Keeping The Beat Alive: An Interview With Lady D (Part One)

By Kevin Robinson in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 16, 2014 7:00PM

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Lady D
One of the hardest working DJs in the business, Darlene Jackson, a.k.a. Lady D holds a special place among Chicago's house artists. A staple on the local DJ circuit she's been on the decks with the likes of Ron Trent, DJ Psychobitch, Teri Bristol and Ron Carroll. No conversation about the second wave of house music in Chicago or the Chicago nightclub scene is complete without at least mentioning her role in the city.

A founding member of the iconic female DJ collective Superjane, Lady D has blazed a trail in dance music that's led the way for subsequent generations of DJs and producers, male and female alike. Synonymous with house music both at home and abroad, her compilation Naked Kaleidoscope helped solidify her reputation as a skilled and soulful house DJ. Having performed at events held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Art Institute, Millennium Park and Lollapalooza as well as at underground events across the city, Lady D says she feels "like I’m really a part of the fabric of Chicago... I always say I’m an ambassador of Chicago." While Lady D still performs regularly in Chicago, she devotes much of her time and energy to raising her high school aged son. "House music is about positivity so it's important to keep doing what I'm doing. I pass along everything I demonstrate in my playing to my kid-to persevere, to uplift and to have fun!"

What follows is part one of an edited conversation with Lady D.

CHICAGOIST: You mentioned that you'd be performing at the Art Institute (at the time of this interview). That seems to be a part of the Lady D world—playing around these institutions in Chicago.

LADY D: I’ve been lucky like that. I’ve been able to do [these types of events]. I did something [at the Willis Tower] for Social Media Week, on the 82nd or 84th floor, from like, 6 to 8 p.m. The sun was setting, it was just beautiful. What a great perspective! I played a party on a CTA train, that went from one side of the city to another—from Howard to 95th Street, and then around the Loop for a while. We crossed the Chicago river, it was just awesome! I’ve played a few places around the city, the Merchandise Mart I do a Halloween party every year for this group called Good Works. They do a big charity Halloween ball, with about 3,000-4,000 people. And they donate that money to certain organizations. It’s lovely because I feel like I’m a native daughter of Chicago and I get to do these things that are very Chicago. I was in a campaign for the Chicago Public Library, and an ad for the CSO. I was featured in Chicago magazine. I feel like I’m really a part of the fabric of Chicago, and it’s only natural to be featured in Chicago magazine. I always say I’m an ambassador of Chicago.

C: Do you perform abroad a lot?

LADY D: I did a while. It’s slowed down over the years, well, I’m a mother, I’m a single mom. Charged with raising a child, you can’t really travel as much, and there are a few things that are prohibitive. Being a mom and having to be hands on because you don’t have a partner that’s helping you. It limits the time that you have to spend in the studio, as well. If you don’t have projects out, you're not going to get those types of touring bookings. So I did quite a bit when my son was younger, because I had a lot of family support—my parents, his grandparents. They were very very helpful. And you know, it was OK if I was gone a week. When they’re young it’s not as crucial as when they get to high school, middle school. I would say between 1999 and 2010, probably that decade, I was pretty active in going out and performing internationally.

"I’m always surprised when people say “hey, I know you.” My face is recognized, whether or not I realize what for or how. It still catches me off guard. I always think to myself “they must think I’m somebody else.”"
C: When I talk to house DJs they almost always tell me the same stories about playing in Chicago and it being a niche genre, but then they travel abroad and play these massive clubs and events for thousands of people.

LADY D: I would say the celebrity around house music has always been bigger in Europe—places like London, France, Germany, Amsterdam—than it ever has been in the United States, apart from Chicago. That’s a common experience that many people have. Ron Carroll, who I’ve worked with quite a bit, I remember the first time we were traveling in France, and people were literally pointing and staring, we were in the South of France, and people were calling his name, “Ron Carroll, Ron Carroll!” I was like, “wow, these people know you, they’re into you.” Girls would stop him and say something. A lot of times people will have seen him on a European label. European labels are really about that business: they are pushing it, marketing, they have a strategy in place, and they are getting those plays, those buys, those spins on the radio. And it creates a certain market for it, a certain style. In America, the house music thing has taken a long time to catch on, and it’s been whitewashed by EDM, so you don’t have that experience for people here. But when I do go through Chicago, I’m always surprised when people say “hey, I know you.” My face is recognized, whether or not I realize what for or how. It still catches me off guard. I always think to myself “they must think I’m somebody else.”

C: Other than the business side of it, why do you think dance music is so much more popular in Europe than in the U.S.?

LADY D: I think for a couple of reasons. Americans are slow to embrace new things, slow to embrace change. I would say there might be a racial component to it. There’s a little bit of a prejudice about really embracing something that looks and feels different from everything that you know. Because house music has been such an independent label thing, major labels tried to catch on, but never really got the hang of it, never really developed the departments for it. I think they maybe thought it was too faddish. Maybe the faces were too colorful. They didn’t have enough, where they thought they would attract the fanbase they want. When I was just beginning to DJ in the 90’s, it was like ok, here’s this music, we have these parties, go to these raves, you see all these kids, thousands and thousands of kids, really into this music, why wouldn’t you market it? I wish I had been an A&R person or record executive. They just did not have people that were in touch enough to know, this is what kids are into, this is what they like. And even if they did, maybe they just thought, you know, this is too crazy, this will never work, what was bubbling up from the underground. And here we are, 20 years later.

C: You mentioned a racial component between the popularity of dance music in Europe and in the U.S.

LADY D: I think that with most things, Europeans—and you can go back to the '50s or the '60s—blues artists—they saw a lot of success in Europe, they didn’t seem to be second-class citizens, relegated to the chitlin circuit. They went over and played all the major festivals and venues; they couldn’t believe their stardom overseas, and there seemed to be an appreciation for their music. And coming from a racist society, a two-class society, they just embraced them, they embraced people because of their music and did not hold them back because their color. And that’s always been part of the European history, going back to the '50s and '60s. That’s just their M.O. They appreciate black music, they appreciate soul music. Whereas here, they’ve spent a lot of time trying to recalibrate soul music into a more digestible form, you know, white artists taking black songs and doing them, and that sort of thing. It’s just a historical fact. They didn’t really look at it like that, they appreciate the music.

C: The passing of Frankie Knuckles really highlighted this for me, that house is a minority music, that was popularized in gay discos, and when you look at pictures of house parties in the 1980s, you see lots of black people in gay discos. And it goes over to London and it becomes something artistic and tasteful. Right now, the big deep house act out of Europe is Disclosure.

LADY D: [laughs] right! I’m a big fan of Disclosure, I think they’re doing it right. That imitation is flattery. I think they’ve done their homework, bringing a modern sound to something that they really appreciate. They’ve been really creating a sound that’s very similar to some of our Chicago artists. Why? I don’t know—I would say the marketing was right, the time was right. Maybe the fact that people were coming out of the hip-hop era, and the way that it exploded and wanting something different. Young people are the people that go go to clubs and are out at night have the disposable income to spend on these things. People that have families and jobs less so. And maybe there’s a familiarity going on there. People want to see what looks like them, built like them, is more relatable in their mindset. No hate on Disclosure, I really like them, I saw their show at the Aragon recently, and was really impressed, I had a great time. You can’t throw any shade on them.

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Lady D working a crowd in Milwaukee

C: Do you think that, this younger generation of kids that are getting into dance music, have the same sort of racial baggage that the older audience might have?

LADY D: It’s a two-fold issue. Kids are clued in enough to go back and look into the history of anything—not just, you know, EDM and where it comes from, but anything. I mean, our ways of getting information have changed so much and it’s so immediate, and a lot of things are completely disposable. It’s in one ear and out the other. This digital society we have is all caught up in [the internet], and they get information so quickly, and they lose it so quickly, that it really takes a certain type of person, to say, OK, I really like this.

It’s something parents have instilled in them. It doesn’t come naturally, because of the delivery of information. When we were younger, we had to go to the library, or your parents had a set of encyclopedias, so there was a lot more reading, and you had to get into something to learn about it. So I don't know that we’re creating children that are as inquisitive. You know my son, he buys vinyl, he’s into vintage guitars; he’s the type of kid that’s always looking a little further back than what’s right in front of him. I would say he’s a renaissance kid; he’s the exception, not the rule.

C: Where do you think that house fits in the pantheon of black music in America?

LADY D: If you had a timeline and you put all of the American music forms, the black american music forms, it’s right there on that timeline. It gets it’s own dot. It’s modern, it’s not that old. House and hip-hop are cousins, born from the same mother, rock and soul. It’s just as big; historically that will prove out. I think you’re starting to see some of that acknowledgement. With the passing of Frankie Knuckles, you’re getting that; it seems like it’s starting to snowball a little more.

C: Do you feel like house music fits in the world of black music as something separate and distinct, or do you consider it as being a part of American music?

LADY D: I think it’s both. I don’t think you can deny that it was born out of the black or gay experience—it’s also gay music—it was born out of all that. You can’t say it’s one thing. Yes, it’s American music in the same way that black Americans are American.

C: Talking about some of the identity and ethnic history of house music, it seems that there’s two sides to house music, black house and Latin house. Do you think that those two have stayed divergent, or that they’ve come together and that distinction is no longer relevant?

LADY D: If you look back at our history, say we go back to the (WBMX) Hot Mix 5 days; the Hot Mix 5 was great! You had the black guys, the Latino guys the white guys. There was this melting pot of different styles. Just because you were black didn’t mean you really only liked the black ones. It would change from week to week, depending on who had the best mix that week. You could be like “oh I love Farley,” then you’d be like “Ralphie Rosario threw down this week!” In terms of where you went to experience house music, though, you didn’t have a lot of South Side kids trekking over to the West Side to go to parties. They had their own culture of house music and how they experienced and interpreted it, how they danced and interacted with it.

They were doing the same thing, the gymnasium parties, the Catholic school parties. They had different styles, though. The DJs and sounds they were playing, though, were a little different. I always thought the Mexican style was faster, more trackier. They really focused more on the Latin sounds and artists. It was just different, a different playlist. But at the end of the day, it’s the same thing, right? kids going to parties, listening to music. Yeah, maybe there’s a divergence in the sense that there was a geographical divergence. It’s like the Galapagos [Islands]: there’s still evolution occurring. A slightly different species, but part of the same family. I don’t feel like there’s a real Latin presence, as there was at one point in time. There was a time when Latin-style house was really big, there was a time when gospel style house was really big.

These things kind of go in and out. There’s still Latin DJs and Latin artists—Little Louie, even Lego, he plays a very Latin oriented set. I remember I was playing an outdoor party, and I wanted to play a Latin-style set, and I really had to go back into my crate to get stuff. A lot of it was 1999 to 2003. So much hot Latin music from that time. People were like “yeah, Latin house!” You know, you don’t hear that so much anymore. A lot of it has merged into other house.

Part two of this interview will run tomorrow. To tide you over until then Lady D put together an exclusive mix for Chicagoist readers to stream and download. Enjoy!

Lady D will be spinning at Double Door on Sunday, Dec. 28, Foreign Exchange at Subterranean on Saturday, Jan. 3, at Smart Bar with SuperJane on Jan. 22, and at For The Love of Chocolate Gala on Feb. 28