Bold, confrontational, unique—the New York DJ talks shop with Max Pearl.
The music reflected this confluence of cultures, especially when the party's founder, Venus X, got her hands on the CDJs. I don't remember the specifics of her set that night, though it would have included stuff like Three Six Mafia, Nicki Minaj and probably Kathleen Hanna, plus a bunch of Angolan kuduro tracks ripped directly from YouTube and some DJ Rashad classics. It wouldn't be out of character for Venus X to play a loop of Peaches screaming "I don't give a fuck!" at triple speed over an air raid siren while something ambient crackled in the background.
It wasn't just about strange selections, though early GHE20G0TH1K was certainly defined by a collision of forces that don't usually coincide (hence "ghetto" and "gothic"). It was also about the way that Venus X and Shayne Oliver—founder of the fashion line Hood By Air, then resident DJ and co-host—chose to mix, or in some cases, not mix, this insane maelstrom of sounds. Many times, rather than beat-matching two songs, they'd use the cue buttons on their CDJs like samplers, switching between cue points to loop and layer phrases manually. They'd mix in wild, discordant sound effects as inflection points in their sets, often bringing packed dance floors to a screeching halt in a frenzy of confusion and chaos.
But this didn't send anybody towards the exits. The crowd loved it, and they still do, which is why, seven years later, GHE20G0TH1K is still running as a weekly Friday night under Venus X's careful watch. The New York native dropped by RA's Brooklyn office last week, still fresh from the release of Putaria Maxima Volume 1, a head-spinning mixtape she compiled with Asmara of Nguzunguzu, which pairs Brazilian baile funk with American rap to illustrate the connections between two disparate urban traditions. We spoke about what she sees as the conservative forces keeping DJ culture from moving forward.
How did you start DJing?
I must have been 22 or 23. I had waitressed at a hip-hop club, so I knew all the hip-hop music that was relevant because I had to. Meanwhile I was spending all of my time at punk shows, hanging out with black kids, and we would all drive down to Baltimore on a regular basis for shows where the afterparties only played Baltimore club. My boyfriend at the time was a DJ, and his friends were DJs who played a lot of Baltimore club, a lot of punk. It was a weird mix, and it wasn't that serious—more like bar-style DJing off of an iPod, but they'd also play on Serato. I never had any desire to learn Serato, but that was what my first lesson was on.
I was also hanging out with a group of people that were getting fucked up every night and just destroying everything—doing graffiti, fighting, lighting shit on fire. My DJ environment was enabled by my friends, and it was just lawless. I had a computer at home with Traktor, and I started using that a lot, understanding the basics of organizing my music and telling stories, trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to do—why did I want to DJ? Because I was listening to a lot of music that wasn't being played in the clubs I went to. So naturally by the time I got my hands on CDJs, my approach was pretty aggressive.
How did your style take shape?
When we started throwing those parties, Shayne and I were DJing together. Physical Therapy would play, Kingdom would play, Nguzunguzu, Total Freedom. For Shayne and I, we weren't as good Kingdom, Total Freedom or Nguznguzu, but we were really punk. So we expanded on the sampling technique within the CDJs, and the duo aspect of it—like OK, if you're doing that, then I can come in and do this, and if you save that sample on that CDJ and I save it on mine, then we bring them together and make a new song. We're making a new song 30 minutes after we sampled each of those the first time, and now people's brains are fucked up trying to figure out if we're playing the same song from 30 minutes ago, or the song from ten minutes ago, a totally new song, or if it's all three of them together. And then we've accomplished our goal, which is essentially just to destroy everything and start over.
It seems like you saw an opportunity to break the CDJ open. Like, as an instrument, very few people had tried to explore its creative potential.
Not at all. I mean, I was learning one thing from Nguznguzu, which was literal technique—they're technically some of the best DJs I've ever met. Shayne is a total chaotic mess. He's slamming on them, breaking CDJs when he plays. Total Freedom—he's always mixing way too many genres, and he encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, you know, like mixing in audio clips from Al Jazeera, pulling in field recordings from the train station, audio of some old crackhead talking about how Jay Z and Beyoncé are the illuminati.
I took a little bit of all of that and it became my style, which is kind of like how life really is, you know? Like, one moment you're walking down the street and getting harassed, and you're hearing the honking, and the music in the deli, then you're at the nail salon and they're playing one thing but a car drives by and they're playing another thing, and you're either gonna go crazy or you're going to accept that this is a new soundtrack. I wanted to create a way of DJing that was honest about what it's like being a young kid in New York.
How do you think that style reflected what was going on in New York at the time?
People didn't really have a space to talk about how fucked up things were, like the economy, which in like 2009, was really bad. No one had jobs, so the party was two dollars or three dollars to get in, and what do you expect when you're paying two or three dollars? You wanna hear what you might hear at Output? Go pay some guy 25 dollars to play you elevator music, because that's what that shit sounds like to me. If you're gonna pay two dollars with us, you're gonna get what the fuck we want to give you.
Also, it was basically free because everybody was going to die anyways, and that's super important to remember: we were obsessed with the apocalypse. 2012 was supposed to be the end of everything, so imagine DJing from 2009 to 2012—it sounded like the apocalypse. But there's a reason: it's because we were all young, depressed, self-destructive, couldn't see an end to it, we were in debt from school or we had dreams that we couldn't afford to bring to life. You couldn't actually visualize your future, and what does that sound like? Pure fucking chaos.
Where do your sets fit within the context of a GHE20G0TH1K night?
The purpose of my set is to create a foundation for someone who might not know someone like Total Freedom or Kamixlo—that might be too extreme for them. Even Nguzunguzu could be too weird for them. They wouldn't get the production style. So how do you get someone like that to feel comfortable enough to understand that this is brilliant, if they've never heard anything like that before? Because we still get young kids who have never been to a GHE20G0TH1K before, and I need to lay the foundation so that they understand the context. They need to have a relationship to every level of the experience, from popular culture through to the things that we used to play, through to the things that are exciting us now, through to the things that are too experimental—things that aren't even being acknowledged yet and may not even be good.
You and Asmara from Nguzunguzu just put out Putaria Maxima, which is this insane mix of edits that pair Brazilian baile funk with American rap. What role would you say that edits like this play in your DJ sets?
Edits for me feel safe, because they can still be raw, and I like to show those connections without having to worry about polishing it. It's like, you're trying to get people to accept what is so obvious to you, and that's your job. You're like, I see it, but how do I make them see it? You have to hook them in. What I do as a DJ is to try and make everything make sense together, while also honoring the fact that yeah, I like some trashy misogynistic rap music. I also like some nasty, sexual baile funk, and I also give a fuck about what Trump is doing with immigration laws, and I also care about this very strange assortment of samples that this 20-year-old producer in London put together that doesn't even sound like music.
What, for you, is the right balance between continuity and disruption in a DJ set?
That's a balance I have to maintain, and I've learned that. Like I wanna eat pasta every fucking day, but I can't, so I had to train myself to eat vegetables and learn how to enjoy them, and mix them with the pasta. We're constantly trying to develop a healthy balance between what we want and what we need. I know what I want to do as a DJ—I want to do whatever the fuck I want. But I also realize that as a DJ I also need to be respected by journalists or people who are reading this right now, and by the men who control this shit. People have a problem with disruption, because continuity is white power. Continuity is patriarchy; it's all the things that make people look at us and say, "You're doing it all wrong." Well, you're not doing it right!
Have you ever run into trouble with a venue or a crowd who weren't ready for you?
People have told me they don't like what I do. They've straight-up told me that. They think it's chaotic. They think it's bad. They don't like to hear the word "pussy" so much. They don't like to hear women's voices, or faggots' voices; they don't like to hear voices at all, and especially not black voices. They think I should be playing some nine-minute track instead of a two-minute transition. They think that a transition can't be achieved through sampling—it has to be enabled through the perfect syncing of sounds, which should be just diverse enough while being similar in speed.
I really don't see a problem with what I'm doing. I see a problem with people who think DJing is cool and won't go as far as to develop their own techniques, develop their own story, their own way of fixing the world through DJing. But I don't see a problem with what we're doing, because you know what? You don't like what I have to say? Yeah, well you're not supposed to like it. You're supposed to be uncomfortable. I hope you go home and you break something because now I've disrupted your peace.
Does DJing feels political to you?
As long as I'm an oppressed woman of color who has to deal with things like not being able to afford birth control, not having health insurance, not being able to get a family member into the country because of immigration laws, I have to be cognizant of the politics that surround me every single day. So yeah, it's definitely political. The world made it political. I didn't choose this. I would love to approach this like, "Hmm, I wonder what I want to do?" My imagination could just run free, like I'm in a white room creating weird monsters out of nothing. But I can't. It's totally influenced by everything I go through, and everything my friends go through, and how I see my power as a woman, or as a leader in this particular subset of culture, and I have to enable other people who don't have the same platform as me.
Has your approach to DJing changed over the years?
What I have noticed is that the way people view you affects your sense of freedom. So if you feel like people are judging you, you might not feel the same sense of freedom. I've definitely had years where I felt like there was way too much pressure on me, and people were concerned with who I was sleeping with or what I was doing with my time, and was I showing face at enough queer parties, was I politicized enough, or was I showing up at the right places? That shit fucked me up. And that's really the only thing that changed about me DJing—is becoming more shy and being less experimental because I was actually just depressed.
This open-ended DJ style that you pioneered has actually become popular in the more experimental ends of the club music world. Are you happy to see that?
I'm happy that other people are doing these kinds of things with DJing, because now I'm not the only fucking weirdo. I just think we're all trying our best to figure what it is we want people to know about us, whether it's a track we made, or the way we're speaking, or if it's my party, or my mixtape. I think it's amazing.
Are you a better DJ now that you've been touring for a few years?
No. In fact, I'm trying to get back to where I was. I'm trying to heal and rip off some of the layers of protection I built around myself, to get back to the 23-year-old me, who was so fearless and so excited. I'm very happy to have the experiences of traveling, and growing within my community, but at the same time there's a lot of pitfalls to that.
Like, people need you to pay them. So instead of waking up and looking for new music I have to pay people. Instead of waking up and working on mixing for ten hours, I have to design flyers, make sure my store is running, make sure people are coming to the show, make sure the stems are at the mastering, and then make sure we send everything over to the marketing team, all of that.
I'm at the point where I'm learning how to delegate the work, and within that, not become an adult—like how to stay timeless by accessing my youth energy, because my youth energy is what enabled me to break all of those rules. Getting older, you start thinking, "Am I gonna make money if I keep doing this?" Versus realizing that these things aren't supposed to make me money, because there's a much bigger goal here.