TIME TO ADMIT THE obvious: Lady D has become a full-fledged industry force in the worldwide House scene. In the twelve years that she’s been practicing her craft, she’s torn up more dancefloors than most of us have ever seen. With just a shade over a decade spinning professionally, Lady D (aka Darlene Jackson) can claim a number of impressive credentials: the owner of a respected and successful record label; an irreplaceable member of the (again) respected and successful DJ Collective SuperJane with Heather, Dayhota and Colette; producer, DJ and, with coverage way beyond the industry press, one of the rising stars of the “second wave” of House Music artists.
It seems rather empty, though, to just rattle off the accomplishments on her resumé. One of the first things I noticed about Lady D was the way her personality brightens up a room the moment she walks into it. It’s not unusual or even unexpected to see her around town, checking out the music at a club even though she isn’t spinning. When you’re successful at something, the first question the old boys in the neighborhood ask is “Is it gonna go to her head?” In Lady D’s case, the success she’s experienced – capped off when she shared the bill with Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, Ralphi Rosario, Barbara Tucker and Dajae at last summer’s International House Music Festival – fits her well.
She took time out of her busy preparations for the Winter Music Conference in Miami to talk to 5 Magazine’s Michael Pleasants (aka DJ Plez) about her early days, what got her groove on and what keeps her moving.
Tell us a little bit about young Darlene Jackson. What were you like growing up?
I was born on the Southside of Chicago but I have to say I was raised all over the city. My mom and dad were very keen on living fully and put me in a lot of experiences outside of our residential area. It made me feel like a child of Chicago, and not just one from the Southside.
I come from a fairly big family – two brothers and three sisters. I studied Science in High School (Whitney Young) but my favorite subject was art.
Obviously music has dominated your adult life, but when you were growing up, was music a big part of your life then? Do you come from a musical family or did you play any instruments?
We had a piano in my house. My father wouldn’t get me lessons when I was younger – he had spent a lot of money on my sister and because she became a doctor and not a concert pianist, it messed things up for me. So I had to teach myself, which I did, but I could go only so far with that. But I used to write my own songs and play two finger standards like “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” My sister also had a song book with all kinds of contemporary music. I remember I used to play Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Too funny!
In high school I did a year of private lessons and I also took piano lab. It was helpful but kinda late. I had other activities – I was a cheerleader and did gymnastics – and those were more of a priority. But aside from being only a mediocre pianist, music dominated my life and my house was very music-centric. My brothers liked rock and funk, my sisters liked soul and disco and lite rock and my parents like blues, jazz and country.
What was the first record album you ever bought as a kid with your own money?
My brothers were also DJs so we had lots of albums around. But I think my first 45 was “Aquaboogie” by Parliament. I bought my first 12″ in 1982. It was “Everybody” by Madonna.
What were your early musical influences growing up? What did you listen to?
I listened to everything. When my brothers would leave, I was all over their records and their equipment. I taught myself how to work their systems because they had real DJ rigs, with Technics and Pioneer amps and huge speakers. They used to get mad, but I never broke anything so they couldn’t make me stop.
I remember rocking out to Yes, and I remember “Family Affair” by Sly and the Family Stone making me cry. That was the first emotional reaction to a song that I can remember. It was a very sad song to me.
Then there was disco. Because my sisters were all much older than me – everyone is from eleven to seventeen years older than me – they would get dressed and go out at night. I used to cry because I couldn’t go. I loved disco so much!!! Especially Chic. Those basslines made me want to party.
Choose your preference of the following: Michael Jackson or Prince?
I loved Mike, especially as part of the Jackson 5, but then I discovered Prince and I became awakened.
Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross?
I loved Aretha first, then Diana, but now that I’m older I have to say Aretha.
Earth, Wind & Fire, The Commodores, or The Ohio Players?
You know what, I love all of them, but I might have to say Ohio Players for “Sweet Sticky Thing.”
As a senior in high school, you were – or should have been – voted… what?
Nerdy now but foxy later. The Late Bloomer Award! [laughs]
When did you first start DJing? How did you get interested in DJing? Were you a clubber first and somehow migrated from the dance floor to the booth?
I first got bit by the DJ bug in high school. I had a couple friends that had set ups. They would teach me things and let me play with them privately. If other guys were around they would act like I was crazy for wanting to play. It was very much a boys club. I didn’t do anything with it then. In 1993 I started dating a DJ and soon we moved in together. There were decks at the apartment and I played with them. He showed me some things but I can’t really say I started doing anything with it then either.
In 1995, I was asked to play at Sole Junkies (the shoe store owned by Travis Cho, the brother of Luke Cho from “Untitled”). Charles Little (then of Pure) was there and thought I sounded good. He started booking me to play Pure parties after that. I wasn’t trying to be a DJ. It just happened.
Which three DJs influenced you the most in your early development?
Jevon Jackson, Mel Hammond and Diz.
How did SuperJane come about and how did you get involved? Did anyone in particular spearhead the effort to form the collective? There were a few other female DJs in the city at the time, but how and why did you four come together?
Shannon (DJ Dayhota) came to me one day and said they had an idea for a collective (she, Colette and Heather) and they wanted a fourth. She said she was thinking of me or Psycho Bitch. The problem from her point of view was that in a threesome, the tendency for issues to arise and people choosing sides or someone being left out is greater – that sort of thing. Also they had talked to a few clubs about playing already and got nowhere.
She came to me with SuperJane just as an idea but thought that I would be a good fit because of my style of playing. I had already been playing for two years and was known as a House DJ, whereas Psycho Bitch was more tribal and hard house. I had known them all individually and thought they were all cool girls, plus I was all about Girl Power so I said I would be down.
The foursome being complete now, we began booking shows. The first SuperJane show was at Funky Buddha and we started a monthly there. We were then able to take our events to other clubs like Smart Bar.
What’s been the best thing about being a part of SuperJane and what’s been the worst?
I love each of the women I play with and trust them as friends and confidantes. It’s hard sometimes because I might be thought of as the most accessible of the four, so people approach me about us all the time and expect me to hook it up for shows. I always have to explain to people that bookings don’t go through me.
But we are doing a tour in the Fall to celebrate our ten year anniversary as a collective. If anyone wants to book the tour, they should contact Neil@RepublikManagement.com.
How would you describe your current DJing style in one sentence?
Someone wrote this for my bio and I think it’s accurate and sincere: “DJ Lady D’s sound is not limited to any perceived notion or preconceived ideas of House, moving fluidly from vocal to track to dub to electro to tech, her sound strides with the aural landscape of the room, touching each body, mind and soul in her presence.”
Are you vinyl purist or are you also using digital?
I’m not a purist. I’m a future forward person. I don’t think you can sit on the tracks in front of a speeding train and say my car is better than your train. You will get mowed over! I love a book of CDs and the weightlessness of my record bag these days. CDJ’s have made it possible to get nearly the same feel as decks. Plus much of my music is delivered digitally as well. It’s more efficient to create CDs and play tunes someone just made and sent you over the Internet.
What do you feel about the technological advances and how it has affected the art of DJing live?
I’m not into laptop DJing as much – Final Scratch, Ableton and so on. They are fine, but I am not that anal. I’ve heard about DJs whose comps have crashed while playing and there’s dead silence in the club.
I think you still need a little vinyl or some CDs in your bag for when your computer crashes. As for the technology around, it is what it is. There’s more showmanship with tables, but people don’t look to DJs for that as much as in the past. It’s like, in the ’80s people used to stop to see the kids breakdancing on the corner. You see kids breakin now and you probably wouldn’t look twice. It’s sorta like that. It’s not new, which is why selection is so important.
What has been the highlight DJing moment of your career so far?
The Motionness EL train party was very special. The fact that it’s not been recreated holds significance for me. I was playing on the EL while the train rolled through downtown, over the Chicago River! People in the car were just going nuts. It was a limited edition party and I was a signature component of the experience. Unforgettable.
Tell me about your label D’lectable. Who else is involved with you?
D’lectable is a partnership between myself and Steve Koutso, an ex-music biz executive and CPA. We met and decided to start the label. I already had plans to incorporate my brand as Lady D into a label so I came up with D’lectable.
Are you aiming to rule the broad House Music world a la Defected Records or more focused on a specific sub-genre?
Our mission is very broad. I do come from the school of House that says House is an umbrella term that means any music that has soul, that you vibe with and that takes you higher spiritually. With D’lectable I look to a diverse array of producers and range of music from downtempo all the way to rock to be on the label. I’m still calling it House if it fits the criteria I just spoke about.
I also have another label I’m developing that is more of a hush hush thing now. It’s just for the heads and will be very genre specific, something like a members only club… a private label.
Are you oriented more toward producing music for the label with your own creative offerings and remixes, or more toward an A&R focus, trying to discover talent and break new artists?
I do edits on most tracks as they usually come in too long for the vinyl. I end up editing everything and no one notices they’re edits so I think my edits are pretty good. Of about 15 edits only one artist has complained.
When I’m not doing edits I am signing projects and artists. I do love this part. It feels great to give young talent a start, like I did with Kaskade when I was at Afterhours, or even older talent a new avenue to go down. People can try different things with a label like mine.
What projects do you have coming up in the next few months?
I have been producing with other people for their projects and soon I will get in and do something specifically for me. Dajae and I have begun to work on a project so we should have a track or two coming this year on D’lectable. We’ve been doing some appearances together too as “The Diva and the DJ.” She is so much fun!
Interview by DJ Plez.