[dB2015 MIX #4] The Black Madonna
Performing Thursday, September 24th at The Crocodile as part of the 12th Annual Decibel Festival Showcase: Bottom Forty
Marea Stamper, aka The Black Madonna, is a DJ/producer out of Chicago. She became a resident of Smart Bar, North America’s oldest independent venue, in 2012 and recently announced her new position as Music Director of the venue. We spoke with her on the phone about the exclusive mix she made for Decibel, her thoughts on the midwest rave scene, and the relationship between music and politics in her life.
You just made an exclusive mix for Decibel–can you tell us a little about what’s on it/what vibe you were going for?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Wendy Carlos, so it starts out with a Wendy Carlos record (kind of an ambient thing), then moves into some things that I think people will find very unexpected–there’s a jungle track in there, but it’s played on 33 instead of 45. I’ve just been trying to make sure I’m going as wide as I can in my sets and mixes; you’ll hear 90s jungle, a Surgeon record–it covers a lot of territory.
We’re really excited to see you back in Seattle this year! Is the show part of a tour or is this a one-off for you?
At this point, I’m kind of on permanent world tour. There was a period where we were scheduling in groups, but now I have to request to have a weekend off. This is part of a period when I’m in America for a short time, but I leave immediately, and always for Europe. I think the concept of being “on tour” or “not on tour” is at this point really meaningless–things are incredibly busy right now.
That intensive tour schedule is why you left your position as Talent Buyer at Smart Bar, is that right?
That’s right. There was a period of time where I would leave on Thursday from the office of Smart Bar to go to Europe and come back on Monday morning, which was completely crazy. It was starting to take a toll on me and I realized it was just not tenable. I wasn’t getting enough time to make music, so I had to make some decisions about what I wanted to do. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity–I’m working on a couple of large projects in the studio, so I needed to take the plunge and do this thing that people wish their whole lives they get to do. It’s not an offer you can turn down.
What does your new position as Music Director of Smart Bar entail?
Music Director is a new position they created for me. It’s large-scale curation. I still work with the talent buyer to create signature events for the club, like some of the all-building parties with Metro upstairs. I’m also working to expand the Smart Bar brand into other markets, partnering with festivals, and putting together tours of the Smart Bar residents–special outreach projects. We have a couple of larger things on the table, and I’m still running the residency program in conjunction with the current talent buyer. In general, my job is to set the tone for the club, to be the spokesperson and to guide the overall direction along with Jason Garden (the new talent buyer), who is incredible. It’s been a great opportunity! There’s never really been anything like it, not for the club, and I certainly dont know of other clubs that have allowed an artist to do this. So as usual, I feel like Smart Bar and Joe Shanahan, our owner, are making some really brave decisions and doing what they do best: letting artists have total creative freedom.
Does your position have anything to do with Smart Bar’s new vinyl imprint [Northside ‘82]?
That would be one of my special projects! There will be more stuff like that–we’re working on some collaborations with 3rd parties and larger events in the city. Anything that’s a special or unusual project–that’s what I do.
You said that you’ve been spending a lot of time in Europe–what are some of the major differences you see between the American or specifically Midwest house & techno scene and the European house & techno scene? What are the elements of the European scene you’d like to see the US embody more? And vice versa?
There is a particularly midwestern way of colliding genre. I grew up in the midwest American rave scene, and seeing events where they would have a jungle room, and a house room, and a hardcore room–where all of those spaces would coexist in one event–that was hyper-influential to me as a listener, and eventually as a DJ. I think thats true of a lot of other midwestern DJs. When I think about the smart bar residents, none of us really stay in one place creatively–we’re all into techno, we’re all really into house, we’re all into electro and disco and that’s a common factor of those of us who grew up in the Midwest rave scene. We all grew up hearing Derrick Carter mix Prince with Spastik. We all went to raves where there would be a massive jungle headliner followed by Dave Clarke [the “Baron of Techno”]. We all grew up in our fingers in a lot of different honey pots. I definitely hear Europeans note that as being different than what they’re used to.
But while America has those pockets of creative freedom, it can be very puritanical. Many of our clubs close at 2am! And while EDM has not touched us so much in a place like Smart Bar, some of the runoffs from [its popularity] have made things a little bit more unsophisticated. There are areas where that’s not true–Decibel is a great example of America being incredible. But in general, when I think about what our underground events looked like in the 90s, where you would have these incredibly sophisticated lineups in incredibly small towns–Dayton, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee (small compared to New York) and all in mid markets. That has gone away. There are still a few promoters that are really holding it down in these mid-markets, but that used to be the rule and not the exception. You certainly dont see 3,000 person parties in Dayton, Ohio with Laurent Garnier headlining! Europe looks a little more like that now–you see these incredibly diverse lineups and parties that go on forever–I miss that.
You mentioned that you haven’t really seen EDM affect Smart Bar too much. We can comfortably say that dance music is now part of the “mainstream.” Have you seen that change manifest itself in other ways?
Absolutely. There are a lot of artists that have a lot of money thrown behind them; I’ve felt like at Smart Bar as a talent buyer, there’s a lot of pressure from the outside to bring in those artists, mostly from agents who don’t really know what we’re about. There’s a machine that didn’t used to be there, and there’s a lot of terrible terrible music to sift through as a listener. As a talent buyer, there’s a lot of pressure to comply with EDM, and I’m glad that Smart Bar has almost always resisted it. It’s never been our thing–we’re 33 years old! But from a club perspective, if we and the rest of the world have felt the effects of EDM, it’s that there have been more people than ever before trying to get into the dance music game. There are a lot more clubs in Chicago. A lot of them are doing great music, and dance music expanding has encouraged and allowed more people to enter that universe. Sometimes I feel like things are spread a little bit thin in some sections of dance music, and I don’t think that’s any real shock when you look at what’s happening with SFX. There will be some bubbles that are getting ready to pop. I think everybody has a sense that EDM has reached such insane proportions that what goes up must come down. Parts of that could be good, but there are a lot of people in dance music who could be harmed by any shrinkage, and whatever you think of EDM and its associated companies, the people who work in dance music are for the most part really good people who just want to make a living doing what they love. So any sense of this universe imploding comes with mixed emotions.
Reading your “manifesto–”
[interjects]–It’s so strange that it’s called that. It was something I said to someone in an interview. It’s not something that I sat down and wrote, but that section has been taken out and copied hundreds of times–it was on tumblr for a while and one time in England, someone was holding it up on a sign! And someone is even making a print of it! It’s a very surreal experience to have something you said in conversation take on a life of its own.
Well it was very poetic and put together a lot of ideas that people had been thinking about and talking about in a very concise and eloquent format! In reading those words, one gets the sense that for you, dance music is political, and more than that, SHOULD be political. Has this always been your approach to DJing and producing and booking, or did it evolve sometime later in your career?
I have always been a political person. I had an ACT UP t-shirt when I was 10 years old. My whole family is very political and deeply involved in progressive causes. I think there was a time when I didn’t totally understand that those worlds [politics and music] lived together so intimately for me; I was just trying to make music. I was always thinking about politics, but so much of the beginning of my career was trying to figure out how to make two records go together. When I started actually doing the things I wanted to do, I recognized that a lot of the things I cared about politically were just as real in dance music as they were anywhere else. Even the temporary illusion of a kind of utopian dance community is really a mark of how privileged I was, because of course, dance music isn’t that utopia. As I got older and did more work and had less of a teenaged rose-tinted view of the world, I started to view even those really ecstatic experiences you have in dance music in a different way; I still feel all of the joy and happiness and temporary bliss and relief from the world that I’ve always felt in dance music, but as I got older, I tried to be a little more sensitive to the things that were going on for other people in dance music. I definitely became much more activated as I entered the dance music workforce. There were some real specific issues that I faced as a woman, and when I started working at Smart Bar I grew to know many other women that were working in the dance music universe experiencing similar things. Working more in my field made me much more aware of the issues that other kinds of people face, people who don’t look like me or maybe come from different experiences from me. And that gets framed as political. If you really believe in all that stuff about dance music, about it being a better place that can lift you higher and relieve day-to-day pain, or even if you want to believe that, then you should care about people’s lives. I wouldn’t even say that it’s so much political as it is the baseline amount of decency that any human being should have. And that you should, as a human being in dance music, care what it’s like for women and gay people and queer people and trans people and black people and disabled people. A baseline level of human decency should include those kinds of thought experiments. That gets posed as political, and on some level it is, but to me its just about decency.
So recognizing your own privilege, and recognizing where and when to check it and recognizing relative privilege and oppression in yourself and other people in your life has ended up being “political.”
It’s insane to me that that’s a political idea. Of course, there are so many things that people are struggling with, and being able to see yourself relative to that and being able to help. The fact that we live in a world that that’s a political idea is so insane to me, but I just want to be better at it and I want things to be better for everybody.
I think lots of positive things that have come from your views—like the widespread use of those words that you said in an interview, which is, as I said, clearly something that people needed and wanted to hear. But what about the flip side of that? Are you ever at the receiving end of “call out culture?” If so, how have you responded to criticisms?
Oh, absolutely! If you haven’t, from a friend or a person that you trust, then get new friends. I have been so wrong so much and learned by being told I’m wrong by another person that cares. I have a friend named Lisa (DJ Shiva), who is a really great queer woman and activist and also one of the best techno DJs in the world, and having her brain disagree with mine is so important. “Call out culture”–I would just call it critical thinking. I think if any person in this world, especially a white person anywhere, is not prepared to be wrong a lot, then they’re not listening to people. Being unwilling to hear that kind of critical thinking from peers is probably one of the biggest things we have to overcome. We all have someone who’s different from us that, who has a different point of view; if you’re an able-bodied person there are disabled people who know more about their experience than you do and you might get it wrong when you’re thinking or talking about topics that relate to them. I want to listen to people and hear what their lives are like rather than needing to be the arbiter of [their experience].
See The Black Madonna, Thursday, September 24th at the Bottom Forty showcase with Daniel Avery and Nark.
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