One of Stamper's most immediate qualities is her enthusiasm—it comes through her interviews, radio appearances and especially her online presence. She's humble, excitable and self-deprecating, dead serious one minute and an all-around jokester the next. She's a vocal feminist and an outspoken advocate for the queer community. But before all that, Stamper was a teenage mixtape vendor, selling tapes from town to town throughout the Midwest.
Born in a remote Appalachian region of Kentucky, Stamper got her start young, attending her first rave at the age of 14. Realising it would be her life's passion, she dropped out of school at 16 to work in the industry. "My mom was really supportive of it," she says. "My dad wasn't so thrilled, but mom let me move out and get my own apartment when I was 16."
In addition to helping out at parties, Stamper established trading posts all over the Midwest, selling tapes out of the back of her car. "We would be assembling them on our laps in a back seat of a Chevette," she says, "cutting the labels out with scissors, sticking labels and duplicating them in someone's apartment. We did it all in-house. As a result of that I got to see a lot of really incredible, groundbreaking moments in the history of American dance music from a very close vantage point. I saw Richie Hawtin's first live performance as Plastikman at a party called Spastik."
Stamper took a break from the music industry in her early 20s and went to college, where she learned to DJ. She started playing out just a few months later. "Almost right off the bat, I knew how to do it, the basic mechanics of it," she says. "I didn't struggle with that part, the mechanics of it made sense to me because I was deeply involved in the mixtape thing and listening to those over and over again.
After graduating college, Stamper moved to Chicago and ended up living with Radoslaw Hawryszczuk, known to friends as Radek. Moving to Chicago was a rough transition at first. "I thought that everybody was an asshole," she says, "I couldn't believe it! In Chicago no one took any crap from anybody, and it made me feel like people were impolite, like I was from a tiny small town and being eaten alive by the largeness and quickness of the city. Since then I've adjusted, and now it's sort of the opposite."
Radek had started a label called Dust Traxx out of his parents' West Eddy house, and brought on Stamper to handle the label's entry into the digital market, before eventually making her label manager. Later, Radek left Dust Traxxx and the label began to fizzle out, while Stamper experimented with other musical endeavours before deciding to strike out as a solo artist called The Black Madonna.
"The Black Madonna is an interesting figure, and an idea my mom was really interested in when I was growing up," Stamper explains. "She really loved her, and we had both read a book about the Black Madonna when I was a teenager. I always felt really close to some of the ideas in the book, and I think one of the things that I feel is a vacuum of femininity in dance music. You know, not to say there aren't women DJs—there are many competent, brilliant and transcendent women DJs, and there are many competent, brilliant, transcendent women producers—but there's not as many as there should be.
"Most of the time what happens [when women are asked about their difficulties in the industry] is that there's a woman who is a very successful DJ—she's either born affluent or made affluent by dance music, she's startlingly beautiful, she's young and she's marketable in every way that we expect from women as a gender. And then that woman who has already met all of these criteria that we want women to meet—she's met the professional beauty qualification that we have from women in dance music, she's done all of these things, she's this package that we're looking for—that woman says, 'Why, no! I don't feel like being a woman has held me back in dance music at all! My male peers have been excellent to me, and I've just had a fantastic time at this whole thing. I just don't see how this can hold anyone back.' And I think, 'You don't say?' You know, you've got this woman who looks like a supermodel, who is attesting to the fact that looking the way that she does or being a woman has not held her back. And I think, 'I wish you would go ask Tama Sumo that question,' or, 'Let's go ask some queer woman whether they've ever faced any gender-related issues in this industry. Let's go ask some woman with kids if any of that motherhood business related to her gender has ever been a barrier for them.
"One of the things that I wanted to do was find some of that space in myself and to deal with some of these darker ideas, but also to kind of recognize that dance music can be a sacred space for women as well. And I just didn't feel like that for me personally I was having that experience. So when it came time to choose the name, I always felt that if I ever did something, that would have been what it was."
Once she established the name, garnering attention for her new project, both as a producer and a DJ, was another matter entirely. "I failed so completely," she admits. "I couldn't play the opening of a garage door."
Working mostly by herself, it wasn't easy for Stamper to find people who were interested in the music she was making. It wasn't until Garrett David, a former intern from her time at Dust Traxxx, hit her up asking if he could sign "Exodus"—a track he remembered her playing in the office—that she got a release. He was trying to get his new label Stripped & Chewed off the ground with a Kickstarter campaign, a shaky proposition that eventually paid off. They again tapped Stamper for their second release, a split with Chicago local Rahaan that was considerably more popular than its predecessor.
The runaway success of that track, "We Don't Need No Music (Thank You Rahaan)," led her to releases on Home Taping Is Killing Music and two remixes on Freerange, before Little White Earbuds editor Steve Mizek signed two of her tracks for a release on his Argot label. The silky, almost heavenly disco house of Lady Of Sorrows became an even bigger deal—or, in her words, "how it started."
"That was hands down the game changer for me," she says. "I'm not a super party person, I was never good at the social part of how people get booked. It was because of those records that the two agents I have now found me out of nowhere. They both emailed me out of the blue, wanted to help, and my whole life changed in a period of—not kidding—three months."
Stamper's early records succeeded because they felt breezy and jubilant. Lush and sample-heavy, they were somewhere in between disco and house. It only takes one listen to "Exodus," with its extended piano runs and decadent double-breakdown, to imagine how it would go over on a packed dance floor. But even her more brittle tracks, like "We Still Believe," have a particular lushness, borrowing an attitude from disco even if the sound palette is different. She's not married to disco ("I made a ton of techno under different aliases, and the new record on Stripped & Chewed has a very non-disco track on it," she says), but it's a common thread in her work. Even as her songwriting process begins to change—writing "larger works that have 30 sections in them" with real string sections—she says that her music will still "almost certainly be a form of disco."
While she was trying to get The Black Madonna off the ground, Stamper was working as a copywriter producing text for online underwear stores. Smart Bar talent buyer Nate Seider, who also knew her from the Dust Traxx days, asked if she'd like to work as his assistant at the club. Seider, however, was planning to retire a year later, and intended to hand over his position to Stamper. "The day he left and they handed me the keys, I was completely blown away," she says. "It was the biggest moment of my life."
It was a rough transition at first, and one that left Stamper paralyzed with anxiety. "The first two months I kept waking up in the middle of the night and looking at my emails on my phone. I was always worried that we were gonna leave somebody at the airport or that I would forget to book a date, then it would be just a Saturday night and we wouldn't have a show. You know, just all of the things you would worry about."
Just over a year into her position, Stamper already has her fingerprints all over the club. She's taken in a number of Chicago's best and brightest as residents, and underlined their importance by hammering out a firm schedule of regular parties. Late this year, Smart Bar will also host a private summit for its residents, old and new, celebrating their contributions and planning for the future.
"That [resident] culture is something that every great dance music institution has, and something happens when you take a community of visionaries and you put them in a box and get them to work together," she says. "I feel like we can do better. Smart Bar is the ideal environment, the infrastructure is there, the management above me… our owner Joe Shanahan is a brilliant, kind and thoughtful man who supports us more than I ever could have imagined. So all of these tools are in place, we just have to stand firm in our convictions about what this city can be, and rise to this next level aesthetically, creatively, politically, sexually.
"The whole idea of Smart Bar was that we were supposed to be thoughtful, we were supposed to look at a club like the Warehouse and say, 'We wanna strive for greatness!' and that's the spirit of the club back to the opening day: July 22nd, 1982. The very first day when Frankie [Knuckles] played in our club, that's always been the spirit of it, coming straight from Joe. So when I look at the residents program, I want to place us within that lineage and within his original idea and vision. But then expand it, cause we just don't have anything like what I'm imagining in Chicago, we just don't have it—and we should have it."
As one of the oldest dance venues in the country, and one of the most credible, Smart Bar has a certain mythology around it, and it's one that Stamper fully buys into. She insists it's the people—those who work there, those who go there, those who participate in any way—who make it special, and she has every intention to keep it that way. "Our crowd is not transient, they're there forever and now what we need to do is indoctrinate a new generation of people into that world," she says. "That's what I'm trying to do, especially with events like Hugo Ball, events that are reaching out to kids in art schools and the new transplants to the neighborhood, people like that."
On a personal level, Stamper also launched her own Saturday night residency called We Still Believe. Named for her 2013 EP on Home Taping Is Killing Music, We Still Believe has booked Secretsundaze, Levon Vincent, Andrés and others, and its ethos is defiantly old-fashioned, meant to "return to the core values of inclusion and pure dance euphoria." That might seem like a rose-tinted view to the more cynical club-goer, but spend time talking to Stamper and you'll see that her commitment to inclusivity and acceptance is honest, which comes in part from her own experiences as a woman in the music industry.
"Name another job where you have to watch your drink so that you don't get sexually assaulted in the workplace," she says. "That's my job, you know. When I go to a club, I'm at work, but that's a thing that I have to think about: did I set my drink down? And it's something all women in clubs have to think about—is my ride back to the hotel safe? I think that while a lot of women, if you ask them, 'Have you ever faced any sexism in the industry?' would say no. If you ask them the direct question, 'When you go to a club do you watch your drink?' Yes! 'Have you ever been concerned about a girlfriend being touched inappropriately by a man in a club?' Yes! 'If you are a woman as a traveling DJ, have you ever been concerned about your safety being alone with somebody that's driving you somewhere?' Yes! As women, we don't feel comfortable saying there's a systematic thing in place; that's something a lot of women even don't feel comfortable talking about or they've learned to kind of shy away from topically. There are just some factual things about working in this industry that all women face that are not debatable."
Stamper's rise through the industry has also led to a much busier touring itinerary—no easy feat when you consider her full-time job at Smart Bar—including several trips to Panorama Bar. "I did my first gig in Europe the day after I took the job as talent buyer," she says. "This woman, Lisa Gobmeier, who does bookings for Genius Of Time and other people, emailed me and asked if I would like to come to Europe some time. I didn't really know her very well and thought maybe it would work for me, maybe it won't. The day after I took the job she emailed me and said, 'OK, I have my first date for you in Europe.' OK, what is it? 'How would you like to play in Panorama Bar?'
"I said, 'You gotta be fucking kidding me.' And you know, I wasn't even DJing in Chicago a year ago, it just seemed so surreal, and then when I went over there it was totally surreal! And I've been to Panorama Bar three times since then, and I go back once more in October. I don't think I would wanna be one of those people that has to tour to pay their rent—I'm 37 and I'm married, we own our place, we have a dog and three cats, and most of the time I go to bed at 10 PM and wake up at 7, and I love working at Smart Bar and never ever want to leave. But I love to go to Europe, I have so many dear friends there, and the welcome they've given me is more than I ever possibly could have imagined or hoped for."
It's clear that Stamper is at a high point in her life. "I won the life lottery," she says so brightly I could practically hear her grinning. "I'm as happy as a pig in shit. Everyday I put my key in the door at 3730 North Clark Street I still feel that excitement and that joy at being able to do this kind of work. There's nothing wrong with working really hard if the thing that you love is the thing that you're working hard for. My job is to create and support an incredible resident culture in what is probably America's oldest dance venue.
"I have the job of getting behind this crew of people whom I believe in with absolute conviction, and trying as hard as I can to usher them, Smart Bar and the city of Chicago as a whole into the dance renaissance that it deserves at this moment. And I feel we are very close to that. There are really incredible things going on in our city. Whether it's Men's Room or Hugo Ball or Shaun J. Wright or any of those people who are just doing next-level, groundbreaking work in this city, they've gotta come into that, it's their time, and if that means that I'm working seven days a week—if there was an eighth day in the week, then I would do it."