British DJ, radio host and astrophysics fan Kissy Sell Out comes to Play
DJ Kissy Sell Out brings his genre-busting musical amalgam to Hong Kong
Text: Madeline Gressel
At the tender age of 21, Thomas Bisdee, a cheeky art student from Essex in Britain, decided to give electronic dance music one last try. He mixed a track in four hours, handed it out and found himself an overnight sensation.
"No one had ever taken an interest in my music at all," he recalls. "It was mad, extraordinary, life changing. I never looked back."
Fast forward eight years and the now 29-year-old, known globally by his DJ moniker Kissy Sell Out, is a wildly popular host on BBC Radio 1; the head of his own music label, San City High; and a mainstay of the East London DJ scene, famed for his ebullient, experimental and virtuosic sets.
Although his sound remains fundamentally rooted in electro and house, he uses his mixes to explore a wide array of genres, from hip hop to trap, and is famous for weaving in clips of classical music.
A recent mix features Handel's Zadok the Priest performed by London's Royal Choral Society. It's overlaid with trap-style rap, which sounds odd, but it works — as it should when Kissy appears at Central nightclub Play on April 25.
Kissy sees this kind of experimentation as essential to what he's trying to achieve. "Let's make no bones about it. I'm quite an alternative DJ and always have been. I like the idea of getting away with stuff, taking risks and doing things that other DJs wouldn't have the guts or the ability to do."
He purposefully designs difficult and complicated sets because it "makes it more interesting". Although he practises his sets obsessively, he also insists on improvising. "I think if someone recreates exactly what they've practised again and again, that's quite dry. I also think it's dry to talk on the mic. It's not very musical to say, 'Put your hands in the air' and all that."
Instead of hermetically sealed performances or carelessly tossed off hit parades, Kissy's sets are a delicate balancing act between precision and spontaneity. "Sometimes things go slightly wrong. Usually, I'm the only one who can tell, but I think in order to be really professional in your craft, you have to be picky about things people won't necessarily notice."
He explains, as excitement and intensity creep into his voice, the thrill of surprising an audience and eliciting a positive response en masse. "The idea of doing something genuinely difficult to pull off, in front of a large audience, is an amazing thing. There's nothing quite like walking on stage to an audience of thousands and playing some Bach or Vivaldi. I'm not playing it because I think it's cool; I'm playing it because I know it's an extraordinary thing to do. People's jaws hit the floor and that's the whole point."
Kissy is part of a DJ contingent who consider themselves not just frivolous party facilitators, but keepers of a craft. Accordingly, he engages not just in the performance and emotive sides of DJing but in the theoretical sides as well. Recently, he faced the venerable British actor and public icon Stephen Fry in a Cambridge University debate on the relevance of classical music to young people today.
Kissy has also discovered a passion for astrophysics and quantum mechanics and is working towards a second degree in the subject. In his free time he blogs as the science correspondent for sickchirpse.com. Recent topics include "Why you shouldn't be afraid of dying" and "Why we don't fall through the floor" A cursory glance catches references to positron-electron collisions, the Casimir effect, the physics of iPods and Game of Thrones.
Perhaps one day, Kissy muses, he'll move on to other things. "When people lose interest in my DJing ability and stop buying my tunes, I'll do something else." But for now, he's still revelling in his natural ability to shock and awe a dancing crowd.
Kissy Sell Out, Apr 25, 10pm, Play, 1/F On Hing Building, 1 On Hing Terrace, Central, HK$200 (women), HK$300 (men). Inquiries: 2525 1318