The bio of Charissa Saverio (DJ Rap) reads like the wet dream of a lonely music geek. The pulchritudinous Singapore- born daughter of globetrotting Italian and Irish-Malaysian parents boasts a résumé few other artists can touch and fewer novelists would dare to dream up (other than maybe Ian Fleming — she’d be an ideal Bond girl): musical innovator, singer, songwriter, turntablist, label owner, producer, nightclub proprietor, classical pianist, law student, equestrian, Page 3 girl, radio and TV host, actress, candy bar shill, groundbreaking female artist in a predominantly male scene, humanitarian activist, video game soundtrack composer, Calvin Klein model and — just for good measure — a formally trained ninja. Who says there’s no god?
Saverio spent her childhood shuttling between various exotic locales worldwide where her parents managed luxury hotels, playing piano and riding horses. She settled in England as a teen and divided her time between law school, topless modeling for English tabloids and studying ninjitsu before finding her life’s calling in London’s late-’80s rave scene. She worked her way into the DJ booth, becoming one of the first and most prominent female club DJs (paving the way for the likes of Sandra Collins, Space Girl, Andrea Parker, DJ Baby Anne, etc.) and ended up becoming one of the originators of the hyperkinetic techno offshoot drum ‘n’ bass (also called jungle). She released her first single, “The Adored,” in 1990 under the name Ambience (or possibly vice versa), proving, if nothing else, that the ability to come up with a decent stage name is one of the few talents the Queen of the Turntables lacks — though, to be fair, her bland, generic pseudonyms were chosen to disguise her gender. The London DJ scene when she arrived at its gates was a strictly no-girls-allowed clubhouse.
Saverio’s early singles — many considered worthy of the title — are collected on the Propa Classics, Volume 1 compilation. “Spiritual Aura,” which Saverio released in 1991 under the name Engineers Without Fears, was the first outcropping of ambient jungle (has any form of music ever micro-categorized as heroically as electronica?). All the elements of her style are in place — repetitive, foundation-shaking bass booms, drum machines that skitter wildly like water dropped on a hot griddle and near-subliminal vocals — by Saverio or other MCs. The frantic “Hardstep” was an early demonstrations of what came to be known as tech-step, but one can be excused for being unable to tell the difference between tech-step and plain old drum ‘n’ bass — differentiating between styles of techno requires an advanced degree, a full-time advisory council and expensive diagnostic equipment. Drum ‘n’ bass has always been one of the more psychedelic and arty tributaries of electronic music, and it’s fair to say that an altered state of consciousness (preferably surrounded by other dosed, sweaty hedonists) is probably beneficial in fully appreciating it as it was intended. Nonetheless, the music on Propa Classics is exciting even straight and stands as a historically relevant document of a style’s evolution.
Saverio broke more ground when she became the first female deejay to found her own label (Proper Talent) and released Intelligence, the first full-length single artist drum ‘n’ bass album. In 1995, she became one of the first to produce a full-length deejay-mix album, Journeys Through the Land of Drum ‘n’ Bass. In what has become a standard practice in the electronic music field, Saverio attempted to recreate the feel of a gig by compiling a mix of the artists and music she might play in a club. Saverio’s early work lacks the complex, near-symphonic ambitions of Goldie’s Timeless and Roni Size’s New Forms, the acknowledged masterpieces of the genre, but it’s still important and pioneering stuff.
In the late ‘90s, with electronica mania in full swing, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim were being touted as the megastars of the future and aging behemoths like U2 were promising to scrap their old sound and join the revolution. In a world where the Prodigy was expected to go global (based in large part on the freakish visage of Keith Flint), a rising star matching hardcore musical credibility with an appearance that would make Hugh Hefner choke on his dentures must’ve looked like manna from heaven to labels not wanting to be left behind by the supposedly unstoppable techno juggernaut. Columbia swooped in and signed Saverio, who had not yet exhibited any sort of pop-music savvy. Her music was definitely on the experimental fringe of things and not at all what anyone would expect to hear on America’s Top 40, but she was willing to try.
Learning Curve is surprisingly light on drum ‘n’ bass elements (only the molar-rattling bass beats remain), opting instead for more straightforward electronica. Considered free of expectations, Learning Curve is superior dance music. “Good to Be Alive,” “Everyday Girl” and “Bad Girl” show Saverio capable of delivering hit-worthy tracks and a more than adequate lyricist and vocalist. However, given her credentials, it was no big deal — a decent album, but not much different from what any number of techno artists had been doing for years. David Bowie and Everything but the Girl had already proved (on Earthling and Walking Wounded, respectively) that jungle could be incorporated quite well into traditional pop structures, so it was disappointing to see one of its pioneers largely abandon it in her shot at the big time. The album would’ve benefited from less stylistic compromise — the hyperactive rhythm track on “Changes” makes it a standout, and more touches like that would have lifted the disc out of the standard techno realm.
Learning Curve came under fire in some circles for being a sell-out, which is fair, and in others for its blatant marketing campaign, which many felt made too much of Saverio’s non-musical assets (which earned her the derisive nickname “DJ Rack”). It sold respectably, and tracks from it landed on the soundtracks of Go and The Sopranos, but DJ Rap, who had been positioned as an unstoppable superstar in the making, ended up less than a household name. A second pop-leaning album was announced a couple of years later, but by then the electronica boom had gone bust. The album vanished and DJ Rap’s sojourn in the majors ended.
Saverio retreated back to clubland, eventually migrating to the US and opening dance clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago. She collaborated with BT, contributing vocals to “Giving Up the Ghost” on the international version of his Movement in Still Life and inspiring M. Doughty’s lascivious stream-of-consciousness rap on that album’s “Never Gonna Come Back Down.” She also starred in the song’s video. She promoted Twix candy bars, exposure she used to draw attention to, and improve, the conditions under which cocoa beans are harvested in Africa. She enlarged her modeling portfolio by becoming the face of Calvin Klein’s Dirty Denims campaign, and composed music for Sony’s Playstation video game system. Somehow, Saverio managed to find the time to continue DJing and producing, releasing a couple more mix discs: Brave New World (with Kenny Ken) and the double-disc Touching Bass.
Bulletproof, her first collection of original music since Learning Curve, returns to the mostly instrumental jungle of her earlier work, and demonstrates that she has not lost her touch in constructing wild, inventive electronic music. Bulletproof concentrates more on forward motion than the repetitive patterns of her early work; driving while listening to this to terrific stuff gallop along at a breakneck clip is sure to cause acceleration. Although melody figures more prominently than before, Saverio seems reluctant (or unable) to combine her cutting-edge musical sensibilities with the pop promise she showed on Learning Curve.