I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky - one of two islands of metropolitan culture in an otherwise rural state and home to the dazzling Kentucky Theater. Built in 1922, the theater is a paragon of Jazz Age architecture, boasting a massive stained glass covered oculus and, in 1992, that’s where I saw Paris is Burning. I went with my mom. She told me that Paris is Burning was a movie about dancers. She told me it was about New York. She did not tell me that Jennie Livingston’s 1990 masterpiece loveletter to the New York ball culture of the early 1980’s would be the Rosetta Stone - the document that I’d spend two decades decoding, and a reference point for virtually every activity and value that now constitutes my adult life.
I watched Paris is Burning like some people watch Rocky Horror Picture Show. As a dancer, I idolized vogue legend Willi Ninja and mourned his 2006 death from AIDS-related heart disease. When I became a DJ, I heard the disco and proto-house records in Paris Is Burning in the archetypal samples of Chicago house, such as “Is It All Over My Face” and “Love Is The Message”. And later, I discovered a lot people, gay, straight or none of the above, that found a comforting mirror in Paris is Burning. Livingston’s attentive dissection of race, class and gender in the Ballroom scene speaks to anyone coping with marginalization by transforming themselves into something else.
So, when I started to hear rumblings of a genre called “Ballroom” I got unbelievably excited. No matter who I talked to about the subject, one name came up over and over: MikeQ. The twenty-five year old Qween Beat label boss was absolutely unavoidable, making instant fans out of many of my favorite DJ’s. Even at such a young age, Mike was immediately a monolith of the modern Ballroom sound. Spend three seconds paying attention to him and it’s easy to see why. No matter what you think of Ballroom music - or Mike - he is impossible to ignore: a nonstop flurry of shows, sessions and strong opinions. Follow him on twitter and it’s clear that holding his tongue isn’t something Mike has a lot of time for. In a genre that values “cuntiness” as quality, I would have hoped for nothing less. The Ballroom sound Mike produces is compelling: brash, broken, clubby. It uses elements of “The Ha Dance” by Masters at Work (which Mike calls “the Ha Crash”) much in the same way that jungle uses the so-called “Amen break” by The Winstons.
So, when Network Awesome decided to air Paris is Burning, there was no debate about who we wanted to talk to. But, as I sat down to speak with Mike, something I hadn’t really considered before crossed my mind: what if he hasn’t seen Paris is Burning? When I heard about the new Ballroom scene, I immediately imagined it in relationship to my favorite movie of all time. But Mike is a young guy. He wasn't even in kindergarten in 1990 when the movie premiered. Was that a mistake? The idea that Paris is Burning would be irrelevant to him hadn’t even occurred to me.
Lady Foursquare: OK, since this interview is inspired by the showing of Paris is Burning on Network Awesome, I should ask you first if you've ever seen it. I’d just assumed that you had.
DJ MikeQ: It’s currently in my DVD player as we speak. Seen it a million times.
Lady Foursquare: That’s great! I’d like to hear about the the first time you watched Paris is Burning. Do you remember it specifically?
DJ MikeQ: Well, the first time I saw it was in 2004 or 2005, I believe. A friend showed it to me on VHS. I immediately I loved it, having already been a part of the ballroom scene. Seeing Paris is Burning really gave me some history on what I was getting into and I quickly recommended it for everyone to see and still do today.
Lady Foursquare: Are there any parts of the film that are particularly important or special to you?
DJ MikeQ: Well, I like the movie equally... entirely. Some of my favorite parts would have to be Paris talking at this ball. I believe it was the "Butchqueen First Time In Drags at a Ball" category, where Paris comes out of her wig saying, "Y’all know what I’m talking about! Butchqueen! Butch!" [There’s] another part, where Eddie Pendavis is speaking about mopping. Or, weirdly, the end of the movie where they speak of Venus [Xtravaganza] getting killed. She’s on the pier with a green vest on and the song "Another Man," by Barbara Mason is playing. That scene like basically summed up gay life around that time.
Lady Foursquare: Yes! The instrumental mix of “Another Man,” actually. I love that scene too, though, it’s heartbreaking. So, the movie is 20 years old now and I would wager that a lot of people in the ball scene were barely born when the film premiered. Do you feel a younger ball culture responding to the movie?
DJ MikeQ: I mean, I’m not completely sure. This Ballroom scene today is many things. It’s not easy for anything that doesn't include a grand prize to be grasped. You have certain ones where it may "touch them," but I doubt them watching it would make them respond or do anything any differently. For me, it really made me want to actually be there in those times, to see what it was like and experience that history, but that’s about it. I have had the pleasure of meeting or being around some of those in the movie.
Lady Foursquare: That’s incredible. Who have you met and what were they like?
DJ MikeQ: I met Junior Labeija about twice, once at the first major ball I spun at and second at the annual Latex Ball, where I had the chance to actually give him a CD of mine with all the beats from that time. I met Octavia St Laurent in 2005, right before the Legends Ball in New York City. I actually created her music production for that night. More recently, I met Paris Dupree. I’ve only seen Willi Ninja. Meeting them was a great pleasure. It was history right there in your face.
Lady Foursquare: Let’s backtrack. You mentioned that you were already a part of the Ballroom scene by 2004. How did that happen?
DJ MikeQ: My first, unofficial introduction was in October of 2004, after visiting The Globe, which was a LGBT weekly party spot in downtown Newark. After a few hours in there, the DJ began to play this weird and cool ass club music. The kids in there started doing this weird, crazy dance and throwing themselves on the ground on this certain beat. I saw that and was blown away by what I was hearing and seeing, I later learned was vogue and ballroom music.
Lady Foursquare: On that note, why don’t you describe Ballroom music in one sentence.
DJ MikeQ: Ballroom Music: Weird, cunty, sometimes hard-hitting, dramatic, repetitious, half club/half house beats.
Lady Foursquare: For someone that has never heard Ballroom music, what does it actually sound like? Talk about the construction of it.
DJ MikeQ: Well its almost unexplainable. It also depends on what category you want to make the beat for. Lets say its vogue. Most people like to hear that "Ha Crash" sample which come every fourth beat or so and you build the beat around that. It doesn't even have to to have that sound at all, but its just this certain style that makes it Ballroom. I myself, who does not vogue, will picture someone doing it to the track I am creating, which is almost like a guide. If you can’t see anyone going off to that beat, you’re not doing something right. Also most Ballroom beats can’t even be regularly danced to. I’ve seen people do it and it looks kinda stupid, but only because they don't know. Or if its a runway beat, those are more electro-house type beats that you should be able to walk to. I also picture this in my head as a guide to what I am doing.
Lady Foursquare: Can you tell us a little bit about what you're working on right now?
DJ MikeQ: This month, I will be doing probably the most traveling I’ve done so far in my career, visiting Maryland, DC, Pennsylvania, Canada, North Carolina, Rhode Island and upstate New York. I am also working on two EP's, which will be the first two real distributions of my music and just basically trying to promote.
Lady Foursquare: Mike, thanks for your time and I'll ask one last question. What does Ballroom music sound like 5 years from now?
DJ MikeQ: Good question. If I had a say so, I’d leave it the same. I don’t see how it can get any better. (Mike laughs) But, knowing what it went from to what it is now and, with technology and new producers coming along, you never know!
Lady Foursquare is: Madonna of the Unloved, housenationalist, avenger of the events at Comiskey Park, slayer, loopmonkey, girl dj, 1/2 of Noise Floor Crew, that broad in Trustus, the biggest bitch in the world, Willi Ninja's number one fangirl, Daddy, Dawn Weiner, Liz Lemon, running about 15 minutes late, clipping the monitors and getting way too old for this crap. She will also write the dogshit out of just about anything. Follow her on the twitters @ladyfoursquare