The Black Madonna: "If I Never Put Out Another Track Digitally, It Would Be Too Soon"
The Black Madonna is a mysterious, rarely photographed figure. And this is her symbol.
The Black Madonna (AKA Marea Vierge-Noire) has a bone to pick with the current state of dance music, particularly online digital distribution and the decline of analog audio formats like vinyl and tape. After all, she came up during the golden age of rave, before corporate "EDM" co-opted electronic dance music's original underground DIY subculture.
So these days, the Black Madonna leads by example, putting out limited-edition wax and presiding over Chicago's legendary Smart Bar as resident vinyl slinger and newly appointed creative director. Her DJ sets, of course, are a crate digger's bounty spanning the gamut from disco to techno, and all manner of rare vinyl gems.
Crossfade caught up with the Black Madonna ahead of her headlining appearance for this Saturday's Scaramouche party at the Vagabond. Topics of conversation included her utopian rave days, dance music's DIY renaissance, and her advice for women in EDM.
Crossfade: How did you first get exposed to electronic dance music while growing up in Kentucky?
The Black Madonna: My stepdad and mom were huge influences. I grew up hearing the Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and other synth-pop of the era. Prince was the mayor of our house. But I can't remember a time when my favorite songs weren't dance music. I remember really loving the two Hi-NRG songs in that cheesy '80s dance movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun, even. I graduated up to Technotronic and Black Box.
How did you get introduced to the '90s Midwestern rave scene? What are your fondest memories or impressions of that time?
When raves came to Ohio in 1992, I found one and didn't leave. I'd do any job related to parties, if I could get in for free: sold mixtapes, smart drinks, searched people at the door, you name it. I just never left. That time for me remains so filled with optimism. We had such hope for the future. We hadn't realized the world was ending yet. Hard drugs weren't around. Nothing bad had ever happened to anyone we knew.
It was a very special and short-lived time. I don't think I slept until 1997. Parties like the first Further and Interstellar Outback were these miraculous zones of autonomy. Twenty years later, I still feel the same way about that time. I am almost protective of it. For all the bad rap that raves get now, we did something special, and there's nothing that can take that away.
Tell us about selling mixtapes at raves. Were you compiling the tracks and recording the mixtapes yourself or on behalf of other DJs?
I sold other DJs' mixes: Hyperactive, Terry Mullan, Jajo (rest in peace). We sold everything on Earth. We duplicated the tapes, cut the covers by hand, stuck the labels. Most of this happened in the backseat of a car we were borrowing. My friend J.J. ran the booth I worked for. J.J. was seven or eight years older than me and sort of had his life together amidst all the chaos. We sold tapes and T-shirts and worked together to organize big huge raves. He was a great mentor and father figure to me. We are still great friends. I love his two beautiful daughters like they are my own. I didn't DJ personally until 2002. It hadn't even occurred to me.
Having come from that era of truly underground music distribution via mixtapes, what are your thoughts on the way the internet and music hosting sites like SoundCloud have transformed the way electronic dance music is consumed? Is there such a thing as underground music these days, when people can listen to last night's DJ set online and Shazam track titles?
You probably can't Shazam (is that a verb?) a record that has 300 vinyl-only copies. There's definitely an underground, and it's kids making records at home and then pressing them and packaging them by hand. That's a huge movement right now. Go into Gramaphone and half the wall is hand-stamped, unfancy, and awesome. We have certainly been a part of it at Stripped & Chewed. We believe strongly in handmade, limited products. And for what it's worth, if I never put out another track digitally, it would be too soon. A lot of people share my opinion. I'm working towards making that a reality.
How did you end up in Chicago, and what keeps you there? What are your favorite things about its dance music scene? Is there still a tangible sense of the history of house music there?
Chicago is a city where a cop on their lunch break might be listening to Jamie Principle in their cruiser. I came here because of that. House is omnipresent. This is a city where the Chosen Few DJs (who are superstars here) can take over the plaza in front of Chicago's largest courthouse and have a lunchtime disco party that's legal. Chicago is dance music. It's a part of normal life.
After college, the owner of Dust Traxx, who had been a tape vendor we traded with, asked me to come and do an entry-level position. I ended up label-managing and doing just about every other job in the various Dust Traxx companies along the way. The scene here is incredible. From Smart Bar, where I am creative director and a resident, to the underground parties that go till 3 p.m. on Sunday (or later), I just haven't been anywhere like this.
Congrats on landing your new role as creative director at Smart Bar. How do you plan to approach this role? Do you have any special plans for the venue and musical programming?
Well, it's a huge honor and my dream come true. I can say that with zero qualification. I plan on emphasizing ideas here. [Monthly party] Hugo Ball has been a huge influence for me in terms of what programming and concepts can do for the club. The residency program is of particular interest to me. We have a magnificent city that will go whatever weird and funky places we lead them. I won't neglect their willingness to dive into new territory or the rich culture of dance that allowed us to get here in first place.