With his new record as DJ Sprinkles, digital-music iconoclast Terre Thaemlitz reflects on the various meanings and myths of deep house music.
House isn’t so much a sound as a situation.
There must be a hundred records with voice-overs asking, “What is house?” The answer is always some greeting-card bullshit about “life, love, happiness…” The House Nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here with us. (If you can get in, that is. I think of one time in New York when they wouldn’t let me into The Loft, and I could hear they were actually playing one of my records on the dancefloor at that very moment. I shit you not.) Let’s keep sight of the things you’re trying to momentarily escape from. After all, it’s that larger context that created the house movement and brought you here. House is not universal. House is hyper-specific: East Jersey, Loisaida, West Village, Brooklyn—places that conjure specific beats and sounds… Twenty years later, major distribution gives us classic house, the same way soundtracks in Vietnam War films gave us classic rock. The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black-market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Tompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment, and censorship—all at 120 beats per minute.
These are the Midtown 120 Blues.
—excerpted lyrics from “Midtown 120 Intro”
The work of composer, producer, DJ, writer, educator, and provocateur Terre Thaemlitz, whose extremely varied career has spanned 20 years and about as many genres, has always taken such a forthright stance on gender- and socio-sexual politics, that sometimes it’s easy to think you’ve got him pegged.
Just when you think Thaemlitz is telling a story about being turned away from a club (as in the excerpt above) for appearing too outside the norm—even for NYC’s famously accepting-of-all-types Loft party—the gender-queer artist (who prefers either “he” or “she,” while not really subscribing to either) flips the script entirely. “It wasn’t about gender discrimination,” says Thaemlitz from his home in Kawasaki, Japan, a suburb of Toyko. “It was just about door policy.” Thaemlitz wasn’t dressed in drag that night, and had simply left his Loft membership card at home. “They were playing ‘Raw Through a Straw’ when they wouldn’t let me in. I told the doorwoman it was my track and she was like, ‘Get the fuck out already,’” he says with a laugh.
It’s moments like these that Thaemlitz looks back on with both a sense of nostalgia and befuddlement on Midtown 120 Blues, his first full-length album recorded under the name DJ Sprinkles, a moniker he took on when he started DJing about 20 years ago. “DJ Sprinkles has always been a signifier of the unheard DJs, un-played records, and undocumented outcasts. The unimportant,” Thaemlitz explains. “Because, ultimately, I think house culture revolves around disenfranchised people attempting to construct a space in which we feel important.”
Throughout Midtown 120 Blues, Thaemlitz examines deep house’s past—and questions its present revival—through his unique lens, one that’s seen myriad musical angles since he first stepped on the train from Springfield, Missouri to New York in 1986.
“It was $50 cheaper for me to take a three-day train ride than to take a plane that would take four hours or whatever,” he says. “So my parents sprung to put me on this train and I didn’t even have suitcases—I had footlockers. And you also have to imagine me in this weird, faggy, New Romantic clothing, with these trunks, getting out in New York City and just pissing my pants. I was just scared shitless.”
Thaemlitz went east in search of a life more accepting than what his small town had to offer—and to fulfill a scholarship at The Cooper Union School of Art—but has since become one of the most notable figures in avant-garde electronic music and art. His dozens of releases run the gamut of styles (electro-acoustic, modern classical, collage, ambient, glitch, house), and have shown up on labels like Instinct, Mille Plateaux, Mule Musiq, and his own Comatonse. Each record is extremely divergent from the next, and each swiftly lays down high-art concepts over music that’s challenging and pleasant to both the ear and the mind.
A discography like Thaemlitz’s would, to most, look like the work of a dilettante, but Thaemlitz is so skilled at nuance that he’s able to both make indelible marks on these genres stylistically all while injecting powerful political statements. On 2003’s Lovebomb, for instance, Thaemlitz deconstructed love songs and political texts, recontextualizing the meaning of love by examining how it’s used in the destruction of humanity. On one track, he processed the vocals from an African National Congress speech and laid them atop a cut-up pastiche of Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You.” With Fagjazz, Thaemlitz explored everything from music-packaging language (specifically the English text that appears on Japanese and Taiwanese CD inserts) to the accepted traditions of improv jazz. (While Fagjazz claims to be a compilation of recordings that Thaemlitz made with the Funk Shui jazz combo, it’s just him infusing electronic dance tracks with modal jazz flecks, mostly done in the least improv’d way possible.) In another unexpected turn, Thaemlitz covered Devo in the style of modern-classical piano on Oh, No! It’s Rubato.
He’s a kidder with a serious cause and a host of aliases for each (K-S.H.E., Chugga, and G.R.R.L. are just a few), but what always results from his genre-crossing is some of the most convincing music any of those styles have to offer. DJ Sprinkles’ Midtown 120 Blues is no different, offering up a real, lyric-based history of underground deep house while delivering jackin’ tracks that would fit seamlessly next to Theo Parrish or DJ Pierre (despite the fact that Thaemlitz seems to exist entirely outside of the house DJ world).
“That’s the kind of distinction that I try to get people to see by producing in all the different genres that I produce in,” says Thaemlitz. “That we have this one way of reading a certain genre. With dance music, there’s so much about the pressure to party and to get energized. But there are many different ways and perspectives and contexts through which you can read the exact same music. [With] Midtown 120 Blues, there’s nothing innovative, musically, about it. Part of the purpose of that is to show, ‘Hey, look—you can have something that kind of sounds like a classic house sound that’s coming from a completely different perspective than maybe what the standard press review or the standard label direction or the standard club-goer approach might be.’ That doesn’t in any way invalidate my experience as a house DJ… Basically, these are the things I was thinking when I was going to those clubs, that somebody else was going to just to take E or whatever, listening to the exact same music.”
The Politics of Dancing
If Midtown 120 Blues is about any one thing, it’s about changing perspectives and rethinking preconceived notions. On “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone),” a subdued, melodic instrumental bookended by recorded monologues of clubgoers and Thaemlitz himself, he explores Madonna’s misappropriation of vogueing, placing it squarely in the context of gay underground New York house. To Thaemlitz, the idea that it “makes no difference if you’re black or white/If you’re a boy or a girl,” solidly misses the point, and perverts the dance style’s original intentions in a way that only a mainstream artist can. In his discourse at the track’s end, Thaemlitz is unabashedly heavy-handed. A lot of his ideas throughout the record are presented this way—itself a comment on the didacticism of old house-record vocals—but Thaemlitz’s words are far less uplifting, to be sure.
“I think that’s also part of dealing with the house nation,” he offers. “For anything to have a metaphor of nationalism, I think, opens doors to all kinds of things that a lot of the people in the house scene wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with. I think that the idea of tribalism—the idea of nationalism, as it functions within dance cultures that are ostensibly fighting for diversity—that’s the kind of hypocrisy that people don’t want to tackle. Obviously it’s an homage to those early soliloquies on so many house albums, but it’s to do that in the context that I perceived, rather than this kind of context that’s always being shoved down our throats about, like, ‘Hey, you don’t know why you’ve been brought here, but you were brought here for this moment and this place and time.’ It’s like, ‘But where is this place? What is this moment in time? What is happening here?’”
We Belong to the Night
Questioning whom house music “belongs” to is nothing new for Thaemlitz, and he explored it thoroughly on Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion’s Routes Not Roots album. “[The K-S.H.E.] project kind came out of this, I don’t know if I would call it a crisis, but maybe this crisis of being a white DJ playing primarily black music in a Japanese environment, where people continue to frame the music as being, like, roots music or something very black in a purist sense,” he explains.
Subtracting the mythology from the music seems to be DJ Sprinkles’ modus operandi, and he’s just as quick to criticize the idea of the “community” that house music purported to offer. “There was a sense of affinity,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “but ‘community’ is complicated because it implies something beyond simply being there. It implies a kind of camaraderie or intimacy. For me, those intimacies or those connections weren’t necessarily something that happened with people inside the club, [but] more outside of the club. Like, when I’m DJ Sprinkles, I’m almost always dressed in male drag. I don’t do it in female drag, and part of that is because of DJing these massively transsexual clubs, where people were always doing hormones and surgeries. I was totally embarrassed to come out as transgender to those people. That was something that was kind of like a corollary of being embarrassed of coming out as transgender to my boss at my day job. I feel like if you just say, ‘Did you feel like part of the community?’ I think that implies something that is a little more harmonious than the kinds of realities that most people go through even when they feel they are a part of something.”
So how does Thaemlitz try to bring together that community of isolation? It’s more than just basslines and soft pads. When you look at the texts and lyrics that augment Thaemlitz’s work, it becomes obvious that rhythms alone never stood a chance of communicating house’s supposed ideals. “I consider music as a language,” he says. “It’s like a structured form of communicating. I don’t believe that [house music] is something universal, emotional, blah, blah. We’re dealing with notes, we’re dealing with structures, and people who imagine that music is some natural thing that emerged from eternal ooze are forgetting about social process a little too much, I think. But because it doesn’t have words inherently, that makes it vague; that makes it like poetry. There are ways in which poetry can be profound, but you need to be schooled in how to read it, and music is the same. For a lot of people, if you don’t have the luxury of being schooled in a lot of different forms of musicology and a lot of the cultural context of where things come from, it’s really something you’ve got to study. If it’s not there, then put in things to help people follow what the message is—if there is a message. And if you don’t have a message, then why did you bother releasing it?”
DJ Sprinkles Audio Interview
Listen to Ken Taylor’s full interview with Terre Thaemlitz.