Hey, Mr. DJ
Girlfriends and reality shows are to thank for the fame, or infamy, of DJs like Samantha Ronson, Tracy Young, and Jersey Shore's Pauly D. But for the past 20-odd years, Chicago-based Derrick Carter has quietly amassed a fan base for simply being a talent behind the turntables; a house DJ who actually knows music and doesn’t resort to Abba remixes to get people moving. In between globetrotting sets through Europe and North America, Carter put together 17 tracks for fabric 56: Derrick Carter, the latest compilation album of DJ-mixed tracks commissioned by the London nightclub Fabric. Carter, wry sense of humor on blast, talked to The Advocate about the health hazards of DJ work, why gay audiences often don’t get him, and how he was born out of the closet.
The Advocate: Tell me about fabric 56 and how you got involved.
Derrick Carter: They asked me. [Laughs]
Did you have a relationship with them before?
DJ Sneak was supposed to play at Fabric and he got stuck in Amsterdam and couldn’t make it. I just happened to come into town a day later and got pressed into service, and that kind of began the reawakening of joy between the people behind Fabric and myself. I told my manager, “Get them to let me do one of those mixes.” And he did and they did and we did and it’s done.
Do you pick all the tracks?
I get a release slot and I fill it — what I have to do is put together a track listing of God knows how many tracks it takes, and they try to license as many of them as they can. Of the ones that they license, I attempt to put together 70-somewhat minutes of mixed music.
What kind of places do you typically DJ at? What are the crowds like?
I spin at all kinds of places. I do a lot of European things; I do some stuff in Chicago here. A lot of crazy mixed crowds.
Gay, straight, black, white, purple, green. I don’t play at a lot of strictly gay places because the gay places I used to go to don’t exist anymore. The places where I was brought up on music were definitely more interesting and less homogeneous. Now, a lot of gay audiences want to hear pop remixes. That’s fine, if they want to hear that but that’s not what I do. So, it’s hard for me to play places where I think my job could be done better by jukebox. I’m not someone who really enjoys playing four or five Rihanna records into four or five Lady Gaga records into four or five Kylie Minogue records into four or five Scissor Sisters records. And it’s not to say that I don’t like those records either, but for me there is a line I draw.
When did you come out?
[Laughs] Does anyone ever really come out? For a lot of people it’s a gradual evolution, rather than one day you had too much and couldn’t take it and, “God damn it, I’m gay!” I just was out — I told my parents and they were like, “Fine, your key will still work, we still love you, we knew that already, nothing’s changed.” After that, like whatever, the world can kiss my ass — my mama loved me.
So what kind of clubs did you go to as a teenager?
I was going
to all kinds of clubs, underground clubs, parties, a lot of lost
parties, and juice bars. Chicago used to be a Wild West renegade society
of clubbing. If you had a club with alcohol you were regulated very
tightly. But if you had a club that didn’t have alcohol, you weren’t
regulated at all. They would serve fruit juice and people would do
drugs. Then they passed juice bar laws and all those clubs had to close
at 2 a.m., so they curtailed a bit of it. But there were still loft
parties — for a long time, that’s what informed my musicality. Just
hanging around with loads of different people. At the loft parties, it
was everybody — the drag queens would come by after the other clubs had
closed, there were the party children, the jocks.
Why did the club culture get so homogenized? Is that exclusive to Chicago?
That seems in most places. I don’t know, I’m not a social anthropologist, I’m a DJ. [Laughs]
But as a DJ, you do witness a lot of humanity.
I don’t actually have a lot of conversations with people and find out
what they’re thinking and why they’re here or their reasons for doing
anything, apart from seeing if I can make them dance and have a good
time. What I like to do is pick a couple of people and see if I can make
them go crazy. It’s a social experiment in a way, but it’s more of my
own making and my own casting. I don’t follow any certain protocol or do
anything according to rules. You’ll see a kid and you’ll think, “Oh,
she’s got a wiggle. Maybe I can make that get better.” A lot of times, I
spin at regular clubs and I’m trying to make the girls dance, so the
boys dance. Or get somebody moving so we get at least over that initial
hump of a dry empty dance floor where people are self-conscious. Once you
get the kindling and the fire’s lit, you can throw some logs on it so it
becomes a full-on rager.
In the circles you operate in, do you feel like an anomaly because of your orientation or skin color?
don’t feel anomalous in any way, shape, or form. Here’s the thing, my
identity isn’t wrapped up in my sexuality. My identity is wrapped up in
my totality. I’m a fully fleshed individual who has a lot of interests
and loads of different friends from all walks of life. My friends are
the same way, so I don’t only hang around only queens or only butch
dykes. My best friend is transgender, my other best friend is a white
guy from London, my other best friend is from Texas and he’s married to
an Asian lady. I hang out across the board because I like people who are
interesting and funny and that can be almost anyone. Usually, though,
I’d rather hang out with my dogs.
Who are you listening to these days?
having a real ’80s revolution. I did this party in London recently that
was a nightmare: I had to distill 30 years of musical influences down to
this eight-hour period — all these lofty ambitions and grand statements.
When it ended up being was just a party. [Laughs] But after I got the
synopsis of the party’s theme, I went through my whole music library and
tried to think about all the years I’ve been collecting and listening
to music and the things that have turned me on. What I found is that
from about ’82 to about ’88, a lot of that music built my vision. That
includes pop stuff like Talking Heads, King, Love and Pride, Spandau
Ballet, Culture Club, and underground stuff like John Robie and Arthur
Baker Productions. There’s this line from this Chris Rock comedy
special — the music you listen to when you first start getting laid is the
music you’re going to love forever. When I usually listen to music,
it’s for work and it’s, like, 110 decibels and ear splitting, so I when I
do it for pleasure I don’t want it be serious, I want it be fun.
How do you handle the volume situation? Do you wear earplugs?
should, everyone tells me I should. I know some people that had to bow out
because of tinnitus issues, but luckily I’m not there yet. I want to be one of those old men who has a horn stuck to his ear and
says, “What did you say, sonny?”