WHP FEATURE 002
THE BLACK MADONNA
THE BLACK MADONNA
Marea Stamper’s rise to the top of the DJ pack has followed a distinctly old school path. Whilst the current house scene has more than enough fresh faced kids blundering into headline slots on the back of a big single, Stamper has built her career brick by brick, spending over a quarter of a century completely immersed in dance music. The relatively rapid success she’s had with her Black Madonna moniker masks years of grind, from selling rave tapes out the back of a car as a teenager, to releasing 8-bit techno bangers as Lady Foursquare in the mid-noughties. And throughout all this time she never once stopped digging further and deeper into house music history with an obsession born of love.
“We even have cops who are DJs! Mike Dearborn is a cop!”
These years of passion and graft have emphatically paid off. Having made her name first as resident and then as musical director of Chicago’s iconic Smart Bar – itself a venue steeped in house history– Marea is now in demand worldwide. She’s that rarest of things; a producer who’s as strong on the decks as she is deft in the studio, able to work a set from the camp high NRG disco to the sweaty jack tracks, tweaking the filters to keep her mixes tight rather than flashy, all the while striving to create a euphoric communion between DJ and dancefloor. As with her ascent to success, her DJ style is old school, a fusion of technical skill, tune selection, and the ability to read a crowd. So it’s little surprise that someone who has such respect for her audience has got no idea what she’ll play at a gig til she’s staring her crowd in the eye – and, this isn’t something she’s planning on changing for her forthcoming Warehouse Project shows…
“I actually don’t prepare at all,” she reveals over Skype “other than to listen to new music and to try and memorise it, then categorise it so I can find it when it’s the right time to play it. But as far as having a plan, or having a sense of what I’m gonna do when I get there, you’re really not in control of the crowd, or who plays before you or who plays after you – those are decisions that have to be made at the time you arrive, and by the minute. Conditions on the ground may change. Heh.”
So Obama digs house?
This ability to respond to the crowd was honed in the toughest of crucibles – playing to the generation spanning house fans who flock to the floor of Smart Bar, a place Marea holds dear to her heart.
“Smart Bar is unique, it’s been owned by the same person in the same location since 1983. Every time you‘re playing in Chicago you’re playing for a person who’s processing a different range of time- a lot of the crowd is young, but a lot of the crowd is 40 and over, so, don’t fuck up! If you do the other residents will yell at you – they’ll yell ‘hot mix’, or ‘coming in hot!’ and they’ll, like, fan you with a fan. I mean, it’s good natured, but if you make a mistake in Chicago people are aware of it. DJing in Chicago is a privilege, not a right. You know that the other DJs have been playing since the dawn of time. They’re not 25 year old kids who got record deals last week; it’s not a joke for them! Not that it is for anyone else… But Chicago is the World Series all the time. There’s a lot of pressure on me to be good. In Chicago there’s a lexicon that you’re tapping into that ties together industrial, techno, house and disco in only the way that Chicago does. The people who succeed really understand that and they’re speaking to that crowd.”
It’s understandable why Stamper romanticises Chicago – and not just because her rammed touring schedule has been taking her far away from her adopted home town for so long. For someone who lives and breathes house, the city has a magic for her that has never faded. She talks about the m music blaring from every angle; from apartments, radios, even garbage trucks passing in the morning. She points out that in Chi-town, even the cops go raving. Then she drops a revelation.
“We even have cops who are DJs! Mike Dearborn is a cop!”
I’m still reeling from learning that the man who wrote ‘An Acid Memory’ spends his days flashing his badge and busting felons, when Stamper, nonchalant about it all, goes ahead and raises the bar a notch or two further.
“I mean I don’t think it’s a secret that Mike’s a cop. That’s the thing; it’s so normal. The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, is a house head. He’s from the South Side of Chicago. He knew Frankie Knuckles. There’s a great picture of him and Frankie together when they named a street in Chicago after Frankie. When Frankie died, Barack sent a letter of sympathy to us at Smart Bar, and everyone grieving Frankie. In fact, the Chosen Few DJs were just at the White House –”
So Obama digs house?
“Oh, he is a certified house head. If you lived in Chicago when he did, where he did, there is no way around it.“
Talk of Obama brings us, inevitably, to the current presidential race. In a dance scene where banal on-brand statements rule the day, Marea is a notable for being unapologetically politically outspoken. This doesn’t always win her friends – there is still a fair large section of house fans who, somewhat bizarrely, imagine that nightclubs exist in a hermetically sealed bubble completely separate from real world issues. This isn’t something, however, that’s going to hold Stamper back from letting the world know what time it is. And when it comes to who she would choose to be the next leader of the free world, she’s emphatic.
“I’m not gonna lie and say I don’t have a strongly held opinion. I have very strongly held opinions: I would vote for the corpse of Richard Nixon if it was running against Donald Trump. I will also take a strong stance on anyone who has bought into a set of vague misogynist accusations against Hillary Clinton. Criticise her policies – and there are many things to criticise, I have voted against her twice. But if you’re just saying ‘ahh Shillary; that crooked bitch’ we’re not even talking ideas, you just hate her. She’s had nearly two decades of the Republican slander machine going at her for everything from her hair to whether she bakes cookies. People used to hate her because she was too liberal, now they hate her because she’s too conservative, I mean which one is it?”
Attacks on the misogyny in society in general – and in dance culture specifically- have become a feature in interviews with Stamper. But being one of the few figures willing to stick her head above the parapet has proved to be something of a double edged sword. Whilst it’s unlikely that someone with her convictions would ever refrain from speaking out, it must become wearying to be constantly asked questions about issues that are never touched on in an interview with, say, Kerri Chandler. She raises this – and has a solution.
“I get asked about misogyny in the scene a lot, and I wonder how many men get this question. I would say that the dance scene, both mainstream and underground, has had to deal with misogyny since the beginning, because it’s on Earth, and Earth has problems, and all of those problems still live in clubs. There’s got to be a different way to address it; men have to do it. I think what Boiler Room are doing is a really good start. As much as anything, I appreciated seeing a guy saying ‘I want to fix this’. I don’t know if they have the tools to fix it, but I know this; women say, ‘this has to stop’, and guys go ‘Yeah! This has to stop!’ and they sort of cheer in the background. It’s not gonna stop unless guys talk amongst themselves about how to stop this. A lot of guys haven’t even thought about it.”
“The main thing I’ve been doing is working on this album. The first single will be due in about three weeks – I’m going back to Chicago to finish it.
“I will say that my male peers are awesome to me. Everyone I’ve played with since I started touring has been delightful to me. I know they don’t want misogyny for me or other women. Even guys who might not have been active in fighting it, I know that they don’t want it, and that’s a good start. Most of the guys in dance music are lovely people – they’re sweethearts. Now we gotta just get them to jump in and work out how to fix it. Asking women how to fix it is like asking an umbrella how to fix the rain..! I can’t fight it and fix it at the same time. Something I struggle with is that a lot of the time someone on the internet will send a thing to my attention, like ‘one of your peers is misbehaving’ and I’m supposed to come in with the cape and the sword and the lasso, like Dun-duh-duh-DUNN! [she sings some heroic sounding refrain], and at a certain point I’m just exhausted, and I need to go to work, and get my job done so I can pay my bills.”
So working is what she’s been doing. A punishing tour schedule has seen her travel ‘round the world and back again– but now that’s coming to a temporary halt. After this year, Stamper has decided to take three months off so she can give fans what they’ve been waiting for since 2014; some new original music.
“The main thing I’ve been doing is working on this album. The first single will be due in about three weeks – I’m going back to Chicago to finish it. I think it will be worth the wait. I know I want the next thing I do to have substance. I don’t want it to be a bone that you throw to keep people interested in your DJing. I think as a DJ, if you can’t play a transformative, revelatory set, where people walk out and go ‘oh my god’, if you can’t do that without a single to get people excited then something is very, very wrong.”
The thing is, even if she’s making an album because she feels that the time is right, rather than using it as some sort of calling card for her DJing skills, dance albums are notoriously tricky to pull off. For a scene that’s bursting with amazing tracks, there’s a distinct lack of correspondingly great albums. How does she plan to sidestep the pitfalls that have sunk so many before?
“The dance album is a very confounding thing. This will be a real album. It will not be a series of tracks. I’ve got touchstones I come back to, very obvious ones, certainly Homework by Daft Punk, and the Metro Area self-titled album. Some of the Arthur Russell stuff he did on Sleeping bag, those kinds of more monumental documents. I’m drawing on very specific moments in dance music and finding new ways to unravel them and connect them to other stuff. People know that gospel is a huge part of my lexicon, same as the intersection of Arthur Russell and Metro Area. Those threads will be completely clear in this record. The record comes out next year, the single in November. I have a drop dead date on this. I don’t get to fuck around with it!”
And with that, we wrap up the call – although it turns out we’re not quite done talking. A couple of hours later Marea emails me through a link to an obscure Italo track, something Jesse Saunders sampled in the early 80s, referring to a geeky tangent we’d gone down on the links between Italo and Chicago. She hadn’t been able to remember the track name when we talked, and it had clearly been ticking away in her mind.
“I love that this was still bugging you-” I write.
“This brain doesn’t have an off switch,” comes the reply, “I don’t know what I did before social media and DJing. I guess just talked everyone’s ear off and forced them listen to records they didn’t want to hear in my living room. Dark times.”
I listen to the track she’s sent through (it’s a killer, inevitably) and think, really though, if the tracks were this good, those times don’t sound so dark at all… The Black Madonna plays WHP on Fri, Oct 21st and Sat, Oct 22nd