“LET'S TALK ABOUT HOUSE”
Charlie Porter meets Honey Dijon
“Anything that I’m saying is a proposal for you to dig deeper into the music and the culture that you love.” So speaks Honey Dijon. It’s a Saturday lunchtime, and Honey is on the phone. She is at home in Berlin, just arrived back from Paris, where she had soundtracked the latest Dior Men’s fashion show with a mix of Kraftwerk, Anne Clark and Patrick Cowley. It was music as party, energy release and education.
“You can call me whatever you want to call me, but that doesn’t invalidate my experience of it or my viewpoint of it. It’s an opportunity for you to explore another way of thinking.”
I love talking with Honey Dijon. She always makes me think and then think again. Born and raised in Chicago, Honey was witness to and participant in the evolution of House music. She revelled in the underground. “There’s a lot more to discuss beyond Ron and Frankie and L’Il Louis at the Bismarck Hotel,” she says. Growing up within that dance music culture, Honey also schooled herself about fashion and art, often from the pages of style magazines that she obsessively sought out. She was always aware that, at that time, neither fashion nor art were disciplines that would welcome a queer black kid (I write these words as an equivalent queer white kid, who grew up assuming that I’d find an open door to these disciplines, as well as to journalism).
Cut to today, and Honey Dijon is one of the most celebrated DJs in the world. She has reached this point through her sheer talent, commitment, taste, drive and a physicality to her DJing that charges rooms with energy. I fear for any DJ on a line up who follows her. She is one of the most visible trans women in the world. She has her own fashion line, Honey Fucking Dijon, made in conjunction with the people behind Comme des Garçons. As far as she knows, she’s the first trans woman with her own internationally stocked fashion label.
Honey is ready to release her second album, Black Girl Magic, once again using the tracks as a platform to collaborate with black queer artists. Meanwhile, the YouTube film of Honey’s watershed set at Sugar Mountain in March 2018 has been viewed nearly seven million times. Honey played there in the daytime, and aerial shots of the crowd are like watching a CGI-rendered swarm. She has soundtracked some of the most significant catwalk shows of recent times, especially those of designer Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton and then Dior Men. It was Honey who soundtracked the Louis Vuitton show that revealed its collaboration with Supreme. Recently, one of Honey’s tracks, Not About You, subverted the mainstream when it was playlisted on Radio 1.
I list all these to mark her achievements, but also to say that Honey has always seen the connection between it all. She seeks the beauty in cross-pollination, the meeting point of art, fashion, music, sex, clubs and counterculture, and the importance of using her platform to make sure voices from those communities are heard. Further, she understands that, while the dance music industry has become a billion-dollar global machine, many of the histories and participants of true dance music culture are still not given the respect or attention they are due.
Honey Dijon could never take a break. I remember her trying to take a week’s beach holiday a few years ago. She lasted a couple of days. Her life was her work. As a black trans woman, no-one else was going to make it happen for her except herself. Then the pandemic struck. When we spoke, it had been ten months since she’d DJ-ed. For the first time since I’ve known her, she’s been forced to do nothing. “It’s been an adjustment,” she says, “but at the same time it’s allowed me to develop other parts of myself, and explore other parts of being an artist, and what that means now, and how to have a relationship with what I do, and realising it’s not what I do it’s who I am.”
Honey has her health, as does her family. “I still have savings. I still have a place to live so I feel I’m still winning. A lot of other DJs are completely fucked. What kind of job can you just go out and get when there are no jobs? If you’re just starting out as a DJ, or if you’re doing bar gigs and local clubs, and those DJs are just as important as the ones that are doing festivals, what do you do?”
Since dancefloors shut down, Honey has spent much of the pandemic going through her archives. She is in a reflective frame of mind. It is an honour for me to write for Faith. I say to Honey that if we’re talking for Faith, we should honour the spirit of Faith, and be super nerdy.
“Well,” she says. “There are so many other people that were part of that movement in Chicago that didn’t get as much light as I feel they should have. There’s never a discussion about the white lesbian DJs or the black female DJs, or the queer DJs or the trans clubs or the queer clubs. There’s always focus on Music Box and The Power Plant and The Warehouse. And there were so many amazing spaces.
“Let’s talk about Michael Ezebukwu, who was also a very influential DJ in the beginnings of house music culture and the gay black scene. Let’s talk about Ralphi Rosario, and his being an influential Latin gay man in the Hot Mix 5 when the rest of them where heterosexual cisgender men. Let’s talk about the influential club Cheeks, which was the trans bar on the north side of Chicago, where I also heard a lot of important house music played by DJ Oscar. Let’s talk about the Latin gay club Normandy. Let’s talk about the club Foxys where Derrick Carter and Mark Farina used to play. Let’s talk about the legacy of Gemini, about Kaboom. Guidance Records, Prescription Records. That’s where I met Ron and Chez. So many pockets of things haven’t been talked about in the history of this story.”
(I can confirm this. After I’d transcribed our conversation, I spent some time checking I’d got the spelling of all these names right. It was hard. The lesson: don’t presume the easily accessed history of house music on the Internet is bible.)
“Let’s talk about Glee Club, a big gay party where Teri Bristol and Psycho-Bitch used to DJ,” Honey continues. “They were white lesbians, and the female conversation is often left out, especially the queer female conversation.” As Honey points out it was Teri Bristol who did a mix of Leviticus: Faggot by Me’Shell Ndegéocello, “a super important remix” in her words. “Let’s talk about Red Dog, which was another club that was hugely influential in early house. There’s a lot to discuss if you want to have these nerdy conversations.”
I was left wondering about the role UK style magazines played in this. I’ve got my September ‘86 issue of The Face with me as I type this. I was thirteen when I bought it. It featured Sheryl Garrett’s much-cited piece on House music. I remember reading it so vividly. Early in the text, Garrett writes, “There’s a new (and beautiful) city for the UK hacks to fly to en masse.”
“Well,” says Honey, “I’m just going to be very frank. A lot of the UK press fetishized and colonised a lot of the culture, especially the straight white men running the youth publications.” The editor of The Face at the time was still its founder, Nick Logan. Looking back at the dance music coverage of the time, what seemed to matter most was the discovery of something new, rather than allowing different subcultures to exist on their own terms. It set up a relentless forward-facing obsession in dance music coverage where newness is key.
Anyone who has ever experienced any club of true heart knows that what matters is community, creativity, experimentation, electric charge, connection, pleasure. None of these necessarily require newness. “They just gravitated to what made the most noise,” Honey continues about UK style media. “But no music can only have one or two players. No-one talks about Bistro, which was a teen club on the upper north side where I saw Divine play. You’re talking about queer spaces. These weren’t necessarily the popular spaces, these were really underground.”
I’m guessing these bars, and I mean this in the most complementary way, were shitholes? “Yeah they were shithole bars,” she replies. “Normandy was the equivalent of a regular pub. These weren’t clubs with great sound systems and great lighting. None of that existed. Most of these places were just wherever you could throw a party, the basement of a restaurant or a bar. None of this glitz and glamour existed. You went to dance. You went to hear your favourite DJ. It was a different environment.”
Honey thinks often about how things were then, how things are now. “I had this conversation with Derrick Carter last night,” she says. The two are long-term friends. “I asked him, are we becoming our parents? Because when we look at what the kids are doing today, we’re saying, ‘oh they’re not doing anything really original’. But didn’t our parents say the same thing about us? Derrick came back with, ‘I don’t agree with that, because when we were doing things, we were at the beginning of change. Our parents didn’t have technology. Our parents didn’t have computers and smart phones and the internet. We were at the beginning of going from analogue to digital. We were the transitional generation’.”
It got Honey looking back. “I’ve never really thought about it in that context,” she says. “You had to go out to meet your partners. You had to go out to experience music. You had to go out to learn how to be an artist and collaborate with people. You had to be part of culture in order to participate in it.”
Also missing from the straight white male version of club culture history is the impact of AIDS. “For me, the greatest change was AIDS,” says Honey. She mentions something Fran Lebowitz had said, how AIDS had killed not only the people who created culture, it also killed the audience who appreciated it. “So now we have all the B, the C, the D list people who are considered tastemakers,” she says. “AIDS combined with capitalism combined with gentrification, globalisation and social media, have really eroded our critical thinking. We’re not even allowed to process and digest it, because it’s at the speed of light. We’re not allowed to sit with something for a while and really understand it and really take it in before it’s on to the next.”
She draws a parallel with the contemporary clubbing experience. “The kids in the UK are either going to a festival where you hear twenty DJs in the course of your time there, or you’re going to a club and there’s two to five DJs in the course of a night. The idea of a resident DJ is gone. The idea of hearing a record week in and week out, to create an anthem or a classic, or even to dance and sing along with a community of friends you see every week. I’ve made lifelong friends on the dancefloor. Hearing my favourite DJ week in week out, playing music that I maybe didn’t like three weeks ago and all of a sudden loved, or understood. And not depending on streaming or algorithms or how many people saw my video.”
Just before Honey and I spoke, she’d been on the phone with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator, writer, director of the Serpentine Gallery and big thinker on culture. “Hans told me a really great quote,” she says. “’to protest against forgetting’.” It’s an excellent term. None of this is about nostalgia or wallowing in the past. It is the vital, defiant act of remembering. “One of the things that I constantly talk about is that this culture comes from gay black people,” she says. “It came from trans people, from marginalised people, from working class black kids. We didn’t have the means or the knowledge of how a record deal worked. If you talk about how black artists were taken advantage of, we didn’t know about publishing and residuals and marketing. We were just making music for the club.
“The same thing for gay black clubs. These were safe places to be gay and to dance with each other and to celebrate the music and the language and the dress codes. And then it was colonised, and then the people who created it were dying of AIDS. The beginning of House music was the beginning of the height of the AIDS epidemic when people really didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” she says. It’s easy to forget that no-one was talking about safe sex until around 1986.
“And let’s talk about drug use,” she adds. “Let’s talk about numbing from all your friends dying. Being twenty years old and all of a sudden your whole circle of friends have gone, the friends you celebrated with at the club. And now you have so many people standing on the shoulders of these pioneers making millions and millions of dollars, and you have festival line-ups that don’t even include people of colour or women. It’s very important not to forget how this culture came about.”
Back in January 2017, I visited Honey at her place in New York. She was busy tidying the kitchen. While she did so, she said I could look through her stuff if I wanted. There was enough to look through – Honey is a self-confessed hoarder.
I gagged. There was a pile of magazines, on top of which was a fanzine I had never seen before. It was called Thing, a Chicago fanzine for the queer black underground community. It was extraordinary – smart, sharp, loving, knowing, radical. The writing was exquisite, elevated, funny, wise. Honey had collected Thing. I asked her what the people who made it are doing now. “They’re dead,” she said. I started reading the Spring ‘93 issue of Thing. Inside was an interview with Candice Jourdan. I’d never heard of her. I read further. Candice Jourdan was Sweet Pussy Pauline!
I could not believe what I was reading. I took photos of the pages – I’m reading the interview again as I type this now. Candy used to be a car sales representative. Candy says of RuPaul, “I think she’s talented, but…” Candy listed the people she’d sued: 2 Live Crew, Tony, Toni, Toné, Deee-Lite… The text was by LeRoy Whitfield. It was one of the best interviews I’ve ever read. The fanzine is an incredible document, today archived at the Chicago History Museum.
“The thing about Thing that a lot of people don’t talk about is black queer theory,” Honey said, “and I kept a lot of those magazines because I felt like someone was speaking for me, speaking the language that black people used that wasn’t in popular culture. Now we have all that because of RuPaul’s Drag Race: kiki-ing, reading, shade, fierce, major – that was the queer black gay language. You had alternative queer voices like Marlon Riggs, all of these people writing about their experience alongside writing about music, about trans sex work, about AIDS – it wasn’t separate from the culture. It wasn’t just about partying or getting high. These people were creating art and reflecting on their life experience. If there’s anything I can do in my work, it’s share the experience of those who can no longer speak for themselves.”
When Honey DJs, she speaks with her own body. “It was a culture shock for me to come to Europe and see how people played records,” says Honey. “This seamless from one record to another. It was too clean and polite. It wasn’t physical, it wasn’t emotional, it wasn’t dirty, it wasn’t rough, it wasn’t raw. I was in shock about how that happened. I was in shock that people faced the DJ. That’s not how I had experienced dancing.”
Honey moved to New York in the ‘90s. For years, she played records in bars, underground clubs. She learned her craft in real time: unafraid to mess up till mixing became a natural, instinctive act; watching what made a crowd wake up; realising the role she played in the connectivity of a room. At the same time, she transitioned. “Imagine that,” she says. “I am so indebted to my trans sisters in my community for helping me find myself.” There were few options for trans humans then. “If you were a trans person, you couldn’t work in the real world.” Honey says that many in her community had no option but to do sex work. Honey kept at DJ-ing, working any gig she could. “I couldn’t go in the daylight and get a regular job, especially in the early years of my transition because I was visibly trans, and, to binary people, visibly trans is very threatening.”
Honey says that, today, trans people have more choice not to enter hormone therapy or surgery. “I had to do all that because it was a matter of getting home at night,” she says. “It was either presenting as CIS or getting your ass killed.” This sense of safety is crucial to the story of dance music culture. “These clubs that I talk about and the music that I talk about and this community that I talk about is a lived thing for me,” she says. “And these were places not only where I could celebrate but also feel safe.”
Honey got a place in Berlin in 2016, after years of living between New York and Europe. The pandemic made her realise it was time to say goodbye to NYC. In the autumn, when Honey was able to travel, she went back to New York to pack up her things.
“It was very emotional,” she says. Five years previously, there’d been a fire at her storage facility. She managed to salvage what she could. “Now I’ve got the project of starting to go through all those records.” It was an active decision to leave the city. “I realised the pandemic was a conduit for me to make peace with a New York that only lives inside of me now. There’s always a catalyst to change and I would never have dared cut the cord before. It was good for me to go back and now I have more fuel for the work that I’m going to do from this point.”
And so we find Honey Dijon ready for a pivot. When the world can return to whatever is normality, the DJ-ing will come back full force, the fashion line will grow, Honey Dijon will be Honey Dijon. But, more than ever, she will be ready to share with the world what otherwise is in danger of being forgotten.
“I have come to the point that I am where I should be now,” she says. “Maybe my role now is shifting from someone who collected all that memorabilia to someone who is presenting it to a new audience, to have a new conversation.” To allow it to have resonance, to protest against forgetting. “Everything that I do is not mine,” she says. “How I play what I play the way I play is a bricolage of so many people who have gone before me, and isn’t that what all art is?”
Honey Dijon ‘Black Girl Magic’ LP is out later in the year on Classic Music Company