In recent years the Serbian capital of Belgrade has developed a reputation as a mecca for nightlife and often draws comparisons with Berlin. But while the city’s leading nightclubs, like 20/44 and Drugstore, regularly attract press attention, the DJs that fill them remain largely anonymous. One exception is Tijana T, who is, without a shadow of a doubt, Serbia’s most prolific DJ. She regularly gets booked to play at global institutions like Berghain, and while her DJing career has only really taken off in the past few years, she has been an ever-present figurehead of Belgrade’s alternative music scene for almost two decades as a VJ, journalist and all-round musical ambassador.

Tijana fell into music more by chance than intention. Fresh out of school and needing a job to support herself while at university, in 2000 she was recruited as one of five rotating hosts for VJ Hour, a MTV-style music video show that aired on state broadcaster, Studio B, every weekday at noon. During her Thursday afternoon slot she had free rein to play whatever she wanted, and while her repertoire consisted largely of house and techno, she’d play everything from Britney Spears to acts as obscure as Autechre and Einstürzende Neubauten — an eclectic mix of sounds highly unusual for MTV at the time.

“The media companies that I used to work for in the early 2000s still weren’t infected by the imperatives of the market,” Tijana tells me over lunch. “They got their money from the state, American funds and NGOs, so that gave both independent and state-owned media a certain freedom, particularly when it came to musical and cultural programming. At that moment my show was really influential […] in clubs I started to hear songs that I had played on TV, so I could see that my show had an influence on a really wide audience. Today I still have people coming up to me to tell me that they got their musical education from my shows. I think that was my favourite period of my professional life.”

Belgraders have that kind of temperament; it’s rooted in our national character — people simply like to go out

Tijana would eventually be sacked from VJ Hour after playing the video to Plug Me In by Add N to X, which featured lesbian kissing and the non-explicit use of sex toys. But it wasn’t long before she found herself back on TV: for years, she hosted live coverage from Exit Festival, conducting “hundreds” of interviews with visiting artists and more or less becoming the public face of the festival. At the turn of the decade she became a host for the Jelen Top 10, a program devoted to covering local music. But by the mid-2000s, Serbia was deep into a cultural decline so digging up enough acts to keep the show rolling wasn’t easy.

“At that time you didn’t have any music shows that weren’t devoted to folk. Then I suddenly realised that a local music scene doesn’t even really exist anymore — you had two or three bands and a bunch of old fogies from the 80s,” Tijana recalls. “So I spent several months digging up bands on and pretty much created a ‘scene’. I’d find random bands that only had one song and I’d pester them into recording and practicing because I convinced them that this show was going to be a really big deal and that they’ll be able to get some gigs out of it once it gets going. I’d then present these bands as if they were superstars and people would feel really dumb and uninformed because nobody knew that they even existed. The show really exploded and it launched a few musical careers.”

This cultural decay might seem at odds with Belgrade’s reputation as an alternative clubbing hotspot but, according to Tijana, this is precisely why the city has such a roaring nightlife: because in a country where the state has turned its back on the enlightenment, the only cultural establishments that are able to sustain themselves are ones that subsist on alcohol sales and entrance fees.

“Belgraders have that kind of temperament; it’s rooted in our national character — people simply like to go out,” she explains. “But it seems to me that in Belgrade you don’t have very much institutionally-supported culture anymore. It wasn’t even like that back in the Milosevic years […] in Serbia now there isn’t any money for culture to even exist, let alone for it to be provocative, revolutionary or progressive in any way. So clubs are the only culture that we have left.”

But that’s not to say that the capital’s residents only party hard because they have no other alternative: such a statement wouldn’t simply be wrong, it would be unjust. Belgraders often brag that the people of Zagreb and Ljubljana migrate south for the weekend because their own cities are so staid. Tijana confirms this is no myth, and that Belgrade has had this reputation since at least the 1980s.

“Belgrade is a party town,” Tijana says proudly. “Now that I’ve travelled across the whole world and seen how cities and nightlife function, I’ve realised that because our country is so unkempt, and because the law is applied so haphazardly, that chaos allows nightlife to thrive. Bars are open for as long as there are customers inside, you can open clubs in great locations where you wouldn’t get permission in European cities and there’s a freedom that you just won’t find in Vienna or Brussels [...] Parties tend to be more interesting in places where society isn’t perfectly ordered”.

 Dance music might pride itself on its progressivism and inclusivity, but it’s clearly plagued by a Western-centric caste system

This hedonism of the city really came to the fore in the 1990s. When international sanctions and NATO bombs put an end to any semblance of normality, Belgrade’s youth turned to clubbing as a form of escapism. The army did their mobilisations at night, so young men would go out and party until dawn to avoid being sent to the front. To live normally became an act of defiance and a denial of Serbia’s diminished standing in the world.

“Belgrade was a truly progressive city back in the days of Yugoslavia and the only one in the region that felt somewhat like a proper metropolis,” Tijana tells me. “So I think that, back in the 90s, people didn’t want to accept that their circumstances have changed and that maybe Belgrade isn’t what it once was, so people tried to stay in tune with trends from London and New York. They also never compared themselves with eastern Europe because, you have to remember, Yugoslavia was never part of the Eastern Bloc. Back then, in terms of urban culture, London felt a lot closer to us than Moscow.”

Belgrade’s nightlife may have helped rehabilitate Serbia’s image in the eyes of the world and made the city a draw for visitors, but not every country has become more welcoming to Serbs. Just this year, Tijana has played gigs all across the globe: from Australia to Mexico, but one country she never visits is Britain. After many frustrating experiences with the Home Office, she was forced to stop accepting bookings in the UK. Tijana tells me that every time she applied for a visa, she would have her applications rejected due to “reasonable doubt” that she will “stay in the UK and work illegally”.

These are issues with which DJs from Western countries are never forced to contend, contributing, in Tijana's view, to the homogeneity of their dance music scenes. She points out how, in the most recent annual edition of Resident Advisor’s revered Top DJ poll, only two of the 100 entrants hailed from non-Western nations: Nina Kraviz, who is from Russia, and Black Coffee, who is South African. Dance music might pride itself on its progressivism and inclusivity, but it’s clearly plagued by a Western-centric caste system which, Tijana says, has a detrimental effect on the scene’s integrity.

“That’s reflected in the scene, it’s reflected in the music and it’s reflected in the fact that DJs have become as manufactured as McDonald’s,” Tijana says bluntly. “Truly, some of the most exciting and most progressive things happen when people with a completely different musical and cultural background somehow worm their way into in the scene. But that’s very, very difficult to do — almost impossible — and that’s why [dance music] has become just another market segment.”

Well, luckily for dance music fans, they can always come to Belgrade.

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