He’s the first to admit that without the dancers, he’d be nothing, but make no mistake: MikeQ is the crown prince of modern ballroom.
His spine-snapping DJ sets are seriously in demand at the moment, not just at the well-established vogue nights of his native New Jersey and up and down the USA’s East Coast, but beyond (London, Paris, Tokyo), and his exploits have been earning column inches in Vanity Fair as well as FACT. His achievement of recognition beyond his home turf no doubt has something to do with the a renewed appreciation of the original 1970s and 80s New York ballroom phenomenon, which has been prompted in part by the release of Chantal Regnault’s astonishing photo book Voguing: Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 89-92 and accompanying compilation on Soul Jazz.
The 90s house ballroom scene took the old notion of “throwing shade” – one queen giving attitude to another – to a whole new level. The self-styled “ball children”, primarily gay or transgendered black men escaping hard-knock lives, battled each other on the dancefloor for the glory of their house (in the spirit of a model representing a fashion house on the catwalk). The AIDS crisis damaged the scene irrevocably, just as it was hitting its peacock stride, although voguing did seep into popular culture via Madonna, whose ‘Vogue’ video featured authentic stars from the House of Xtravaganza.
You can’t kill a good idea, however, and over the last two decades, ballroom has prospered and evolved in the very metier it first came from: the LGBT underground of the USA. MikeQ, resident at ballroom club Vogue Nights – a place for “vogue performers, runway divas, realness bois and face gods & goddesses” to come together – has become the new-school scene’s most celebrated selecter, one who crucially retains the spirit of 90s ballroom but adds a razor-sharp modern edge. Download this mix for a bracing introduction to his style.
Core scene classics like Masters At Work‘s ‘The Ha Dance’, Junior Vasquez‘s ‘X’ and Kevin Aviance‘s ‘Cunty’ are sampled and updated, saucy pop/R&B acapellas are worked into the mix, and the beats hit unwaveringly hard – variously recalling the splacking intensity of Dance Mania at its most ghetto, the ligament-straining imperatives of footwork and the quasi-tribal syncopations of UK Funky. It’s no surprise that MikeQ has long been championed by the Night Slugs crew, and has released an EP on Kingdom’s Fade To Mind label.
Ballroom, it’s clear to see, is having a moment – even one of the biggest UK dance 12″s of the year, Joy Orbison and Boddika‘s ‘Swims’ is effectively a re-edit of a US ballroom anthem, namely Tronco Traxx’s ‘Walk For Me’ (1998). FACT’s Steve Shaw caught up with MikeQ to talk about the contemporary scene and his involvement in it, how he sees it future, and the ongoing pursuit of “that c*nt feeling”.
Photo: Christelle De Castro
“All I need is a bangin’ sound system and an active crowd.”
How and when did you become involved in the ballroom community?
“I was exposed to the ballroom scene in October of 2003, after visiting a local LGBT party that at the time only played one, maybe two ballroom tracks. I didn’t really become involved until later, maybe 2004, after I started putting out music and joined my first ballroom house, LaBeija.”
How are the balls in New Jersey compared to New York?
“The balls in NJ are pretty much the same as in NY – the ballroom scene, as spread out as it is, is mainly one large community. Everybody mostly knows one another state to state as well, as most people do travel for balls throughout the US. Ballroom houses have different chapters for each state, all headed by the same people.”
“I can’t quite explain what it is…it’s just that c*nt feeling.”
Who have been your main influences within the scene?
“My main influences are the dancers – firstly, because it’s just amazing to see someone go off and just catching the beat, and also because when I’m creating something, although I can’t vogue or even dance at all myself, I’m picturing if someone will be able to perform to the track I’m doing. Just because a track has that signature sound, doesn’t mean it can and will be used in the scene.”
How about musically? There’s a lot of mid-90s NY house influence that can be heard through samples and how your tracks are produced, but you have a more distinctly electronic sound…
“It’s just the music itself, it’s so different and I can’t quite explain what it is, but Ballroom has this sound and it’s like that 90s house sound, it’s just that cunt feeling. I’m also greatly influenced by my favourite producer and good friend Vjuan Allure – one of his remixes of ‘The Ha’ was the first thing that caught me…if it had been a different track playing, I might not be here today.
“So it’s that, as well as from growing up in NJ where house music is still such a great thing. I grew up in my later years hearing that stuff as well as what DJ Tameil and Brick Bandits was putting out at the time. You’re not going to be a teenager in the Newark, NJ area and not be exposed to and love club music. It’s a Jersey thing. [laughs]”
“You’re not going to be a teenager in the Newark, NJ area and not be exposed to and love club music. It’s a Jersey thing.”
You’ve been playing internationally as your name has grown. Are there any shows that stand out for you?
“Every show I do stands out. All this means so much to me because it was never my intention to be a producer, let alone a DJ. Before 2004 I just didn’t know what that was, and for all this to be happening now – it’s so amazing, you have people that’s been doing this over 10 years and still have not been to the places I’ve been inside and out of the US…so I’m blessed to have it all and they all mean a great deal to me. For me to really enjoy myself, all I need is a bangin’ sound system and an active crowd.”
How do you imagine the vogue scene will develop in the future, through its music and balls?
“Well, from when I came in to where it is now, it has changed and got out there a lot: the dance first, but now the music too. I can’t really say where it would go but I imagine just for it to be something that’s out there and known about. All this is still majorly underground, which actually might be a good thing, so even if it didn’t go any further…I’m fine with everything that has happened to date.”
Do you ever find yourself having to clarify the context of the use ‘Balls’ to avoid some really awkward conversations? After asking these questions I can imagine that might be the case.
“Actually no, I don’t. I would expect that to be the case as well but I really don’t.” [laughs]