Wearing neon threads and rapping in a flea market, Bulgarian rapper D E N A first caught our eye in 2012 with the video for her super catchy track, "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools." Since then, we've only become more intrigued with this Berlin-via-Bulgaria sensation who's been drawing comparisons to artists like M.I.A. and Santigold from the start. But with a voice slicked over in an Eastern European accent and rap riffs set to Balkan bass-infused beats, D E N A's already shown she's much more than just an Eastern Bloc version of Maya Arulpragasam. Curious about her bloc-inspired beats and ear worm-y rap hooks, we chatted with the artist about everything from her forthcoming debut album to post-Soviet prom kids.
"Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools" Video
What was it like growing up in Bulgaria? Did you experience life under Communist rule?
I didn't really experience that. The whole system changed when I was little, so I don't really have memories. It was more about growing up in the '90s with such a chaotic vibe because the whole system had changed.
Did anything in Bulgaria influence your music?
I was influenced by the whole Balkan music vibe in general -- the way that people counted music and beats.
What has been the reception to your music over there?
My music comes out of a total D.I.Y. [scene] -- I don't really know what the reaction in Bulgaria is. Over there, the people that listen to non-commercial music are very few, so I don't really don't have a clue about what's up outside of that scene.
Who are your contemporary musical influences?
I listen to a lot of different music. I walk around a lot listening to Drake or to Beyoncé's albums for the whole day. I'm such a fan of so many people but the thing is when I write music, I'm not aware of any certain [influence]. I'm not reflective enough to know if I'm making conscious references to something else. I have musician friends that are totally aware about the fact that when they create something new they are referring to something else and I'm always like "that's so crazy." I never think of that -- instead my writing is more diary-style.
"Guest List" music video
In your "Guest List" video there are some very fancy Bulgarian kids that seem to be celebrating something. Who are they?
I couldn't identify them but they're definitely prom kids. There's this desire to experience glamor for one night and that was the perfect metaphor to work with for "Guest List." These kids hire photographers for prom -- the whole point of the event is that they want to be filmed. So when we asked, "do you guys want to be filmed," they were like, "yeah!" [When people saw the video], a lot of them were asking me if it was a wedding.
Did you attend your own prom when you were in school?
No, this is a fucking fun fact -- back then I totally skipped my prom night. I think at the time everyone thought, "What is she protesting against?" but it was just that two other friends and I were separated from that scene. It was unusual to be like "I'm not doing this, bye."
What's up next for you? Will you be coming to the U.S. anytime soon?
I'm playing SXSW in March and my album is ready and will come out in early March. It's called Flash and it will have ten songs on it.
What can you tell us about Flash?
There are going to be a couple of tunes that were already out like "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools," "Games," "Thin Rope" and "Bad Timing." I think I have beginner's luck, because I felt when I wrote [those songs], it totally made sense for all of them to be together and that they came out of one vibe. But the album is a good mixture of everything now -- there's a banger, a rap song, a pop-y ballad/mellow thing. A friend of mine the other day was saying that my music sounds like a constant "bass on / bass off" type of thing, which is so true!
Photo by Zelinda Zanichelli