By Lady Foursquare
I saw Paris Is Burning in 1992 with my mom. She told me that it was a documentary about dancers in New York. She did not tell me that Jennie Livingston's 1990 masterful love letter to the New York ball culture of the 1980s would be the Rosetta Stone that I'd spend two decades decoding.
I watched Paris Is Burning like some people watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As a dancer, I idolized vogue legend Willi Ninja and mourned his 2006 death from AIDS-related heart disease. When I became a DJ, I heard the disco and proto-house records in the film, and later I discovered a lot of people (gay, straight, or none of the above) who found a comforting mirror in the film, as well. Livingston's attentive dissection of race, class, and gender in the ballroom scene speaks to anyone coping with marginalization by transforming themselves into something else.
So when I started to hear rumblings of a new music genre called "ballroom," I got really excited. No matter whom I talked to about the subject, one name came up over and over: DJ MikeQ. The 25-year-old "Qween Beat" label boss was absolutely unavoidable, making instant fans out of many DJs, including globetrotting superstar Diplo.
No matter what you think of DJ MikeQ, he is impossible to ignore: a nonstop flurry of shows and strong opinions. (If you follow him on Twitter, you know that holding his tongue isn't something Mike has a lot of time for.)
So when Network Awesome decided to air Paris Is Burning, there was no debate about who we wanted to talk to.
Lady Foursquare: I'd like to hear about the the first time you watched Paris Is Burning. Do you remember it specifically?
DJ MikeQ: Well, the first time I saw it was in 2004 or 2005, I believe. A friend showed it to me on VHS. I immediately loved it, having already been a part of the ballroom scene. Seeing Paris Is Burning really gave me some history on what I was getting into, and I quickly recommended it for everyone to see and still do today.
Lady Foursquare: Are there any parts of the film that are particularly important or special to you?
DJ MikeQ: Well, I like the movie equally... entirely. Some of my favorite parts would have to be Paris talking at this ball. I believe it was the "Butchqueen First Time in Drag at a Ball" category, where Paris comes out of her wig saying, "Y'all know what I'm talking about! Butchqueen! Butch!" [There's] another part, where Eddie Pendavis is speaking about mopping. Or, weirdly, the end of the movie where they speak of Venus [Xtravaganza] getting killed. She's on the pier with a green vest on, and the song "Another Man" by Barbara Mason is playing. That scene basically summed up gay life around that time.
Lady Foursquare: I love that scene, too, although it's heartbreaking. So, the movie is 20 years old now, and I would wager that a lot of people in the ball scene were barely born when the film premiered. Do you feel a younger ball culture responding to the movie?
DJ MikeQ: I mean, I'm not completely sure. This ballroom scene today is many things. It's not easy for anything that doesn't include a grand prize to be grasped. You have certain ones where it may "touch them," but I doubt them watching it would make them respond or do anything any differently. For me, it really made me want to actually be there in those times, to see what it was like and experience that history, but that's about it. I have had the pleasure of meeting or being around some of those in the movie.
Lady Foursquare: On that note, can you describe ballroom music in one sentence?
DJ MikeQ: Ballroom music: weird, dramatic, sometimes hard-hitting, repetitious, half-club/half-house beats.
Lady Foursquare: For someone who has never heard ballroom music, what does it actually sound like? Talk about the construction of it.
DJ MikeQ: Well, it's almost unexplainable. It also depends on what category you want to make the beat for. Lets say it's vogue. Most people like to hear that "ha crash" sample, which comes every fourth beat or so, and you build the beat around that. It doesn't even have to to have that sound at all, but it's just this certain style that makes it ballroom. I myself, who does not vogue, will picture someone doing it to the track I am creating, which is almost like a guide. If you can't see anyone going off to that beat, you're not doing something right. Also, most ballroom beats can't even be regularly danced to. I've seen people do it, and it looks kinda stupid, but only because they don't know. Or if it's a runway beat, those are more electro-house-type beats that you should be able to walk to. I also picture this in my head as a guide to what I am doing.