Toronto's gay urban music godfather talks about his two decades behind the decks.
Pride revelers may not realize it, but Church Street would be a very different place if it weren’t for Mykel Hall, better known as DJ Blackcat. Rihanna, Lil’ Kim, and Nicki Minaj may all be modern club staples, but before Blackcat came along, no one would even think of playing hip-hop or R&B at a gay bar in Toronto. Originally a house DJ, Blackcat was the first DJ to play hip-hop, R&B, and reggae for a primarily gay audience in Toronto. Twenty years after first stepping behind the decks, Blackcat still has a reputation for diverse sets that make crowds get rowdy. He took a minute to talk to Torontoist about Blockorama, Brazilians, and Beenie Man. Read the edited and condensed interview after the jump.
How did you start DJing?
I’ve always had a big love for music. I guess I would say it started with my father, but he wasn’t a DJ, he just loved music, and I’d play his records… Later on, I had some friends who were DJs and I loved what they did, so I kind of would watch them and taught myself. I’m a house music DJ, that’s how I started out. House is my first love. I taught myself to spin house and then gravitated to other things… Now house music is the one I spin the least, but it’s still the one I love the most.
How did you move from house to other genres?
There is a promoter named Giles Belanger. He heard one of my cassette tapes and liked it. He did some research, found out who I was, and we met up and spoke about it. He said that there was no hip-hop and R&B and reggae in the community, and that I would be a good match… My parents are Jamaican, so reggae music has always been in my life, and I’ve always been a big fan of hip-hop and R&B… My first regular gig was called Blackcat Sundays, and we used to have people lined up all the way down Church Street. I was the only one playing hip-hop and R&B and reggae on Church Street at the time.
What’s your favourite part about playing Pride?
I guess it would be seeing the people that come back year after year to see me spin, and getting in touch with them after a year and finding out what their year has been like. I used to give out CDs every year, and they’d come back to Toronto every year to get another CD from me. They’d get in touch with me and say that after 10 years, they’re still listening to this CD I made, or that they’re in Brazil and playing my CD in a club in Brazil. Thinks like that, I find those things amazing. The other thing I look forward to is Blockorama. I love spinning that stage.
Explain Blockorama for those who don’t know about it.
The original thought of it was to have a queer-friendly, family-friendly space for people of colour. Originally I think there were about five people putting it together, and at the time, there weren’t a lot of DJs, so they asked me to be part of it, and I said yes. There were three of us, we were the only DJs for the whole day, and we played music for 11 hours. We had drag queens there, and it was just a lot of fun. It just got bigger and bigger every year, it has its own energy. Now there are tons of DJs and you have to fight for your spot… I like the fact that now, Blocko is a melting pot, but it is also still a space for people of colour. I love that. You’ll find every nation in Blocko. It’s this thing that everybody talks about and needs to be involved in every year.
You’ve just started making the mix CDs again. How come?
I missed them. People were coming up to me and saying “I miss my Blackcat CDs…” I stopped making them about three years ago… They’re a lot of work, because I mix them live. I don’t use a computer. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so when you’re mixing live and you make a mistake, you have to start all over again. You can’t just go snip it out. So they take weeks to make, and by the time I’m done one, I kind of don’t want to play those songs anymore because I’ve heard them a million times. But I said I’d do them again for my 20th anniversary [of DJing], so I’m doing a hip-hop and R&B one for Pride and a reggae one for Caribana.
You work with some genres that occasionally have homophobic lyrics. How do you deal with those?
I’ve never really had an issue. For me, if I don’t like it, I won’t play it. There are a few songs out there that have negative connotations towards gay people, and I just don’t play them. It’s an issue in reggae music. I don’t really have that problem in hip-hop and R&B… I wouldn’t boycott an artist completely because I don’t like some of his songs… Beenie Man has some songs that have negative lyrics, so I won’t play those songs… But I won’t not play him entirely. He has a song with Janet Jackson, so you know I’m going to play that… People don’t always agree with me on that, but I don’t care. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.
What songs have stayed in your arsenal the longest?
I’ll break it down by genre. For house music, the Whitney Houston version of “I’m Every Woman.” That’s a song that just stands through time immemorial. For reggae, it’s a song called “Dancehall Queen.” You can put that on any time and it will get everyone moving, and that’s from 1997 or ’98. Hip-hop and R&B-wise, there’s that anthem [by Fatman Scoop and Crooklyn Clan.] When you put that song on, even if the crowd is completely dead, they’ll start jumping.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’m doing the official urban closing party for Pride. Every month I do a party called Go Hard. This is my Go Hard: Swag 2 Da Roof Shut ‘Em Down Party. It’s going to be at Goodhandy’s, with myself, DJ Unruly Twin, DJ Pleasure, and JJ Rock. We’re going to be playing everything, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, house, pop, and I’m giving out 100 of my mix CDs.