opened the doorway for us to really see how a lot of the media in the world operates.
“My life was going to go one way or the other and something was telling me to give this music thing that made no sense a shot.”
Going from a regular day job to being a full-time DJ, when was it time to make the leap?
So I actually had a desk job for 5 years. I was an accountant. Straight out of high school into college, started doing that just to make some money. I was doing DJing and learning to produce in the background. There came a tipping point, my life was going to go one way or the other and something was telling me to give this music thing that made no sense a shot.
It was a very strange decision considering where I grew up. It wasn’t super artistic, a very bubble sort of society and community. In Australia, we have free healthcare and minimum wage is super high. It’s not hard to get a job. It’s very easy to do a trade or go get an easy degree than get a job. Get a mortgage, get married, go surfing in your free time. It’s not hard to do that, definitely what people choose to do.
Something told me to throw that all in, to go for this path that’s going to be very testing and a little more extreme.
Are your parents still in Australia?
Yes. They travel a lot now. They’ve hit that age where they’re like “we need to go see the world. We can’t have worked for 40 years, then get too old to do anything about it.”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t know. I don’t like to predict where I might be because you could be anywhere, doing anything. It creates limitations more than anything.
What’s your favorite style to play?
I like all kinds of music really. If we’re at a club or a festival, I want to play something energetic. Something really high. A lot of harmonics that are going to make people feel something. A lot of pulsing energy, percussion, polyrhythms. Things that will make people move and make them feel something, maybe even make them stand up!
“If you idolize one thing, then you kind of end up becoming the not-so-good version of that. It’s probably better to really look at everything that’s out there and find beautiful pieces in all of them.”
Who’s your biggest musical inspiration?
I like so many different styles and people that I can’t really pick one. If you idolize one thing, then you kind of end up becoming the not-so-good version of that. It’s probably better to really look at everything that’s out there and find beautiful pieces in all of them. There’s a lot of artists! Pond is a really good example. Nick Murphy, Chemical Brothers, Brother G, Kendrick, Schoolboy Q.
Any collaborations coming up?
Yeah, I just had a meeting with a manager about what we have planned for the next 3 years. We plan ahead and work backwards. There’s such an abundance of stuff almost ready to go, we’re just looking at how we can fit it all in. [chuckles]
Can you give us any?
There’s a couple records I’m excited about. I’m not sure when they’re coming out but there’s one with A$AP Ferg that he really loves. It’s a bit of a departure from some of the usual sound we’ll do but he’s very, very excited about it. I’m waiting on him to put out his next project, then he wants that to be the next thing. I got another record with Oliver Tree that I really love. I just work with my friends. I work with people I really respect and admire. We have an energy that aligns.
What’s the energy with Ferg in the studio?
It’s great! It’s awesome. I actually met him the first day I ever came to America. He’s friends with my agent Callender, they grew up together. Me and Ferg did a couple records a few years back that didn’t end up coming out. Any time we’re in the same city, we’re having a festival in the same area, we go dive in the studio and vibe out. It’s great.
Any dream collabs?
I feel like I’m really punching at this point, I’ve worked so many people I never even thought I’d meet. Steve Lukather from Toto, Daniel Johns from Silver Chair, or even Ferg I loved before I came to America. Something just pushes you together and then magic happens.
How has it been as a solo artist? I know it’s been a while now…
Yeah, it’s been a long time. I’ve really been doing most of these projects by myself for a long time before it became official. It’s been very exciting to be able to have concepts and ideas, go and build them, and see them come to life. To release music that I’m really passionate about frequently and consistently.
Do you still have a relationship with Flume?
Um… no. Yeah, no. [chuckles]
Do you have any advice for aspiring DJs or producers?
Be different and always go with your gut. Don’t do what other people tell you.
What if your gut’s wrong?
Your gut’s never wrong. I remember when I first started doing this, I sent the first demos out to a lot of the labels in Australia. One of them said “we’ll never sign this because it’ll never work in a nightclub.” I’m like “what do you know? I’m in the nightclubs every week. I know whatever I want is right now, and I can see where things are going.” Me and a few people from the Australia scene went about changing what they played in nightclubs. That had an overall effect on the radio and it was very lucrative after that.
“Be different and always go with your gut. Don’t do what other people tell you…Your gut’s never wrong.”
Do you have any goals at this point in your career?
I did everything I wanted to do. Now it’s not so much about goals as it is what can you do that changes other people’s lives, or challenges other people’s question of what they want to do with their life.
Anything else you want to let us know?
People should try and find as much information about things that they’re passionate about before they go and talk on the internet. [chuckles] I think that would change a lot in the world. Everybody’s caught in this idea that their echo chamber of existence online is the truth and the answer, and usually it’s not. Usually there’s some hard things you have to confront, to really get to the bottom of things.
About Shirley Ju
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based journalist as well as a Digital Content/Artist Relations Manager at LA’s Power 106. She lives and breathes music and if there’s a show in LA, you can find her there. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, the hyphy movement is in her blood. She also graduated from UCLA and is going on 10 years in Los Angeles. Shirley contributes to several publications including Variety, LA Weekly, REVOLT, and more. Follow her at @shirju on both Instagram & Twitter.