Annie Mac: ‘DJing with a pregnant belly felt kind of groundbreaking’

Irish DJ is an architect of popular music, yet she is almost chronically down to earth

Throughout the 1980s in Detroit, porch lights would go on across the city at a very particular time of night. It was a sign. I’m listening, the communal morse code indicated. Are you? The instructions were transmitted from radios all across the city, “Would the members of the Midnight Funk Association please rise.” The DJ was The Electrifying Mojo. His listenership, a cult. His eclectic selections influencing a generation of musicians, producers and fans. Last year, at the Red Bull Music Academy in Berlin, Kevin Saunderson recounted getting ready for bed, the first night Derrick May had moved in with him. May said, “You going to sleep? No man, it’s time for the Electrifying Mojo.”

The intimacy of radio done well creates multiple channels between the DJ and the listener. Depending on the reach of the show, those channels can be in their millions. Yet every connection is in its own way personal. A relationship based on reliability and good company forms, one where the DJ discovers and shares, and the listener respects and trusts. There is no other medium that is quite as able to scale intimacy as radio can.

As the confluence of blogs, streaming platforms, and surprise song and album releases chiselled away at music radio’s gatekeeping stature, an era of new, largely faceless selectors of buzzed-about tunes took up this mantle, acting as curators as the quantity of music production became overwhelming. The delivery and discovery of music, it appeared, required not just a messenger, but a filter too. Most traditional music radio instantly felt old-fashioned, still a slave to playlists and ad breaks.

Yet throughout this period, one radio DJ emerged as perhaps the most consistently influential in the art of popular music selection. Despite the access-to-all-areas listeners and viewers and fans have to songs and artists - across streaming and social media - the beauty and comfort of structure, knowledge and the generosity of sharing, remains something to gravitate towards. Irishwoman Annie MacManus, known as Annie Mac, is an architect, builder, and resident of popular music. It is her domain. And through her broadcasting, she gives both artists and listener alike, shelter.

Lost and Found

“Guys, there she is! There’s Annie Mac!” A young man on a coach interrupted his friends at the Lost and Found festival as the bus pulled into a daytime beach party. The fifth edition of Lost and Found was underway, a May-time festival across multiple locations on the island of Malta, founded by Annie Mac in 2015. There are boat parties, a rave in a pink castle on a hill, beach parties, pool parties at Café Del Mar, and an excitingly sprawling nighttime outdoor venue with multiple stages and bars. This year, the lineup included some of the biggest DJs around, along with a smattering of MCs; Denis Sulta, Honey Dijon, Skream, Lady Leshurr, Haii, Tiffany Calver, The Black Madonna, AJ Tracey, Toddla T (MacManus’ husband, an acclaimed producer, DJ and BBC Radio 1 presenter, with whom she has two children), and more.

The crowd: an up for it bunch of British and Irish twenty-and-thirty-somethings, and plenty from further afield.

As the bus drove towards the entrance, MacManus, in a neon dress, was standing at the back of the stage. Lost and Found offers a lot - a sun holiday with an exceedingly good festival lineup thrown in, and excellent production values in terms of sound and staging - and one of its features is proximity to artists, including MacManus. DJs and acts wander around, snapping selfies with fans in the crowd. MacManus is cheered wherever she goes, the Lost and Found equivalent of people whooping whenever Michael Eavis drives past in a Land Rover at Glastonbury. Dubliner Krystal Klear finished his set and handed over to MacManus. Previously, the young Jamaican artist Koffee shouted “Big up Annie Mac!” a refrain as common as an order at the bar over the weekend.

A pull-up-a-pew broadcaster

MacManus’ formative years were in Dublin but she decamped to Belfast to study English literature at Queens University, where the club night Shine reigned over the city. After studying for her Masters in Hampshire, she moved to London, where her brother, frontman of the band The Crimea, was living. She DJ’d to crowds with all sorts of music tastes in Camden. Label and radio gigs lead to a stint working with Steve Lamacq at the BBC, before, at the age of 26, the Annie Mac Show happened. Her events series, Annie Mac Presents, was born in a room at Fabric, the same week she presented Top of the Pops for the first time. Now, millions listen to her on evening shows every weekday on BBC Radio 1.

It would be easy to view Annie Mac within the lineage of the totemic radio DJs that came before her. Maybe she succeeded the skittish Zane Lowe, yet he remains a DJ whose impulse to insert himself at every juncture creates more obstacles than transitions. It may also make sense to view Annie Mac as a successor to John Peel, yet she retains none of his sardonic obstreperousness. Individuality ultimately defies comparisons. MacManus is a pull-up-a-pew broadcaster. She invites the listener in. Her transmission style is outward, lateral, inclusive, non-hierarchical. It’s also an approach that has an edge. As a champion of female, LGBT, and artists of colour, MacManus has taken on an added significance in the industry. She heads up the Equalising Music Pledge, an initiative from Smirnoff’s Equalising Music campaign, “to accelerate gender parity in the music industry.” Lost and Found has also signed the Keychange pledge, a campaign encouraging music festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022.

I'm so proud of all the Irish people that come here. Working in Britain, working for a British institution, I want Ireland to see how proud I am being Irish. That's my favourite bit of it. It's the best bit."

Sitting on a lounger in a bathrobe by her hotel pool having an afternoon lager mid-festival, MacManus is decidedly chilled out for someone at the helm of a large event. The number of young women at Lost and Found feels pronounced. Meeting those attending the festival is something that thrills MacManus. “There was this girl at the front last night at Horsemeat Disco and her face was covered in these beads, she looked sick! She was at the front all night, and we were chatting and waving. At the end she came up to talk to me, and she’d come on her own. She came on her own to Lost and Found, and it just blew my mind. There’s people who have flown from New Zealand and Australia to be here. I’m so proud of all the Irish people that come here. That’s the bit that makes me the happiest, when you see all the Irish flags in the audience. That makes me so chuffed. Working in Britain, working for a British institution, I want Ireland to see how proud I am being Irish. I’m just so happy to see Irish people come and see what we’ve done, you know? That’s my favourite bit of it. It’s the best bit.”

Annie Mac Presents is now AMP, and MacManus has built a mostly-female team around her of like-minded, detail-orientated, mission-focussed people, deeply invested in both the current AMP projects, and future plans.

“It sounds more pro, it feels more legit, more like a proper business,” MacManus says of the name change, “It’s a challenge to not always rest on me the whole time. There’s this very easy option - ‘oh, we can’t make this happen? Annie, can you just DM that person?’ - it’s easy because I have a profile and relationships and whatever.” The Annie Mac logo persists in various guises, a piece of graphic design that’s basically MacManus’ face, curly hair (she uses an Oribe hair masque as leave-in conditioner, just FYI), and shades. “I struggle with my face being the logo,” she says. In March, MacManus ran AMP London, four days of gigs, DJ sets and talks across 14 venues. She has presented music documentaries and co-presents Other Voices on RTÉ.

So here’s the Annie Mac paradox. She is a low key person, yet her presence, whether she intends it to be or not, is commanding. She is essentially famous, but almost chronically down to earth, and struggles to describe, characterise or define herself or remember details about her life. Her upcoming podcast series, Finding Annie, recruits friends and family to fill in the gaps, information that needs to be crowdsourced thanks to - what she freely admits is - her terrible memory. “So much of the reason why people do stuff for me is because I’m on the radio, I have this position where I can play music and make a difference… I know there’s an element of good will,” she says of the artists that gravitate towards her shows, “but it would be stupid of me to presume that people are just doing this because they like me.”

If you wanted to find a musician or broadcaster or industry person who has a narky word to say about MacManus, you’d be looking for a very long time. There is a general respect for her graft, her discerning nature, and her authenticity in an industry where people often speak like press releases or chase fame. Industry folk respect her power, influence, and status. Artists and DJs respect the fact that she’s one of them. MacManus came from the clubs, and still plays in them.

I'd never seen it done before. DJing with a massive pregnant belly is kind of terrifying but exhilarating at the same time.

The list of what would for many be career-defining achievements is vast. She has played Coachella, Glastonbury, massive shows at Lovebox and Electric Picnic, and recently DJd to an entire stadium at the FA Cup final. She curated a stage at Ultra in Miami, and a residency at Amnesia in Ibiza. She regularly interviews the biggest acts in music (and singles out Kendrick Lamar as a particular favourite) but says one of her proudest moments was her “pregnant DJing escapades, probably because it felt kind of groundbreaking. I’d never seen it done before. DJing with a massive fucking pregnant belly is kind of terrifying but exhilarating at the same time.”

If an alien walked up to her, how would she describe herself? “I’d say I’m Annie, and I’m Irish, and I do music. And he’d say ‘what’s music’, and I’d say: you are in for the fucking best ride of your life, mate!” On the Friday night at Lost and Found, as a massive lightening storm enveloped the entire island, Annie posted a video of her crowdsurfing to Derrick May’s Strings of Life. “Don’t drop her, she’s quite valuable,” a voice called out off-camera.

When MacManus got her job at the BBC, she rang her father, and had what was “a very emotional conversation with him.” That was at the time “when I really wanted it the most. I’d worked my ass off. I was doing three jobs. I was skint. I was on my last legs and didn’t really think I was going to get there.” MacManus has already achieved longevity. She has been at the BBC for 15 years now, yet there is a sense that the next levels of her career are there to be reached, and that a lot of thought is put into how to scale a “brand” without diluting it.

Time has become more valuable than anything. Her days are scheduled to the half hour, “but I’ve started realising in the last year or so that I’ve started being more open to ‘Yes’. I think that’s because my youngest kid has just started sleeping, and suddenly everything feels more surmountable. I had five years of no sleep and just holding it together.” Now, MacManus is looking outward again, to pick up her international career where she left off.

On the Saturday night of Lost and Found, MacManus was headlining the main stage. Behind her, the DJ booth was cluttered with other DJs, friends, and members of her team. One friend pointed out how MacManus always seems to dance off-beat while DJing. That night, MacManus was especially on form. Her set was drawing to a close when she thanked the crowd, her final words directed towards a tricolour fluttering over a few heads in the audience - “I see you Irish flag, I see you!”. A refrain rang out: “Annie! Annie! Annie fucking Mac!” The levitational impact of house music piano lines had done their job. As the confetti cannons exploded, and lights illuminated young women on their friend’s shoulders, arms outstretched, MacManus played her last song, Candi Staton’s Young Hearts Run Free. And when the tune kicked in, she turned to her friends dancing in the booth behind her, and jumped towards them, grinning and euphoric.