Honey Dijon | Artist of the Month

Renowned dance music superstar Honey Dijon sits down with Heiko Hoffmann to discuss the people that inspired her house music beginnings, her journey from a humble vocalist and dancer to a globally in-demand DJ/producer, her forthcoming Black Girl Magic album, and more.

22 min
August 2022 Honey Dijon
Aug 8, 2022
Heiko Hoffmann

It’s not necessarily that there’s been a lack of excitement in Honey Dijon‘s life before. But things keep on accelerating for the Chicago-born fan, dancer, DJ, and producer of house music. She’s just been invited to play at a festival by her idol Grace Jones and is about to release a most personal song yet as well as her second album Black Girl Magic. And then there’s the not-so-small matter of co-producing and co-writing two songs — “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar” — on Beyonce‘s new album. In this exclusive interview, Honey Dijon is talking for the first time about how she got into music production.

Honey Dijon’s apartment in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood almost feels like her Instagram feed come to life: there are bookshelves full of works on design, photography, and music history. There are boxes of clothing from her fashion label Honey Fucking Dijon on the floor and walls full of iconic photos by New York nightlife photographer Bill Bernstein, next to a portrait of Sade, a framed original drinks ticket from Studio 54 gifted to her by fashion designer Kim Jones and memorabilia from ’80s gay superclub The Saint. And before the interview starts, she’s more enthusiastic about letting you hear an old mixtape from a friend that she’s rediscovered than her own new music.

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First, you were a lover of music, and then you were a DJ. But when did you think about having a recording career, putting out music, or being a featured artist first?

Well, it’s really funny, because everything that I’ve done is things that I’ve been a fan of. My first recording happened because I would hang out with Derrick Carter and Chris Nazuka at the loft they lived in and where they recorded as the Rednail Kidz. And so my earliest record is of me just acting really stupid and doing these vocals under the name Miss Coffe which is hilarious. But I just hated my voice. I think when you’re a trans person, you always associate your voice as something that gives you away as a trans person. I’ve now come to realize that this is wrong thinking because there’s nothing wrong with being trans. But you have to understand at that time… you had to pass in order to be safe. And so I was really insecure with my voice. But, you know, I always wanted to contribute to dance music. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. When I moved to New York, I found music to be very segregated, as opposed to in Chicago. Chicago really didn’t have borders around music, especially early house music culture. And that sort of put this fire in me that okay, I needed to start presenting music and making music the way that I had experienced it in Chicago. That was the beginning of me thinking, ‘okay, maybe I can do something here as a producer.’ So that was born out of the necessity of just not hearing music in New York the way I heard it in Chicago.

The Miss Coffee record you did was just a one-off?

Yes, and no one knows about it. Derrick Carter told me, “When you become really big, I’m gonna blackmail you and put this out.” I cringe when I hear it. Then the second record that I did was with Peter Presta & Little CarlosThe Hello Track” (2000) as Miss Honey Dijon when I had moved to New York. When I went into the studio with these producers, I was like ‘Oh, my God, you know, I could do this too.’ I always think everything happens so late for me because most people are producers who then become DJs. And I was a club kid that became a DJ that became a producer. And even now, when I DJ or produce, I do it from a dancer’s point of view. For me, it’s all about creating a vibe.

How did you make the next step from being a featured vocalist to producing your own records?

Actually, it was really difficult for me because all the guys before the time of DAWs were using hardware and sequencers. And I couldn’t get my head around that shit. I was not a nerd in that way. But then, when Ableton Live came along, and you had all of this loop-based software, it just sort of clicked with me. Danny Tenaglia gave me the best advice. He said: “When you make a record, take all of your favorite records or parts of your favorite records and put them together.” And if you listen to Danny’s records, you’ll hear drum loops from Bohannan and you’ll hear all the roots of music in his productions. So with Ableton Live, I was like, ‘Oh, I can loop a kick drum for five minutes.’ And then I could mute things and bring things in and out, and I can make a record that way. And then, I learned about using effects like delays and filtering. It just all started to make sense. And I started to really think of production as a kind of DJ set.

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So you would study other people’s productions?

Yes. Mr. G is one of my favorite producers. And you know, when you look at early house music and stuff like Mr. G’s music, it’s super simple. And I find some of the most effective dance tracks are the most simple ones. It’s just about finding the vibe of the song. So I would just listen to a lot of Mr. G stuff, to a lot of Danny Tenaglia productions, a lot of Frankie Knuckles productions. And I listened to a lot of David Morales. I loved his Red Zone mixes! And so all of my productions are a little bit of each of all of those producers.

When did putting out records under your own name start?

That started with remixes I did for Classic Music Company about twenty years ago. And that led me to start making my own music.

Often in house and techno, there is a sense of expectation that the artist has to make all their music completely by themselves.

One of the lessons that I learned from Danny (Tenaglia) is to have really great engineers around you. There are very few people other than Derrick Carter that I know that can produce, DJ, and engineer well — these are very different skills and very different approaches to music. I’m really great at structuring music, but then I hand it off to someone that knows how this should sound. And I’ve learned things are producing along the way, but, you know, I’m not an engineer. Ableton Live, that’s my notebook, that’s where I make my sketches. I think a problem we have today is you constantly have to put out music at this fast pace. And, you know, not everyone works that way. Some people need to take their time and make a record. I think why there’s so much mediocrity right now is because people feel this need to inundate the market with all this music — hoping something sticks instead of just actually trying to make great music that lasts. There was a time when just being a DJ was enough.

And that’s not the case any longer?

Now you have to be a personality. You have to be a DJ, a performer, a social media influencer… you have to be so many things. But I don’t need to be everything to everyone. I know what I do is very specific. But it’s about finding my audience and finding my tribe. I don’t need to be universally loved by everyone. I’m not trying to be that artist.

As a DJ, you have a very eclectic taste in music. Is that the same for your productions?

My new album Black Girl Magic is very eclectic and it’s not linear. I’ve never been a linear person. I just never lived my life that way. I’ve always had social mobility between different parts of society. You know, I’ve always said ‘mixed nuts is what makes the party.’ I always live by this quote from Quincy Jones: “You can never be a better musician than you are a person.” And so my productions and my DJ sets are me.

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What is the sound you wanted to convey on Black Girl Magic?

It wasn’t so much about the sound that I wanted to convey and more about what I wanted to say. This is my second album, and I felt now I could be a lot more honest. I started working on this album in 2019, and then the pandemic happened, and then the George Floyd murder happened. And then all of these cultural shifts happened. So things started to take on different meanings. And I want this album to sound like how I experienced music in Chicago.

On the album, you collaborated with many other artists, but the closest work was probably with Luke Solomon.

Luke actually wrote the lyrics to my last single, “It’s Quiet Now,” and that is actually the most personal song for me on the album. I never really talked about that, but as a trans person, it’s so difficult. Well, it was really difficult in the past dating for me, and I got involved in a lot of toxic relationships, and I would stay in toxic relationships because that’s all I think I could get as a trans person. I had no positive reflections of love or relationships anywhere. And so this song is about that, and then we started writing the music together.

Something I noticed is that each of the tracks on the album has vocals on it. Why?

Because I’m tired of instrumentals being played in DJ sets all night. I just like songs. I think people remember songs more than they remember tracks. I think it’s a human connector. I’ve DJed all around the world, and I can tell you the three, actually four tracks that most people know backward and forward are “Sing it Back” from Moloko, The Bucketheads “The Bomb!“, Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman” and Robin S “Show Me Love.” I don’t care if someone is 18, is just starting to club, or is in their 60s. Universally, those records have gone from underground records to club anthems to pop records to movie soundtracks. And there’s a difference when trying to make something for the mainstream and something that becomes a part of the mainstream. It’s timeless music.

How did you pick the vocalists you feature on the album, such as Nikki-O, Hadiya George, Josh Caffe, or Channel Tres?

I wanted to work with people of color. I wanted to work with women of color. And I wanted to work specifically with queer people of color. Dance music has been colonized and sold as entertainment for white audiences for so long. But this music is for everyone. It’s important to have a constant reminder of ‘let’s not forget who started this and how they suffered for it.’ We’re back in a situation where the people of color who created an art form are being left out and excluded and now having to be asked to be put on lineups and to be a part of the conversation from the shit that they created. Where are the black, gay DJs? We’re starting to see a lot of black women coming through, but I don’t see a lot of black queer people. So for me and my work, I tried to spotlight a new generation of queer people, of women of color of queer women of color of queer black men of color of whatever nonbinary because it is a way for me to do my part, to keep this culture in the conversation and not to be forgotten.

In a way, you’re doing this with everything you do – from DJing to putting together a magazine, from your flyer archive to your own fashion line.

It’s very passionate for me also because of AIDS and what we lost during that time. We had the most highly creative people in the world who died and couldn’t pass the knowledge on. Now there are only very few people left that experienced club culture at that time, that experienced making music at that time. So, you know, I’m trying to create spaces where that can still exist. It’s just another proposition to explain club music in a cultural way, instead of just another thing to swipe next to, which seems to be everything that we do.

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I know that you’re in conflict with social media, but you’re also very good at it. And unlike many other artists, a lot of your posts are not about yourself.

No, I’m in service of the culture. The art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist told me how important it is to protest against forgetting. And that’s such a mantra for me. When I discovered Instagram, I thought it was a great way to show people culture. It was something I was excited about — sharing my inspirations in fashion, art, photography and music. I saw it as a great tool for me to sort of create my own magazine. It wasn’t a self-promotional tool for me. You have to understand when you are a marginalized person, and you’ve been invisible most of your life, you don’t get your self-esteem from things like that. I don’t get my self-esteem from popularity. I never thought I could be popular, but I wanted it to be like a creative tool for me.

And it’s always been about the music first for me. I always think about what Frankie Knuckles said: “The minute you become more important than the music you’re through.” I’m in service of the music, and I play house music from a very Chicago perspective. I got a lot of flack for playing with too many effects and playing too differently, but I’m a physical DJ. I don’t stand behind a deck and mix seamlessly from ones. It’s guttural, and it’s emotional, it’s dirty, it’s loud, it’s aggressive. That’s how I play.

When you grew up in Chicago, was music always around you?

My mother likes to tell the story that when I was three years old, I had a Fisher Price record player, and every time I would come home, I wanted to play my music. I think now that I was just born to do what I’m doing. And I say that with humility. I don’t say that from ego because I can’t remember a time when music was not an integral part of my existence. My parents played music nonstop. And when I started going to high school… many people don’t realize that a lot of early house parties were held in high school auditoriums. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which was pretty rough. It was black and Latin. I got my radio stolen off the bus, I got mugged and had my money taken from me walking home. I used to get bullied because I was an effeminate kid. So music was healing for me but also part of my life. And then I became friends with Carl Branch, the brother of Lori Branch, who’s one of the first black lesbian female DJs who played alongside Frankie Knuckles and Armando and all these legendary Chicago DJs. And so I literally was just sucked into this.

And Lori Branch played an important part in your musical education?

Oh yes. I met her when I was eleven or twelve years old. She was my introduction to freedom. My mother, at that age, gave me an incredible amount of freedom. And looking back on it, I think that freedom is why I’m the person that I am today. So I used to spend the night at Carl’s house. Lori was his sister and this wild lesbian black DJ, and so when she used to come home from the club, I would freak out and just look at her because she had a mohawk and catsuits and heels, and she was still high from the club. And I was like, ‘who is that?’ She was my education in a lot of ways. We started talking, and she would tell me about music and what was played at the club. Man, she changed my life! They also lived right down the street from Importes, Etc — the record store where I would later meet Derrick Carter. He worked there, and we became best friends.

Looking back, it seems like you met all the right mentors that were important for finding your own way in dance culture.

Yeah, just looking back makes me want to cry because I didn’t know when living through it that this really was my education. That’s what formed me as a human being. And so I feel it’s my duty to shine a light on all of these people who are often left out.

Honey Dijon’s new album, Black Girl Magic, arrives later this year via Classic Music Company.