DJ VAL has been recognized and honored by the Architects of House as one of the 100 most influential DJs in the Chicago House Music scene between 1975 and 1995. Val plays a wide variety of genres to include EDM, house and whatever it takes to move a crowd. She is most likely the only DJ in the world to have held three consecutive 16 plus years Club residencies. Cadillac Jacks 16 years, Marianna’s 17 years & Studio 31 17 years. Along with her successful DJ career, she has owned her own Internet Radio Station. (courtesy of DJVal.com) She's a legend with a career that spans over 40 years. I was thrilled to speak with her about her incredible career in house music.
Black Widow: You started DJing in 1973. What attracted you to the craft?
DJ Val: My parents separated when I was young, so I was a latchkey kid. I would join everything I could and take different classes and such at the park district and places like that. I enrolled in a dance class on Wednesday nights and would dance with other kids at the after-school program at my grade school. I really learned how to DJ on my own. When I was a kid, I had a record player with speakers built in and took my older siblings records and 8-tracks and played them in the auditorium. My friends and I would make up dances. It was fun. After that, my dad ran a banquet hall and I had access to that, so I was throwing dances at the banquet hall. By the time I was 18, I had a residency at Fredricks.
Black Widow: You had three different residencies that each has lasted over 16 years. That’s rare. What’s the key to a successful residency?
DJ Val: It’s like a chess game. You got to make the owner happy. You must push the envelope and you must make your crowd happy.
Black Widow: That’s a delicate balance. How do remain authentic to yourself while balancing all of that? Especially when trying to break new music or introduce them to something new?
DJ Val: It’s tricky, it depends on your crowd. The age group, the area, ethnicity, you can’t tell from one night to the next. It’s always different.
Black Widow: So learning how to read a crowd is imperative?
DJ Val: It takes you a long time, a lot of years and different experiences to figure it out but once you do…that’s the key. You got it then.
Black Widow: You’ve been doing this so long, over 40 years, how has the club scene changed?
DJ Val: There’s a different connection between the DJ and the Dancer nowadays. Back then we weren’t looking at laptops, we were playing records and switching them out. In between that time, we were looking out at the audience and connecting with the dancers. That’s something I’ve never lost. I always like to connect with the audience. That’s what it’s all about. We were connecting with the audiences when they were dancing. When you aren’t connecting with the audience, you’ll lose them. Now DJs are looking at computer screens and dancers have their phones out; it’s different. We still have those connections…but it’s just different now.
Black Widow: Do you feel technology has altered the club experience?
DJ Val: You know DJs have more control than they think they do. They control the mood and energy of the party. You can swing it different ways, and you can’t do that all the time when you are staring at a computer screen. Even now with all the new technology, you must find a way to connect with your crowd and keep the energy of the party up. It’s different but it’s not impossible to create that energy and atmosphere.
Black Widow: What do you think are some of the mistakes newer DJs make?
DJ Val: I don’t see a lot of mixing (blending) with some of the younger DJs. Mixing is an art. It’s not lost but it’s different with some of the younger cats. They call it slamming. The attention span is shorter, so the DJs are playing 2 minutes of a song and slamming it into a cue point of another song. It disturbs me a bit. There is a lost art to mixing and there are very few who care to learn how to do it the old school way.
Black Widow: Do you think that’s due to the advent of technology? Losing the art of DJing?
DJ Val: Technology is great, but it has also allowed people to be lazy. With the younger kids, everything is immediate. I like to take my time and take people on a journey with the music, whereas they just slam slam slam…it’s not my thing, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just different and not how I like to do it.
Black Widow: When did producing and remixing come into play?
DJ Val: I met a few lady DJs who introduced me to their manager at the time, Georgie Porgie. I was star struck at the time. (Laughter). I offered to help him with some graphics and such. Over time, we got to each other a bit and one year we had a dinner in Miami and he wanted to give me a shot at producing. It was a dream come true. 3 years later, 7 productions later… I’m working on my next record. He gave me my first shot and really taught me the ins and outs of production.
Black Widow: How does the creative process differ as a DJ vs producing?
DJ Val: Producing records is putting your heart out there, exposing your soul to the public for judgment and that’s hard to do. You must be thick skinned. I'm sure you can relate as a writer; some people dig it and some don't but that can't stop you.
Black Widow: I absolutely relate. You are so influential to many lady DJs, who are some of your female influences?
DJ Val: Laura Bee pushed the envelope and played stuff under the radar. She was the bravest and the best, the most refreshing. With her, I heard stuff I never heard before, she opened my eyes to so many new things. Same with Teri Bristol and Psycho-bitch. They all made me a braver DJ who takes risks and they made me reach out to a global audience, not just a Chicago audience.
Black Widow: Being a DJ that’s has traveled the world, what are the lessons you learn when you are away from home about house music and how it has impacted the world?
DJ Val: You get the feel of different cultures and their music. Everyone wants to come out and have a good time but when I travel, I’m exposed to different music and sounds and that’s what I love to bring home.
Black Widow: And you get to bring a little bit of Chicago to them as well?
DJ Val: Exactly and they appreciate that. It doesn’t matter where I go, within the states or outside of the country. Chicago is different, and we have our own thing and that’s awesome.
Black Widow: You’ve made sacrifices to get here, do you have any regrets?
DJ Val: Wow… that’s a tough question. I regret not spending as much time with my mom before she died. I missed a lot of friend’s life events because I worked every weekend. I never got married or had kids of my own.
Black Widow: That’s interesting. Do you think it was because you were a woman in this industry?
DJ Val: A little bit. You know it was hard because I was in the nightclub scene and some men can’t handle that. They don’t understand this is a job. This is what I do…my career. I’m fortunate to have a partner now for the past 6 years who gets it and I have stepchildren as a result but yea it can be hard as a woman in this business especially on your personal life. I knew what I wanted to do as a career and pursued it. I don’t have many regrets but there were definite sacrifices.
Black Widow: You’ve survived quite a bit beating Cancer and Graves’ disease…how did going through those personal trials change you as a DJ?
DJ Val: I used to be very sensitive and worried about the opinions of others. After facing death, I don’t sweat the small stuff. It made me fearless and I learned to trust myself more. I’ve faced death already, there’s nothing else to be afraid of.
Black Widow: What was your proudest moment?
DJ Val: Signing with Music Plant Records. At that time, I had been through so much, cancer and such. I made so many sacrifices. Signing with them was so special. The music I’m creating is my legacy. It made it all worth it, the sacrifices and the things I gave up pursuing this career.
Black Widow: What does being a Chicago DJ mean to you?
DJ Val: Being from Chicago is awesome! It doesn’t matter where you go, Chicago is known as the birthplace of house music. I get treated like royalty, like a queen. Being from the birthplace of house, people appreciate that and give you a certain amount of respect. I absolutely love it.
Black Widow: What is the key to your longevity?
DJ Val: Passion for the music and the love of the culture. House really is a feeling, it’s a natural high I get controlling a crowd and bringing them up. I remember having a party a week after 9/11, people didn’t want to party it took a while for people to want to have fun, you felt guilty for it and I thought it was an opportunity as a DJ to lift them up and give them that escape. That’s one of the reasons I’ll do this until my last breath.
Black Widow: It’s been amazing talking with you. Thank you so much!
DJ Val: My pleasure. I really love what you are doing on the website. It’s much needed!
Black Widow: Thank you so much!
DJ Val's new single, "Ride Free" will be available on December 8th on Traxsource, Beatport, iTunes, and Musicplantrecords.com.
You can find DJ Val at the following:
Til next time, see you on a dance floor!