A little more than a quarter-century has passed since Jennie Livingston's classic documentary Paris Is Burning helped introduce New York's ballroom scene to the world, and the tight-knit community remains a vibrant subculture in a city bursting with them. For the uninitiated, what happens is that participants — primarily gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women of color — gather at rec centers across town for elaborate parties in which they compete, or “walk,” in costume-based categories for a chance to win honorary titles such as "Legend" or "Icon." "Houses" function like small surrogate families and are oftentimes named after luxury designers.
As Paris Is Burning showed, ball culture is about much more than glamour; it can serve as a refuge for those exiled from mainstream society because of poverty, bigotry, or sexuality. Today, young gay black men account for 55 percent of new HIV infections, according to the CDC, and as with New York's original ball culture, the Kiki scene has emerged in the last five years as a safe haven for those staring down these terrifying statistics. Kikis are similar to the balls captured in Paris Is Burning, but are often set in the city's LGBTQ youth centers. Like balls, they are judged competitions, with contestants walking in specific categories — the most famous still being voguing.
With this new generation of ballroom in full swing, it seems fitting that a new documentary centered on it, Kiki, premiered at Sundance last week. The film was directed by Sara Jordenö in collaboration with Twiggy Pucci Garçon, the gatekeeper for present-day ball culture. When Jordenö asked Twiggy to help her put together the film’s soundtrack, he knew exactly whom to call. Qween Beat — an 18-member collective comprised of DJs, producers, dancers, and recording artists, and founded by MikeQ — is the go-to source for Kikis across town. A New Jersey native, MikeQ is responsible for the driving, propulsive mixes heard throughout Jordenö's film. On “Legendary Children,” premiering here today, his Qween Beat cohort Byrell the Great twist O.G. house music into a turbo-charged 21st-century analog, repurposing an iconic clip from Paris Is Burning along the way.
Below we chat with MikeQ about the future of the Kiki scene in New York and beyond. "What Paris Is Burning was to the culture," MikeQ says of Jordenö's documentary, "I feel this could be that and much more."
You have described ballroom's music as “like the '90s house sound, it’s just that cunt feeling.” I love this description. Can you elaborate on it?
Before the music in ballroom was just house tracks that were picked up by the scene, and now what we’ve started to do is remix these tracks specifically for the categories. So before it was house music, but now I would compare it to Jersey clubs, because that’s where I come from. I take a lot of inspiration from there, or hip-hop, or house, where the beats are heavier, with lots of bass. The tempo of it is a little faster, but they’re voguing crazy to it as well. It’s pretty hard to explain, but I think of what I said — it’s just that cunt feeling — just because the sound of it is so gay to me.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t even dance, and you don’t vogue. I can’t believe that. I can’t listen to this music without wanting to dance.
I mean, I want to, and I do it in the house, of course, behind closed doors. I recorded myself doing this so many times and I look terrible compared to everybody else so I’m like, “Okay, I’m not going to do this in public.” But, you know, I have the knowledge of it.
As recently as a year or so ago, you said that the Kiki scene was still underground, and that you thought that might be a good thing. Have your feelings on this changed as you've worked on a documentary that shines a light on the subculture?
I feel it should stay underground because, as you know, when things go mainstream, they get blown out of proportion and watered down and taken out of perspective. So with it staying underground and contained within itself, it can keep some of its originality. But if people find good ways to make sure that it’s taught the right way, we can keep it under control without going all over the place and being misrepresented.
You’ve DJ’ed around the world. Would you say there's an international Kiki scene?
Most of the Kiki scene is based out of New York. That’s where it started, but now it’s starting to spread out to other places. I know a few people in Russia had their own Kiki house — the House of Normalno — that I'm part of, and I’m also a part of Pucci here in the U.S. So it’s the same scene, I would say, just different places, different people.
The scene in Russia isn't primarily LGBTQ youth of color, though, I imagine.
No, not at all. I think with Russia’s involvement in the scene now, that’s just more of what’s happening with it getting bigger and spreading out. In Russia, a lot of those people are just dancers, or they come to the scene mostly through dance. I don’t know how, exactly, but not many of them are gay — a few of them — and of course there’s no people of color in Russia. I’ve been there, and I was the only one.