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Digging D E N A’s Balkan Dopeness

Digging D E N A’s Balkan Dopeness
Photo Credit: Obi Blanche

Kitsuné's Latest Acquisition Raps About Bulgarian Flea Market Vibes And Viral YouTube Hits

By Beverly Bryan
January 4, 2013

In the year of “Gangnam Style” and “Call Me Maybe,” Berlin-based Bulgaria-born songwriter D E N A had an unlikely viral hit of her own. The video for her single “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools,” in which she frolics in a gray, outdoor flea market wearing a pink sweater loud enough to give M.I.A. pause, spiraled to a 400, 000 plus views on YouTube.

Both the single and video play ironically with blingy tropes and the self-produced beat is so minimal that it almost seems like a parody. It is an unlikely hit, but it’s not an inexplicable one. Drawing inspiration from hip-hop, R&B, and ’90s dance pop, her deadpan delivery hearkens back to the early roots of electro. It’s quirky, but, in the end, oddly dope.

She didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, either. Before her online notoriety, she had opened for LCMDF and Das Racist, played SXSW, and released her “Boyfriend” seven inch. And she isn’t going anywhere just yet. As D E N A, full-name Dena Todorova, spoke to MTV Iggy over the phone, the announcement of the release date for her single was coming out on super-cool French label Kitsuné. As another phone buzzed in the background periodically, the young artist indulged our many questions about cash, diamond rings, swimming pools and where she’s going from here.

How did you end up signing with them? What got them interested in you?

I put out the video last summer for the track and then it took some weeks actually before they reached back. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what it was. It’s probably that they thought it was cool.

Do you think it’s the video itself that caught their attention?

It could be. And, also, you know, the song itself.

2012 was a big year for viral Youtube hits. Your song went viral the same year as “Gangnam Style.” How much do you think that’s affecting the way the music industry looks at artists?

It’s really great tool. Not only YouTube, but the possibility that people from all over the world can work creatively and express themselves, and be in charge of their own artistic content. This definitely has an effect on the whole dialogue between industry and artist. I’ve never experienced the time where people were spreading their music with fliers, so it’s normal for me but it has totally changed the possibilities for people to get seen.

Where was that flea market where the video was shot?

It’s shot here in Berlin. Originally, I’m from Bulgaria, from a town called Haskovo very close to the border with Turkey and Greece, so I had the idea to get a little bit of a certain Balkany, Bulgarian vibe for that. It wasn’t really practical to go shoot there. I had certain free markets in mind that happen in Bulgaria.

But then I heard about this one particular flea market in this one particular neighborhood called Neukölln that happens every weekend. It reminded me of the vibe that a Balkan flea market would have, the things that people were selling there from bullet proof vests to broken Barbie dolls. It had a visual reference inverting the idea of “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools.”

Do flea markets have a particular meaning for you?

The funny thing is I’m not really like the flea market girl. I just wanted to find a place that’s all about objects.

It kind of inverts the idea of materialism.

Yeah. It seemed to be the perfect fit, to have the perfect ping-pong of the visual and audio ideas.

Would you be okay with being a one hit wonder?

That term, there are so many people that would probably end up only liking one song by someone, while others would stick in an pay attention to what else is happening. The thing is, I’ve been writing for a long time. I see it as one of the tracks that I’m currently finishing and want to put on an album eventually. This song is one part of the whole puzzle.

Where do you want to take things from here?

As I said, I have tracks that I want to put on an album as soon as possible, but also I have new videos I have brainstormed already. I have a couple shows I’m going to play here in Berlin, but also Norway, maybe France in February. I’m going to come to the States to play SXSW, it looks like. That’s actually for the second time. I was there last year.

Were you surprised when the video took off on YouTube? Who was watching it?

First of all, it spread very well in Berlin. It started its journey from Berlin, because, probably a lot of people kind of recognized the vibe or recognized the free market, though some people thought that it was shot in Bulgaria.

Did you find out you have fans in unexpected places?

Last year, when we went to SXSW, I met fans from Austin. You know? To have fans in Texas was really unexpected for me. To have it take off in the States, I was positively surprised to have it take of that fast and well. I think a lot of people could assimilate the simplicity and the lyrics and the vibe of the track.

What touched it off? Was it The Fader?

In terms of the States and outside of Germany it was UK press and also Fader, yeah. The Guardian wrote about it too and everyone.

Did you have a lot of opportunities coming your way right after that?

Yeah, we played a bunch of gigs around Europe and Ireland, went to festivals and everything, so I’m really looking forward to the touring future.

I enjoyed your High On Hi Hats mixtape. What were some of your favorite jams from 2012?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question in the last few days. I really liked the Hudson Mohawke and Lunice collaboration TNGHT. I also liked the latest Drake album too.

How would you describe the music scene in Bulgaria?

There is this crazy connection to a certain type of music that comes from the Balkan area. The pop music in Bulgaria is actually very much connected to folkloric and traditional music but transferred through modern beats and influenced by American production and stuff. It’s really interesting.

Actually, one of the remixes that is going to be on the single is really influenced by that. It’s from a producer called Stefan Goldman and I’m really looking forward to seeing what people are going to see what people think of that. It’s a little bit of an Oriental influenced style but going through the prism of the production that my track has.

It’s a reference to the Bulgarian pop folk culture. For me, it’s really interesting. It has a lot to do with, for example in Brazil they have baile funk or something like that. It’s music to dance to but it’s totally connected with Oriental vibes.

“Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” is out on Kitsuné, Jan. 28.

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