DJ Dmitry of Deee Lite
BY ROSE PARFITT
Since Deee-Lite split in ’95 Dmitry has given full justification to his “Supa DJ” prefix, awarded DJ of the Year in 1998 for his pioneering mix of techno, electro, funk and new wave and remixing tracks for a numerous and unlikely collection of artists including Sinead O’Connor, Ultra Naté, The Jungle Brothers, Karen Finley and Q-Tip. He’s also been producing material for soundtracks including one song for the film Scream and released a solo mix album, Scream of Consciousness, including tracks co-written with Julee Cruise (of Twin Peaks theme tune fame).
“I’m looking forward,” he said in 2000 when Scream of Consciousness came out. “I am very proud of the past, but it can be a barrier. People have certain expectations, and when they think Deee-Lite, they think melodic house and vocals. That’s not where I am now at all. Music has evolved with time and so have I.”
Dmitry was born in the Ukraine, then part of the USSR. When his parents upped sticks to New York in 1981 Dmitry touched down in the midst of dance culture’s Big Bang as live and electronic music touched wires and exploded to create, over the next few years, the prototypes of hip hop, house, techno, electro and much else. Playing keyboards and guitar – a gift from his mother, a classical pianist, who enrolled him, aged nine in an experimental music programme for children – and with technical skill inherited from his father, an engineer and studying computers at NYU, Dmitry was made for it.
From checking coats at Pyramid, operating the lift at Danceteria, frequenting other ground- breaking clubs like the Paradise Garage and NASA and playing in a good few crazy NYC bands (Four Dicks and a Bone, The Hello Strangers, Blue Sand, That Greek Design, Raging Slab and SHAZORK!) it wasn’t long before Dmitry took the big step and got himself a set of decks. “It was pretty funny because when I started DJing, for the first year, I didn’t have a table for my turntables,” he says. “I’d put them on the floor and spin lying down. One of the decks had pitch control and one didn’t.”
In his box, early East Coast hip-hop brushed sleeves with the electronic sounds of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra and Dmitry soon had regular spots at places like Afrosheen, Pyramid, The Red Zone, NASA at The Shelter and The World, one of New York’s first house music clubs.
Then came Deee-Lite, the self-described “holographic house groove band” responsible for many of the audio-visual trends that characterised the 1990s. The ‘70s fashion revival, for example, can be traced back to the profound love affair between Deee-lite’s frontwoman and former go-go dancer Lady Miss Kier and Fluevog platform shoes. Deee-Lite’s massive crossover hit, “Groove is in the Heart”, with its almost indecently catchy bassline (courtesy of one Bootsy Collins) was club anthem of the decade. And – born as the group was to the deafening sound of monumental historical change as the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War fell apart virtually simultaneously – Deee-Lite, with its international make-up and outrageous retro-futuristic, sexually-unspecific image, epitomised a new (sadly short-lived) sense of politically liberated cultural harmony.
“They’re a mini-version of the United Nations, with one young man from the Soviet Union, another from Japan and a young woman from the United States. All three are brave or outrageous enough to wear dorky-looking clothes, designed to look like the worst of everything from the 1960s and ’70s,” wrote the Chicago Sun-Times somewhat stuffily in 1990, giving some indication of just how outrageous Deee-Lite seemed at the time.
By a strange twist of fate, Dmitry made his Glasgow debut hot on the heels of Lady Miss Kier. The two, however, are very definitely no longer on speaking terms, and since Deee-lite’s demise, Dmitry has striven to distance himself from its endearing but indisputably naff brand of funky dance vocals, moving towards an altogether heavier mix – mix being the operative word.
“I am just as inspired by Aphex Twin and Senor Coconut as I am by P-Funk and Louis Armstrong,” he says. “The biggest inspiration has always been the dance floor and some of my favourite producers are Laurent Garnier, Luke Slater, John Selway and Green Velvet.”
Mundovibes caught up with Dmitry at home in Manhattan and found him raging at the official offensive against New York clubland, perplexed by the ‘80s revival, horrified by the film Party Monster and itching to get over to Scotland.
Did you know that Lady Miss Kier was over in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago? Oh yeah? [stony silence]
So you two aren’t friends any more then?
Right. You must be pretty fed up of people asking you about Deee-Lite…
Yeah well, you know, it’s happening less and less because I have kind of a good DJing career happening now, and people know me as a DJ as this point and they don’t have the same type of expectations. A few years ago it was a little more difficult, but now it’s good.
What are you up to at the moment?
I have a new group that I have just put together, and I have a couple of licensing things that I’m doing. I’m doing some advertising and television work. And just mixing.
Do you like to DJ in to massive audiences in huge venues or do you prefer smaller clubs with a more intimate atmosphere?
Really I can’t say that I have a preference. Personally I like to be able to be near the crowd that’s dancing; I don’t like to be too far removed, too high up on a pedestal, you know what I mean? I like to really feel the vibe from the people. So whether its 50 people or 10,000 people it doesn’t matter to me so long as I can feel ‘em.
You came from the Ukraine originally – have you been back to DJ there?
Not in the Ukraine but I’ve been to Russia a few times.
What’s it like there?
Interesting… fascinating…scary…great. All of the above, you know? It was definitely interesting to see how things have changed, because I hadn’t been back for about 17 years and then I went back and everything was…really different. And some things were really the same. So, the general inefficiency and things like that remains. But kids were really open to music, and interested. I DJed for a really big party in Siberia – I hadn’t expected anything like that! But it was really quite interesting because 3,000 kids showed up for that event and they were all really dressed up! Like Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and all this stuff! And I was like wow – where do the young people get the money to buy this crap?! So it was kind of pretentious and it was funny, but they were really trying to impress others, impress themselves et cetera et cetera. And they were very open minded when it came to the music, they definitely were very happy to hear electronic music. You know, it’s still not really promoted on the radio over there, it’s not really promoted in any way except at the parties. People were really responding to very underground music. It’s not that they wanted to hear commercial crap. They really were real listeners, you know, people that kind of look for music, that really go out of their way to try to find it. Especially more underground things. But as far as any kind of overground production goes, they don’t have that kind of thing in Russia yet. There’s a couple of radio stations in Russia and all that, but it’s in its infancy, electronic music over there.
When you and your parents came over to the States did you actually defect?
Yeah, we were refugees, political refugees, we asked for political asylum in the United States. I spent a year living in Italy and another half a year living in Austria before finally getting an American visa.
It must have been amazing, moving to New York at that time and finding yourself in the birthplace of dance music…
Yeah there was a lot of great music coming from New York in the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s, actually. It’s just now that the flood of music from New York has slowed down to a trickle. It’s partly because of the draconian dance policies of the city government that’s really basically been harassing dance clubs and dance culture as such. I mean, New York has some very old laws that go back to prohibition time when there were speak-easies and they were trying to control the flow of liquor. So they have these dance cabaret licences that you have to have. And the process is very riddled with corruption and so the city basically sends out people, under-cover officers, to bust people for dancing. A friend of mine who was running a club this weekend, they got closed down because six people were dancing! Isn’t that the stupidest thing you ever heard? Oh yeah, I mean between that and the ban on smoking I mean it really has hurt New York’s nightlife in general. I mean I’m all for health and everything, and the whole reasoning behind it was so that club workers could have a better health environment, healthy environment. Well how about providing health insurance for nightclub workers, if you really concerned about their health. But of course no-body’s interested in that.
What do you think about dance music at the moment? You said it’s slowed down in New York but what about in general?
I feel that it’s a bit of standstill right now. We have this back to the 80s trend, which is actually a little disturbing to me. But, you know, I just don’t like records that sound so retro and there are just so many records that are just doing…like, they’ll take the 80s sound and instead of expanding with it and making something new with it they’re just sticking to the same old formula. The whole electroclash movement is being fed by that new wave 80s throwdown, which is…old. For me. Maybe because when I was younger I was living through that time, and so maybe the kids today they hear if for the very first time. So get excited for it but I cant really have the same sort of excitement for it. I like electro a whole lot; I’m a huge electro fan. It’s just that I’m iffy about electro and new wave mixtures. If you have a little dose of funk in there that can work very well with electro and new wave but what I don’t like is music that’s too white. You know? I’m kind of more into the multi-culti approach, to use the trendy term. (…You gotta take the piss a little bit…) It’s a bit boring; we already lived through that. Whereas for instance if you’re talking about the first half of the 1990s you had all these future musics developing, you had big ambient, you had drum’n’bass you had techno, you had all these new languages that were really being expanded on and perfected and being very creative. And now I mean there’s still techno and there’s still drum’n’bass and there’s still ambient, and experimental stuff but what’s popular is the ‘80s. And I mean to me it can be very tongue-in-cheek and that could be fun, just to play a couple of funny things…but as a whole sound for your set it just bores me to tears.
Do you think its because it’s a safe option, you know, one that’s been tried and tested?
Yeah, but electronic music is not about safety. It’s about innovation and moving forward and the future.
I heard you used to be elevator operator at Danceteria – have you heard about this film, Party Monster, that’s about to come out?
Oh yeah, the Michael Alig story? I’m sorry to hear that. I haven’t seen the film but I’ve known Michael Aleg for quite some time and didn’t like the guy much, to tell you the truth. The guy is like a paedophile and a pervert. I mean I don’t care about how perverted he is but the paedophile I do care about. You know, and I never really cared for the guy for that reason, mainly that reason more than anything else. But I mean not to mention pissing into the ecstasy punch and then making everybody drink it, you know, things like that. It doesn’t make you want to be friends with a person, right?
It’s a weird one to make a film about it with Macaulay Culkin starring, of all people.
Well, you know, it’s a story that can sell. The thing about it, the guy that was killed was a friend of mine and he worked for me for a number of years. Yeah, so I know all the players in this scene and, I mean, it’s an ugly scene. It was an ugly scene then; and it certainly hasn’t improved much.
Is he still about then? I thought he was in prison…
Michael Alig’s in prison, yeah. But the other guy, unfortunately there was a second guy, Frieze, who was a part of it with Michael. And he’s the one that confessed. And he killed himself in jail. He couldn’t face going to jail, I guess. He felt very guilty about it.
Right, I think that’s about it…
Okay, just make sure that you convey that I’m super excited about coming to Scotland. I’ve been wanting to go to Scotland for as long as I can remember, to visit it, you know, ’cause I have this very romantic notion, which I’m sure is going to be blown to bits once I get there! But still, you now, I’m very excited and my girlfriend who’s coming with me is very excited. So we hope to do a bit of sightseeing as well as pleasing the Scottish public.
We’re done, right? So can I ask you on a different note, we’ve got to fly from London to Ibiza – what’s the best way of getting there from Glasgow? …