DJ Sissy Elliott left his chef’s job in New Orleans to travel the country as Mykki Blanco’s tour DJ. Now he’s putting down roots and cooking up sounds in Brooklyn, New York.
Too Hype Too Early
If destiny called asking you to pack your bags and move across the country, would you comply? I don’t know if DJ Sissy Elliott believes in destiny, but he sure isn’t someone who passively waits around to find out. Since moving from Lansing, Michigan at age 19, he’s lived on the West coast and the East, New Orleans and rural Tennessee, played shows in the woods as well as big stadiums while touring the country with Mykki Blanco, and tried the whole gamut of food industry jobs. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York and is about to DJ his first shows: at Casa Diva on Friday and Mask’s Halloween party *SCREAMS* at Secret Project Robot on Tuesday October 31. I called up Sissy Elliott to ask him about tour life, his musical past, and his love for cooking.
As a warm-up for next week’s Halloween show, DJ Sissy Elliott made the mix “NOHOMO” for Mask Magazine, listen here and read the interview below:
1. Dawn Richard – How I Get It (SHE Spells Doom Bootleg)
2. Mina x Bryte – Make Money
3. Bonde Do Role – Cagado
4. James Bangura – Let’s Go
5. Somepoe – Baby Ha (Piri Piri Redux)
6. LSDXOXO – Eat Me Alive VIP
7. Bbymutha – Dark N Lovely (Byrell the Great Remix)
8. Crookers – Bowser
9. Jay R Neutron – Run A Muck
10. Kingdom – Stalker Ha (Rap Mix)
11. Ceky Viciny ft. Tali – Mete Mete
12. DJ Scuff – Plakata
13. Rouge + Bonnie B – Dapper Dan (World Version)
Before calling you, I scrolled through your Instagram and saw this cute photo of you as a kid. Your caption reads, “#tbt to 1998 when yung sis was in first grade at the local Afrocentric charter school called Sankofa Shule.” What was it like to go there?
I went to that school for just one year, first grade. It was a very pro-black charter school. It was actually very intense. Even in first grade I was taking English, Spanish, Japanese, and Swahili. I was also taking pre-algebra, geometry, martial arts, African drumming, black history studies, and natural sciences. If you asked how they fit all of that into my schedule, I could not tell you.
I did so well they wanted me to skip second grade and go straight to third grade. My mom prevented them from doing this becasue she was afraid it would hamper me socially and emotionally. But also, they had a history of doing that; they were a charter school and I think how much money they received from the state depended on their academic track record and it looked better if students were skipping grades.
I didn’t do well there socially, it was very competitive. They penalized students in a strange way; if you didn’t keep your academic standing above a certain level, they placed you in a separate group of lower-performing students called Ptahhotep. But if you were doing well, no matter what grade you were in, you were placed in the Imhotep group. That meant you they’d take you out one Friday every month to go to Chuck E. Cheese's, go ice skating, or other fun activities. Meanwhile, the students in the Ptahhotep group were forced to stay at the school and write lines until they got back, which was usually several hours. Luckily I was only in that group once or twice.
Earlier this year, you were Mykki Blanco's DJ for the Stunt Queen Tour 2017. How did you and Mykki Blanco meet, and how did you end up touring togerher?
Mykki and I met at a queer/trans land project in rural Tennessee in May 2016. We were both attending a music festival that happens there every year. The place is kind of small so you end up just meeting everybody, and we hit if off immediately. Last winter I saw him posting on social media that he needed a DJ for an upcoming tour with Cakes [da Killa] and I responded immediately. I had recently lost a really shitty serving job at a restaurant in New Orleans, so it was perfect timing. He said yes right away, we were both excited to work with each other. His team and I made the proper arrangements and next thing I know I’m flying up to New York, just covered in a huge blizzard – I arrived during the first big snow storm that year.
And then you toured together for about two months. What was it like to travel around the country with Mykki and Cakes?
It was a whirlwind. I got to see so many parts of the country, a new city every night. I think we passed through 32 major American cities. We basically made a big loop around the country with our 15-passanger cargo van. We never got to spend too much time in each place to get to know it well but still enough to have a good time meet people, some who I still talk to today, and eat some good food before heading out to the next place.
A lot of random things happened. I remember in particular our show in Seattle, which was one of my favorite shows. It was sold out, a pretty big venue in Seattle. Cakes and Mykki put on spectacular performances, per usual, and all the openers were great as well. After Mykki went on, I figured the show would come to its natural ending as it usually did. But it turns out that the drinks were a little stronger that night and Mykki and Cakes decided to host a little variety or talent show after their performances... I’m still up there in the DJ booth, and next thing I know these random audience members are getting invited to the stage to sing, rap, or dance… At one point Cakes started hosting a little ball on the stage, and a few voguers came up and did their thing to some ‘Ha’ tracks I blended together. I can’t remember who won, but it was a really cute moment and a perfect example of what that tour was like.
Can you talk about how you got into DJing and your musical influences, past and present?
I’ve always been invovled in music. I was a classical and jazz-trained pianist for about ten years. That taught me a lot of things that I now focus on with DJing – musicality, timing, rhythm, phrasing, harmony, things like that. It’s kind of weird going from that kind of background to what I do now. I grew up playing Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Christian hymnals, and now I play underground club remixes of 90s R&B songs and shit like that. But I was very adventurous with the music I listened to growing up. I grew up in the golden era of LimeWire and all that, so in a way I had a lot more access to different music than people who grew up in a time before mine. My parents also exposed me to different kinds of music. My mom was all about Classical and Baroque music, gospel, spirituals, stuff like that. My dad was the one feeding me jazz, bebop, soul, a little bit of neo-soul as well. My influences range from Oscar Peterson, Nancy Wilson, The Isley Brothers, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Kirk Franklin, Yo Gotti... It’s really broad.
I tried my hand at DJing when I lived in Michigan. I bought some cheap Numark controller from the local Best Buy back in 2011. I started playing around with house, Italo disco, funk music… I was just playing around though. It wasn’t until I attended Idapalooza my second year in 2015 that I thought of it as something that I could do professionally, like as a career. The way that transpired was very random. One of the headliners dropped out last minute, so they needed someone to fill in. I was still not taking DJing seriously for myself, but I would mess around on my computer sometimes. My friend Chicklet gave me a crash course in mixing and stuff maybe two hours before I was supposed to go on. I had never played for anybody before, and suddenly I was playing for hundreds of people on the biggest night of the queer music festival. I was very, very nervous. I went on, and people loved it. I had a good time.
I started to see part of myself that I hadn’t really seen before, which is that I love performing in that kind of way. I’m not the type of person who can be directly in the spotlight, singing or rapping or anything like that. But DJing for me is enough in the spotlight, people see you up on that stay and they know you’re controlling the environment, but it’s like, it gets boring watching the DJ. You can’t really see what they’re doing, it’s not necessarily a performance in the traditional sense, you can relax a little bit more. That’s the kind of environment that I thrive in.
From that moment, I started playing in other cities. I played down in Atlanta, my first few shows in New Orleans, then it just snowballed from there. I headlined the next year at Idapalooza, I played countless shows in New Orleans after I moved there, I played at the MIX festival in New York.
What path do you imagine for yourself as a DJ; do you wish for it to become something you do fulltime?
I go back and forth with that. I think of it as something I could sustain myself with if I became more assertive with it. Right now I really enjoy DJing. It’s not just a hobby, it’s grown to be really important for me. It feels like I need to do it, I need to be involved with music in some way.
I want to start producing. To be honest, I have no idea how to do that. I’ve never played with any kind of music or audio production programs in my life, except for Garage Band. That’s one thing I want to do. Because, as many amazing wonderful tracks and remixes that I may find on Soundcloud, Youtube or whatever, there’s nothing quite like being able to make something exactly as you hear it in your head. That’s one of the things I see myself doing.
I’ve also been trying to figure out some way to combine music and food. I can’t quite envision what that would look like yet. I saw a friend post online about this restaurant they were at, eating brunch, and they said the brunch chef was getting too hype too early. I started thinking, wow, I’d love to DJ for a brunch. It would be amazing, those are two of my favorite things.
The themes I want to engage with through my work are healing and restoration. And that’s why I do music, music is really important for my own self-healing. The folks I surround myself with, it’s an important part of their healing process as well. Food of course belongs to that, food is so important to so many different cultures. In my family, holiday meals is when we all come together to resolve disputes, but also show each other love and such. If you ask any of my good friends, especially my roommates, they’ll tell you that I love making people laugh, and I love feeding people and playing music for people. That’s my way of trying to start a healing and restorative culture around the folks who I surround myself with. A lot of folks don’t have that and a lot of folks needs that. It’s one way I can help.
I think that’s so important, to start with those life-sustaining basics when trying to figure out how to live together and improve each other’s lives. I know cooking isn’t just a hobby for you either, you used to work as a chef. How did you get into that?
I’ve been interested in food for a long time, since before I started DJing. I started getting into food because I became vegetarian, then vegan, then I was raw vegan... /laughs/ When you’re vegetarian, much less raw vegan, in a small city in the middle of Michigan you have no choice but to always be cooking for yourself. That’s how I became interested in food culture and nourishing my body. But also, to make sure that I feel good emotionally. Because it became a bit lonely for me at one point; the people I lived with weren’t vegan, and I wasn’t about to make them vegan. So I was like, okay, how can I make this food that I want to share with other people taste good enough that they’ll want to try it, hopefully enjoy it? That’s when I started experimenting a bit more with food, pushing the envelope.
I started doing it as a labor of love. I remember my first holiday dinner where I was in charge of 90 percent of the meal for my extended family. I was in the kitchen for straight up two days. It was laborious but I enjoyed every second of it. Almost all of it ended up really delicious, it felt really good. That’s when I knew I wanted food to be an integral part of my life.
When I first moved to New Orleans, I was able to survive for the first few months on random DJ gigs and other things that I’d get on the low. But I really needed a day job. Initially I got a job as a dishwasher at a brunch restaurant in downtown New Orleans. Pretty quickly I was promoted to brunch cook. All of a sudden I was poaching eggs and making crepes, plating and doing all kinds of fancy stuff in this deep Southern cooking tradition. I soon switched over to an Italian restaurant where I worked as a cook, making everything from pastas to pizzas, fancy salads, desserts and such. I also worked at a Thai restaurant at the same time, more as server and bartender, but I also worked in the kitchen doing expo work.
But, honestly, being a chef doesn’t pay enough. You get a flat rate whereas when you work front of house as a server, bartender or host, you get tips. That was the biggest reason I decided to stop being a cook or chef. Even though I love it, I never get tired of making food, I do get tired of not getting paid enough. Now it’s just something that I do for loved ones – friends, family, neighbors, roommates. Anybody who really asks me to.
Do you have advice for people who live in the city, are broke all the time, and don’t know how to cook for themselves?
Start off with the comfort foods you eat all the time. One of the things I started off with was ramen noodles. I would get ramen packets, boil the noodles, get the broth ready. Then I’d be like, why don’t I add sliced carrot, maybe a little bit of green onions to this? You know what, I should add some curry powder into this broth. How about a hardboiled egg? Little things like that. Looking at the small picture and watching it grow from there is how I approach it. Cooking can seem very intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Start off with something you already like making or don’t mind making and build from there.
I admire people can take whatever they have in the kitchen and turn it into something delicious – where every last morsel gets eaten. Those are the real kitchen witches. So that’s another way to approach it, see what’s around you.
What are some of your goals for the near future? What are you looking forward to?
This Saturday, I’m playing Afropunk Atlanta with Mykki. I’ve never been to any Afropunk event ever, I’m excited to have this opportunity and I’m thankful to him and the scene. I’m looking forward to putting down more roots here in New York City, getting to know the club scene, the queer community, so I can start playing more shows, getting my name out there a little more. Also, learning how to produce. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time now, I’m finally at a place where it seems it’ll finally work out. I think I’m in the right place musically, where once I start learning how to do that I’ll really excel.
I’m excited about potentially DJing full time. I look forward to collaborating with other DJs and musicians in the area, and to put together a party. I want to start something. That’s a really important step, in terms of my growth as a musician. I’m really excited about the thought of that.
As a producer, what would be the first track you’d make?
I know exactly what I want to do. The first composition that I want to create is a Bounce remix of that vocal opera number in The Fifth Element. I wasn’t the one who came up with this idea, it was my friend Minq. I’ve wanted to hear one ever since.