Last Friday marked the latest installment of REGGAY, a queer dancehall party created by Cherlyn Russo, and Allday was on the scene to capture the rager’s Dancehall worshipers in all of their sweat soaked revelry. Full time creative director and part time DJ (read: “selector”), Russo founded REGGAY in 2011 to provide an alternative to the hyper-hetero-normative environments of typical dancehall parties. We caught up with Russo to talk DJing dancehall and the intersection of queer culture and reggae music. Photography by Nick Sethi.
What’s your job?
I’m a Creative Director working mostly in fashion. I create campaigns and experiences for brands through all different mediums (online, print, etc). It’s sort of like story telling which I find I also pull into my personal work.
You DJ also?
I dabble. My friend who’s a DJ and producer jokes with me that I’m a “Selector.” Sometimes we’ll DJ together and he mixes while I cue up the tracks.
How did you come up such an idea for a party, when did it start?
Dancehall parties can be intimidating for queer people. The scene is very hetero-normative and aggressive. I wanted to throw a dancehall party where queer people felt comfortable to be themselves without worrying about what others around them were thinking. I’m really into puns so the name “REGGAY” came naturally. The first one was July 2011, and it went viral online. I had it at Public Assembly (RIP), and the space was packed.
“The whole idea of a queer dancehall party is ironic because the music can be very homophobic.”
The whole idea of a queer dancehall party is ironic because the music can be very homophobic. The intentions may not be so, but the lyrics are. I was talking to a friend who grew up in Jamaica listening to artists like Buju Banton, who’s a huge dancehall star and is known for songs with really homophobic lyrics (re: Boom Bye Bye). But for my friend, he felt like, “I grew up on it, and to me the songs are like lyrical nursery rhymes. You don’t think about what they mean, you just think the wordplay and the flow sounds nice.”
At least in America, most people don’t know what’s being said because of the patois. It’s a combination of English mixed with slang and it’s spoken so quickly with a heavy accent. There’s this one song called “Chi Chi Mon” [by T.O.K.] and there’s a line, “Blaze the fire make me bun them,” which means, “I’m gonna burn the gay guy.” At one REGGAY, a DJ put that song on and the energy in the space exploded, everyone was getting down, and singing the lyrics and it was this incredible scene… Truly a “we’re here we’re queer, get used to it” moment.
You mentioned some crazy dancers...
Yeah, people at the party really get down. At this party, everybody dances until 4 in the morning until the lights turn on.
You are back now after a break. Did you find a venue?
I did. We’re doing it in Bushwick at the Paper Box. I was very picky about where to throw it and wanted a venue that had a certain vibe to it as well as be really accessible to people all around the city. Bushwick was never my first location choice to throw a party, but it’s hard to find a spot that could hold over 500 people within a realistic price range. I try to keep costs down to keep admission low.
For this party, we have an amazing lineup of DJs; all queer, most are from the Caribbean. Rizzla, who’s one of my favorite DJs is super influenced by Caribbean music. He’ll mix a dancehall track with a house track or something and it’s crazy. Mursi Layne, who is from Trinidad, is always my go-to when I do this party and she kills it. She knows how to hype up the party and will throw on soca and get people so riled up. I’ve got two new DJs, Tygapaw and Shyboi who are both Jamaican. They don’t exclusively spin dancehall but were hyped to do this party and rep the island.
“At this party, everybody dances until 4 in the morning until the lights turn on.”
Are there any special tracks you especially like?
I like Cham, Tony Matterhorn, Spice. What I like about the DJs is sometimes they’ll mix dancehall riddims with unexpected trackss. Do you know “Truffle Butter?” It’s a Drake, Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne song. There’s a mix with this dancehall artist I-Octane and it mashes his song “Buss a Blank” with “Truffle Butter.” If someone spins that at the party, people will recognize the “Truffle Butter” sound and then wait for Drake to start rapping, then all of the sudden it’s going to go into this dancehall patois and people are going to go bananas. That stuff gets people hyped.
The thing with mixing dancehall is that you can’t play a song from start to finish because the riddims are very repetitive. A three-and-a-half minute song in dancehall is a long time. So when you mix the music, it’s very quick. You play a song for maybe a minute, and then you’re into the next one. But that’s what keeps people on their toes: you’re mixing tracks so quickly, in and out.
What do you think, in five years from now, you think you’ll have this Reggay party outside of New York City? Kingston maybe?
I never really set out to do this party in Jamaica. It’s always been a NY party, but I get people asking about traveling with the party. It’s still dangerous to do gay parties down in Kingston and the scene is very secretive. In the Kingston papers a few years they raided a gay house party and anyone that was there had their names published to expose and shame them. I think the mentality on homosexuality & queerness is changing, and parties like this help do that, but there’s still a ways to go. At some point I’d like to do a benefit for the gay homeless youth down there. Maybe that’s the next step for REGGAY.