The boundary-defying DJ/princess behind Ghetto Gothik tells us why, sometimes, a party is more than just a party.
Venus X is magical. One moment, she’s throwing a sweat-choked warehouse party full of vampiric superfreaks in an abandoned tortilla factory, the next, she’s providing music for Opening Ceremony’s Fashion Week runway show. Then, she might materialize behind the decks at a Cristal-scented celebrity soiree, only to appear a moment later as the stylish homegirl at A$AP Rocky’s side in his video for “Peso.” I’d suggest she uses some kind of fairy dust to manage to be in so many places at once, but knowing Venus’ aesthetics, it’s probably more like zombie dust.
Of the many DJs and cultural curators trafficking in global, underground culture, Venus X has gone farther and shone brighter than just about anyone. Raised in uptown Manhattan of Dominican-Ecuadorian parentage, Jazmin Venus Soto came up as the creator and main selector behind New York’s Ghetto Gothik (or, Ghe20 Goth1k) events, where an eclectic and gender-bending assortment of Gothamites get wavy to a soundtrack of global bass, gutter hip-hop, cyberpunk dance jams, and unsettling, gothy weirdness.
Sure, Venus knows how to make a good party, but her vision is much bigger than that. We snapped some shots from her recent Fashion Week event and got on the phone with Venus to talk about how she’s trying to rebuild the entire culture from the bottom up, one party at a time.
So you were in Canada this weekend for POP Montreal – what do you think about our frosty neighbor to the north?
I had a great time – I opened for Peaches and did a panel with [indigenous DJ crew] A Tribe Called Red. We talked about the correlation between our parties, the way we use music to change what it means to be who we are. To them that’s indigenous, to me that’s Latino in New York. There are descriptions of what we’re supposed to be like in the media and in the world, and our events exist for people to develop new identities and listen to new sounds.
Also, seeing what Canadian culture is like, they are more diverse than us in a lot of ways. In Midtown or Downtown New York, everything now is corporate and WASP-y except for maybe the halal cart. In Canada you have all these restaurants and people and music. People enjoy good culture more it seems.
How did you get interested into all this different music happening around the world? Not every kid in New York looks past what’s going on here in the US.
It started with dance classes – my mother put me in ballet and tap and jazz, and once I got older and left home, I took Brazilian and Afro-Cuban classes. That was the first time I started to understand different sounds. Then, I was going to New School on-and-off and I took time off to go to Ecuador. My dad’s from there, and I don’t know him much, so I wanted to see what it was like. I would buy all these CD’s of techno and cumbia, and rancheros and salsa. That was in 2006 or so.
Then when I came back to school, I met some DJ’s and started going to their parties. All those things started to fuse together – MIA, Diplo, kuduro and baile funk, so my interest came as a result of all those little seeds. But also realizing that people like Diplo weren’t moving it past sampling a song or stealing a beat – I had some bad experiences with MIA and Diplo – and that was all a catalyst to find out more, and do more with this music. Now, I’m soundtracking my life everywhere I go. If I’m in a cab, I’ll ask the cabbie if I can have the CD he’s playing, normally he’ll give it me. I try to be aware of music everywhere I go.
A lot of what you’ve been doing with your parties and projects seems to be about translating all these underground cultural streams and translating them for people who aren’t necessarily plugged into those scenes – like the consulting you were doing for Shakira, for example. Do you see it that way?
Totally, that’s what I do with my party. This is the sound of our generation – it’s hybrid, multilingual. It’s about co-existing in different spaces, trying to all get along, and create an experience that’s cohesive. And not everybody is ready. When I started working for Shakira, I was writing her team newsletters and giving them ideas, but it was hard at first. I felt like it was a secret, something that I didn’t want to share with the world. A lot of it was foreshadowing what is now blowing up with “Gagnam Style” – looking at rave culture around the world and all these things overlapping.
In the end the thing with Shakira didn’t work out. They weren’t ready to hear what I had to say. Rather than try to force them to understand, I moved on. I don’t work for a label, so I don’t necessarily have that language or approach. But I understand club culture kind of universally, and other people have reached out to me since then – whether it’s A$AP Rocky or Drake.
Well in underground cultures there’s always been sort of this fear of “selling out,” do you worry about that? Or do you now feel like you want to share that culture?
I’d say it’s already being shared. The trends are moving quickly, and even Ghetto Gothik as an idea is a very present one in a lot of artists’ ensembles – they’re mixing urban and religious and all these dark influences and leaving behind that bright, poppy, colorful image that Rihanna and Nicki Minaj have been doing – that Wilma Flinstone look, and Niki being this raver. The styles are changing, and the music is changing with it. The young artists are coming up right now and bringing this new culture with them.
All I can do is continue what I do and DJ. That’s my way of sharing ideas about music. I’m fundamentally trying to speak to people who grew up how I grew up, people from the hood who still like hip-hop or trap music and don’t have hang-ups about going to a strip club. I like strippers and I also like reading books, so I’m in a position to have good music tastes. But things are in the works. If there’s another way to merge the trends with what I want to do – like a reality TV show or something – I might be interested.
One of the things that made your Ghetto Gothik parties different from a lot of other events is the way you brought all kinds of people together – the queer scene, the Harlem scene, the art-school kids. How did you make that happen?
If I told you that, I’d be losing my secrets. [Laughs] Nah, you just got to keep it real. It’s about who you work with, what promoters and artists you hire. I always kept it in the community. It’s never guaranteed of course, that’s the beauty of it. I didn’t have a party this year, largely because I didn’t want to make it happen just for some hipsters. I want to make it for everybody. Young people need to be interacting with each other. Segregation doesn’t have to be there. The problem is there is no incubator for integration, and we get all these mixed messages and culture shot out at us. A lot of us end up getting lost. The party is a place for people to explore new interests and aesthetics.
What does Ghetto Gothik mean to you?
Ultimately it means I’m a woman of color, but if I have emotions or intelligence out of the range of what “typical Latinos” do, you can’t say I’m wrong. Ghetto Gothik is a path for our generation to be punk and do what they want. Black people aren’t all gun-toting gangsters – there’s a lot of pain and anguish in rap music right under the surface. Taking anybody who wants to be experimental and labeling them a “blipster” – that’s not cool. People of color have other emotions other than “I want to kill people and f**k bitches.” If guys like A$AP Rocky want to wear bondage gear, it’s sexy and it’s elevated. Currently, there’s no space for us to do that. If we grew up in the hood, we have to be stupid, or we go to college and we have to be white. Ghetto Gothik is about opening a new path.
Some of this kind of thing, has been happening for a while, right? There’s the Afropunk festival, for example.
It’s not just Ghetto Gothik – it came as a response, as a natural progression of what was happening in New York. I went to Ninjasonik parties and the Banshees party at Legion, when that was the thing to do. I exposed myself because I was bored. I was just roaming the city and making friends and skateboarding, and I then was like, “I want to DJ.” Things felt really conservative back in 2005. There was not that many personalities you could have as a brown kid. You could basically be “conscious,” “hip-hop” or “white.” Hanging out in Union Square, I saw black ravers for the first time, and people putting me on to new music. They were wearing giant JNCO jeans and listening to metal, and going to raves and taking ecstasy.
Switching gear – tell me about your show at Fashion Week.
Opening Ceremony is really like family to us – a lot of people who work there come to Ghetto Gothik, and they asked me to become a part of a retrospective on NYC nightlife. They gave us a budget to carry a really great lineup of DJ’s, who mostly exist on the internet or in queer scenes or dance scenes, and not in the common vocabulary of DJ Khaled or Funkmaster Flex, or Tiesto or whoever. It was big for us – Opening Ceremony, I mean, they’re huge right now.
What are your thoughts on the connection between music and fashion?
I think it’s all connected, but people have not been acknowledging it. Music in fashion shows was great in the ‘90s. Rappers and designers were really in love with each other – I mean, Lil’ Kim was walking fashion shows. Now, pop is so bad, and there’s no link between music and fashion because you can have Katy Perry in your show, but the reality is you don’t want that bitch in your fashion show. Because she sucks.
If there’s music in a fashion show, it’s generally just some plain ass disco and some white people booked every season to do the same s**t. It’s not artistically pushing anybody’s buttons. So I hope music and fashion becomes more braided in with each other. Now we have a new level of art and talent in the underground that can bridge those things.