❉ Andy Murray chats with girl group expert DJ Sheila B of WFMU’s Sophisticated Boom Boom
“Every week Sophisticated Boom Boom serves up a full and satisfying smorgasbord, with one representative recent show encompassing Aldous Harding, FKA Twigs and The Three Degrees, alongside France Gall, Kero Kero Bonito, Billie Holiday and Ruby & the Romantics. It’s one of contemporary radio’s real delights, a giddy rush of tunefulness framed by Sheila’s genuine, ardent passion for the music as well as her willingness to get the concerns of the week off her chest.”
It’s that age-old tricky question: what kind of music do you like? During a recent edition of her WFMU radio show Sophisticated Boom Boom, DJ Sheila B launched a broadside against the idea that the correct answer has to be some achingly cool genre – say, vintage electronica, Turkish funk, krautrock or Afrobeat. But what’s wrong with saying that you love pop music?
Speaking to We Are Cult, Sheila says: “It’s so frustrating, because I have these conversations with people and I know the magic words, the ones that will make people look at me with a lot of respect. But I’m not going to play that game. I’d rather just say ‘I love pop music’, but then they look down on me immediately. I could have done exactly what I’m doing but with a different kind of ask, a different sheen – ‘I’m a soul and funk collector’ or ‘I’m a psych collector’ – and framed myself in that way. I would have gotten more Instagram followers or more DJing. But I won’t, I feel I like it’s dishonest. Pop music moves us, but we’re too afraid to admit it.”
Sheila’s career so far has been quite a journey. Born Sheila Burgel in Iran in 1977, her family left during the revolution of ’79 and she hasn’t returned since. Growing up in the US, the first gigs she attended were part of mighty Michael Jackson and Madonna stadium tours, before she fell head over heels for 80s pop metal. “I saw The Decline of Western Civilization: Part 2, which is one of the greatest films ever made, even if you don’t like metal. I saw Kiss and Ozzy Osborne and Dave Mustaine of Megadeth in that movie and that was it, I was just obsessed. Pop metal was very melodic, and that’s what’s always got me: those melodies. If you strip away the distorted guitars and the metal bravado and just play those songs on piano, they are very melodic, just like girl group songs. No matter where I end up with my musical interests, I’m always going down the path in the dark looking for the melody.”
By the age of 14, Sheila had become an enthusiastic fan of early 90s indie, writing her own fanzine, Plume, while sitting in lessons at school. At 17 she moved to London, taking an internship with the Too Pure label, but Britpop-era indie did little for her. Instead, courtesy of Sequel Records’ Here Come the Girls compilations, she discovered the girl group sound and became an avid vinyl collector. After a few years spent flitting between the US, Japan and the UK – where for a time she was head of A&R for the Xenomania production team – Sheila found her niche living in New York, putting together her fanzine-turned-website Cha Cha Charming and contributing to the kind of 60s girl-pop compilations she’d fallen in love with, as liner notes writer and compiler.
Then, in 2015, WFMU came calling with the offer of a weekly three-hour radio show. Sheila had been DJing in clubs for a while, playing a mix of her beloved soul, R&B, surf, Japanese chart pop and girl group sounds. but she’d never considered a radio career. “I’ve never been very goal-orientated,” she admits. “It’s all about what moves me and the need to do something with that. It’s like ‘oh my god, this Jeanette single is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard, how do I tell everybody I know?’. The DJing started as that. I wanted to play these records hoping that somebody would come up to me and ask what I was playing, then that could lead to a discussion and maybe a friendship. I’m an enthusiast and the enthusiasm drives me, but DJing was never a destination, radio was never a destination. It was just ‘OK, now I’m getting a radio show and I can share this on an even greater level, lucky me – I’m going to take full advantage of that’.”
In fact, Sheila set out to make Sophisticated Boom Boom a pure forum for championing her existing collecting obsessions, but she was soon persuaded to open up her remit. “I have to give full credit to station manager Ken [Freedman] at WFMU for that. When you get into the DJing and record collecting world, there’s this idea that the past is so much better than the present. You’re united with your fellow DJs and collectors by this concept – ‘oh, new music sucks, it was so much better in the 1960s, why weren’t we born then?’ and all of that. I came into Sophisticated Boom Boom with that idea, that the girl groups were the greatest thing ever – and that I might have to expand a little bit but I had no idea about what was happening currently. Then Ken said, ‘listen Sheila, your show’s really great, but it would be great if you could play some new music’. I was so annoyed – goddammit!
But then I was like ‘fine – he’s the station manager, this is the one thing he’s asking me to do’. So I started researching and listening to new stuff and I thought ‘oh my God!’. If you do the work you will find quality and I’m now far more interested in finding new music than I am in digging up the past. That’s where the excitement of the show really comes for me. I can’t even describe just how much it’s expanded my mind – and my heart. And thank God, because a three-hour show of just 60s girl groups… ha, it’s enough to drive anybody mad! You need variety.”
Sure enough, every week Sophisticated Boom Boom serves up a full and satisfying smorgasbord, with one representative recent show encompassing Aldous Harding, FKA Twigs and The Three Degrees, alongside France Gall, Kero Kero Bonito, Billie Holiday and Ruby & the Romantics. It’s one of contemporary radio’s real delights, a giddy rush of tunefulness framed by Sheila’s genuine, ardent passion for the music as well as her willingness to get the concerns of the week off her chest.
According to Sheila herself, the show is “the best in female-fronted pop music from the past, present, future and all over the globe, and once in a while I will play a male artist. I feel that a lot of the music I’m playing, I’m choosing it because of the emotion that it evokes. I think we need to be moved in that way and that’s kind of my underlying purpose. I know it sounds funny talking about it in that way, but the more I do my show, the more I’m seeking to connect with people. That’s the number one most important thing for me.
Number two is to expose artists that I feel are really worthy and that have been sidelined, because there is a tendency in our culture throughout history to push women to the side and almost degrade their art, to judge it in a way that men are not judged. I want to show that, actually, this is of equal value.”
In some ways, presenting a show like Sophisticated Boom Boom in this day and age feels almost like a political act. “Oh, I like that,” Sheila says, “’a political act’ as a way to define it is wonderful, thank you! But it’s not conscious. When I started doing the show I just said ‘I love female artists’. Only as I’m doing it am I becoming much more conscious of how deep and complex and political that is.”
Sheila’s still making DJ appearances and putting together the occasional compilation CD, but these days Sophisticated Boom Boom is very much her main focus – a fact that she says would have surprised her back when the show first started. “The exposure of radio, in the sense of exposing your vulnerability and putting yourself out there, was unfeasible for me then. I mean, I was so terrified of using my voice. I had a lot of social anxiety and to bare my soul in the way that I do on the radio, I never would have thought that I’d be capable of that, because of deep, deep fear and anxiety. They say that fear and exhilaration are two sides of the same coin, it just takes work to overcome the fear. Putting myself in this discomfort zone of radio in the beginning really opened me up. That thing you could never imagine yourself doing, that’s actually where the magic is.”
❉ Sheila B presents Sophisticated Boom Boom on WFMU every Friday from 3-6pm EST. In the UK you can listen live online via https://wfmu.org/ or the WFMU mobile app, and every show is available from the station archive after broadcast here: http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/CF. The WFMU station doesn’t run commercials or take sponsorship, surviving entirely on listener pledges. Details of the current October Hellraiser pledge drive are here: https://wfmu.org/hellraiser/
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television.
He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.