Alinka, the Ukrainian born, Chicago-raised, and Berlin-based DJ and producer is no stranger to The DJ Cookbook, in November 2017, Alinka and Shaun J. Wright shared their local’s guide to Berlin.
To Alinka, Berlin feels calming and kind of like Chicago. It’s been almost seven years since she sold her things, packed up, and left her life in Chicago to start a new life in the German capital.
This is not Alinka's first transatlantic life change. As Jewish refugees, Alinka and her family immigrated from Ukraine to Chicago, Illinois, in the late 80s. In 2019, music brought Alinka back to Kyiv, filling a void she always felt. Since then, she has been playing in her hometown until Russia's unjustified invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
This past summer, Alinka sat down with The DJ Cookbook to discuss Ukraine, Ukrainian cuisine, and how her love of pop music and listening to the radio led her to house music. Alinka also spoke about the electronic music community’s response to the war and much more.
Q: How are you and your family doing?
A: We are okay. All things considered, all of my family is in the US. We haven't lived in Ukraine since the late 80s. Everyone's really sad. Obviously, I have a lot of friends there and it's been difficult for my family. They're just donating and raising money and reconnecting with old friends and stuff like that.
Q: Since the war began how has your life changed? How do you balance entertainment vs real life?
A: In the beginning it was quite chaotic, just trying to help friends and pass along info and kind of be resourceful in whatever way possible. Donating money and sharing information. Many of my friends are in Berlin now, so I'm checking on them to see if they need things and just trying to help in whatever way I can.
It's hard, the first month was very difficult. It was just very consuming and it was very difficult with mental health. I had to kind of find the balance between being online and posting a lot. I'm not really a social media person, so it's quite difficult for me. And it was really taxing and I wasn't sleeping well and waking up crying in the middle of the night. Now I try to find a balance between both.
Q: Do you think the electronic music community has done enough to help?
A: I don't know what enough is. I don't think there's ever enough. I think there are a lot of people who have been vocal and helpful in sharing information and donating and doing what they can. I had friends that did amazing things. They drove to the border and helped find homes, and then I saw people doing nothing . Then there are people who can't even make a post, especially influential people in the scene.
That was quite difficult to stomach. There were weeks where I was a bit angry, but then I think in certain places you become kind of detached from the news. It's something you read about, but you don't think about it because you're so privileged to live in a place where it doesn't really affect you personally.
I think we're kind of stuck in things that affect us personally. I'm guilty as well. It just changes you completely when it's people that you know and your friends and it's a place that you're really close with and connected to. When it happens there, your perspective changes and you're like, why didn't I do more in every other situation?
I'm aware of politics and I read the news, but I wouldn't say I'm super active. And now I'm really trying to be more aware and realize my own platform and purpose.
Q: Is there a particular flavor that reminds you of your childhood in Ukraine or a family recipe that you cook often?
A: All the Ukrainian food that I grew up with is what my grandma used to cook. I've been trying to relearn how to make Salad Olivier and other salads. And since I've been going back, I always try to eat traditional food when I go there because it is still my favorite food. Eastern European food.
My grandmother lived to be 100 years old. She passed away around Christmas last year. I'm really trying to remember all the recipes and all the food that I grew up with, especially red caviar and bread that was our special treat. She would buy a little tin of caviar and we would have it on birthdays or other celebrations. Bread and butter and caviar were my grandma's specialty.
I would say, Salad Olivier. It is my favorite salad. It's the Ukrainian potato salad. There are different ways to make it. I've made it, in several ways, and then when I've been back to Kyiv, I've eaten different versions of it. I've made it for friends during the holidays here and they all loved it as well, and they didn't know that kind of food. But, yeah, we grew up with quite simple ingredients because it was the USSR. It was just potatoes, chicken, mayonnaise, carrots, eggs, quite simple. Sometimes the simplest food tastes the best because that's what you grew up with.
Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Kyiv?
A: My favorite place is called Kanapa. It's modern Ukrainian cuisine and every single thing I’ve eaten there is incredible. Pelmeni is the dumplings that I really love filled with zander fish, it’s just delicious. I always do a caviar variety spread, and it's really great.
Q: Did music play in the background during family get-togethers?
A: Yes, especially after we moved to the USA. We always ended up in this Eastern European restaurant for every family party. There was one in every city and there was just one in the suburbs of Chicago, and I swear everyone had their birthdays and other celebrations there. There was always a band with a guy in a ponytail singing, like, Russian Ukrainian music. It was pretty funny. I don't know what to call it now. I mean, I was young, but yeah, there was always a live band and then the same kind of food that everybody loved.
Q: What foods blew your mind when you arrived in the USA?
A: Chicago-style pizza! Everything was new for us, pizza as a little kid because that's the thing that I remember that was the easiest. Now I would say tacos, hands down! When I’m in Chicago and my friends ask me what I want to eat, I don't even pick anything fancy, I'm just like, I want tacos. I don't want gentrified tacos, I want proper tacos. In every city, I go to I always just look for the taco place, the food trucks. That's probably my favorite. I think once I got into that, that was it.
Q: Your favorite Chicago restaurant?
A: Stephanie Izard’s Girl & The Goat is my favorite fancy restaurant in Chicago. There’s a dish called wood oven roasted pig face that is awesome. It’s obviously not for vegetarians. Everything I've ever eaten there is really good. I remember when she won Top Chef and opened Girl & The Goat in Chicago. My friends and I would save money to go eat there.
Q: How did your love for music begin?
A: I had a piano in my room when I was little. I just grew up learning melodies and playing keys. It taught me a lot about chords and listening. I don't know music theory. I play by ear, which is kind of crazy, but just having that ear for melody and my parents listening to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and these kinds of things. Then moving to America and listening to pop music and getting into house music, of course, that's been a massive influence.
I always love to find new music and I don't think there's ever an end to our growth as an artist. This is the most exciting thing for me is I always discover new talent or older stuff that I hadn't heard about. I go through catalogs from labels that I have on vinyl and I forget that the songs exist and I'm like a little kid in a candy store, basically. But yeah, you never really stop. That's the thing with music, it's like food, it's addictive and it's creative and there's always something that you don't know or you forgot about and that's really exciting. So I love that.
Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming and then, of course, there's a lot of horrible music as well. But when you find the gem! When I would go record shopping, I would listen to giant stacks of vinyl and then find five good records. But those five records are priceless. And it was the same thing with the Internet.
Q: What were the popular songs or bands when you got to the USA?
A: The first thing was New Kids on the Block when I was eight. I used to just sing to their videos in my room. Then later in life, I was like, oh, but you were singing because you wanted to be in the band. You were a little different than the other girls. I wanted to be in the band singing to the screaming girls!
Madonna and Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson for sure. Then I got into Pearl Jam and Nirvana and all the grunge stuff. I think that was around when I was twelve or thirteen because I was skateboarding a lot, and that was popular then.
Q: How did your love for house music begin? Did radio play a role?
A: When I was younger, I was obsessed with the radio. Everything was new because we didn't have access to this type of music until we moved to the USA. I was like this little encyclopedia, I knew the artist’s name, the name of the song, the name of the album and now I can’t remember anything!
As I got older I would listen to DJs like Percolator and DJ Funk and Bad Boy Bill on WBBM FM aka B 96, there were a lot of those kinds of DJs that were the residents. I was making mixtapes for my basketball team, so I was always, ripping stuff from the radio. So that's how I knew.
During my university years, I saw my first DJs, we had DJs from Chicago coming to my school every Thursday. And that's when I got more into house music. Then I found out about genres and started going to the record store and I remember buying Daft Punk’s Homework.
Once I started getting more into Chicago house, I began buying records from a tiny record store that we had in school. I bought records from Paul Johnson, Cajmere, and Derrick Carter. I remember going to Gramaphone Records in Chicago and buying every single record he had ever made.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a DJ?
A: I didn't know that I was going to be a DJ. I just knew what I liked.
I started buying records and playing them at my friend's house. This is when we were just driving to go to raves and clubs every weekend. I was just getting into it. And then somewhere at the end of my freshman year at university, I was like, okay, I want to start trying to mix.
I just kept collecting records and then saving money. I worked as a lifeguard the entire summer. By the end of the summer, I had enough money and I got a credit card and just bought two turn tables and a mixer and went back to school. I just stopped going to class.
I dropped out to be a DJ. I studied advertising and then I convinced my parents to let me transfer to a school in Chicago so I could study computer science and DJ. I left school after two years. I was like, no. I just didn't want to do anything else but DJ. I had a vision of what I wanted to do with my life and I didn't really see myself working on anything that I could study right now. My parents wouldn't let me go to school for music production. So I was like, I'm just going to take a break. And then that turned into not coming back.
Q: How many hours a day did you practice?
A: I played, all day. I taught myself and I didn't want a lot of the guy friends I had to show me anything. I think it took me about two months to figure out that I needed to queue up the record to get it on! And then as soon as I did that I was golden. Then it just took off. I think my first gig was after six months at a club called Orchid, then later called Tonic. I don’t know if it still exists.
Q: What was it about the scene that made you want to be a part of it?
A: All of it. It was just so different than anything that I was used to and it seemed like a whole new world. I met all these friends. Some people go to university to find themselves and going to clubs was sort of the same thing but just in a different constant.
Q: When did you start producing your own tracks and doing remixes?
A: Almost right away. I had a computer for school and then I had a cracked version of Reason. I started just writing loops. It took a good two years for it to become long enough to be a track. Then I released the first records and they're probably really horrible, I don't even remember what they sound like, but it took me ten years to like anything I made.
Q: What is your studio setup like?
A: I have Hardware and software. I have a Korg Prologue 16 and the Moog Sub37 and the Korg Poly 800, the Arturia Mini Broods, and the 303 clone from Behringer, which I never really use.
A lot of plugins. I've been using Logic since 2003, so I just never switched it. For me, it was always how I can get my ideas out the fastest. So there's been a lot of trading gears or if I got a sense that it didn't really work for me, I would just switch off. I'm very happy with my setup. I can sit down and write and basically just get whatever I want it to sound like a cross, but it took many years.
Q: How did your friendship with Shaun J. Wright begin?
A: I met Shaun around 2008 or 2009. I was in a live electronic music project and my manager for that project Scott knew Shaun and Kim Ann Foxman. Shaun had just left Hercules and Love Affair, he had moved back to Chicago and was looking for producers. My manager asked if he should get in touch with Shaun and I said yes!
Shaun came to my house and we just bonded right away. We went to Smart Bar, talked about Chicago House for a few hours, and then just kept working. It was all very natural.
This turned into our Twirl Recordings label because we made so much music and we were releasing it on other labels, and we got sick of it. We wanted control of our release schedule. When it's a new project and you're sitting on so much music, you don't want it to sit there for a year and wait for it to come out. That's how it started, a place to work with your friends and get remixes done.
Q: Speaking of remixes, tell us about your collaboration with Robert Owens.
A: Robert Owens is one of the greatest vocalists of our time! I've been a fan of Robert forever. I have all his records and Ordinary People is one of my favorite tracks ever.
When I sent the instrumental version to Steven Braines and Sophia Kearney from he.she.they. we were talking about vocalists, Robert came up and I was like, absolutely, let's try it.
We connected during Covid, we couldn't work in the same room. But it worked out perfectly, he's so amazing that it was quite easy. He wrote the lyrics and sent me back the vocals and then I arranged everything.
Q: During the pandemic, did you go on the cooking and baking bandwagon too?
A: I did the baking and the cooking! I bought a bunch of kitchen appliances. I bought a tortilla press, I do my own tacos. I bought an air fryer, I have a slow cooker. I've cooked everything. I was determined, if it's the end of the world, I'm going to learn how to make all my favorite food so I don't have to leave the house!
Q: Did you write a lot of new music during the pandemic as well?
A: During the first year of the pandemic I produced a lot of remixes. Doing remixes is much easier and faster than your own work because the main idea is there. Even when you are not feeling super creative there is a base to start from. I have around 22 of my own tracks that are almost finished.
I would finish one thing and move on and work on the next one and just try to grow. I knew that I didn't want to waste time because if I'm stuck here, I may as well work. Obviously, some days you just feel horrible and you don't feel like it working, but I think it saved me a lot of time. Somehow I was making very happy house music throughout the pandemic, maybe just thinking of what it can come back to. I think house music is very therapeutic for me and it's what I grew up on. It just came out naturally because it's such a source of healing.
Q: Alinka, thank you for being part of The DJ Cookbook!
A: Thank you for inviting me.
Check out Alinka's latest remix Es Regnet Uberall by Mala Ika here