Honey Soundsystem’s Generators

How one of San Francisco’s most beloved DJ crews is making a difference in Chicago

Tom Slazinski

Over the course of 2015, San Francisco’s Honey Soundsystem is engaged in a residency at Chicago’s Smart Bar. But instead of simply showing up to play every few months, the crew has taken an ambitious, interdisciplinary approach to the project. Todd L. Burns talks to Honey’s Jacob Sperber to find out more.

Can you explain a bit about the Generators project?

The Black Madonna, who became the talent buyer at Smart Bar, began inviting residents that didn't live in Chicago. Along with us, she tapped some pretty awesome names including Regis, Honey Dijon, DVS1 and others. A year-long residency like this was very new to us. We've done a lot of traveling, but no one has endorsed us to the point where they said, “Hey, we trust you so much that what you’re doing is worth six to eight parties here over the course of a year.”

Honey is always trying to do something a little bit more thought-provoking, so we decided we wanted to take this idea of a pilgrimage to the birthplace of house music seriously. We also wanted to dissect what it meant for us. None of us have Chicago roots. So, what does it mean for us to be coming to Chicago for an entire year and presenting in one of the most respected dance music spaces? Especially presenting things from a queer context.

We approach every party as a multimedia experience (which is the worst way to describe something, but at the very least people know that we like to decorate.) Someone who has been a big supporter of ours for years is an artist named Tom Slazinski. He is a prolific installation artist, and we really wanted him to make something new for each party. That snowballed into this idea of Generators, which is a conversation. There are all these myths around the origins of dance music and around the appropriation of dance music. I started taking all those questions and merging them into this multimedia project which includes writers, visual artist, performers and musicians.

Chapter 1 at Smart Bar Tom Slazinski

Obviously there are a bunch of people who are involved in a writing capacity. How did you find these people, and can you tell me a little bit about them?

With Generators we wanted multiple generations having a conversation with each other. Its subject matter that everyone is comfortable with, but maybe hasn't talked generationally to each other before. There’s Marke, Leo Herrera, Jay Boogie and Ariel Zetina. Each generation of writer is about ten years apart. (The last two writers are the same age, but they were so good we felt that they both needed to be a part of the project.)

I also felt like the one thing that was new for everyone was the youth component. I don’t know what the kids are up to, and their relationship to dance music as we know it. Has it become homogenized by pop culture and Beyoncé? Or are they really aware and choosing to transform it in a different way?

What have you learned so far personally?

It’s been really exciting to have these conversations with these kids because they are so fucking smart. They are down for the same things that everybody else on the project is. I’ve been on the phone talking to them, and they’ve brought tears to my eyes because they are so aware and passionate about music, dancing and social justice. Also, more importantly, what I'm learning is that the new generation is so much more comfortable with themselves than it would appear. Yeah, the internet has effected how much culture they are able to process and it has made them smarter in terms of the access to what they do and don't want. But they still understand the importance of the one-on-one and live presentation.

Chapter 2 at Smart Bar Tom Slazinski

Marke, who has written for The Daily, was one of the first people that you contacted about this idea. Why?

Marke has been the Auntie. He has seen, witnessed and survived so many incredible movements in music and dancing. He recognized something about Honey Soundsystem very early on and has been supportive of what we do. He had also written for us in the past. There was a tearjerking, incredible poem we put in our Brotherhood compilation. That poem was a moment for me personally – and I think a lot of people in his life – to see that he really is living this double life. He’s known as a journalist, but he is an incredible artist himself.

I assume this project has brought out slightly different talents of a number of people that you've already been in contact with.

Yeah. Jay Boogie, for example, is an in-your-face performer rapper. I knew if we gave her an opportunity to speak in a different form that she would kill it. Leo Herrera is known for his films and his photography. People in his network know that he has been working on writing projects for a really long time. This is an awesome opportunity to get those words out of him.

Let's talk about the actual audio specifically. It’s essentially an audio poem? Is that the way to describe it?

It's part prose, part bedtime story, part... You know what it is? It's mythology, like I was saying earlier. In the same way in a club, where you might be seeing all this ideology of the myth, physically or hearing it in the DJ set or watching people get ecstatic around it in some kind of pagan ritual.

It's the biggest compliment when you see someone who works at the club trying to steal your decorations.

You seem pretty occupied with the word myth. Why is that something that you come back to?

Anyone who is obsessed with music, I think, is obsessed with these cult of personalities. To be obsessed with dance music is to almost be part historian, demystifying things that came out of your experience in a nightclub. Which is full of lies. The lies are there because they help you let go. You can get deeper into who was the actual producer of that track or the context of that song or sample. There's all these elements of lies, fantastic, wonderful lies that are happening. I think for the queer side of dance music, queer history and liberation in general, it's about oral history.

For me, Generators was about creating a project that was accessible to a wider range of people than reading Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. You may not be a lyrics person, but you might be interested in listening to Jason Kendig's music. You’ll hear this track he made, and on top of it is a poem that is going to help you understand why dance music, and clubbing, and dancing has this queer context that otherwise made you uncomfortable.

Have you been sending stuff to artists to look at or listen to in advance of them working?

Every month or two I try to suck more inspiration documents out of everybody or ask people if there's anything that's come up in the news that they think would inspire the group to help understand what helped them remember that certain experience.

Has the recent Supreme Court decision come up in your discussions?

Well, everyone that's involved in this project is a pretty radical person.

So it’s more like, “Great, you finally did it. Whatever.”

Yeah, exactly. I think we are having that conversation with other people in our local communities. Everybody that's involved in this project is a leader (or shaman) of a group of a couple hundred, maybe thousand people. I think the last thing we want to do is talk to each other about it.

The decision is exciting because it, obviously, has some many implications into ways in which people will not potentially be personally oppressed in the future. Hopefully it makes waves in the way that people relate to marginalized sexuality and identity.

It's so important to normalize it for other people, I think.

It's about violence and heartache. But there is nothing that is going to normalize queerness. There are people who can accept who they are. And there are people who are going to live their entire lives trying to not be who they are. The most important thing is that they don't have to be put in the hospital while they are making that decision.

Tell me about what’s upcoming.

There's six episodes, and we've been through three so far. This next one will be on Market Day's weekend in Chicago, which is almost like their other pride. Tom will be doing another installation. Marke will be the writer. Basically the project regenerates itself, allowing for each person who wrote an episode to write another one.

The thing that people should understand about this project is that it wasn't directed, per se. It’s organically moved in a direction that I didn't expect it to go, but in the end it's really honest about what happens when these disparate artists end up making a project together. We’ve gone from this idea of origin stories, and now we’re looking back from the future. The language has gotten progressively more out there and stream of consciousness, and I think they are going to get even more abstract, maybe even more aggressive.

You mentioned to me earlier that one of the chapters has been heard on a dancefloor or two, right?

Yeah, one of the things that I didn't really expect, even as a DJ, was that people might actually use it in DJ sets, whether it's for radio or on the dancefloor. Which is wild. Good luck to them in keeping the dancefloor going for that. That's been a part of the way this project has been received. My ultimate goal is that it also finds its way into educational institutions, and core study departments, and maybe even some media theory classes.

Is there anything else that you wanted to mention?

I want to mention how temporary the full reality of this project is, and I hope that people are inspired to experience this thing in its first iteration. Tom is going all out with these 3D transformations of the club. Many people have said – even the staff that have worked there and seen it every night for however many years – that it's the best the club has ever looked. It's the biggest compliment when you see someone who works at the club trying to steal your decorations.

By Todd L. Burns on August 5, 2015

On a different note