Queer Club Culture’s Blueprint

An interview with DJ Blackcat

By: Aurora Sol | Art by: Michael Rancic

Toronto’s Mykell Hall, otherwise known as DJ Blackcat recalls landing his first regular club night in 1992 with mixed feelings. On one hand, the Blackcat Sundays he became known for at the village’s Ghetto Fag club were a runaway hit. The promoters and attendees all loved Blackcat’s open format sound, which shied away from siloed stylistic conventions in favour of incorporating everything from house, to hip hop, to soca. On the other hand, his quick success was met with disdain from within the nightlife community itself. 

“The white-owned clubs really didn’t like what I was doing. They tried to get it shut down, They called the cops on us. And that’s just the way it was for me for about 10 years in this city. I’d put up posters, they’d tear them down. Let’s just say I didn’t cower away or become afraid, but nonetheless it was very hard. It was a fight,” he says.

The history of dance music, the dance floor and the underground social club is queer history, and a history of the necessity of creating safer spaces for gathering and expression where they did not exist before. For queer people of colour especially, carving out space for themselves has been an essential and political act of survival, and a fight that continues to this day without any signs of easing. Movement is the essence of life. And when humans put meaning to a collective action with intention, we call it a movement. 

Whether you’ve attended a summer festival where DJs take as much centre stage as world-class bands or in some cases are the only artists showcased, had an unforgettable night in Ibiza, experienced the underground magic of a club night, or listened to a recorded mix from that DJ you just discovered, even if you didn’t know it at the time, you were part of a movement of movement. 

“There was a queer Black movement before I came out as gay, personally. There were a few DJs that did parties here, and I would consider them elders,” explains Mykell Hall, known as DJ Blackcat, about his predecessors in Toronto. Today, Hall has three decades of experience under his belt as a DJ, promoter, club night host, and entrepreneur, and has seen how the city’s scene has grown to support a multitude of sounds and styles. But in the 1990s, he was one of few openly gay DJs performing, and singular in his approach to not playing just disco or house.

“It was around 1992 when I first started doing openly gay events, and to my knowledge there was no other Black, gay DJ doing parties in Toronto at the time,” he says. Hall points to two other staples of the scene at the time who were playing house and soca— DJ Nik Redd and DJ Verilia— but says he was the only one playing everything.  

“I put myself out there a lot, and DJ Blackcat became a brand. But up until that point, there were some clubs that were playing the radio hits and maybe a little bit of house music, a little bit of R&B, but none of them played hip hop or soca or underground music,” he says. “So when I started bringing an open-format style, playing out of the range of what people were expecting to hear in these spaces, it became really popular.” It’s ironic that Hall would get as much resistance to his sound as he did, given that both house music, and disco before it, were born out of the same willingness to experiment and combine styles in otherwise unconventional ways.

In the early 1970s in the United States, particularly in New York and the Midwest, a new phenomenon quickly swept across the globe. Shortly after the Summer of Love in 1969, the softened economy meant that the burgeoning technology behind synthesizers, which were beginning to gain popularity after the release of the first Moog in 1964 (and as electronic music was popularized by artists such as the Beatles), was a pulse that everyone wanted to keep their finger on. By the late ’70s, disco music, which took all the elements of rhythm & blues— the “urban” African American music providing the blueprint for rock & roll— and added upbeat, joyous riffs and synth lines intended specifically for dancing, could be heard everywhere. Disco’s steady beat inspired DJs to mix the songs into seemingly never-ending suites of songs that would keep dancefloors moving without interruption. As such, DJs became stars and tastemakers in their own right. There was no doubt about the power of disco to unify a room of people together— and it was being led by working class queer people of colour.

Then, in the late ’70s, everything changed with the birth of underground dance clubs (the Loft and Paradise Garage in New York, the Warehouse in Chicago) that were spearheaded by queer people of colour, as well as the birth of hip hop in New York that ultimately came from young folks having street parties with some old records and a pair of turntables. All of these spaces, like David Mancuso’s Loft (which began as a literal apartment), or the Sanctuary (converted from a German Lutheran church), and later, Chicago’s Warehouse (the former factory that birthed house music) were repurposed from their original intended uses to create something new.

This repurposing was an essential aspect of these cultures’ formations and survivals. It wasn’t long before disco clubs and disco music was picked up by white audiences and considered to be a form of entertainment that was relegated specifically to the upper classes and those that could afford entry into the increasingly exclusive discotheques. If you were non-white, gay or trans, and not part of the in-crowd without the privilege of knowing someone to let you in, chances are you were outcasted from the magic that was the disco dance floor.

Even twenty years later, Hall constantly had to carve out his own space in the face of constant pushback and barriers from within Toronto’s scene. “When I first came out, it was actually two white men who brought me out, because they liked Black men and they wanted to hear the open-format I was becoming known for, but they didn’t know any DJs that were playing like that at the time. So they heard a little mixtape I put out back then, and they reached out to me and offered to have me do the first night I ever did, which was a midweek night. A Wednesday, and that was a bit of a flop,” Hall remembers. “Eventually, these promoters gave me a night called Black Cat Sundays. At the time, the club was called Ghetto Fag and is now called Crews & Tangos. Of course, they didn’t want to give a Black guy a Friday or Saturday, so I got Sunday.”

Even with the emergent success of his Sunday nights, Hall says that his experiences have been painted with a shade of racism that will always be particularly difficult to navigate, given the history of the genres of dance music that have become increasingly popular over the years.

“I have always said that my career in this community has always been and probably always will be a fight in some way, because of the racism and just general hatred that I receive for being a Black, gay man that spins more than just dance hits, and so there was a lot to fight against. I had to do parties in church basements, school gyms, hole-in-the-wall café-type spaces, and it was hard. The stigma towards Black folks and the white supremacy was very much prevalent. So that was going on, and it still goes on, just in a different way. It’s definitely still going on though.”

“Let me tell you, that night went off. It was the place to be on Church Street on the weekend for many, many years, because it was the only place to hear a DJ spinning that variety of music all night,” Hall says. Regardless of the night of the week, it was clear that the fresh flavour, energy and variety that DJ Blackcat brought to Toronto’s queer club scene was welcomed because it was so necessary. Although not necessarily common knowledge for a culture that has especially in the last decade become so mainstream, these clandestine gatherings created the blueprint for the popular music festival industry that many people now dedicate their entire summers to attending, and funnel thousands of dollars into each year. What used to be a niche phenomenon, with big gatherings like Burning Man and other similar events only starting to grow in popularity, has become for many folks, the best way to consume music and other entertainment, connect with friends, and ultimately, engage in the type of hedonistic pleasure that was always at the forefront of the club dance floor, whether it be at the exclusive discotheque or the word-of-mouth events that would later become known as raves. 

Along with the energy of joy projected through these events, the roots always had a political undertone of overcoming oppression, white supremacy, homophobia and anti-puritanism. It did not take long after the first ones popped up for the phenomenon of dance clubs as cultural social gathering third spaces to become popular across the world. 

It is notable that this was the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, which specifically affected, and sadly obliterated much of the global gay community. Stonewall and other milestones on the historical timeline of queer history coincided with the creation of these spaces that were specifically queer, racialized, and centered around inclusivity and freedom. The solidarity and empowerment that these times created within queer collective consciousness is the energy that drove many people forward, even as they were witnessing and grieving the loss of hundreds of thousands of their peers, lovers, family, friends. This energy is still palpable within the global queer community today. 

Just like the roots of the club scene and dance floor culture, community remains at the centre of DJ Blackcat’s work.

“The club scene is always changing, and it’s going to keep changing. But what I do is I create space for my community. I do this because I really care about the music and I care about people, I care about the people that are listening. But it’s never been easy, it didn’t ever get easier. But there’s a reason it’s still happening too. It’s given me a reason to live.”