In Conversation: YO! MAFIA
Within Melbourne, there’s certain names which are immediately recognisable. One person who has been integral to both the night life and sneaker scene is YO! MAFIA. As a DJ, MAFIA been a staple of the hottest gigs in town for 20 years. As a member of the sneaker scene, she’s been one of the first members of Sneaker Freaker’s in-house team, a fashion icon and one of the most iconic personalities around.
Now YO! MAFIA tours with the likes of Missy Elliot, Lady Gaga and Pharrell as a part of Fox FM’s Fridays Live, as well as spinning tunes at premiere events like the Logies. If you need to get the party started, then MAFIA has always been the first name on the list to call.
Leading into Nike’s Air Max Day celebrations for 2023, we sat down with MAFIA to discuss her career, the first time she ever saw a pair of Air Max and the significance of Nike reclaiming the Big Bubble story.
UP THERE: Is there a specific influence that kicked-off your love for music?
Well, I guess I was really lucky because my parents loved music, so they always had it on in the house. There was always Commodores playing, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Elvis — my dad really loved Elvis — a lot of funk and soul blasting through the house day and night.
They had this massive record player wooden all in one speaker unit that I was absolutely obsessed with. I just was really taken with vinyl – the touch, the sound, all of it - eventually I stole their whole collection when I moved out — sorry guys!
So I amassed a nice little collection of really cool original pressings of soul and funk stuff that you’d cream yourself over these days. I just loved it because the sound on vinyl was so different to anything else - I still play those records to this day.
Oh and definitely my older brothers with their love of “cock rock” - Van Halen and Bon Jovi etc. This is why I'll play a lot of different kinds of music in my DJ sets — because it's drawing from all the influences I grew up with in my house.
Did you have a particular style or group that really grabbed you?
Absolutely! It started with De La Soul — rest in peace Trugoy the Dove. De La Soul were really the first ones that got me into hip-hop truly madly deeply and then I discovered Native Tongues - Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest.
When TLC arrived on the scene, I saw them the way they dressed and I thought "Oh my god, girls can dress like dudes. This is awesome.” That's where my clothing style started; the sense of hat, baggy top and shorts with the kicks to match. I was lucky enough to go on tour with them a few times in the last couple of years – talk about a full circle moment!
So is that when your interest in sneakers began?
Through hip-hop definitely. Well sort of, let’s re-wind a bit…
My brother — my middle brother George — was an avid collector back in the day – it was always either footy badges, trophies, trading cards. He had a huge love for sneakers.
Like I said before, he was into “cock rock” but he also loved Run-D.M.C, so that turned him on to adidas. When he got into sneakers I just remember him wearing adidas Rom, and he had what seemed like every colour in the world: black with white, blue and white, red – he was so obsessed with them and he’d clean them every day.
I saw him doing that and I told my parents I wanted sneakers too. They wouldn’t let me because I was the girl in the family, and sneakers weren’t “lady-like”. So obviously that made me even more determined to get my own! I remember saying to my mum “When I'm old enough, I'm going to wear sneakers and jeans every day!” and that’s exactly what happened!
So from the sneaker collector standpoint, my brother was definitely a big influence. From the fashion perspective; seeing Kriss-Kross, TLC, that kind of “New Jack" era really sparked my interest in fashion, specifically sneakers and being Fly Girl – I’m a Fly Mama now haha.
I’d be interested to know the first time you really “noticed” a sneaker, was there a moment where you were just like “what is THAT”?
When I was 12 or 13, I was obsessed with Air Jordans, that was like ’85 — I'm really dating myself now! I think everyone my age has a story like that, Jordans were the hottest thing in The States. If you were listening to American music they were the shoe you wanted.
A few years later I was noticing people wearing this new shoe — I grew up in an area in Adelaide with all these avid runners — and they were all wearing an incredible new running sneaker. I remember seeing my dad's friend wearing this red shoe with this window you could see through. I was like, "What are these?" and he was like “They’re called Air Max” — or Air Max 1s or whatever they were back then*
I asked him "So you can actually run without that bursting?” *MAFIA points to the Big Bubble Air unit* and he was like, "Oh yeah, I run in them every day”. He was running a 10K marathon in these shoes, and I was obsessed! I was like "How do I get a pair?” Obviously I couldn't get a pair because I was 12 and nothing came in my size at that time. Nike wasn’t doing the awesome mini-me releases they do now.
*Originally it was “Air Max”, the “Air Max 1” and “Air Max 87” designations were applied later.
Did you ever get that pair?
Look, I'm not going to lie, because… Oh, actually… No! I'm not going to lie…
I've never really, shock horror, been a runner. I'm not a runner, but I've always loved the aesthetic of Air Max. I was into the Air Max as a shoe because it was more attractive in a fashion sense. I've always been driven by fashion sneakers rather than sneakers that have function. When I first saw that pair in 1987 I was attracted to the colours and the insane bubble, not so much the — let’s say — “athletic capabilities”.
Having said that, I remember all the Air Max coming out in — I'm going to say — oh around the time I started collecting really avidly, which was around 2005/6 [probably “History of Air” in 2005]. Seeing all the dudes wearing these shoes that I'd never seen before I was like, "Oh my God, I've got to get into that." It sparked this obsession, I guess.
I was really lucky in 2017 to be one of the OGs of the Air Max 1 representatives, because I guess that era, especially in the mid 2000s really kind of was what really drove me into wearing Air Max seriously.
Well you’re a Melbourne nightlife icon and a legend within the sneaker scene, so it makes sense to tap you for something like that.
I guess so, yeah.
But you see, that's unbeknownst to me. I don't know that. I'm just doing what I love doing. This was a forbidden thing for me to have sneakers. So for me, I was like, "Oh my God, I'm going to get every pair I can." I had this weird competitive thing with dudes where I was like, "If they're going to have it, I'm going to have more of it.”
Case in point, a friend of mine (who was a really good DJ), and I would go back to back in DJ battles at home, and I thought - I'm going to make a job out of it. I always wanted to go that one step further. So I think it was conscious, but maybe not. And then I think that I became known as this sneaker collector who had crazy amount of sneakers and a vast knowledge because I was so driven by the history of everything as well.
Is there something about getting a crowd jumping which draws you to DJing?
I've always wanted to be the centre of attention! I have an acting degree, which is what led me to becoming a DJ. Once I realised that I could be on stage, play music and have my two loves come together it all started making sense. That all happened around the time of Favela so it was kind of kismet. I don’t think we’ll get that time again.
It was just so specific to that era. Again for me, I was just “in it”. I didn't know what I was representing for people. It was like I had no idea, even just being a female DJ and having that kind of status too. I didn't know what it meant to people, I was just doing what I loved.
The Favela Rock club nights were massive for Melbourne sneaker heads back in the day, and you were at the centre of it. It really cemented your status as a cultural figure..
Yeah I got asked to come on-board with this great, crazy group of DJs to run this party once a month on a Saturday. Everyone in Melbourne who was down with sneakers, culture and fashion would rock up. I had this amazing peak set from 12:00 to 1:00 and the energy was so palpable and sweaty and so insane.
At the same time, it was like “what's everyone wearing?” too. People would come in their kit; Mishka, Crooks and Castles and all the hot stuff but the sneakers were the most important! Anyway, I could go on and on about the fash’.
There were moments where certain sneakers were the “must have” item. I have this memory of the OG black Air Jordan retro…
With the 3M tongue? Yeah! Those were the hot shoe for a minute. For me too, it was a whole fashion statement just going to the gig. That whole month you'd wait and you'd be like, "Okay, I've got to get the fit set and ready.” One week it was Jordans, the next is was the latest Air Max, you had to keep up to stay fresh!
Partly because I was going to be on stage but it was also for myself. I just wanted to look fly because everyone else was going all-out. All those sneaker boys that I hung out with at the time were so pivotal in my fashion sense as well and they had all this knowledge about the culture that I’d never even heard of.
I always wanted this kind of male silhouette, which was just straight up and down — but I never had it. The clothes just didn't drape off of me. I had to get my own style going instead. My ankle is my most favourite feature because it’s the slimmest part of my body. So sneakers were perfect to draw the focus down there… True story!
It also amalgamated with my time working for Sneaker Freaker, which really helped me on the sneaker side of things.
Yeah so you were part of the OG Sneaker Freaker crew and really got a front-row seat to the rise of sneaker culture.
I think there was one other guy and then there was the digital marketer, Remy, who was there with me. It was the two of us with Woody and Hans, the uncle to all sneaker heads of Melbourne — who I think was the first employee. But I would say I was the first full time long-lasting female… But then there was another chick before me… So no, I wasn’t… Whatever, first MAFIA! Haha
That’s for sure!
Yep! Going to that job was just getting a degree in journalism on the job, which is something I'll always be thankful for because now I have the skill to write for magazines.
The funniest part was people would write in and go “that MAFIA and his bloody rap talk.” So for one, they didn't know I was a girl — which is great — and two, apparently I had “rap talk”. We were just coming up with fresh ways of talking about every shoe. Remy and I would get into competitions on who could “name” a shoe and whether it would stick. We did that a few times, which was pretty cool. But yeah, it was a really pivotal part of my career.
You talked about people educating you on sneakers, but then you became the one educating.
Sure. I was on those blogs every day researching everything. I was interviewing, I was doing reviews on shoes, news flashes and articles. I ended up fully immersed, figuring out how to explain a shoe in an original way that no one else had come up with.
At Sneaker Freaker we would always pride ourselves on being original with the content rather than cut-and-pasting from a press release. It was insane for me to be around at that time, I came on board to launch the brand online. There truly wasn’t anything else like it, maybe 2-3 websites online that covered things and even then, Sneaker Freaker was doing it at a level that nobody else could replicate.
You've seen how generations have changed and how they related to shoes, is obviously very different now.
The way stories are told is very different.
Well it's the same with music. And I've gone through — I've been DJing for 22 years now — so I've been through a few generations of 18 year olds now. Things are so different, everyone wants easy access, which we never had as sneaker collectors.
Part of it was about the grind, trying to find a shoe and making friends along the way. I guess kids do that now in the line-ups and online. I think they do? I haven't lined up for a shoe before, so I'm not sure. I don't think I could do it, but kudos to them!
Times are changing MAFIA!
Yeah, I would say I'm probably — like a lot of sneaker heads that came up in the mid 2000s — probably out of touch with what's going on now in the sneaker world. At least as a kind of hobby or a way of life, because I think we all graduated into wanting nice cars and houses and nice things that our sneakers could pay for — down-payment for the house from the sneaker collection. But having said that, I didn’t sell all my kicks. Not yet at least…
How many pairs do you think your left with compared to when the collection was at its peak?
Well, there was 500 and something at one point — I filled up an old storage unit. I ended up selling most of them at a swap meet for 20 bucks, which all the other dudes got very angry about — thinking I was undercutting their stuff. I was like, "Hey, it's a different size. Come on.” A lot of it was from my time at Sneaker Freaker, I didn't want to make money off it. I really just wanted to give something back.
I do still buy a lot. I buy what’s comfortable for me now and that's usually Air Max or Air Force 1. I probably have going on 70 pairs, which is doable. It's not too out of control!
You were talking about younger kids and how different it is for them compared to us. Obviously it's a different world now.
Well, I'm lucky enough to live with my partner who has two teenage kids, and her daughter especially — Sophia, loves Air Max. She loves them all, Air Max 95s, TNs, 87’s. She's 14 years old, she really won the lottery because she's about the same size as me. So I keep going "Try these on and see what they look like." I'm never going to wear them again but she can, which is cool.
It also gives me that inside knowledge of what those kids love. Now every kid in that 18-19 year range seems to be a sneaker head out there hunting for the specific new release. It’s great but it’s really hurting my ability to get the stuff I want!
When we got into shoes it wasn’t really as fashionable as it is right now. It was more about the nerdy.
Do you see the new generation getting into that, like your partner's kids, do they care about the Big Bubble story?
I think kids are thirsty for knowledge regardless. They love to learn and sure, you can Google it, but it's really nice to have that conversation. As somebody who was there when they came out — again, I'm sounding like the old person ranting “Back in my day" — but I don't know, I think there’s still a place for it.
I'm pretty sure there’s a lot of sneaker heads out there now, more than when we were coming-up. I've recently done some things with Sneaker Freaker and with eBay in the last year, working with a lot of people I hadn’t met before. Some of them are even more obsessed than we were! I do think there’s more status wrapped-up in it now due to the money involved. We had that too, but it seemed a bit more innocent. It was like, "Oh, what are those? They’re cool. How do I get them?" But now I don't know, money runs everything — C.R.E.A.M!
For sneaker heads these days, I think it's a lot to do with the buying and selling as well, which we never really got into. As time went on, we realised — as I said — “Oh this is a down payment for a house” or “I could get a new car if I could just sell that Air Max, Big Bubble, 1986 original” haha.
Haha nice segue… I’ll admit that I wasn’t really across the Big Bubble story when people started talking about it.
Yeah, me too. I was seeing things pop-up on blogs and Instagram, seeing these “Big Bubble” mentions. Big Bubble? What the F, what's the Big Bubble? I'm a Big Bubble! Then I was like, "Oh Air Max Day’s coming up. This must have something to do with that.”
I was totally unaware that there was this story of the Big Bubble Air Max in 1986, so I learned something. And so then I was like "Oh shit, there used to be four chambers. It was a bigger bubble unit. Why did that not make production? What is going on with this shoe?”
Yeah I guess the story got buried in some sense because the production issues got the better of Nike 37 years ago, but they’re ready to tell it now.
This is what's so fantastic about Nike, the innovation and the vision of what they want and see, and then putting it into production. When you’re pushing boundaries sometimes you’re going to over-step and in a way I was right when I was a 12 year old wondering how the Air bubble didn’t explode!
I think that it's pretty amazing that 37 years later, they've all come together and figured out a way with the new team of designers and production methods. It’s like they said “lets get it right and prove we can do it.” Which is amazing, to get that history and have that knowledge in the Nike archive of what this was back in the 1986 and what we can make today. Nobody else does that like Nike.
If Nike never did this, no one would even know the story.
Absolutely not. Unless you've gone to that Sneaker Freaker book [Soled Out] and look through those incredible old Nike ads that were so big and bold. I probably would've skipped and just thought "Oh yeah, Air Max 1." Not even thinking anything of it.
It's a totally different shoe. But I think when people do see them, they're going to understand just how much of its own kind of beast it is. And yeah, it'll be really interesting to see what people think.
Yeah I think when you sit down with an Air Max 1 and the Big Bubbles you can see the difference across the entire shoe.
This shoe’s completely different and that's the thing that you want people to really get in their minds — it’s a completely different shoe to the '87. In the way it's been designed — obviously the midsole and bubble — but also some of these materials too. I'm wondering how specific they got to the original, because have you seen an original?
Exactly! Sneaker heads have opinions about everything to do with sneakers, and they're going to go over this with a fine-tooth comb. And I guess Nike really understood the assignment and went “all right, well people are going to be really specific so let’s not half-arse it.” Social media is so public now, so they're going to hear about it whether they like it or not.
It's like the Loch Ness monster. There's not many out there, I assume. So what are we comparing it to? Pictures? We're comparing it to a 2D kind of image. So yeah, let's see.
In reality there’s probably 50-100 people in the world who could sit down and compare the ’86 and ’87 side-by-side. Some people who do have that luxury are the Nike design team.
Absolutely and sneakers are tactile — you need to hold them. You can't just look at a photo, no matter how good it might be. It’s like when people review music and they just go bang, bang, bang — listen to the album really quickly and get their review out first. You need to give it time to breathe, sit with it, enjoy it, and don't just go off of first impressions. It's meant to be worn, it's meant to be loved. Put them on your feet!
The fact that the two of us are sitting here, talking about a shoe 37 years after it released. What is it about Air Max that’s allowed it to remain relevant all this time?
Well, I think because it's such a timeless piece of design. There's so many layers to it, but in that layering it's simple. It has the function of a running shoe, but it's fashionable as well. It has value as a piece of running, fashion and music history.
And now we’re looking at a deep-cut reference to that history.
This is the first time in Air Max history they’re going back to the beginning — before the beginning even! 1986, the Big Bubble. This is the shoe that started it all. If you ask a sneaker purist like yourself and I, we probably actually wouldn't really even know that this shoe existed. It was a myth, but now it’s real.
So yeah, I'm really excited about the 26th and to see what's going to happen. Obviously this is the shoe that we're all waiting for, the Big Bubble, with its four chambers, not three. So I'm really excited to see what people think about the shoe and how they rock it. I can't wait to put these on foot and see what they're like. I think they're going to suit me. The Big Bubble versus the Big Muff!
The Big Bubble meets the Big Bubbles! Haha. So what’s on the go for MAFIA in 2023?
I’m constantly flying around the country, playing those shows and then other corporate gigs like the Logies and other private functions. I’m never not working!
I do Fridays Live — formerly known as R&B Fridays — on Fox FM every Friday. We take over the station and you'll hear me playing mixes of nothing but R&B. Then once a year, we get the artists out to go on tour.
For me it's like this full-circle moment going on tour with all these artists whose music I was playing when it first came out! Now 20-30 years later, I’m still playing that music. It’s the same thing with the Air Max. When something is good and something's brilliant and nostalgic as well, it's going to bring up so many incredible memories for people. Oh! And I’m finally throwing my own party again, in the vein of Favela (what’s old is new again peoples!) with HAUS OF MAFIA at The Nightcat in Fitzroy – First party is 14th April! Hit my Instagram for details!
With a schedule like that, I’m just glad you found time to sit down and chat with us. Thanks MAFIA!