Written by Callista Milligan and Emily Ferguson
During the past several months, a new presence has appeared in the Charleston DIY scene. One may have seen it in Instagram stories or live at Redux, but no matter what the setting, it was sure to spark curiosity. This presence is Rave Salon, a new DJ collective; but that title was not always so concrete. Rave Salon started out as just a few people in a living room learning and teaching what it means to DJ.
Seb Choe, who DJs under the name Broken Spear, moved to Charleston during July 2019, eager to find music spaces like the ones they frequented in Seattle and New York City. But it did not take long for Choe to realize that space was not as readily available in their new home: “I had a document where I’d asked everyone, ‘what are the cool venues, what are the cool bands,’ and then ‘which of these are women, which of these are people of color, which of these are trans, non-binary folks,’ and the list was just so small,” Choe explained.
Looking to escape the fate of “white guy indie rock outfits” that seemed to face them, Choe played a set at one of the first shows that sparked their interest, Queer Salon, at Cutty’s, a local dive bar. From there, it all depended on figuring out how to continue to book shows like that. It seemed like there was only one solution: create the space and the resources.
That creation worked much in the same way as Rave Salon functions now, by garnering people through word of mouth and teaching each other in living rooms. Duolan Li, who DJs under the name Auntie Ayi, put it succinctly when she said “We initially cast the net, but the net is amorphous and expansive, and it’s based on everybody that’s in it to define and redefine it.” Li was one of the first people Choe reached out to once they had “cast the net” and found some people that were curious about how to DJ, and Li was happy to get on board and start teaching workshops along with Choe, out of their living rooms.
The teaching styles range from covering whiteboards with information to letting DJs sit down with their equipment and ask questions as they go, but no matter what the method, Li makes sure to note that the process has been “confronting a lot of the conceptions [she] had about what DJ culture is.”
Elaborating on this, Li added “All of these rules around what it means to be a ‘legit DJ’ prevents a lot of people, especially women, [from becoming DJs],” she says, “anybody that’s outside of this like, bro culture, you just feel less than, and you just feel like, there’s too much equipment, there’s too much technology that I don’t know.”
What it means to be a “legit DJ” ranges from the type of gatekeeper you talk to. Li has heard comments ranging from what type of file one should download to calling certain equipment “too basic.” What Li hopes to do is “come from a place of non-judgment from the get-go.” Luckily Li and Choe, and now their roster of DJs, foster an environment where anyone can feel comfortable learning, no matter what equipment or experience they have prior.
And these new DJs have caught on quickly—as Choe says, “Unlocking some of those basic skills is a fast way to start building communities.” Some of the first workshops were for electronic music production, and this has given DJs even more material to throw into their sets. Once they had acquired the skills and content, it was not hard to find places to play; their first show as a collective, at Redux Contemporary Art Center’s annual auction, happened when someone reached out to Choe and asked if they would DJ. Choe’s response? “I’m bringing the squad, and pay us.”
What’s difficult is finding places to play where Rave Salon is not just the background music, as well as all-ages spaces. ”We need to start playing shows where people are coming to dance and listen to the music,” says Choe. They’ve also “talked to so many of the DIY folks” and realized that “everyone is on this jaded thing” because all of the spaces are shutting down. “So,” says Choe, “it’s like, what all-ages spaces are left, and the ones that are left, it’s like, ‘we get noise complaints at 11 p.m.’ so what do we do?”
But Choe believes there’s hope: “We need a patron saint,” they say.
So what exactly would these spaces look like? Li and Choe are able to envision them well. Choe paints a picture of “sweaty basement venues, where it’s really tight and there’s enough dance room, but a little bit not enough dance room,” and also talks about loving spaces that are “all queer, all femme, all trans, non-binary people of color.”
Although DJing is about creating meaningful spaces, it’s important to remember the art form’s history and impact as well. Li touches on the impact of house music, as it historically comes from a queer space that was seen as a safe place to escape to, especially during the AIDS epidemic. Alongside house music, Choe discusses the many genres and art forms & spaces that were created by and for black people, like techno and traditional jazz club spaces. Being in Charleston, Choe points out that “We often forget that all of the culture we celebrate here is black culture.” It’s crucial to recognize the history and not lose perspective on where art forms originated and the people who created it and to embrace those spaces.
For anyone looking to get involved with Rave Salon, whether attending a show or a workshop, it helps to become familiar with their current roster. Each DJ has their own tastes and style, but there’s some overlap as well. Sets can range from being hyper pop-heavy, like Audrey and Broken Spear, to house and electronica like Auntie Ayi, DJ Sola and DJ Dijon. Every DJ is unique, and Adrianade’s “musical theater Gaga” vibe and Niecy Blues & DJ Floret’s ambient beats are just a few examples of that. Each DJ has multiple facets, and they try something new at nearly every set. The only way to fully absorb their complexities is to see them live.