Michelle Currier, a.k.a DJ Nice Rack, will open this weekend's festival in City Park on Friday afternoon.
Michelle Currier performs as DJ Nice Rack, and she is indebted to New Orleans’ musical lexicon. The Louisiana native considers bounce and southern hip-hop the backbone of her sets. Her sound straddles the musical universes to which she’s bound, looking both backwards and forwards as she merges old school hip-hop with forward-looking house beats.
She similarly embraces vinyl records as well as modern equipment. She plays a vinyl night every Tuesday at Igor’s with Joey Buttons of Disko Obscura and Danny White. More often, she uses digital tools, and will when she plays Voodoo's Le Plur Stage Friday at noon. This will be a busy weekend for Currier as she will also play a set for the queer dance party "Hush" on Thursday with Major League at GrandPre’s. This Saturday, she will also play a set of Afro disco, reggae, and Latin music with DJ C’est Funk at Quartz Bar for an international dance party, "Batucada Groove"
In person, Currier comes across as approachable and casual. She speaks quickly and earnestly, the way someone talks while catching up with an old friend. She recounts her early musical experiences in New Orleans and her admiration for local women DJs including DJ Soul Sister and Beverly Skillz. She uses her Soundcloud page to support the New Orleans dance music community while also paying tribute to an eclectic cluster of artists including Lil’ Kim, Major Lazer, Chief Keef, and Beyoncé. She has a playlist titled “millinial 90s party mix” that reflects her Anything to get you shaking aesthetic.
For women in the industry, DJing comes with some real frustrations. Currier says it was discouraging to launch her career at a time when female role models were absent. “When I started,” she says, “It was only dudes on flyers and one female sometimes, which was like 18 years ago, even in Los Angeles. I remember catching this amazingly talented lady called Annalyze in Sarasota. She was scratching and doing all these wicked tricks. She crushed it and the next dude DJing kicked her off the tables and we were like, C'mon, she is rocking the party!”
DJ Nice Rack is one of five women slated to play on the festival’s Le Plur stage including New Orleans' Tristan Dufrene and Sunday's headliner, Rezz. Still, the five make the stage's lineup a mere 20 percent female. Currier says that the only female DJs she used to see were conventionally attractive women whose recognition was due more to their appearance than their music. There were (and still are) acute double standards for female performers who are expected to look beautiful all the time,and if you Google “Best Female DJs,” YouTube videos ranking the “hottest” and “most beautiful” female DJs top the search results. Crowd favorites (which invariably skew thin, white, and crop-topped) like Alison Wonderland, Nina Kraviz, and Nervo make the cut.
The gender imbalance on festival lineups is nearly all-pervasive and frankly, frightening. Improvements in the name of diversity are painstakingly gradual. It often takes scanning through a talent lineup several times before spotting a single woman artist. A BBC study found that 80 percent of headliners at music festivals in 2017 were male. Electronic music fares particularly poorly in this measure. In 2016, the Top 100 list of DJ Mag’s Favorite DJs featured only three women. Three.
By any account, EDM remains a boys’ club. Currier remembers being outraged upon seeing a festival lineup a few years back that had booked only two female acts. At least, she says, women wanting to get into DJing have a few more role models to look up to today than they did at the outset of her musical career.
For electronic artists that don't top the Billboard charts, getting industry gatekeepers to take them seriously is a formidable challenge. Too often slighted as mere hobbyists, electronic artists struggle with public underestimation of their work. At one point Alison Wonderland had to set up a GoPro camera trained on her mixer to prove to skeptical audiences that she was doing something to affect the music.
"Men assume we aren't the DJ/Musician/Sound designer," she says, and in the venues they presume that she doesn't know how to set up her gear, and soundcheck. "I have been a stagehand, know a few things about sound, and DJed for well over a decade. In reality, we are very aware and must work twice as hard to get to the stage." That kind of sexism extends to the way women musicians are paid. “It's kind of been an uphill battle with that one,” she says. “Mostly men are bar owners, but I stick to my guns about proper rates and quit if it doesn't work out.”
She laments seeing women asking other women to work for cheap. It’s a common grievance: the irony of woman holding fundraisers (usually for organizations that focus on women’s issues) expecting female musicians to play for free or at a discount out of solidarity. Although Currier says she is happy to play fundraisers, it’s a downer seeing good acts that are often underpaid be asked to work even more cheaply. “We gotta find money with sponsorships and get everyone paid,” she says.
Currier says it can be demoralizing to be expected to play for free all the time. “Artists still have bills,” she says. “We are givers and want to have enough money to help when we can. At the same time, we need to be able to take care of ourselves. Tip the people putting on the show always.”
Currier models the kind of behavior she'd like to see. She emphasizes the importance of locals supporting each other and reps local artists on her Soundcloud, including AF the Naysayer, Lil Jodeci, and Boyfriend. Her interest in local sounds also extends to bounce, which she cites as a big influence on her. “Bounce is great,” she says, “It just gets you moving and shaking. Playing bounce outside of New Orleans can be a trip, though. Sometimes folks don't know how to dance to it. But they know more about it thanks to Big Freedia and all of the other artists keeping it alive.”
Working as an electronic producer in a live music city puts the artist in an interesting position. Electronic music’s role in New Orleans isn’t nearly as chronicled as that of jazz or funk’s towering legacies, or even the bounce and southern rap heard blasting from cars all across the city. As a DJ, Currier says she doesn’t perceive any dissonance between the two performance styles. Rather, she thinks that electronic music and live music collide and collaborate more than they tend to clash.
“There's a ton of cross over with analog and electro,” Currier says, “which is great. There was a series last year that meshed these two things called "Ectcetera!!!" and it had musicians, rappers, and DJs all jam together. It was pretty dope.” She's glad to see more DJs and dance music producers, but she's worried that the scene has become saturated as the equipment has become more affordable. “I like to see the new folks coming up,” she says. “But I want them to sound good and get that practice in before train-wrecking at gigs.”
Despite it all, Currier loves what she does. With one foot in the past and one in the future, she is committed to techno’s futuristic zeitgeist while saluting the pioneering sounds of early Cash Money Records. This temporal fusion of diverse sounds is the cutting edge of music. The “future” of electronic may very well be defined by listeners’ inability to identify the musical era of a given track. DJs work like architects of sound, piecing together a collage. They cross-breed sounds from disparate musical movements, fueled by a growing interest in retro and the allure of oldies. Currier and her contemporaries work to create a new liminal space for sound, which transcends not only the bounds of genre but of time.
New Orleans music has always moved forward while still nodding to the past. Memory is central to New Orleans musicians, who draw on the city’s rich cultural traditions and follow in their lineage. Even as the city’s artists innovate in their form, they are indebted to the New Orleans of yesteryear. This is the tradition Currier works in, juggling the city’s musical memories: R&B, disco, and old school hip-hop woven together under a house-music fabric. Currier, like many artists in this city, presses the past up against the future. She embraces New Orleans’ spirit of collaboration, sharing the stage with DJs and live artists who do and don’t sound like her. DJ Nice Rack plays her turntables and mixers, but she is still the offspring of New Orleans’ cooperative culture of musical hybridity.