Here at “Borderstan People,” we like to profile local movers and shakers who are spicing up the neighborhood in a variety of ways… And Shea Van Horn is doing just that.
From entertaining crowds as a D.J. in Seattle during his undergraduate days, to building one of the District’s premiere pop-up dance parties through MIXTAPE (which he co-hosts with Matt Bailer), Mr. Van Horn has worked hard over the years to help Washingtonians cut loose and relax.
This Saturday, MIXTAPE will celebrate its fourth anniversary at the Howard Theatre. Luckily for us, we had a chance to catch up with Van Horn before the bash to discuss the history of MIXTAPE and how it’s grown over the years throughout the community.
Borderstan: You started MIXTAPE in 2008. Can you tell us a little bit about this? How did you get into D.J.-ing? Why did you start MIXTAPE?
Van Horn: My first D.J. gigs were back in 1995, when I was in undergraduate school in Seattle, but that only lasted a of couple years. I picked it back up as a novelty in 2007 as a way to promote my seasonal variety show (CRACK), which I host as my drag persona, Summer Camp. Back in 2007, there was an alternative dance party called Taint that was held at DC9. Since CRACK was also held at DC9 (and drew a similar audience), I would guest D.J. as Summer Camp. Eventually, I started D.J.-ing more and more as myself (leaving the wig and heels for the stage).
Eventually I was asked to D.J. a Taint party and Matt Bailer was the opener. That’s where Matt and I met, and we realized that we had a lot in common when it came to musical tastes. When we looked at the large crowd that came out on a Saturday night to dance to alternative music, we decided to think about creating a new dance party in DC. We met often to discuss what kind of party we wanted to throw, what to call it and where to host it.
We threw around a bunch of potential names, and eventually landed on MIXTAPE because we didn’t want to be too limited in the kind of music we could play. The toughest part of creating MIXTAPE was finding the right venue. We looked at a number of options, and eventually we landed at Dahlak, an Eritrean restaurant on the corner of 18th and U Streets NW. Daniel, the owner, is a great guy, and was very willing to give us a chance. It worked — and after four months of throwing our parties there, we were faced with the need to find a bigger venue.
Our initial plan for MIXTAPE was simply to throw a fun dance party for our friends. There wasn’t a grand scheme to grow it into a popular monthly party that could play at the Howard Theater, but I’m so happy and proud that we were able to grow it into that.
Borderstan: How has MIXTAPE evolved over the past four years?
Van Horn: Over the past four years, MIXTAPE has grown from a party with about 50 guests to upwards of 1,000. We’ve hosted MIXTAPE at numerous venues around DC including the Warehouse Theater, EFN Lounge, DC9, the Rock & Roll Hotel, Black Cat main stage, Town and now the Howard Theater. Despite growing in size, we try to stay true to the original intent of the party: play fun music that makes people dance. There are very few bells and whistles (we sometimes throw in a fog machine and a couple lasers), but ultimately, it’s just about dancing. We definitely welcome everyone to come and have a good time. Our hope is that the party continues for years and that people keep coming and having a good time.
Borderstan: How long does it typically take you to build a playlist for a party? And what goes into the process of building the playlist?
Van Horn: When I first began D.J.-ing and throwing MIXTAPE, I’d spend hours listening to every song and practice the transitions. Now, I play it more by ear. Since the party is monthly, I usually create a bucket of songs that I want to play. I throw them onto my iPod and listen to them while walking to work or working out at the gym.
If it’s a song that adds a little pep to my step or makes me work out a little harder, I usually add that to the “should-play” list. But when I get into the venue for the night, it’s more of a “figure it out as I go” kind-of-approach. Also, I’ve got Matt Bailer right there by my side. Every MIXTAPE is the two of us working together to create a night. Sometimes a song he plays jogs my memory, and I’ll pull out a track that I’d forgotten about. We usually split the night up with 45 minute sets; playing in shifts. This allows us each to act as “host” while we’re not spinning. And we always finish each party with a 45 minute set where we play together.
Borderstan: Do you have a favorite venue for MIXTAPE?
Van Horn: That’s a tough question because each party is a lot of fun and takes on a different feel based on the venue. I have a nostalgic soft spot for the early parties at Dahlak. I also loved the few that we threw at the old Warehouse Theater in early 2009 because that was completely DIY; down to the fact that we had to bring in our own sound system. There was something pretty cool about dancing in a blackbox theater. I loved playing at the Rock & Roll Hotel with its awesome sound system. We’ve sort of settled into a nice rhythm of throwing it at the Black Cat and Town. Hopefully, after this Saturday, we’ll be able to add the Howard Theater into our regular rotation.
Borderstan: How do you balance being a D.J. and a full-time job? (I imagine D.J.-ing keeps you out pretty late.)
Van Horn: It’s tricky. About two years ago, I cut back on my full-time job, so I only work about 80%. In addition to D.J.-ing MIXTAPE, At the time of this decision, I was also creating and D.J.-ing other parties like RAW [at COBALT], Maison, and recently I added GUIL-TEA to the list (in addition to my seasonal variety show). So in order to not die of exhaustion, I cut back on my day job to allow a little time to create, promote and manage my D.J. gigs and other events… not to mention, building in some time to hang with friends and go to others’ parties and events (where I get inspiration).
Borderstan: Who are you currently listening to?
Van Horn: Some of my favorite artists right now are Azealia Banks, Bright Light Bright Light, Charli XCX, Niki and the Dove, Die Antwoord, Ellie Goulding, Gossip, SSION and Grimes. Plus I always have a major soft spot for Kylie Minogue and Robyn.