Some Thoughts Of A Certain Sound: The Agony and the Ecstasy of DJ Sprinkles

Okay actually, mainly just the ecstasy. Mainly the ecstasy.

“House isn’t so much a sound as a situation.” And on Saturday night, DJ Sprinkles brought the spirit of house music to San Francisco. Our city is a house music city, for sure. On any given night, the thump of house music reverberates through clubs, homes, and bars throughout the city. But Sprinkles’ DJ set — 4-plus hours and counting, still going by the time I walked out of the club at five minutes past 4 a.m. — was something else altogether, the Platonic ideal of house music, made of the stuff behind the fire that lights up our speakers night after night.

[jump] To understand what elevates a DJ Sprinkles set to the point of transcendence, it’s helpful to understand her history. (Although Thaemlitz uses both male and female pronouns interchangeably, I am using the female pronoun in this article for consistency.) In short, Terre Thaemlitz began her career in the queer and transgender club scene in New York City, where she played house music for marginalized audiences in marginalized spaces. House music was queer music, the soundtrack of a place where people whose existence mainstream society tried not to acknowledge could find acceptance, openness, friendship, love, and sometimes even stardom. For the LGBT community in the 1980s and early 1990s, house music was more than dance music — it was music of survival and resistance.

But explaining the brilliance of DJ Sprinkles in terms of identity politics is reductive and, in some ways, besides the point. The real magic is in the music she plays and for how long she plays it. Calling what Sprinkles plays “deep house” seems facile these days (given that “deep house” is now the #1-selling genre of music at EDM superstore Beatport), but that’s truly what it is. The key to Sprinkles’ deep house is in the basslines, which are simple and melodic (a prime example here) but rich with texture and atmosphere, no doubt a result of Thaemlitz’s history composing ambient and experimental music.

These basslines provided the bombastic energy that propelled the night forward, but it was the overtones — flourishes of jazz piano, vocal samples that were more like speeches, and frequent washes of delay and reverb — that gave it character. A key part of Sprinkles’s DJ kit was a Pioneer RMX-1000, a “live remix unit” that allowed her to let vocals persist across several tracks, drop familiar elements in and out (at one point, an edit of one of the tracks from “Midtown 120 Blues” seemed to go on forever, piano lines neverending) and add delay to breakdowns, turning them into drawn-out expectations of ecstasy. Kick drums sometimes seemed like an afterthought — there were several movements in the set with no kick at all — but the constant energy provided by the twisting and turning of samples and track elements kept the crowd enraptured.

To quote Thaemlitz herself: “… From within my isolation I saw others isolated like myself. One of the places we met, in our self-containment, was on the dance floor. The nastiest and seediest clubs were located in Midtown . . . That ‘community of isolation’ was scattered to other cities, other states, other countries. Isolated, still…” For one evening, Sprinkles brought her community of isolation to San Francisco, and treated everyone to a spiritual experience, the epitome of the temporary autonomous zone. Thank God for DJ Sprinkles. 

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