Beats by Dre teamed up with Highsnobiety to catch up with producer and DJ Mobilegirl in the first of a three part series of Germany’s rising, experimental musicians and culture makers. Earlier this year, we shot Mobilegirl in the locations that inspire her—the forest, the streets of Berlin—with Beats latest active on-ear active noise-cancelling headphone, Solo Pro.
Before Tran began producing music as Mobilegirl, she spent hours in Munich hunting for experimental club music online. This was early Soundcloud era, when communities of underground producers found each other in remote parts of the world, just by DM’ing and commenting on each others’ music.
When DJ’ing, Tran is constantly looking up from the decks to see what gets people to dance, but also what challenges them. When asked what her secret tricks are, she said, “I’ll have this beat that is almost undanceable, and which most people probably haven’t heard before. But then I’ll have Ariana Grande on top or something. If they don’t feel the beat, they’ll sing along at least. I feel like that’s a good way to ease that kind of music in, make more people responsive to it.”
The sound was pioneered by DJs like Total Freedom and Lotic, who are often described as “deconstructed club,” a category Tran personally hates, but she’s fine if people use it. The term describes club music that draws from a vast range of global influences, such as reggaeton or baile funk, but beat-matched up with gangster rap or bubblegum pop. It’s typical to hear these kinds of DJs playing mp3s on Funktion One sound systems, which irritates audiophiles, though these DJs consider it a subversive strategy—anti-elitist, if you will—since a lot of them started out as DIY teenagers who never had access to hi-fi audio equipment and got into DJ’ing by playing music found on YouTube.
As a queer and Vietnamese-German, Tran gravitated towards queer, non-white DJs such as Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu, who often DJ’ed the legendary New York parties GHE20 G0TH1K, where queer people of color often showed up to the club in head-to-toe labels because nightlife was one of the only places where they commanded the spotlight.
Tran speaks about the dance floor with a kind of romance. She describes nightlife as “a quick getaway from daily life and its struggles—dancing, specifically over nightlife in general, feels cathartic.” When Tran moved to Berlin after university, she started going to the Janus parties, which often hosted GHE20 G0TH1K DJs when they went on European tours. At the time, the experimental club producer Mechatok, whom Tran had met from Soundcloud, had also just moved to Berlin from Munich, and became something of a partner for Tran. He urged her to produce music of her own, though she was hesitant because she had no experience. But her taste level was there, and Mechatok kept pressing her. Tran recalls that he’d kept joking, “Look, make a track and I’ll buy you ice cream.” And so she thought “Okay, that incentive is good enough.”
For Mobilegirl, dance music begins with the body. Describing her DJ sets, Bao-Tran Tran says, “It can be slow for a second, where you’d wind a little and it’s all in your hips. Then it speeds up the next second, and it’s all in your arms. I like to have those changes on the dance floor.”
“I love that aspect of creating a whole other atmosphere and world that you can just go into”
When Tran actually sat down in Ableton to produce a track, it took her a week before finally dropping it on Soundcloud. A few days later, she happened to hear the track on Berlin Community Radio by the DJ Renaissance Man, credited as “???” because she didn’t name the tracks correctly. “It was super exciting,” Tran says. “It was then I thought, is this how it feels to be noticed?” Soon, the Stockholm-based record label Staycore approached her to work with them on a record. She said yes, but not now. “They kept asking, ‘Do you still want to do something?’ and I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, but I’m not ready.” For a while, Tran struggled with expectations. As a DJ, she was known for making upbeat R&B mixes, and she felt the pressure to release dance tracks for her debut. Though privately, in her bedroom, she started challenging herself and pushing her music in the opposite direction: experimenting with sounds that were in contrast to what she was known for, like calm and melodic nature-inspired soundscapes. It took her two years before she eventually turned those experimentations into Poise (2017), her debut EP. The result is a 20 minute long mesmerizing soundscape that evokes lush but plastic greens, that aligns seamlessly with the cover art which Tran designed herself. The music plays easily on loop, as if in a video game. Like nightlife, video games serve as an alternate reality for Tran, where she can be free to be herself, or try something new entirely.
Currently, Tran is at work on a musical concept that combines her production along with 3D visuals that imagines an avatar of herself as the protagonist of a video game. “I love that aspect of creating a whole other atmosphere and world that you can just go into,” she says. Tran explains her process as having a lot of “trial and error.” As a visual artist, she begins with an image that evokes a feeling. “I love when music is atmospherical, when you can really picture something. That’s my approach to music. If I can have an image and make the music for that, it’s really interesting for me.” She might have a melody in her head, which she’ll quickly sing into an iPhone recording to remember it. Then when she gets into the studio, she’ll play with sounds to match the right mood. “I can’t really come up with a concept too well musically and then follow it. It’s like I have a rough idea of a feel that I want to create.”
When asked if her need for escapism was inherent to being queer, she said “absolutely.” She goes on, “If you’re queer, the chances that you’re unhappy with the state of things is quite high I believe. Ideally one would want to change that and one can to an extent (through activism for instance) but is often left with frustration and a lack of understanding. Then I definitely think some form of escapism is needed to cope.” Though escapism and activist engagement are not mutually exclusive, as the former often leads to the latter as a longing for something better. Today, Tran is years beyond her teenage self scrubbing Soundcloud mixes, and is now the one releasing music herself for others to discover. There needs to be space for fantasy and frivolity, and Tran continues to design that space, pushing boundaries by creating alternate realities that pose new questions and possibilities for the future.
Stay up-to-date with Mobilegirl on Instagram and to shop Beats’ Solo Pro noise-cancelling headphones, head here.
- Director/Editor: Paul Herrmann
- DOP: Jake Hunter
- 1st AC: Jan Ernsting
- Photographer: Steffen Grap
- Creative: Dan Hart-Davies
- Producer: Rochelle Bambury
- Production Assistant: Ryan Meyer
- Color: Jonny Thorpe @ Glassworks London
- Sound Design: Marlon Beatt
- Score: Mobile Girl
- HMU: Victoria Rueter
- Talent: Mobile Girl