Honey Dijon on whether dance music can save us

The American house DJ discusses her upcoming Comme des Garçons collaboration, how social media transformed club culture and the state of America today

“What else do I do besides work? Nothing!” laughs American house DJ Honey Dijon over the phone from Berlin, where she lives. Actually, she adds, that’s not strictly true – she is currently getting her nails done – a rare moment of downtime in a tour schedule that consumes around 300 days a year; when summer ends in Europe, she tours Asia and Australia. Yoga, meditation, and working out are her go-to methods of self care, plus she stopped drinking alcohol, because “it’s impossible to tour so much and be hungover”. To keep providing a euphoric and (as I have found once or twice at her shows, near spiritual) experience for her crowds at clubs and festivals, she needs to keep her clarity, she says. 

Usually described somewhere between “legendary” and “fashion’s favourite DJ”, Dijon grew up in the home of house music, Chicago, where she was exposed to legend Frankie Knuckles and mentored under Derrick Carter, before moving to New York City in the late 90s. There, she was able to immerse herself in an urgent-feeling underground club culture and hone her sound, which is defined by a mix of classic house and modern techno, smattered with ballroom and disco references. She’s known for soundtracking Louis Vuitton’s menswear shows, playing every club from Berghain to Le Bain, and being a vocal advocate for transgender rights as a trans woman of colour herself.  

Below, we caught up with Dijon after a flying trip to London – which she documented for us in Polaroids – and asked her about her upcoming Comme des Garçons collaboration, how social media transformed club culture, and the state of America today.

Firstly, tell me about the pictures you took when you were in London… 

Honey Dijon: Well they were mostly taken at my Concrete Lates show at the Southbank. For me polaroids take me back to that time in New York in the early 80s where Andy Warhol, Basquiat and Keith Haring were taking Polaroids, and when so much of the photography and nights were documented by Polaroid. I just wanted to combine the two: what’s gone on in the past and what’s happening now, to capture the vibe of the party that way.

The show was also really quite great because I got to DJ and work with a queer woman of colour, Sippin T. There’s a resurgence of ballroom culture happening in London and Paris and she’s carrying on the tradition of that. I played a lot of music that influenced me from that culture, too, very New York inspired; Madonna and other ballroom anthems – it was a lot of fun.

Sippin T is part of BBZ, who run QTPOC club nights in London. I wondered, when you were growing up, did you see nights bill themselves that way, or was it more organic?

Honey Dijon: When I was growing up, most dance music culture was specifically for quuer people of colour and they were creating their own spaces cause of not being invited to white queer spaces. Disco came from that also. But for me, it wasn’t a statement like it is today. It was just the way it was, it was just where you went, it was much more natural. You’re talking about a different time, pre internet and pre social media… it was underground. You had people of colour creating these things through word of mouth. But politics of cultural identity is a more mainstream conversation now, rather than an underground conversation. 

What was your going out experience like as a teenager; fashion-wise, music-wise?

Honey Dijon: I found out about fashion was through the clubs. Most subcultures there’s a dress code. And if you were into house you dressed house; people used to wear jodhpurs and riding boots! There was this thing called jacking… it’s how people would dance. You’d see black inner city kids on the bus or on the street were wearing European designers to go out dancing, like they were in French Vogue! Wearing these riding pants, with a Versace sweater and a Grace Jones flat top – I saw Grace Jones and Frankie Goes to Hollywood wearing Jean Paul Gualtier and Armani out nightclubbing. It was a whole language, it was 360; the way you dressed, the language you spoke, where you went out. This was my introduction to dance music and fashion – it was never something that was separate for me. It’s always been a dialogue. 

Drug culture and house are also very intertwined, when you were growing up were those things intertwined for you? Did you experiment?

Honey Dijon: Of course! Basic in the day at Music Box they used to have acid punch. It was all about ecstasy and acid and stuff like that. I was always into hallucinogenics and losing myself in the music but back then drug taking wasnt to replace the party. People didn’t get as fucked as they do now. It’s not like cocaine in London. It was more about a higher plane of music, or to connect people with people so it was mostly LSD and ecstasy.

I think as a DJ you have to try these things in order to know what crowd you have in front of you. Anything that’s abused, from food to sex to drugs, abuse can be an issue – some people have a genetic makeup where they have an addictive personality. But I think these things used in a positive way and a healthy environment can be great

I imagine being you on the other side of the DJ booth must sometimes be like looking out at the zombie apocalypse…

Honey Dijon: It depends when, where, how. I grew up in New York after hours clubs, the drugs weren’t as hard then as they are now. Cocaine was always around but that was the hardest thing people did. Now you have ketamine, GHB, downers. Like I said it’s a different party atmosphere now… 

“Now it’s less about the quality than the quantity… there might be some really wicked local DJs who are good or deserve an opportunity to play big lineups but they don’t have the visibility on social media” – Honey Dijon

How do you pick what you play at, which shows you will do?

Honey Dijon: I say no to a lot of things. With some things it’s about exposing people, like if I don’t play there people won’t get that type of experience culturally, so it’s about putting that type of music in a context people wouldn’t normally hear it. But events that don’t align with me, I do say no to. I think sometimes people want to book me for the visibility I have and not the music I play, and sometimes I feel what I do won’t fit in… for them it’s business and for me I want people to have a great time. So it wouldn’t make sense for me to do a trance party or something with an EDM focus. I just don’t play that kind of music. But I think there’s enough room for everybody to enjoy what they like musically.

What has the biggest challenge of your career been? 

Honey Dijon: I think the biggest challenge for me is that we’ve gone from community to entertainment. Now with the visibility of social media, DJs have to be more like performers than artists. Now the biggest challenge is clubs or festivals won’t book you unless you’re a certain number of followers or more. I think that’s such a mistake. One thing I was really happy with was when Resident Advisor got rid of the top 100 DJs because this is not a comparison game! Everyone is doing something truly unique and different. Just because someone has 1 million followers doesn’t make them a quality artist, in my opinion.

So I think the biggest challenge is that it was always the music business but now it’s less about the quality than the quantity… there might be some really wicked local DJs who are good or deserve an opportunity to play big lineups but they don’t have the visibility on social media. I’m glad they’re getting rid of the likes on social media because it’s not good for young people, it gives them anxiety. And it’s the same for DJs; ‘what  should I post?’ etcetera… that’s a lot of work now, and it takes away from the music, which is what it should fucking be about in the first place!

I know you’re working on a collaboration with Comme des Garcons for Dover Street Market – why Comme?

Honey Dijon: Yes, we have a great collaboration coming up and I’m really excited about it. Rei Kawakubo to me is one of the most forward thinking artists in the world. To work with such a creative mind coming from a background like mine? I never thought I would be able to work with one of the most influential designers of the 21st century. She uses cloth as sculpture, plays with body shape and challenges gender ideals. Her ideas make you rethink what clothing can be. A lot of times I find clothing to be very binary. It’s just fabric, but we assign so many cultural codes to fabric. One of the things I love about Rei is she challenges all of this. 

As a trans woman of colour from the states, in the lead up to the 2020 reelection, how are you personally feeling in regards to politics and trans rights?

Honey Dijon: I can talk for hours about this. DJs get shit for posting political opinions though, people say: “we go and listen to DJs to escape what’s happening in the world!” But our liberties are being taken away from us, basic human rights are being taken away! What’s happening in Mexico is the same as the holocaust – people are being dehumanised and put in encampments. We have all this visibility with Black Lives Matter and #metoo and trans issues but we’re regressing at the same time. 

It’s been amazing to step out of that country for a bit to Berlin and think about what is going on. And it is insane to me. That we’re still having conversations about gun control after two back to back shootings in 24 hours, that we’re still having conversations about immigration on colonised land, and when Trump’s wife is an immigrant. There’s so much gaslighting going on in America that this election is more important than anything… we need to vote to make a change. Another four years to me is just the end. 

“While we’re escaping we need to fight for the freedom to escape” – Honey Dijon

Do you agree that in such an awful climate for young liberal people or queer people, music and losing yourself and feel important for celebration or respite? 

Honey Dijon: I do, but I really think we need to realise that while we’re escaping we need to fight for the freedom to escape. You can’t have one without the other, you know? I just find it impossible not to live in the world today and be a part of some kind of activism while we are just fighting for the right to be. These religious people saying you’re born and spend your whole life waiting to die and get to somewhere better? Well then you wouldn’t have been born! I really dont think you’re born to suffer then you die… 

How can you use your platform for activism? 

Honey Dijon: Well, house music and techno were created by queer people of colour from marginalised communities that weren’t allowed in white spaces or straight spaces. These people made art out of pain and marginalisation. And I feel that even though I am playing in arenas where people can be educated or lose themselves it’s very important not to lose touch with where this came from and to help people to remember that. To remind people that even though someone is still telling those kinds of people that they’re not worth anything, see what can happen, see what art can come out of told no or being left out of the conversation.

It’s about telling people your life does have value and purpose and you can create something that inspires millions of people around the world and make people dance and celebrate and love. So I don’t take my role lightly at all. There are many ways to be an activist; some people run for office, some people march in a protest and art can also bring consciousness to people. I want my art to inspire other people and make them have less fear about being themselves.

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