On Midtown 120 Blues, DJ Sprinkles highlighted the radical queer origins of house music
Original release date: 9 October 2008
Label: Mule Musiq
“House isn’t so much a sound as a situation.”
Terre Thaemlitz’s first album as DJ Sprinkles was released in 2008, compiling a slew of 12”s that had appeared on Tokyo-based imprint Mule Musiq the previous year. An incisive deep house treatise, Midtown 120 Blues didn’t come out of nowhere; Thaemlitz had been releasing music for many years at this stage, morphing in and out of dance and experimental circles and establishing a sturdy reputation. She had grown up in Springfield, Missouri, “The Queen City of the Ozarks” and had been miserable – hyper-aware that radical change was necessary for survival. “I was harassed as a fag and girly-boy since my first day of elementary school,” she told The Fox Is Black in 2011. Escaping by train to New York City in 1986, the problem didn’t altogether disappear, but Thaemlitz wasn’t alone anymore. There was house music.
Soon, she was DJing regularly in a pre-Disneyfied Midtown Manhattan, performing at balls and in the “nastiest and seediest” clubs in the neighbourhood, building a reputation that coagulated with an “underground Grammy” for best DJ at notorious trans nightspot Sally’s II. The experience was channelled into original productions that grew from ideas forged in the bowels of house, sliding into ambience, sound design and musique concrète.
By the time Midtown 120 Blues was released, his catalogue was formidable and influence already immense, with a long list of collaborations, remixes and albums that twisted the concept of genre completely. But Midtown 120 Blues was different; her experimental, antagonistic approach was subdued, allowing a more personal vision to shine through. By memorialising his own experience with house music, Thaemlitz solemnly laid out a narrative that doubled as a warning. House had been gentrified once already, and it was happening again.
The album is political from the first note, a piano hit (what else?) underpinned by a drone that accompanies Thaemlitz’s voice, telling hoarse truths in an angry whisper. “House is not universal,” she assures. “Most Europeans still think ‘deep house’ means shitty, high energy vocal house.” Midtown 120 Blues represents the antithesis of this, soaked in ambience and imbued with a level of melancholy that directly addresses its inspirations, from the HIV crisis and police brutality to trans sex work and terminal unemployment. House music had been snatched from its queer, trans, African-American and Latinx originators, who were left often sick and destitute while white colonisers sucked tainted flesh from simulacra, moving stiffly to Madonna. This was a response.
After white Americans capitalised on house’s cache of cool and marketed their adjacency to Blackness, Europeans took it a step further, creating a booming industry around Black innovation, leaving the genre’s originators mostly unheralded. When Midtown 120 Blues was first released, British duo Disclosure were still three years from releasing Latch, the Sam Smith-featuring global smash that helped usher a new wave of coffee-shop-friendly “deep” house into the mainstream. This sound was even further from the roots of house than its previous commodified form and was now synched to slick car adverts, attached to playlists and placed on the main stage of sold-out blockbuster festivals. The sound was dominant once more, a sizzling, sexualised pulse poised to appeal to wealthy young finance workers clad in subtle designer t-shirts with plunging v-necks. In 2014, when Midtown 120 Blues was reissued after commanding astronomical sums online, the Resident Advisor top 100 DJs list was topped by marketable European tech-house populists like Dixon, Âme and Tale of Us.
In 2020, Terre Thaemlitz’s melancholic classic has never sounded more poignant. As popular house DJ The Black Madonna publicly evolves into The Blessed Madonna, the performance of unity and its place within a capitalist, patriarchal dystopia is being questioned. House was never universal and art is not an inherently utopian construct; identity alone cannot be a solution to our problems as it continues to be manipulated by capital to sell the same tired lifestyles.
“The real power dynamics have not shifted,” Thaemlitz said in a 2017 interview with Out in Perth: Gay & Lesbian Life & Style. “It is simply a mainstream celebration of the presumed openness of liberal humanist culture, with no real political alliance nor responsibility nor desire to truly divest of patriarchy. Liberals love to celebrate the struggles of ‘social others’. But let me ask bluntly, what’s to celebrate? People are dancing on graves.” Now dancing, at least publicly, is near-prohibited, maybe it’s time to finally take stock and learn from some of the lessons we’ve been presented with. Midtown 120 Blues is not an exercise in nostalgia, it’s history we still need to learn from.