“I have more to say about the workings of division than of community.”
‘House isn’t so much a sound as a situation. There must be a hundred records of voice overs asking, ‘What is house?’ The answer is always some greeting card bullshit about life, love, happiness. The house nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here, with us. [...] House is not universal. House is hyper-specific.’
The voice introducing house music’s roots on Midtown 120 Blues by Terre Thaemlitz aka DJ Sprinkles is certainly not what you would expect to hear on the dance floor. It is entirely at odds with the euphoric escapism normally associated with electronic dance music and the flattened, mindless spectacle of the nightlife economy. Instead, it is a critical voice speaking of the sexually and racially diverse contexts from which house emerged in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, reminding us that much of dance music’s utopianism comes from a place of struggle, desperation, and injustice, be they transgendered sex work, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, discrimination, or HIV. Thaemlitz frequently invokes these historical fragments in order to make visible what today’s commerce-oriented music industry would rather forget.
Politics and the dance floor make for uneasy bedfellows, and it is this uneasiness that drives most of Terre Thaemlitz’ work, confronting head-on issues that are usually off limits in electronic music. She is a producer, writer, educator and activist of sorts, with very fluid notions of gender, switching continuously between male and female drag. The fragility of identity – sexual and otherwise – in relation to the larger world is a central theme for Thaemlitz (who tellingly also produces under the monikers of DJ Sprinkles, Social Material, Terre’s Neu Wuss Fusion and K-S.H.E.), dissecting the boundaries and friction between public and private, between minority and mainstream.
Born in 1968, Terre Thaemlitz left the rigidly conservative and violently homophobic environment of his home state, Missouri, in the mid-1980s for New York, where she became involved in the queer and transgender scenes both socially and musically. It was a time when house music was not a genre but a social and political space, framed by clubs like Sally’s II or Club 59 where Thaemlitz worked as a DJ. He would eventually relocate to Tokyo at the beginning of the ’00s, as New York’s underground queer music scenes dissolved under gentrification.
While Terre Thaemlitz denied himself the path of a commercially successful ‘artist’, she remains a referential figure within the club scene, not least in the way she navigates the contradictions in an industry that does not conform with her own personal views: for instance, by his deliberate refusal to cooperate with online music distributors – one of the most important tools to promote electronic music – fully aware that it severely restricts the accessibility and circulation of his work. It is a bold decision to forfeit commercial success for conviction. It is also rigorously consequent.
Surprisingly for a music producer, Thaemlitz often dismisses the importance of music itself. He is a ‘con-artist’, who doesn’t mind playing bad records in a club, and hence playfully neglects the audience’s expectations. Instead, the conscious use of music as a critical medium is fully intended to disturb passive listening. In contrast to contemporary queer music pioneers, such as Mykki Blanco who tends to deconstruct gender through performance, Thaemlitz is more interested in audio as text and disdains the role of the DJ as an entertainer. Using sound as a form of language, Thaemlitz particularly relies on the technique of sampling as a means of cultural commentary, where references form their own narrative. Consequently, her releases are often accompanied by detailed notes and in-depth essays that articulate the social and political dimensions of her meta-music.
Terre Thaemlitz has an uncanny ability to find precise words for complex content, to place his personal experiences and observations into a larger perspective. Her point of view is steeped in her own marginalized experience of exclusion, but simultaneously, she is aware of the reality that shaped this experience. It is a position of fundamental discomfort, a commitment to tirelessly raising questions – and with a brutal sharpness and criticality that are often somewhat irritating. It is a position that couldn’t be any further removed from today’s commercialized, commodified club scene; and yet, it is precisely the ground that a lot of dance culture is rooted in.