Interview: The Black Madonna on Chicago, House, and The Next Disco Demolition

Producer. DJ. Talent buyer. Promoter. Poster designer, mixtape slinger, label employee – if it’s a job in underground American dance music, Marea Stamper’s done it. When she isn’t fulfilling her duties as Creative Director of Chicago’s legendary Smart Bar, she’s DJing and producing as The Black Madonna, vibrating dance floors at the intersection of disco, house, hi-NRG, and techno. Fresh off a set in Toronto that saw her going back-to-back with Mark E, Stamper spoke to us about discovering dance music, her love of vinyl, and the next Disco Demolition moment.

Let’s start right from the beginning. Could you tell me a bit about some of your earliest musical experiences? Memories like the kind of stuff that was playing in your house when you were a kid?

My dad is a very well-regarded blues musician, and so I grew up hearing him. An enormous amount of music that I heard came from my mother’s parents, who I kind of lived with for periods of time, and that would be, like, Keith Jarrett, and classical music, and things like that. But probably the most important music that I grew up with was the stuff that my mom and stepdad listened to, which is things like Paul’s Boutique and Erasure and New Order and The Pet Shop Boys and even CeCe Penniston. We had things like that on in the house when I was a young teenager.

That was really compelling to me much younger than I think it would’ve been, or that I think it was, for a lot of people. Certainly, there were not a lot of kids my age in Kentucky who liked dance music. I can remember being 10 or 11 and having a Technotronic cassette single and just thinking that “Pump Up the Jam” was the greatest song that had never been recorded. Oh, “Pump Up the Volume” by MARRS, I had that. I know I was in the fourth or fifth grade maximum, and that was what I liked. I identified really strongly with that, and I was telling people I liked dance music, and I didn’t know anybody else who liked anything that I liked.

When did you become purposefully interested in dance music? When did become something you sought out?

Once I knew that I was into that music, I chased it until... It never stopped.

Oh, very early. 11. I can remember going to the strip mall in Somerset, Kentucky, where my grandparents lived, and going into the music store, and they had a little dance section. It had nothing in it at all, you know, like maybe 20 CDs, late Kraftwerk and things like that. The kind of dance music that had made it to a major label, and most of it wasn’t very good. But then eventually, I got the 140 BPM compilations? Remember those? Those were in the mall, and they had early rave hardcore, happy hardcore, and the first ones had stuff like Acen’s “Trip II the Moon,” so whatever year that was. Deee-Lite was big for me. I saw a 30-second clip of “Groove Is In the Heart” on this feature that they had on MTV called The Buzz Bin, which was kind of their breaking music thing, and freaking out and making my mother drive me to the mall in Lexington, Kentucky, to buy the cassette single.

Such a good song.

Such a good song, still such a good song. And listening to it until it broke, and then taking it apart and putting it back together with tape. Once I knew that I was into that music, I chased it until... It never stopped.

You were very deeply involved in the Midwestern rave scene as well.


When did you start to get actively involved in going to parties and putting on parties?

The first party that I went to was in 1992 or ‘93, and it was called Sonic II, Cincinnati, Ohio, as in Sonic the Hedgehog, to give you a sense of the timing there. I think it might’ve been late ‘92, like December or something. It was freezing cold, and I had some friends that had just graduated from the high school that I was getting ready to go to. To give you a sense of how young I am, I’m still in middle school, and we got into this dude’s car, and we drove up there, and I lost my mind. I was so blown away by this rave that, probably, looking back on it, wasn’t very good compared to what we would later do, but immediately, every weekend, that was what I wanted to do.

What was it about that first rave that captured you?

I remember just having boundless energy. I would pull myself away from the speaker and then feel like, “oh my God, I have to run back.” Just feeling so compelled to be right on the bass bin. It was like a body thing.

Can you still access that feeling when you’re playing?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Probably the closest you ever get to that feeling is sometimes when you’re touring, and you haven’t slept, and you feel like you’re going to die, and then you go on, and suddenly all of that has lifted, and you have this boundless energy. It’s still right there. That feeling is always there. It’s very accessible.

You’ve said before that you when you first started mix it was by accident, but that you felt like you sort of had an understanding of how it was supposed to work.


Do you attribute that to having been involved in that world for so long?

Oh, absolutely. I was the biggest mixtape junky in the world, and there are tapes today that if you handed them to me, I could tell you every song that’s on them and the order in which they were played, and if you gave me all of the records, I could drop the records in order and probably in the place that they were dropped. I always understood the architecture of the way a DJ mixed.

There are tapes today that if you handed them to me, I could tell you every song that’s on them and the order in which they were played.

I’m really bad at a lot of things technically as a producer. The thing that I was always really good with was... Some people have a photographic memory for things that happened or things that they saw. For me, I have a kind of phonographic memory. I can remember pieces of music in a very detailed way through just a few listens, and so that was a big part of, and still is a big part of my DJing, knowing records really, really, really well. That’s important thing if you’re playing disco, which might not be sequenced, which might be a live drummer. It might be ten seconds that are a sweet spot. It’s like, kind of a really accurate sonic memory.

That was something I found super impressive about your set last night. When you’re mixing disco, you have to know your shit so well.

It’s really hard. It’s still hard.

Your set last night actually reminded me of the last person I had seen that I felt really impressed by: DJ Harvey.

Harvey is somebody that I have watched really closely. He and Rahaan are the two guys. Also, Chrissy Murderbot. People know him for footwork and stuff. What Chrissy really is, is one of the best disco DJs on Earth. He’s the guy that I saw, because he was a friend, and I could stand there and watch him. He’s got on all of his records on this little notation system. So, if you buy a record from Chris, and I bought a bunch of my records from Chris, there’s this little grid of numbers on it. I saw how attentive he was to phrasing, and knowing his stuff.

You said something about the architecture of a mix. I really like that concept. When you’re playing live, do you have an idea in mind of what you want your set to look like before you go in?

Hopefully you find that spot where you know you’ve got them held, and you can see that little spark, and then you can pour gas on it.

No, no plans. Never. The most planning I’ll do is organize my records so that I know where sections of ideas are. But being able to read a room, the sort of crowd profiling that you do, what’s their body language like, are there a bunch of people looking at their phones in front of the booth, are people chatting when you would want them to be dancing... Little things like that, little cues that can tell you how engaged people are. You need to be prepared to kind of switch between stuff, and believe there are times when I get it wrong. Usually I do a pretty good job of looking at those little cues, figuring out what I need to do. And then hopefully you find that spot where you know you’ve got them held, and you can see that little spark, and then you can pour gas on it. Yeah, no plans. The worst thing you can do is go in with a plan. Or think. Oh my God, don’t start thinking. It’s like baseball, you know?

You can’t think and hit at the same time.

Don’t think. You’ve got to get out of your head.

Does playing almost strictly vinyl help you stay out of your head?

Absolutely. Playing vinyl is helpful for me because I know the records by the way they look. I don’t have to type something into a thing, or scroll on a thing, or look for a word. Every time you type something or whatever, you’re returning to the front of your mind, and it becomes a conscious thought, and you’re thinking instead of doing. Ideally, you go in, and you emotionally apprehend what the room is like, and you respond to it intuitively.

And then you go into the really wonderful world of the salon that is the record shop. When you go into an online store, and you’re buying things, you’re using search terms, you’re using your own wisdom to find what you’re looking for. When you go into a record store, you don’t have your own wisdom. You have the wisdom of 70 years of combined digging experience.

I think that’s so important, because for someone like me – like, I don’t know shit. I know the sounds that I like, so when I go into a store like [New York City’s] A-1...

Oh, I love A-1. When I played on Beats In Space, I think half of that was stuff that I bought at A-1 the day before. We just spent some time there and found some really unusual things. That bizarro version of “Disco Circus,” that weird Marvin Gaye thing, all of those were A-1 Records that were all in one section at the store. It was just their Disco New Arrivals.

Gramaphone [Records, in Chicago] is so important to me. When I go on tour, I always let them know the day before I’m going to come in, and there are several employees that I know really well. When I get there, usually they’ll have two or three crates of stuff that they pulled out of their Discogs section, stuff that hasn’t been priced yet, and they’ve gone there and pulled it out, and I have my own little mini Gramophone when I get there. You’re just never going to see that on Beatport.

I understand, the digital stuff is a necessary evil, and I do it. I play it. It’s important. To frame the digital versus vinyl conversation as bluntly as “this good, that bad,” it’s a really threadbare discussion to have at this point in time. We have to have digital. We have to. It’s important.

We’re not going backwards.

It’s there and it’s what you do with it.

What is it about Chicago that’s created this lineage of incredibly vital dance music? Is there something specific about the city?

You know, I always feel bad talking about Chicago because I think that... I’m certainly a Chicagoan now, but I’m not from there, and so probably the better person to answer that question is Michael Serafini from Gramaphone, or Derrick Carter, one of the true Chicagoans.

If everybody in the city hears it on the radio every day, is it really underground?

Having said that, I think that radio is a huge part of this. One thing that Chicago has is that there was a period in time where very legitimate, very credible Chicago house, and Detroit techno, and some European dance music was on the radio everywhere. The ambient awareness for very credible dance music goes really deep. I remember when I lived in the Dust Traxx house – which is called West Eddy house, it’s this incredible, famous house there – our next door neighbour was a cop named Ada who grew up listening to house music on B96 and all of the other stations that played stuff, and she would go out clubbing with us. That’s a thing there! In Chicago, you can hear a soccer mom, 45 years old, 7:00 a.m., taking her kids to school, bumping Jackmaster Farley. That’s real. Block parties with people you would never think love house music, just cranking Jammin’ Gerald, whatever. That house and disco tradition there, it was just so big I wouldn’t even call it underground. If everybody in the city hears it on the radio every day, is it really underground? We have this thing there called Chosen Few. Have you ever heard of it?


Right. Nobody’s ever heard of it. 50,000 people, every 4th of July weekend, it’s a house music family reunion. It happens on the south side of Chicago, 63rd and Hayes, and it is virtually unheard of. There’s a whole culture – it’s never stopped. House music started in the underground, but in Chicago, it’s not underground. They have Chosen Few parties in Daley Plaza in the middle of the city on lunch break. 1,000 people dancing to Teddy Pendergrass in front of a federal building. It’s the Promised Land. It’s the greatest city on earth. So, I think the consistency in Chicago is due to this sort of tension between house being a super underground thing, and then not being underground at all.

When you’re booking talent at Smart Bar, what do you look for? What is the quintessential Smart Bar act?

Nice people. A lot of people don’t know this, but Smart Bar’s been open since 1982. Our first guest was Frankie Knuckles and he was with us until he passed away. Smart Bar has always been about emerging talent. We kind of like to be the room where people are breaking. It’s a 400-person room. It’s a great place to go to make your debut. We’re also really resident-centered. Our residents are by far our most popular DJs, and we’re emphasizing then, supporting them, giving them the tools to grow. We think that they’re probably our most important emerging talent, and that’s why we’re creating a label this year.

There’s a lot of fast food in dance music right now, and I’m not interested in that at all, and that means that we have to make difficult decisions, and it means that sometimes our decisions will be more editorial. Sometimes, my decisions are less profitable. I have a strong philosophy of not grasping for the low-hanging fruit, and that is not always a decision that maybe everyone else would agree with, but we have a pretty clear and unified vision of where we want to go, and we feel strongly that Chicago deserves a cutting edge venue that is uncompromising.

I understand that credibility, a mistake with credibility, isn’t one that you can walk back. That’s all we have, and so we’re trying to create events that are different, and they might be a little bit more to chew on. Men’s Room is a leather party in a mixed club, and that was a really overwhelming thing for people, but it was important to do. We can do that. The second one was our biggest party of the year, which is incredible. By far our wildest party. And it was attended by all kinds of people. We want transgressive, interesting, thoughtful events.

As someone who has been involved in every facet of dance music, what advice would you give to promoters about building and maintaining a healthy, sustainable scene?

Well, I’m from Kentucky, which kind of lives in its own universe, which has had a slamming scene many times over the years, and one of the things that has made Kentucky so good is their willingness to just kind of do what feels good rather than trying to sell to a bigger market than really they can support. So, you have these amazing 100-person parties that go for 24 hours or whatever. Don’t be afraid to have the party for 100 people. If you start and there are 20 people, and they’re the right people, next time there will be 30, and then eventually, it’ll be 100. Don’t be afraid to have that small party. Those are sometimes the very best.

The DJ is in a weird cultural position. All of a sudden, DJs have leapfrogged rock stars in some way. How do you think we ended up here?

I’m going to steal a phrase that I read and was just so captivated by because of its trueness: there has been a kind of gentrification of the dance floor. Which is unfortunate, but happens for the same reasons gentrification happens in general. Gentrification isn’t this sort of natural invasion of a space, which is how people often think about. I think those kinds of movements are really corporate-driven and are about trying to find new territories to sell. It’s very focus-grouped, and it’s very unfortunate because what you have is this kind of white-washing of dance culture. Dance music is historically very gay. Historically, mixed dance floors. They’re looking for a new thing that they can sell, and I think there are some things about EDM that are really delicious for someone trying to co-opt youth culture. It can be really large. The theatre of it is very salable. For the undoubtedly white, straight male ad execs who are orchestrating this crap, I mean, it’s basically like KISS for them. It’s the same thing that was appealing about Gene Simmons in the ‘70s, and I don’t think that there’s any coincidence that you’re seeing those kinds of theatrics, you know, big mouse heads and cake throwing, a thing that you can see from 300 rows back in a stadium.

I do believe that we’re close to an implosion of it. It’s reached a kind of comic theatricality at this point, and I think always on the other side of something like that, a really brand-driven musical moment such as this one, there’s always this other – we’re on the edge of our own Disco Demolition moment, and I welcome it. Whatever that moment looks like for us, and maybe it’s lots of little moments, but there’s going to come a point where people get sick of it, and the only people that will be left are the people that were serious about it in the first place, or people that came in through EDM and really did get a taste of something that changed them and entered them in a good way. Those people will stick around the same way that people who loved the song “Kung Fu Fighting” and stuck around for Frankie Knuckles. I don’t feel like that big moment has much to do with what I do or what most people in underground dance music do, but I think what happens when it does implode will affect all of us in a good way, so I don’t see a downside to it.

In a century or two when we’re looking back at the late 20th, early 21st Century, how do you think we’ll talk about the DJ?

Well, if we live long enough to do it at all – I mean, who knows? I feel less and less hopeful that we’ll ever reach a moment of reflection. I don’t know if there’ll ever be a moment where we can kick our heels and look back and go, “Wow, this is what DJing really was.” But on the other hand, I have moments where I feel really hopeful, like when I was watching Theo Parrish with my husband and he said, “He’s like Miles Davis or something.” There will be people that are remembered that way for sure. We’ll remember DJ Harvey as a great communicator of this sound, and we’ll remember certainly Frankie, the way that he broke so much ground, and what he did for us in general.

Last question: what’s your favourite sound?

I had a dog for 13 years named Lulu, and when she would go to sleep, she would want to be covered up with a blanket. And you would put the blanket over her head, and then right before she would finally got to sleep, she would take a big gasp of air and sigh this enormous, grateful sigh, to finally be covered up and in bed, which was her favorite place to be. And that’s my favourite sound.

By Adam Wray on November 3, 2014