DJ Heather

In the past few years the Chicago house community has produced a number of innovative and distinct djs trained in the art of transforming tranquil dance floors into spaces of sheer bedlam and bliss. The onset nouveau jock barrage born and bred in the underground gatherings which flourish there. Their committed vision of undiluted musical appreciation, interactive communication, improvisation and basic integrity has brought greater attention to all the city’s great djs including the genre busting DJ Heather. Widely regarded as one of the premier selectors in the nation, this Chicagoan demonstrates her skills and sharp deck acumen for the massives throughout the Windy City and the world at large with verve and undeniable talent.

Her interest in music was sparked early on by her parents’ eclectic music collection. A full spectrum of jazz, blues, rock, soul and folk was part of the Robinson household. With a foundation set, she began to discover her own tastes ranging from the Jackson 5, Chic, Blondie and Kiss. The British New Wave, Ska, Punk the burgeoning Hip Hop and Industrial movements further sparked her enthusiasm for music. “I felt as if I was on a mission of discovery. Vintage Vinyl and Big Daddy’s in Evanston became my haunts. I loved finding new bands and sounds such as Depeche Mode, The Specials, Black Flag, Treacherous Three and Ministry making them my own. I would then share them with friends by making tapes. MTV and MV60 were just starting to make their mark as well. I Checked out artists such as; Frankie Goes to Hollywood and New Order at venues like The Bismark and The Riv, Aragon Ballroom and The Vic Theater every weekend if I possible.” Around that same time local radio stations such as; WNUR, WGCI and WBMX were thriving with mix shows featuring homegrown tastemakers. “I remember it was crucial to record the featured mixes by the Hot Mix 5. I’d get my pack of ten Tonemaster tapes from Radio Shack and set the pause button on my little silver Realistic boom box and get ready to record. The next day at school kids would ask each other “Did you get the Mix at 6? Nah, I got the Mix at 5 and the Hot Lunch mix was tight.” At all ages clubs, such as Medusa’s, Teri Bristol feverishly worked the decks and Leroy Fields manned the video images. The 18 and over dance parties of rock venue Cabaret Metro sneaking into Mars Bar, on the once seedy Rush Street, AKA’s on north Broadway, and the suburban teen decadence of McGreevey’s all proved to be incredibly influential. “Medusa’s was especially significant because of how it presented a true club experience to underage kids. I think the teens of Chi-town felt that they weren’t really missing out on what the adults were doing. That was undoubtedly our own world. If we were lucky enough to sneak into clubs like La Ray’s, Warehouse and The Music box that made our dance music experiences all the more meaningful”

During her stint in college she briefly managed the campus only radio station KWTUH. “Whittier College’s frequency was really low so you could tune in if you were on campus or happened to be driving by. For me the primary focus became the lunchtime show. Heard over the cafeteria loud speakers it had the highest listener ship of the broadcast day.” “For an hour it was my chance to mold minds and influence people or so I thought. Most of the time my managerial duties consisted of filling in for students who wouldn’t show up for their scheduled slots. Southern California staple KROQ supplied my radio fix that I couldn’t always get on my own.” She was also exploring the various music scenes of Los Angeles. “I would hit events like White Chocolate and the Apartment. I was amazed at the attention to detail and the range of music being played.” Punk showcases at Scream, Ska shows followed by Scooter Rally’s up and down the coast were great to check out too.”

After her time at school, she was waiting tables back in Chicago. A friend heard an unmixed compilation tape of hers that she played while at work. He suggested she might like playing records at a local bar. She started out in the early nineties at the Artful Dodger, a neighborhood pub with a cramped moist dance area situated in the rear. “I wasn’t 21 so I was afraid of getting caught but I thought I should a least try it out. I had nothing to lose” The first night went well and the owner asked her back. His confidence in her abilities grew. She progressed from Thursdays to Fridays and finally Saturday nights and at the same time gradually built a following “ I would ask some friends to come by. It was my chance to share my favorite records and have a few drinks.” “At that time I was not really “mixing” but garnering an invaluable lesson in programming. Every Saturday night I was responsible for five hours of music. Hours of invaluable training at the Dodger helped me learn how to read a crowd.” Naturally the fascination progressed into the technical aspect of djaying. “I wanted to mirror what I heard other djs (Gemini, Derrick Carter, Lego, Diz, Frique, Mark Farina, Johnny Fiasco, Matty etc.) doing in clubs like Shelter and lofts spaces like Reactor, 1355/1466 N. Milwaukee, Aberdeen, 500 Cermack and others throughout the city. I watched a lot of djs play and began learning by example. Finally I was able to buy two belt driven turntables. The first time I mixed two records it was like discovering a new secret language. Felt like a door opened up. I would practice six hours a day if I was able. At that stage it was truly a hobby, something I did on weekends including playing at weddings, graduation parties, gallery openings, steppers events. I did anything to help pay the bills and expand my experience. I always think of the dj thing as the happy accident. Maybe because I came into it at a stage when it wasn’t considered a superstar thing to do. When I started I was the only dj in a circle of photographers, actors, designers etc.” At that time she was also working for local record stores and labels like Record Exchange, Wax Trax, Southern and garnering experience about the industry. For five years she earned her chops by playing an urgent mix of hip hop, house, rock, jazz, soul, r&b, disco classics, rare groove and all manner of off-center beats relevant to the stew she was brewing. At the Dodger she fully developed her versatility and philosophy for what moves the dancefloor.

During her fourth year at the Dodger, she began what would become a three-year residency at Red Dog. “Vibes and Stuff” which morfed into “Momma’s Got Soul” A Wednesday night gig dedicated to downtempo beats, hip hop, rare groove and disco. “At Red Dog I was able to progress as a dj and hone my skills.” At that same time she landed her first residency at Smart Bar. A Sunday night downtempo showcase dubbed “Heavy Weight Session” The second would follow five years later and remains till this day. Around that same time she recorded her first vocal project; Joining Derrick Carter’s Sound Patrol Orchestra, along with house luminary Chez Damier for “Tripping Among The Stars” on the Organico label. She also began a short but invaluable stint at world famous Gramaphone Records. Many of Chicago’s well known djs have made a stop there; Sneak, Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, Terry Mullan, Gemini, Colette, Miles Maeda and Justin Long to name a few. “I was originally hired to be the store’s hip hop buyer. For three years that place was my resource center. I would use their phone lines, fax machines, Fed Ex and UPS accounts to the fullest extent. In addition I utilized the store to make contacts, ship demos/press kits and sell my own mixed material. With help from the shop owners, I was able to afford a pair of Technic turntables which only fueled my infatuation.” The networking eventually paid off. Three years later, once bookings got in the way of covering shifts, I had to say goodbye. One gig lead to another and the hobby manifested itself into a full time pursuit. I felt like I had graduated Gramaphone tech. Working there was such a priceless experience. I made a conscious decision at that time to see how far the dj thing could go.” Prior to her departure from Gramaphone one of the first known female dj collectives, Superjane, was born. Colette, Dayhota and Dj Heather (Lady D would join later) had a desire showcase talent regardless of gender “We were just a group who shared a common interest. Women emulating what other promoters/djs, who happened to be male, were doing in the city. As a crew we began hosting and playing parties at various venues. Ultimately the focus for others became our sex. For us that was never an issue.”

Primarily known in the Chicago dance community as a “hip hop” dj she began a shift in the material she played. “It was never a intentional choice to spin house music instead of hip hop. The demand simply seemed to intensify after each gig. Let me know that people were liking my methodology for house as well.” Over time she moved on to specialize in house and maintains a soulful head-bobbing approach. Heather’s track selection sends a nod of respect to the forbearers of Chicago’s signature sound. “Many things influence me, more than one sound” She fuses disco, classic house and techno. She drops tracks by producers who understand the forward curve of the electronic music scene. Commanding the crowd’s attention and keeping their feet moving. Soon her presence within the Windy City scene began to solidify and her reputation nationally began to grow. “Getting a chance to play outside Chicago definitely has been a combination of luck and timing. Friends, acquaintances and follow djs have looked out by suggesting me for gigs. Promoters, thankfully, trusted their opinions.” That kind of luck would play a big part in her first gig in Europe. By chance a tape was passed on to a promoter and lead to a trip to Paris. “I’ve always felt the Chicago sound isn’t much about what records you play as it is about how you play them. Using techniques such as tweaking the eq, layering records, sound effects, etc. to bring a uniqueness or signature sound to the mix.” In a matter of a time she progressed from local dj to a regular on the international dj circuit. “I was able to achieve that by doing a lot of touring purely based on the strength of my djaying.” Since then she has become a regular on the international circuit.

In 1998 she was asked by San Francisco transplant and fellow Chicagoan Mark Farina to support his Mushroom Jazz 2 cd tour. “I felt incredibly honored. Mark asking me to join him on tour was his quiet way of saying I like what you do. Truly the ultimate compliment.” She would later join him on the road in support of the third and fourth installments of the Mushroom Jazz series. As well as the house release San Francisco Sessions for Om Records in 1999. The cd also featured “Something Else” her first of three collaborations with 2nd Shift (JT Donaldson and Tim Shumaker) originally available on Seasons Recordings.

A year later Heather released her own officially licensed mix “Tangerine” for the Chicago based Afterhours label. “With my debut compilation I hoped to simply illustrate that I could program and mix. I think I achieved that”. With stand out reviews she hit the road on her own. That same year she returned to Chicago club staple Smartbar to begin her second residency at the venue. 2002 marked her inaugural trip to South Africa. “Visiting the continent was life altering. I went to Capetown and Johannesburg. Chanting, dancing, call and response throughout my set . I never had that type of true connection with an audience before. On top of all that, I was asked to make a speech after I played. Amazing.” She was the first African-American woman ever to play there. The UK’s Jockey Slut magazine touted her, as a star on the rise in their Feburary 2002 issue. The next month she won the first ever Dancestar award for Breakthrough DJ. “I was definitely surprised I was nominated but to win was even more shocking”. That year Heather also began her relationship with the London club Fabric. “Really a great space for djs and live performances. The attention detail is fantastic. I felt so comfortable there.” They felt the same and she officially became one of the residents in two years later. “I love that club”

In 2003 Vancouver’s Nordic Trax asked her to take on mixing duties “Dancefloor Principles”. This lead to her first trip to Japan, fulfilling a childhood dream. “Since I was a kid I had dreamt of going to Asia, Tokyo especially. I toured extensively for the disc. The stop was unquestionably a highlight” Despite her hectic time on the road she still manages to get in the studio. “Collabrating is a lot of fun. For me it’s interesting to see how other people handle the creative process. In the last few years I have worked with Brett Johnson, Greenskeepers, Slater Hogan, John Larner, Swirl People and Colette among others.”

Named after her favorite soy yogurt, Blackcherry Recordings, made its debut with the buzz worthy single “Picture of You” featuring Heather along with D.C.’s own EastcoastcoastBoogiemen. “ I came up with the name four years ago with intentions of starting a label. No project fit until this came along. I guess it was meant to be”. Remix duties were taken on by some of house music brightest rising stars. Lawnchair Generals, Jason Hodges, Natural Rhythm and Cle provided diverse takes on the original. She plans to release her own original material on the label in 2006.

2005 also marked Heather’s installment to the much heralded Fabric CD series, for the club of the same name. “With 21 I had a concept in mind; most of the material had to have been played at the club to give it an honest feel.” Judging by critics and house enthusiasts she has done just that. “At the end of the day to make a room full of people happy is difficult to do. You become part mind reader , guru, sensei, educator, entertainer and babysitter all at once. All the experiences I have had, made who I am today. As a person and dj. I love what I do.”

With 15 years of experienced behind her Dj Heather has grown to become one of the Windy City’s main Dj exports. She is an artist who defies conformity, defines quality and continues to nurture her solid skills for soul music of the technological generation.

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