Chelsea Faith Dolan was one of the 36 victims of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire – we look at her life and the instrumental role she played in helping an underground community thrive
Last month, a fire broke out on the second floor of Ghost Ship, an artist space and residence in Oakland, California. At the time of the fire, the venue was hosting a party featuring artists from LA-based record label 100% Silk, with their artists Russell E.L. Butler, Nackt, and Cherushii all performing on the lineup. The latter two artists both lost their lives in the fire, along with 34 others, some of them musicians and some from the city’s trans community. As news of the fire first started to come in, two phrases, “death trap” and “illegal rave”, were regularly appearing in reports, while more recently, the LA Times ran an in-depth story about LA’s underground music and party scene in which they describe venues like Ghost Ship as “a disaster waiting to happen”. In that article, the Times insensitively uses Cherushii’s death as a link to discuss the wider issue of unlicensed warehouse spaces – but not once does it ask who she was, why she was there, or why her life mattered to the community.
Chelsea Faith Dolan was one of many producers to have released music on the prolific 100% Silk label. As Cherushii, Dolan crafted a deep, nocturnal, melancholic take on house music that sends goosebumps down your arms. It’s emotional rather than purely functional, the sort of music that reaches into the back of your mind to bring distant thoughts back into focus. Her journey didn’t begin with 100% Silk: growing up in the Bay Area, she was first acquainted with classical music but started going to raves in high school and meeting people involved in the local underground music scene who’d influence her as a producer later on.
The scene in the early 2000s was low budget and DIY, but it was colourful – both behind the decks and in the audience. It’s something she clearly picked up on. Playfulness has always been encouraged in San Francisco’s rave scene, and from hot pink wrap dresses to huge neon hoop earrings to blonde, blue, and pink dyed hair, Chelsea Faith Dolan stood out and shone. “She was just a very unique individual, with the quirkiest sense of fashion,” says her friend and collaborator, music producer and DJ Maria Minerva. Dolan’s eclectic fashion taste was something she had to somewhat leave behind when she moved to Europe to live in Berlin in 2008 and 2009 – the city’s clubs, with their famously restrictive door policies, preferred a more stripped back and minimal style. Dolan wasn’t phased by perceptions of cool, telling Dummy that she “danced in ways that would get you laughed out of a hip techno party these days.”
Like a lot of DJs and producers, Dolan’s time in Berlin was spent partying while simultaneously learning about the music she was partying to. While she’s well known for producing house, Cherushii also got hugely into techno while in Berlin; she also discovered the 1980s Eurodance genre Italo disco – a style she’d never explored before moving to Germany but whose influence worked its way into her music and DJ sets. She later displayed her newfound knowledge publicly through a series of shows called Midnight Express, broadcast on the university-run KALX radio station in Berkeley, California. Each show focused on a different style of music, from Detroit house to Italo disco to acid to UK breakbeat. “Chelsea was so knowledgable,” says Maria Minerva, “like a music encyclopaedia.”
While living in Germany, Dolan had tried sending her demos to the country’s most prestigious techno labels to little response, a process she described particularly depressing, as the silence would often knock her confidence. In the US, though, it was a case of being asked, rather than having to send anything in, and her earliest releases ended up appearing on the Portland-based record labels Subsensory and Nudephotomusic. Having made peace with the fact that sending demos wasn’t the way to get her music heard, she’d started directing her tracks towards friends for feedback instead, which ended with her releasing with 100% Silk. Her first release for the label was 2013’s Queen of Cups EP, whose eerily beautiful title track – with its ghostly pads, bubbling acid bassline, and echoing piano – became one of her most beloved cuts. To get the TB-303-esque bassline sound, she used an x0xb0x, a clone of the iconic synthesiser that her friends came together to buy her one birthday.
100% Silk became a mainstay for Cherushii, and she ended up releasing her first – and what would sadly be final – album through the label. Amongst other things, Memory of Water housed a collaboration with Maria Minerva called “Thin Line”, where Minerva’s silky vocal glides over Cherushii’s loon sample-heavy production to form one of the late musician’s most touching songs. It was the first time they’d publicly released a track together, though the two had been friends since 2013 when they met in 2013 on a 100% Silk tour. “I was nervous to go on the road through the US with someone I’d never met before,” says Minerva, “It could have easily been hellish. But the second I met Chelsea, I realised I’d met one of ‘my people’. (It was) a beautiful, rare moment to experience in your adult life.”
Earlier this year, The Chicago Reader published a cover story about electronic music festival Daphne. Behind big block letters reading “the unsung women of electronic music”, Cherushii stands in a cloud of billowing pink smoke, illuminated by a turquoise t-shirt and bright orange jacket. She was undoubtedly an unsung woman of electronic music: she made music with depth and sheen, projected positivity, yet never received acclaim in life. As San Francisco-based DJ Myles tweeted after the Ghost Ship fire, “I don’t cry very often. Cherushii is missing. She has already been given raw deal from the sexist music industry. It can’t end like this.” A common feeling amongst those who knew Dolan was that her music was unfairly overlooked, and that it’s tragically only being celebrated now that she’s no longer here.
“There is some solace in that at least she is no longer under the radar, and so many more can hear for themselves what a badass producer she was,” stresses Jenifa Mayanja, a house producer and co-owner of Sound Warrior, a label and collective focused on supporting female electronic musicians. “Cherushii was a sister in musical arms to me. Sound Warrior was started for women as dope as Cherushii to have a platform.” Mayanja stresses that Dolan was a very giving person, particularly when it came to collaborating with and support other women. Minerva, too, highlights that she as “a longtime ally” of the San Francisco LGBTQ+ community, she’d often donate her music to the cause. Sound Warrior will continue to posthumously support Dolan’s music, with Cherushii’s music featuring on their fifth compilation, raising funds towards her family.
Chelsea Faith Dolan’s story will be familiar to anybody involved in underground art: women who work tirelessly to achieve their artistic vision despite setbacks and barriers. Losing her is a reminder that local scenes thrive because of people like Cherushii. The tragedy has been a wake up call that both spaces and people are temporary, and they should be cherished while they can be. Though it’s easy for mainstream press outlets to focus on the potential dangers of unlicensed spaces, the serious problems will never disappear if they refusal to understand why artists and marginalised people gravitate towards them in the first place. While in one moment everything can disappear, all of the moments that Cherushii and other clubbers and artists have shared in these locations are invaluable. For many, these spaces are home.