Nite Trax: DJ Sprinkles lays it out

Pub date February 21, 2013
WriterMarke B.

The phenomenal house DJ and experimental musicmaker on mainstream visibility, transgender globalism, Bay Area queer culture, and the “shopping mall diversity” of the current dance music scene.

Techno has always had room for theorists and intellectuals, from Derrick May to the Mille Plateaux label roster, and social activists, like Moodymann and Underground Resistance. Most of that discourse usually takes place musically, however, with concepts emerging from the vinyl itself. The celebrated DJ Sprinkles, a.k.a. Terre Thaemlitz, the American head of Japan-based label Comatonse, tops all that by making intellectually grounded music glimmering with poetic touches and expounding in interviews and writing on such heady, heated topics as essentialism, gender idenitity, surveillance, and authenticity. She leads workshops, goes on speaking engagements, and isn’t afraid to let loose in interviews. (For example — see below — rather than “born this way” platitudes, she considers her queer identity “beat this way.”) 

It’s a beautiful thing, especially in the rare context of controversial truth and radical opinion pouring from the mouth and keyboard of an outspoken transgender major player on the stubbornly homogenous global house-techno DJ scene. Of course, it all comes down to the music — we’ll get a treat when Sprinkles (who chose the name because he wanted something that sounded “totally pussy” in opposition to macho DJ culture, to buck the testosteronal scene) performs Sun/24 at Honey Soundsystem — and Sprinkles certainly has the goods. He’s released umpteen pieces in an astoundng breadth of genres under multiple pseudonyms over the past 20 years. Masterpiece deep house album “Midtown 120 Blues” siezed the top of several best of 2009 charts and was, typically, followed by Soulnessless, a 30-hour “mp3 album” of music and video. Because why the hell not?

I got a chance to exchange emails with Sprinkles before her appearance here. It’ll be an interesting return to the Bay Area, where she lived for several years before decamping to Japan. Here’s all she had to say.

SFBG It’s been 13 years since you lived in Oakland, is that correct? Can you tell me why you decided to leave and what it was like to live here then, with regards to the music, political, and queer scene?

DJ SPRINKLES Yes, it’s been a long time. I used to live across the street from a hotel where the Unabomber once stayed. Honestly, I can’t say I miss California. I never really connected with any queer or transgendered communities in SF or Oakland. Whenever I tried, they seemed immersed in West Coast spiritualism and zodiac bullshit, which I found completely alienating. Most of the transgendered people I met there were prone to metaphysics — by which I mean they were ideologically (and economically and medically) invested in defining their transgenderism in relation to a perceived split between their “physical bodies” and their “true inner selves.” I’m an anti-essentialist, non-op, materialist, anti-spiritualist… so that clearly wasn’t a match with my own transgendered identity.

There was also a weird conservatism in SF’s queer scenes that I associated with the fact a lot of people in SF had been raised in conservative Midwestern towns, so they were in SF to “live the life.” I felt there was a lot of unacknowledged parody and role play going on — people trying to overcome a life of repression and closets by wrapping themselves in rainbow flag culture. Yet, when going to buy groceries or such, I still found myself being harassed as a “fag” on the street like in any other town in the US. I felt my four years there was all quite standard. I don’t really think of the Bay Area as a “special place” for being queer and transgendered.

US identity politics have a particularly inextricable link to the concept of the ghetto — not only as a place of economic strife and forced communal ostracization from a “white middle-class mainstream,” but also as a self-invested “safe space” for non-mainstream social movements. This is part of migrant culture. For example, after my grandparents passed through Ellis Island, they immediately moved to a place where people spoke the same language as their homeland, etc. The Castro, New York’s West Village, Little Italy, China Town… these are all migrant-based communities formed by people seeking safety in numbers in the face of not being welcome elsewhere — these two dynamics of “safety” and “alienation” are inseparable to most US identity politics. So these communal zones all display the problems and contradictions of cultural identification that plague mainstream US culture as an “immigrant nation” that is simultaneously “anti-immigrant” – because the “immigrant” is a brutal reminder that there are no “real Americans” beyond Native Americans, which the majority are not. And of course, the fact that recent generations of immigrants are primarily people of color does not jibe with conventional black/white US race discourse, which continues to be largely devoid of other browns, as well as the concept of the person of color as a willing immigrant (as opposed to the descendant of a slave). This history and context is peculiar to the US social landscape, and it creates a lot of weird identity essentialisms and hostilities around gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class…

Not to say other countries don’t have their own fucked up ways of causing and dealing with social problems, but moving to Japan and realizing that pretty much the entirety of Western identity politics did not function here was a big life experience. It was like leaving the Earth’s gravitational pull — it didn’t mean gravity no longer existed, but almost everything I had internalized and believed I understood about my relationship to gravity was no longer helpful in understanding the dynamics of dominations at work in this other context. I wasn’t freed of gravity, but lost in weightlessness. I had to learn to feel weight in a completely different way. This is why so many of my projects dealing with my own immigration and cultural issues consistently invoke the rather limited and problematic US language of black/white race relations. It is a critical gesture intended to highlight the limitations of my having been raised amidst that US language and social conditioning, yet now living within a non-US context with few tools to work with.

Because music’s value is so often tied to an essentialist concept of racial authenticity, it becomes difficult and risky to ask an audience to question their relationships to the very value systems through which they likely purchased the album – but that is also why I choose to work with audio. Not because of its possibilities, but its all-too-clear limitations. Since I am unable to believe in the authenticity or purity of identities of any kind, when I invoke “identifiable” sounds (a “queer” sound, a “black” sound, etc.) I am doing so to question the social relationships around their construction, proliferation, and distribution. The moment we become lazy about our use of those “identifiable” sounds — the minute we take it for granted that the essentialist associations they have come to carry are unquestionable and real reflections of material social experiences — everything becomes one-dimensional and shallow. This is why almost all music is one-dimensional and shallow! [Laughs.] For example, if I can beat a dead horse, my problem with Madonna’s “Vogue” is not that it was “inauthentic,” but that its terms of discourse misrepresented its relationship to vogueing by actively erasing the very contexts of Latina and African-American transgendered culture that inspired it (via lyrics about “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, a boy or a girl”… it TOTALLY made a difference, and THAT SOCIAL REALITY is where any real discussion on vogueing BEGINS.). So I’m interested in these other directions of audio discourse that cannot even occur if one is preoccupied with conflated essentializations of identity and sound. There is never a true point of origin for anything. It’s all referential and contextual. In my opinion, there is no point in discussions focussing on identifying the source of a sound or style — that is a hopelessly futile exercise, although it is the dominant exercise! It’s a distraction from the real discussions needing to be held, and those are discussions on relations of domination.

As a DJ in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were a lot of drag queens asking me to play Madonna’s “Vogue” when it first came out. I refused, but I could understand their requests. We all have very complicit and complex relationships to dominations, and a perverse desire to celebrate our visibility within the dominant mainstream, no matter how unfamiliar or distorted that reflection may be… often because we are conditioned to feel so unhappy with what we see in the mirror to begin with. Mainstream visibility is like getting approval of the Father. It’s a mental and abusive process. It is also totally standard. So I get it… But there is also that which remains unrepresented and invisible to most. That which existed, and may have already been lost, but did so without seeking approval of the Father. And again, this is generally not a freed or liberated space, but a space of intense hatred for the Father. These are difficult things to speak of and represent, because any act of representation has the potential to be a violation of the cultural site it wishes to speak of. So to speak of them requires obfuscating or complicating the usual functions of language – not through vague poetry, but unexpected flashes of clarity coming from unexpected vectors.

SFBG You left during the first Internet boom I believe, and now SF is in the middle of a second one (although a bit different than the first —  the first wave seemed to have much more geeks and freaks in it, while this one seems much more regimented and Ivy League, even while many longtime residents are still feeling the results of “global recession”). When was the last time you were back here? And what are some of your recent thoughts on how house music is being affected by economic circumstances?

DJ SPRINKLES I was only back once about 10 years ago, visiting friends for a few days. When I moved away at the end of 2000, internet and web development had already undergone a rigid formalization. Years earlier, a web designer did a bit of everything. By 2000, developers were already split into specific teams focussing on interface, coding, page flow, etc… all processes were specialized, departmentalized, corporatized. I hadn’t heard about the “second internet boom” there, but the way you describe it doesn’t surprise me since it would surely be an extension of that regimentation that took place in the first boom.

And in a way, the same can be said of this “second boom” (third?) around house music. In the same way almost all websites have taken on the same continuity and feel, so has electronic dance music. You buy an album, and all the tracks sound similar — as opposed to the old days when an electronic dance track like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was tacked on to the end of an otherwise standard soul-band album that didn’t sonically match it at all. Today’s music consumer experience is much more streamlined and organized, which affects how people produce an album as well. Younger generations — 20-somethings — grew up amidst this homogenization, so I am fairly sure they do not feel what I am speaking of… although they may recognize it as a historical process.

I try to play with discontinuity and mixing things up, like in my K-S.H.E album, “Routes not Roots,” which had monologues and ambient tracks interspersed between house cuts. But I once made the mistake of reading people’s blog comments, and they really seemed upset about this kind of thing. “Way to ruin the mix,” or “Why the fuck didn’t you put that monologue at the end of the album?” They have no patience for non-homogeneity. The same goes for my Comatonse Recordings website itself — people seem utterly confused and helpless. If one doesn’t do everything completely standard and at the same level, people get disoriented. It’s a kind of cultural compression going on, similar to audio compression, where everything has to be “punched up” to the same intensity or people feel lost. What the fuck is so wrong with being lost? Why would you expect — let alone insist — your interactions with non-mainstream media to be completely mainstream in process?

SFBG I’ve been hanging out recently with the new, young generation of ACT-UP activists who are transcending mere ’90s revival and undertaking a lot of energizing political discourse and action. Were you involved in the queer activist movement back then — or now? Would you characterize your musical project as a form of activism, especially in its more intellectual and challenging aspects?

DJ SPRINKLES That’s nice to hear. Although you use the term “action,” I assume the real interesting stuff has little to do with demos and “direct actions,” and more to do with communal education initiatives, etc.? My direct action days were mostly during the late ’80s and early ’90s, while living in New York. Most of those activities were in conjunction with various caucuses in ACT-UP, and WHAM! (Women’s Health Action & Mobilization).

I do consider my audio and other projects “political” — in theme, and also in their attempts to (dis)engage with standard industry practices. But clearly this is something different than direct action “activism” or community outreach, because my main social engagements are with people working for labels, distributors, music festivals, museums, and other culture industries. Maybe “culture jamming” is a better way to put this kind of political activity. Personally, I found myself distanced from direct action groups because the terms of identification they cultivated out of strategic necessity so often folded back into essentialisms that excluded me on a personal level. So I was always advocating for the recognition and acceptance of something other than myself (like the way “born this way” ideologies take over discussions of LGBT rights… I consider myself more “beat this way,” my queer identity being primarily informed by material ostracism and harassment than by some mythological self-actualization and pride). That, combined with the mid-’90s move away from direct action toward CBO’s (Community Based Organizations) — largely because the tactics of direct action had been so thoroughly coopted by mainstream media – was pretty much the end of my serious direct action involvements. Over the years, enunciating this process has become the core political act of my projects and activities. I do not do this to discourage people from forms of direct action, but as a simultaneous form of critical analysis that hopefully contributes in other ways to our various attempts to react to dominations.

SFBG Do you feel that, as the means of production and distribution have been more and more democratized in the past decade, house and techno music-making and DJing have been living up to their potential as a form of resistance to mainstream capitalism and culture, or do you feel they’ve become more homogenized and/or annexed by neoliberal, bourgeois culture?

DJ SPRINKLES I do not believe the means of production and distribution have become more democratized. I take issue with the way people always confuse “commercial accessibility” with “democratization.” The breadth and variation of today’s music production strategies is no more than a shopping mall diversity. We are all working with similar software on similar platforms. Mac, Windows, Unix… Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Gap… Having said that, if these musics had a potential, I believe it was lost back in the ’90s when anti-sampling legislation (mostly focusing on hip-hop) laid the groundwork for today’s electronic music. It basically reinvigorated house with “musicianship,” “authorship,” and all that crap which used to play far less of a role in this genre’s early days. And the younger generation – basically, today’s 20-somethings who grew up after the whole sampling debates — really don’t seem to understand how record label legal departments work.

So they list up all the samples they recognize in a track in the comment fields of music websites, which is putting the producers they wish to support at risk. There is no sense of how we can cultivate — let alone protect — “underground” media and information in this online era. Everything is about “sharing,” when in fact we need to be developing a parallel discourse around meaningful information distribution patterns, including strategically withholding information from the web. The cliché idea of making “everything accessible for everyone” is not only naîve, but negates the social and cultural specificities that give certain forms of media their alternative values, in particular collage and sampling. Anyone who has used a random image taken from a Google image search on their blog page, and then gotten an email from Getty Images’ legal department asking for back royalties, knows what I’m talking about. Treating subcultural musics as though they are meant for “everyone” — whether this is being done by fans, or the labels and online distributors themselves — is the biggest sign of people not understanding the media they are dealing with. And since all of that is SOP these days, it’s pretty much a sign that the sample-based genres of house is dead. Is talking about house’s political potential in 2013 really all that different than the trend of talking about the radical politics of ’60s rock during the ’80s?

SFBG I feel like, with parties like Honey Soundsystem, there is a huge resurgence of interest in an underground queer dance music culture — a kind of new underground opposed to corporate or low-quality dance music (yet still taking place in corporate spaces). Is this phenomenon occurring in Japan as well? Do you feel there are specific possibilities with this, not just in terms of opportunity for queer DJs to travel but of transformation of queer discourse and politically actualizing a new generation?

DJ SPRINKLES Hey, low-quality is where it’s at. It’s what it’s all about. What was Chicago house if not low quality? It’s important to place value within the “low” in order to counter conventional associations between the terms “good,” “high quality” and “upper class.” I’m not talking about celebrating kitsch, or that kind of petit-bourgeois trivialization of the “low.” I’m talking about finding other values in the “low” that cannot find expression within a language developed to express everything in terms of “low vs. high.” This is ultimately about the identification of other values amidst class struggle.

I don’t think house resonates as a queer medium anymore. Those days are over. Today it is primarily a white, heterosexual, European phenomenon. That was the case early on. I mean, how many Americans became aware of house music in the ’80s by buying Chicago house sold back to us on UK compilations? The US has always treated its own history of electronic music like utter shit… The US is such a fucking rock’n’roll shithole. So I think for people to appreciate house music’s queer roots, and to actively invest in those themes today, requires people becoming deliberate and explicit about those interests. But whether that deliberate action would focus on “queer visibility” or not is another issue. It doesn’t have to focus on “visibility” — especially since visibility has become such an oppressive aspect of dominant LGBT movements. Explicitness can also be about closets. Not only the usual closets born of heterosexism, but less considered closets around sexuality and gender that have been formed by the actions of the “born this way” LGBT mainstream. Well, that’s the direction I try to take it… reflecting on, and constructing, queer and transgendered histories that are as skeptical of Pride[TM] as they are angry about violence. And I do believe, globally speaking, queer and transgendered experiences are much more informed by violence than pride. So this should be reflected in how and where we make noise. In my opinion, music that functions in completely standard ways – socially and economically – does not have much potential for reflecting queer or transgendered contexts in politically precise, helpful or meaningful ways. You end up with essentialist, humanist shit like Lady Gaga’s, “Born This Way.” She is not somebody I would consider an ally.

You know, American media is so fixated on the idea that sexuality and gender must either be biologically predetermined, or a personal choice. The “it’s not a choice” argument is a common theme in television shows, etc. Both of these options revolve around a fiction of free will. Like, if it’s not a choice, then the only other possibility must be some supra-social, biological reason that cannot be questioned. Both of these conclusions preserve the status quo brutality of how culture forces gender and sexual binaries upon us. The thought that our absence of choice might be rooted in social tyrannies – not biological predispositions – remains unthinkable. The mainstream has it half right when they say, “it’s not a choice,” but it’s a half-truth that has been twisted into a decoy from the real issues at hand – the inescapability of the hetero/homo and female/male paradigms. We are given no other choices through which to understand our genders and sexualities. Sexuality is far greater than two or three. The same goes for gender — and yes, I’m speaking biologically, human bodies are way more diverse than A or B. To argue that the reason you deserve rights under a humanist democratic system is because of genetics is a retreat into feudalist logic. It’s the same as an aristocrat arguing that their rights and privileges were deserved because of their family blood-line and DNA. “Born this way” is antithetical to any democratic argument for rights rooted in a social capacity for understanding and transformation. It is astounding that the majority of people cannot comprehend that any “born this way” argument is a complete obliteration of their social agency. “I can’t help it, so give me the same rights as you…” Fuck that. We shouldn’t be asking to participate in the rights and privileges of those who have oppressed us. We should be trying to divest those groups of privileges. That is the best way to help ourselves and minimize the violence we enact on others.

Humanist legislative practices are still rooted in feudal ideologies, and I am convinced the long-term repercussions of this is a cultural entrenchment that makes any democratic project (including US-brand democracy, socialism or communism) an impossibility. We can already see how the post-Cold War world is retreating into clan-based, privatized, anti-state organization structures. Capitalism is increasingly liberated of democratic agendas because — surprise! — capitalism works better with slavery. Capitalism is not about the distribution of wealth, and everyone’s equal chance to partake in a petit-bourgois lifestyle. It is about the isolation of wealth. There is no doubt in my mind that today’s moral insistence that all people must work at whatever job society throws them, and the accompanying presumption that all lower-class unemployed people are “lazy” (which is perpetuated by many lower-class peoples themselves), is an argument for slavery: forced labor in return for base subsistence at best. How is that not the reality of poverty under globalized capitalism?

…and that’s why I hate Lady Gaga. [Laughs.]

SFBG You have some fascinatingly poetic thoughts about the intersection of transgender issues and immigration, the idea of “living as a ghost” in politicized and police-monitored spaces. Do you have any current thoughts on how globalization continues to affect transgender issues?

DJ SPRINKLES I think the fact that the world’s two largest economies around gender transitioning are in Thailand and Iran, yet the aesthetics of those economies follow largely western models of beauty and body, says a lot about how globalization affects transgendered issues. Thailand’s dominant transgendered culture revolves around the “Ladyboy” — a very essentialist transgendered model that is rooted in heterosexism and the cultural/ideological necessity for some men to “unbecome-man” in order for “straight men” to have sex with other men. Western transgendered discourses love to fetishize the “Ladyboy” as some kind of locally celebrated and accepted third-world transgendered native other, but this is patent orientalism. It refuses to envision how the strict regimentation of social codes for those transgendered people can be oppressive, or how the mythical “transgendered native’s special place at the edge of the village, possibly as a shaman” is a form of segregation. People also never address how such cultures are invariably patriarchies, and their models for transgenderism almost exclusively revolve around the MTF paradigm. And far as I know, Thailand has still not lifted their government prohibition on homosexual government employees, which is relatively new legislation passed just a few years back. This is all part of that context of transgendered production.

Meanwhile, Iran is a country where Islamic law prohibits homosexuality by fatwah. Since the ’70s, gender transitioning has been promoted as a way for men who have sex with men to avoid the death penalty, although many transitioned people still face the possibility of being murdered by their families or local communities. The cost of their procedures is partially subsidized by the Iranian government itself. While some Westerners have attempted to portray that as “progressive,” clearly it is the opposite. Many post-op transsexuals find themselves ghettoized, unemployed and cut off from the family structures that play such important roles in Iran’s social structure.

In both Thailand and Iran one can see how the global growth of gender-transitioning economies is connected to heterosexism and homophobia — something current Western gender analyses attempt to separate from gender transitioning through clear ideological divisions between gender and sexuality. While I believe these divisions between gender and sexuality are important and do have social value in the West, it is clear that the West is not the world. And the West has surely not overcome its heterosexism and homophobia, either. I believe it is more than coincidence that the global proliferation of gender transitioning technologies is happening parallel to medical industries’ attempts to divest of their previously blatant attempts to cure homosexuality, due to such methods falling out of cultural favor in the West and elsewhere. I also believe it is more than coincidence that today’s inescapable “born this way” arguments serve and justify today’s medical agendas so well.

For sure, my stance on medical transitioning has always been that I support peoples’ abilities to transform their bodies as they see necessary. Considering how few options for gender identification are offered to us, I can understand how a person can become no longer able to live within one’s body as it has been defined and shaped by social gender constraints. But, for obvious reasons, I am unable to believe those medical systems which propagated today’s gender binary are capable or willing to offer us a way out of our gender crises. Those industries move us further and further away from cultural environments that enable transgendered people to build medically unmediated relationships to our bodies. I just can’t accept that the medical industry’s methods for mediating our suffering are the only way. It really angers me… particularly since so many transgendered people are impoverished and without health care…

Hmm, you’re probably getting an idea as to why I am never invited to perform my more thematic projects in the US — just to DJ some house and go back home to Japan. [Laughs.]

SFBG Speaking of essentialism, ha: Any food or restaurants you miss from living here?

DJ SPRINKLES Mexican food…! It’s shockingly absent in Japan… and when you do find some, you generally wish you hadn’t. But what a weak note upon which to end this interview. [Laughs.]