“There is almost no culture left here”: Creating a space to return to in Joey LaBeija’s anthems for a city that’s long gone

, 3 April 2017

“This record is actual music and these are the sounds of a subculture that no longer exist because of your participation in mediocrity,” writes Joey LaBeija in an email chat about where he’s coming from as a producer, artist and once-party organiser. Born and raised in The Bronx, the New York hairdresser-by-day just self-released his second EP Violator on March 23.

Joey LaBeija promotional image (2017). Courtesy the artist + Worldwide Friendly Society.

Both aggressive and nostalgic, the record’s sound is rooted in the potential to affect the energy of a space, attempting to evoke the feeling of what the city LaBeija was born in used to be. He produces a hard-style aesthetic with a NY party vibe; dance, house, hip-hop, dancehall mashups delivered on a punk attitude. ‘XTC’ is an aggressive rhythmic dance number, while ‘XXXcuse Me’ is insistent, thumping techno. Influenced by his life growing up in New York, the producer talks to us about working with the iconic 80s ‘Love Ball’ party organiser and 90s Club Kid Susanne Bartsch, his past work as a model for labels like Telfarbecoming a fourth generation member of the legendary ballroom House of LaBeija and growing up on “anthem-esque Jock Jams-types of tunes”.

For Labeija, who came to DJ-ing as a way to escape the “absolute worst job of being an apprentice in a salon,” both music and fashion are important spaces that allow for total control and change depending on mood or feeling. The album’s artwork, created by Christian Velasquez, draws from a DIY aesthetic and is meant to look more like a flyer, in tune with the anticipation of a proper rave; a space to return to. “You are the reason people would rather be on Instagram in a club instead of dancing,” LaBeija’s minor manifesto continues, “This is how you make people lose their minds on the dance floor. Class dismissed; carry on.”

** As a fourth generation House of LaBeija member, what’s your relationship to its history and, perhaps, aesthetic?

Joey LaBeija: The House of LaBeija and its legacy, for me, is the epitome of New York. It is the most iconic house, it is the most legendary house, it is the most well-known house and it started right here where I grew up. The House of LaBeija is very glam but very banji, which I think you see and hear in my work. I became a LaBeija as a way to carry out the legacy of the house outside of the ballroom community.

** How did working for Susanne Bartsch influence your outlook and approach to creativity?

JLB: My Bartsch days were so crazy. She was like a second mother to me and really pushed me to let my freak flag fly. Susanne showed me how to really turn a club night into a proper experience. I also learned how to be a professional and responsible promoter from her… ask anyone that has ever DJed my party about my level of professionalism. She’s a very detail-oriented Virgo and I’m such a Big Picture Sagittarius, so I really learned how to go through every element of every detail that went into curating a night from her. 

Joey LaBeija, ‘Violator’ (2017). Poster. Courtesy the artist + Worldwide Friendly Society.

** The aesthetic of the visual artwork for this EP is quite 00s drum ‘n’ bass and rave culture (with a bit of punk rock/psychobilly). Your sound too, also has this nostalgic element, particularly with the synths and 808s. What is it about this that attracts you to it?

JLB: When I was writing Violator last summer, I really wanted the project to sound like the craziest party you’ve ever been to in your life. It was so important that the artwork looked more like a flyer rather than a typical album cover. There is something so pure and magical about the energy you feel when you’re at a proper rave and it’s something that inspires me heavily.

I remember one of my first CDs that I ever owned was a Jock Jams mix around the age of six or seven; I begged my aunt for it for Christmas but I couldn’t wait to have it so I made my mom get it for me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had an affinity for these anthem-esque Jock Jam-types of tunes. You can definitely hear the references to these classics on Violator in a darker but more turned up context. 

** You’ve mentioned this eroding New York scene, is a record like Violator an attempt to get it back?

JLB: Violator is more of an attempt to evoke the feelings of what New York used to be, because to be honest, New York will never be the same. Industrial parts of Bushwick that you would be terrified to walk through five years ago are now lined with high rise buildings. The New York me and my friends grew up with is so far gone. There is almost no culture left here, so you can absolutely forget about a subculture. Besides being a dance record, Violator has a strong message hidden between the melodies and drum programming.

** You spent some time away from New York in Kansas (correct me if I’m wrong), what did that experience do for your outlook and output?

JLB: I went to Kansas City for three months and it was absolutely beautiful. I fell in love and, for the first time in my life, I was able to live this really relaxing and slow-paced life. Before leaving, I deactivated my Facebook and all social media apps from my phone to disconnect from the world and focus on myself.

Living in New York, I make music out of pure desire to escape the harsh reality that exists outside of my studio walls. Kansas City was so peaceful that at first, I had no idea what to do with myself and was confused on what I wanted to make musically. It was a great time to get inspired and get to know myself and reassess my life.

** Often creative cross-genre music like yours is attributed to the internet for expanding and interconnecting influences in music but in your case, it seems like your background, the physical place you come from, is what influenced you most. Do you think though that it’s an audience’s open-ness to this kind of stylistic fusion that has been influenced by the internet instead?

Joey LaBeija promotional image (2017). Courtesy the artist + Worldwide Friendly Society.

JLB: Forget about what the audience thinks for one second and let’s talk about the producers and DJs. I think it is your job as a musician or someone who creates and controls energy for a couple of hours in a club to break down people’s boundaries and standards for what they deem as cool. Stop trying to be someone else, and be yourself. You have so much power as a DJ, so use it to your advantage or throw your USB in the trash… Seriously.

How can an audience be open to new sounds if you are not giving them a reason to be? This is exactly why Violator means so much to me. This isn’t a fake grime record, or the sounds of cars crashing programmed to sound like a harmony. It is simple but intense dance that references the music that shaped my life in New York. If everyone thought like this, maybe online DJ mixes and soundcloud would still be alive and kicking.**

Joey LaBeija’s Violator EP was self-released on March 23, 2017.