June 29, 2005



(Photo by Tricia Romano)

There is no link yet for this week's Critic's Notebook on Syrup. Click below to read the extended version of the Syrup column that did not run.

Many d.j.s would complain about having to play a set in broad daylight at the Adidas Store in Miami Beach, but Vivian Host was having a lot of fun doing just that. A twenty-six year-old d.j. and editor of the dance music magazine XLR8R, Host is half of the female d.j. team Syrup, and she was playing a lascivious record called "Some Head Tonight" by Lil' Jon, Unkle Luke and Jolli Boy. Host is short, with a round, childlike face and dark brown bangs. She wore a purple t-shirt, a blue jeans skirt and silver slippers. She dipped her shoulders subtly but constantly. Kristin Vincent, her d.j. partner, who is thirty-two and a bartender in New York’s Lower East Side, is long and bony, with a ragged shock of bleached blond hair. Wearing a purple and pink sleeveless top, a pleated white mini-skirt and flip-flops, Vincent was talking to their friend Brianna Pope, the art director of XLR8R, a woman in her early 30s with shoulder length curly hair, and black and grey roses tattooed on each forearm, one entitled “La Vida,” the other “La Muerte.” Pope wore black-rimmed glasses, a black tank top, plaid skirt and Adidas sneakers. (The d.j.s had been specifically instructed not to wear the any competing brands while peforming in the store.) Vincent and Host describe Pope as their manager, though it is never entire clear if this is a joke or not, because Syrup is not exactly a demanding, full-bore commercial operation.

There are certainly other d.j. duos—Basement Jaxx, The Glimmers and 2 Many DJs are some currently successful teams—and a fair number of women DJs, but very few women DJ duos, if any. The only female DJ duo to attain a high profile in the last ten years is the English drum & bass team DJs Kemistry & Storm, which ended in 1999 when Kemistry died in a car accident. But gender isn’t what makes Syrup unique. Vincent and Host have created their-own modest, low-tech lifestyle with dance music, and in a subset of the pop constituency that values celebrity and instant success even more than their subsets across the aisle, this is notable. Syrup are aptly named. They take their sweet time, and smile while they work.

The lights in the Adidas store that Saturday were bright, and the aisles were half full of average looking shoppers in shorts and sandals, save for one archetypally Floridian woman wearing a matching Louis Vuitton bikini and leather handbag, cowboy hat, pink terry cloth mini-skirt and high-heeled pink foam platform sandals. Host was smiling when she cued up “Some Head Tonight.” When the song’s chorus began to play—“Ass right, ass right, pussy tight, pussy tight, get some head tonight”—an aptly named d.j. named Hott Pants responded instantly. Wearing tiny black shorts, a white sweatband, and a T-shirt on which his name had been spray-painted in pink and black, he moved behind Host and started dry humping her with one leg raised comically in the air. Host leaned back into him, mimicking his moves, and the two laughed for a minute. Then Vincent took over and cued up the next record, a brisk English remix by an act called Mask of Ciara’s popular R&B song “Goodies.” The music was flowing and the mood was light, the kind of experience people pay twenty or thirty dollars for when attending a big nightclub. But a shoe store is still a shoe store, and Syrup were doing their best on a Saturday afternoon this past March as part of the Winter Music Conference, an annual, week-long dance-music festival where d.j.s spend a lot of time complaining about which venue they’ve been booked into and which bigger show they were competing with and whether it was too early, so people would be too sober, or too late, meaning people would be too drunk. Syrup don’t complain.

“I always like gigs where no one is telling us what to play or expecting us to play one particular style, our friends are all here entertaining us with their antics, and we're just freestyling mixes,” Host said later. “Random people stop to look at us because we're two girls mixing, but then they actually stay and hang out. I don't know if it's because we're playing records they like, or they didn't expect us to actually be mixing or just because we look like we're having fun, and they want to be part of the party. Whatever it is, we'll look up from what we're doing and all of a sudden we'll be in a party!”

Some d.j.s are constantly on the road, flying around the world to play records at clubs and private parties. Sought-after superstar d.j.s in the class—people like Carl Cox, Fatboy Slim, Sasha & Digweed and the female drum & bass d.j. DJ Rap—can command as much as one hundred thousand dollars for one show, though the average is closer to half that figure. If these d.j.s resemble pop stars, Syrup are more like session drummers, or artists and writers for whom the term bohemian was invented: they play because they love to, and hold day jobs in order to pay the bills, but only if the job won’t prevent them from doing what they love. Host and Vincent, who earn between a hundred and fifteen hundred dollars per gig, are choosy about what music they play but refreshingly open to playing gigs for fun, rather than status.

Were they so inclined, Host and Vincent have the requisite technical skills and sufficiently distinctive taste to become superstars, and it’s hard to imagine it would take them long to do it. They look stylish but pleasingly natural, like the slightly hipper of your friends. Their ability to create fun through d.j.ing sounds simple but is rare; after hearing one of their first homemade mix CDRs, I thought “How come clubs never sound like this when I show up?” In 2002, I found two of their homemade mix CDs in the used bin of the East Village record store, Mondo Kim’s. The CDs come with brightly-colored artwork, heavy on pink, and bear line drawings of half-naked women squirting each other with hoses and holding syrup bottles. Syrup favor fleet, syncopated songs, often with raunchy lyrics, and though the duo draws on a variety of subgenres—including two-step, grime and Miami bass—their mixes create a unified mood that eventually suggests its own genre. After hearing Syrup play a few times, you begin to expect the kind of ribald and bubbly songs they find for their sets: The Booty Bouncers’ “Get Dirty Baby,” Agent X’s “Girls Can Play Too” and Avenue D’s hilarious “Too Drunk to Fuck.”

Song selection isn’t an earth-shaking skill, though. Anyone with a good internet connection, enough time read music blogs and some hard drive space, can create an impressive playlist. When I saw Syrup play a set live last November at a Lower East club called Subtonic, it was obvious they had more than taste. They mixed records together with skill, projected a unique personality and acted like d.j.ing is the best job in the world you could have, even if you have to do it in a pitch-black basement to an audience of exactly two.

It isn’t uncommon to see d.j.s react physically to their music, but many, especially men, approach the turntables and CD players they work with as if they’re playing poker, carefully hiding their opinions while they work. At Subtonic, Syrup were constantly in motion and clearly loving the gig. Host started the set, and as she mixed one record into another, she paused for several seconds with her hand on the controls of the mixer, working her shoulders into the beat as if she wanted to test each selection before releasing it into the crowd. After Host played several records, Vincent took over, swaying her head heavily as she cued the vinyl up. While one played, the other chose records, constantly moving to the beat, sometimes stepping out to dance in front of the turntables.

When I met them in person at Vincent’s apartment on Norfolk Street in March, their chemistry was much the same. The two do not cohabit—they live in separate walk-up apartments with roommates in the East Village—but they are deeply comfortable with each other, while considerably different in temperament. Host’s words dip in pitch at the end of a sentence, with a slightly depressive push, as if she’s telling you something you always knew was true but didn’t want to admit. Speaking slowly and with an even pace, she sounds a little bit like a long-suffering mother and a fatalistic teen at the same time. Vincent is the older of the two, but giggles more. She suggests as element of classic Californian party girl, but transmits an equal measure of even-headed entrepreneur: she’s made clothes, worked at record stores and managed, while working full-time, to keep improving her status as a DJ.

“If there could be the perfect girl, that girl would be both of us,” Vincent said. “The type of people that will be our friends, or guys that like us? If they like me, they’re not into Vivian, or if they love Vivian, they’re like giving me the cold shoulder.”

“It’s almost like they know when they see us,” Host said. “Anyone that’s gay will automatically talk to her, anyone who’s in fashion will talk to her. Anyone who wants to talk about music always comes to me.”

Host and Vincent are from the San Fernando Valley, but met in San Francisco as d.j.s in the drum and bass community. Host went by the name Star Eyes and Vincent went by Siren, aliases they still use when they play solo shows, which they still do several times a year.

“When I was in junior high,” Host said, “I used to watch this video show that would be on after school. I was a really big Depeche Mode fan, I liked the Cure and that kind of stuff. But the show started showing early techno videos, like “LSD Is the Bomb” and “James Brown Is Dead,” the real cheesy rave anthems of 1992 or whatever. The “LSD Is the Bomb” video had all these fractals and blown-out orange color. I don’t remember what the other ones were, but they were really bad. And the Prodigy had a live video for one of their songs. It might have been “Charlie.” I think that was the video with the cartoon cat, like they took the cartoon that sample is from. I did that and at the same time—being the nerd that I am—I used to go to the library all the time, and at the library you could read NME and Melody Maker because they had it at the library. They started covering the Summer of Love and the Orb and all the huge rave things, and I was totally obsessed by it, no joke. I decided I wanted to be a raver. I had to go to a rave. We used to hang out at this coffee house when we were 13, and the guy who worked there was 19, and he offered to take me and my friends to a rave. My mom met with him to make sure he was OK. This was pretty crazy because this is before the time of cell phones and she would have no way of getting a hold of me if I just disappeared. She was pretty trusting. She let us go in this van—this delivery van—with no back seats or anything. We had sit on the floor. Point being we went to this rave, I loved it, I starting going to raves all the time.”

“And wearing white Mickey Mouse gloves and doing glow-stick dances,” Vincent added.

“I didn’t do glow-stick dances,” Host insisted. “I never had glow sticks. We have to go to my house before we go to the club, so you can see the rave accoutrement. You couldn’t buy CDs of this stuff them—all the stuff I wanted to play was only on vinyl. I decided if I wanted this music I had to have turntables, and then it turned into a bigger thing where I wanted to d.j. I liked these records, and no one would ever play these records I wanted to hear. They would play three records I liked, and then the rest of it would be shit. I was like, If I d.j., I can play every record I liked. I met this guy, and he taught me how to d.j. This was when I was 15. I’ve been doing it every since.”

After d.j.ing together several times in the late 1990s, Host and Vincent talked about collaborating. On an airplane, on her way to an out-of-town gig, Vincent was reading a book and came across the word “syrup.” “When I got back, I was like, ‘OK, we’re making a CD. Either that’s Syrup, or we’re Syrup,’” she said. Vincent was living in New York in 2000, working at a drum and bass record store in the East Village called Breakbeat Science. Host moved to New York in September of 2004, and they had just finished their third mix CD, “I Don’t Care What You Say”—decorated with the same line drawing that had appeared on the first two, only this time the women are giving the viewer the finger—a few days before I saw them in Miami.

In order for Host and Vincent to earn enough as d.j.s that they could afford to quit their jobs and get bigger places, they would probably have to write and record music of their own, rather than simply d.j.ing other people’s music. This is what the well-paid English d.j. Fatboy Slim started doing in 1997, eventually scoring a huge international hit with 1998’s “The Rockafeller Skank,” and Diplo, a d.j. from Philadelphia did last year with his album “Florida.” Syrup say that making records is a task they intend to get around to, but, for the moment, it does not appear to be a pressing concern.

This is an odd stance in dance circles, a section of the pop world very comfortable with commerce, self-promotion and lots of it. At the Winter Music Conference in Miami, the “synergy” between corporate brands and artists looked at first like healthy real politik, but over the course of a few days, it just looked like a lot of money in bed with other money. At a fairly dull WMC panel event called “The Future” (can any conference restrain itself from adducing the future?) electronic music artist Richard Devine spoke about scoring video games, developing software for purchase, and working with Nike. The well-known electronic and pop artist Moby appeared elsewhere at the WMC, and is marketing his new album “Hotel” in with the W Hotel, where it is available in every room for purchase. All over Miami, colorful postcards announcing parties often bore the logos of more than five separate sponsors, companies that sometimes seem to exist only to produce logos that end up on flyers.

Syrup float through and above this world, endorsed by nobody in particular and not prone to work the room. There are no sponsoring logos on their mix CDs, and for the duration of the Winter Music Conference, they interacted mostly with those they already know, handing out flyers and CDs only when they remember they’ve got them. (They are promotional enough that they’ve created Syrup t-shirts, men’s panties and eye patches, but not so promotional that they brought any of this stuff to Miami, an event largely designed to facilitate networking and the handing out of stuff.)

They did have a few copies of their new homemade mix CD on hand in Miami, and sold them to fans at an afternoon show at the Hotel Chelsea, a 1936 art deco hotel on Washington Avenue, a few hours before they lugged their records over to the Adidas Store. A few men watched the d.j.s play from stools in the lobby, one rather joylessly taking pictures of Vincent and Host with his cell phone. The set was typically uptempo and raunchy, and Host and Vincent were moving with verve as they worked behind the tiny table set up for them. They seemed unconcerned to be playing for less than ten people, among them The Girl. At every dance event, there is always The Girl, the one who dances, no matter who is watching and how else anyone feels. This one wore a short denim skirt, pink and black high-top sneakers, and a pink halter-top that was held up by a guitar strap tied around the woman’s neck. Every record Syrup played seemed to connect with her, and she was her own party.

“I haven’t been d.j.ing for this many years—since I was fifteen—to quit if I don’t become a superstar,” Host said later. “It’s worth losing money to me. Obviously, if we’re losing a lot of money, that would be a problem. But it’s worth breaking even to have the crazy adventures that we get to have, that we would never have if we weren’t the Syrup Girls.”

Later that night, the Syrup Girls attended a private party for Tokion Magazine behind the Shore Club, in an area set far back from the hotel, a lowered stone patio surrounding a small, bluish pool illuminated from below. The performers included the Japanese singer Mu—looking like a leather version of the Wicked Witch of the West—who sang and glared at the crowd and waved her arms around, and James Murphy, one of New York’s current star d.j.s, who played a thick, satisfying set of modified disco. Host wore a nurse’s outfit and scoped the crowd with Vincent and Pope. Suddenly, The Girl appeared, somewhat worse for wear, and buttonholed Vincent. “I’ve been drinking all day!” she announced happily, standing next to the pool. She said she was a kindergarten teacher from New Hampshire and that her students loved it when she played dance music for them. As she spoke, she wobbled unsteadily, and Host gently took her by the shoulder and moved her, still talking, away from the edge of the pool. Host, Vincent, and Pope remained beside the pool, listening to the music, talking about boys, and smiling and nodding as though the party were theirs.

Posted by Sasha at June 29, 2005 05:54 PM | TrackBack