'Records from My Father' - Digging Deep with DJ Sprinkles
Essayist, trans-activist and producer alike, Terre Thaemlitz is one of dance music’s most vital talents. Combating the monolithic shift towards a white, straight commodification of culture, his deeply politicised productions, both as Terre and DJ Sprinkles, are imbued with complex narratives that bring dance music's LGBT roots to the surface. Each piece expertly weaves a dense socio-political and academic contextualisation through deft sampling, working to inform audiences less familiar with the scene’s queer history.
Drawing from deep house’s origins as a product of threatened, queer culture in 1980s New York, Terre, now based in Japan, is renowned for her viscerally uncompromising and unconventional stance on club culture. Drawing from a multitude of influences, both intellectual, political and musical, Terre finds himself centre stage amongst what she refers to as the ‘celebration grounds of heteronormativity,’ tirelessly striving to re-draw attention towards the too-often overlooked queer heart of club culture.
On 14th July, we welcome DJ Sprinkles to Oval Space, for an evening of exquisite house music. Backed by some of New York's most pioneering figureheads, Fred. P and Ge-Ology, Terre will be taking us deeper than we've ever been before. Ahead of her show, he sat down with us to delve into some remnants from her late father's record collection picking out a few key selections that have come to inform both life and work:
Terre:"My father was an avid record collector, with his collection reaching over 50,000 records at its peak. They were almost all picked from discount bins, garage sales or public library clearance sales - generally warped, scratched, and often times unplayable. Usually he bought things based on their covers, and never actually listened to them. While we did not share musical tastes, every now and then he had some records that I found interesting. I guess when you have a collection that size, it is simply a matter of the law of averages."
U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare - "Social Security Presents: Genius on the Black Side"
This is a box set of radio discs featuring five minute programs produced in the 1970's by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. A "radio disc" means that each track, or program, has its own start and end grooves, so you must manually lift the needle after each track in order to advance to the next one. This gave the DJ more time to worry about other things, so the next program would not start automatically if he missed the end cue and couldn't stop the record in time. Records like these were a common way to deliver an entire pre-recorded radio series to radio stations in one go.
These featured actor James Earl Jones doing voice overs before and after soul songs, encouraging African Americans to register in the Social Security system, to qualify for health and retirement benefits. As you may know, the U.S. has never had socialized health care, and since the "Red Scare" of the McCarthy era the very notion of social programs has always been suspicious to the public (this is how Obama was branded a "radical socialist" by the Right, simply by trying to move towards socialized medicine). In a nation with few social benefits, many low income people were reluctant to register for Social Security, and saw it as just one more tax on the poor with no potential return. Each set contained two discs. For some reason, my father had two of these box sets crammed with a total of ten discs, so it's a pretty nice collection. I like how the center labels for early programs feature a photo of the younger Jones, while the later episodes have him with a big, burly beard, like on the box cover.
James Taylor and The Original Flying Machine - "Rainy Day Man"
This cover is way too fucking intense. Very haunting and hypnotizing. It makes Taylor look like a date rapist or something. You may recall that line from his famous song, "Fire and Rain," about, "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground." That is actually a reference to the break up of his early band, The Original Flying Machine. (The song's preceding lyric about "There's hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come" conjures an image of him talking to a former bandmate, reminiscing and exchanging niceties about maybe doing something together again some day.)
Well, this is a collection of those early Flying Machine recordings from 1966. It's kind of like White soul rock - a bit different from the bluesy folk stuff he eventually became famous for. In any case, I like the photo grain quality of the cover. As a designer, I imagine it was maybe done this way because they were using a very cheap and strictly black/white printing technique that did not allow for grey tones. While the cover does a horrible job of representing the music within, it is certainly memorable.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Operation PUSH Choir - "PUSH for Excellence!!!"
In the late 1970's, Rev. Jesse Jackson used to tour around with a show that was a combination of spiritual revival and civil rights awareness. PUSH stood for "People United to Save Humanity." It was an offshoot of the Rainbow Coalition, which was founded in the late 1960's by Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, and later formalized into a non-profit organization by Jackson. This record features a live recording from 1978, with some pretty classic independent, lo-fi 1970's design work on the cover. The album is a nice listen, too.
Mark Hamill - "Massacre at My Lai"
The powerfully direct cover painting by Victor Kalin, done in the style of social realism, clearly references Maoist influences in the U.S. Left and Anti-Vietnam War movement. It is nicely printed on matte board. Mark Hamill was a columnist for the New York Post, and this album features readings of his essays on the My Lai Massacre, put to beatnik jazz that is in no way as effective as the cover art.
Phyllis May Huff - "Our Native Birds (Series 1)"
Before the days of the internet, when you can just go to YouTube to see and hear the sounds of specific birds, bird imitators used to travel around, teaching school children how to identify the sounds of various birds. Huff was one such educator. Dating from the 1950's, I particularly like this album because it is an early example of an independent record produced by women. The cover illustration and layout is very underground and craft-ish, simply printed on a piece of folded paper. The center labels are also so nice. I assume my dad either got this at a library sale, or picked it up during his thirty years as an educator. I love that the front cover makes sure to say the vinyl is "Unbreakable."
VA - "25 All Time Family Favorites"
When it comes to low budget, trashy covers, this may be my all time favorite. The front and back are identical, with no details as to what is inside. It's actually a collection of classical orchestral pieces. I like how in the upper right corner where it says, "1 Long Playing 33 r.p.m. Record," there was a deliberate typographical decision to make the number 1 larger. It contains just one record, folks. Let there be no confusion.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - "In Search of Freedom"
Printed in silver ink on black, I think this is a really classic piece of album cover design. In a funny way, it makes the cover to "Genius on the Black Side" look like a poorly executed, government produced attempt at the same design concept. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, three months before I was born, so my parents gave me the middle name "Martin" as a tribute to him. I grew up listening to this record, to learn about the person I was named after. Actually, when I was photographing the cover for this column, I discovered a long lost poster of King tucked inside the sleeve. I had totally forgotten about it!
I remember ordering the poster through my elementary school, back when I was in the second grade. For years it was hanging on the wall of the bedroom I shared with my brother. Of course, this record (and many others containing the "I Have A Dream" speech) became one of the most overplayed DJ tools of the late 1980's. It got played over anything and everything. My favorite was the M.L.K. mix of Mr. Fingers, "Can You Feel It." I have also worked it into my own tracks, although with a bit of nihilistic editing, such as in my "Mountain of Despair" remix of "Motorik Life" by Hardrock Striker.
The fact that the "Dream" speech became such a cliché of 1980's house music was a testament to how racism remained so prevalent. In the escapist world of 1980's clubs, people were still only dancing to dreams of equality. For a sense of the painfully glacial scale at which societies change, it was a full decade after that speech had been totally played to death in clubs - to the point of annoyance - that Abner Louima was tortured and forcibly sodomized with a broken broom handle by "New York's Finest" (NYPD) in 1997. The pigs arrested Louima outside of a Brooklyn night club. Jump to 2018 and the racist things still going on in the U.S., as well as in Europe, and in the UK with "Brexit," etc., and it makes me think DJ's should start mixing in M.L.K. again. Although, the subtext of U.S. Evangelism and that whole deferred language of "dreams" is also symptomatic of the very cultural problems it speaks against. This world is such endless shit. Hey, maybe if Starbucks released a collection of M.L.K. speeches as part of their cafe mix CD series, things would improve that way! (If news of what's going on with Starbucks in the U.S. hasn't reached the U.K., do a web search on "starbucks racism.") With all the good intentions of those hopeful yet politically detached 1980's club mixes, the marketplace just keeps finding new ways to peddle dreams from the inside of a fucking nightmare, racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic war on the poor that never ends. Despair, despair, despair, from every mountain side.
Join us on July 14th for some of dance music's finest talent, with DJ Sprinkles, Fred. P, Ge-Ology and Hamish&Toby.