DJ Nick Monaco on Honoring the Queer, Trans Roots of Dance Music
San Francisco DJ Nick Monaco might be a rising young star in the electronic dance music scene, but he's never lost sight of his roots.
In a chat with The Advocate, the androgynous, pansexual deep house artist was humble about the success he's had straight out of college, saying that signing with much buzzed-about label Wolf+Lamb/Soul Clap Crew Love was a bit of luck and good timing (but we think it had something to do, too, with his prolific output and dedication to craft).
Yet his gratitude goes deeper, to the very beginnings of house music as a 1970s underground response to the increasing commercialization of disco. "The [LGBT] community nurtured modern dance music into existence," he explains in a statement on his website. "As dance music continues to proliferate and be adopted by dominant pop culture, I think it's important to remind ourselves about the origins of the sound. ... I sense in my generation a historical amnesia and lack of consciousness when it comes to [this]."
Early "loft" dance parties were, according to Monaco, "effectually pressure-valves that allowed those marginalized by the dominant heteronormative culture to release their anxieties and engage in rhythmic therapy. The club was a space for those in that community to exist freely and openly."
Monaco says he owes a debt to this history, which has allowed him, in some sense, to become more open about his androgyny and publicly embrace his femininity by wearing lipstick. Now a regular part of his gender expression, he says lipstick has opened his eyes further to how "rigid gender constructs" and "hypermasculinity" are infiltrating formerly free, open dance spaces. So he's started speaking to audiences about the queer roots of electronic dance music, as well as devising more concrete ways to "pay homage" to that history.
His most recent effort focuses, in particular, on trans people — a group he says should be honored for their contribution to dance music but are often left out of the conversation. He's started his own line of lipstick called Freak Flag — a wink to the proud nonconformist slogan "Let your freak flag fly!" — that will donate all profits to the Jim Collins Foundation, which helps trans individuals fund their gender-confirming surgeries. The Advocate spoke with Monaco in the midst of a busy tour schedule to learn more.
The Advocate: You're touring now with your new album, Mating Call. Can you tell us a bit about your live shows?
Nick Monaco: When I perform, I'm doing a lot. I'm programming my own music as I'm playing. It's dancey, very upbeat, but there's also a softness to it. I try to embody androgyny in my music by singing in a falsetto, then switching to a lower voice. Some vogueing happens; I like to vogue! [Laughs] I'm still figuring out the live shows, since I'm mostly a DJ.
How does androgyny play a role?
[My own androgyny] gets into my Freak Flag ideology: challenging gender binaries and gender roles. I've always felt more feminine growing up, [in] my feelings and my tastes. I grew up in a small town. That was met with a lot of resistance and hypermasculinity. Now I've really embodied [my femininity] and accepted it.
Your online persona seems to walk a line between you identifying with the LGBT community and identifying as an ally.
I've been struggling with that myself. I'd say I'm more of an ally, [yet] I identify as pansexual. I'd like to feel like I'm a part of the LGBT community because I've always been really connected to it, supported it, and identified with a lot of [the community's] values — even though I haven't had a lot of similar experience to other people in the LGBT community....
Gender and sexuality are so politicized, you know? I really haven't stopped to think of myself so much as trying to understand other people's experiences and be an advocate for them. I have my own ideas about my own sexuality, my pansexuality; I don't really think about gender or sex when it comes to dating someone.
Wearing lipstick is a part of your gender expression. You've told me that one day you just decided to start wearing it and… well, you tell me the story.
I pulled out some lipstick, and I just randomly decided to put it on. It was a playful, funny thing, and I started wearing it at after-parties here and there. And I started to notice the reactions I was getting from people. Women being like, "You shouldn't wear that. You're a straight man. You shouldn't be wearing lipstick." And the guys being the typical, hypermasculine idea of what men should be, saying "You're gay" and calling me slurs. This wasn't everyone, just some people.
That's when it hit me: what — we're all at a nightclub right now listening to house music and disco. This music was founded by the LGBT community. So why should I be feeling so challenged about wearing lipstick in a space that was created by people that had boundaryless notions about gender and sexuality?
The idea was never a "fuck you" as much as an "I want to educate people that aren't familiar with the origins of dance music." When you enter a community like [ours], I think there's some sort of responsibility to know the history and be respectful of it. Especially if the club space was nurtured and designed for people that felt unsafe in predominantly hetero spaces. I felt a need to protect that space and honor the tradition of house and disco.
But I didn't want to do it like a "fuck you." That's how we feel, though, right? "Fuck you, you ignorant idiot." That's the gut feeling. But if you can get a guy like that to wear lipstick, say, "I'm a dude wearing lipstick. Check it out, it's cool. It's fun," and he tries it on … Maybe he laughs, but it changes his ideas about gender or sexuality for that moment. And at the same time I'm talking about the lipstick, I'm usually telling people about the origins of house music, and how it was a queer space.
So you're definitely finding that the lipstick is the conversation-starter that you want it to be?
Yes. Yes! I made a song called "Freak Flag," which is what [my lipstick line] is named after, and sometimes around that song I'll announce the lipstick and say a few things. I want it to be a statement, but never too preachy. I want the idea to just sit there, since I've never found the [preachy] approach, that kind of rhetoric, to work with people — attacking or making them feel excluded because they don't know the history of the culture. I think this is a good medium to connect people with the history and challenge their notions of gender.
It's interesting; I'm still seeing how it's working. ... People will be like, "Wow, I didn't know that! That's crazy." Especially people of my generation. I'm 24, so I'm part of a new generation. All of the older cats, though, are like, "Yeah, those are the roots." Then you got the younger people; I get messages from them sometimes saying like, "Thank you for telling me about the history. I didn't know [house] started with the LGBT community." People get inspired.
You've also said elsewhere that you stand in opposition to the increasing homogenization of house music as it's become more popular and commercialized.
Yes, just by the nature of the music that I [and my group Crew Love] play. We use musicality — instruments, keys, and vocals — to restore some soul into dance music. ... [Popular dance music] doesn't feel very conscious, and isn't it in the interests of good music. To me it feels hypermasculine: punching you in the head with these beats. It doesn't pay homage to the traditions of house and dance music. But you can't stop this train that's happening. Maybe to them, they're the new age punk rockers, making loud, brash music.
So I try to play music that I think respects the tradition and comes from a good place. Because music is very transparent; you can hear when it's coming from a place that's driven by capitalism and popularity. It doesn't feel as good. It's not as warm.
So if dance music's homogeneity also looks, in part, like hyper-masculinity, would you say that the femininity you bring is part of your opposition?
Yes, totally. I sense a preoccupation by the "bro" culture at dance music festivals and clubs. Since [house] music has kind of bled into pop culture, it's become accessible to "bros," which is why I've been pushing back a bit and trying to educate. [I] don't want that space to get overrun and become an unsafe space for other folks.
How did you come up with the idea for Freak Flag lipstick?
So after I started wearing lipstick onstage and at after-parties, I was in London in April. One of the assistants from my agency in Europe was undergoing a gender transformation, and I was talking to her about her experiences, and it all kind of "clicked." I'd been thinking about the history of dance music, reading more feminist literature, trans literature, talking to her about her struggles, and wearing the lipstick. It all coalesced in that moment like, "All right, I want to support the [trans] community who gave birth to this thing that's so popular now — this club culture, this dance music — that puts food on my table, is my career, and gives joy to so many people." I sense this lack of openness and awareness of LGBT community within my particular brand of dance culture.
But you have this emphasis, at least in the proceeds of Freak Flag lipstick, on benefiting the trans community.
My emphasis on trans folks is a tribute to the origins of dance music. ... Plus, the gay and lesbian community gets more press and public discourse. The trans community is still so marginalized, "othered" so much. Which is why, I think, the club space was so important for trans folks back in the days, because they could go and feel safe in that space. I emphasize trans folks because I want them to be more a part of public conversations. ...
Right now, it's a grassroots idea. I sell the lipstick online and at parties. But in the future, if a bigger brand wanted to collaborate and push this message further, I'd be interested in that. ... We're selling a lot on the website and at parties. We're getting everyone to wear it at parties. It's funny how it spreads. I'll start wearing the lipstick and someone else will put it on, then someone else will put it on, then a guy will put it on, then another girl will put it on ... It's pretty cool to see.
How did you decide to donate all profits to the Jim Collins Foundation?
I think it's the most direct way to help trans individuals. I think it's impactful to help people on an individual level and to give a face and story, like Jim Collins does, to the trans experience. Because if you go to their site, it's pretty cool. People submit their "plea" to the foundation, saying why they need money [for gender-affirming surgeries]. People have all sorts of ideas about what trans folks look like, but you go onto that site and see, for instance, "Oh, I was an Iraq war veteran and [I need funding] because I came back broke." You get real, personal accounts. I wanted those stories to be heard.