Where The Boys Are!
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Regulars at Fresh will be seeing a fresh face on the decks April 19, as New York City DJ Joe Hickerson plays the party for the first time. Though heís spun for San Francisco before, at Industry, the Endup, and Swank, Fresh will be his first San Francisco T-dance.

Hickerson is committed to keeping each dancefloor happy, but heís equally committed to staying true to his musical style. ďIf a track doesnít cause an unconscious shake of the shoulders,Ē he says, ďI wonít play it in my set.Ē

Rhythm is the essence of house music for Hickerson, and a rhythmís ability to unify the dancefloor is a consistent theme of his signature sound.

A chance meeting with Manny Lehman inspired Hickerson to learn the DJ craft, and a couple of opportunities to open for Junior Vasquez in 2006 led to his big break in the Big Apple, headlining his own Saturday night at The Roxy. Soon after, Hickersonís manager unexpectedly passed away, prompting him to take a step back to focus on honing his technical proficiency and developing his signature sound.

He re-emerged a year later to spin at Peter Rauhoferís regular weekly party and has been spinning nonstop ever since, most recently at the 30th anniversary Black Party, in the chilled-out ďLove Lounge.Ē He continues spreading his love and passion for dance music on both coasts as well as in Canada, even while maintaining his other career as a Democratic political consultant, a reflection of his killer instinct both on and off the dancefloor.

What made you want to become a DJ?

I got into house music by accident. I love to dance, but my friends that I first started going to clubs with were more interested in going to nightclubs to find dick than to hear music. But I personally started paying more attention to the music right around the time that Manny Lehmanís Experience CD came out, and I happened to pass by the DJ booth one night when he was spinning at Nation in DC, where I was living then.
I told Manny how much I liked the CD, particularly one track, ďHarder,Ē which happened to be an original production of his.  We chatted between tracks when Manny wasnít mixing, and my comments about music prompted him to ask me if I had ever thought about DJing myself.  From there, I slowly taught myself over the course of a few years, years during which the only audience for my sets was my teddy bear.

And now youíre teaching yourself how to remix?

At the moment Iím just a DJ, but I definitely have plans to start producing, as well. Iím committed to teaching myself how to do it, but itís a time-intensive process, so itís daunting. Itís a hard thing to jump into, but having your own tracks out there is also one of the main things that distinguishes the top talent in the DJ world.

How would you describe your sound?

My sets span the range of different house music genres, from tribal to tech to simple Chicago-rooted house.  I do like my sets to have the sense of both purpose and musicality that were so characteristic of house music when it first began.  I love drums, but solid basslines and inspiring melodies are what really give house music its soul.  I also like helping crowds to expand their musical awareness by sometimes playing the unexpected, but then throwing a familiar vocal over top of it to help it go down easier.  I will say that the two comments I get most about my sets are ďyour music makes me want to fuckĒ and ďyou really play a lot of stuff Iíve never heard before.Ē Iím pretty proud of both of those comments, actually.

How do you structure a set differently for a hard party like Black Party versus a T-Dance like Fresh?

Generally speaking, I donít have any rules about what I will or wonít play. I could play a set of vocals all night long, but I could also NOT play a single vocal all night.  Iím comfortable and happy either way.  I think having an open mind like that is very important, at least for me.

Because my sets are very symbiotic.  I feed the crowd, the crowd feeds me, and we take a journey together.  It sounds corny, but I try to feel what to play instead of think what to play.  The sets that end up being less than stellar are the ones where Iím thinking. The best are the ones where, at the end of the night, I donít really remember choosing particular tracks.  Really, those sets are almost an out-of-body experience because I donít remember how I got from one track to the next.

The bottom line is that I know I wonít be my best unless I enjoy what I am playing. Because I have a ďrealĒ career that pays the bills, I have the luxury of picking and choosing the gigs where I know both the crowd and myself can enjoy the set.

What kind of music is moving you right now?

All DJs have an addiction to music, and for a lot of DJs, that addiction manifests itself as a never-ending need to get the ďmust haveĒ tracks of the moment from this producer or that.   I absolutely used to have that obsession, but then one day I realized that being like that is just stressful and completely unnecessary, because every DJ ends up playing the same shit.  Thereís an unbelievable amount of house music being produced in the world, and if you take the time, you can find real gems.

So I canít point to one particular big-name producer or one particular record label that is really getting me off right now.  Instead, a host of obscure tracks by little-known producers dominate my lists of top tracks each month.

During the year when I wasnít playing many gigs following my former managerís passing, I recorded monthly mixshows that I sent out to my mailing list. It was the compilation of those mixshows that really helped me determine what direction I wanted to go in musically. And for those mixshows, I intentionally ignored what everyone thought were the hot tracks of the moment and instead scoured Beatport for the good music that no one was playing.

What DJs do you follow yourself?

This probably isnít the right answer for a interview promoting my debut at Fresh, but Victor Calderone is the one DJ who really gets me off.  He has a darker, sexier groove that I love, but I also love the good housey stuff and vocals he plays, because he is very picky about his vocals.  Also, looking ahead to how I want my own career to progress, I really respect how Vic has been able to expand his fan base into the straight market while still maintaining a good portion of the gay fan base that initially propelled him to superstar status.  

Versatility is really key.  In New York, Iím seeing more and more of the mixing of straight and gay crowds, and the younger gay crowd just doesnít have the same connection to the ďcircuitĒ as the older gay crowd.  Younger gay guys might go to the bigger events, but they wonít attend those bigger parties regularly, and they certainly wonít go to the smaller circuit parties.  I think the DJs that will be successful 10-15 years from now will be the ones who recognize that.

Also, at the moment, a lot of younger gay guys donít even really like going to big room clubs.  They prefer bars and lounges, because thereís a resistance to the drugs and taking your shirt off and all that.  Thatís hopefully a cyclical thing, and at some point, a successive generation will decide that walking around a club half naked is cool again.

Do you think the economy is taking a toll on the circuit scene as well?

Iím not sure.  But I do think the golden age of the New York club scene dawned during an economic downturn.  Clubs offer an escape, and during difficult economic times, more people want that escape.  So I think the bad economy is actually a real opportunity for clubs to start thriving again.  Hopefully promoters will think about lowering door prices to attract a larger crowd of people wanting to use the club as their therapy.

So youíre versatile in an effort to provide that escape for a wider audience?

Yes, and that versatility can sometimes make promoters nervous because it means my sets maybe arenít as predictable as some other DJs.  I think my job is both to provide the crowd with the good time that they paid for, but also to further their musical education and provide the foundation for more good times in the future.

DJ Joe Hickerson
Spins an Out-of-Body Experience
Posted April 16, 2009
By Suzan Revah