On the life-changing power of dance music and LGBTQ+ nightlife
“Good DJs make dance music still feel like a secret” tweets Octo Octa, aka Maya Bouldry-Morrison late one night. She’s one of those DJs. Just listen to ‘Ecstatic Beat’, or ‘Spin Girl, Let’s Activate’ from her latest record. They’re magic tricks, teasing the audience with familiar breakdowns, flipping them in another direction, then winking at you.
For new ears, it’s a giddy puzzle of guessing where we might end up next. For seasoned listeners, it’s soaking up years of dance history and channelling that energy right back into your core. I’m no expert on house music, but each new track I listen to feels like having your hand held by a great teacher as you journey through a world that’s always been here waiting.
It reminds me of walking to school as a lonely teen, feeling outside of my body, listening to Burial’s ‘Kindred’ – voices hidden beneath hissing production and murky bass pulling focus to that world. I was captivated by the amazing sense of place they could capture, but clueless of where that music came from, or how it was made. The anonymity of its producer made it more exciting.
I looked for other artists doing similar things, and after months of obsession, I came across 180 Midtown Blues, by DJ Sprinkles, aka Terre Thaemlitz. DJ Sprinkles is not anonymous. Her academic and music work is an eager fight for place and recognition within the world.
“House is not universal. House is hyper-specific”, she states on the opening track of 180 Midtown Blues. “The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT UP, Tompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship – all at 120 beats per minute.” It’s a mission statement that carries the whole project. The need to recognise this queer space and protect what is left of it.
Somewhere I knew I had gender dysphoria when I first heard this, but my heart had some catching up to do. Listening, my skin went white-hot, like I often did whenever trans-related topics came up. As a lonely sixteen-year-old living on their computer in the Scottish Highlands, this wasn’t a history I had any connection to. I didn’t attend any parties, especially not cathartic queer parties. I was invisible, and an outsider to all of this. At one stage, so was Maya Bouldry-Morrison.
“I came into it with a total lack of context. In New Hampshire at 14, I wasn’t going out to drum ‘n’ bass nights at local clubs. There were no local clubs. There was no scene or places to go to understand it… It’s a very solo, sit-down-in-front-of-a-screen experience.”
Maya Bouldry-Morrison in Electronic Beats
This was said in an interview with the aforementioned Terre Thaemlitz, just months after she came out as transgender. DJ Sprinkles was a key influence of hers, and the two chat like lifelong friends about how they came to love dance music and the reality of queer spaces. Then, Octo Octa is a month away from releasing Where Are We Going?, a deeply personal house record that embraces the genre’s past heroes wholeheartedly, while yearning for a brighter future. She has just come out as transgender, after several years of success as a sturdy club favourite. Like her 2013 debut Between Two Selves, the new album will be full of killer grooves, ecstatic breakbeats and a meditative atmosphere – she’s a great DJ, after all.
But the coded messages of self-acceptance will become direct pleas to the listener, reaching out to a queer community she’s stepping into. She’s suddenly being invited to more queer-centric events, finding a new sense of freedom in being comfortable dancing in the booth, seeing herself reflected in the crowds. The interview is frank and unsugary. The two do not pretend that queer spaces are a utopia for trans people. They only have to exist because the spaces outside of them reject queer existence. These very clubs are deep in the bowels of cities, where journeying to and from events alone is dangerous.
The two also disagree on whether drum ‘n’ bass has any merit. Octo Octa, like me, grew up disconnected from queer spaces, and just heard great tunes that resonated with her. Sprinkles, twenty years her senior and living in New York, saw dude bros invading a safe place with aggressive music that took queer culture and abandoned the people that made it. Touched by each other’s experiences, Sprinkles concludes that it’s wonderful that a new perspective can help the culture and community evolve in the right hands.
When I first saw the cover for Where Are We Going?, Maya sitting casually on a hotel bed in a dress, I got that white-hot feeling on my skin again. By the time its follow-up, Resonant Body, had rolled around, I’d started presenting more feminine in public. I’m often alone when I listen to her music, attempting to get out of my head and be in the present, but I don’t feel alone. Each beat is alive with the energy of the people she’s been influenced by, who she’s sampled, who she’s thinking of when recording. It’s a warm hug, and a preservation of queer lives. When I’m visible on the street, and can feel people staring, I’ll throw on ‘Can You See Me?’, and sink into the beat, listening to the words: “I know exactly how you feel”.
Now, Octo Octa has found a soulmate who shares her love of drum ‘n’ bass in Eris Drew. The two formed the label T4T LUV NRG, and perform euphoric club nights that follow the same ethos as the tunes they release. The pair teamed up with Shoot Your Shot, a club night in Glasgow renowned for its inclusivity and excellent taste, and in a rare move, were granted a glorious 5am licence. As the first night of its kind to be headlined by two trans artists, it was deemed culturally important. Fans heeded the call.
That first T4T Shoot Your Shot night is the most comfortable I’ve felt in public. No dodgy looks from the crowd because of my clothing, just smiles and nods of recognition. The imagined queer spaces I heard of in my teens were being realised. And yes, the often-debated gender-neutral toilets were present, and provided a place to catch a breather, to share a laugh, and to dissolve a barrier.
The pair’s huge back-to-back set was also built on dissolving barriers, with cheesy forgotten disco sitting next to pop anthems, house deep cuts, heady techno and rave tunes. Everyone there will have their own personal history with the dance music, but the setlist makes it clear that we’re all welcome. It slots in well with the Shoot Your Shot ethos. Music writer Claire Francis moved from conservative rural Australia to Scotland, and having written about clubs all over the continent, nights like this stand out:
“Shoot Your Shot have put on some of the best nights I have been to in Glasgow, or anywhere for that matter. Their events tick all the boxes for me – a no-nonsense approach to club etiquette that advocates for safe spaces and inclusivity, a wonderful and welcoming community of people, a forward-looking booking ethos, and of course, really excellent music. Their parties show everyone that it can be, and should be, done.”
Mi$$ CO$MIX has also played at Shoot Your Shot, and similarly speaks of these dissolving barriers: “When I first experienced good clubbing it opened up so much more music wise for me. I love stinking electronic music: hard techno, Italo-disco, new beat, acid house. It’s a love story that was gradual, and is fed by good DJs. It’s everything. It’s healing. It’s a process of sharing and learning, and with everything that’s happening right now, that previous reality seems like a utopian dream.”