The reality of depression within the electronic music industry

“My depression started when I realised that my parent’s marriage was ruined. When you go from living what you think is a perfect life to that, it ruins your faith in anything staying positive for long. On top of that I was bullied at school, a girl-repellent at best and I started drinking pretty early on. I had “friends” invite me out to parties just to ambush me and beat me up, I’d get badly drunk and people would piss on me and spit on me. I didn’t have anything to really look forward to at that point…”

These aren’t the words you’d expect to hear from one of the most successful house artists of the last few years. His energetic sets and grinning face suggest anything other than a man battling mental health issues. British DJ Funkagenda isn’t alone in his battle against depression. Far from it. Every year, 1 in 4 people suffer from depression in the U.K. and of these,18-30 years old are most affected.

Depression goes hand in hand with alcohol and drugs. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising, that depression is common in the world of dance music. A place to escape the banality and stress of normal life; where the music plays, the drinks and drugs flow, and your problems are locked in your drawer at work, ready to unleash once the narcotics wear off.

So what effect does clubland have for those with depression?

“Clubbing was a release and an escape. As time went on everything about the clubbing scene took over my life, as it was the only thing that I thought made me happy. The depression was always under the surface, and I tried my best to ignore it. The euphoria I felt for so many years was masking some serious problems for me. And decisions that I’d made whilst in that state still affect me today. ” Claire was in her teens when she first felt the onset of depression.

There’s still a huge dearth of knowledge surrounding depression, and expectation of who, and perhaps more significantly, who shouldn’t suffer from it.

A jet-set lifestyle, flying from country to country, playing to thousands of adoring fans night after night, earning a fortune while doing so. What could a DJ possibly have to be depressed about? Yet anyone who has the illness, knows it doesn’t work like this. Funkagenda, aka Adam Walder, has had grammy nominations and several Beatport no.1s, has DJ’ed around the globe and collaborated with megastars. Yet Adam’s suffered from the illness throughout his career. He told me; “depression isn’t about what reasons you have to be sad NOW. Despite there being no evidence that something will go wrong, you believe it so firmly that you steer your path towards oblivion.”

Adam has always been very vocal about his depression on his social media platforms, using it as a release for his problems. “I’ve learned to be very open about it because people are a lot more accepting of me talking about it. In fact I get a lot of emails and Facebook messages commending my stance on it. I just hope that I can justify the praise with my continued airing of my struggle.” But many choose to keep their issues to themselves. A recent survey from The National Institute of Mental Health discovered that nearly half of people with depression choose to battle their troubles alone, rather than shove two fingers up at the stigma that has seemed to have attached itself to depression.

If you are as old as me, and love progressive house (not Beatport’s definition!) as much as I do, you’ll remember a stunningly talented producer called Slacker, who created the seminal ‘Your Face’, as well as delivering some of the best remixes during the progressive house golden age. He also remixed Ascension’s ’Someone’ and Trancesetters’ ‘Roaches’. Slacker was the epitome of originality. His singles and remixes were always innovative and exciting. If a track had 10 remixes and one of those remixes was a Slacker remix, it would be pointless in listening to any of the others. Slacker’s would be the one everyone would play. Like Funkagenda, Slacker aka Shem McCauley, had battled depression from his teenage years. Sadly, Shem lost his battle with depression in early 2012, committing suicide in Thailand, where he’d resided for the last few years of his life.

I spoke to Slacker’s sister, Una, to understand a little more about Shem’s depression.

“Shem started getting anxious early on when he was in his late teens, part of that could have been linked to being a little overwhelmed by the ‘fame’ they had when they were very young. We cannot put a label on what brought about the depressions though. There is depression in our family, Shem had a number of small health problems as a child any number of things could have been the root of it or it simply could have been chemical. It probably wasn’t helped by taking ecstasy during his early clubbing days – knowing now what we know about its effects on serotonin levels.”

But what about all that adulation, how much people loved Slacker’s music? Would that bring a release to him?

“I don’t think that popularity can be a source of relief from depression, it seems to me that knowing how many people he inspired, how much he was loved wasn’t enough to keep the darkness at bay. He certainly felt inadequate during those dark times. When he was not down he was of course flattered but modest about success.”

While Slacker’s case had the worst possible ending, Funkagenda is a shining example of battling the lows to get to the highs. Adam’s recent release, ‘One Day at a Time’ was borne from his battles with depression and alcoholism. Thankfully Adam has managed to get on top of his troubles, as his career again ascends following that hit single.

“When I had my last relapse it was really bad. I was holed up in a hotel in Jamaica, Queens, drinking every minute that I was awake just to make myself pass out again. It was so bad. I went back to LA when my girlfriend came to rescue me. When I got back I found a guy who could explain my addiction and my depression to me in terms I could understand and it was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. ‘One Day at a Time’ was basically an aural representation of that moment. It’s supposed to represent the ascension from sadness to being uplifted again.”

But as Funkagenda says, the stigma around depression is still prevalent, leading many to fight their battles alone.  “There is a lot of work to be done to help the public differentiate between sadness and depression. Depression is a disease. Sadness is a feeling. You can go from sad to happy, but that doesn’t mean your depression is gone. It just means that it’s hidden better. Look at some of the great artists of the last hundred years who have experienced the highest highs and still killed themselves.

All that evidence cannot be ignored. People need to learn that depression isn’t just an excuse for sad people not to try in life, or turn to addiction (which in itself becomes a serious mental health issue). Isaac Asimov said “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom” and I think that is something that really sums up the difference between definition and understanding.”


For help and understanding with mental illness visit Depression Alliance – This article was first published July 2014.

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About the Author

International DJ & Producer and label owner of UltraViolet Music from the UK with releases on Toolroom, SIZE, Spinnin, Doorn, Funk Farm and many more