(Photo by Tricia Romano)
There is no link yet for this week's Critic's Notebook on Syrup. Click below to read the extended version of the Syrup column that did not run.
Many d.j.s would complain about having to play a set in broad daylight at the Adidas Store in Miami Beach, but Vivian Host was having a lot of fun doing just that. A twenty-six year-old d.j. and editor of the dance music magazine XLR8R, Host is half of the female d.j. team Syrup, and she was playing a lascivious record called "Some Head Tonight" by Lil' Jon, Unkle Luke and Jolli Boy. Host is short, with a round, childlike face and dark brown bangs. She wore a purple t-shirt, a blue jeans skirt and silver slippers. She dipped her shoulders subtly but constantly. Kristin Vincent, her d.j. partner, who is thirty-two and a bartender in New York’s Lower East Side, is long and bony, with a ragged shock of bleached blond hair. Wearing a purple and pink sleeveless top, a pleated white mini-skirt and flip-flops, Vincent was talking to their friend Brianna Pope, the art director of XLR8R, a woman in her early 30s with shoulder length curly hair, and black and grey roses tattooed on each forearm, one entitled “La Vida,” the other “La Muerte.” Pope wore black-rimmed glasses, a black tank top, plaid skirt and Adidas sneakers. (The d.j.s had been specifically instructed not to wear the any competing brands while peforming in the store.) Vincent and Host describe Pope as their manager, though it is never entire clear if this is a joke or not, because Syrup is not exactly a demanding, full-bore commercial operation.
There are certainly other d.j. duos—Basement Jaxx, The Glimmers and 2 Many DJs are some currently successful teams—and a fair number of women DJs, but very few women DJ duos, if any. The only female DJ duo to attain a high profile in the last ten years is the English drum & bass team DJs Kemistry & Storm, which ended in 1999 when Kemistry died in a car accident. But gender isn’t what makes Syrup unique. Vincent and Host have created their-own modest, low-tech lifestyle with dance music, and in a subset of the pop constituency that values celebrity and instant success even more than their subsets across the aisle, this is notable. Syrup are aptly named. They take their sweet time, and smile while they work.
The lights in the Adidas store that Saturday were bright, and the aisles were half full of average looking shoppers in shorts and sandals, save for one archetypally Floridian woman wearing a matching Louis Vuitton bikini and leather handbag, cowboy hat, pink terry cloth mini-skirt and high-heeled pink foam platform sandals. Host was smiling when she cued up “Some Head Tonight.” When the song’s chorus began to play—“Ass right, ass right, pussy tight, pussy tight, get some head tonight”—an aptly named d.j. named Hott Pants responded instantly. Wearing tiny black shorts, a white sweatband, and a T-shirt on which his name had been spray-painted in pink and black, he moved behind Host and started dry humping her with one leg raised comically in the air. Host leaned back into him, mimicking his moves, and the two laughed for a minute. Then Vincent took over and cued up the next record, a brisk English remix by an act called Mask of Ciara’s popular R&B song “Goodies.” The music was flowing and the mood was light, the kind of experience people pay twenty or thirty dollars for when attending a big nightclub. But a shoe store is still a shoe store, and Syrup were doing their best on a Saturday afternoon this past March as part of the Winter Music Conference, an annual, week-long dance-music festival where d.j.s spend a lot of time complaining about which venue they’ve been booked into and which bigger show they were competing with and whether it was too early, so people would be too sober, or too late, meaning people would be too drunk. Syrup don’t complain.
“I always like gigs where no one is telling us what to play or expecting us to play one particular style, our friends are all here entertaining us with their antics, and we're just freestyling mixes,” Host said later. “Random people stop to look at us because we're two girls mixing, but then they actually stay and hang out. I don't know if it's because we're playing records they like, or they didn't expect us to actually be mixing or just because we look like we're having fun, and they want to be part of the party. Whatever it is, we'll look up from what we're doing and all of a sudden we'll be in a party!”
Some d.j.s are constantly on the road, flying around the world to play records at clubs and private parties. Sought-after superstar d.j.s in the class—people like Carl Cox, Fatboy Slim, Sasha & Digweed and the female drum & bass d.j. DJ Rap—can command as much as one hundred thousand dollars for one show, though the average is closer to half that figure. If these d.j.s resemble pop stars, Syrup are more like session drummers, or artists and writers for whom the term bohemian was invented: they play because they love to, and hold day jobs in order to pay the bills, but only if the job won’t prevent them from doing what they love. Host and Vincent, who earn between a hundred and fifteen hundred dollars per gig, are choosy about what music they play but refreshingly open to playing gigs for fun, rather than status.
Were they so inclined, Host and Vincent have the requisite technical skills and sufficiently distinctive taste to become superstars, and it’s hard to imagine it would take them long to do it. They look stylish but pleasingly natural, like the slightly hipper of your friends. Their ability to create fun through d.j.ing sounds simple but is rare; after hearing one of their first homemade mix CDRs, I thought “How come clubs never sound like this when I show up?” In 2002, I found two of their homemade mix CDs in the used bin of the East Village record store, Mondo Kim’s. The CDs come with brightly-colored artwork, heavy on pink, and bear line drawings of half-naked women squirting each other with hoses and holding syrup bottles. Syrup favor fleet, syncopated songs, often with raunchy lyrics, and though the duo draws on a variety of subgenres—including two-step, grime and Miami bass—their mixes create a unified mood that eventually suggests its own genre. After hearing Syrup play a few times, you begin to expect the kind of ribald and bubbly songs they find for their sets: The Booty Bouncers’ “Get Dirty Baby,” Agent X’s “Girls Can Play Too” and Avenue D’s hilarious “Too Drunk to Fuck.”
Song selection isn’t an earth-shaking skill, though. Anyone with a good internet connection, enough time read music blogs and some hard drive space, can create an impressive playlist. When I saw Syrup play a set live last November at a Lower East club called Subtonic, it was obvious they had more than taste. They mixed records together with skill, projected a unique personality and acted like d.j.ing is the best job in the world you could have, even if you have to do it in a pitch-black basement to an audience of exactly two.
It isn’t uncommon to see d.j.s react physically to their music, but many, especially men, approach the turntables and CD players they work with as if they’re playing poker, carefully hiding their opinions while they work. At Subtonic, Syrup were constantly in motion and clearly loving the gig. Host started the set, and as she mixed one record into another, she paused for several seconds with her hand on the controls of the mixer, working her shoulders into the beat as if she wanted to test each selection before releasing it into the crowd. After Host played several records, Vincent took over, swaying her head heavily as she cued the vinyl up. While one played, the other chose records, constantly moving to the beat, sometimes stepping out to dance in front of the turntables.
When I met them in person at Vincent’s apartment on Norfolk Street in March, their chemistry was much the same. The two do not cohabit—they live in separate walk-up apartments with roommates in the East Village—but they are deeply comfortable with each other, while considerably different in temperament. Host’s words dip in pitch at the end of a sentence, with a slightly depressive push, as if she’s telling you something you always knew was true but didn’t want to admit. Speaking slowly and with an even pace, she sounds a little bit like a long-suffering mother and a fatalistic teen at the same time. Vincent is the older of the two, but giggles more. She suggests as element of classic Californian party girl, but transmits an equal measure of even-headed entrepreneur: she’s made clothes, worked at record stores and managed, while working full-time, to keep improving her status as a DJ.
“If there could be the perfect girl, that girl would be both of us,” Vincent said. “The type of people that will be our friends, or guys that like us? If they like me, they’re not into Vivian, or if they love Vivian, they’re like giving me the cold shoulder.”
“It’s almost like they know when they see us,” Host said. “Anyone that’s gay will automatically talk to her, anyone who’s in fashion will talk to her. Anyone who wants to talk about music always comes to me.”
Host and Vincent are from the San Fernando Valley, but met in San Francisco as d.j.s in the drum and bass community. Host went by the name Star Eyes and Vincent went by Siren, aliases they still use when they play solo shows, which they still do several times a year.
“When I was in junior high,” Host said, “I used to watch this video show that would be on after school. I was a really big Depeche Mode fan, I liked the Cure and that kind of stuff. But the show started showing early techno videos, like “LSD Is the Bomb” and “James Brown Is Dead,” the real cheesy rave anthems of 1992 or whatever. The “LSD Is the Bomb” video had all these fractals and blown-out orange color. I don’t remember what the other ones were, but they were really bad. And the Prodigy had a live video for one of their songs. It might have been “Charlie.” I think that was the video with the cartoon cat, like they took the cartoon that sample is from. I did that and at the same time—being the nerd that I am—I used to go to the library all the time, and at the library you could read NME and Melody Maker because they had it at the library. They started covering the Summer of Love and the Orb and all the huge rave things, and I was totally obsessed by it, no joke. I decided I wanted to be a raver. I had to go to a rave. We used to hang out at this coffee house when we were 13, and the guy who worked there was 19, and he offered to take me and my friends to a rave. My mom met with him to make sure he was OK. This was pretty crazy because this is before the time of cell phones and she would have no way of getting a hold of me if I just disappeared. She was pretty trusting. She let us go in this van—this delivery van—with no back seats or anything. We had sit on the floor. Point being we went to this rave, I loved it, I starting going to raves all the time.”
“And wearing white Mickey Mouse gloves and doing glow-stick dances,” Vincent added.
“I didn’t do glow-stick dances,” Host insisted. “I never had glow sticks. We have to go to my house before we go to the club, so you can see the rave accoutrement. You couldn’t buy CDs of this stuff them—all the stuff I wanted to play was only on vinyl. I decided if I wanted this music I had to have turntables, and then it turned into a bigger thing where I wanted to d.j. I liked these records, and no one would ever play these records I wanted to hear. They would play three records I liked, and then the rest of it would be shit. I was like, If I d.j., I can play every record I liked. I met this guy, and he taught me how to d.j. This was when I was 15. I’ve been doing it every since.”
After d.j.ing together several times in the late 1990s, Host and Vincent talked about collaborating. On an airplane, on her way to an out-of-town gig, Vincent was reading a book and came across the word “syrup.” “When I got back, I was like, ‘OK, we’re making a CD. Either that’s Syrup, or we’re Syrup,’” she said. Vincent was living in New York in 2000, working at a drum and bass record store in the East Village called Breakbeat Science. Host moved to New York in September of 2004, and they had just finished their third mix CD, “I Don’t Care What You Say”—decorated with the same line drawing that had appeared on the first two, only this time the women are giving the viewer the finger—a few days before I saw them in Miami.
In order for Host and Vincent to earn enough as d.j.s that they could afford to quit their jobs and get bigger places, they would probably have to write and record music of their own, rather than simply d.j.ing other people’s music. This is what the well-paid English d.j. Fatboy Slim started doing in 1997, eventually scoring a huge international hit with 1998’s “The Rockafeller Skank,” and Diplo, a d.j. from Philadelphia did last year with his album “Florida.” Syrup say that making records is a task they intend to get around to, but, for the moment, it does not appear to be a pressing concern.
This is an odd stance in dance circles, a section of the pop world very comfortable with commerce, self-promotion and lots of it. At the Winter Music Conference in Miami, the “synergy” between corporate brands and artists looked at first like healthy real politik, but over the course of a few days, it just looked like a lot of money in bed with other money. At a fairly dull WMC panel event called “The Future” (can any conference restrain itself from adducing the future?) electronic music artist Richard Devine spoke about scoring video games, developing software for purchase, and working with Nike. The well-known electronic and pop artist Moby appeared elsewhere at the WMC, and is marketing his new album “Hotel” in with the W Hotel, where it is available in every room for purchase. All over Miami, colorful postcards announcing parties often bore the logos of more than five separate sponsors, companies that sometimes seem to exist only to produce logos that end up on flyers.
Syrup float through and above this world, endorsed by nobody in particular and not prone to work the room. There are no sponsoring logos on their mix CDs, and for the duration of the Winter Music Conference, they interacted mostly with those they already know, handing out flyers and CDs only when they remember they’ve got them. (They are promotional enough that they’ve created Syrup t-shirts, men’s panties and eye patches, but not so promotional that they brought any of this stuff to Miami, an event largely designed to facilitate networking and the handing out of stuff.)
They did have a few copies of their new homemade mix CD on hand in Miami, and sold them to fans at an afternoon show at the Hotel Chelsea, a 1936 art deco hotel on Washington Avenue, a few hours before they lugged their records over to the Adidas Store. A few men watched the d.j.s play from stools in the lobby, one rather joylessly taking pictures of Vincent and Host with his cell phone. The set was typically uptempo and raunchy, and Host and Vincent were moving with verve as they worked behind the tiny table set up for them. They seemed unconcerned to be playing for less than ten people, among them The Girl. At every dance event, there is always The Girl, the one who dances, no matter who is watching and how else anyone feels. This one wore a short denim skirt, pink and black high-top sneakers, and a pink halter-top that was held up by a guitar strap tied around the woman’s neck. Every record Syrup played seemed to connect with her, and she was her own party.
“I haven’t been d.j.ing for this many years—since I was fifteen—to quit if I don’t become a superstar,” Host said later. “It’s worth losing money to me. Obviously, if we’re losing a lot of money, that would be a problem. But it’s worth breaking even to have the crazy adventures that we get to have, that we would never have if we weren’t the Syrup Girls.”
Later that night, the Syrup Girls attended a private party for Tokion Magazine behind the Shore Club, in an area set far back from the hotel, a lowered stone patio surrounding a small, bluish pool illuminated from below. The performers included the Japanese singer Mu—looking like a leather version of the Wicked Witch of the West—who sang and glared at the crowd and waved her arms around, and James Murphy, one of New York’s current star d.j.s, who played a thick, satisfying set of modified disco. Host wore a nurse’s outfit and scoped the crowd with Vincent and Pope. Suddenly, The Girl appeared, somewhat worse for wear, and buttonholed Vincent. “I’ve been drinking all day!” she announced happily, standing next to the pool. She said she was a kindergarten teacher from New Hampshire and that her students loved it when she played dance music for them. As she spoke, she wobbled unsteadily, and Host gently took her by the shoulder and moved her, still talking, away from the edge of the pool. Host, Vincent, and Pope remained beside the pool, listening to the music, talking about boys, and smiling and nodding as though the party were theirs.
"Wait, if I just reach around and put my critical eyeball right here behind my ideals bone and flex my heart and squint while crouching in the loving tiger pose, I can convince myself that the new Sleater-Kinney album is really, really good because I know they're goddesses and warriors and it is too confusing to confront the fact they can't jam and fuzzy filters do them no good and they can be a little anhedonic and oh my back hurts and I can't stand not loving them, ouch, ouch, ouch, shit."
Editorial myopia, rendered as monologue:
"I look out my window here in New York City—NEW YORK FUCKING CITY, not Madison, Norman, Dallas, Stockholm, Portland or Ames, but EN WHY— and somehow, all I can see is the people I went to college with."
Now we're talking. Pylon are responsible for my favorite 45 vinyl single of 1983, "Crazy"—with the shiny fish bike sticker—and their singer, Vanessa Briscoe, can still undo me in three sung words. The band is back together, and who knows what that really means, but Vanessa has posted a delightful history of the band on the website linked above. Read every word. Let me know how you feel, and if you want, I can go full-on religious fetish and rip "Crazy" to MP3 for a post. (Thanks to Patrick for heads up and link.)
Remember when I asked you what that “monster music” song was? Nobody knew, or if they did, they kept the mega advance info to themselves. DJ Enuff must have gotten the song the day it was recorded, and it isn’t a Dipset spin-off—it’s a Jae Millz song called “Street's Melting.” Not as great as it sounded being rewound and thrown from the roof on a Friday night, but still fiery. Mr. Millz needs to watch out for a "Jadakiss Jr" tag, though.
The super hot shit is “Now I Live (And Now My Life Is Done)” by Ben Sidran from the 1973 ABC/Blue Thumb album “Puttin' In Time On Planet Earth.” I got it at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1994. Sidran on vocals and “boinger,” Curley Cooke on that guitar (that guitar!) but then Phil Upchurch is listed on drums and Clyde Stubblefield is listed on bass, cabassa and conga. For the rest of the album, not surprisingly, these two play exactly the reverse positions, so I assume this is a typo, but I have to give the song the possibility of making this true: it is so uniquely watery and freaked that maybe they did switch up for this song. Nothing like it. (PS: Diamond D was two boxes away when I bought the Sidran [$50] and I thought maybe I'd have one of those “Thanks, Mean Joe,” moments, you know, when he acknowledged me, but no dice.)
Both unfuckwitable: the Field Mob & Ludacris tune, “Georgia,” and Twin Roots’s “Know Love.”
You might want to buy this comp, “I Love Baile Funk”. I can't stop listening to it. And it's not too long! (Turntable Lab has it, though it takes too long to find it. Why no search function, guys?)
When someones who pronounces Skittles as "SkitLESS" challenges you to a drinking battle involving a hookah and many bottles of wine, just say no. Wuss out. Be man enough to man down. Don't challenge an Icelandic Italian. Your ass will lose.
You see, I am not the only one on this hobbyhorse. K is very kind about it all, I think. I forgot to go off on that election/benefit TMBG thing CD from last year; you know, the "our America fights back" thing that made "our America" look like five square blocks in Park Slope (or its equivalent in Athens, etc.)
Part two of the Sheff-Jones match, um, soon.
Today, the first of a series of exchanges I've been having with Rob Sheffield, a.k.a. The Don, Miss Ice, and Long Rob Mylar. These email tennis balls have been Autotuned, edited, improved post facto and are in no way natural. This is not real time and you are not reading.
Mr. Sheffield: I don’t know AT ALL what to make of the fact that The White Stripes is your THIRD piece in a row to characterize Nineties guitar rock (or indie rock) as a time of insularity and obscurantism, when as far as I can tell the precise opposite is true, and bands such as Nirvana/Hole/Pavement/PJ Harvey/Breeders/Sonic Youth etc. enjoyed mass audiences and mainstream airplay that would have been unthinkable at any other moment in history. Am I just wrong about this? Wasn’t guitar rock considerably MORE popular and accessible in the 90s than it ever was before or is now? Didn’t Nirvana etc. bring mass appeal to weird artsy non-metal rock while articulating (one might say ”de-obscuring,” if it were a word, which I think it isn’t) questions of gender and sexuality that would be unspeakable in popular music today? Wasn’t it a time when an independent album as difficult as Spiderland could sell 43,000 copies, a staggeringly large number, without any corporate connections or media support or metropolitan following whatsoever? And isn’t that kind of awesome? I thought it was awesome at the time—I still do. Am I just wrong about this? Enlighten my ass at yr leisure. (P.S.: I think you are engaged in a lover's quarrel: Sasha and Indie Rock, too in love to let the beef go—and that's what makes it so intense and fascinating, I guess, from my perspective as a reader. Indie rock is the Milton to your Keats ["life to him would be death to me"].)
Alex Ross offers me the baton and I can think of no good reason to refuse it. So here goes.
Total number of books I've owned: About two thousand.
The last book I bought: At the Newark airport, the Oprah Faulkner trilogy, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and Fury and Light In August. Also got some dumb "hit" novel from Japan about piercing and body modification called Snakes and Earrings or something. Like a bad sex blog. Snauze. (For the record: I think it is fucking awersome that Oprah is asking America to read a natural avant guardian and freak like Faulkner. And I am not ashamed to say I barely remembered these books, and 1.5 of the way through them, they are beyond binoculars.)
The last book I read: As I Lay Dying.
Five books that mean a lot to me (in no particular order): The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (bummed out when I found out it was all Christaganda); Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum; James Salter's Light Years;Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems; A.J. Liebling's entire catalog.
Total number of films I own on DVD and video: One hundred and five.
Last film I bought: Office Space. A computer insists it is my favorite film, even though I've never seen it. I also just ordered Method Man's strip club documentary, but it hasn't arrived.
Last film I watched: Dark Passage, a bananas Bogart and Bacall movie about an escaped convict who undergoes plastic surgery to escape The Man. The first half is shot from Bogart's p.o.v. The whole thing is pretty much ür noir, many shots featuring no sunlight. The surgery scene is especially woozy and excellent. Soaked with Freudian self-critique and moving in a not phony way. And, duh, killer style in all clothes and set design.
Five films that I watch a lot or that mean a lot to me (in no particular order): The Matrix, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Totoro, Sweet Smell of Success, Stranger Than Paradise.
If I could be any character portrayed in a movie, I would be: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, or Chewbacca.
Total volume of music on my computer: 4 GB on the laptop, almost a terbayte on various LaCie drives.
Last CD I bought: DJ Wreck's Jay-Z Unreleased Freestyles Part 2.
Song currently playing: W.C. f/Nelly "Whip Yo Ass"
Five songs I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me: 1. XTC "Making Plans For Nigel": empathy is a hard thing to put across in a song [cf. Prince's "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man"]. 2. Bad Brains "Pay To Cum": The most excited I'd ever been by a song, it's a moment I refer to almost every week. 3. Killing Joke "Requiem": when I realized lyrics weren't always in charge. 4. Brian Eno "St. Elmo's Fire": No, not just because we covered it. Beauty without cliché, pain without self-pity, wonder without daftness. 5. Beatles "She Said She Said': Because I will never ever figure it out.
Jane is en la maison, encore.
Anybody know how to make a Creative Muvo TX FM work with Mac? I was told it did, but as far as I can tell, it doesn't. Sucker = me.
And here's "Rare Essence," a note about Gang of Four's Entertainment! I could go on forever about this record, but it's likely better that I didn't. The most important ones are sometimes bears. (P.S.: Yes, I am total moron and it's ANDY GILL, not King, singing that bit in "Damaged Goods." How fucking embarrassing is that? Oh, yeah, I know this album REAL WELL. Jesus. I wouldn't blame you for clicking off RIGHT NOW.)
If you don't have the Diplo remix of "Hollaback Girl," go and get it. It's on vinyl, official style, and somebody must have posted it somehwere on an empeethree. And look out for Diplo's remix of Beck's "Go It Alone." Twist and crawl!
Apparently, I am somewhere in this NPR story, saying something about the Heartless Bastards. I have not heard it. I hope I do not sound like a herb. I also say something somewhere in the first fifteen minutes of this WFUV segment called "Let's Get Digital."
Emily Gordon sent this link to a "neon boneyard," which seems to be where old signs go to die.
I've been remiss in reporting recent street movements, which usually wouldn't be any kind of loss, but I should have told you about the readings given in the past few weeks by Tan Lin, Joshua Clover, Ange Mlinko (who also read a poem by Rachel Loden), and Tanya Larkin. (They did not all read at the same event). Big up to all of them—find and buy their work. I know that's not very specific. Lin read a great poem about the WD50 restaurant on Clinton.
DJ Marlboro still talks to his mom every day.
Katharine Mitchell writes:
1. The Number Two Middle School hosted a singing contest on Tuesday. My class sang an exuberant number entitled, "Wo ai Zhonghua." Translation: I love Chinese.
2. My exclusive tour of the Zhenjiang Waste Management and Water Treatment Facility of Zhenjiang disintegrated into a swirling vat of beijiu—the legal white lightning of China. The sewage plant is outfitted with its own karoke joint, and the shit went down when my head teacher made advances, his wife foxtrotting only steps away with a deputy vice principal.
3. Forget barbed wire. Recycle beer bottles to fight theft and crime.
4. Kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down. Leave your dirty laundry outside the church; let Jesus clean you inside.
Related by a thin, national thread: I cannot stop fucking with the jasmine tea with black tapioca at Tea & Tea at 51 Mott, corner of Bayard. Call ahead—212.766.9889—and they'll have your order ready.
Here is a column about The White Stripes and here is a Pop Note about the new Coldplay album. It was fun to see Jon hating yesterday, because he doesn't put his smack down very often, but we're not hating on this new record for the same reason. I don't find Coldplay self-pitying; if anything, I wish Martin would stop playing nurse and think about himself a little bit. I'd like to hear him wild out or, barring that, just do the old Coldplay thing, which presented as a less self-satisfied nursiness. I was a fan of A Rush of Blood To The Head; I liked the band the way they were. Jon straight up can't stand them, which I respect, but that isn't my lookout. I wanted to drop unexpected love on X&Y, but they fucked with the recipe! "Clocks" was fine!
A little disappointed with the Dipset Memorial Day Mixtape. I like Cam's "Get 'Em Daddy," but we've already heard "So What's It Gonna Be" and "Get Down." Other than that, you only need the 88-90 freestyles: "The Symphony," "Juice." It's a good look, because the Carmina Burana module rock is getting sleepy. (Will post MP3s of this later.)