“Maternal” is the last adjective you’d associate with a Bed-Stuy-based DJ and producer. But that’s how Sara Skolnick, who goes by the stage name Riobamba, is affectionately described by DJ Lita, who was scouted by Riobamba herself.
“She helped so many of us,” says DJ Lita of her fellow up-and-coming artists. She shares an Ecuadorian background with Rio, but promises their connection goes beyond that. Basically, Riobamba believes in people. And when she does, she’ll take you under her wing– and maybe even onto her label, Apocalipsis.
Just like DJ Lita, Nino Augustine, an independent Atlanta-based rapper, met Riobamba at an event, they talked for a little bit, she got curious and next thing you know, they were collaborating on a few projects for Apocalipsis. “I was trying to figure out how to break into this Latinx scene,” he says. “And she’s one of the key players.”
Riobamba says she started Apocalipsis in response to a lack of representation. “I just want to kind of destroy how the industry is,” she explains, “but then also rebuild it in a way that is more inclusive and cares about social and economic equity in terms of sharing the resources that we have.”
During a recent evening at Kinfolk 90 in Williamsburg, Riobamba was magnetically attracting the audience to the dance floor. “She can read a crowd in literally a second,” notes DJ Lita, who has seen her perform many times now. “She’ll know exactly what direction to go in.” Holding the stage for six hours, until 4am, is no rookie thing– and it’s no joke, either. Riobamba’s movements are slow, wavy, calibrated. Over time, the music transitions from commercial hip-hop to more traditional reggaeton; Bad Bunny’s “Callaita” gently takes over from Kanye West, all right after a quick throwback to Sean Paul. Adapting to the switch of tempo, Riobamba’s hips and shoulders move from side to side, her chin lifted up and her eyes on the crowd like a cobra on alert.
Apocalipsis is an open label that offers non-exclusive deals, so artists are welcome to go elsewhere after releasing an album. That doesn’t mean Riobamba doesn’t care about them. “I try to be really hands-on with capacity building in terms of getting a proper bio or marketing around the project, and see what we can do.” On the label’s website, right underneath the pink-and-blue neon logo, a few intro lines describe Apocalipsis as a concept that “amplifies the stories of artists ‘ni de aquí, ni de allá’ (neither from here, nor there), doing everything in its power to re-distribute equity in the music industry.” Most of the artists featured on the website are, indeed, from at least two places. Nino Augustine is from Panama and Atlanta. Riobamba is from Ecuador, Lithuania and Boston. DJ Lita is from Ecuador, Texas and Queens. Kelman Duran is from Dominican Republic, Los Angeles and New York City.
Riobamba was born to a mother from Ecuador and a father from Lithuania; growing up in a “predominantly white” suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts was sometimes challenging. “There were things I would hear,” she shrugs. “My mom would take me to the Jewish community center and women there would assume she was the housekeeper, or the babysitter and not my mother.”
In the equation that resulted in her majoring in Political Science at Boston University are both the cheap, suburb-y racism she witnessed growing up and her parents’ jobs – both educators, and her father public defense attorney, too. Cultural and social justice were always major interests growing up. So she read about it, studied about it and eventually did something about it. With music.
In 2010, a couple of years after graduating, she started DJing and throwing parties in Boston. “The intention was to bring people of different communities together,” she recalls. “It could be a celebratory, fun way but still addressing these issues of, like ‘Why don’t we talk to each other?’” Her first party, Pico Picante, brought together sounds from the Caribbean, Black, and Latinx communities, and she’s proud to be still throwing a Pico Picante party every quarter. “I go back and do it in Boston!” she laughs.
After three years in Boston, Riobamba packed up her suitcase and decided to go study ethnomusicology in Bogota —specifically, the manner in which people from different regions were moving to the capital because of civil displacement and economic barriers and the fusions that this involved in music. During her time in Colombia, she also became the music editor for Remézcla, which she thinks helped open the doors to her music career.
Ten years later, she’s performing almost every day, and still finds the time to recruit and launch new artists like ShellX, whose first single, “Traviesa” is dropping in Feb. 28. Born and raised in Queens with an Ecuadorian and Salvadorian background, SHELL X calls herself a full-blown Newyorkina. On the phone, her voice sounds like that of Cardi B. “It’s New York — all New York girls sound the same!” she laughs. She also shares with Cardi B a fearless (but cute) attitude, which is strong enough to pass through the phone. “My music is very empowering for the female body,” she explains. It’s no wonder, then, that she belongs to Riobamba’s roster — SHELL X really embodies Apocalipsis.
On Kinfolk 90’s dance floor, the crowd is going wild. A circle of Reggaeton aficionados has formed right by the console, and a young man sings his lungs out at every chorus of every song. Riobamba is amused, and both leads and follows the vibe of the crowd in her music selection. When Daddy Yankee’s “Lo Que Paso Paso” starts blasting through the speakers, it looks like the audience was waiting for nothing but that song. “Above all I really respect her as a selector,” explains SHELL X, who decided to work with Riobamba in part because of her talent as a DJ. “Especially for the genre that we’re in.”
Surrounded by a successful label, talented new artists and powerful music that brings a message, Riobamba is really happy right now. Her clean, contagious smile makes her signature red lipstick pop as she says, “I feel like the message is being communicated in the way that I intended.”