(As the last interview before most of us start heading out to that thing in the desert, I couldn’t be more proud to present this conversation. illexxandra is a Burning Man legend, with performances everywhere on playa over the years, including the coliseum at Root Society, Funky Town, Dustfish, Basshenge, PEX, Kostume Kult, Disorient, Nexus, Burners Without Borders, BMIR, Dirty Beetles/Black 22s, Black Rock Boutique, Tsunami Bass Experience, Pedal Bump, and Brulee, as well as the arts cars the Janky Barge, Icarus, the Bump Bed, A Cavallo, the Dodo, and the Nautilus. She & I were able to talk about her journey as an artist and a woman on and off playa. Make sure to read all the way to the end and don’t forget to check out her new mix for Meso Creso! Interview by Terry Gotham)
1. Favorite Burning Man Memory?
Gosh, that feels impossible. I remember so many moments, and the years all bleed together. As a DJ, I’ll never forget playing the coliseum at Root Society in 2012. They had opened up slots to the broader community, based on how many friends and fans commented on Facebook in support of a given DJ. Diva Danielle and I ended up getting the most comments, so I got a juicy slot on their big stage. Root Society was where everyone wanted to be. My set went great, but the DJ booth was a mad house. We had my DJ partner DJ Shakey, and my pals Alex and Joanna, and Ganesh the camp’s wonderful sound guy. But then to my right we had a young bearded guy in a shiny gold crown and purple robe who was high on uppers and super psyched about every move I made. On my left was a girl who had followed us up to the booth, naked except for full-body fishnets. Behind me was a super done-up, heavily surgically altered woman and her handler. They assumed I was a big deal because I was playing the hot camp. Halfway through my set, she hoisted her feet up on my shoulders, the rest of her held up by her handler, so that she was totally horizontal five feet in the air. All the while, I’m trying to rock as hard as I can, on one of the biggest stages I’ve ever played on, with high heels on each side of my head, naked people, enthusiastic cocaine kid, and my friends who wanted to socialize and support. It worked out, but gosh was it distracting. As the sun eventually came up, the moon was still clear and large on the horizon. I played a Big Bad Wolf remix, everyone howled at the moon, and all was right with the world. Afterwards, Shakey and I went straight to the BRC airport and went up in a plane over the city for the first time.
These two moments also stand out:
Me Djing on the Dodo to people dancing on the pier from its first year before the galleon
Shakey with gingerbread people at Plug 4 in 2008
So many more stories to tell though!
2. Do you have a day job, or are you able to write “DJ” on your taxes under occupation?
Indeed, I make all my income programming music, most of it in a live setting, most of it at night in bars and clubs and warehouses, and a decent amount of my time on the road. Including hosting karaoke for many years, which I’m very proud of. I have no other sources of support. Although, after reading tarot for many years, I’m moving in the direction of doing it regularly for money. But that’s by choice rather than necessity.
3. From the perspective of a selectress, how has Burning Man changed over the years?
Musically, I don’t see BM breaking trends or pushing the envelope like it used to. Burners were early adopters, in previous years. Hookahdome pushed global bass, and no one picked up their torch when they stopped having a presence on playa. Burners were on the bleeding edge of dubstep…old school Jamaican’n’UKG-influenced dubstep, I mean. Before the brostep! It was revolutionary at the time. And, love him or hate him (I happen to love him), Bassnectar was born from the playa. There was a moment in time when that sound was brand new and only in the dust.
The musical zeitgeist of Burning Man has moved from leading to following. Creation to recreation. Radical expression to just another tour stop for status DJs. That’s a broad generalization, but I don’t think it’s untrue.
Beyond music, how has it changed? I’m not sure the overall changes could be helped. But ticket scarcity lead to BM being a more of a status symbol than ever before, and led to people treating it like a commodity. We can only hope to show them alternative ways of viewing the world. 🙂 I don’t mind people with means paying for luxuries. I just can’t stand blocked off frontages. I have confidence those people can experience a change of perspective through interfacing with the playa, so I welcome them.
4. You spin amazingly eclectic stuff, how do you find these tunes?
Everywhere I possibly can. Facebook shares. Soundcloud. Shazam. Junodownload.com. Google Play. Uploaded mixes. Hearing sets live. Making it myself. Trading with other DJs. Oddball FM stations when I’m driving past Baltimore in the middle of the night on the way to a gig or festival. Random nuggets from my mom or my brother. Dollar record bins. Junk stores. Somebody’s attic. I’ve even begged a taxi driver to hand me the CD they were playing, for me to rip on my laptop en route to my destination. On multiple occasions!
As a full-time DJ, I can justify searching for tunes all day. But, trying to be 12 different DJs takes a toll. Trying to be the best house DJ, the best breaks DJ, the best bass DJ, the best global DJ, the best disco DJ, the best hip-hop DJ, the best soul DJ, the best drum & bass DJ…not only is it exhausting, I think focusing on DJ performance distracts me from what will actually advance my career: producing tracks. Vicious cycle. But, I can’t imagine my life in music any other way. It makes no sense to cut my baby into pieces, if you follow the weak metaphorical reference. I pursue music because I love *music*, not because I like a small corner of what music has to offer. What’s more, I think few people can keep up with the crosstraining I do. Going deep with soul music makes me a better house DJ. Knowing a lot about hip-hop makes me a better global DJ. Et cetera! The sum is greater than the parts.
5. Are you expecting any challenges this year that you weren’t thinking about in previous burns?
Trying not to take too many gigs, like I usually do, that’ll be a challenge. I want to leave lots of space to explore backstreets and get lost. I’m not sure my fragile ego will let me sit on the sidelines though. I can’t help it, I love to DJ!
I’m not looking forward to the misogyny. Transphobia is a whole other conversation, one worth having. But I mean old-fashioned patriarchal sexist behavior. You know me and my journey personally, and it feels like I’ve been rocking who and how I am for a long time…but I still didn’t pass as cisgender at my last Burning Man in 2014. So while I was out and proud, observers saw a queer person rather than a woman. I’m not looking forward to men heckling me or pursuing me, just like any woman endures. I had high hopes that burners were at least slightly above that, but nope!
Professionally, I’ve already been asked to play for an all-woman day on a prominent art car, which I see as sad tokenism rather than a step forward. I turned them down. I even love those particular folks, but I think in that context it holds women back more than it helps.
6. Have you experienced any frustrating interactions specifically from the Burner community over the past several years because of your transition? Or seen relationships change without warning?
Yes and no. Overall, my burner communities have been amazing. For the most part, people have gone out of their way to learn about the issues and grow and try to understand my perspective. I wouldn’t have stayed sane through this without my support system, which is largely comprised of burners. But, it also disillusioned me a little. I had hoped burners would be more enlightened? In some ways, it can be worse with burners, because they *think* they’re progressive and enlightened, so they couldn’t possibly have bias or privilege or blind spots. That confidence leads some people to feel they already understand transgender experience, and feel offended if you challenge them with reality. Still though, burners are growing along with society as a whole, and coming to better understand the perspective of trans people day by day.
7. Do you feel that Burning Man is becoming a more or less friendly place to sexual minorities? Is that intertwined with the growing murmurs of commodification at BRC?
That’s a tough one to answer. I think I’m forced to say it’s not improving. Or, marginally improving, and not as much as it ought to. The gayborhood seems as strong as it ever was, but it feels so ghettoized to me. The gay people do the gay things in the gay part of BRC. Instead, I want to see vibrant queer life in every corner of the city. I want to see the rest of the city engaged in the discussion. I want to see ALL CAMPS — and I mean this literally — all BRC camps mount a rainbow flag somewhere on their frontage. Thereby voicing support for queer life, creating a landscape that feels actively welcoming to queer folks, and reflecting that queer people are woven into the fabric of all corners of society. I want to see the, sadly, straight-cis-white-male organizational structure of many camps get shaken up. It stirs me deeply that BRC, this supposed bastion of progressiveness and expressive freedom, is largely run by straight cis white men. I’m speaking of camps themselves, rather than the Org. I’m not saying no women or queer people create things at burning man. I’m not saying people of color don’t create. But I have stuck my nose into a whole lot of situations at Burning Man. When I reach out to camps to book DJ sets, I’m nearly always speaking with a white man, and all the ones I knew personally were straight as far as I knew. And I’ll stress, I’m not suggesting they’re bad people, or that they express biases. I’m just saying, I’d prefer to see women and queer people and people of color more integrated into the structures of all camps rather than ghettoized to issue-focused camps (which are also important!).
Regarding commodification, I assume you mean the growing culture of exclusive corporate turn-key camps? I’m not sure that affects queer life very much, unless you assume those camps are bro-y tech and finance people, who tend to not have as inclusive of attitudes. I have a lot of other feelings about those kinds of camps though!
8. What does Burning Man 2020 sound like?
I’m not sure if I could ever say with conviction what it *will* be. But I can say what I hope will happen. The music at Burning Man will never be “good” — any particular person will invariably come across tons of music they don’t like.
I dearly hope that sound camps become as diverse as the art or anything else at Burning Man. And not just, there’s a kooky camp with two Mackies on the back streets. I mean, huge modern sound camps with as much enthusiasm for funk, or dub, or UK bass music, or electro swing, or the next new thing as they currently have for deep/tech house or breaks. A shift in the culture. Some of my favorite moments on playa have been at the long-running Sangria Soundclash parties on Thursdays. And of course I’m on playa this year to work on Plug’N’Play, a extension of my home camp Plug 4, which will be a sculpture in open playa celebrating vinyl and hip-hop culture.
I hate to sound biased against house music. I *LOVE* house music. I play deep house, I play tech house. But the current culture of deep house enthusiasm reads to me like a corporate brand does on playa. It seems to be built for the sake of money and status, not music enthusiasm. It represents a class division. I think that focus comes into direct conflict with, and at the sacrifice of, the boundary-pushing, trend-breaking nature that the playa used to incorporate. I want the music at Burning Man to represent immediacy, radical inclusion, decommodification, and radical self-expression. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
Also, I hate to “go there” so cuttingly, but the world is full of white people playing black and brown music. I hope Burning Man 2020 sounds like black and brown people playing the music.
9. Will New York lose its spark? Will Brooklyn lose its potential to create Burner magic if things keep going the way they’re going?
Gosh, I hope not. I’m constantly thinking about this issue. I know many people ponder it, but the pondering feels very lonely, because it’s born from a slow, silent erosion of a way of life. I don’t think simply growing older causes these feelings. Plenty of people have come of age and grown older in boom times and not harbored these fears, I’m sure.
People often imply that any wave of gentrification is equivalent to another. I disagree. I think what we’re seeing now is pushing the margins harder than ever before. I don’t think the move from Soho to the Lower Eastside compares to the move from Bushwick/Ridgewood to…where, Broadway Junction? A human can only stretch so far. And the farther out the scene moves in a particular direction, the less central it becomes, cutting off people from Queens, people from Sunset Park, people from Harlem.
That being said, New York is holding on like a motherfucker. Despite disheartening corporatization of club culture, despite every 12% rent increase, we have The Keep, we have the return of Rubulad, we have JunXion, we have Mau Mau, we have Fake Accent, we have Heavy, we have Hot Rabbit.
We just have to decide, individually, when the slow attrition becomes too much for us. I’ve spent a lot of time considering moving, but whatever is changing in New York, there doesn’t seem to be a clear contender to take up the mantle. I think cities across the country are feeling this trend, to varying degrees.
I don’t want to be the ten millionth person to say this, but it’s still so true: New York is hard and it sucks and it breaks your heart, and it’s the thing I love the most in the universe.
10. What is one thing you wish non-Burners could understand about Burning Man?
That you level up by going there. Regardless of who you are. Every human wants that, but not everyone believes Burning Man can do that for them.
Bonus: Favorite track/mix of 2016?
IMPOSSIBLE. African music is killing it, Dominican music is killing it. Florentino is killing it, Haywyre is killing it, Yung Death Ray is killing it. But, really kicking my ass right now are Sam Binga, Fracture, Chimpo, Swindle, and Lady Leshurr.