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New York’s Underground Resistance 9
All clothes CK ONE Jeans, accessories talent’s ownPhotography Sam Nixon, Styling Marcus Cuffie

New York’s nightlife resistance

New York’s Underground Resistance 9

With each generation of New York selectors come new threats to the city’s dance scene – here’s how some of its most innovative DJs rave, rest, and resist amid the pandemic

Taken from the spring/summer 2020 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

We’re living through unprecedented times – the current, very unusual alteration to the way we live life right now calls for solidarity, togetherness, and communication. So on Dazed, we’ve created the #AloneTogether community. Across the days, weeks, or months of the coronavirus pandemic and concurrent isolation measures, we’re connecting with our audience to offer URL experiences, art, and advice made with you and talent from across music, fashion, art, tech, and politics. We may be alone, but we are together.

In Dazed’s spring/summer issue, we spotlighted some of New York’s most exciting DJ talents, who shared how, via grassroots nights and community-based radio platforms, the city’s underground nightlife was resisting being ousted by rapid gentrification. Since then, of course, an all-new, totally unprecedented threat has replaced it. From livestreaming sets to raise funds for the independent spaces they care about, to taking time to complete the musical projects they never finished, we caught up with the four musicians to find out what being a New York DJ looks like when you have no clubs to play at. (CMH)

DONIS

Donis is probably the youngest DJ in the room, but he doesn’t act that way. He answers questions with questions of his own, and he listens closely – he’s much more interested in hearing other people’s stories than telling his own.

A native of the Bushwick neighbourhood in Brooklyn, Donis always sought out music from the fringes. That led him to the Bronx music collective Uptown Vinyl Supreme, a famous roving block party dedicated to vinyl and community. Inspired, he started putting together his own mixes and became one of the first residents at Half Moon, a rising grassroots radio platform for dance music that emphasises diversity and discovery.

“Half Moon definitely changed my life,” says Donis. “Before that, I wasn’t connected to other kids my age who were into different shit – specifically dance music like house (and) techno. It connected me more to the black youth.”

For Donis, the most important part of growing up on the club scene was finding inspiration – he goes out to shows as much as possible, especially at the Brooklyn clubs Bossa Nova and Mood Ring, two venues which have become the centre of NYC’s club-music vanguard. In a charged political climate, the club scene is taking that energy and building something new and fulfilling. “A couple years ago, a lot of people were saying New York was dead,” he says. “But I think everything that’s going on politically is inspiring the nightlife. It’s definitely pushing it.” (CG)

Have you been creating and making music during the pandemic? How have you found the creative process in recent weeks?

Donis: Yes, I’ve been working on music during the pandemic. Given all the time we have, I’ve been trying not to feel guilty whenever I’m not working on music. With all this new time on my hands I’ve been really searching within to find exactly what it is I’m trying to express musically, but also trying to have fun with it, learning new things, and putting them to practice.

The nightlife economy, artists, and individual venues have been immediately and dramatically impacted in NY as in other cities – what do you think needs to be done to safeguard the future of nightlife in the city?

Donis: To secure the future of nightlife in NY, the city needs (to) help the venues survive. Without the venues, there is no nightlife. Whether it’s suspending rent or providing some kind of pandemic insurance, something needs to be done to ensure that these venues will still be around when this is over. The city depends on small and independent businesses after all. 

Have you been involved in any remote DJ sets?

Donis: Yes, I’ve played a couple of virtual events like Club Quarantine and Cloud 9 by Bufu. I’m infinitely grateful to be asked to play for these events, it’s cool to still be doing my thing to a certain extent but I desperately miss the feeling of a subwoofer sending vibrations through my body while dancing with mad other people. 

What’s something you miss the most about your NY life that being in lockdown has made you appreciate way more?

Donis: I mostly miss my friends, eating out with them, dancing with them, laughing with them. 

What’s a local charity or initiative that's responding to the crisis you think people should support?

Donis: Discakes NYC and p0stb1nary are raising funds to support their communities. Here’s a link to p0stb1nary’s Mutual Aid Directory in (an) effort to support independent artists. Discakes is raising funds to help undocumented and non-residential immigrants in NYC, if you’d like to donate, their paypal is Discakesnyc@gmail.com.

TYGAPAW

A New York resident for almost two decades, Jamaica-born Dion McKenzie has had a bird’s-eye view of the city’s rapidly shifting club scene. Some moments on her timeline have been harrowing – “I feel like I’ve lived five lifetimes in this period,” the DJ and producer admits – but she is optimistic about the future for New York, and its boiling creative scene. “Every time I feel like I’m getting to the point of being ready to leave, it pulls me right back in.”

A few years ago, McKenzie could only have dreamed of playing glossy club spaces like Glasslands. Eventually, though, her music – wrenching techno shredders and widescreen cyber soundscapes – found a devoted following online, as well as collaborations with the likes of Precious Okoyomon. Aside from making her own music, McKenzie has founded collective-turned-record label Fake Accent, puts on the city’s influential dancehall club night No Badmind, and (has) curated for Queens alternative music venue Trans-Pecos.

As interest in the NYC underground overflows, artists like McKenzie find themselves in positions of power in a chaotic industry. “I feel like there are challenges for major labels,” she says. “But for the underground it’s like, ‘What a time to be alive!’” (CG)

Have you been creating and making music during the pandemic?

Tygapaw: I’ve been revisiting other creative interests that I’ve been wanting to do for some time now, (like) sketching. It’s been years since I’ve put pencil to paper, but I’m happy I haven’t lost my ability to draw. I’ve always had a desire to paint and have been feeling the urge to no longer wait for the right time, because the pandemic is revealing in a very aggressive way that there is no better time than the present. So I’m using this time of isolation to explore the things I’ve been putting off for the “right” time. I’ve also been working on music as well, and have been focusing on my first full length album which will be released with NAAFI later this year, but there will be a few releases in between with my label Fake Accent. 

What do you think needs to be done to safeguard the future of nightlife in the city?

Tygapaw: Honestly I don’t have the answers, but I do feel that there needs to be significant change. The pandemic has exposed everything on a wider scale, but locally a lot of smaller DIY venues have closed their doors due to an inability to afford the rising rent, as a result of rapid gentrification that has swept over Brooklyn. DIY venues have been the incubator for music culture in New York for decades and are important spaces for nurturing up and coming musicians and DJs, who don’t get booked in bigger established music venues and clubs. It would be amazing to have more black-owned venues with a focus on supporting queer nightlife and the community. I’ve been thinking about owning a venue at some point in the future, but I am nowhere near financially being able to make that a reality. There just needs to be more support in the form of funds from the city, going towards venues that center community building and the conservation of DIY underground music culture.

Have you been involved in any remote DJ sets?

Tygapaw: I’ve been doing a few livestream DJ sets in Zoom functions for Masisi and Club Quarantine and other queer parties. I was slow to start, but have been asked to play quite a few this month. It’s been a lot of fun engaging with people outside of the physical club space and experiencing a different take on what the club experience can be. It’s beautiful to witness how we are able to connect and engage with each other during a time when everything is uncertain and a lot of people might not have adequate emotional support. The livestream parties are a much needed virtual space for the queer community to come together in support of each other.

What’s something you miss the most about your NY life that being in lockdown has made you appreciate way more?

Tygapaw: Going to museums. I think I took that for granted living here for over a decade. Also just the simple day to day things like, grocery shopping and doing laundry. I live a very solitary life to begin with, so it’s really the little things that count for me. But I have to admit, I really do miss seeing my friends and ki’ing with them over lunch and dinner. 

What’s an initiative that’s responding to the crisis you think people should support?

Tygapaw: During this very challenging time, when we’re forced into self isolation, it’s a privilege to have a home in which you are able to do so. It’s even more of a privilege to have a home where you are safe and supported. There’s a large number of LGBTQ+ youth who do not have that privilege and are a disproportionate number of the homeless population. The Ali Forney Center is an organization that’s tackling the homeless epidemic within the LGBTQ+ community in NYC. The center houses and protects homeless LGBTQ+ youth living on the streets of New York. What made a huge difference to me when thinking about an LGBTQ+ organisation to donate to is the response to the pandemic, and I was happy to learn that The Ali Forney Center has not closed their doors to the youth that are in need of their resources and facilities because that is their home.

YELLOWTECH

Warm and unassuming, Derrick Cheung moves with the purpose of a scene oracle. As Yellowtech, he makes pulsing house music that draws on futurist club sounds from across the world. “My place within the scene is connecting all these discordant communities which are really separated in the underground (here),” says Cheung, who also works as a party promoter and booker in New York through his agency U BREAK / U BUY.

Now a regular at some of the city’s most vital clubs as a DJ, Cheung initially struggled to find his audience. A connoisseur of niche genres like UK funky, garage, and grime, he spent his first few years in NYC playing empty rooms as he negotiated his voice – both musically and personally – within the community. Eventually, his openminded approach caught on with audiences, but the lessons he learned through those early years of struggle have helped Cheung see his art more clearly. “I tried to lead with music instead of leading with community, and that’s where I failed,” he says. “Nightlife is based on community. You’re going to go where your friends go. Knowing the importance of that changed how I view bookings, where I do parties and who I work with.”

This revelation inspired Cheung – whose parents immigrated to the US from China – to become more politically active, too. “I honestly care more now about my identity than ever,” he says. “It’s so important to me; there aren’t a lot of Chinese people in the scene doing what I do. I feel like it’s important for me to constantly put more stuff in front of other people that they wouldn’t normally see.” (CG)

Have you been creating and making music during the pandemic?

Yellowtech: The creative process is a pretty delicate thing right now. I am a firm believer in not rushing anything creative, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re finding it hard to feel motivated. Trust me, all deadlines being suddenly wiped away doesn’t help my productivity or creative process either!

One thing that helps me is setting goals and being held accountable for them from friends or roommates. I am working on music almost every day in preparation for a release in the next month or so... so creating new sounds but also going back to a lot of unfinished ideas and developing those a bit more. I have been feeling really isolated and sort of like, alone on this creative island, but collaborating with people and constantly showing my friends what I’m working on really helps. Don’t stop working on projects with people! 

What do you think needs to be done to safeguard the future of nightlife in the city?

Yellowtech: It’s tough to predict what is going to happen to nightlife in NYC, but I know it’s not going to be any close to normal. I don’t realistically see clubs being fully re-opened til later in 2021. Shit, it might even take a few years for the NY scene to fully recover. I don’t see international touring starting up this year either. I hope I’m wrong but that’s my feeling. So if that’s true, I think DJs and artists have to work together towards rebuilding our scene. Almost like our own Renaissance era. We’re all going to have to drop egos and step up to do more for our communities. It will not pick up where it left off, for obvious reasons, so we have to work that much harder to accelerate its reconstruction. 

Have you been involved in any remote DJ sets?

Yellowtech: Yeah I’ve been really into the whole online thing, actually. I’ve always been a big fan of digital content and blurring the lines between online and IRL so it’s pretty exciting to see DJs do their thing in different creative ways and trying out different platforms. It’s been really fun building my OBS scenes and engaging with people in different ways outside of just a straight-up DJ set.

What’s something you miss the most about your NY life that being in lockdown has made you appreciate way more?

Yellowtech: Oh man, so much. I think the biggest one is my friends, obviously. I’ve still been keeping up with them through calls but it’s not the same. The second is being able to do anything you want, whenever you want. And the energy – oh man. This time of year, the energy is so ripe you can literally reach in front of you and grab it. Ah, (it) feels like such a thing of the past. 

What’s an initiative that’s responding to the crisis you think people should support?

Yellowtech: Lunchbox NYC is an organisation donating plant based meals for hungry New Yorkers. They are hosting weekly parties on Zoom to raise funds. And Food issues group – community food relief for frontline workers and neighborhoods servicing LGBTQ+ youths, immigrant food workers, domestic workers, people experiencing housing insecurity, and unemployed food workers in our immediate communities. They are also hosting online parties to raise money!

TRNSGNDR/VHS

Alexandra Brandon, who performs as TRNSGNDR/VHS, sees the contemporary underground American movement in two distinct time periods: pre- and post- Ghost Ship, referring to the former Oakland warehouse venue that burned down in 2016, killing 36.

In New York, many popular, not-exactly-legal DIY venues have shuttered. But to fill the surging demand for house and electronic music in NYC, more corporate spaces have sprouted up, and it’s come at a cost to both the audiences who show up and the artists performing in them. “I feel like a part of my practice, when I perform live, is the idea of how you create democracy in a music venue,” says Brandon, whose polemic and in-your-face industrial club music taps into everything from climate crisis dread to identity politics. “How do you challenge audience members as consumers to realise they actually do have an impact on the spaces they are in?”

“New York is clout city,” the Baltimore native continues of her adopted home. “I have no shame in admitting that sometimes I go to (nights) just to meet people and that’s totally fine. I think that’s part of why a lot of people move here – because they want to build new bridges.” (CG)

Have you been creating and making music during the pandemic?

TRNSGNDR/VHS: Being in a pandemic hasn’t helped me make music at all. I actually have time to make music but half the time I’m disassociated.

What do you think needs to be done to safeguard the future of nightlife in the city?

TRNSGNDR/VHS: A lot of things that can be applied to much of culture and the economy. Considering NYC is a global financial center, it’s incredibly backwards that the city doesn’t provide universal basic income in addition to existing welfare for everyone who lives in the city. Doing so would help artists and small businesses and, above all, everyone tremendously. At this point, most corporations that advertise through art events (such as Red Bull) haven’t provided much assistance to the freelance artists they use to sell their products, so off that I feel like coming out of the crisis, the economy of the arts needs to move to sustainable public funding over advertising. 

The US needs increased public funding for art, and artists. I also feel like music venues should transition to co-operative or worker ownership, and commercial real estate in NYC needs rent control.

Have you been involved in any remote DJ sets?

TRNSGNDR/VHS: I’ve tried to ignore everything that’s happened in music since NY closed down. I don’t even look at social media anymore... however, I’m booked for a couple livestreams and I’m actually really excited about it! 

What’s something you miss the most about your NY life that being in lockdown has made you appreciate way more?

TRNSGNDR/VHS: I really miss being able to travel outside of NY.

What’s an initiative that’s responding to the crisis you think people should support?

TRNSGNDR/VHS: They should donate to COVID Bail Out NYC, which provides bail for medically vulnerable people in NYC jails, (as well as) support after release.

Tygapaw will be performing a live set as part of #AloneTogether this Thursday May 7 at 8pm BST, raising money for The Ali Forney Center – tune in on the Dazed Instagram then

Hair Blake Erik at Forward Artists, make-up Ingeborg using M.A.C, nails Leanne Woodley using JINsoon, set design Rosie Turnbull, photography assistants Olivier Simille, Sydney Pensky, set design assistants Joonie Jang, Adam Kenner