The Black Madonna (AKA Marea Vierge-Noire) has a bone to pick with the current state of dance music, particularly online digital distribution and the decline of analog audio formats like vinyl and tape. After all, she came up during the golden age of rave, before corporate "EDM" co-opted electronic dance music's original underground DIY subculture.
So these days, the Black Madonna leads by example, putting out limited-edition wax and presiding over Chicago's legendary Smart Bar as resident vinyl slinger and newly appointed creative director. Her DJ sets, of course, are a crate digger's bounty spanning the gamut from disco to techno, and all manner of rare vinyl gems.
Crossfade caught up with the Black Madonna ahead of her headlining appearance for this Saturday's Scaramouche party at the Vagabond. Topics of conversation included her utopian rave days, dance music's DIY renaissance, and her advice for women in EDM.
Crossfade: How did you first get exposed to electronic dance music while growing up in Kentucky?
The Black Madonna: My stepdad and mom were huge influences. I grew up hearing the Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and other synth-pop of the era. Prince was the mayor of our house. But I can't remember a time when my favorite songs weren't dance music. I remember really loving the two Hi-NRG songs in that cheesy '80s dance movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun, even. I graduated up to Technotronic and Black Box.
How did you get introduced to the '90s Midwestern rave scene? What are your fondest memories or impressions of that time?
When raves came to Ohio in 1992, I found one and didn't leave. I'd do any job related to parties, if I could get in for free: sold mixtapes, smart drinks, searched people at the door, you name it. I just never left. That time for me remains so filled with optimism. We had such hope for the future. We hadn't realized the world was ending yet. Hard drugs weren't around. Nothing bad had ever happened to anyone we knew.
It was a very special and short-lived time. I don't think I slept until 1997. Parties like the first Further and Interstellar Outback were these miraculous zones of autonomy. Twenty years later, I still feel the same way about that time. I am almost protective of it. For all the bad rap that raves get now, we did something special, and there's nothing that can take that away.
Tell us about selling mixtapes at raves. Were you compiling the tracks and recording the mixtapes yourself or on behalf of other DJs?
I sold other DJs' mixes: Hyperactive, Terry Mullan, Jajo (rest in peace). We sold everything on Earth. We duplicated the tapes, cut the covers by hand, stuck the labels. Most of this happened in the backseat of a car we were borrowing. My friend J.J. ran the booth I worked for. J.J. was seven or eight years older than me and sort of had his life together amidst all the chaos. We sold tapes and T-shirts and worked together to organize big huge raves. He was a great mentor and father figure to me. We are still great friends. I love his two beautiful daughters like they are my own. I didn't DJ personally until 2002. It hadn't even occurred to me.
Having come from that era of truly underground music distribution via mixtapes, what are your thoughts on the way the internet and music hosting sites like SoundCloud have transformed the way electronic dance music is consumed? Is there such a thing as underground music these days, when people can listen to last night's DJ set online and Shazam track titles?
You probably can't Shazam (is that a verb?) a record that has 300 vinyl-only copies. There's definitely an underground, and it's kids making records at home and then pressing them and packaging them by hand. That's a huge movement right now. Go into Gramaphone and half the wall is hand-stamped, unfancy, and awesome. We have certainly been a part of it at Stripped & Chewed. We believe strongly in handmade, limited products. And for what it's worth, if I never put out another track digitally, it would be too soon. A lot of people share my opinion. I'm working towards making that a reality.
How did you end up in Chicago, and what keeps you there? What are your favorite things about its dance music scene? Is there still a tangible sense of the history of house music there?
Chicago is a city where a cop on their lunch break might be listening to Jamie Principle in their cruiser. I came here because of that. House is omnipresent. This is a city where the Chosen Few DJs (who are superstars here) can take over the plaza in front of Chicago's largest courthouse and have a lunchtime disco party that's legal. Chicago is dance music. It's a part of normal life.
After college, the owner of Dust Traxx, who had been a tape vendor we traded with, asked me to come and do an entry-level position. I ended up label-managing and doing just about every other job in the various Dust Traxx companies along the way. The scene here is incredible. From Smart Bar, where I am creative director and a resident, to the underground parties that go till 3 p.m. on Sunday (or later), I just haven't been anywhere like this.
Congrats on landing your new role as creative director at Smart Bar. How do you plan to approach this role? Do you have any special plans for the venue and musical programming?
Well, it's a huge honor and my dream come true. I can say that with zero qualification. I plan on emphasizing ideas here. [Monthly party] Hugo Ball has been a huge influence for me in terms of what programming and concepts can do for the club. The residency program is of particular interest to me. We have a magnificent city that will go whatever weird and funky places we lead them. I won't neglect their willingness to dive into new territory or the rich culture of dance that allowed us to get here in first place.
So why the name Black Madonna? What does it mean to you?
She's a religious figure, representing the darker side of the divine feminine that, I, for whatever reason, strongly identify with. She and I are close.
You might be sick of this question, but it bears asking: Did you find any challenges in getting ahead as a woman in the male-dominated electronic dance music industry? What advice, if any, do you have for other budding female artists aspiring for your level of success?
Well, let's start with mentorship, a thing that men have the privilege of being able to take for granted. Male producers have built-in mentoring in the form of peers that look like them. Only recently, did I even have other female friends that produced. I sure didn't have a bunch of homegirls I could work with when I didn't know how to turn on my computer. That may not seem like it's a big deal, but it is. A lack of mentorship is one of the reasons we have less women in technical fields generally. And then when I found a male mentor, that tutelage has been read over and over again as me "needing" the help of a man, instead of me learning from a more experienced producer like 90-percent of the male producers do with another male.
We have a whole culture that tells women they aren't logical or technical, and when women try to gain those skills from teachers, we tell them that their need for mentorship is somehow different because they're women. It's crap. And the lack of role models seemingly offers proof that this massive damaging lie is true.
And then on the other hand, there's this whole idea that beauty and youth are somehow a professional qualification of being a woman in the entertainment industry. But if you're too young or pretty, that's bad too. It's completely crazy, and it stops women from even asking the question: do I want to make music? In Resident Advisor's list of the top tracks of 2012, you know how many women made the cut? None. Not one. And it's because women very rarely produce in the first place. It's not that RA was conspiring to keep women off the list. There's a whole insane system that stops women before they even start.
The worst part is that we're missing out on women's stories. All of those songs. We don't get to hear them. Imagine pop music, or film, or dance with hardly any women. Terrible. My advice is be exceptional, develop a thick skin, and lift up other women.
How do you think your style as a DJ and selector has evolved since you first started playing out?
Every show is practice and an experiment. It's always just practice, no matter who is in the room. I've been pushing the boundaries as far as what genres I'm playing. My life as a record collector, the digging process, are a huge piece of it. Becoming technically comfortable and confident with unsequenced records, with bands and things like that, has allowed me more latitude to dig into disco and soul. I buy a lot of private collections, sometimes by the inch, and see where that goes.
So what can we expect from you next on the production front?
My own imprint, and an album.
And what do you have in store for the Scaramouche party at Vagabond?
A back injury from trying to lug that many records through the airport.
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The Black Madonna. With Gooddroid, Laura of Miami, Patrick Walsh, Ynot, Stravinsky, and DJ Wasabi. As part of Scaramouche. Presented by Nightdrive
Miami. Saturday, August 21. The Vagabond, 30 NE 14th St., Miami. The show