“A Healing Thing”: An Interview with Stacey Hotwaxx Hale

From playing basement shows where she sharpened her practices mixing music continuously (a now ubiquitous act then coined as “sneak-a-mixx”) under the apprenticeship of Ken Collier in late 70’s and beating over 600 DJ’s for the 1985 Motor City Mix competition to playing +5 hour sets on Kevin Saunderson’s Deep Space Radio station, Stacey Hotwaxx has been a trailblazer in the progressive dance music scene for almost 30 years. Her thoughts on how the dance floor was and still a radical space to be confronted with sounds and people you might’ve not be aware of beforehand rings ever true decades after. The Godmother of House, Hotwaxx spills of stories: beepers paging to drive miles to hear pirate radio stations, getting kicked off the radio for scaring the program director, to sharing her love of the now oft forgotten maxi-single. There’s an undying fire that’s felt both in her retellings and in her music. In our conversation, she left us with the sentiment that these histories not only deserved to be remembered, but to be told for those that were there. Let’s listen in while we can. 

Kristian Hill, director of GSGEDM (God Said Give Em Drum Machines), received this tape of Stacey from his friend Lanier in South Africa. We aren’t sure when exactly it was recorded, but believe it to be roughly mid 80’s to early 90s. The mix will be streaming tonight (August 17, 2021) on 8Ball Radio as a continuation of the “Lost Tapes” mix series. Ryan Clarke, co-editor of Dweller, sat down with Stacey Hotwaxx on August 12, 2021.

Dweller: I want to say thank you for being cool with doing this. Obviously again, thank you Jordan for setting all this up. It’s so appreciated. Are you in Detroit, SH? Ms. Hale?

SH: Yes, you can call me Stacey. You can call me Hotwaxx.

D: Okay. You’re in Detroit right now?

SH: Yes.

D: We’re all in different spaces all over.

SH: Yep, I love that and that’s why the doing events and stuff on virtual is still going to stay, even though if we go back to normal, it’s okay to do the normal where you have groupings. But if you can… I’m not flying across the world to go to the baby shower, you know?

D: Mm-hmm. The accessibility is super necessary.

SH: Accessibility, yeah. I was in the midst of teaching classes last year I had to teach myself, “how do I teach music online”? That was a nightmare.

D: Yeah. Well how are you? How have you been? I’ve never met you, but how are you right now?

SH: I am well, and I was just blown away from that cassette you played. I went, “Oh my God.” I have no idea who did that, or who recorded it, or if it was off… You can imagine the amount of music I’ve done over the years, we’re talking about a decade here now.

D: I think it’s [only side A] so I’m sure the mix just kept on going. It felt like it ended so abruptly, I got a little sad. I was like, “I was just getting in the groove there.”

SH: I don’t know who, what, where. I have no clue. People pop up with these mixes from back in the day, and for two reasons, I like to when I listen, what was in my head? What was I thinking? What was my vibe? And mind you, these are all records. There’s no electronics and none of that, so it’s all very pure.

D: With what [8 Ball] sent me, there was very small context. But I think they said something around that mix being around ’85, ’86, which puts it around the Motor City mix. Maybe a bit after, maybe a bit before. But if we are in the mid-80s, then that takes us out of your apprenticeship with Ken Collier?

SH: Correct. Correct.

D: I was thinking about your connection with different formats. Because on your journey [you’re] working, First starting with basement parties where people were talking about, “Oh, why are you not stopping one track to the next?” And then from there you start the apprenticeship, and then you start doing radio mixes, you’re doing TV; public access shows like New Dance Show, which is legendary at this point. And now different formats like internet radio.

Listening to that half of that mix, I was wondering, when you approach these different spaces, and there are so many, are you thinking about the music and where it lives? Do you approach these mixes in different ways?

SH: I listen to different music and approach it for whatever’s happening at that time. At ’85, so I of course know exactly what I was doing then. I was in school full-time at Lawrence Tech. I would mix, and then go and study, mix, right in the booth. Full-time. I was full-time in school and working three or four days a week at Cheeks. And my approach for playing in Cheeks, it was a very progressive crowd, but very… uppity. And I’m calling them uppity, because there were some college students, but most people had just graduated. They were professionals. They were doctor, lawyers, and whatever other professional title you’d have.

Knowing myself as being very progressive with music, I had to be careful. I couldn’t take them too fast. That was kind of always in my mind. And because I didn’t want to scare them, because this was still new, mixing and all that stuff. That’s new, and nobody’s judging you when they don’t know. And that’s when I created that thing called… well, I created it before then, but I’d do a Sneak-A-Mix. And when I would transition, you wouldn’t know I was transitioning. That was what I put in my head, because I didn’t want to scare the audience from changing the song, but I want to make you dance five, six, seven songs straight. And you don’t know that the song changed.

I would study the rhythms, and stuff would be so smooth. I go back and listen, and I can hear me still doing that. And even today I taught a class, I was showing the kids and they said, “We can’t tell the record changed,” and I’m talking to some 10-year-olds.  I was telling them how and why, and listen. It’s about listening.

I was never one to like the scratching and that’s what Jeff Mills was doing, or The Wizard at the time. Everything was “whachachachacha”, so you knew mixing was happening, because he was making a statement with the mix, whereas I was making the mix and hiding it. Both very effective.

D: There’s a specific word that you used in there, that it “scared” people.

SH: It did.

D: Something [like Sneak-a-mix] has become so ubiquitous, it’s just commonplace now. It’s just mixing, now, but at a time it startled people to hear this continuous-ness? This continuity?

SH: Yes. It scared the crap out of them. I’d watch them. They’d be like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been on the floor [for how long]?…” And the only way I would give them a break is I would put a slow record on.

D: You’re almost time bending at that point. People don’t even know that 13, 20 minutes have passed.

SH: And part of the reason why I was like that and doing that is because I belonged to a record pool, and I was playing records that weren’t on the radio. And so this music you had never heard before, so I knew I really had to be very careful in introducing it. I had already learned and listened to music and thought it was very, very good, but just because it had not been on the radio doesn’t mean it should not be played.

There are two records to come in my mind. But Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross, “Jump to It”? That was one that I literally got in trouble. And they told me, “If you don’t take that off, I’m going to fire you.”

D: Because it was too raunchy or too much?

SH: They had not heard it. [They called] because they had not heard it before, that’s all. It wasn’t the audience; it was the club owners. But it was Luther and Aretha Franklin. Come on. This is typically that audience, but now that was done a little bit more to a house beat, or a swing, or it was a dance song versus we’re used to them crooning, or singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T or something. But they clearly know their voices. It’s unique, and it’ll be forever. The other one was Lonely People by Lil Louis. Do you know that song?

D: Oh yes, I do. I want to kind of play it in the background.

SH: Right…I got in trouble. And the other one was Crystal Waters. [They] said, “You done lost your mind. And I just said, “Hey, just because it ain’t on the radio and you ain’t never heard it I don’t care if you ain’t heard it, if I know I’ve got a hit, I’m playing it. That’s that.”.

D: In connection with that, what is or was your background with radio?

SH: I never was a lover of radio. I thought radio was tired. You hear the same whatever it is in rotation… and the music just simply wasn’t progressive enough for me. And so I would break my neck, get in the car to go to wherever area I could go in where you could pick up where they were playing music. I couldn’t wait to get to Kalamazoo, going to Chicago so I could hear some mixed music. The hot mix five, they’re playing it on the radio. I’m like, “Ah.” Mind you, music wasn’t accessible to us then like it is now. We can plug in. And there was no such thing as Siri. Not Siri… what is the radio?

D: Sirius?

SH: Sirius Radio, yeah. In order to hear some different music, you had to do different things to hear it. That’s when Kevin Saunderson and them started Deep Space Radio. They got a barge and got a frequency, and we’d all run to whatever area it was so we could hear the techno. It was crazy. And they would have to move because the FCC licenses would come after them, so we had to hide and run.

D: What was the energy with pirate radio [at the time]? Because that’s usually, that’s considered a UK thing. When people talk about ’92, [talk about] pirate radio they’re usually alluding to the UK, but that was going on in the ’80s [in Detroit]?

SH: Yes.

D: And where was this? You’re saying a literal barge?

SH: I just remember one time they were set up in Highland Park, another time they were downtown. And how did we get the word around? We didn’t have cellphones. If we did… so if you had one, your first 10 friends didn’t. That’s why we had beepers, that’s how we would do it. We would do beepers.

D: FM or was it more AM at the time?

SH: It was FM. So of course way down the dial. 88 is the smallest, but it was way… but that’s definitely federal airwaves, so they would definitely get your ass. It was like get it, hit it, run.

D: [And now] there’s internet radio, and I know that you’re in that space right now. Does that feel like the logical next step, from radio to pirate radio to internet radio? How do you feel about internet radio?

SH: I absolutely love internet radio. I’m on two different platforms…and it allows you to grow your audience. So, it’s cool for that, but now with so many choices, now not only do you have choices to be on the internet, but everybody also else in the world does too. So if you have 677 stations, which one you’re going to tune into?

D: Yeah, good luck.

SH: Right. I mean, so now that restricts you down to a small [audience] because we all have so many choices. I very seldom look at TV live. I go back after. There are some shows that I may want to see, but I just prefer to use the recording. So now, a person that wants to hear music, not only you can pick exactly the only kind of music you want to hear, because it’s something played there all the time somewhere. You can go and hear whatever you want to hear anywhere. You know the right name or whatever to type in it, that’s fine.

So here I am on Deep Space Radio, and I have a particular slot. Tuesdays, Twisted Tuesdays where I do that, where I make that unique. And my mindset is thinking that people are in their offices, they’re at work, just give them a break. And you come in, and I approach that, but I’m still operating on an Eastern Standard Time zone with that concept, because over in Paris it’s a different time and that may not be there work hour.

So, I feed different types of music in there, just because I can and that’s fine, and that’s just all audio. The reason why I like techno-club.net so much versus being on those other platforms; Facebook Live can cut you off, and Twitch muting you out and all this stuff, I go back to the old school.

When I do a session, I do a minimum of two hours, but I’ve done four-to-five-hour sessions, which is what I was accustomed to doing in the ’80s and ’90s anyway. It was never 30 DJs on the ticket, it would be you, and they’d have a guest come in and that’s fine, but you’d program the whole music.

This generation don’t know anything about that. They come in, “Okay, that’s my hour. Okay next, now that’s your hour. Okay next, now that’s your hour.” And so you can’t really tell a story. I don’t even think they know about the storytelling if you’re playing something, because I’m not going to be the same all five hours.

D: Again, I can’t walk away from that feeling of scaring people on the floor from sounds that they haven’t heard before, songs they haven’t even thought about, genres that up until that point for them didn’t even exist.

SH: Didn’t exist.

D: Because we can curate our own lives so well where we don’t have to listen to the radio, we don’t have to listen to anything– watch anything– that we don’t want immediately, is it almost encouraging you find spaces to never be scared. To not be in confrontation with something that they don’t know or don’t think that they know they want.

In contemporary curation, everyone’s their own curator. But radio, even internet radio has this unique ability to put something in your face that you may not want, as opposed to streaming where you are really choosing everything from the beginning to the end. I think there’s a beauty in it, but how do you feel about that? As someone who is on the radio quite often, are you still kind of championing the idea of radio, even though before you weren’t that big of a fan of it?

SH: I’ve been blessed to have radio from an early age and being guided by program directors of what I can and cannot do. But I’ve always been a rebel. I came out of the gate being a rebel. I got to play French Kiss on the radio, first one here in Detroit. And then when that part broke down where it sounds like the woman was having an orgasm, I got one phone call from my program director. I mean, that’s back to when you couldn’t cuss on radio, none of that. But all she did was breathe. And I got a phone call. He said, “You play that again and you’re fired.” Scared the crap out of me like, okay. Well I’m being a rebel, because I know this wasn’t usual. And I still would put on whatever should be played on that station, but I still would go off the cuff. I’d still slip in techno; I’d still slip in… and I’ve always done that.

D: [You’re] continuing this continuity at these radio stations, almost to quietly teach. That in itself is like an apprenticeship. Really showing, “I’m going to nestle in this tune on top of this one,” because it’s all rooted in the same feeling, it sounds like you’re connecting more with feeling than you are with genre.

SH: Exactly. That’s exactly right. Musicians [used] they make different mixes to fit the different genres. It’s the same song, but just make a different mix. So now, you can cater to your different audience. So now, I can play this rap record, because now I have a ratchet version.

I’m not a hip-hop DJ. I can’t ignore it. Because I’m progressive, and everybody that’s my age plus or minus 10 years can’t keep up with me no kind of way. None. And I’m not going to just fall back and be oldie but goody.

But I enjoy when I play at Temple Bar, or even Marble Bar. And I know my audience is 20 to 40. So I have a plethora of music. And I know just because they’re progressive and they like techno and they like house, they know the hip-hop too. So for me to take a real popular hip-hop song and have it jump into some house or techno beat, I love doing that, and I love watching them go crazy because that’s the last thing they expect to come out of me. That’s the last thing.

D: That sounds like you’re still doing the scaring.

SH: Oh yeah.

D: I’ve been thinking about house and techno as this very small thing that only a handful of your friends and family and some other people in the Detroit metro area are hip to. And in a very short time has just blown up. Just ballooned internationally. From being there from its beginning until literally right now, how are you seeing this space?

SH: Everybody is so off in so many different directions. I can only go where my thought is, I think that our audience or the people or the ones that love to dance are a lot more educated in recognizing that this came from somewhere, and they’re more interested in the history. Because as you know, the world tells history like they want it. You’ll have somebody come up, “Yeah, I’m this hotshot and I did all this here.” Okay, when were you born? 1981? No. Yeah, 1981, you can’t tell a story that happened, something in 1985. How are you going to tell it? You can’t. So it’s people like that that come up, that make up fiction, or something that they thought or said, and then that kind of story goes on versus the real.

D: It’s your own narrative.

SH: Right, versus the real. I would just like for good music to be made all genres, and it doesn’t matter as long as it’s good, and I wish, just would people to stop liking this not good music. I’m not talking about a genre, I’m just talking about, can it just be good whatever it is. That’s my peeve right there. Like I said, I’m not a hip-hop DJ, but some of this stuff, if it’s good and it’s pressed good, keep the quality. Don’t sacrifice anything. Make it good, whatever it is. Just don’t be doing no crap… you want to generate emotions, but you want to generate positive emotions.

A healing thing. Music is used for that. I was doing a fundraiser, art museum, and I was being me playing house music, and mostly happy house music, and I’m playing the soulful and it’s doing all that, and three people came in as I finished playing and they ran over to me, and they just hugged me.

They said they had just buried their father, and they came in the space, and they heard the music, and it made them feel good. It made them lighten up. It took their emotion into a better place and it made them feel good. So of course I started bawling. I’m just crying. But that’s our job, to me as a DJ. And I’d like for… I wish what all of them would think like that and whatever they’re playing for it to be in that direction. Because again, that was an example of somebody that I never knew who was listening, I was just having my fun and playing my music. It just happened to be house music.