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Swaguerrilla has all the beats you want

Chicago Tribune
Swaguerrilla has all the beats, and you want some.

Though his music career has taken Justin Mitchell far beyond the house parties where he got his start, he still finds that intimate communities are where he feels most at home. Mitchell has called Chicago home since 2003, when he moved here to attend DePaul University, and he began DJing in 2010 as part of a duo. By 2012 Mitchell was rolling solo as Swaguerrilla and had joined the long-running queer dance party, Chances Dances, as an organizer. He spoke to the Tribune last week while on a layover at the Minneapolis airport. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: Did finding a community formalize your practice as a DJ?

A: Prior to joining Chances, I was doing Salonathon at Beauty Bar, and that was a weekly place to practice and refine my skills, grow. But joining a community of people who loved to dance, who are really interested in cultivating community and not just going out to drink, that is a big part of it. But another part of it is just sharing that space.

Q: Can you talk a little about the Chances community and why it's special?

A: Chances is one of the oldest dance parties in Chicago, and one of the first places in Chicago where I felt at home. I met most of my friends on the dance floor at Chances events. Nowadays there are a ton of events for queers, but nine years ago you really only had one place to go for music and culture, and that was Boystown, and that was really homogenous. Chances was an alternate space for queer people, and it's really important because the party had to change because the community changes; that's the essence of being a community.

Q: What can you do with a DJ set at Chances that you cannot do elsewhere? What is it you really try to give the Chances crowd?

A: There are five organizers, and each of us has a different perspective, and I think that music is a way of sharing that perspective, sharing our history and storytelling. With my set, what I aim to do might be different night to night, but I really try to challenge the dance floor with things that wouldn't ever fly in a more commercial setting. There is a real freedom to be weird, and it's OK because it is a queer space, and when it comes to sounds or tracks there is less pressure to provide things that the audience knows and is familiar with. I like to do sets that give people something new and share a piece of history, our history, like, "Here's a Sylvester song."

Q: How did you come to recognize that you could tell stories with music?

A: My interest in music came from my grandma. She had an expansive palate when it came to music, and she exposed me to stuff that made me reach beyond what I knew. Also, she was a singer in a chorus, and that was a way of telling stories and sharing history. Also, hip-hop being a narrative way of communicating the stories of young black men, it just made sense to me to make this logical leap to use music as a forum. It's almost ancient in that regard.

Q: During your Swaguerrilla sets, how do you know if people are picking up what you are trying to communicate?

A: I'm watching what it does to people and whether they are cognizant or not. It has a way of moving people physically and emotionally; that's the power that the form has and the possibility that comes of using it. The club space is a spiritual space, like a church or a temple. The mixes I make are designed with that in mind; it reaches for that higher power.

onthetown@tribune.com

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