To succeed in the dance music industry, producers need a number of things. They need to be able to connect with their audience, push the boundaries of their genre, and curate their raw talent into their own authentic sound. That being said, that is exactly why we have ultimate faith the Level Up is going to blow the dance music industry away. Sonya Broner (Level Up) is the definition of hard work paying off, and she is only getting started.
Sonya began her career in the realm of hip-hop but has fully blossomed into her hardcore, bass dropping beat pumping dubstep style. She’s brought the heat to festivals such as Electric Forest, High Caliber, and Lost Lands, along with over 30 drive-in events. Her impressive rise to fame has been accompanied by releases on labels like Deadbeats, Buygore and GRVDNCR. We cannot wait to see her name in bold on the headliner spot of all our favorite festivals.
We had the chance to connect with Level Up and learn more about her story, music, and future. We loved her before, but after getting to know her on a more personal level… let’s just say, you can officially call us super fans.
EDM Maniac: I read from previous interviews that you really began studying DJing when you moved to New York for college. You studied with Rob Swift, who taught you turntables in the hip-hop scene. Can you give us some background on what you learned? What was the beginning of your career like?
Level Up: I feel extremely honored and lucky to have trained with such a prominent member of the hip-hop and turntablism scene. A huge part of our training began with learning the origins and history of hip-hop and DJing, which gave me an enormous amount of respect for and understanding of the art as a whole. A major topic that we studied were the four pillars of hip-hop: DJing, MCing, graffiti, and break dancing. We spent months watching videos and diving into every aspect of how the art started and evolved. Learning about the legends and what they did for the scene truly made me fall in love with everything about the hip hop and turntablism community as a whole, and I knew this is what I wanted to spend my life pursuing. Once we felt that I truly had an understanding of the above, we moved onto my training as a DJ. Rob taught me everything from scratching, to beat juggling, to trick mixing (including techniques like the offset backspin), to crowd control, and the list goes on. We spent hours, every day, practicing routines and drilling everything there was to learn. After training with Rob for a bit, he set me up with a club in Queens called Flattops, where I played hip hop sets and got the chance to use everything I learned on real crowds.
Rob also taught me battle techniques and how to build routines, so I was able to compete with other turntablists in front of judges. During this time period, I was taking everything I learned and applying it at home to DJing EDM as well.
EDM Maniac: You seem to have really found your stride in the dubstep scene. How did you find your niche? What made you passionate about dubstep?
Level Up: I’ve been passionate about the EDM and dubstep scene since about 2013; I was in high school and would listen to all of my favorite artists constantly, but wasn’t old enough to get into festivals or shows yet. I started attending events when I turned 18 in 2015, and fell even more in love with it. One of my absolute favorite things is to integrate all of the music I grew up on into my sets in new ways, which definitely contributes to my sound and art as a whole. Nothing excites me more than remixing one of my favorite tunes from 2015 or finding new doubles with both old and new tracks.
EDM Maniac: Looking back from your career as a DJ or time as an attendee of events, is there a memory or moment that sticks out to you that is especially special?
Level Up: I have a few moments that really hold a special place in my heart. The first one is actually as an attendee – it was my first time seeing Porter Robinson live at Hard Summer many years ago. One of the reasons this moment resonates with me so much is because I saw how an entire story could be told through a set, and how silent the crowd was just because it was so immersive and special. I remember in that moment observing how live music could have such an impact on people, and all I wanted to do was to be able to bring that same joy to others.
As an artist, there have been many shows and experiences that I will never forget. I truly appreciate every second I spend on stage, but a special memory that really sticks out to me was during Lost Lands, when I was able to see such a large crowd react so positively to something I had made (my remix of Zeds Dead and Dion Timmer’s song “Rescue”). Nothing will ever bring me more joy than watching a crowd react to my art.
EDM Maniac: One of the things I find most impressive about your story is that you were taking a full college course load while learning how to DJ. What kept you motivated during that time? What advice do you have for other students that are trying to accomplish what you have?
Level Up: It definitely wasn’t the easiest, balancing college and music at the same time, but it was completely worth it. I was attending The New School of Drama in Manhattan and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts; during this time my schedule mostly consisted of having classes Monday through Saturday and using any free time I could find to work on music. I would bring my traktor s4 to school and between classes with my headphones set up on a random table and start mixing. Many times I’d have to go straight from class to playing a show. Acting has always been a huge passion of mine, and a lot of the classes I was taking actually inspired me creatively, which has crossed over into my music.
I found interesting ways to combine my acting world with my music world. A huge part of the program I was in was taking creative technology classes, so I created projection designs for plays and shows, and would take my knowledge in that and then apply it to my own visuals when I started my DJing career. For my final project in college, I made a film and used my own music for the entire score. There are a lot of things I have learned through working on projects that have not only helped me grow as a person but also as an artist.
EDM Maniac: I read from another interview that you pull inspiration from the video games to create parts of your music, which is awesome because it contributes to your unique sound and is authentically you! What are some of your favorite games? What is one of your favorite ways that you’ve included video games in your music?
Level Up: Some of my favorite video games are The Last of Us, Left 4 Dead, Portal, Uncharted, Hearthstone, SSX, etc., and of course the classics like Super Mario Sunshine, Kirby… the list goes on. I often find myself using games as inspiration for my sounds and my music. I’ve always loved video game soundtracks and how well they set the mood for an entire story. When writing my EP “Scared of the Dark”, I drew vocal samples from the game Hearthstone, and for “No Luck”, I sampled Joel from The Last Of Us. I also drew a lot of inspiration from Luigi’s Mansion when writing the intro for “Closet Crawlers”.
I love including characters from my favorite video games for vocals because I feel like they portray the energy that I’m trying to convey in my tracks. Finding cool ways to integrate my favorite games into my art makes every song feel so much more personal and exciting.
EDM Maniac: As a woman in a heavily male-dominated genre, what has it been like for you? Have you had to deal with any hurdles because of your gender? If so, how did you overcome them?
Level Up: Pursuing a career in a male-dominated genre hasn’t been the easiest, but hopefully, it helps pave a way for other women to pursue what they want without the fear of being judged. There is definitely a lot of sexism when it comes to women producers; for example, I’ve frequently encountered people commenting things like, “Oh, she has a ghost producer” or “Oh, her boyfriend makes all her music”. For some reason, people just don’t believe a woman making music is possible – despite the fact that I’ve been openly making music for years on my own.
Seeing hateful comments – especially when it’s people discrediting something you’ve worked on for so long – can be completely heartbreaking at times. However, through all the sexism and hate, I remind myself that the approval of others isn’t why I’m here and isn’t why I’m making music, so nothing that they say can tear me down. I’m proud of the work I put in and I hope to continue to show other women that this is something they can do as well.
EDM Maniac: Similarly, how have you embraced your individuality? Have you had any times where you felt like your gender or background has given you a special perspective on your music?
Level Up: I think both my gender and background have given me a unique perspective of the music scene. As a woman in the dubstep scene, I feel like I often have to prove myself, which only makes me work that much harder and motivates me as an artist. I also have such a deep appreciation for the art of DJing itself because of my training as a turntablist, which plays a huge role in everything I do.
EDM Maniac: It’s impressive that during this time you have still found a way to tour and get your music out there. How have you been working on your music this year? Do you have any projects you’re especially excited about?
Level Up: I’ve been working on a lot of new music this year and have taken this opportunity to continue to explore and expand my sound. No matter how far you’ve come or where you’re at, you can always continue to perfect your craft. I have a bunch of new projects and collabs that I’m so excited to share with everybody.
EDM Maniac: While the pandemic is obviously terrible, a silver lining is that we have gotten the chance to know DJs on a more personal level. That being said, what has the pandemic been like for you? How have you been filling your time and staying motivated?
Level Up: 2020 hasn’t been the easiest year for any of us, and I feel extremely lucky that I have music to keep me sane. I’ve actually spent a lot of time finding new movies which has really motivated my music. When writing “Satan Works Alone” I was binging the show Sabrina and instantly got inspired to write a song that would portray that same dark energy that I felt from that show.
With all of this uncertainty and free time, I’ve definitely drawn inspiration in new ways that I wouldn’t have in previous circumstances. My everyday schedule pretty much consists of waking up around 1 PM, walking Ellie, making breakfast, and working from about 4 PM to anywhere around 2AM before searching for more new movies to watch. I think having this time has also given me the freedom to work on genres of music that I might have not dove further into otherwise. Finding motivation during a rough time has been difficult, but I’m doing what I love to do.
EDM Maniac: When the world opens back up again, what are you most excited for?
Level Up: The thing I’m most excited for when shows return is being able to connect with people on a more intimate level, and share everything I’ve been working on in person. However, outside of music, I’m looking forward to being able to see my grandparents again and everybody I love return to their normal lives.
Even with the restrictions of the pandemic, Sonya has managed to produce new music and tour at socially distanced events. We actually had the chance to see her at a Pod Concert Experience. The energy and passion she brought to the stage gave us back a piece of the dubstep world we had been craving. Plus, our necks were sore for at least 3 days after… and if you’re in the bass community, you know that means it was a good set. We were happy we got to see her during 2020, but we absolutely cannot wait to see her again.
Featured photo by Level Up