AMM Spotlight: The Art of the DJ
Samantha Michelle is a Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker and DJ specializing in 1960s and 70s soul, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, ska and funk. For five years she was living in London, England where she ran residencies around Soho and East London, worked extensively within the members club circuit, headlined music festivals like Glastonbury, The Secret Garden Party, and Red Rooster and co-hosted a music history and culture show on the award winning Soho Radio. Since moving to NYC in February, she’s provided the sounds for a series of art, fashion and charity events and has spun for the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, The Morrison Hotel Gallery, Soho House, Lululemon, Christie’s, Galore Magazine, Topping Rose House, and Omar’s Park Avenue.
AMM: How do you think music creates a mood, tone, and sets the stage for an event?
Samantha Michelle: For me, personally, music is absolutely everything. But for all humans, it’s got to be at least one in five; meaning, hearing is one of the five senses, right there alongside sight, smell, taste, and touch and so it is a hugely important part of any overall experience. Our sense of sound is often the first to be engaged when we enter into a space and so it, pardon the pun here, scores it all. Music gets in the blood and in the bones; it loosens, enlivens, and uplifts and so I feel it’s the job of the DJ to use sound to effectively say “welcome, we’re mighty glad you’re here, you’re gonna have a great time, please enjoy yourself.”
AMM: What are your thoughts on the current trends when it comes to the soundscape of cultural events?
SM: To be real honest, I find the current auditory climate in the events arena often to be quite baffling. There’s this sort of general, supposedly accessible, contemporary electro pop thing you seem to encounter everywhere, and it doesn’t make you feel very nice. I’ve personally branded it as the “my agent made my come here and I’d like to get out and get to a dive bar real quick” sound, as I find it can make you feel a bit edgy, a bit on display, and a bit overly cautious. I believe that the spirit of the moment in which a record was created lives on in it forever, and that’s the magic of music. Listen to the intro of Al Green’s cover of “I wanna hold your hand;” he’s just jamming out with the session musicians, getting all geared up to record, and there’s a light interchange between them. You just kinda know that those guys were having a grand time back in 1969 and so when you hear that record today, you kind of find yourself having a pretty decent time as well. That spirit of ease and positivity – the sheer joy of making music – is infectious; it transcends time. I feel a lot of contemporary music is made to order, and that element of commission weighs down on creativity, and so there’s this anxious breed of energy that screams “I hope this is gonna be okay” and why preserve, package, and promote that? Certainly when it, whatever it is, is just all gonna be alright.
AMM: What is it that you love about the genres you play (soul, ska, reggae, rock and roll from the 60s & 70s)
SM: Simply, it’s music that makes you feel good. We all gotta lotta stuff going on in all our lives that doesn’t make us feel so nice, but we gotta deal with it. So when it comes to something you can voluntarily turn on and turn up, why not choose something that’s gonna shift and shake you up nicely? And as a DJ, I like to make people just have a good time. There’s nothing more rewarding then watching a crowd indulge in an unexpected dance. It might be early doors, say 6pm, maybe the lighting’s all wrong, and we’re all out here, out in the open view, but Aretha, James Brown, Toots and The Maytals, guys like that, make none of that matter. They’re gonna make you feel amazing, and if you’ve got the courage to exist truthfully to that and express and share that simple of joy that is movement to sound, then that’s just as wonderful as anything could be.
AMM: Why do you think music from the 60s and 70s was and continues to be so powerful?
SM: I think the only way to make sense of it is to look at the wider socio-political circumstances that gave rise to this eclectic wave of music. The post war baby boom created a new youth culture; commercialism and consumerism stirred rebellion; advents in technology; the development of recorded music itself; the expansion of radio communications; dramatic shifts and newfound consciousness in the realm of race relations… there were a whole lot of factors – change, essentially – happening in America specifically, and the Brits were responding and refracting the sound developed on this soil. One could trace the whole transatlantic history of rock and roll back to the blues, but in the interest of brevity here, I think it was an incredibly formative era of this last century and I think the ethos of community, defiance, and invention, live encapsulated in its sound.
AMM: What differences have you noticed between the music scene in the states from the scene in London?
SM: The Brits love their soul music, and it’s an astonishing fact. One need not look much further than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the endurance of these bands as evidence, but this bluesy-affection expands and extends so much further beyond that and it always has. In the 60s, the English coined and created ‘Northern Soul’ – a cultural movement in the north of England, propelled by a newfound youth culture that scooped up and worshipped these obscure records that had little to no popularity stateside, where they were made. And the worship was definitively communal; kids would gather in these dance halls and move in practically choreographed unison to the sounds of Eddie Floyd, The Vel-Vets, Luther Ingram, Wendy Rene (to name a few), alongside more popular artists like Little Richard and Ella Fitzgerald. The legacy of that movement lives on in the UK in quite an inspiring way. I think in America there is perhaps a real obsession for ‘the new, ‘ for lack of a better term, for what’s trending, basically, whereas in England, perhaps because the country is just a helluva lot older, there’s a real fondness for what was.
AMM: What is your understanding of the relationship between art, and music and charity?
SM: It’s all an expression of love, isn’t it? Creation, contribution, communalization and collaboration – I believe that’s what’s at play in charity, art, and music, and so they all work real nicely together. And again, going back to the essential five senses here, they stir and delight different parts of the self, and so need be paired cleverly.
AMM: What’s your connection to the art scene in NYC?
SM: I moved to NYC just a few months ago but I’ve been incredibly, insanely fortunately to have my career land itself here within the arts community. I’ve DJ’d for a whole load of art galleries, art events, art collectives and it’s been amazingly rewarding to align myself creatively with partners I am so fully behind. I’m so humbled and grateful to have had the chance to work with galleries I’ve always loved like The Morrison Hotel Gallery and to connect with inspiring groups of truly wonderful artists like Good Luck Dry Cleaners. I love working with artists simply and specifically because they’re unafraid, they’re risk-takers, they don’t care what anyone or everyone else I’d doing, they just want to live, decide, exist and create in a way that’s a truthful expression of themselves and their preferences and that’s who and how I am so there’s a connection there. And because of that connection, and the fundamental purity of that connection, grounded in the commitment to being true to one’s self, I’ve had the chance to make some seriously inspiring friends along the way, and friendship, like love, is really what it’s all about.
AMM: What are some of the charities most dear and near to your heart? / what role does philanthropy play in your life and work?
SM: I think as freelance artists, it can be quite easy to get a little caught up in the pursuit of your hopes and dreams but I think giving, to put it simply is the thing that keeps one grounded, that maintains perspective (the key to sanity) and I think, further, gives shape and form to the madness of it all. For me, it always comes back to Walt Whitman’s arguably trite, but epically true “answer: That you are here – that life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” It’s always the greatest privilege when I can align something I love to do and do professionally with the fundamental purpose of being alive really – to shift your energy outwards and support your community, however that may be conceived – and so I love participating and supporting charitable events and organizations. There’s absolutely no shortage of worthy causes out there, but I recently worked with Artists for Peace and Justice and they are an incredible organization that facilitates avenues out of poverty in Haiti and around the world through education as well as access to training in creative industries. It was a real gift to be part of that evening, alongside personal heroes of mine like Jackson Browne, and support the work of the organization spearheaded by some seriously phenomenal human beings.
AMM: What do you hope to be able to contribute to the city’s cultural landscape?
SM: Good times and good vibes. That’s what I’m about at the end of the day. I hope to be able to provide something a little fresh and different and unique, as it’s always exciting to get people thinking and reevaluating cause I believe that’s what keeps us, as a collective, moving forward. But ultimately, I just want to be able to make people smile and dance and forget their worries for a moment or three.