Over the course of the pandemic, social video app TikTok became an encyclopedia for skill-sharing – one brief scroll of the ‘For You’ page will reveal whipped coffee recipes, step-by-step dance routines, cranberry juice-induced vibe checks, ‘main character’ how-to’s, queer dating advice, roller skating lessons… You name it, and a perky American Gen-Zer is teaching you how to do it.
For 21-year-old bass aficionado Blu DeTiger, TikTok started merely as an outlet to express her creativity amid quarantine stifling, sharing her covers of popular tracks including Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’ and Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’.
Against the backdrop of 2020, it now seems inevitable that it would become the year’s most downloaded app – asking questions, spreading awareness for worthy initiatives and organising online and in-person protests via the under-one-minute video format was quickly adopted by the new generation of digital natives. And, unlike the anonymity of Tumblr-fame nor the hyper-produced cookie-cutter IG model mould, TikTok has given everyday folks the opportunity to share their talents with a fresh breath of authenticity – videos are filmed and edited within the app, creating a somewhat universal quality standard reminiscent of Youtube’s early days, or dare I say, the sorely-missed Vine. Combine this with TikTok’s unique algorithm designed to reach global audiences, and you’ve created a tasty recipe for teens to share quick snapshots worthy of their mates’ group chats with the added allure of potential internet stardom.
For Blu, it was her bass cover of ‘Savage’, Megan Thee Stallion’s soundtrack to the short-lived hot girl summer of last year, that propelled her star into the mainstream. She giddily recounts showing her mum the video’s success: “I remember turning to her and saying ‘look, everyone has seen this!’”
But, while there’s no denying that the social media app’s rise has lent itself to her stratospheric online success, the multi-instrumentalist was already carving out her own unique path in her native New York City scene.
Inspired by her brother’s proclivity for percussion, a young Blu was instinctively drawn to bass (“How cool is it to have drums and bass in the family together?” she professes) and got to work immersing herself in the sounds of her future idols. A ‘School of Rock’ music programme encouraged her to learn the likes of The Rolling Stones and sparked an early interest in the gaudy aesthetics of Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry. As her penchant for bass intensified, so too did the breadth of her musical knowledge, falling for the silky grooves of funk legends Bernard Edwards, Larry Graham and Nile Rogers.
Alongside her brother Rex, the pair devoted much of their youth to musical projects. “He’s a few years older than me, so I was always the youngest kid in the group,” she laughs, pausing in the nostalgia. “We had one band called Fly Baby when I was in middle school and he was in high school. It was me and him plus two of his friends and we played shows, we had super sick merch, we even had a song on a TV show – we thought we were going to be huge!”
She shakes her head as if to dismiss the notion, but she’s not far off. In the years following, Blu starred in indie band BITSand LA-cool trio Kitten, toured as Caroline Polachek’s bassist, enrolled at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and carved a reputation as one of the city’s most in-demand DJs, and did so all before her 21st birthday. Throughout her varied resume, her brother has remained her closest confidant and collaborator, whether on the road or in the studio. “We’ve played so much together, we have that telepathic sibling connection where we can really lock-in,” she says.
[My brother and I] had one band called Fly Baby when I was in middle school and he was in high school. It was me and him plus two of his friends and we played shows, we had super sick merch, we even had a song on a TV show – we thought we were going to be huge!”
As we chat, she’s pacing down the halls of her parents’ home chasing patchy cell service, munching on snacks with her phone haphazardly balanced between her chin and collarbone, and sending me links to the albums she’s overplayed during this lockdown; The Other Side of Abbey Road by George Benson makes the top of the list. Just a few days prior, New York was engulfed in a blizzard and she’d spent the lock-in sharpening up her ping pong skills. She bought a playing table for her family for Christmas, and proudly reveals that in her teens she had even attended a summer camp for it. “I was embarrassingly good,” she admits, “and I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it, honing my skills again. I find it really therapeutic, it clears my mind.”
Despite many having spent the last year battling against a bleak creative draught and burnout, Blu’s unwavering inspiration has pushed her to continue creating: “I think the only thing to do is to lean into the discomfort of it, and the unprecedented-ness of it, and just let yourself feel what you feel. Then you can use that because the chances are a lot of people are feeling the same way.”
Channelling the complexities of emotions felt throughout 2020 – uncertainty, fear, boredom, hope, isolation, nostalgia – sounds like no easy feat, and yet on her debut EP release,How Did We Get Here?, she does just that. Equal parts funk, glam and grunge, the 7-track record finds harmony in remaining upbeat and fresh yet steeped in sentimentality. “I wrote most of these songs during quarantine,” she explains, “A few of them before, but they were all finished during quarantine, so they are all through the ‘lockdown’ perspective and a lot of the tracks deal with nostalgia and memories of times I’ve had in New York before this happened, just reminiscing about it all. The common theme throughout everything is super groovy, some funk elements, there’s definitely a mix of genres.”
The EP also marks her producing debut, featuring tracks ‘Nightshade’, ‘Toast With The Butter’ and the aptly-titled instrumental ‘disco banger but you’re crying in the bathroom’ that she once again collaborated with her brother Rex on, having finessed her production skills throughout the first lockdown.
As we talk about the songs, she’s unable to restrain a beaming grim. It’s refreshing to see an artist, particularly from this hyper-self-critical generation, and particularly during what has been a troubling year for many, to see her unabashedly share her pride in the EP. “Having songs that I wrote and produced – and played every instrument on – it’s like the most ‘me’ my music can get. I’m excited for people to hear those and get to know my personality a little bit more,” she says.
Having songs that I wrote and produced – and played every instrument on – it’s like the most ‘me’ my music can get. I’m excited for people to hear those and get to know my personality a little bit more.
‘Vintage’ is a particular standout, driven solely by slouchy bass grooves and slick drum beats. Inspired by characters she would see around NYC, the track is littered with tongue-in-cheek lyrics as she pokes fun at their commitment to their aesthetic, while admitting she is much the same. But hidden within the jokes and diary entry-style reflections, she’s subverting expectations of female pop music. “With this song, by saying ‘I need a vintage boy for my outfit’ I’m kind of saying ‘this guy is my arm candy’ when it’s usually the other way around. I think that’s an interesting part of the song if you really listen to it, it’s super empowering to think ‘I just need this guy to come and carry my bass to my shows’, like, whatever,” she says, flicking her hair defiantly.
It’s a small step, but it’s indicative of an ethos that remains integral to her music – that she isn’t going to let anyone define the parameters of what her success can be, whether that’s as a bass player, a TikTok star or as a woman. “It’s so cool to me to think that – and I hope I’m not overstating at all – but that people might think of ‘female bass player’ and immediately think of me,” she starts.
“It’s weird too on some level because I want people to think ‘she’s a sick bass player’ and not ‘she’s a sick female bass player’,” she says tentatively. “It’s really cool to be recognised as a female bass player or female producer because there are not many women in these spaces, but I also think I’m working towards being compared to everyone else, too. Put me up there with the guys.”
It’s really cool to be recognised as a female bass player or female producer because there are not many women in these spaces, but I also think I’m working towards being compared to everyone else, too. Put me up there with the guys.
“I think [it’s been important to me] ever since I was young and noticed that being a female bassist and instrumentalist is super rare – there are hardly any female bass players especially,” she explains. “I think it’s always been important to me and something that’s been unique to my experiences, figuring out how to deal with walking into a room of all guys and having to remind yourself that you do belong there. Even in the DJ sphere, it’s the same thing – there are so many less female DJs and all throughout production. But, I think we’re going to see a rise in female bass players in the next generation. I can already see it starting to happen, it’s crazy.”
At the suggestion that she has contributed to this rise, she blushes and is quick to respond with gratitude. “Isn’t that so cool? I hope I have been, it’s one of my life goals – as an artist but also just as a human – to inspire others to pick up an instrument. Especially girls, to be able to make more space for people to feel comfortable starting out.”
As such, when Blu isn’t busy recording her own covers or hosting live stream concerts, she’s dueting her fans’ videos and offering advice for bass-playing beginners. She admits to using the app “too much” and talks about the need to set healthy boundaries with social media, but is confident that the app is ultimately a force for good: “I think a lot of cool music discovery is happening on TikTok and I think it gives a lot of musicians who maybe don’t have the resources in ‘normal’ times more opportunities to be discovered, helping even the playing field of finding exposure and that’s really cool.”
As an artist but also just as a human, one of my life goals is to inspire others to pick up an instrument, especially girls – to be able to make more space for people to feel comfortable starting out.
TikTok’s impact on the music industry should not be underestimated – boasting over 1 billion active worldwide users, and with carefully curated ‘trending’ music lists, the app has been responsible for launching unknown artists to chart-topping triumph. “It can definitely be tough too, though,” she adds. “It encourages hearing only 30 seconds of a song – whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I can’t really say, but that’s definitely something I’ve noticed. I think songs are going to get a lot shorter and they already are, all my songs are like 3 minutes or less. I think it’s down to people’s attention spans and social media perpetuates that, myself included.”
As her star continues to rise, and as restrictions begin to ease, she’s now focused on getting off the internet and playing in person again, announcing a new US tour and already planning how to incorporate her DJ-ing antics at the end of her set. And, despite her enthusiasm, the year-long hiatus has allowed her to reflect on the systems in place pre-pandemic, and what she wants to take forward into this new era of her career. “The music industry could use more love and encouragement I think, not putting people down or pitting everyone against each other,” she says. “Everyone’s on their own journey and not everyone’s definition of success is the same so we need to let people just do their thing without so much judgement. TikTok definitely encourages that I think, people doing their own thing, and I just love seeing it.”
Blu DeTiger’s new single ‘Go Bad‘ from Netflix’s He’s All That soundtrack is out now, and listen to EP ‘How Did We Get Here?’ here.
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