Venus X

"I didn't look for hip hop because I grew up around it. I was looking for something else."
Interview by Asher Penn 
Portrait by Brayden Olsen

When Venus X began her GHE20G0TH1K party in New York in 2009, there was no way she could have imagined what it would become: an international cultural phenomenon encompassing music, fashion, nightlife, art and politics. The vanguard public that Venus X first attracted cut across seemingly divisive boundaries in NYC nightlife—GHE20G0TH1K was black, white, gay, straight, trans, slutty, high fashion, low brow and thoroughly lawless. It was also the defining context to debut the talents of now-celebrated acts like Total Freedom, Nguzunguzu, and Physical Therapy. While today Venus X is an internationally touring DJ and there are literally dozens of warehouse raves happening in New York City each month, GHE20G0TH1K still stands apart—largely due to Venus X’s unrelenting commitment to the scenes she catalyzes and nurtures, as well as the talented and wild people that come to inhabit them.

This place is great for interviews.
I came here for the first time with one of my mentors. I heard this used to be the Hip Hop Hotel, where everybody used to stay back in the day. I do all my interviews here. It has good juju.
You have a mentor?
Well I have a lot of different mentors. Lizzie from Gang Gang, Santigold, Mos Def...
How did you connect with them?
It happened really naturally. Lizzie used to come to my party and then she took me and Shayne on tour with her for a couple weeks to open up for Gang Gang. These days Lizzie will take me to the spa and be like, “Girl, it's going to be okay, you don't have to quit.” She reminds me that it takes time to level out.

Hard Destiny (Live Mix), Venus X, 2011

Having older people to talk to helps.
Yeah. Because if your family life is off, if your spiritual shit is all fucked up and you're an artist, you can't really function. Most artists don't know that because they think it's all about music and it's not. You have to be superhuman when you're touring. You're playing all these shows, and you're not really making that much money, and people don't respect you yet, you don't have hotels necessarily, you're sleeping on floors—you’ve got to be really balanced to put up with all that shit. It was really hard before I had mentors. It's been really amazing to have a couple people who will just tell you you're on the right path, even if you don't take the super-pop road. Before I never had that much guidance.
We met when you were at school. You were organizing an artist panel discussion and asked me to speak. Was it the New School?
Yeah, but I never finished.
How come?
I was too busy doing events, like organizing that talk and GHE20G0TH1K. I didn’t care about school. School was stressful.
What were you doing before you started GHE20G0TH1K?
I was taking photos of punk bands mostly. I was obsessed with drummers. I wanted to be a drummer but no one would teach me. It was a boys club. So I just took pictures. I would take pictures of all these crust punk bands from St. Marks who used to hang out there, like Big Gunz and  Cerebral Ballzy when they first started—I have polaroids of one of their first practice sessions. I followed some bands out to South by Southwest.
Were you hanging out at places like Todd P venues? ABC No Rio?
A little bit. A lot of Rock Star Bar.

Cerebral Balzy, 2007. Photo by Venus X

What was that place?
It doesn't exist anymore. It was a hardcore punk venue on South 5th and Kent. That was the hot spot. I would go to lots of house parties with bands and different kids. The typical shit where you're at a house party and it's kids puking, fucking, a band playing in the basement. It's a hot mess. There's a radical bookstore upstairs and they're selling anarchist leaflets and shit. It was really special, even if the music wasn't that good. The kids were awesome.
How did you start DJing?
I would watch all these people DJ drunk and think “I can do that.” I asked my friend to teach me, which he did—not very well but I managed. I actually got my first lesson DJing live at Top Shop in front of hundreds of people.
I remember when that happened.
Yeah there were lots of local DJs getting booked. I got around $75 to play for two hours during my friend’s set. He was like, “Fuck it, I'll show you how to mix two songs and you can do it for the rest of the time.” So I did it.
What inspired you to start GHE20G0TH1K?
I was going to Weird at Home Sweet Home, which at the time was super coldwave—like, white goth. Then I was going to hip hop parties that I felt were more like black goth—you have people talking about murder and shit, that's gothic. It's not American gothic or Irish-Celtic gothic. It's a different kind of gothic. I decided I wanted to start a party where I could play both and mix them up. I liked what some witch house people were making like Salem.

GHE20G0TH1K Flyer, 2009

What was your exposure to hip hop?
Well, I was a waitress at the 40/40—Jay Z's club. At the height of the 40/40, the VIP room was packed with Jermaine Dupri, Rhianna, Ne-Yo, Beyoncé. I was 19 years old waiting tables, serving $10,000 alcohol tabs to these people. I didn't look for hip hop, I grew up around it, so in my free time I was trying to rebel, not just from that job but also from my family and my upbringing, which was very urban, very hood. My dad was a drug dealer, money launderer. He did a lot of crazy shit, which I didn't mind, but I had never been exposed to anything punk, anything independent.So you were kind of rebelling against hip hop culture?
It didn't even coincide with what I was learning. I was learning about militancy, gender, feminism. I was learning about all these things that were basically saying hip hop is whack. So I was a little punk girl. I wore Doc Martens and baby doll dresses. I wore a big jean jacket that my grandma had from the '80s. I wouldn't have fit in at any hip hop venues.
Where was the first GHE20G0TH1K?
It was at Beauty Bar. I DJed by myself the whole night on my iPod and my laptop—two channels. We did it monthly and I packed the place out both times.Then we did it at Legion Bar on Metropolitan and packed that out as well. The manager at Metropolitan offered me the space on Orchard Street, Gallery Bar. We started doing GHE20G0TH1K in the basement there. He was a great bartender, a great manager. He knew exactly who to give free drinks to and how to take care of everybody.
Who was going to GHE20G0TH1K at the beginning?
It was just a mix of all the people I was hanging out with already:Radical black lesbians from Bed-Stuy who I went to school with; skaters that I knew from being a teenager in Union Square; art students I knew from Cooper Union and from New School; downtown kids from the LES. It was a hodgepodge of people. We invited everybody.

GHE20G0TH1K, 2011

So it was really a reflection of your social life.
My personal social life, yeah.
What music were you playing?
Nine Inch Nails, Christian Death, Cocteau Twins and Sisters of Mercy... A lot of '70s punk from the early years. Adolescents, Wire, or Public Image Limited. Really hardcore, angry, political shit. Then we also played nasty Dipset, Juke from Chicago, which at that time was still really dark—it was at the beginning of the whole genre. Witch house stuff, Salem... whatever we wanted.
How did the music evolve?
I was listening to lots of different kinds of stuff everywhere,learning about music from different perspectives, so it kept growing every single time I DJed. By the time I got to Orchard Street I had been going to Kingdom parties. I wanted to get him involved because I knew that I had a different audience that wanted to hear his music.
There are a lot of DJs that got their first real visibility at GHE20G0TH1K: How did you guys find each other?
Every relationship was different. I knew Shane from when I was 19. He was DJing with Physical Therapy who went to New School; we saw each other at the bagel shop, getting coffee. I took classes with House of Ladosha who introduced me to Kingdom. He had all these other connections like Ashland and Nguzunguzu. With all these people GHE20G0TH1K transformed from being a punk and hip hop party to being a ghetto goth party. It took on its own identity, and it became something by everybody bringing their own one-hour labor.
How long were you at Orchard St?
We were monthly, then biweekly, then every other week. We were on Orchard for about a year and a half, and then we went to Grand St.

The Banging Bells of Hell, Mix for GHE20G0TH1K by Total Freedom

Was this with the same manager?
He's my boy. He ran Orchard Street and he was the one who ran the warehouse. We were a team. GHE20G0TH1K changed when he moved to Florida and the Warehouse got shut down. I've been bringing it back slowly, with people from that team.
The parties on Grand St. were awesome. You never really knew what you were going to hear.
Yeah, you could maybe hear acid house, you might hear hip hop, you might hear a gay guy rapping, you might hear a punk band. You never knew because I was programming from my personal relationships.
You would hear or see something you liked and would want to bring it in.
Yeah. So when my friends were playing industrial goth, I said, “Yo we got to get them to DJ or to perform.” That's my mentality. It wasn't, “People are going to think it's weird, that's not a DJ.” Fuck that.If people don't like it they don't have to come back. I don't care.
I remember one night seeing AraabMuzik there. It was like a mosh pit.
We couldn't announce it because we didn't pay him the right fee. We couldn't book him solid so it was a secret thing. That party was out of control.
Now it seems like there are 20 raves going on every weekend in Bushwick.
They say imitation is the best flattery, but it does create some competition. I just care that our parties are good when we do them. I don't want to be monopolizing the experience. If I inspire people to do something, that’s awesome. Hopefully they won't be too in my shit, doing exactly what I do, but it happens a lot. A lot of promoters are sneaky. Why wouldn't you hire the same kind of lineup if you see that it's working for somebody else?

Araabmuzik at GHE20G0TH1K, 2012

From Sex Magazine #4 Summer 2013
Labelled Music